DEBUTS: Gianluigi Buffon

Written by: Mouhamad Rancini (@ThatArabKeeper)

“I’ve never seen a debut like his for the personality and quality he showed.”

Those were the words of Italian goalkeeping great Dino Zoff when he described the debut of a 17-year-old Gianluigi Buffon in 1995. Buffon had just kept a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw with 1993 Champions League winners AC Milan, and the football world was buzzing over his dominating performance.

It was high praise for someone who didn’t always look destined to be a goalkeeper. When he initially joined Parma’s youth academy as a 13-year-old, Buffon was a jack-of-all-trades in the outfield. He was noted for his versatility and willingness to play in any position, although he preferred playing as a midfielder. 

That changed during the 1990 World Cup. In that tournament, a 33-year-old goalkeeper by the name of Thomas N’Kono captured the curious eyes of the young Buffon. The Cameroonian was a star, helping the Indomitable Lions upset the defending champions Argentina and later qualify for the quarter-finals. His dynamic style of play was enough to convince Buffon to permanently switch to goalkeeping.

It was about time Buffon adopted a position that made use of his hands; his family possessed a strong hand-based sporting gene. Buffon’s mother was a discus thrower, his father was a weightlifter, his two sisters represented Italy in professional volleyball, and his uncle was a first division basketball player. Gianluigi also had a distant relative–Lorenzo Buffon, a cousin of his grandfather–who kept goal for the likes of AC Milan and Inter Milan in the 1950s and 1960s. Basically, a move for Buffon to hand-based play was bound to happen. 

As reliable as he was in the outfield, goalkeeping proved to be Buffon’s calling. His interest in the position aided him in quickly adapting to the role. Within two weeks of making the switch, Buffon was promoted to the youth team’s number one spot. His rise in the academy impressed his coaches, who predicted a first team call-up to be not too far away.

Parma’s senior team didn’t see a purpose for calling up the teenager just yet, though. After all, they already had Luca Bucci, who was considered to be a Parma hero at the time. Roughly a decade following his graduation from Parma’s youth academy, the 5 foot 11 goalkeeper had backstopped the club through a successful period. The then-26-year-old guided Parma to European glory in 1995 through the UEFA Cup. He started all twelve games for the Crusaders and kept seven clean sheets. This includes one in the final versus Juventus, who were defeated by Parma 2-1 on aggregate. Bucci’s performances across the tournament earned him plaudits from the Parma faithful and tightened his grip on the number one position ahead of the 1995/1996 season.

Unfortunately, Bucci picked up an injury in November 1995. The injury would only keep him out for about two months, but it left Parma without a number one goalkeeper. More importantly, it was just days before their November 19 meeting with AC Milan.

The Rossoneri were among the best teams in Europe at the time. They were just a year removed from their 1994 league-and-Champions-League double and they were coached by the iron fist of Fabio Capello. They boasted a legendary backline of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta, and their attack was spearheaded by 1993 Ballon d’Or winner Roberto Baggio and three-time African Footballer of the Year George Weah.

With Bucci out, Parma’s experienced reserve ‘keeper Alessandro Nista was expected to start. To meet the minimum player requirements, head coach Nevio Scala called up Gianluigi Buffon from the youth team to replace the injured Bucci.

It wasn’t the first time Gianluigi Buffon was called up to Parma’s first team. In 1994, he was invited to train with the senior squad while Luca Bucci was with the Italian World Cup team. The following summer, just months before his official debut, Buffon joined Parma’s preseason tour through the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, due to teenage antics which included violating Nevio Scala’s ‘no unhealthy food’ policy and messing around on a golf buggy, Buffon was sent back to the reserves.

Understanding the gravity of the second chance he had been gifted, Buffon was determined not to let recklessness get in the way again. In his own words, Buffon entered training “more determined” and more convinced by his own ability to succeed. Despite weariness from Parma’s old guard, Nevio Scala was convinced that the teenager had learned his lesson and, in a surprising turn of events, gave him the nod and his debut in the November 19 match-up.

Now, it’s normal for a young footballer to feel tense leading up to their debut. Even the great Lionel Messi admitted that he was very nervous” ahead of his Barcelona first team premiere on November 16, 2003. And that game was only a friendly against Jose Mourinho’s Porto. Here, Gianluigi Buffon, at the 17, was being asked to keep out the reigning Champions League finalists in his professional debut. 

And yet Buffon wasn’t fazed. The prospect of facing the likes of George Weah, Roberto Baggio, Zvonimir Boban and co. did nothing to unsettle the young Italian. In fact, he was so relaxed by the task at hand that he fell asleep in the short bus ride from his hotel to Parma’s 28,000-seat Stadio Ennio Tardini.

Donning a primarily white-and-red jersey with the number 12 on the back, Buffon was ready to announce himself to the world of professional football. His first orders of business were plucking a cross out of the air while being shadowed and parrying the ball away from the feet of Stefano Eranio; signs that Buffon wasn’t going to allow the visitors to break him. Not long after, Roberto Baggio got an up-close taste of Buffon’s abilities when his point-blank header was miraculously palmed away by the teenager. Baggio could only look on in disbelief. The half-time score read 0-0. 

AC Milan continued to pressure Parma in the second half, but the more dangerous their chances became, the better the saves Buffon made. After replacing Baggio in the 78th minute, Marco Simone tested Buffon’s abilities when a corner found him unmarked in Parma’s box. With his back towards goal, Simone turned and struck a good effort on target, but Buffon, who had taken a few steps off of his line to close down the angle, turned the shot aside with a dive to his left. Not wanting to miss out on the action, George Weah went after a loose ball in Parma’s box late in the game. But like a well-trained guard dog, Buffon fearlessly attacked the landing cross, smothering the ball and letting Weah know whose territory he was encroaching on. And with that, the game ended 0-0.

It was only the second time AC Milan had failed to score that season, and it was clear they felt robbed by Buffon’s performance. After the game, AC Milan head coach Fabio Capello said that his side deserved a victory but were only outdone by the performance of Parma’s teenage goalkeeper, who he called their “best player.” If that praise wasn’t enough, the legendary Dino Zoff, who had backstopped Italy to World Cup glory in 1982 and also made his professional debut as a teenager, said that he had never seen a debut like Buffon’s before. Buffon was congratulated by his teammates and opponents at the final whistle, including AC Milan’s goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi, who gave him a quick hug and a pat on the cheek.

Ultimately, the draw didn’t matter for AC Milan in the long-run; they finished as Serie A champions by an eight-point margin. Roberto Baggio ended the season with seven league goals–his highest single-season tally with Milan–and George Weah received the Ballon d’Or a month after the game, becoming the first (and to date only) African to win the individual accolade.

Parma would eventually finish sixth in the league, good enough for a First Round spot in the 1996/1997 UEFA Cup. Gianluigi Buffon would only make eight more appearances that season, including the following 1-1 draw with Juventus. But his debut was a wake-up call to Italian football.

By the following season, Buffon, who was still a teenager, was Parma’s number one goalkeeper and backstopped them to a second-place league finish behind Juventus. By the turn of the century, Buffon was a Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup champion. He then became the most expensive goalkeeper in world football at the time when Juventus purchased him for nearly €52 million, and in 2006, he fulfilled his destiny as Zoff’s successor by winning the World Cup with Italy. 

Today, Buffon is revered as one of goalkeeping’s all-time greats. He holds positional records in appearances and clean sheets in the Serie A and with the Italian national team, and he was even given the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2006. But despite all of these accolades, Buffon still fondly remembers “every last detail” of his debut. And who wouldn’t? For it was the day that football was introduced to arguably its greatest ever guardian.

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