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European champions Spain could have hoped for a gentler start to their title defence than an opening match against Italy, but, for goalkeeper Iker Casillas, Sunday's Group C contest will provide a reunion with one of his biggest heroes in the game – opposite number Gianluigi Buffon.
The duo have long been regarded as leading figures in their chosen field, both having risen to prominence at unusually young ages for their position. Buffon was still only 23 when he left Parma FC for Juventus for €52m in 2001 – then a world-record fee for a No1 – while Casillas won the UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid CF at just 19 in 1999/2000. Since then the pair have enjoyed multiple successes with club and country.
Casillas has slightly overshadowed his counterpart in recent years, winning UEFA EURO 2008 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup, not to mention setting new benchmarks for wins (95) and clean sheets (73) at international level, but he is relishing the chance to meet up with his old rival, who put his injury troubles behind him to clinch the Scudetto with Juve this term.
"Gigi is a great person," said Casillas. "He is a role model for all of us. He started his football career very early. He's actually three years older than me, but he was successful very quickly and, for eight or nine years, he has belonged to the three, or let's say five, best goalkeepers in the world.
"That's quite strange, because the other top goalkeepers always change, but he is always among the best. And he has celebrated big victories: he won the World Cup with Italy [in 2006], he's won the Italian league various times, the Italian Cup and the Super Cup with his club, Juventus. For the whole football world, he is already a legend, and it's great that he's continuing to play. For me especially, it was great to grow up and develop my skills alongside such a great goalkeeper."
Although he may be the junior figure, Casillas came out on top when Spain faced the Azzurri in the quarter-finals at UEFA EURO 2008. With the scoreline still goalless after 120 minutes the game in Vienna went to penalties, and Casillas stopped spot kicks from Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale to earn his side an emotional victory. For their man between the posts, who won his 131st cap against China PR on Sunday, that outcome was crucial to all the triumphs La Roja have enjoyed since.
"During the last EURO, we were kind of the favourites against Italy, because we'd won all our group matches and Italy had qualified at the last second," he recalled. "Nevertheless, it was a close match and the score was 0-0 after 90 minutes. Both teams had chances to win it, but penalties had to decide who would prevail.
"All the luck was on our side that time. We won the match and I'm absolutely convinced that if we hadn't been so lucky that day, all the effort that the Spanish team had put in would not have led to so much success in the end."
Since then, Casillas and Co have reached the apex of the continental and world game, and the 31-year-old is convinced they still have the personnel to take three points in Gdansk despite the loss of David Villa and Carles Puyol to injury.
"We have to focus on ourselves," he said. "We have players like [Fernando] Llorente on the right wing, or [Andrés] Iniesta on the left. Or Xabi Alonso and David Silva. Overall, we have 23 very skilful players and we are a strong team that grew up together. We have important players missing due to injuries, such as David Villa and Puyol, but we have players who are absolutely able to do their job in their place and to the same high level."
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