Is Gianluigi Buffon The Greatest Goalkeeper Of All Time?
The man born in North-western Tuscany has been the cornerstone for both club and country for more than fifteen years, commanding admiration from players across the world for his leadership, shot stopping ability and for winning nearly every major trophy available in the game.
The Carrara native has long been viewed as the greatest custodian in Juve and the Azzurri’s long and illustrious histories. The question now has to be asked; is Gigi Buffon the greatest goalkeeper in the history of the game?
One would think that a goalkeeper as brilliant as Buffon would have always been in goal, but with him this isn’t the case, he didn’t grow up wanting to be a goalkeeper, he was a striker up to the age of thirteen. As the man himself explains it ‘’ One day I was asked to go in goal and fortunately it worked out well. Four years later I was playing in Serie A’’.
He made his Serie A debut at the tender age of 17 for Parma against Milan in November 1995, the young Buffon kept a clean sheet at the Stadio Ennio Tardini against a Rossoneri side that contained George Weah, Roberto Baggio and Dejan Savicevic in attack (no small feat). His performance had been so good that everyone in Italy had no choice but to sit up and take notice.
The Parma side of the mid to late 90s is nothing like todays counterparts; they had a team bursting with talent coinciding with the emergence of Buffon. Players like Lillian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro, Nestor Sensini, Dino Baggio, Juan Veron, Enrico Chiesa and Hernan Crespo all helped Parma to reach heights that they have never reached since.
The Emilia Romagna side would finish 2nd in Serie A in 1996-97, play in the Champions League in 1997-98 season and the following season would win a cup double in the UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia, it was a golden era for the Gialloblu.
So what has made Buffon such an exceptional goalkeeper all these years? His most stunning trait is his shot stopping ability, when being shot at from distance or when being faced one on one, he is outstanding at saving the ball, a prime example of this was last season vs. Inter at Juventus stadium, in the first half Inter were by far the better team, and bombarded shots at Buffon’s goal, he made five or six stupendous saves to keep La Vecchia Signora in the game.
Juventus eventually gained their composure and won the game, the score? 2 – 0. After the game, the Italian media were gushing over Buffon’s heroic performance, but with his typical elegance and honesty, Buffon was on hand to put things into perspective ‘’ I didn’t do anything extraordinary, I just did my job, which I’m paid a lot of money to do, if it wasn’t me doing this it would be someone else’’.
The making of a world class goalkeeper is the ability to command his area and his defence, there has been many goalkeepers in the past, while brilliant at shot stopping, lacked a voice and were often afraid to marshal their defence into a cohesive unit. Fortunately Buffon has no such trouble, he is not the kind of character to shout incessantly at his defenders like some keepers do, but when he does make himself heard, the players in front of him listen, he commands that much respect at this stage of his career at times all he has to do is give a look or point and Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci understand him. When it comes to controlling his area, he is one of the very best.
Over the last ten years there have been many contenders to San Gigi’s throne, such as Petr Cech, Edwin Van der Sar, Francesco Toldo, Julio Cesar and Nelson Dida, but they for one reason or another were never consistent, they became error prone over time and were never to be truly considered at Buffon’s level.
This is the true measure of just how great Gianluigi is, it’s fine to be considered world class for a few seasons, but to be the best in your position year after year for ten plus years takes something truly special and a kind of phenomenon that doesn’t come around very often.
Indeed the only goalkeeper that you could rationally say that came close to matching Buffon’s level of consistency over the years was the legendary Oliver Kahn, but his major blunder in the 2002 World Cup Final where he spilled a shot from Rivaldo into the feet of Ronaldo to score will always blight his otherwise immaculate CV.
There is one moment however that defined Buffon both as a person and as a footballer, in the summer of 2006 Juventus were demoted in what became known as ‘Calciopoli’ (which I won’t go into in any great detail as it would open up a massive can of worms), most of the players on the books of the Bianconeri couldn’t leave the sinking ship fast enough.
Fresh from winning the World Cup in Germany that summer and solidifying his status as the world’s best goalkeeper, most people in the game thought Gianluigi would also leave the revolving door at the club. He could (and still can today) practically pick any team on the planet and would walk straight in as their number one, but astonishingly, against all odds, he stayed. As he states himself ‘’ Probably it wasn’t the normal thing to do but in the end it was a simple choice for me. If Juve had to go down to B then I had to go with them. I didn’t really need to think about it. Juve helped me become a world champion and therefore I owed them a huge debt.’’
This show of loyalty, not just in the modern game of football, but in modern society in general, where loyalty and honour can occasionally be in very short supply, was so refreshing to see and reminded us of the all too forgotten romantic side of the beautiful game. His actions that summer endeared him even more to the Juventus tifosi and cemented his legacy with the club. He was rewarded for his loyalty in the 2011/12 season when the club finally reclaimed the Scudetto after six barren years and many false starts, going the whole season unbeaten and only conceding 20 goals in 38 games, the best record in the five major leagues in Europe. Since winning the title he has taken over the captaincy from the departed Alessandro Del Piero.
In terms of where Buffon stands in the pantheon of goalkeeping greats, in my view he has overtaken other challengers like Zoff, Kahn, Maier, Schmeichel, Banks and so on. His trophy cabinet, combined with his long standing consistency of goalkeeping excellence means that there is only really one person standing in the way of him becoming the greatest in the history of the beautiful game, and that is ‘The Black Spider’, otherwise known as Lev Yashin.
Yashin was named the greatest goalkeeper of the 20th century by FIFA in 2000 and is also the only keeper to ever win the Ballon d’Or, in 1963. In fact the only other goalkeepers to ever make it into the top three in its history were Buffon and fellow Italian Dino Zoff (both Gigi and Zoff came 2nd, in 2006 and 1973 respectively). Yashin is still generally regarded as the benchmark for any young goalkeeper to aspire to.
The advantage Buffon currently has over Yashin is that he has a few more years to surpass the Dynamo Kiev legend, had Italy won the Euros in the summer he surely would have surpassed him as the greatest, but only aged thirty four and with his Juventus side looking likely to dominate Italy and to make a big push to win the Champions League over the next few years, Gianluigi Buffon might just take that major final hurdle to become the finest shot stopper of them all.