Gigi Buffon has been here before. Italy haven’t been involved in a play-off for a major international tournament in exactly two decades. In the autumn of 1997, Cesare Maldini’s side slugged it out with Russia for a place at France ’98.
Maldini Senior took the reins after Arrigo Sacchi walked out on the national team just two games into qualification, to rejoin Milan in a failed attempt to reignite former glories. Italy and England fought for top spot that ultimately went to England, as Maldini paid the price for refusing to adopt a more attacking outlook. Italy could only draw away to Poland and later to Georgia, with England winning the group by a point.
The first leg, played in truly treacherous conditions at the Dinamo Stadium in Moscow, has entered into calcio folklore. Gianluca Pagliuca suffered an injury just after the half-hour mark in a collision with Andrei Kanchelskis. Pagliuca couldn’t play on and so made way for a fresh-faced Buffon.
Only 19 years old, yet by this time he had already one full season of Serie A experience under his belt, Buffon was impeccable, as despite conceding to a Fabio Cannavaro own goal, he repelled everything the home side could throw at him. Visibility was an issue, as snow continually fell throughout the course of the match. A vital Bobo Vieri goal would see Italy emerge with a 1-1 draw.
Two weeks later, a Pierluigi Casiraghi strike in Naples would seal Italy’s place in France, and Buffon would travel to the tournament as third-choice keeper behind Pagliuca and Francesco Toldo. It was his first of what could be a record-breaking six World Cups.
Whilst he’s highly unlikely to be confronted with a similar experience in Italy’s showdown with Sweden, he will be expected to inspire Italy to make it over the line. In a relatively straightforward group (Spain aside) and even by Italy’s history of laborious performances in qualifying for tournaments, under Giampiero Ventura, they have been nothing short of insipid.
Ventura’s much-maligned 4-2-4 system has come under constant criticism from the Italian media, with much of the talk being that he’ll bow to public pressure and revert to the tried and trusted 3-5-2. Reforming the ‘BBC’ as if they were a much-loved ‘90s pop band.
A World Cup without Italy, and especially Buffon, would be disastrous. Buffon has publicly stated for several years his desire to hang up his gloves at the 2018 World Cup, ending what many consider to be the single greatest goalkeeping career in the history of the sport.
Just like a World Cup without Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo would almost diminish the worth of the tournament, the same applies to Buffon. Italy are very capable of beating a Zlatan-less Sweden side, but, as evidenced by their qualification campaign, their worst enemy under Ventura is themselves. See here for a review of Betfred's sign up offer on Wincomparator.
Let’s just hope that Ventura’s men rise to the challenge and secure their passage to Russia next summer. Just like Buffon so valiantly did in Russia 20 years ago.