Gianluigi Buffon played a crucial role as Italy won the World Cup in 2006, playing in every match and conceding just two goals. Gaby McKay recalls his tournament.
Willy Sagnol received the ball on the right wing. With the World Cup final in extra-time, both Italy and France were tiring, and gaps were beginning to appear.
Finding himself in space, the Bayern Munich right-back glanced toward the penalty area. The Italian defence, so imperious throughout the tournament had made a rare mistake. Zinedine Zidane, he of the headed brace in the 1998 final was in space around 10 yards out.
Sagnol sent in a perfect cross for the Real Madrid superstar, who twisted his neck and sent a header powering toward the Italian goal. The winner, surely.
No. Gianluigi Buffon, the Azzurri goalkeeper who had conceded just two goals all tournament - one of which came from Zizou via the penalty spot in that very final - thrust out a right hand and clawed the header over the bar. Zidane’s second most important headed contribution to the match ended in a corner, rather than what would surely have been the goal to win the World Cup.
Buffon later named that save as the most important of his career - not the best, but the one with the most significance.
In truth the goalkeeper had been imperious throughout the tournament, winning the Yashin Award given to the best shot-stopper at the World Cup.
He had been beaten only once heading into the final, Christian Zaccardo slicing an attempted clearance into his own net as the ‘keeper watched helplessly on.
Playing behind Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta - later Marco Materazzi after Nesta picked up an injury - helps, but Buffon was truly at the peak of his powers, at just the right time for his country.
He had pulled off several fine saves at 0-0 in the final group game against the Czech Republic, denying Juve teammate Pavel Nedved on several occasions. A loss would have seen Italy eliminated, and the Czechs were then regarded as one of the best teams in the world. Materazzi and Pippo Inzaghi scored in a 2-0 win, but Buffon was just as important.
The Last 16 win over Australia brought Gigi little to do, and while he almost knocked himself out against the upright in the 3-0 win over Ukraine in the semi-final it was another comfortable evening.
If the semi-final against Germany is regarded as one of the greatest matches of the era, despite being 0-0 for 118 minutes, the two goalkeepers can take credit for part of that. Jens Lehmann was excellent for the hosts, while Buffon was sharp of his line to deny Miroslav Klose.
He made an even better save in extra-time. Lukas Podolski picked the ball up on the left-hand side of the box and fired a powerful effort goalward, but the Juventus goalkeeper was equal to it, pushing it powerfully over the bar with just a split second to react. Less than 10 minutes later, Fabio Grosso then Alessandro Del Piero sent the Azzurri to Berlin.
While a cheeky chipped penalty by Zidane denied Buffon another clean sheet in the final, the French superstar couldn’t keep such a cool head in extra-time - mainly because it was buried in Materazzi’s chest.
Following a 1-1 draw the final went to penalties. Andrea Pirlo, Sylvain Wiltord and Materazzi all scored from the spot, before Buffon’s teammate David Trezeguet stepped up.
“You know him,” Sky commentator Fabio Caressa implored the goalkeeper, who must have faced Trezegol’s spot kicks hundreds of times in training.
Was that on the Frenchman’s mind? We’ll never know, but even though he sent Buffon the wrong way his penalty crashed off the underside of the bar and bounced back out. “No goal!” cried Caressa, becoming ever more hysterical.
Daniele De Rossi, Del Piero and Fabio Grosso did what Trezeguet could not, and Italy won the World Cup for the first time since 1982.
Buffon’s efforts saw him finish second in the Ballon d’Or voting for 2006, behind only teammate Fabio Cannavaro, but he already had the real prize.
He may not get to end his career at the World Cup as planned, but Buffon had already earned national hero status 12 years earlier, the moment he clawed that Zidane effort from under his crossbar.