The former Parma shot-stopper takes his place alongside the legendary World Cup-winning captain tonight, but on current form there could be many more landmarks to come
By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor
Less than two years after his first senior appearance and still three months short of his 20th birthday, a spindly teenager ran onto the frozen pitch in Moscow. It was going to be a tough enough experience for his team-mates, with Italy having been forced into a two-legged play-off against Russia to reach the World Cup finals in France, but for a young substitute goalkeeper it was perhaps the most trying international debut possible.
Gianluigi Buffon makes his 112th appearance for the Azzurri tonight against Uruguay at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, 14 years on from that most memorable of introductions to the world stage. At the age of 33, the 150-cap mark should be a target for a keeper who remains the best Italy have by some stretch. The milestone this evening comes in the fact he moves level with his idol as the most capped Italy goalkeeper of all time.
Dino Zoff was La Nazionale’s custodian and captain in 1982 as they collected their third World Cup, and their first in 44 years. Buffon may have been only four years old when the Azzurri triumphed, but the legendary keeper’s legacy lived on long after his playing days, giving young Gigi a player to emulate as he made his way through the ranks.
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Buffon was never short of potential idols. His uncle, Lorenzo, was an Italy international keeper, while Thomas N’Kono provided such a lasting impression on him as he grew up, that he named his first child after the former Cameroon No.1. But in Zoff, there was a long-lasting national goalkeeping hero, and in time Gigi has gone on to match him and then some.
“Technically I always tried to be like Zoff,” Buffon told the press yesterday. “He was a real maestro and the reference point for all the goalkeepers that followed him.”
After that sensational debut in Moscow, when he kept out countless Russian efforts, with one particular stop from Dmitri Alenichev shortly before half-time standing out as both memorable and crucial, he was destined to do something special.
It wouldn’t come the following summer, despite his debut heroics helping the Azzurri to qualify for the finals, but he did become the nation’s first-choice keeper under the reign of the very same Zoff who had protected the nation’s net with such distinction in the past. Thirteen caps later, he looked set to lead Italy to the Euro 2000 finals in Belgium and the Netherlands before a broken hand ruled him out of the trip.
Two years on, his penalty save against South Korea seemed set to extend his first ever run in the team in a major finals, but fate – or something more sinister – was against Italy, and again he would taste disappointment in 2004 when the Azzurri were squeezed out of the European Championships by Sweden and Denmark.
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By this point he wasn’t enjoying the greatest of luck, despite having picked up 49 caps by the age of 26. A back-up in 1998, then a broken hand and two alleged conspiracies had suggested a cursed run in the national side. But the two years to come were to sort that out.
At domestic level, Juventus regained the Scudetto from AC Milan, going on to defend it in 2006 to mark a fourth league title in five years since Buffon’s record-breaking €32 million move from Parma. And while the latter pair of titles would later be controversially revoked, many of his club team-mates would join him at the top of the world that summer.
Breached only once in their first six matches in the World Cup finals in Germany, and that a miskick by team-mate Cristian Zaccardo in a group fixture against the USA, Italy’s ever-changing defence managed to drag the side to the showpiece final against France. Only two men remained constant in the backline, Fabio Cannavaro and Buffon.
On the big night in Berlin, Buffon’s flying save from Zinedine Zidane’s header just before half-time in extra-time was a game changer. Ten minutes later, the French captain was sent off, and the famous trophy was destined for the Bel Paese despite Buffon not making a single save in the penalty shoot-out.
Two years on, he did make a crucial stop from a spot-kick as the Azzurri faced the humiliation of an early group stage exit from Euro 2008. His save from Adrian Mutu against Romania prolonged the nation’s interest into the quarter-finals, where he kept out another penalty, but Iker Casillas went one better as eventual champions Spain saw off the Italians.
Buffon’s luck in South Africa in 2010 summed up Italy’s entire campaign, as his troubles with a back injury forced him off at half-time in the opening match against Paraguay as Marcello Lippi’s men slumped to their most embarrassing exit on record. One can’t help but wonder if a fit Buffon might have been able to help fix some of the defensive inadequacies on show.
Ten games on from his return after surgery, Buffon equals Zoff’s tally. But he has his sights set much higher.
“I’m hoping this is just one step for me,” he admitted on Monday. “I’m hoping my national team career still has a way to go, and my age gives me hope.”
The fact that Zoff lifted the World Cup at the age of 40 gives others hope too. There is the belief among many that Buffon could still be playing at the same age.
And if he is still playing for Italy at 40, he’ll captain them at the 2018 World Cup finals. And where will the final be? Moscow … Is it fate? Don’t rule it out.Follow Kris Voakes on