For as long as anyone can remember, Italy has been synonymous with great goalkeepers. The likes of Giampiero Combi, Aldo Olivieri, Walter Zenga, Dino Zoff and Gianluigi Buffon have made a deep impression on the world game down the years, playing leading roles in the Azzurri's consistent record of success. At the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009, the latest product off a conveyor belt of goalkeeping talent is set to follow in the footsteps of his legendary predecessors.
On Friday, Vincenzo Fiorillo leads his team against Paraguay in their opening Group A fixture at Cairo International Stadium. The 19-year-old keeper will captain his side in the duel between the continental championship runners-up from Europe and South America, hoping to provide a flawless last line of defence as the Azzurrini go in search of a successful start to the tournament. However, Fiorillo is acutely aware of the huge task facing his team.
"It'll be an extremely difficult game for us," the keeper predicted in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "They're a very strong team, who play good and cultured football. They also have plenty of international experience, as they've already competed in all the major tournaments around the world. The fact they eliminated Argentina in qualifying tells you all you need to know."
However, the Italians will hardly be a pushover either. They marched to the final of the UEFA U-19 European championship, underlining the well of potential in the current squad. Potential is certainly an attribute possessed by Fiorillo, a Sampdoria youth product who made his way up through the junior ranks at the Genoa outfit before celebrating his Serie A debut in April 2008. He made two further appearances in the Italian top flight last term.
Fiorillo's career has hardly encountered a hitch up to now in fact, but can the young man and his Italy team-mates hit the headlines on the world stage? "It's hard to say how far we can go at this U-20 World Cup," the 1.90 metre shot-stopper mused. "We're a good group and we've worked hard to be at this tournament. We're not afraid of anyone, so we'll just go out there and do the best we can."
Their rivals would do well not to underestimate Fiorillo and his team-mates, as they have arrived in Egypt brimming with intent and motivation. "A number of our players are at relatively small clubs. This World Cup could be the chance to put ourselves in the shop window. It's another reason for wanting to do well at the tournament," said the Azzurrini No1, who believes the team's main asset is unity.
"Our team spirit is our greatest strength," he said. "A number of new, young players have joined us in recent weeks, but the core of the squad has been the same for three years now. We know each other very well, we've contested a number of tournaments, and been through a number of training camps together. Midfield is probably the best area of the team, because we have a real strength in depth there."
But could that quality be enough to take the Italians all the way in Egypt? "In my opinion, an African team like Nigeria or Cameroon are the favourites," stated Fiorillo. "It'll be a long and hard tournament, and that'll play to the Africans' physical strength. I also reckon Germany could go far. They've just won the U-19 and U-21 European championships and they've produced a lot of very good young players recently."
That can equally well be said of the young Italian goalkeeper. Fiorillo barely hesitates when asked to name his role model: "I think Buffon is the best. He's my idol. When I started in 2000, he set the standards for every goalkeeper. I'm also really impressed by the way Federico Marchetti has made it to the top with Cagliari. He started right at the bottom, but he's hugely talented and worked really hard to get where he is today."
The promise shown by the Azzurrini captain to date hints at a similar career progression in the future. Will we one day speak of him in the same breath as Zoff or Buffon? "I can only dream of reaching their level. After all, we're talking about two icons of world football here," Fiorillo modestly reflected. "I'd be happy if I only achieved a quarter of what they have, that would already rate as a huge success." And victory over Paraguay would count as a small first step along that road.