Dino Zoff was always my personal favourite, especially after captaining Italy to World Cup success at the age of 40 in 1982. The former Juventus goalkeeper left an indelible impression on all children of my generation growing up in Italy. At school we all supported either Juventus or Inter and we all wanted to be either Zoff or Paolo Rossi.
While the memory may play tricks, and Zoff may not have been as talented as we imagined as children, he is still arguably one of the greatest statesmen of Italian football.
So if not Zoff, who could it be?
Walter Zenga was up there too. He was Italy’s custodian in their home World Cup in 1990 and, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was widely admired and respected.
Zenga was extremely talented but was prone to some silly errors at times. However, his brilliance was never really in doubt and he has more than 50 appearances for Italy to show for it.
Between the Zenga and Buffon eras there were at least three other goalkeepers who were worthy of mention: Angelo Peruzzi, Francesco Toldo and Gianluca Pagliuca. All three were well respected in Italy and abroad, and all three did their nation proud.
Pagliuca in particular holds a special place in my memory as he was first choice at two World Cups, 1994 and 1998, and failed to lift the trophy in Los Angeles when a penalty shootout in the final denied Arrigo Sacchi’s Azzurri the ultimate prize.
And then along came Buffon. He has written his own history and will surely be the yardstick against which every other future goalkeeper for Italy will be measured.
It would be incorrect and presumptuous to say that Buffon will never be surpassed – I mean ‘who could ever be better than Zoff’ was in my mind for three decades – but Buffon does truly stand out. He seems to transcend everybody else.
Like Zoff, Buffon is a statesmen of Italian football in every sense of the word. Like Zenga he is superbly talented. Like Pagliuca he has played in multiple World Cups.
However, there is more about Buffon that these three didn’t seem to have. Brilliance, longevity, loyalty, dependability and class were all in their DNAs but, all of the above, do seem to be in Buffon’s DNA just a little bit more.
In terms of pure statistics he has it all. Five World Cups, four as starting goalkeeper including the successful 2006 campaign, more than 150 appearances for the Azzurri - more than any other player - and every domestic record than one could imagine.
Perhaps the only blemish – and this is really ‘needle in the haystack’ stuff – is that the UEFA Champions League has eluded him even though Juventus came mighty close last year. However, neither did Zoff, Zenga or Pagliuca ever lift that trophy.
Buffon’s legacy still has some way to go and he will etch his name further into Italian and world football history annals. He is on track to be Italy’s No. 1 in Russia in 2018 and this would be truly another amazing milestone in his illustrious career.
Even at 38 years of age, it is almost impossible to see an end to his career.
In fact most people in Italy, irrespective of whether they are Juventus supporters or not, don’t want to see the end of his career. There isn’t a list of superlatives that could really do his career justice and all he has achieved.
But there’s a sting in the tail. When Italy finally emerge from the bedazzling fog of Buffon’s career, will there be a replacement ready to step up to replace him? They are indeed huge boots to fill but they will be filled and need to be filled.
When Zoff called it quits, Italy actually lost two goalkeepers and not just one. In Zoff’s shadow there was always Inter’s custodian Ivano Bordon. Not a household name today but 30 years ago, for followers of Italian football, he was. Inter supporters may also fondly recall him.
In any other era, and possibly in any other country, Bordon would have been numero uno but Zoff always stood in his way. As age had caught up with him too, his international career basically finished at same time as Zoff’s.
It took almost another five years, and a few other goalkeepers in between, before Zenga filled the void. The good news in the end for Bordon was that he actually did win another World Cup in 2006 (he was a player on the bench in 1982) as Italy’s goalkeeper coach and as part of Marcello Lippi’s coaching staff.
Buffon has been absent occasionally from national team duties in the last 15 years or so through injuries and several goalkeepers have been given a go. Current Lazio custodian Federico Marchetti, who has made nine appearances, comes to mind but he is now off the radar and unlikely to be given another go as age starts to catch up with him.
Paris Saint Germain’s Salvatore Sirigu is a talented goalkeeper in his own right and, has been voted France’s Ligue 1 goalkeeper-of-the-year title twice, he is probably destined to be the modern day Bordon. The former Palermo goalkeeper still has some time on his hands to add to his 15 appearances but the longer Buffon remains, the less opportunities will fall his way.
It is likely that Sirigu will be overtaken by Genoa’s 23 year old custodian Mattia Perrin, who has already played for the Azzurri, and AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma, who recently turned 17 and has claimed AC Milan’s goalkeeper jersey as his own this season.
Both are fortunately young enough to bide their time unlike Sirigu.
Herein always lies the problem with greatness. Like Zoff, and probably more so with Buffon, all current goalkeepers who are in his enormous shadow risk missing out on the opportunity to truly be part of a succession plan for the Azzurri.
It’s a delicate balancing act for Italy because no one wants to replace Buffon prematurely but it’s difficult to miss out on a Sirigu too.