“I think I managed a few good saves. I’m not a world-beater, but I can do my bit.”
This was the verdict a 17-year-old Gianluigi Buffon delivered after keeping a clean sheet on his debut for Parma against a Milan side bristling with some of the world’s finest attacking talent of the day.
More than 25 years on and a sizeable chunk of that appraisal can be applied after the 42-year-old left arguably the greatest player of the modern era similarly frustrated.
Juventus’ 3-0 Champions League triumph over Barcelona on Tuesday night was inevitably dominated by the headline face-off between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet, while the Portuguese forward went about settling his own narrative with a brace from 12 yards, Messi and Buffon enjoyed their own duel at the other end.
Over the course of 90 minutes, Barcelona mustered seven shots on target. All seven taken by Messi. All seven saved by Buffon.
While the romance of Buffon’s renaissance may exaggerate the difficulty of what were roundly routine stops, that Andrea Pirlo even trusts his former teammate in a game which decides the group’s winner speaks to the goalkeeper’s continued excellence.
After the match, Pirlo was quick to defend his decision and the man he sat next to in Juve’s dressing room for four years, telling reporters as quoted by l’Equipe: “There are always people who criticise Buffon…it seems they haven’t seen all the stops he’s made for so many years. He doesn’t play because he’s my friend, he plays because he’s a monument of world football, he has proven it and continues to prove it in matches like tonight [Tuesday].”
In a career spanning four decades among the continental elite, Buffon hasn’t always enjoyed a performance as faultless as Tuesday’s. When Bayern Munich’s David Alaba snuck a long-range effort past the great man, Franz Beckenbauer snidely quipped that he had ‘gone down like a pensioner’.
That was seven years ago, back in 2013.
Buffon, ever the classy operator, delivered a cutting retort by appearing on satirical Italian TV show Striscia la Notizia to receive a blanket, dressing gown and a pair of slippers. To compound Beckenbauer’s hasty criticism further, Buffon has kept 23 Champions League clean sheets since that ill-advised barb.
In fact, as Richard Jolly pointed out, Buffon has become the first goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s.
As Juventus sank into a defensive shape with the resilience of teams gone by in the closing stages against Barcelona, the man in goal for those past sides was the one whose booming voice directed the present iteration of the Bianconeri. Following the full-time whistle, Buffon – presumably at a lower decibel – explained to Juve’s official website his role in the win and the club: “Today we won as a team and when I say team I mean 30 people.
“I am here available to everyone, I still have dreams and ambitions, but I like to be a support for all the guys, which I really want to thank. First of all Tek [first choice goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny], and then all the staff.”
Selflessly shifting the spotlight onto others is nothing new for the man dubbed ‘the Maradona of goalkeepers’. When Buffon broke Sebastiano Rossi’s record for the longest run without conceding in Serie A back in March 2016, he took the time to thank each and everyone of his teammates (via Facebook) for the part they played, giving each member of the squad a line of personalised praise.
A quarter of a century later and the teenage Buffon’s analysis of his debut holds up well, to a point. Against Barcelona and throughout his entire career it’s fair to say Buffon has ‘managed a few good saves’ and certainly done his bit. However, he did get one thing emphatically wrong: Buffon has and will always be ‘a world-beater’.