Clearly angered with his treatment from the Italian media after being linked to a match-fixing scandal, Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has made an emotional appeal to fans ahead of the team's European Championship opener against Spain on Sunday.
Reports surfaced last week regarding large payments from Buffon to the owner of a tobacco shop that is also a betting parlor. The Italy captain has not been placed under investigation and is not accused of any wrongdoing, but the revelations still shook the Azzurri camp.
Since arriving in Poland, Buffon has not spoken with the media. Instead, he took his message directly to the fans on Friday.
''Your support and affection will be decisive and it would be the strongest signal against those who want to separate us and create divisions between us and you,'' Buffon wrote on his Facebook page. ''Start thinking with your own head, people, don't be fooled by those whose job it is to stir up trouble! We're ready to battle, with you by our sides.''
The reports about Buffon concluded a week that had already seen police arrive at Italy's training camp to notify defender Domenico Criscito that he was under investigation for match-fixing. Criscito was then cut from Italy's squad.
Antonio Conte, Buffon's coach at Juventus, was also placed under investigation, as was Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci, who is still in Italy's squad.
The Azzurri won the 2006 World Cup amid a similar match-fixing scandal. Buffon played a key role in that victory and he would do anything for a repeat.
''I would trade two-three years of my life to get back to where we all dream about, where we all want to arrive, to see Italy celebrating again, to see people with pride in their national team,'' Buffon said on Facebook, where he has 1.32 million fans and counting.
When Juventus won the Serie A last month for its first title since being at the heart of the 2006 scandal, Buffon called it his biggest joy after the World Cup title. But the goalkeeper also faced adversity when he committed an unlikely blunder that gave 10-man Lecce a late equalizer in a 1-1 draw three rounds from the end that let AC Milan pull to within one point.
Now, he acknowledges nervousness about facing defending European and world champion Spain.
''I have (a) bit of fear and curiosity about our match, and that's normal,'' Buffon said. ''It's like preparing for an exam after two years of work. And every exam contains difficulties and adversity. It's important to have studied, but the most important thing is keeping your emotions under control and having the right physical and mental approach.''
Midfielder Daniele De Rossi put Buffon's appeal in context.
''I think he's just calling attention to the start of a big tournament,'' De Rossi said. ''Six years ago, fans celebrated at the end but a month before, the atmosphere was really similar. Now, every day we read one page about the national team and another about the (match-fixing) trial.
''Our colleagues and people close to us are involved,'' De Rossi added. ''But the national team needs to be respected. A lot of people are not involved in this story.''
Eighth-ranked Croatia and Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland are also in Group C with Italy and Spain.