ITALY VS FRANCE, WORLD CUP FINAL, 2006

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Zinedine Zidane, the French number 10, drew blood first.

He made his deal with the Devil, chipping in from the penalty spot, a kiss off the bar.

It takes guts of steel to hit a PK that way. 

But that’s who Zidane is — a mix of grace and defiance. 

His quiet is charismatic and cool.

The ball comes to him, he turns to ooze, and he engulfs it.  

 

But the Devil always gets his. He called on his man, the Italian defender, Marco Materazzi, to bury bad seeds in Zidane’s head. Materazzi did it through the ear — soft whispers. By the end of extra time, the seeds had grown and Zidane’s head busted. 

Gigi Buffon, the Italian goalkeeper, does not make deals with the Devil. 

His man is a voodoo master, Thomas N’Kono, the Cameroonian goalkeeper from the 1970s to the 1990s. Buffon credits him for his inspiration to play. 

 

In 2002, N’Kono was an assistant coach for Cameroon at the African Cup of Nations. Before a semifinal game against hometown Mali, N’Kono buried a trove of chicken bones under the stadium’s grass, thereby casting a curse on the Malians. Black magic is a criminal offense in Mali, and N’Kono was spotted and arrested. He spent the night in jail, happily. Cameroon went on to win the tournament. 

 

Back to 2006, in a Berlin hotel room before the start of the World Cup, N’Kono slipped Buffon a stone. 

 

Rub it for luck. 

It works only once.

 

Buffon and the Italian team made it all the way to the end with a boulder for a defense. In the final, it was Materazzi, the Devil’s man, who committed the foul that led to Zidane’s kiss in from the spot. In the 19th minute, Materazzi popped up again — he headed in a Pirlo corner, scoring to make things level. The Devil is out there.  

 

With the score 1-1, the Italians kept the powerful French attack at bay through the end. Penalty kicks were next. Last call. Time to use any trick still in the bag.

 

The French goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, pulled first.

 

Before the PKs started, he approached Buffon and the men embraced. Goalkeepers share a bond. They are a lonely breed, more akin to each other than their teammates who are free to run around on the field. During penalties, a goalkeeper is isolated and helpless, so for two alphas like Buffon and Barthez, penalties are an exercise in patience. At the same time, these men must get between the posts, look certain failure in the eye, and be goddamn relentless in their pursuit for the ball. One stop can turn the tide.

 

As the two keepers parted, Barthez touched Buffon on the cheek, passing him a curse he’d picked up from the mountain people in his hometown of Lavelanet. They fed the town with a pig they killed, sent Barthez a bottle of the blood, and he stained his gloves with it. 

 

Buffon wouldn’t get his hands on one shot. 

 

Italy’s Andrea Pirlo was first to go. Cool as you like, he went right down the middle, a little off-speed, not quite Zidane-style, not yet 2012-Pirlo’s chip

 

Next, Buffon got in goal for Sylvian Wiltord’s shot. Fear was all over the Frenchman. This was Buffon’s chance. He could get this one. Wiltord wanted nothing to do with this kick.  

The whistle blew.

 

Wiltord was about to hit the ball, and Buffon knew he was going right. He started to dive that way, but the spirits in the pig’s blood grabbed him and threw him aside.  

The shot went in.

 

Buffon knew what it was right away. 

 

Marco Materazzi, the Devil’s man, stepped up to take Italy’s second shot. Buffon walked away and sat on the ground. If he wasn’t going to get a save, he knew only one sure way to stop these French bastards, and it was hidden in his shoe — N’Kono’s stone.

 

Pig’s blood spreads thin.

A stone keeps its core. 

 

Buffon had his back to the goal, but he heard the crowd roar. 

Materazzi had scored. The Devil doesn’t miss.

Buffon reached into his sock, took out the stone, and slipped it into his glove.

He walked by Materazzi and winked at him. 

 

Next up for France was David Trezeguet, Buffon’s long-time teammate at their club, Juventus. A friend, but today a foe.

 

Trezeguet stood over the ball, waiting for the whistle. In his glove, Buffon made a fist around the stone. He stopped thinking about the game, about the shot, and just believed in N’Kono and in the stone.  

 

Trezeguet hit the ball hard, he was going for the roof of the net. Buffon fell to the side. He knew it wasn’t going in. The shot hit the crossbar, just like how Zidane had hit it, but this time the spirit was in the control of Gigi Buffon. 

Materazzi laughed. 

 

Buffon raised his fist at his teammates who celebrated at midfield.

They hugged and cheered back. 

That was all they needed. 

Now they just had to make the rest of theirs — easy. 

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Italian Translations by Fabrizio Pisa

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