Andrea Pirlo received his official award from UEFA to recognise having reached 100 caps for Italy before Tuesday's game against the Czech Republic, and the celebrations were to continue into the night after the Azzurri sealed their place in the FIFA World Cup finals as Group B winners.
Pirlo reached 100 caps on 16 June, scoring a trademark free-kick in a FIFA Confederations Cup game against Mexico at the Maracanã Stadium. Ahead of his 103rd game with the Azzurri shirt, the 34-year-old playmaker collected commemorative caps from both his national association and European football's governing body.
The Italian Football Association (FIGC) also presented an award to the daughter of Silvio Piola to mark the centenary of the striker's birth on 29 July 1913; Piola scored 30 goals in 34 games, helping Italy to glory at the 1938 FIFA World Cup.
Another World Cup winner, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, received a plaque for matching Fabio Cannavaro's record of 136 caps for Italy. "It terrifies me when games are billed as celebrations," the 35-year-old admitted afterwards. "Now we can celebrate everything – my little personal record, but above all the qualification for the World Cup. I thank all my team-mates, as they allowed me to have a 360-degree celebration."
Buffon's fears appeared to be justified when Italy ended the first half 1-0 down at the Juventus Stadium, Libor Kozák giving the visitors the lead after 19 minutes while Mario Balotelli passed up several chances. "I have never missed so many easy opportunities in one game," admitted the AC Milan striker. "I also had a bit of bad luck but I kept on trying and finally managed to score."
Balotelli beat Petr Čech with a penalty he earned himself three minutes after Giorgio Chiellini had levelled the scores with a header early in the second half. "This is a good squad – we are very united," Balotelli added. "We proved that by sticking together and working as a team, we can overcome difficult situations. I think we will be among the best sides in Brazil."
Chiellini reckons Spain and hosts Brazil are the teams to beat next summer, and while Buffon agreed, the goalkeeper still feels Italy have the potential to upset the form book. "In my view we are on the third row of the grid," he said. "But we are certainly ready to start at full throttle and finish strongly if we get a chance."
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