As World Cup football filled the stadiums of Italy during the summer of 1990, the country’s children flooded onto the streets. The evenings were spent watching their heroes; the days were devoted to re-enacting their exploits. For some it was still Marco Tardelli’s immortalised scream of passion which captured their imagination; for others, it was the new hero, Salvatore Schillaci.
For one fresh-faced 12-year-old, it was neither an Italian nor a goalscorer. He was inspired by the heroics of Cameroon goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono, racing off his line to deny Argentina in that famous upset that opened the tournament. The son of a shot putter and a discus thrower, his heritage was the first hint that he might be better with his hands than his feet.
When he joined Parma’s academy the following year, it was as a midfielder. Just four years later, the 17-year-old, now a goalkeeper, would open his hotel door to find himself face to face with Parma’s greatest ever manager, Nevio Scala. “What would you say if I said you were playing tomorrow?” asked Scala. “Don’t worry. That will be no problem at all,” replied Gianluigi Buffon.
If that reply seems mature and composed beyond the years of the one giving it, it was nothing compared to his performance the following day. Buffon made two brilliant saves to deny George Weah and Roberto Baggio as Parma held AC Milan to a 0-0 draw. “I’ve never seen a debut like it, for the personality and quality he showed,” said Dino Zoff.
There’s a reason why the average age of goalkeepers is much higher than outfield players. It is a position which demands experience and strength of character like no other. To put that pressure on the shoulders of a 17-year-old could have been both costly and cruel.
But Buffon is never a man for whom age has mattered. He was Parma’s regular first choice goalkeeper before his 19th birthday. At the age of 21, he helped I Gialloblu to a double of UEFA Cup and Coppa Italia. And he was only 23 when Juventus forked out €52m to bring him to Turin in 2001. Seventeen years later, he is still the most expensive goalkeeper ever.
His agelessness remains miraculous. Where once he showed the mental strength of a much more experienced player, he now boasts the physicality of one much younger. His decline, if there has been one, has been unnoticeable. He once joked about playing until the age of 65, but it really doesn’t seem too far-fetched now.
Yet it would be wrong to say that Buffon is flawless. True, there are still times when he seems to be the same man he was on his debut – calm, unfazed by anything, a picture of placid composure.
But often he is fuelled by rage, claiming that he “would rather tear my ligaments than make a mistake like that” after a rare error against Lecce in 2012. Michael Oliver can also attest to the ferocity of Buffon’s anger after his furious reaction to the award of a last minute penalty in April's Champions League quarter final against Real Madrid.
His relentless quest for perfection has sometimes come at the detriment of his mental health. He sought professional help for depression in 2003, feeling that his “mind belonged to somebody else.” He has been staunch in his opposition to medicine, driven by the desire to be “the architect of my own destiny.”
He was nearly the architect of his own downfall in 2006 when he was accused of illegal betting as part of the Calciopoli scandal that struck Italian football. Buffon co-operated with the investigation and the charges were dropped, but Juventus were not so lucky – found guilty, they were relegated to Serie B for the first time in their history.
It was then that Buffon would prove the quality which has come to define him more than any other: loyalty. Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram and Zlatan Ibrahimovic left the sinking ship, but Buffon stood by his Old Lady until she returned to her former glories. Juventus are now on the longest title-winning streak in Italian history, and Buffon’s dedication through the dark days makes it all the sweeter.
Buffon is currently ninth in the list of all-time appearance makers in world football, having played his 1000th career game last March. An impressive 176 of those have come for Italy in an international career spanning 21 years. Buffon is one of only three players to have travelled to five World Cups, playing at four of them.
As Italy headed into the 2006 World Cup, the national game was in disarray, but their defence was a picture of organisation. A formidable back four boasting the likes of Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Gianluca Zambrotta repelled all comers. On the rare occasions when they were breached, Buffon was almost unstoppable between the posts.
In the final, he made crucial interventions to deny Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane. Buffon didn’t save any penalties in the shoot out, but David Trezeguet’s spot kick hit the crossbar before Fabio Grosso converted the winner. Cannavaro was awarded the Golden Ball but Italy’s defensive record was a testament to their entire back line, including Buffon.
In conceding just twice at the tournament, Buffon helped Italy set a new record for the fewest goals conceded by a World Cup winning nation. Iker Casillas – Buffon’s biggest rival and one of his greatest admirers – matched the achievement four years later with Spain.
The European Championship is one of two major honours Buffon never won. The other, famously, is the Champions League, despite playing in three finals. He has cited this as the reason why he has not yet retired, even as leaves Juventus after 17 years. If rumours of a move to Liverpool or Paris Saint-Germain are to be believed, perhaps his dream isn’t over yet.
So much has changed for goalkeepers since Buffon set out on his road to greatness. To be a number one these days you are expected to be able to pass, tackle and dribble like an outfield player. Gone are the days when shot stopping and drop kicks were all that mattered.
Buffon claims that “there are fewer and fewer great goalkeepers” for this reason. He is one of a dying breed, in this sense and in many others. He has transcended club rivalry to become a player respected by all, loved by millions, and regarded by many as the greatest ever goalkeeper. And he’s made it all look as simple as the answer he gave to Nevio Scala those many years ago.