There’s no question that Gianluigi Buffon is one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, but Gaby McKay weighs up whether he’s the best ever.
When asked if he was the greatest ever to play the sport, the American golfer Tiger Woods was fond of saying that his ambition had only ever been to be part of the conversation.
When it comes to the game of football's goalkeepers, there can be no question that Gianluigi Buffon is part of that conversation. There are few who would argue that he’s one of the greatest exponents of his role, a living legend. But is he the best ever to pull on the gloves? Is he, to use a phrase borrowed from hip-hop, the GOAT - the Greatest Of All Time?
In a team sport like football, talking about the greatest of all time is something of a fool’s errand. How can one compare across positions, across eras? Many would say the competition for the greatest ever player comes down to Lionel Messi, Pelé and Diego Maradona. Does that then mean that Messi is a better player than Paolo Maldini, or Franz Beckenbauer? That is, of course, a ridiculous comparison.
Similarly, Messi may be the best forward of the past decade and more, but how would he have coped could defenders still get away with kicking him from pillar to post, as happened with Pelé at the 1966 World Cup. On the flip side, could Maradona, with his less than professional off the pitch lifestyle, still be as effective in the modern, more athletic game?
The equation becomes slightly easier when comparing goalkeepers, as the role is such a specialised position, but even between the sticks the game has changed immeasurably. Today’s ‘keepers may not have to contend with strikers barging them roughly into the back of their own net and being awarded a goal, but similarly the greats of the past weren’t expected to be as good with their feet as with their hands.
A good starting point when considering Buffon’s GOAT status might be to compare him to the other greats of his era. That’s not as easy as it sounds, when one considers Gigi’s contemporaries stretch from Oliver Kahn and Peter Schmeichel, through Petr Cech and Iker Casillas, before arriving at Thibaut Courtois, David de Gea and Manuel Neuer.
That in itself though gives credence to the argument that Buffon is the best of his era. It could be argued he’s not the best in the world right now. A contrarian could even state that he’s never been the absolute best in his role. But throughout his career - over 20 years, lest we forget - it’s impossible to argue that the Juventus captain hasn’t been in the top five worldwide: part of the conversation.
Kahn and Schmeichel have retired, Cech and Casillas have declined, yet the man they call Superman is still defying expectations.
As a result we must consider Gigi not in terms of his era, but across time. The comparison to be made is with Dino Zoff, Gordon Banks, Lev Yashin and Schmeichel.
Yashin is seen as the first of the superstar goalkeepers, and according to FIFA he saved over 150 penalties during his career, keeping 270 clean sheets. Yet he made several high-profile mistakes in the 1962 World Cup, with French sports newspaper L’Équipe even declaring it the end of his career.
Buffon has had blips too, of course, but has he ever let Italy down on the biggest stage? Yashin also spent his whole career behind the Iron Curtain, meaning - perhaps unfairly - it’s difficult for westerners to truly judge the span of his club career. Buffon’s entire career has been under the spotlight, ever since his clean sheet debut against Milan.
Banks, considered England’s greatest ever goalkeeper, can perhaps lay claim to the greatest save of all time, somehow turning Pelé’s header over the crossbar in the 1970 World Cup. At club level though Banks never played for one of the nation’s top sides, winning just two League Cups, and he wound down his career at Cleveland Stokers, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and St Patrick's Athletic. Buffon has been at the top of European football since 1995.
If we could perhaps be churlish for a moment too, watch that Pelé save again. It’s a great save, of that there is no question. But is it really better than Gigi’s against Paraguay? His save from Inzaghi in the Champions League Final? The reaction stop against Germany at Euro 2016?
Schmeichel’s five Premier League titles and impossible saves certainly put him in the frame, and his Euro 1992 triumph with Denmark could be considered more impressive than a World Cup win with Italy, one of world football’s superpowers.
It’s worth remembering though that his greatest club successes all came with Manchester United. His peak, therefore, spanned eight seasons. That peak was a dizzying one, but he simply didn’t have the longevity of Buffon.
That leaves us then, with the man to whom Buffon is so often compared: Dino Zoff. Indeed, Gigi had hoped to emulate the great man by playing his last World Cup at the age of 40. His Azzurri didn’t qualify for Russia 2018 though, while Zoff lifted the World Cup in 1982.
His longevity too was impressive, winning the European Championships in 1968 before triumphing on the world stage 14 years later.
It could be argued though that he should have called it quits after the World Cup win, as his final season saw a slip from his own very high standards. If Zoff had a weakness it was dealing with long shots, and the final match of his career saw him beaten by a long-range strike by Felix Magath as Juventus lost the European Cup final to Hamburg. It was not a fitting end to his glorious career.
In the end the argument is subjective. There’s no real metric for deciding who the best of all time is. Club loyalty, national loyalty and childhood memories will inevitably colour anyone’s decision.
For his ability, his longevity, and his consistency though there’s no question he’s part of the conversation, and for this writer at least Buffon has the best claim of any goalkeeper to being the GOAT.