Football Legends: #1 Gianluigi Buffon
The 2006 World Cup Finals. The whole of Germany was shaken by the defeat at the hands of Italians, in the semis itself. The final at their home was an affair between Italy and France. Two opponents who are no strangers to each other.
Amidst the cold night in Berlin, and the noisy Olympiastadion, Gianluigi Buffon stood between the sticks, not as warm as the others but with a razor-sharp focus, pretending to be deaf to the comments from the crowd.
The big goalkeeper was only beaten once on the night, that too from 12 yards out. Zinedine Zidane gave his team the lead and he was all but determined to hit the target again.
Willy Sagnol went through the right wing and with a brilliant hit off his right foot, delivered a strong, powerful cross right into the box. All the will that Zidane had was mustered into one strong header.
While the whole of France was getting ready to jump up, someone jumped before they could. A giant in front of goal took a sturdy jump and deflected the ball over the crossbar. Yet, not shouting or showing anger at his defence. Just one reaction came, that is the clap of hands, willing the team on.
A goalkeeper has one of the easiest roles in the game as labelled by some. But standing alone in between the sticks, trying hard to keep calm, the feel of a shot coming from any distance or any corner, it is a different feeling.
The keeper has to struggle to stay warm, he has to move up and down so that the feet don’t get cramped. Yet, a missed chance by a striker won’t be seen as a bigger disaster than a goalkeeping blunder. Gigi Buffon made people appreciate a goalkeeper.
One of the greatest ever, to don the number 1 jersey, Buffon was an inevitable figure in Italy’s 2006 World Cup campaign. He remains one of the most iconic figures in Italian football, to this day. Buffon was always designated for success. He was born into an athletic family. His father was a weightlifter and his mother was a discus thrower. With the amount of athleticism around him, Gigi had to choose a path. A path where he wanted to succeed.
At the age of six, Gigi developed a love for football. His father got him into a football school. The Canaletto Football School in La Spezia was where Gigi got his first kick of the ball. Gigi started out as a midfielder initially and played at that position for six to seven years. However, Gigi was very fond of goalkeepers. In the World Cup in 1990, Gigi was twelve years old. He watched every match, he had that enthusiasm for the sport.
In the opening match of the tournament, he witnessed the brilliance of then Cameroon keeper Thomas N’Kono. Buffon idolised N’Kono and kept supporting the Cameroon team. However, the little kid was reduced to tears, as Cameroon lost to England in the quarter-finals, perhaps owing to two very generous penalty kicks.
Although little Gigi cried that day, it was a day worth smiling for football history. Inspired by Thomas N’Kono, Gianluigi Buffon decided for good that goalkeeping was his position. He went on to join the youth ranks of Parma, the club from which Buffon started his senior career.
Gigi played as a goalkeeper in the youth side and also made appearances for the U-16 national teams. He reached the finals of the U-16 Euro Championships, saving as well as scoring penalties for his team.
Destiny wanted Gigi to build his legacy. Mysteriously both the first team keeper were injured and Parma decided to call up Gigi Buffon noticing the kid’s 1993 U-16 performances and his physical attributes.
Gigi learned quickly at Parma and displayed sufficiently good performances in the years, which resulted in Gigi’s promotion to the first team. Fate loved Gigi so much, it got him more attention. In 1995-96 the Parma first team keeper Luca Bucci fell to an injury. Then, coach Nevio Scala handed Gigi Buffon his first cap for Parma, at the age of 17.
Nevio Scala had to be a fool to throw a 17-year-old against the dangerous AC Milan. He had two other backup options in form of Giovanni Galli and Alessandro Nista. The decision, which certainly seemed like a gamble, was one which paid off. Buffon stood tall against world-class talents, Roberto Baggio and George Weah. That one performance was so amazing that it was labelled as a world-class debut by Dino Zoff.
Gigi Buffon was eccentric and emotional. Sometimes emotions pour out of him like a waterfall. Buffon is labelled as Superman by the football fraternity. Ever wondered why? It is because of yet another page in the big book of heroics. Buffon was the first choice keeper for Parma in 1997/98.
Parma had a match against Inter Milan during which Inter won an early penalty. Stepping up at the spot, was a certain Brazilian striker in an ominous form that year. One step towards his left and Buffon parried away the penalty. He revealed his Superman shirt underneath to the fans. The striker, none other than El Fenomeno, Ronaldo.
While Buffon was destined for greater heights and was supposed to be a starter in Euro 2000. This time, Buffon was on the wrong side of luck and he broke his hand in a warm-up game. Out of the squad as the first choice keeper, he had to fight to get his spot back. He started in all the games at Korea but the Italian team fell to the South Koreans.
Buffon has never won the UEFA Champions League, unlike his Spanish counterpart Iker Casillas and many critics have labelled it as the end of the Gigi era. To be blunt, there was no Gigi era. Gigi made every era into his. From having to be taught how to dive at Parma, Gigi has grown. He now knows how to handle youngsters and how to lead the team.
The Champions League has just been so evasive of Gigi. When you are up against Barcelona and Real Madrid in the UCL Final, and there is little support from the frontline, how can the keeper be responsible for the loss? Buffon was up against World Class players, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Bale, Messi. He was 39 at the time of his last UCL final.
There can be no shame in getting beaten from close range by Cristiano Ronaldo. No keeper in the world could stop that, let alone Buffon. During his prime, he had the best chance. He even gave his team a chance. The scorers couldn’t capitalise to his disarray. Yet, never once has the Italian keeper commented on the UCL evasion and he has never blamed it on his team’s attacking players.
From being a midfielder, he turned into a world record signing in 2001. He moved to Juventus for about 51 million euros. Has he been a good leader to them? How can you deny the fact? He stayed with them for 17 years. He led them to the UCL final thrice. He was their talisman in the 2003 UCL campaign.
Goal-scoring is a heroic task thus people don’t take keepers seriously. However, Juventus were up against Madrid in their second leg of semi-finals. They were trailing 2-1. They won the return leg at home by 3-1. But what if one more goal was conceded? They would have been dumped out on away goals. In that situation, it was Buffon holding his nerve, in a situation that even the greatest would choke. He saved Luis Figo’s penalty, sending Juventus into the finals.
Juventus were up against Milan in the final. The game went into shootouts and Buffon couldn’t win it there. But why did it go there in the first place. If Buffon had just let Filippo Inzaghi’s diving header into the net, he would have escaped criticism. Buffon was foolish to dive at it like mad and save it. Even Inzaghi looked stunned.
Even in the shootout, what was Buffon’s fault? He saved two penalties. He was just fingertips away from saving Nesta’s shot. There was nothing more he could do. Thus his critics should know better that his UEFA Champions League drought is never his fault.
If he seems too old and slow for critics then god only can help them understand his value. He seems slow because it is not his faster self. He is not 24 anymore. He is 40 years old and still is strong. You won’t beat Buffon without a fight. While Buffon is blamed for the drought of his trophy, he isn’t accredited for his team’s achievements.
If his saves didn’t come against Lukas Podolski, perhaps Italy wouldn’t have made it to Berlin. If he didn’t save Zidane’s rocket header in the finals, France would have been 2006 World Champions. His talent shouldn’t be measured by his UCL trophy drought.
This season he left for PSG. Many labelled it as an act of treachery. It was labelled as a move for glory, for a UEFA Champions League win. Well, he didn’t leave the team where they were shamefully relegated to Serie B. A player of Buffon’s standards played in Serie B for a whole season. What audacity do people have to comment on his loyalty?
He has lost some reflexes. He might have made some mistakes. But, he is human after all. The Juventus fans came up with a fitting answer to his doubters. During a Serie A match, they sported a banner which read, “Even Superman is Clark Kent at some times, but Gigi Buffon is always a superhero”.
The sight of Gigi crying at the UCL final in 2015 was the saddest sight, even for me being a Barcelona supporter. Many supported Juventus over the years, only because of their love for this legend. Sadly, he couldn’t play in the World Cup for one final time.
He announced his retirement after Italy’s shock defeat to Sweden. Gigi might never win a UCL but that is not what he is about. Gigi is a guy passionate about the game. He took up the #1 jersey because of Thomas N’Kono and surely some young kid will take up the jersey inspired by Gigi Buffon.
Gigi is 40 years old. It remains to be seen as to how much longer he will go on. But even if he stops at this very moment, his legacy has been etched as the best goalkeeper ever. There was a statement by Ronaldinho that Lionel Messi’s #10 shirt shouldn’t be touched by anyone. To be very honest even Gigi Buffon’s #1 shirt shouldn’t be touched by anyone at Juventus. Buffon went from Serie B to a nine-time Scudetto winner. A true champion.
The greatest player to wear the #1 jersey. Gianluigi Buffon.