It’s strange to think that one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time grew up playing as a midfielder in his youth, controlling the flow of the game from the centre of the pitch and even scoring goals. Yet that is how Italy’s indomitable Gianluigi Buffon began his life as a footballer, in the picturesque Tuscan town of Carrera.
Under the shadow of the Apuan Alps and between the red-tiled stone buildings that make up the Roman quarry town, Buffon made his early forays into the sport that he would eventually leave a historic mark on. What shapes almost all of the greatest sportspeople in world is their upbringing, and it’s clear to see that as a child, Buffon had a considerable advantage over his friends and competitors. The son of athletes himself, his mother Maria being a record-breaking discus thrower and his father Adriano a weightlifter, Buffon’s strength and sporting prowess seems to be hereditary traits. It’s worth noting that his sisters Guendalina and Veronica represented Italy playing volleyball, his uncle Dante was a basketball player and his cousin Lorenzo was a goalkeeper too, playing for the Internazionale, AC Milan and the Azzurri himself. If anyone had the setup to go on to a career in sport, it was a young ‘Gigi’ Buffon.
Perhaps it’s something in the water in Tuscany; after all, some of Italy’s finest modern players come from the Northern region. In fact, Buffon’s Juventus teammates Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, with whom he has won so many trophies with, both hail from Pisa and Fiesola respectively.
In the infancy of his footballing career, Buffon played his first game at the San Siro during a junior competition for Italian players from Tuscany and Veneto. What makes this appearance at one of Italy’s most historic stadiums different from any of Buffon’s other appearances there, is not just that it was his first, but that he played as a midfielder in that game. Something that is unlikely to ever happen again.
Since making his debut for Parma in 1995 at just 17 years of age, when he was given the nod by Nevio Scala in a game against Milan, Buffon has gone on to make 999 appearances for club and country stretching over the course of a 22 year career. Interestingly enough, that game ended 0-0, with Buffon being forced into making saves from Roberto Baggio and George Weah. A baptism of fire if there ever was one, the young Buffon dealt with the two Ballon d’Or winners handily.
Buffon’s Azzurri debut came just two years later, in the freezing cold of Moscow, Russia, with the legendary Cesare Maldini handing him his first of – so far – 167 caps. Still in his teens, Buffon came on as a substitute for the injured Gianluca Pagliuca and helped Maldini’s side to a valuable 1-1 draw away from home. The solitary goal that did beat Buffon that day didn’t come from the head or boot of a Russian, but ironically from a young Fabio Cannavaro. Grainy footage of that goal remains, showing the unfortunate nature of that goal all these years later.
Out of all of Buffon’s international appearances, none will be fonder than those from the 2006 World Cup. Although there were concerns that his participation in the tournament would be in jeopardy, following the infamous Calciopoli scandal, Buffon was eventually named as the Azzurri’s No.1 and played a colossal role in helping to secure the country’s fourth title. 11 years removed from that memorable night in Berlin, Buffon is defying all common logic, still standing between the sticks for Italy at the age of 39. By all means, Buffon is a geriatric in footballing terms, with many of the modern game’s stars yet to have been born, let alone have kicked a ball, when Buffon first made his debut.
One of those players is the man who many expect to take up the reigns when Buffon eventually does call it a day, which is expected to be after the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The expected heir to the throne is Milan’s 18-year-old star Gianluigi Donnarumma, who not only shares the same first name as Buffon, but also the important ability of having the capacity to pull off incredible saves on a regular basis.
There are many similarities between the careers of the two men, with Donnarumma having broken Buffon’s longstanding record when he made his Azzurri debut at the age of 17 years and 189 days old against France. This made him both the youngest goalkeeper to feature for Italy in the post-war era and the youngest player to ever don the famous blue for the senior team.
On Friday, Italy face Albania in a World Cup qualifier, and whilst the game may end up being just another routine match, it has more significance than first meets the eye. The game will be Buffon’s 1000th, which almost goes without saying, is a colossal achievement for any footballer.
Over the course of his career, Buffon has accomplished more than any player could ever dream to. One World Cup, seven Serie A titles and a string of cups sit in his trophy cabinet, along with a litany of individual honours that not even he could likely recount from memory. Although not having a Champions League winner’s medal to his name, with the ageless Gigi Buffon, you can never say never to the possibility of him adding that too to his already vast collection.