By Mark Doyle
On November 15, 2011, Gianluigi Buffon equalled Dino Zoff's tally of 112 caps for Italy in a friendly against Uruguay. “I have always tried to be like Zoff,” Buffon admitted before the game in Rome. “He was a real maestro and the reference point for all the goalkeepers that followed him.” The question now is whether Buffon, who will make his 125th appearance for his country against Brazil on Thursday evening, has since surpassed his idol not only in terms of caps, but also eminence. Is it Buffon who is now the reference point when it comes to discussing Italian goalkeeping greats?
Comparing players from different eras is obviously an exercise in subjectivity. However, what is also beyond dispute is that Buffon now warrants comparison with a man who in 2003 was voted Italy's best player of the preceding half century. Zoff acknowledges that himself. "I give my compliments to Buffon," he told GQ magazine ahead of the current Azzurri captain's aforementioned appearance against Uruguay in Novermber 2011. "Now he can be considered my heir. I believe that we have been two great goalkeepers." That much is most definitely true.
Zoff led the Nazionale to World Cup glory in Spain in 1982 at the age of 40, making him the oldest player to have ever lifted the game's grandest prize, while Buffon played an integral role in his country's surprise success in Germany seven years ago. The parallels extend into their club careers, too. Both men have a Uefa Cup triumph to their names, while Buffon will almost certainly equal Zoff's haul of six Serie A titles later this season. When it comes to silverware, there really is nothing to choose between the two.
|BUFFON V ZOFF - THE STATISTICS|
|0.84||AVERAGE GOALS PER GAME
|1 World Cup
5 Italian league
1 Coppa Italia
1 Uefa Cup
||1 World Cup
1 European Championship
6 Italian league
2 Coppa Italia
1 Uefa Cup
|1 Uefa Club Footballer of the Year
4 IFFHS Goalkeeper of the Year
9 Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year
||Italy's Golden Player|
On the face of it, though, Buffon is the more impressive physical specimen. The offspring of a discus-throwing mother and a weightlifting father, the Carrara native represents an imposing presence in between the posts. However, it is Buffon's body that, ironically, may also prove his undoing in his quest to establish himself as Italy's greatest goalkeeper. The Bianconeri No.1 has been blighted by back problems and while he recently penned a new three-year contract with the Italian champions, doubts remain over whether he can really hope to match Zoff in terms of longevity, given his idol played at the highest level for a staggering 22 years.
Indeed, when it comes to reliability, there really is only one winner. Zoff didn't miss a game for Juventus for 11 years, making a total of 330 consecutive appearances during that remarkable period, and the former Azzurri boss has previously suggested he feels that durability is key when it comes to debating Italy's all-time No.1.
"Gigi was stronger than me in his youth," Zoff mused. "But then, perhaps it has been the other way around thereafter, because I made some notable improvements from my younger days going forward, not forgetting that I played for the national side until I was 41."
|I give my compliments to Gigi. Now he can be considered my heir. I believe that we have been two great goalkeepers for Italy.
- Zoff on Buffon in 2011
There is also a commonly held view that, despite his undeniable brilliance, Buffon is more accident prone, as evidenced by his miscue against Lecce last season. However, there is a mitigating factor there in that he is operating in an era in which goalkeepers have to be far more adept with the ball at their feet on account of the abolition of the back-pass rule. In addition, it should also be acknowledged that Buffon has not benefited from the same level of protection that Zoff was afforded, particularly at club level. The latter was stationed behind some of the finest defenders ever to have played the game, during what was a golden age for Italian football.
Context, therefore, is key. Yes, Zoff managed to go 1143 minutes without conceding an international goal between 1972 and 1974 - a record which still stands today - but Buffon's goal went unbreached for 453 minutes during the 2006 World Cup. The former Parma shot-stopper kept five clean sheets during that tournament in total, beaten just twice, by a Cristian Zaccardo own goal and Zinedine Zidane penalty.
|Gigi was stronger than me in his youth, but then, perhaps it has been the other way around thereafter because I made some notable improvements from my younger days.
When it comes to leadership, Zoff comes up trumps in that he is a World Cup-winning captain. But again, Buffon leading a side without as many world-class performers to the final of Euro 2012 is perhaps just as notable an achievement. Zoff was clearly a fine skipper. An incredibly self-critical perfectionist, he was the consummate professional; one of those who preferred to lead by example: "I have always preferred deeds to words," he explains.
Buffon, by contrast, is never one to bite his tongue - either in or out of the dressing room. He is regarded as a fine motivational speaker by team-mates and supporters alike (witness his stirring rallying cry on Facebook ahead of the Euro 2012 semi-final against Germany last summer), while he has never been afraid to lock horns with the media. Whereas Zoff was exemplary, Buffon is inspirational.
Choosing between the two, therefore, really is a matter of taste. However, even those firmly in the Zoff camp would concede that Buffon has the talent, the desire and, fitness permitting, the time to end this debate once and for all. Indeed, as Zoff himself conceded when pressed on whether he will be usurped as Italy's finest No.1: "Time will tell ... When he is doing well physically, Gigi has no rivals."