Story of a Legend: Gianluigi Buffon
It's 2006, in the second half of extra time, and Italy is playing Germany in the semi-finals of the World Cup in Dortmund. On the pitch, the Italians have been dominating after hitting the woodwork twice through Gilardino and Zambrotta. Level at 0-0 with minutes remaining until penalties, the Germans break on the counter four against two. The ball goes to Podolski who smashes it on goal and the impeccable Buffon intervenes with an outstretched fist. Minutes later Pirlo delivered the pass to Grosso that would send Italy through to the finals in Berlin. It was a very quick moment, easily forgettable in the subsequent hysteria of an Italian victory in the World Cup Final. Yet the importance of that save is undeniable in the history of Italian football. The quiet brilliance of Buffon will always live on.
Gianluigi Buffon, known as Gigi, was born on January of 1978. His family are extremely athletic: the mother was a three time Italian shot-put and discus champion, his uncle played first division basketball, his father was also a shot-putter, and finally, his sisters were both professional volleyball players. Even Gigi’s great uncle, Lorenzo Buffon, was a former goalkeeper for Milan, Genoa, Inter, Fiorentina and the Azzurri. At just six years old, Buffon’s parents enrolled him in the Canaletto di La Spezia football school where he mainly took up the role as midfielder.
Gigi played his first match at the San Siro at 10 years old in a tournament for the best youth players from Veneto. Two years later, Buffon discovered his idol, Cameroon keeper Thomas N’Kono, who played in the 1990 World Cup and who would eventually inspire him to change position. In 1992, after signing with Parma the previous year, he made his goal-keeping debut after both first-team goalkeepers picked up injuries. After just two weeks, he became a permanent starter.
Buffon immediately made an impact in his professional debut in 1995 against eventual Serie A champions AC Milan, holding them to a 0-0 draw. The following season he was an increasingly dominant figure in goal, letting in just 17 goals in 27 appearances. The young Italian keeper’s greatest success at Parma came in his fourth season at the club, when he helped win the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup. This season came at a time when Parma's squad boasted the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron, Hernan Crespo, Lillian Thuram, and Fabio Cannavaro. After two more impressive seasons at the yellow and blue's, Buffon was transferred to Juventus for an astonishing 50 million euros (a record for a keeper at the time).
In 2000, Buffon replaced Edwin van der Sar as the first-choice keeper for the Bianconeri. That same year he was called up to the senior side of the Italian national team during their European Championship qualifying campaign. Unfortunately Buffon did non play in the tournament, having suffered an injury just days before Italy’s opening match. This was only a minor setback however, as Gigi Buffon has since been Italy's 'Number One', debuting in Italy’s last seven major international tournaments. He won the Scudetto in his first season at Juventus, leapfrogging Inter to the title on the last weekend of the season. In 2003 Buffon reached the Champions League Final in Manchester, only to lose on penalties against AC Milan.
The most erratic season of perhaps any player’s career came in 2006. With Italy embroiled in the Calciopoli scandal, Juventus were relegated to Serie B and had their two most recent Scudetti revoked. That same summer, Italy arrived at the World Cup in Germany with many doubting that they would even make it past the group stages. Italy beat the odds, though, and Buffon played a crucial role in the Azzurri’s triumphant summer, as they beat France in the Final on penalties.
After one season in the Italian second division, in which Buffon gained a legendary reputation with fans for staying with the struggling club, Juventus were back in the top flight. With Buffon as captain, alongside equally experienced and irreplaceable legends like Andrea Pirlo and Chiellini, the Vecchia Signora began a four year rebuilding process between 2007 and 2011 that would see them return to the height of world football.
Since 2011, the Bianconeri have won four consecutive Scudetti with Gigi between the sticks. On 6 June, under the tutelage of Massimo Allegri, Juventus have the chance to be the eighth team to complete a treble by winning the Champions League Final. Europe's biggest title is the only one that is missing in Buffon's illustrious career, and he will certainly have a huge part to play if they are to win it. Gigi will have to protect his goal from the most prolific goal-scoring trio in domestic league history at Barcelona, in the forms of Neymar, Suarez, and the inimitable Messi. On paper it may seem unlikely, but upon reflecting on Buffon’s career so far, you just can’t count this legend out.