Giancarlo Rinaldi looks back on Buffon’s debuts for both Italy and Parma.
When I was 17, I left my little Scottish hometown to head to university in the capital. It seemed like the most scary prospect on the planet to leave behind all the comforts I knew and make my first real steps towards adulthood. At exactly the same age, Gianluigi Buffon was putting on his gloves to face arguably the best club side in the world.
Think about that for a moment, before we go any further. What were you doing - or what do you hope to be doing - at that stage of your life? Fending off the attacking power of three legends of football like Roberto Baggio, Zvoni Boban and George Weah is unlikely to be the answer. Our man did it like he had been born to do so.
In fairness, that is what he had been training to do but, nonetheless, to find someone so cool and so ready at that age was clearly something exceptional. Hindsight allows us to give extra significance to that Sunday in Parma more than 20 years ago but even at the time the boy seemed a bit special. Nobody could have predicted quite the career he would have, but few would have doubted he would feature large in the story of the Italian game for some time to come.
He had only found out a day earlier that he would make his debut on that November day in 1995 at the Stadio Ennio Tardini as a stand-in for Luca Bucci. It came down to a choice between him and the much more experienced Alessandro Nista once, briefly, of Leeds United. Wily old coach Nevio Scala clearly never had many doubts about which way to go and he was rewarded with a 0-0 draw against a side that would canter to the Scudetto. The papers were unanimous in their praise “Buffon, 7.5 out of 10,” reckoned La Repubblica. “Important saves, particularly from Baggio and Marco Simone. Also very quick off his line against Stefano Eranio and Weah.”
“I was a bit emotional but my strength is my calmness,” admitted the teenager. “If Scala had told me sooner, I would have taken more time to savour it. I pretended it was a Primavera game, I didn't realise how important it was. I think I managed a few good saves. I'm not a world-beater, but I can do my bit.”
That last line, to say the least, has a ring of untruth about it now. With a stack of trophies, great performances and records to his name, the man from Carrara is a monument of the game. But neither he, nor we, could know it back then.
By the time his full international debut came round about a couple of years later, everyone was much more aware of the scale of the talent we were dealing with. Nonetheless, it was another real sink-or-swim affair where his skills were put to the test with even less warning than Scala afforded him. He was part of the squad for a crucial World Cup qualifying play-off with Russia in Moscow in October 1997 but was only on the bench until fate intervened.
Injury to Gianluca Pagliuca - following a clash with Fiorentina’s Andrei Kanchelskis - saw him don the gloves with little over half an hour on the clock. In horrendous conditions - a heavy pitch and falling snow - he helped steer the Azzurri to a precious 1-1 draw that would effectively seal their qualification. Only an own goal from Fabio Cannavaro denied him a clean sheet this time around.
“Buffon, 7/10,” said the papers. “He came into this cold, in every sense, but by now we know that despite his youth he doesn’t lose his head easily. He adapted to his role straight away and he was decisive towards the end of the first half with a great leap to deny Alenichev.”
Some suggested fate had smiled on him again with injury providing him with an opportunity to play. He responded with what we would become used to as his typical frankness. “Am I lucky?” he asked. “Maybe up to a point. Good luck helps, of course, but it’s up to me to go out on the pitch.”
He has been doing that very thing now for Parma, Juventus and Italy for more than two decades and both clubs and his country will be eternally grateful. Even in the trophy-laden history of those sides, nobody could deny he has been something special. He deserves all the plaudits he gets for such a glorious career. And our praise can only be increased by the thought that his amazing story started at a stage of life when most of us were just worrying about leaving school.