Gianluigi Buffon: The Making of Superman
The goalkeeper retired from international football following Italy’s shock World Cup elimination. Mark Doyle tells the story of the legend’s rise to greatness
Before every Parma game, coach Nevio Scala would pass by each player’s room to assess their frame of mind.
On the eve of the Serie A meeting with AC Milan on November 19, 1995, he was interested in the demeanour of one player in particular, the 17-year-old Gianluigi Buffon.
"Gigi had never played in the first team before and we were playing a team of superstars: Roberto Baggio, George Weah, Paolo Maldini," Scala tells Goal. "So, I said to him, ‘Gigi, what happens if I play you tomorrow? Would you be ready?’
"Gigi looked straight at me, almost bemused, and said flatly, ‘Mister, what exactly is the problem?’”
Even as a teenager, Gigi had never been afraid of a challenge. But then, it had always been his way.
"Since I was a child, I always have liked difficult tasks," the Juventus and Italy No.1 said only last month. "Every time I've had to make a choice, I’ve followed my nature.
“I’m the kind of person who always wants to face hard challenges, almost impossible ones. Playing as a goalkeeper is a consequence of my character and nature.”
Both were forged in Carrara.
It was in the small Tuscan town renowned for its marble quarries that Maria Stella gave birth to a baby boy on Saturday, January 28, 1978.
However, Maria and her husband Adriano Buffon didn't even get a chance to hold their new-born child before he was whisked away by a nurse to the intensive care unit.
Before revisiting the drama of Gigi's birth, Maria takes a big breath. "I suppose that it was destiny,” she sighs. “But it was not easy at the time.
“He seemed healthy when he was born; four kilos, so he’s always been pretty big!
"But he had been suffocated by the umbilical cord. He had cyanosis (a discolouration of the tissue in the face caused by a lack of oxygen) and he was in an incubator for five or six days, just lying there, like Jesus on the cross.
"We didn't know if there'd be any brain damage. When they finally handed him to me, the doctors said, 'Only God knows...'
“But the good Lord was very generous. He was very good to us. Gigi was walking and talking at nine months, before any of the other kids. Even then, he was No.1."
He still is. The most expensive goalkeeper of all time. The greatest goalkeeper of all time. And yet he had started out as a midfielder.
"I know that, for others, Gigi is a legend," sister Guendelina mused in an interview with Corriere della Sera last year, " but, for me, he's still the little boy from the games for Canaletto di La Spezia, before he had started playing in goal, running round with two big red cheeks, hair like a porcupine, super-skinny legs and a little pot-belly. Because he liked to eat a lot!"
Gigi's passion for food originated in Udine, some 130 kilometres north-east of Venice. His father Adriano hailed from Latisana but his siblings lived in nearby Pertegada, which is where Gigi spent many summers during his early years, living with his uncle Gianni, his aunt Maria and his grandmother Lina. Their apartment was located above a grocery store that they ran with the help of another of Gigi's aunts, Aldina.
For Gigi, it was, as he wrote in his autobiography, "a magical world. Moving about the shelves, running and sliding down the aisles full of things to eat. I always had a full stomach. My favourites were sandwiches with mortadella, which I devoured at an industrial pace!"
If Gigi's diet played a part in his rapid growth, his genes played a bigger role: "I have always thought that I had sport in my DNA. Mine was a family of athletes."
Gigi's father was a shot-putter, while his mother Maria threw the discus. Both of Gigi's sisters played volleyball. "Five Azzurri out of five," Maria proudly tells Goal. "We all represented Italy.
"We were very lucky, a true sporting family. Adriano and I had always played sport and then we taught it."
Indeed, both were P.E. teachers, while Adriano was also the coach at Gigi's first team, Canaletto di La Spezia. Despite his background in athletics, Adriano was a football fanatic but, in truth, the six-year-old Gigi didn't initially share the same love of 'The Beautiful Game'. He was more into playing ping-pong.
However, he was seduced by the trappings of being a footballer: "At the start, I didn't have a particular passion for the team, for the sport, but I liked the idea of having the bag, the boots, the kit. It was this that made all the difference!"
It also helped that he marked his debut with a goal, from a free-kick. Because of his size and strength, Buffon was something of a set-piece specialist as a kid, particularly during his time at Perticata, the Carrara-based club he joined after leaving Canaletto in order to play closer to home. He even hit the bar in his first ever appearance at San Siro, at the age of 11. Or so he claims.
"Honestly, I don't remember Gigi hitting the bar with a free kick," Cristiano Zanetti tells Goal, laughing, "But if Gigi says it happened, it must be true! He was always very honest. He still is."
Zanetti would know. He played alongside Buffon for both Juventus and Italy. However, it was at the Giuseppe Meazza, on March 5, 1989, that they had the privilege of being team-mates for the first time.
"I was from Massa and Gigi was from Carrara, which is really close, so we knew each other well," the retired midfielder reminisces.
"However, we were always opponents. Then, we got selected for a representative team from Carrara and Massa to play against a side from Veneto before a Serie A match between Inter and Verona.
"San Siro was an incredible experience for a couple of kids like us. I played as a trequartista that day and Gigi played just behind me in midfield.
"That was no surprise, as he was much bigger than all of us back then. He still is now, I suppose, even though I'm not as small anymore! But I was tiny in those days. Gigi even used to call me 'Zanettino'.
"But then, all the kids seemed small compared to Gigi. The fact that he eventually changed position didn't surprise me at all."
The diminutive Zanetti wasn't the only one to identify Buffon's potential as a goalkeeper. Adriano also saw it too. However, he was the total opposite of the archetypal 'pushy parent', rarely ever visible at his son's games, usually found sitting quietly, tucked away in a hidden corner of the stand.
Consequently, he didn't want to put any pressure on Gigi, who was simply enjoying playing football, volleyball, basketball and hide-and-seek with his friends: Marco, Claudio, Buc and Marango - a.k.a. 'The Via Cadorna Gang'!
However, Italia ‘90 changed the entire direction of the young Buffon's life. It was during a World Cup on home soil that Gigi fell in love with Cameroon and their gifted goalkeeper, Thomas N'Kono.
Buffon had first noticed him three years previously, when N'Kono had helped Espanyol knock Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan out of the UEFA Cup. But it was during Italia ‘90 that Buffon became bewitched by N'Kono's acrobatic brilliance.
"He sat and watched all of Cameroon's games," Maria confirms. “He even went to Africa some years ago to play in a charity game with Thomas.”
There were even tears when 'The Indomitable Lions' were eliminated in extra time at the quarter-final stage and, to this day, Buffon remains bitter about the two "lucky" penalties given to England – both controversially won and scored by Gary Lineker.
His admiration for N'Kono also endures. He named his first son Louis Thomas in honour of his idol and when N'Kono heard the news, he rang to congratulate Buffon on the birth of his namesake.
In N'Kono, Gigi had not only found his first sporting hero, he had also found his true calling. Realising this, Adriano suggested to his son in the summer of 1990, "Gigi, why don't you try to play in goal for a year?" The question was met with a predictably enthusiastic response by the N'Kono-obsessed youngster.
However, the only issue was that Perticata were only interested in Gigi as a midfielder. They weren't the only ones either. Inter also scouted Buffon during his time playing for the club located just a five-minute drive from Buffon's family home.
Gigi, though, was determined to be a goalkeeper and, luckily, he found a local club willing to let him play in his preferred position, Bonascola.
"At Perticata, Gigi was scoring goals from midfield, from corners, everywhere," former coach Avio Menconi recounted in an interview with Il Tirreno. "He had a great physique and was good with his feet but he wanted to play in goal.
"So, when they told me, 'Look, there's this kid that every team wants as a midfielder but he wants to play in goal', I said, 'No problem, send him to me.'
"I had to teach him how to dive properly and insisted that he always try to hold onto the ball. But as for all the rest, well, he was born to be in goal."
It wasn't long before others drew the same conclusion. Before his first season as a goalkeeper was up, Buffon was in demand. AC Milan, Bologna and Parma all invited him for trials.
The Rossoneri were keenest, even sending Gigi's parents a contract to sign. However, after travelling to Lodi to inspect the facility at which their son would be staying, Adriano and Maria worried about Gigi living so far from home.
Bologna seemed like a more attractive option and Gigi enjoyed his trial at Casteldebole. Not everyone at the club was convinced, though, so they stalled.
It was a fatal error on their part because while there were also doubters at Parma, one man knew right away that the Gialloblu had a potential superstar on their hands, Ermes Fulgoni.
"As soon as I saw Gigi, I said to myself, 'This kid is a phenomenon,'” the former goalkeeping coach tells Goal. “Parma's sporting director wasn't sure about him, as Gigi was a little flat-footed and his technique wasn't great.
"But I knew that we could work on that. I told Parma, 'You have to sign this kid up right away - before someone else does.’
"Luckily, they listened and Gigi came to play for us."
Indeed, at just 13 years of age, before he had even had his first kiss, Buffon left his native Carrara to go to live in Parma.
As he did, he was inundated with parting requests from friends and Bonascola team-mates for official shirts, jerseys, shorts and even socks from his new team.
Coach Menconi, though, aimed a little higher. Convinced that his protégé was destined to represent Italy, he asked that Buffon send him the first jersey he would wear at every level for the national team.
Gigi vowed to do so but found the idea absurd, particularly during his early days in Parma. The glitz and glamour of playing for Italy seemed a long way away from the glumness and grind of life at his new home, the Maria Luigia boarding school.
It was - and still is - an impressive, brightly coloured villa, located just a short walk from the Stadio Tardini, but it was a difficult environment for a 13-year-old boy living away from his parents for the first time.
Being the outgoing, jovial character that he was, Buffon quickly made friends with his new room-mates: Andrea Tagliapietra, Steve Ballanti and Antonio Venturini. However, the latter left after just two months because "he missed his family. At the start, I wasn't happy either. Even just the word, 'boarding school', didn't inspire positive feelings.
"But, in time, I started to love it because, I suppose, I was institutionalised."
There were kids at the Maria Luigia from every part of the country, from every type of family, from every type of socio-economic background.
As with any school, bullying was an issue, although Gigi had no issues in that regard: "If someone tried to mess me with once, they certainly didn't try a second time."
Buffon also tried to assert himself on the football field during that time but, if anything, he was guilty of trying too hard. He would show-boat and, consequently, make silly mistakes. Gigi naively thought he was still impressing all and sundry, but his antics didn't go unnoticed.
After one particularly needless blunder during a trial game, Buffon was approached by Fabrizio Larini, the head of Parma's youth sector, as he left the field.
"Try to change," he said. "Otherwise, go home." For Buffon, "it was like a bolt of lightning from a serene sky." The warning had the desired effect. Buffon stopped show-boating. He refocused.
Just a month later, he saved three penalties - and scored his own for good measure - as Parma triumphed in the final of a four-team tournament in Molassana. It was a significant moment for Buffon; all of Parma's youth team coaches now believed in him.
International recognition soon followed. Just over a year later, in May 1993, he helped Italy reach the final of the Under-16 European Championship in Turkey. The future king of Rome, Francesco Totti, played up front for the Azzurri but Buffon, despite being 18 months younger, stole the show, saving two penalties in the shootout success over Spain in the last eight before then stopping three in the last-four defeat of Czechoslovakia.
On the same day of the semis, the 16-year-old tennis player Maria Francesca Bentivoglio reached the quarter-finals of the Italian Open. The following morning, a nation had two new sporting stars to read about:
"Bentivoglio and Buffon," read a headline on the front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport, "Italy applauds you!"
All of sudden, people knew his name. After returning to Rome, Buffon took a train back to Parma with a couple of team-mates. All three were still proudly clad in their Italy tracksuits.
Noticing their attire, two fellow teenagers got talking to the trio. "I read about the Euros in the newspaper," one said. "They spoke well of the goalkeeper. What was his name?... Buffon, I think."
"That's me," a delighted Gigi exclaimed. "I felt a fit of pride," he would later write, "but also the feeling that something had changed, that something new had happened in my life."
He still wanted to continue being Gigi, though, and that meant travelling to see his beloved hometown team, Carrarese, play whenever he could. The teenager even travelled alone to away games and that was because he wasn't just a fan, but an ultra, a member of the Commando Ultra Indian Trips. Buffon would bring his very own 'CUIT - Sezione Parma' banner with him to matches, while his gloves still bear the group's initials today.
It was all part of what Buffon freely admits was a rebellious streak, a desire to enjoy his teenage years even though he was having to make many sacrifices in pursuit of his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
He started smoking cigarettes at 14. While hanging out with the ultras, he even once took a drag of a joint. He did stupid things yet he rarely made the same mistake twice.
He was always impudent in his teenage days, though. When he was added to the Parma senior squad for a tour of North America in the summer of 1995, his immaturity was obvious.
While staying at a hotel with a golf course, coach Scala warned the players against messing around on the buggies. Gigi didn't listen.
Ahead of a trip to Niagara Falls, Scala ordered them not to eat any junk food. Gigi didn't listen.
"I ordered a gelato the size of the torch on the Statue of Liberty,” he confessed. “I was doing the exact opposite of what Scala was telling me. I sometimes fear that if he’d had to go to a psychoanalyst, it would have been because of me."
In truth, though, Scala was fully aware that Buffon was merely a normal teenage kid acting out.
"During my time at Coverciano, studying psychology, I had read all about this," he explains to Goal. "Gigi did silly things sometimes but it was just because he was still a kid.
"Besides, these were trivial things. For me, what was important was that he became a good person, that he respected his coaches, his team-mates, the club. I'd like to think now that he learned about such things from me.
"But Gigi was always very good kid, very bright and he always wanted to improve.”
Fulgoni never had any complaints either. In fact, he enjoyed Buffon's cheeky charm, viewing it as an extension of an easy-going personality that allowed him to cope with everything that the game threw at him.
"The boy was a character, on and off the field," he enthuses. "He was humble but he had personality.
"One day, while coaching goalkeepers a couple of years older than him, I wanted to give them a kick up the backside because they were going through the motions.
"I roared at them, 'Look at this kid here: you could learn from his attitude. He's going to play for Italy! He's going to be playing in Serie A when he's 20!'
"Then, Gigi joked, 'But, Mister, what am I supposed to do until then?!' That was Gigi and you shouldn't change that in a kid. It's what makes them who they are, as a person and a player."
It was certainly why Scala felt that Buffon deserved to be added to the senior squad once again, this time in November 1995, after Luca Bucci had been sidelined through injury.
"Alessandro Nista was our reserve goalkeeper, so he was in pole position to start against Milan," Scala admits, "But on the Monday in training, Buffon was sensational.
"It was the same every day: Buffon was unbeatable, saving shot after shot. On the Friday, I turned to my goalkeeping coach, Enzo Di Palma, and said, 'Are you seeing what I'm seeing?!'
"Enzo replied, 'The kid's even better than we thought. But we can't start him against Milan. If he gets burned, he might never recover.'
"However, he was incredible again on the Saturday, and that's why I decided to speak to him that night.
"Once I saw how he was - calm, serene - I decided to start him. I no longer had any doubts about him."
Some of his team-mates, though, were a bit perturbed by the sight of the man charged with stopping Baggio and Weah asleep on the bus to the Tardini just hours before kick-off. They wanted him relaxed - but not that relaxed.
When Gigi's parents arrived at the stadium, they still had no idea that their son would start.
"He didn't tell us he would be making his debut; he said nothing!" Maria tells Goal, still in disbelief.
"The day before my brother told me that there were rumours going around that Gigi was going to make his debut. But I didn't believe it. At 17, he was still a baby, I didn't think it possible that he would go up against these monsters of football from Milan, with Weah, Maldini, Costacurta...
"So, we went calmly to the stadium to watch the game."
However, once inside, they ran into a delighted Fulgoni, who informed them that their son was starting. "They were terrified," he says, laughing. "But I said to them, 'Don't worry, your boy can really play. He's going to have a great game.’"
Inside the Parma dressing room, though, Buffon was feeling nervous for the first time. However, his close friends, Massimo Crippa and Alessandro Melli, quickly reassured him that everything would be fine.
Even Milan's players helped put him at ease. When Buffon lined up alongside Milan in the tunnel beforehand, his opposite number Sebastiano Rossi and right-back Christian Panucci both offered him a few kind words of encouragement. Then, Paolo Maldini, who had made his own Serie A bow at 16, studied him for a second, smiled and wished him good luck.
After that, Buffon was desperate for the game to start; too desperate in fact.
On November 19, 1995, the Parma team photo - for the first and still only time in the club's history - did not feature a goalkeeper.
Quite simply, Buffon was unfamiliar with the practice. He had come straight from the Primavera, where they didn't partake in team photos before kick-off.
So, once the handshakes were out of the way, and the captains had decided who would kick off and which sides their respective teams would take, Buffon simply ran straight towards his penalty area.
On the old footage from RAI 3, it’s still possible to see Parma’s players trying to call him back for the photo but by then, it was too late.
Buffon had already taken up position in goal and how Milan wish he hadn't.
The 17-year-old debutant in the Parma net may have made a rookie mistake before the game had even begun but he was flawless from the first whistle to last, making one incredible save after another – most notably from Baggio, Weah and Zvonimir Boban.
As Scala recalls to Goal, "Gigi went out and performed miracles that day."
They were the first of many by the man who would later be ordained ‘San Gigi’.
After he had saved a penalty from the great Ronaldo in a Serie A clash with Inter in 1997, grateful Parma fans even presented their new hero with a 'Superman' t-shirt, the very one in which he celebrated the club's Coppa Italia triumph two years later.
The analogy appeared apt. A boy of rare size and strength developing into a hero capable of seemingly superhuman feats of athleticism. Furthermore, even when he made mistakes, the comparison worked.
Indeed, when Buffon was written off by some critics as past his best due to a couple of high-profile errors for club and country in 2016, Juventus fans responded by unfurling a banner before his next outing, against Udinese.
"Even Superman is sometimes only Clark Kent," it read, "Gigi, always our superhero."
Gigi never felt like one, though. Despite all of the fame, he never forgot where had come from, or what his parents had taught him.
"Sport was always such an important thing for us not just because of the advantage of physical activity,” Maria explains. “We felt it was a way of teaching the kids how to interact with others, how to lose, how to suffer. And Gigi certainly suffered. He’s been very fortunate but he had many bad defeats, bad injuries.
"At the 2010 World Cup, he rang us from South Africa with his mobile on the bed on speakerphone because his back was so bad that he couldn't even hold it; he couldn’t even move.
"So, sport, like life, can teach you how to suffer, how to overcome obstacles. It also keeps you humble. Despite everything, he never changed.
"Even after his debut, we didn’t see Gigi right after the Milan game because we had to get in the car and go to see Veronica play a volleyball match nearby.
"When we got there, we received so many compliments: ‘Your son is incredible!’ and this and that. They compared him to Lev Yashin. I didn't even know who Yashin was!
"But when we went back to Parma to collect Gigi, he was calm. That night on the TV they were talking about this ‘baby Buffon’ but he was still the same Gigi to us.
“The following morning, we went out to get the papers. When we came back, Gigi was on the phone and he shushed us. I said, 'Why are you telling us to keep quiet?' And he replied, 'Because I'm live on TV!'
"But he never changed because he has a character very similar to my husband. He's a very balanced, level-headed person."
Adriano had taught him well. He had kept Superman’s feet on the ground. While others were telling him how extraordinary he was, Adriano was saying he was merely “decent”.
Thus, Gigi knew that he was no superhero; that he would be nothing without the support of those around him. As a result, he was always quick to express his gratitude.
He helped his family out with money, with work, but whenever he returns home, he’s still just Gigi, the baby of the family.
When he famously made his Italy debut in 1997 in the freezing Russian cold, he made sure, as always, to send his jersey to Avio Menconi.
When he went back to Parma with Juventus for a Coppa Italia game two years ago, he met up with Ermes Fulgoni to talk about the past – and the future.
And when he collected yet another award last year, he gave Nevio Scala a call.
He said to me, "'Ciao, Mister, how are you? It's been so long but I just wanted to say how grateful I am for everything you did for me all those years go.’
"But I wasn't surprised," Scala adds, "That's the way he is. That's Gigi Buffon."
And that's why he will always be No.1.
Photo credit: Michael Phillips, Bologna Press