The front page of the Gazzetta dello Sport said he was decisive. The Corriere dello Sport labelled him as a great. Tuttosport went as far as to anoint him as a saint. That was on September 7, 2013, the morning after Gianluigi Buffon saved Italy in the crucial 1-0 win over Bulgaria which pretty much wrapped up the Azzurri’s place at the 2014 World Cup.
“Gigi was extraordinary for us tonight,” admitted a relieved Cesare Prandelli after the Palermo encounter. “He earned us the result. His fine stops were the equivalent of a striker scoring a brace.”
One parry in particular, from Ivelin Popov, won comparisons with Gordan Banks’ heroic effort to stun Pele during the Mexico ‘70 encounter between England and Brazil. It was simply extraordinary, a split second illustration of what has made Gigi one of the best, if not the best, Italian goalkeeper of all-time.
That save contained the dynamics of one that should be remembered for a lifetime. But, in the world of Italian football, it has been forgotten within the space of just six weeks. Now, instead of hailing the ability of Buffon, we are being forced to read accusations that an ageing Gigi is past it, a player ready for the scrapheap at club and international level.
Those who have put the 35-year-old on trial in recent times do come equipped with what they suggest is proof. There were some unconvincing showings at the Confederations Cup where Italy conceded with regularity, the Lazio and the Chievo games also provided examples of errors, while the latest exhibit to be entered into evidence is the Giuseppe Rossi goal conceded in the 4-2 loss at Fiorentina on Sunday.
Some of those mistakes have been costly – Buffon would acknowledge that himself – but what exactly do those particularly unconvincing moments prove? That he is finished or that he is going through a problematic spell of form?
If Buffon is guilty of anything, it is that he has accustomed us all to an immense level of goalkeeping which doesn’t allow him the right to make a mistake in a role where errors are, more often than not, brutally punished.
Juventus, via director general Beppe Marotta and Coach Antonio Conte, have defended the former Parma custodian this week. Italy boss Prandelli, too, has publicly backed the shot-stopper. “There is no Buffon problem. Gigi has my maximum faith and he will be the starter at the World Cup.”
Not only does Buffon deserve such support, but that show of belief comes from three men who know how rare good quality goalkeepers are these days. It’s all very well demanding that Buffon be consigned to history, but showing Gigi the door would be a lot easier than actually replacing him.
The reality is that the Italian school of goalkeeping has still not delivered us a ready-made replacement for a man who made his Serie A debut in 1995. Look at the struggles of Mattia Perin – ‘a new Buffon’ – over the last 12 months and what Federico Marchetti got up to in the 2-2 draw with Armenia. Meanwhile, take into account the performances of Morgan De Sanctis – a 36-year-old who has rediscovered his form at Roma after a problematic season at Napoli last time out.
While the Superman incarnation of Buffon may have left this planet for good, the latter remains a player with few equals in Italy or abroad. He may continue to make more miscalculations than he ever has done in the past, but it would be safe to say that the Juventus and Italy rearguard would feel more comfortable with San Gigi behind them than any other shot-stopper.
The day will eventually arrive when Juventus and Italy will have to say goodbye to Buffon, but the least he deserves after 15 years at the top is a bit of time to prove he’s still got something special in those gloves. And Buffon clearly thinks he has. “Great champions, in negative moments, accumulate a new anger which prolongs their career,” he said this week. Let’s hope he’s furious.