Gianluigi Buffon

Il Gigi Nazionale

Gianluigi Buffon represented Italy for over 20 years and won the World Cup, but was denied the fairy-tale ending he deserved, writes Susy Campanale.

There is no more iconic player in Italian football over the last two decades that Gianluigi Buffon. Francesco Totti played a part in the 2006 World Cup triumph, but reserved his best performances for the Roma jersey and retired from international football early due to injury problems. Buffon smashed records with 175 senior caps and was all set to hang up his gloves aged 40 as the first man ever to participate in six World Cup tournaments. That was the fairy-tale ending he and all of us were denied.

The comparisons were always with Dino Zoff, who until Buffon came along was the greatest goalkeeper Italy had ever produced. Zoff kept playing until he was 40 years old and ended his career by lifting the 1982 World Cup as captain. The stage was set, but the Nazionale let him down by failing to qualify.

It is to his immense credit that at the final whistle of that play-off with Sweden, Buffon went to speak to the television cameras, when it was supposed to be Giampiero Ventura. The Coach who refused to resign had also shirked the duty of explaining this debacle to the Italian people. Buffon shed tears that moved everyone, but they were not for his own records or career, rather regret that a generation of kids wouldn’t see their Nazionale play in a World Cup. This is what a leader looks like. This is how a man behaves.

I am old enough to remember Buffon’s Italy debut in Russia that snowy night on October 29, 1997. Gianluca Pagliuca went off injured and the 19-year-old kid who impressed at Parma came on wearing short sleeves. We were, we naturally assumed, completely doomed. Within five minutes, he performed a stunning save and that 1-1 draw helped them reach the 1998 World Cup.

Buffon’s international career really began, fittingly enough, under Coach Zoff’s reign. It takes a legend to spot another in the making and Zoff handed 20-year-old Gigi the gloves. Fate, as always, had other ideas and an injury ruled him out of that Euro 2000 tournament.

It was another mentor, ex-Juventus tactician Marcello Lippi, who was at the helm for the 2006 World Cup. It’s easy to forget just how many nerve-wracking moments got us to that penalty shoot-out in Berlin and how decisive Buffon proved to be. No opponent put a goal past him from open play in the entire competition, beaten only by a Cristian Zaccardo own goal for the United States and a Zinedine Zidane penalty in the Final. He confessed the acrobatic fingertip save on Zidane’s header in extra time was “the most important of my career.”

Fabio Cannavaro won the Ballon d’Or that year, but Buffon came second and will always be remembered as one of the greatest to have never earned that trophy. He’s in good company, of course, while he has the advantage over Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini of winning the World Cup.

There is to be no swansong in Russia, no final flourish, no sixth tournament, as Il Gigi Nazionale ended his Italy career in tears at San Siro. He’ll always be a legend of this sport, let alone Italian football, and nobody can ever take that away from him. I can think of no better man to hold up proudly as a representative of my country.