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The word 'leader' is often overused but not when applied to Gianluigi Buffon. The 34-year-old hopes to emulate another Azzurri goalkeeping legend, Dino Zoff, the only Italian to win the UEFA European Championship and FIFA World Cup, by leading his team to a final victory against holders Spain in Kyiv. Buffon sat down with UEFA.com in the Ukrainian capital to discuss tonight's decider, Mario Balotelli and Andrea Pirlo's "extraordinary" season.
UEFA.com: How proud are you of your team, and being the captain and leader of the team, after those fantastic performances against England and Germany?
Gianluigi Buffon: Well we are very pleased because they're unexpected results. We came here with lots of non-football related problems, and also the friendlies we played during our preparation went pretty badly. So that's why we were a bit afraid of playing a bad tournament. But along with the coach we managed to find the right atmosphere within the team, so we could make it here.
UEFA.com: You said that you have been happy to see all those packed squares back home with lots of people viewing in public and watching your games. Are you happy to have restored the national pride in the team?
Buffon: Yes, very content and very happy. It's the greatest joy that we could have given to our people. It's a joy that they also transmit to us because some pictures and images don't leave you unmoved, of course, and they make you feel very proud inside.
UEFA.com: Cesare Prandelli has played a big part in that, encouraging the team to play attractive football. How important is he as your coach?
Buffon: He has been doing great. His way of working, his way of coaching, has been rewarded because he is more a club coach who teaches football on a daily basis and not really a national team coach. He managed to get his ideas across in a very efficient way, and in a very fast way, making sure that we took it in on those few occasions we met and saw him.
UEFA.com: He was also patient with Mario Balotelli, who wasn't scoring initially. What kind of person is he and what does he bring to the team?
Buffon: Mario is a very special one. He's an individual person, and in some aspects very original. As I have always said, he acts instinctively and he is also still very young. So I think we can excuse some of the mistakes he has made. I think he has the qualities to become a great champion, but it's all down to him alone to decide to take that road. Here in the match against Germany he scored two fantastic goals, and if we manage to finish this tournament successfully he certainly deserves a lot of credit. I also think the coach deserves the greatest credit for the way he managed to deal with him – and also the other 21 or 22 players in the squad.
UEFA.com: What's so special about the Italy defence?
Buffon: I have to say that defensively we have been doing very well. And for all teams, be they national teams or club teams, victories start from a great defence. We will now face Spain, who also have a great defence and haven't conceded many goals. So it will be very important for us to not to allow them to create many chances, and possibly not to concede a goal.
UEFA.com: The game will also depend on the performances of Andrea Pirlo, your Juventus team-mate, and Xavi Hernández, two exceptional players ...
Buffon: They are two incredible champions and it wouldn't be right from my side to say who is the stronger, because that would mean having no respect for one of those great champions. But yes, Andrea has managed to do something extraordinary and crazy this season, which not many others could have done.
UEFA.com: You have already played Spain in the group stage. How different is this game?
Buffon: I don't know if it's going to be different; it could be similar. Let's say that if there was one team that I would have liked to avoid in the final it is Spain. Unfortunately they are the strongest team and it was almost inevitable that if you wanted to get to the final you would have to play against Spain.
UEFA.com: What would it mean for you and for your country to win the European Championship for the first time since 1968?
Buffon: It would mean a lot for me, to add a European Championship to a World Cup would be something really prestigious. I would achieve it at the age of 34, even after some serious injuries, and by playing an important part. To be able to play and be decisive aged 34 is something that has not been done by many people. For the country it would be a great joy, an incomparable joy. It would be the greatest present that we could give them. Their joy, their enthusiasm and their flag waving would the greatest present they could give us.
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