This week, we focus on a goalkeeper who has firmly established himself as one of the best, if not the best, goalkeeper in the world – Gianluigi Buffon.
Buffon was born on January 28 1978 in Carrara, to sporting parents Maria Stella and Adriano – his mother a discus thrower and his father a weightlifter. It was no surprise that young Gigi would become enamoured with sports in which he actively participated from a young age. While he had no preference for any sport in particular, it was football that caught his eye, and eventually proved to be his destiny.
Initially playing in midfield, the Carrara native liked the idea of playing in goal, however he was keen to play like Inter legend Lothar Matthäus, his idol at the time. It was during a match for 10 year-olds (before Inter’s last home match of the 1988/89 season) that really sealed his passion for big-time football. Playing in front of a full-house at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, the young midfielder graced the same pitch as his idol, and took in the adulation of an expectant crowd ready to celebrate another Scudetto success (which they duly did, with Nicola Berti scoring the goal against Verona that crowned their season).
With his time in midfield over, he regularly played in goal for the Bonascola under-12 side, having been inspired by Cameroon goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono’s exploits and showmanship during the 1990 World Cup that summer. His future from then on would be linked to his past as he was a distant relative of the legendary Inter, Milan and Azzurri keeper Lorenzo Buffon, to whom comparisons remain to this day. Courted by Milan, Parma and Bologna, Gigi eventually opted for Parma simply because they were close to his hometown of Carrara, and slowly bided his time, working his way up through the ranks. During the 1994/95 season, Buffon almost made his way to the first-team, however, he encountered a major hiccup along the way as his growing-confidence was severely dented during the last few minutes of a ‘test’ match in front of Coach Nevio Scala. Undeterred by what he saw, Scala knew he had a real gem on his hands and eventually handed Buffon his Serie A debut with a home match against Milan on 19 November 1995, following an injury to regular custodian Luca Bucci. Some resolute defending by the likes of Luigi Apolloni, Fabio Cannavaro, Nestor Sensini and Fernando Couto kept the Roberto Baggio-inspired Rossoneri at bay, though this took nothing away from an outstanding debut performance from Buffon. The match ended in a scoreless draw, and Buffon was the talk of Calcio. While Bucci held the No.1 jersey for the remainder of the 1995/96 season, Gigi’s place in the first team squad was now secure following the sale of Giovanni Galli to Lucchese, and he went on to make eight further appearances that season. Things, however, would become very interesting for the custodian from Carrara.
The shock departure of the hugely-successful Scala led to a change in playing personnel at i Ducali, with former player Carlo Ancelotti taking the helm at the Ennio Tardini. Bringing in the likes of Mario Stanić, and strikers Hernán Crespo and Enrico Chiesa, Ancelotti set about the task of building on the success of his predecessor. Yet it was the signing of Monaco defender Lilian Thuram which proved to be the final piece of the jigsaw, and the start of what was to be a legendary defensive trio. Ancelotti was in no doubt of Gigi’s ability to perform at the highest level, and installed him as the Gialloblu’s No.1 goalkeeper. With Cannavaro and Thuram in front of him, Parma enjoyed their most successful Serie A campaign to date, finishing second only to a Marcello Lippi-inspired Juventus. With Bucci moving on to gain more playing time elsewhere, Buffon established himself as one of the leading shot-stoppers, no doubt aided by former Genoa ‘keeper turned agent Silvano Martina. Gigi’s meteoric rise was capped with an Azzurri debut in a World Cup qualifier against Russia on 29 October 1997, after appearing as a substitute to replace the injured Gianluca Pagliuca. At the time, the Parma ‘keeper confessed he felt more emotional about representing la Nazionale for the first time than making his professional debut against Milan. He would cement his place in the Azzurri squad from then on, going to the 1998 World Cup as third-choice goalkeeper behind Angelo Peruzzi and Pagliuca. Back at Parma, further success arrived under the reign of Alberto Malesani where the Ducali won the Coppa Italia, Italian Super Cup and the UEFA Cup in 1999.
By 2000, Gigi was firmly installed as Italy’s No.1 goalkeeper. With the Euro 2000 finals round the corner, Buffon took part in a friendly against Norway just eight days before the start of the tournament, and subsequently broke his hand which ruled him out of the tournament. His relationship with the European Championships was thus soured from then on as his understudy Francesco Toldo conceded only one goal in the Azzurri’s march to the final, which they eventually lost to France.
2001 turned out to be an epochal year for Gigi as Juventus were on the search for a goalkeeper to replace the departed Edwin van der Sar. The Bianconeri had money to burn following the world-record sale of Zinedine Zidane, and wanted the very best players to bring success back to Turin. Knowing that Serie A and further European success would elude both Parma and their keeper, whose stock was rising, the Gialloblu accepted Juve’s offer of £32m – making him the world’s most expensive goalkeeper – a record which still stands today. While it was a wrench to leave the club that had made him a star, he looked forward to cementing his status as one of the world’s best ‘keepers at a world-class club. In an effort to recreate the solid defensive unit at Parma, la Vecchia Signora also purchased close-friend Thuram for a cool £25m, and went on to secure back-to-back Scudetti triumphs in 2001/02 and 2002/03. At the end of the 2002/03 season, Buffon was voted the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) World’s Best Goalkeeper for the first time (later going on to win the award three more times), and won both the UEFA Champions League’s Most Valuable Player and UEFA Club Football Award for Best Goalkeeper for Juve’s run to the Champions League Final, where they finished runners-up to Milan at Old Trafford.
Fellow Parma team-mate Fabio Cannavaro joined Juve to recreate the fabled defensive trio at Parma, and with his two trusted team-mates in front of him, Juve possessed arguably the best defence in the world. Unfortunately, further success was to elude Gigi in the immediate future, as despite winning another back-to-back Scudetti in the 2004/05 and 2005/06 seasons, these titles were revoked due to the Calciopoli scandal in which he himself was embroiled in. Both he and fellow goalkeeper Antonio Chimenti were implicated as participants in an illegal betting scandal on Serie A matches during his time at Parma. He later voluntarily allowed himself to be questioned by Turin-based magistrates in an attempt to clear his name. While admitting that he did bet on sports (until regulations went into effect in late 2005, banning players from doing so), he vehemently denied placing wagers on Italian football matches. Fears arose that he had jeopardised his chances of playing in the 2006 World Cup, but Azzurri Coach Lippi remained unmoved and named Buffon as Italy’s first-choice goalkeeper. As a footnote, all players were cleared of all charges by the FIGC on 27 June 2007.
At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Gigi produced faultless displays, conceding only two goals during the Azzurri’s march to a fourth World Cup win, and deservedly won the Lev Yashin award for Best Goalkeeper. Back home, the Calciopoli scandal had torn Italian football and Juve apart, and with players either being offloaded to balance the books or looking to retain their Serie A status elsewhere, the Bianconeri moved quickly to deem Gigi as untransferrable knowing full well his lofty status would bring in a hefty sum of money. Regardless of reported interest in him, from Milan in particular, Buffon remained loyal to Juve after their relegation to the second-tier. “Serie B is a division he has never won and he wants to try to do this” his agent insisted – which he duly did, as la Vecchia Signora became Cadetti champions.
Now 31, Buffon isn’t the sprightly 17-year old that embarked on his Serie A adventure back in 1995, as an ongoing back problem continues to hamper his mobility. Having recently signed an extension to his contract keeping him at Juve until 2013, he sees himself winning even more individual awards and more trophies for both club and country. His achievements match those of legendary Juve and Azzurri goalkeeper Dino Zoff, his ambitions remain undiminished. His ability, passion and loyalty will forever make him a darling of the Parma, Juve and Italian faithful, and through his emotional connection to his club and country and their fans, he has dispelled the myth that all footballers are mercenaries – just think of his superhuman effort in resisting the lure of a quick buck following Juve’s demotion. Then again, Gigi is no ordinary footballer…he is Superman afterall.
Past Lessons in Calcio
Alessandro Del Piero