Gianluigi Buffon: The Great Italian wall
There were only a few minutes to go on the clock when Gerard Pique received the ball just a few meters from goal and knocked it goalwards. Gianluigi Buffon, Italy’s legendary goalkeeper immediately changed direction and got down on the ground to flap the ball away in seconds.
It was as crucial as Chiellini’s poke that led to Italy’s first goal, or Conte’s tactical masterclass or any of the other brilliant performance we had seen all across the pitch for Italy. And the fact that he’s done it so many times over a span of 21 years can only leave you in awe.
"He's a living legend," David de Gea, the Spanish and Manchester United goalkeeper had said on the eve of the match "Buffon is one of the goalkeepers who I have really studied. I've followed his career right the way through. He is an amazing goalkeeper and he keeps showing that he is, even after so many years in the elite. Above all else, he is an idol for any goalkeeper."
The Spaniard had been full of praise for Buffon and his United teammate Matteo Darmian termed him and Buffon as two of the best goalkeepers in the world before the match as well. When you consider the fact that De Gea was 4 years old when Buffon was making his debut for Parma and thwarting one of the best attacking units in the world, a magnificent AC Milan side, you begin to absorb how long Gianluigi Buffon has really been around for.
160 appearances for Italy, 458 Serie A/B caps for Parma and Juventus and a staggering 799 games in all competitions at club level. Take out a few spells of bad form and he’s been imperious for almost all of them.
"He is a benchmark for me, and for every keeper of my generation. When I started playing, I had a dream – I dreamed of becoming like him, and every time I play against him it's a real pleasure". These words come from Iker Casillas, another of the defining goalkeepers of the 2000’s. The amount of respect his colleagues have for him give you a picture of the kind of figure he is, both on and off the pitch.
Buffon is always a measure of calm, reassuring and organizing his back line in the tough moments, shouting at them when they need to be shouted at, and pulling off magnificent physics defying saves when the whole team is beaten. He’s one of the best leaders the game has seen, an impeccable organizer of the team in front of him and even at 38, he looks like he’s at his best.
His impact on the younger players is also well recognized. Morata and Dybala, the young stars at Juventus (Morata an ex-player now) often spoke of the impact he has in the dressing room and how he’s made the newer players feel at home. His personality and charisma in the Italy camp could also not be more apparent.
Buffon has kept 3 clean sheets in 3 games at these Euros against attackers like Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alvaro Morata and Andres Iniesta. It’s true that the trio of Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini have been phenomenal in front of him but he’s been ready when called upon and has made crucial saves.
The kind of season he’s having, (at 38 years old, no less) is historic. Buffon surpassed Rossi's 20-year-old clean sheet record of 929 minutes and set the new all-time record of 974 consecutive minutes without conceding a goal in Serie A.
To think of a player beating these kinds of records when he’s already achieved so much in his career is an astonishing measure of his hunger.
Buffon though is showing no signs of slowing down and though he’s already tasted the pinnacle of world football with a World Cup win in 2006, he’s hungry for a win in the European Championships as well.
Italy couldn’t possibly have had a more difficult path to the final, they’ve already beaten two amongst the best teams in the competition convincingly in Belgium and Spain, and now they will have to get past Germany and France to play the Euro 2016 trophy, but with an imperious Buffon at the helm, their saviour and leader in goal, they might just have a chance.