Football Italia delves into its archives to find a gem of an interview with Juventus and Italy's legendary goalkeeper, Gigi Buffon.
February 2003 – Midway through the 2002-03 season and Gianluigi Buffon is finding his feet at Juventus after a world record transfer from Parma 18 months before. Football Italia sat down with the then 25-year-old to discuss early inspiration between the sticks, his admiration for his contemporaries, and a telling ambition for more silverware.
The following article was first published in the February 2003 issue of Football Italia magazine.
Gianluigi Buffon, at £32 million, is the world’s most expensive ‘keeper. Renato Sormani takes a look at arguably the best goalkeeper in the world and his Serie A challengers
Ever since his outstanding Serie A debut for Parma at the tender age of 17, football pundits have been revelling in Gianluigi Buffon’s cat-like reflexes. Nicknamed Superman at Parma for his almost superhuman ability to make impossible saves, Buffon continues to shine in Turin where he had a major hand in Juve’s Scudetto triumph last season.
Since making his international debut against Russia aged 19 in October 1997, Buffon has managed to keep Francesco Toldo at bay to maintain his status as Italy’s No 1, despite the Inter ‘keeper’s stunning Euro 2000 campaign. That is an incredible achievement as Buffon believes Toldo is one of the world’s best between the sticks.
“I rate Francesco very highly, even if we are fighting for the same Italy shirt,” says the Azzurri’s current No 1. “And I also like Christian Abbiati. Whether he is in or out of the Milan team, he is always ready to play his part. On the world stage I admire Oliver Kahn. His passion for Bayern Munich and Germany inspires his teammates. He hates to lose and his enthusiasm for the victory is transmitted through the whole team. The one thing about Kahn that stands out above all else is his will to win. If I could steal one of his qualities I think that would have to be that one.
“He is not captain for nothing, which in itself is highly unusual for a ‘keeper in the first place. He has the ability to inspire and motivate the players in front of him and they certainly feel his tongue if he thinks that they are letting the team down. It is something that I focus on when I watch him play.
Kahn for many is the world’s best ‘keeper and Buffon is pretender to his throne. But with time on his side, and having won his first Scudetto last year, the Juve man is now hot on Kahn’s heels. Bayern’s early elimination from this season’s Champions’ League also means that Buffon will be able to showcase his talents to a much larger audience while Kahn will have to watch the tournament from home.
But who initially inspired Buffon? “The first ‘keeper I really took notice of was Cameroon’s Thomas N’Kono during the 1982 World Cup but that was really because of his name. It was in Italia ‘90 that I started to be inspired by his goalkeeping. First off it was his ability but what really made him stand out was his bravery, in particular his diving to make saves. The way he played inspired me to start playing like him. He played how I felt the game should be played.”
Now, apart from Kahn, who else impresses Gianluigi? “That has to be Manchester United’s French international Fabian Barthez. I like his attitude, the touch of madness and his great diving saves. He is not the tallest of players but he seems to fill the goal and that is a fabulous ability to have for any ‘keeper. He is also impressive when he comes out with the ball at his feet. It must worry his manager at times but he rarely loses it. He is a great entertainer and that is what football sometimes forgets it’s supposed to do.”
Having tasted European success with Parma, winning the 1998-99 UEFA Cup, Buffon is ready for more European glory. Juve’s form at home and abroad this season has been impressive and with the Champions’ League their main priority, it is no surprise that Buffon thinks Juve can go all the way. “We’ve produced some good displays and got some important results in Europe this year, notably the 5-0 demolition of Dynamo Kiev in the first round and the 4-0 demolition of Basel.”
With the likes of Lilian Thuram, Edgar Davids, Pavel Nedved, Alex Del Piero and David Trezeguet in front of him, Buffon is justified in feeling confident about his side’s chances. Del Piero’s scintillating form this season has led to praise from all sectors, including the Juve ‘keeper. “Alex is perhaps the most complete striker we have, even if Trezeguet is more feared for his scoring ability.”
While Buffon is enjoying a successful period at club level, life with the Azzurri is somewhat less pleasant. Recent results have jeopardised Italy’s qualification for Euro 2004. The dismal 2-1 defeat at the hands of Wales was merely a continuation of a bad run of results that stretches back to the World Cup which included defeats to Croatia and subsequently South Korea.
“We weren’t lucky. Against South Korea we let in a late goal. A lot has been said about the Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno, but we should have put the game beyond doubt. Having said that, to have a penalty decision given against you after just two minutes doesn’t inspire confidence. But I don’t want to believe that the referee was biased. The main reason I feel regret is because we were so close to winning.”
That loss merely highlights how the Azzurri have been underachieving. A team considered a footballing superpower should not fear any country, but according to Buffon even the likes of Azerbaijan create nerves within the Italy camp, “About a year and a half ago we felt unbeatable. Now the feeling before a game is somewhat more timid. We take a more cautious approach because the results haven’t been coming and doubts start to set in. The fact also that many key players have been absent through injury means the Nazionale hasn’t been able to improve. If a player is injured however, his honesty and professional attitude shouldn’t be questioned. He should be allowed to remain at home.”
After the heartache of Japan and Korea last summer, Gianluigi is desperate to win more trophies. Last Season’s Scudetto triumph has whetted the appetite of Juve’s No 1, who has his sights set firmly on both the Champions’ League and Serie A titles. There is no doubt that Juventus are capable of achieving these targets, which seem all the more attainable with Italy’s finest acting as their last line of defence.
It was in October 1997 that Gianluigi Buffon took over in Italy’s goal from an injured Gianluigi Pagliuca after 33 minutes during a World Cup qualifying game against Russia in Moscow. The game eventually ended 1-1 with Buffon only beaten by a Cannavaro own goal. The plaudits rained on him as heavy as the snow during that dreadfully cold winter’s night.
However, Buffon says that although he felt he played a great game, for him it wasn’t his best. That title is reserved for his Serie A debut for Parma back in November 1995 in the 0-0 draw with Milan at the Tardini Stadium.
“My League debut was my greatest game. To make your debut in Serie A at 17 against Milan, who were all-conquering in those days, was unbelievable. Then to keep a clean sheet was absolutely fabulous for me. I could have never have dreamt of such a debut. The next day my name was all over the papers and if I am honest it went a little bit to my head.
“But at Parma you soon learned to keep your feet on the ground. And sure enough the manager soon brought me down to earth, but it was a day I will never forget. I was happy for myself, my teammates but most of all for my manager Nevio Scala for putting his faith in me.”
When he is at the top of his game, Juve’s Gianluigi Buffon is considered one of the best two or three keepers in the world. Yet, for all his skill as a keeper the young Gianluigi started out life as a striker. “I use to play in another position up front as a striker and scored a lot of goals. One year when I was fourteen I tried to play as a goalkeeper. I really did not want to change my position but it seems my destiny was meant to be that way.”
He was certainly tall enough to be a ‘keeper even then and over the last few years he has turned from an awkwardly shaped teenager into an excellent, physical example of a top athlete. The 25-year-old is the ideal build for a ‘keeper and he uses his physique expertly in the rugby scrum that is a part of today’s game at corners or free kicks. He is excellent at judging when it is best to just stay on his line or to come out and take a cross, handling anything thrown at him.
Of course, some strikers don’t need to challenge ‘keepers in the area. Newcomers to Serie A like Rivaldo and Jon Dahl Tomasson are more than equipped to fire in cannonball shots from distance. How does Gianluigi view these? “I am frightened of anything new, but if a ‘keeper can find the way a striker plays he can find a way to stop him. But it also works the other way around. In any case, I am glad Rivaldo is here. I would like to see him protected. He needs to survive because he is an entertainer. Fans love players like him.”
Another striker Buffon admires is Inter’s Hernan Crespo and after playing against both the Argentinian hitman and Ronaldo, whom does he see as the best? “I have played with Hernan at Parma and as a bomber I feel Hernan is better. With him you are guaranteed at least 20 goals a season. What’s more he is always on hand to help the team out in other ways. I think that Crespo is more useful all round than Ronaldo and that Inter are a better team now with him.”
Buffon naturally get to see the League’s best strikers close up so who does he think is the best? “That is a hard question because there are several who come to mind. At Juve we have Del Piero, Trezeguet and Di Vaio, who will score us lots of goals hopefully. He is speedy and plays deep which can confuse opponents. Del Piero has started off the season in excellent form and is the most complete player. Trezeguet mixes technical skill and scoring instinct, so from a goalkeeper’s point of view he is the one to fear most. All I can say is that I am glad he is on our side. Milan’s Inzaghi cannot be forgotten either. He is the ultimate predator and inspires the fans with his goals.”