Monday 19 December 2016, 07:35

Buffon: Balotelli has a heart of gold

Gigi Buffon has lauded Mario Balotelli’s character and backed Marco Veratti to become Italy’s main man in the future. Giampiero Ventura recently insisted he won’t pick players who “think of themselves as a phenomenon”, and the 38-year-old goalkeeper doesn’t believe the 26-year-old forward falls into that bracket.

“I have met few lads as genuinely nice as Mario,” Buffon told L’Equipe. “I get angry when I hear people speaking ill of him, because he is truly a guy with a heart of gold. He is generous, young, and everyone loves him.”

Balotelli hasn’t played for La Nazionale since the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, but has hit eight goals in eight games this season for Nice, who surprisingly lead Ligue 1. Buffon believes the former Inter Milan, Manchester City, AC Milan and Liverpool man – along with Veratti – will be key figures for Italy for a long time.

“Mario’s only 26 years old and can play for another ten years,” said the Germany 2006 winner. “As for Verratti, he’s an incredible talent. He started his season at Paris Saint-Germain on shaky ground because of his injury, which made him miss EURO 2016, but he’s getting back to his best now.

“If he doesn’t start every Italy game, it’s just because there’s a certain Daniele De Rossi there too. But I think Veratti will become the leader and captain of Italy in future. In fact, I’m certain of it.

“I hope to be at the 2018 World Cup with him. Physically I am actually in better shape than in previous years, but the difference is in the mind. Motivation keeps me going. If I had to think of the sacrifices to be made, it’d kill me psychologically.”

Italy are second in Group G in European qualifying for Russia 2018, behind Spain on goal difference and ahead of third-placed Israel by a point. The only World Cup Gli Azzuri failed to qualify for – they did not enter the race for Uruguay 1930 – was Sweden 1958, when a team including Juan Alberto Schiaffino, Alcides Ghiggia and Dino da Costa were pipped to a ticket by Northern Ireland.