Gigi Buffon joined Dino Zoff on 112 caps this week. Giancarlo Rinaldi bravely asks who out of the two goalkeepers is Italy’s greatest.
I can remember the day that Dino Zoff finally put his Italy gloves away for good. It felt like an historic moment because for most of my lifetime there had never been anyone else guarding the Azzurri goal. We would surely never see his like again.
Yet on Tuesday night, in defeat by Uruguay, another net-minder matched his record of 112 international caps. What often seemed an impossible landmark has now been equalled and, in a matter of months, will surely be surpassed. Just like his famous predecessor, Gigi Buffon has become the nation's undisputed No 1.
But how do they stack up head-to-head? That is the real intriguing question in my mind. I have been lucky enough to watch them both plenty of times and should be in a decent position to judge. Yet I find it a bit like having to choose between a Barolo and an Amarone. In other words, both are truly world class.
Their international records are remarkably similar. A World Cup triumph in their pockets, defeat percentages of less than 20 per cent and dozens of clean sheets for their country. Even a stats lover would find it hard to split them.
So it then comes down to more subjective matters. What are their strengths and weaknesses? How tough was the opposition they faced in their respective eras? How good were the teams they had around them?
To take that last question first, I'd say Zoff had a bit of an edge. No disrespect to the modern generation of defenders, but playing behind the likes of Claudio Gentile and Gaetano Scirea made any goalkeeper's life more easy. The fact that they were club colleagues at Juve for much of their careers only made that defensive rock more solid.
In terms of opposition, the case is more debatable. There were fewer international fixtures back in the 1970s, but there definitely were more pushover sides. Equally, Buffon never faced a group of death like his counterpart did at the World Cup in 1982. Let's call it honours even.
The third element is again a matter of taste. Zoff seemed to transmit a great calm to the rest of his team. Those who know him best say he has a wicked sense of humour, but he kept it well hidden under a craggy, Friuli exterior. His was an efficient style which was rarely flashy but, vitally, let in very few goals. His reputation was tarnished by long-range strikes which whistled past him at Argentina ‘78. However, he had the resilience to fight back and win a World Cup at a pensioner's age in football terms.
Buffon is more a product of the modern school of goalkeeping. His positioning and shot-stopping are outstanding, but he is also more of a physical presence than Zoff was. His ‘Superman’ nickname owes much to the miraculous speed with which he can launch himself from the ground to thwart an apparently easy follow-up shot. It is a mark of his dominance that many of his competitors for the Italy job seem to wither when given the opportunity to play. To be fair, Zoff did this too – go ask Ivano Bordon.
Nonetheless, I'd give the Carrara ‘keeper a slight edge as an all-round player. This might have as much to do with how the physical standards of the game have risen in the past four decades. It also, handily for me, leaves honours even in my overall assessment of the two.
But I hate such wishy-washy sitting-on-the-fence conclusions. Hand on heart, if I had to pick someone to make a save that my life depended on, I would edge towards Buffon. There seem to me to be fewer chinks in his armour than Zoff possessed. But, in truth, it is like making me choose between an espresso and a grappa at the end of a meal. Couldn't I just have both?