Old friends become rivals in Berlin
When France and Italy go head to head in the FIFA World Cup Final much more than mere football supremacy will be at stake.
These neighbouring countries have much in common and enjoy a healthy rivalry which transcends the world of sport. Indeed, at least two of Sunday night's protagonists will have already exchanged pleasantries in the past on the relative merits of Chianti and Bordeaux.
For Juventus team-mates Fabio Cannavaro and Lilian Thuram , the game represents an important milestone in their respective careers. Whatever the outcome on Sunday in Berlin's Olympiastadion the two men, usually seen supporting each other at the heart of the Bianconeri defence, will at least be able to raise a glass to one other. The Final will see Cannavaro make his 100th appearance for the Azzurri and Thuram become France's most capped player with 121 appearances.
Cannavaro leading by example
The best central defensive pairing in Italy's Serie A is no new discovery. The two played together for five seasons at Parma, winning the UEFA Cup in 1999 before being separated when Thuram was sold to Juventus and Cannavaro to Inter Milan. The duo were reunited in 2004 with the latter's arrival at the court of the Old Lady.
The famed defensive wall was soon rebuilt and the Juventus rearguard became the most formidable in Italy. Yet destiny has decreed that these two friends and colleagues find themselves on opposing sides for the biggest match of their careers. Italy's exit at the hands of the hosts in the quarter-finals of France 98, and their defeat against the same team in the UEFA EURO 2000 final, gives an added edge to a contest described as 'the final conflict' in some sections of the Italian media.
FIFA World Cup wonders
Before the tournament began most observers, if asked to select potential stars of Germany 2006, would have selected Zinedine Zidane or Francesco Totti. Few would have opted for normally unsung defensive cogs such as Thuram and Cannavaro. Yet these two players have scaled such heights in this tournament the plaudits have flowed thick and fast.
French sports daily L'Equipe was moved to describe the Frenchman as "majestic" following his performance alongside William Gallas at the heart of the French defence in the semi-final. Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of the Portuguese attack could only fire blanks on an evening that became increasingly frustrating for them.
Praise for the Azzurri captain has been equally emphatic. No less a judge than Diego Maradona described Cannavaro as "the best player at the World Cup" having witnessed his contribution against Germany. Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, perhaps the best strike partnership in the competition, were shackled so effectively the defender has been nominated for the adidas Golden Ball, awarded to the player of the tournament.
Unfortunately, the nature of sport is such that Sunday evening will bring tears of joy for one of the stoppers and tears of sadness for the other. Whoever emerges victorious from the contest, Thuram and Cannavaro will be able to look each other in the eye in the knowledge that their defensive performances have been some of the best seen on German soil since the days of Franz Beckenbauer.
It is a shame that only one will follow in the footsteps of the Kaiser and claim the ultimate prize.