Italy shotstopper Gianluigi Buffon
has won the coveted Lev Yashin Award, given to the best goalkeeper at the FIFA World Cup finals. The Juventus star is a worthy successor to Belgium's legendary Michel Preud'Homme, flamboyant French keeper Fabien Barthez and Germany's Oliver Kahn, winners in 1994, 1998 and 2002 respectively.
Buffon has been singled out as a potential all-time great ever since making his Serie A debut at the tender age of 17 years and nine months. The 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany will go down in history as the tournament where the classy custodian cemented his place alongside the best goalkeepers ever to play the game.
It is difficult to find any chinks in Buffon's armour: the Italian seems to possess the full range of qualities needed to be a complete No.1. Roberto Beccantini, a journalist at Italian daily newspaper La Stampa was brave enough to compare Buffon with legendary Azzurri keeper Dino Zoff, a hero of Italy's 1982 FIFA World Cup-winning campaign. Beccantini believes Buffon possesses more of the characteristics shared by the classic Mediterranean stoppers while Zoff was perhaps more English in his style.
The former Parma keeper wasted no time in making his mark at Germany 2006. Buffon's acrobatics in his side's opening game against Ghana were ample proof of his full recovery from the potentially career-threatening shoulder injury suffered at the beginning of the 2005/06 season. Despite having to endure a number of other knocks and niggles throughout the campaign, Buffon timed his return to full fitness perfectly, hitting top form to help the Vecchia Signora clinch the league title and the Azzurri lift the FIFA World Cup.
Gigi's toughest test would come in the group game against Czech Republic, going head-to-head with Juventus team-mate Pavel Nedved. After an intriguing duel, it was the keeper who came out on top, keeping a clean sheet in Italy's 2-0 win.
Prior to Sunday's Final in Berlin, Buffon's goal had been breached just the once, right-back Cristian Zaccardo putting through his own net against the USA. That one mishap aside, the Italian backline provided an effective screen throughout the tournament. Fabio Cannavaro and Co were able to do their job safe in the knowledge that their world-class keeper would deal comfortably with any shots that did get through.
In one of the highlights of Italy's campaign, Buffon ran the length of the field to celebrate with his team-mates after Marco Materazzi's opener against Czech Republic. With the benefit of hindsight, this was the first sign that an indomitable team spirit was being forged among the members of Marcello Lippi's squad.
In the Final itself, Buffon overcame the blow of conceding an early Zinedine Zidane penalty to put in an exemplary display, typified in extra time when he tipped over a goalbound Zidane header. Not many would argue against the opinion that Buffon is a worthy FIFA World Cup winner and a deserved recipient of the Lev Yashin Award.