IRENE, South Africa (AP) — It's easy to believe Italy's new starting goalkeeper when he says he has luck on his side.
Federico Marchetti had already lost his two best friends in auto accidents when he and two teammates at fourth-division side Pro Vercelli emerged uninjured from a car crash themselves five years ago.
"When you stare death in the face it leaves something inside you," Marchetti said Thursday. "It's tough to describe. It was a terrible experience, but one that I'll never forget."
The accident inspired Marchetti to live each day as it comes and take advantage of his chances.
Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that since the accident Marchetti has climbed his way up to the top division and become a member of Italy's national team. Now, with star goalkeeper Gianlugi Buffon out with a herniated disk, the 27-year-old Marchetti gets the biggest chance of his life in Sunday's World Cup match against New Zealand.
"I'm sure my friends are watching me from up above and that they'll be pleased for me," said Marchetti, who wears the names of his deceased friends in a tattoo on one arm, with "Ave Maria" on the other. "I'm convinced someone is watching out for me."
In 2005, Marchetti's soccer career nearly ended. He was with Torino's youth system since he was 14, but the Turin club was facing financial failure and let all its players go.
It wasn't until June 2006, when Albinoleffe paid $620 for Marchetti's services that his career started to turn around. When fellow keeper Paolo Acerbis decided not to renew his contract, Marchetti became the starter making his debut in the second division against none other than Buffon — Juventus was relegated to Serie B for a season following the Italian match-fixing scandal in 2006.
Marchetti matched Buffon and contained Juve's strikers in a 1-1 draw, raising eyebrows around the league.
"Maybe Torino's failure was a good thing in the end," Marchetti said. "I ended up at Albinoleffe and was able to show my worth."
Serie A's Cagliari paid Albinoleffe $3 million for a portion of Marchetti's contract in July 2008, then paid $5.5 million the next season for his full rights. Marchetti has become one of the most reliable keepers in the top Italian league the past two seasons.
His worth now is estimated at $15-$18.5 million, not bad considering Marchetti played forward as a kid.
"I ended up a goalkeeper by accident," he recalled. "I used to play in attack but one day with the town team it was raining and nasty and a lot of kids were kept home by their mothers, including the goalkeeper. So I played in goal and that's when I fell in love with the position."
Marchetti's love for the game was evident when he faced a roomful of about journalists at Italy's training camp Thursday. Millions more will be watching his every move against New Zealand, which specializes in set pieces.
While he didn't face many shots, Marchetti didn't allow any goals in the second half of Italy's opening 1-1 draw with Paraguay, which Buffon exited at halftime. But New Zealand's free kicks could be made more dangerous because of the widely criticized Jabulani ball.
"We know the ball is unpredictable, and at night the balls get wet and really skid, so I'll have to be ready," he said. "This is a huge opportunity and I want to take full advantage of it."