Gianluigi Buffon made his national team debut as a 19-year-old in October 1997, Oscar La-Gambina takes a look through the legendary goalkeepers international career to date.
The date: October 29 1997. The occasion: Russia v Italy, 1998 FIFA World Cup qualification play-off.
It was 0-0 and with 30 minutes on the clock when first choice goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca picked up an injury which meant he was unable to continue. Italy coach Cesare Maldini made his move, calling upon the lesser-known 19-year-old to try and retain Italy’s hopes of qualification.
The Azzurri took the lead after 50 minutes through Christian Vieri, a goal which ultimately took them through to the following summer’s tournament in France. Pierluigi Casiraghi scored the only goal in the return leg at the San Paolo in Naples to secure a 2-1 aggregate victory for Italy.
That game will always be remembered, though, as the start of Gianluigi Buffon’s glittering international career.
The 37-year-old has represented Italy at all age levels, from Under-15 to Under-23, and first came on the radar of football viewers at the 1993 Euro Under-16 Championship, saving three penalties in the semi-final shootout.
Three years later, he was part of the Euro Under-21 Championship winning side, and only a year after that, he made his first senior appearance for the Azzurri.
In the fixture against the Russians, Buffon made several noteworthy saves, and one will never know if Pagliuca would have matched his performance.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep a clean sheet on his debut, but he has a Fabio Cannavaro own goal to blame for that, so it was a relatively successful start.
The 1-1 draw meant Italy would go on to qualify and Buffon, as reward, was named in the squad for the tournament as third choice goalkeeper following an injury to Angelo Peruzzi.
They ultimately got knocked out by hosts and eventual winners France on penalties at the quarter-final stage. Despite not playing a game at the tournament, it was a fantastic experience for the then 20-year-old to be part of.
He was destined to make his first major tournament appearance two years later at the Euro 2000 Championships in Belgium and the Netherlands, but tragedy struck as he broke his hand during a friendly in the lead up to the competition, ruling him out of the competition.
Then it was the turn of the 2002 World Cup, a tournament which Italy and other countries alike have relatively bad memories of.
Despite all the controversy surrounding the 31 days in South Korea and Japan, Buffon played every minute of the Azzurri’s campaign which came to a bitter, and notably unfair end in the round of 16 against co-hosts South Korea.
Two years later, the rest of the squad let Buffon down when they were knocked out of Euro 2004 after failing to qualify from a group containing Sweden, Denmark and Bulgaria.
He had played well when he got the chance and new coach Marcello Lippi saw this, giving him his first proper, clear chance at showing the world what he was capable of.
At 28-years-old, the Italian was at the peak of his career when the 2006 World Cup in Germany came around.
Buffon is a man of many records; he has the highest number of clean sheets with the Azzurri ever and also holds the record for the most appearances for Italy with 152.
During the tournament in Germany, he conceded just two goals in the seven games they played, another record. What makes that fact better is that one was a Christian Zaccardo own goal, and the other was a Zinedine Zidane penalty.
Post match comments from the pundits on July 9 2006 focused on the dismissal of Zidane in the final and there was little of the excellent form of Italy’s goalkeeper.
The captain was arguably the Azzurri’s driving force and the man who made sure all of the squad’s excellence came together to win the title.
“It is a childhood dream come true,” Buffon said after lifting the trophy.
“We managed it through unity and teamwork, mixed in with some individual talent.”
It isn’t certain who he was insinuating brought the individual spark, but any football fan will acknowledge that he has a strong case for picking up the award himself.
One shining moment to argue this was in 104th minute of the final. A Zidane header looked certain to be the winning goal but a remarkable, athletic save from Buffon kept it out.
Since 2006, Italian football has had less success on the international stage, crashing out in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals and the abysmal World Cup campaigns of 2010 and 2014, well, let’s not mention them.
Buffon was named in the Teams of the Tournament in the 2008 and 2012 Euros, though, and also broke the record for the longest time without conceding in qualifying, a total of 644 minutes, along with being given the 2013 Pallone Azzurro award for the best Italian player of the year.
Italy have had a rollercoaster of a history on the international stage, but Buffon’s performances don’t follow a similar pattern.
Eighteen years on, and he remains one of the greatest football players of all time.