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Buffon calls on Italy to restore pride

Three consecutive defeats in the build-up to the tournament and a domestic match-fixing scandal have tested the depth of fans' faith but a smiling Buffon attempted to lift the sense of gloom.

"The majority of the people will still support the team because it's always been like that," Buffon told reporters on Saturday at the amber-tinged Gdansk Arena that will host one of the classic fixtures in world football.

"We will be representing the whole nation and while there is a huge crisis in our football at the moment maybe we have a big chance to show the fans they can still be proud of their team."

The Azzuri have proved before they can rise above off-pitch problems, most recently when they won the 2006 World Cup in Germany in the midst of another match-fixing embarrassment that resulted in Juventus being stripped of the 2005 and 2006 Serie A titles and being relegated to Serie B.

Buffon, who has been Italy's preferred last line of defence for more than 10 years, said far from wallowing in gloom, the squad could thrive in adversity and cause a shock on Sunday.

"Spain won't fear us, they don't have to fear any team because they are a great side," he said. "But they will respect us. In football it's not always the best team that wins, it's the one that is the bravest.

"We have come here to surprise people. We are convinced about our own ability. Let's see what happens. The situation doesn't help to have a sense of calm but we have the experience and it will give us a desire to perform better."

Incendiary striker Mario Balotelli is not often described as calm, but the explosive Manchester City player could prove key to his country's hopes of emerging from a group also containing Croatia and Ireland.

Buffon, along with coach Cesare Prandelli, believes the moment has arrived for the Premier League winner to mature and shine on the international stage.

"There is nothing we can teach Mario as a footballer, he is a great talent," said Buffon, who still has bitter memories of losing to Spain on penalties in the quarter-finals of Euro 2008.

"We know that he is the player who can help us win matches. But off the pitch he is also behaving properly. Of course a young player like Mario can make mistakes off the pitch but what is important is that he has learned."

In a recent interview Balotelli threatened to "kill" any fan that racially abused him during the tournament but Prandelli said he had been a model professional since the squad gathered.

"I'm confident he will play for the team," said Prandelli, who will probably start with Balotelli alongside Antonio Cassano.

Italy trained on a lush-looking pitch well watered by some torrential downpours that have hit the Baltic port city and looking ahead to the Spain clash, Prandelli said: "We must be dynamic, we must be active and we must use all our energies to keep them from our penalty area tomorrow.

"But we will not just defend. We will attack with three or four when we have the chance.

"If people are talking about us in a pessimistic way that will act as a motivation for