Capped 87 times by his country and a FIFA World Cup™ winner in 2006, Gianluca Zambrotta remains one of the cornerstones of the Italy defence. In a successful career spanning 15 years, the AC Milan fullback has won a succession of honours, including back-to-back Serie A titles with Juventus and a Spanish Super Cup with Barcelona.
And with South Africa 2010 less than 12 months away, the 32-year-old is determined to make a return to the biggest stage of all and reproduce the kind of form that earned him a place in the teams of the tournament at UEFA EURO 2004 and Germany 2006. Sitting down for an exclusive chat with FIFA.com, Zambrotta spoke about Italy's progress towards the world finals, the teams he expects to impress in South Africa and plenty more.
FIFA.com: Gianluca, what did you make of Italy's 1-1 FIFA World Cup qualifying draw with Republic of Ireland in Bari in April?
Gianluca Zambrotta: It was a very difficult game for us. The Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni knows us inside out, which obviously played a big part in a result that wasn't that great but wasn't that bad either.
You could have Amauri available to play up front for you soon. How do you feel about that?
I don't think he's made a final decision yet but he will obviously be welcomed with open arms as long as he's determined to do well for us, even if he has to play against Brazil, his country of birth (laughs). Seriously, I hope he does play for us because he is very strong.
People in Italy are saying there are not as many good defenders around as there used to be...
People jump to these conclusions too soon and I don't agree with them at all. Players like Davide Santon at Inter and Roma's Marco Motta are the future of Italian football. And then there's Andrea Dossena, who had a great season with Liverpool last year, particularly in the Champions League.
I've been lucky enough to play alongside Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho and Kaka. But I've never seen anyone do things with the ball like Lionel Messi. He is simply incredible.
Let's look back at the highlight of your career now. What do you remember of Germany 2006?
Wining it of course. I just feel so happy whenever I think of that. It was the most satisfying moment of my career without doubt.
Italy failed to impress at the recent FIFA Confederations Cup and with less than a year to go to South Africa 2010, the national press have been somewhat critical of what they see as an ageing squad. What is your view?
Well, I'll only be 33 in 2010. Do you think that's old? Joking aside, the coach Marcello Lippi has already started to inject some new blood in the side. There are a lot of young players waiting in the wings as well, ready to come in. That's good for us.
Are you inspired by the fact that this will be the first FIFA World Cup to be held in Africa?
I think it's great that the elite of world football will be in Africa. I still remember Korea/Japan 2002 and though the tournament was obviously a disappointment for us on the pitch, the organisation and atmosphere was excellent. I hope and believe that South Africa will be just as good.
Do you think an African team can win the trophy?
Yes. African football has reached an extremely high level now and this World Cup could be a turning point for some very strong teams like Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Cameroon. I honestly feel that one of these teams will reach the semi-finals at least.
And who else do you see as favourites?
The big teams are always there at the big tournaments, like Brazil, Argentina, Germany, England and... Italy, of course. More than anyone else though, we'll need to watch out for European champions Spain. They are very, very strong.
How are things going for you at Milan?
On a personal level I'm very happy and I'm back to my best form. Last season was difficult for us, though, because we had an amazing amount of injuries. Even so we still managed to achieve our basic objective of finishing third and qualifying for the Champions League. That was crucial and it would have been a disaster for us, the fans and the directors if we hadn't managed to do that.
Finally Gianluca, which team-mate of yours has impressed you the most in your long career in the game?
I've been lucky enough to play alongside a lot of champions, players like Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho and Kaka. But I've never seen anyone do things with the ball like Lionel Messi. He is simply incredible.