Twenty years ago, the face of football changed forever. Parma, faced with an injury crisis and about to take on powerhouse and eventual champions AC Milan, were forced to call upon an untested 17-year old goalkeeper who, only a few short years previously had thought himself a midfielder and had fallen asleep on the bus to the game. He would go on to keep a spectacular clean sheet, denying Marco Simone, George Weah and even Roberto Baggio to earn his side a point. Gianluigi Buffon has never looked back, and has cemented his place as undoubtedly the best goalkeeper of the last two decades.
To say he was confident is an understatement. James Horncastle has related how, upon hearing in his mid-teens that he would be a Serie A starter by the age of 20, he asked what he was supposed to do until then. Superman had dropped to Earth, and earned the first of his 154 caps only a year later. During his first full season he conceded just 17 goals. By 1998 he had earned his DC-inspired moniker, and celebrated saving a Ronaldo penalty (the Brazilian one, when he was the best player in the world) by revealing to his adoring fans a Superman shirt beneath his garish 90s goalkeeping jersey.
1999 saw Buffon win the first of his European trophies, a UEFA Cup, as well as being named Serie A goalkeeper of the year for the first time – he won Champions League Best Goalkeeper as recently as last season, which says something of his longevity – but the Parma fairytale was destined for disappointment. As finances floundered, Buffon joined the exodus, in his case to Juventus for a still world-record £35m. Not even Manuel Neuer, a decade later, has commanded such a fee. And so, in 2001, he replaced Edwin van der Sar at the Old Lady and nobody has come close to ousting him from the no. 1 shirt.
It took just one season at Juventus for Buffon to achieve his dream of winning the Scudetto, something he has gone on to do 6 times (though the taint of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal was in the middle of that). Though the Calciopolo scandal implicated him, and he was one of the few to stay with Juventus as the were punished with relegation, he was named as Italy’s no. 1 for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. If his loyalty to Juventus has endeared him to the fans in Turin, his repeated superb displays as the Azzuri lifted their fourth World Cup title endeared him to the nation. He would follow that up by winning Serie B at a canter, even with a hefty points deduction.
It has been well noted that Italian football has spent the last decade in decline, but even with the rise of Neuer and the consistency of Casillas, Buffon has retained his place in the high regard of everyone who sees him play. When Antonio Conte was appointed Juventus manager in 2011, his extreme patience over the previous decade (at least at club level) was rewarded and he guided his side to four-straight Scudetto – one more to equal the record. All he is lacking is a Champions League medal, having lost the final last season, but his performances at Europe’s top table this season have reminded us all that the 37-year old has all the agility and reaction speed of his 17-year old self, with the experience of two decades first-team football. There are calls that another Gianluigi, Milan’s Donarumma, could be set to seize his torch, but when the two met last night it was the veteran who came out on top, keeping Juve’s slim Scudetto hopes alive.
We celebrate his 20-years service, and look toward a future without him, but with added competition at home, Superman may well be entering the best period of his career. And no kryptonite in sight.