Tuesday 16th April 2002
Atalanta star Cristiano Doni was recently described by Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni as one of only two players in Serie A who can attack and defend with equal proficiency.
Now the veteran manager is set to give his protege the chance to prove his quality in Japan and Korea.
Italians are even billing the prolific midfielder as the Azzurri's next World Cup revelation, in the hope he can follow in the footsteps of such greats as Toto Schillaci and Antonio Cabrini.
Yet this time last year, the 28-year-old had not made a single international appearance and was considered nothing more than a journeyman midfielder playing for one of the Italian top flight's less glamorous teams.
His first taste of international football came as recently as November when Trapattoni, impressed by Doni's performance against champions Roma, made him a shock inclusion in the squad to face Japan.
The move was seen as a bold one, not only because of Doni's lack of experience on the international stage, but also owing to his alleged involvement in a match-fixing scandal concerning a game between Atalanta and Pistoiese.
"I knew that Trapattoni was watching me and I'm proud that he continued to take an interest despite all the rumours," admits Doni.
"But I have been able to forget the episode and I have never considered Trapattoni's call-up as 'revenge'. I lived through the worst period with intrusions into my private life that I didn't deserve, but now it's over."
Doni showed no sign of nerves against Japan as he became only the third player - after Gianluca Vialli and Enrico Chiesa - to score on his Italy debut.
Typically, Doni refuses to dwell on his achievement, focusing instead on the one that got away. "I could have doubled my tally but I missed an incredibly easy diving header," he recalls.
Some sections of the Italian media still questionned the wisdom of Doni's inclusion in the team, but the tide of opinion turned following his impressive debut, with many labelling him as a viable alternative to Francesco Totti.
However, Doni emphatically rejects the comparison and insists he has his own qualities to bring to the team. "I hate to be compared with other players," he explains. "Anyway, you cannot replace someone like Totti. He's unique.
"I'm a midfielder with offensive qualities, but I'm not like him. I have even played as a defensive midfielder during my career.
"I don't have his talent, but maybe I'm more 'complete' than him and I know Trapattoni considers me for a number of different roles. That's like a guarantee for me."
Indeed, Doni's strength is his versatility as he has been willing to adapt to a number of positions during a career that has seen him play for Rimini, Pistoiese, Bologna and Brescia.
"With Atalanta I have been playing as a left midfielder, but often I have had to move into a central position or as an attacking midfielder behind the forwards," he explained.
"I have played in almost all the positions on the pitch, so I can adapt to different situations. It's up to the coach."
Any suggestion that Doni's call-up to the national side was merely an experimental move by Trapattoni has gradually ebbed away during the course of the season, as the confident utility man has smashed in 16 goals for Atalanta.
He has been one of the most consistent performers in Serie A and feels he is now reaching his peak.
"I have become a much more mature player this year," he admits. "I am talking about mental and physical maturation. This year I'm able to do things that I couldn't do in the past. I hope to continue what I have done this season and even improve in the future."
While Doni's rise to prominence represents a boost to Italy's World Cup prospects, his sudden entrance on to the biggest-possible stage will inevitably spell the end of his association with Atalanta.
Born in Rome in 1973, he idolised Roma legends such as Roberto Pruzzo, Paulo Roberto Falcao and Bruno Conti as a youngster and admits that signing for the Giallorossi would be a dream come true.
"I've got that city under my skin," he admitted. "But now I'm just thinking about Atalanta and also Italy.
"I want to avoid relegation with the Nerazzuri, then I'll think about my future. Obviously, it's quite clear that I won't be here next season. Where will I go? I have heard my name linked to Roma, Lazio and Juventus. The newspapers have written a lot but I honestly have not signed anything yet.
"Fabio Capello is one of the best managers in the world and it would be an honour to play for him. I know his tactics and I can see myself being a part of the Roma team," he adds.
First, though, come the World Cup finals.
"This is a dream come true and I am fully focused on it," he insists. "I have discovered the big time in football late in my career but I've got the right character to manage my success."