Considered one of the greatest goalkeepers Italy has ever produced, Gianluigi Buffon’s professional debut at 17 years old has become the stuff of legend. While serving as backup goalie for Parma in 1995, he was called up by then-manager Nevio Scala to replace starter Luca Bucci in a game against AC Milan. The match ended in a scoreless draw, with Buffon stopping attempts from Ballon d’Or winners Roberto Baggio and George Weah.
The keeper’s flawless performance against Milan (who would go on to win the Serie A title that year) left an impression on Italian soccer fans. Even Dino Zoff – the famed goalie for the Italian 1982 World Cup team – praised the young man after the match, saying he had “never seen a debut like Buffon’s for the personality and quality he showed.”
Carmine Isacco, master coach at York University and technical director of Vaughan Soccer Club in the Greater Toronto Area, remembers watching Buffon train at the Nottawasaga Inn Resort in Alliston, Ontario the summer prior, when Parma came to Toronto to play exhibition matches. “The great thing about Buffon is that he started so young that everything he did was instinctual,” says Isacco, who played goalkeeper himself at the university and professional level. “A lot of people mimic the way he moves, the way he shot-stops and his footwork.”
By the 1996-97 season, Buffon was permanently named the starting goalkeeper for Parma. He went on to win the Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup with the Emilian side in 1999.
In 2001, he joined Juventus for 52 million euros, making him the highest paid goalkeeper at the time. In total, he won 10 Serie A titles with the Bianconeri, two of which were stripped from the club because of the calciopoli game-fixing scandal, and four Coppa Italia titles. During that time, he also played an integral role in Italy’s 2006 World Cup victory – the fourth all-time for the Azzurri. Last year, he was named the Best FIFA Goalkeeper at the age of 39. “Buffon is a legend in Italy and around the world because he has been part of the global soccer scene for over 20 years,” says Cagliari-born Montreal Impact forward Matteo Mancosu, who played for Bologna F.C. and Carpi F.C. before joining the Impact in July 2016. “Besides being an amazing goalkeeper, he is a great man.”
In October 2017, the keeper announced he would most likely retire from international football following the 2018 World Cup. He appeared to confirm his retirement from the Azzurri after a devastating 1-0 aggregate elimination loss to Sweden, which deprived the legendary keeper of being the first to feature in six World Cup tournaments. “It’s a shame my last official game coincided with the failure to qualify for the World Cup,” admitted a tearful Buffon after the match. He however joined the Italian national team for two final international friendly matches against Argentina and England in March 2018.
The only title that has eluded him throughout his career is the Champions League. Juventus made it to the finals in 2015 and 2017 but lost both times to Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively.
This year, Juventus’s run at the Champions League ended in controversy. After a 3-0 comeback against Real Madrid by the Bianconeri in the second match of a two-game quarterfinals series, English referee Michael Oliver called a foul on Real Madrid forward Lucas Vázquez and awarded the team a penalty kick in the third minute of added time.
When Buffon angrily protested the call, Oliver gave the keeper a red card and ejected him from the game. Cristiano Ronaldo took the penalty kick and scored against backup goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, ending Juve’s hopes of advancing. After the game, Buffon made headlines when he said Oliver had a “rubbish bin where his heart should be.” “In that situation, Buffon, being so passionate, was not able to control himself in the same way we would not have been able to, showing he is just a human who can make mistakes. That does not change the fact that what he has been doing in all these years is incredible,” says Mancosu.
On May 19, 2018, Buffon officially played his final match in a Juventus jersey, mere days after winning the Coppa Italia against AC Milan, and clinching his final scudetto with the team. In his farewell press conference, the keeper left the door open to future opportunities, and speculations still abound about a potential contract in another European top team. “He’ll be in the same breath as Dino Zoff, and I think he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest because he won so much,” according to Isacco. “When we talk about Gigi Buffon, my 77-year-old mother’s eyes light up because she knows what he represents.”