Gianluigi Buffon was born in Carrara, the Tuscan city where they quarried the marble for Michelangelo’s David 500 years ago. Maybe even now there is a fresh slab being carved out, ready for a statue of Italy’s greatest goalkeeper, who left the international scene in tears this week after his team’s goalless draw with Sweden cost them a place in next summer’s World Cup finals but whose deeds guarantee him a place in the game’s history.
What even the most gifted sculptor could never capture would be the sheer dynamism of Buffon’s presence on a football field. You could spend an entertaining 90 minutes just watching the parade of expressions on his face, from wild-eyed fury to an urchin’s mischievous grin, and you could also admire the way he presented himself to opponents as the embodiment of both the sternest resistance and a fine generosity of spirit.
Of course he made great saves. There’s a fingertip effort from Andrea Pirlo in 1996 when both of them were youngsters, Pirlo with Internazionale and Buffon in Parma’s colors, that still defies belief as the ball fades off the outside of the playmaker’s left boot and the keeper flies across to touch it around the post. But it is for that presence, rather than individual moments, that he’ll be remembered – along with the short-sleeved jerseys which were his contribution to goalkeeping fashion.
No one was blaming Buffon for Italy’s catastrophic failure to reach the World Cup finals for the first time in 60 years on Monday. He and his fellow veterans of a defense that had brought six consecutive Serie A titles to Juventus between 2011 and 2017 – Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini – had held firm at San Siro. Even the fatal Swedish goal in Solna three days earlier had come from a shot deflected away from Buffon’s dive by a midfield player. In the return leg, the captain and his closest colleagues did not betray the great tradition of Italian defending. The problems lay elsewhere.
It was his last clean sheet for Italy, his 77th in 175 appearances – a record within a record, two of the many he holds. He had hoped to become the third man to play in five World Cup finals; it might even have been six, had he been called from the bench in France in 1998. As it was, he reached the last 16 in 2002, won the trophy in 2006, suffered a tournament-ending injury midway through the opening match in 2010, and went out at the group stage in 2014.
The arc of those World Cup results could be seen as mirroring the general view of Italian football over the past decade and a half. The Azzurri’s greatest triumph during that period came in a penalty shootout against a France team reduced to 10 men after the world’s greatest player had been provoked into committing a red-card assault. Two subsequent group-stage eliminations reflected the decline in Serie A’s potency, to the point where Italy’s top tier now has to fight to maintain even a vestige of its former reputation after years of scandal, diminishing prosperity and declining star power.
Had Italy’s charisma-free forwards managed to conjure a couple of goals on Monday night, Buffon would have taken the plane to Russia midway through his 41st year. Perhaps that, too, is a signal of something not quite right in Italian football. The Azzurri traditionally put their faith in older heads, and Dino Zoff, Buffon’s great predecessor in goal for Juventus and Italy, was 41 when he played the last of his 112 full international matches, in May 1983 – curiously also in a defeat against Sweden which pushed them towards their failure to qualify for Euro 1984. But the youngest players in Gian Piero Ventura’s starting team in Milan were a pair of 25-year-olds.
It’s worth remembering that when Italy won the World Cup in Spain in 1982 they included, as well as the 40-year-old Zoff, the 18-year-old defender Giuseppe Bergomi, who went on to win 81 caps. Paolo Rossi, who scored in every round, was 25. The other eight members of the starting XI in the final against West Germany were all also still in their twenties.
You can spend all the time you want on trawling through the statistics but there is no definitive wisdom on the timing of a switch from experience to youth in international football. Germany made a fresh start some years ago, and it worked. England are trying a similar approach at the moment but it will be another World Cup, and possibly two, before anyone knows whether those heartening wins in the under-17 and under-20 World Cups this year can be turned into the harder currency of senior trophies.
The truth emerges only in hindsight, and that is what happened to Italy this week. They clung for too long on to an older generation. A poorly chosen coach did nothing to change the pattern and was unable to galvanize the squad in the way that his predecessor, Antonio Conte might still have managed, had he stuck around. The necessary rebuilding of the squad will now start with the replacement of Buffon by the 18-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma of Milan.
England’s first sight of Buffon came in November 2000, with a 1-0 defeat in a friendly at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin. In front of the 22-year-old goalkeeper were Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini; those were, indeed, different times. Peter Taylor, warming the manager’s seat for the arrival of Sven-Goran Eriksson, handed the armband to David Beckham and with half an hour gone England’s new captain gave Italy’s new goalkeeper his only really difficult moment of the match with a carefully measured shot from 30 yards. The last encounter came 15 years later, in March 2015, and ended 1-1 on Buffon’s home turf in the new Juventus stadium.
His departure from the international scene leaves him eight caps ahead of Iker Casillas, his great rival among European goalkeepers of the 21st century. The Spaniard, now displaced by David De Gea, is the younger by three years, and the more successful in terms of international tournaments, with two European Championships and three Champions League successes to set against no wins in either tournament for the Italian, although the score is 8-5 to Buffon in domestic league titles.
But you would not want to choose between them. You would just want to count yourself lucky at having lived through an era in which their craft, athleticism, intelligence and commitment helped define the art of modern goalkeeping.
The Guardian Sport