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'If God does exist, there is no way he is French'

'THINKING about that World Cup final against France, there's a moment that feels very much my own.

Andrea Pirlo scored the opening penalty in the shoot-out which led to Italy lifting the World Cup trophy in 2006 and the Juventus midfielder says it was this one which defined him more than the Panenka against England
Andrea Pirlo scored the opening penalty in the shoot-out which led to Italy lifting the World Cup trophy in 2006 and the Juventus midfielder says it was this one which defined him more than the Panenka against England

When Marcello Lippi, the Italy coach, came up to me at the end of normal time, bells started to toll in my head. I'd actually have preferred the volume to be a bit louder, but the noise wasn't sufficient to prevent the two words that great coach uttered from reaching my ears unhindered.

"You're first."

We both knew what he meant by that: first to take a penalty. Being first on the spot, kicking off that torture in the biggest, most incredible game that a player can play or imagine . . . that's not necessarily good news. It means they think you're the best, but it also means that if you miss, you're first on the list of d***heads.

My thoughts were all over the place, drunken ideas at the wheel of fairground dodgems. I really didn't know what to do, but the worst was still to come. When a match is decided in that way, one man against millions with the keeper trying to save a nation, there's a sadistic group ritual that leads you to your fate. It's a sacrificial procession that beckons you to jump on board.

It's an experience I wouldn't wish on anyone. It's barely 50 metres, but it's a truly terrible journey, right through the heart of your fear.

The comparison with the dead man walking, pulling himself along the green mile is exaggerated and not the most appropriate, but it does get across the idea.

I got up to head to the spot. It was my turn and I acted on instinct.

I'll hit it straight down the middle, put a bit of height on it. Barthez will definitely dive and there's no way he's getting to it, even with his feet.

That moment really is a torment. A blizzard of agony. There's a storm raging inside and all around you. The journey from centre circle to penalty spot was crammed with violent emotions. I opted to walk slowly. On some kind of subconscious level, I didn't want to miss anything.

I wanted to take absolutely everything from the moment.

I vowed never to forget that little outing that went beyond everything and turned seconds into hours and each step into a dramatic tale.

I didn't really succeed. A good few things passed me by, and all that's left in my mind are a few isolated clips. I stared at the pitch, as if it wasn't exactly the same as every other one I'd played on, as if my studs were gripping on to something softer than the usual clumps of turf.

I'd had my children's names printed on my boots and perhaps that's the reason I was trying to move with the utmost care, to avoid doing them any harm.

Every so often, I'd lift my head to stare at an indeterminate spot on the horizon, right at the end of the journey. Instead of seeing Barthez, I'd get distracted by the photographers' flashbulbs as they huddled behind the goals.

Let's hope they don't blind me. Fingers crossed they don't annoy me too much.

I was in the penalty box holding my breath. I picked up the ball. It was as heavy as the pressure bearing down on me from all sides. I tried to catch Buffon's eye; I could have done with a nod, a gesture, a little bit of advice, anything.

But Gigi had enough problems of his own to worry about and didn't have time for mine. Caressing the ball was something I had to do. I then lifted my eyes to the heavens and asked for help because if God exists, there's no way he's French.

I took a long, intense breath. That breath was mine, but it could have been the manual worker who struggles to make it to the end of the month, the rich businessman who's a bit of a shit, the teacher, the student, the Italian expats who never left our side during the tournament, the well-to-do Milanese signora, the hooker on the street corner. In that moment, I was all of them.

You won't believe me, but it was right in that very moment I understood what a great thing it is to be Italian. It's a truly priceless privilege. I never got the same understanding from the empty speeches of the politicians. They don't know what they're talking about as they grab and stick their snouts in the trough. Nor did I experience the same emotion in the history books I've studied - perhaps because all too often I kept them closed and allowed the dust to build up. My parents were right when they said that was a big mistake.

Never would I have thought the instant before taking a penalty could open my mind so marvellously and give me this higher understanding. I saw the inner workings of a motor car that was imperfect, full of defects, badly driven, old and worn, and yet utterly unique. Italy's a country you love precisely because it's like that.

My penalty went in. Even if I'd missed, the lesson would have remained. Perhaps it would actually have been amplified by the resulting desperation. It's incredible to know that what you're feeling is shared by millions of people in the same way, at the same time, for the same reasons, in cities that moments before were rivals or at least too dissimilar to find any sort of common ground. That lukewarm shiver a second before I stuck the ball in the net is the most vivid sensation I've ever felt.

We'd talk about those moments in the months afterwards. I soon discovered I wasn't the only one who had come back from Germany with lofty topics of conversation.

That penalty also helps define me. As usual, nobody will believe me but, in my own mind, I'm much more the Pirlo who stuck the ball down the middle at World Cup 2006 than the Pirlo of the inspired chip against England in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012. Even if the motivation was the same in both cases: selecting the best option to minimise the risk of error.

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