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The Debate: Gianluigi Buffon changed everything – he is the greatest ever

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Buffon

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ByPete Sharland
19/05/2020 at 13:05 | Updated 19/05/2020 at 17:27
@PeteSharland

Each week four Eurosport writers make their case on a topical issue. This week: who is the greatest goalkeeper of all time? Pete Sharland is up next and he wants to talk about Gigi…

Everyone knows how this story begins.

On 19 November 1995 Parma held off a formidable Milan side to secure a credible 0-0 draw. In between the sticks, making his debut as a 17-year-old, was Gianluigi Buffon.

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You know the rest; Buffon made his first save, and then another, and then he kept on making saves for the next 25 years.

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Over that time Buffon has won nine Serie A titles, five Coppa Italias, a UEFA Cup, a French league title and of course, one World Cup.

He broke the record for the most expensive goalkeeper in the world in 2001 when Juventus paid Parma €52 million for his services, a record that stood until the summer of 2018 when Liverpool and then Chelsea splashed out to buy Alisson Becker and Kepa Arrizabalga respectively.

He holds the record for the longest time in Serie A without conceding a goal (974 minutes in the 2015-16 season) and he holds both the Serie A and Italian national team records for clean sheets. He is also the most capped Italian player of all-time and the most capped European ever. He is the only goalkeeper to win the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year award.

And let’s pick up there. As this author has argued on many occasions football still chronically undervalues goalkeepers, always has and seemingly always will. Despite some legendary names that had played the position in the 20th century that attitude never really changed. Excellent goalkeepers were certainly appreciated, but they weren’t sought-after or developed in the way other positions were. This is despite the obvious fact that a good goalkeeper could remain at a high level far longer than an outfielder.

Buffon changed that. Or at least he changed it a bit. Juventus spent big to get Buffon as their keeper of the present and future and looking back it certainly paid off (although not with the Champions League title that both parties crave so much). This has slowly led to a bit of a revolution regarding goalkeepers although they certainly took a while to catch up with modern, inflated fees.

buffon

Image credit: Getty Images

Buffon showed teams what an elite goalkeeper could do, but he also showed young spectators what it could mean to be an elite goalkeeper.

A lot of goalkeepers discover the position by accident; often that can be down to being the worst player. Yet Buffon - himself was a midfielder until he watched Thomas N’Kono in goal for Cameroon at the 1990 World Cup as a 12 year old - along with the likes of Peter Schmeichel, Oliver Kahn and Iker Casillas changed that perception.

These weren’t inferior players who were stuck in goal, these were athletic warriors, who produced some truly astonishing feats in order to keep the ball out of the net.

Jose Luis Chilavert and Rogerio Ceni captured the imagination for their set-piece prowess, as did Rene Higuita with his acrobatic antics, but that wasn’t so much making goalkeeping sexy as it was doing something completely unprecedented and making a name for themselves.

Buffon did it differently, he was a fierce competitor, someone who genuinely instilled fear into opposing strikers and fans alike. He took things to another level in terms of intimidation as a keeper and he redefined what the position could be.

There is something to be said for going the extra mile off the pitch as well. When the Calciopoli scandal hit in 2006, Buffon, after co-operating with the authorities, decided to stay with Juventus for the following season in Serie B alongside the likes of Pavel Nedved, David Trezeguet and Alessandro Del Piero.

FOOTBALL 2006-2007 Serie B Juventus Buffon

Image credit: Imago

Does it diminish the greatness of the players who decided to leave? No, they did what they felt was best for their careers. But does it elevate the greatness of those who decided to stay? Yes, they sacrificed a year of their careers in order to right the wrong and get the club back to where it belonged. It was a grand gesture, the players were under no obligation to stay, and it speaks to Buffon’s character.

And unlike some of his other peers he hasn’t been left behind by the playmaking revolution that swept the goalkeeping world during this century. Buffon was hardly a mug with his feet when he was younger but he was visibly worked on that side of his craft, even if his own personal views may believe that this obsession has caused a drop in elite keepers.

A great goalkeeper needs five things; they need to be a commanding presence in the box when coming to claim crosses, they need to be confident and intimidating in through ball or one-on-one situations, they need to have excellent communication with the defence in front of them, they have to be comfortable with the ball at their feet and, of course, they have to be adept at keeping the ball out of the net.

Keepers of the older generation might fall down when they are measured with against sweeper-keeper modern day counterparts whilst some of the new generation certainly don’t have the fear factor of the old guard but Buffon is the one who can straddle both divides. He unites the old and the new and blends them together to make the perfect goalkeeper. He is the benchmark, the one who all others need to aspire to.

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