Throwback Thursday: 18 Years on From Buffon's International Debut
Gianluigi Buffon made his international debut for Italy 18 years ago this week. 152 caps and a World Cup later, he's still the Azzurri's numero uno.
Let me tell you some things about football in autumn 1997. Manchester City were fighting against relegation from Division 1 (now the Championship), a battle they would ultimately lose, consigning them to the third tier. Barcelona had just one European Cup in their trophy cabinet, while 10-year-old Lionel Messi had yet to step foot in Catalonia. And Sepp Blatter was still nine months away from receiving the keys to FIFA's presidential office.
The intervening 18 years have changed all of those things (with the help of money, Messi, and more money, respectively). But what has not swayed is Gianluigi Buffon's status as a world-class goalkeeper. 18 years ago this week, 'Gigi' made his debut for the Italian national side. More than 150 caps and a World Cup win later, he is still there.
Buffon was already a regular at club level by the time Cesare Maldini called him into the national squad. A product of the Parma youth system, Buffon broke into their first team during the 1995-96 campaign, making his debut against an AC Milan side that contained Roberto Baggio and George Weah. Unruffled by a pair of Ballon d'Or winners, Buffon kept his first clean sheet in a 0-0 draw.
By the 96-97 campaign, 18-year-old Buffon was Parma's number one 'keeper, and part of the side that finished the season as Serie A runners-up. It was early in the following season that he received his first call up to the national side. In Italy's crucial World Cup qualifying play-off against Russia, Buffon was sat on the bench. The first leg was played in driving Russian snow and, after half an hour, goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was forced to come off injured. Given the conditions, the importance of the match and Buffon's lack of experience, it was a huge ask of the teenager.
But Buffon played like a veteran, making a number of crucial saves and only conceding an unfortunate own goal from another man just beginning his international career, defender Fabio Cannavaro (ironically, these two would go on to spearhead Italy's watertight defence during the 2006 World Cup).
The game ended 1-1; Italy won the second leg and secured a spot at France 98. Buffon eventually went to the tournament as second choice 'keeper, despite having only two caps to his name.
For an idea of Buffon's longevity, look at the list of players he joined in the '98 squad: veterans of the 94 tournament like Costacurta, Maldini, and Baggio. All have since retired, many several years ago; defender Guiseppe Bergomi made his Italy debut as far back as 1981 and has been out of the game for more than 15 years.
Since his debut, Buffon has gone on to earn 152 caps for Italy – more than any other player in the nation's history, with Cannavaro second. Together they lifted the 2006 World Cup in Germany, a tournament where Buffon's run of 453 minutes without conceding a goal was vital to the Azzuri's success; he also helped his side to the final of Euro 2012, where they were humbled 4-0 by Spain.
His club achievements are no less impressive. Since switching from Parma to Juventus in 2001 for €52 million, a record for a goalkeeper, Buffon has won eight Serie A titles and a host of individual awards. The only trophy he's missing is the Champions League, having lost in the final with Juve in 2003 and 2014. Amidst all this, Buffon battled depression and spoke publicly about it while still number one for club and country.
READ MORE: Gianluigi Buffon, From Darkness Into Light
He shows no sign of stopping, recently telling the press: "It's one of my objectives still to be playing in 2018.
"Since turning 32 or 33 each year counts for seven, like with dogs. As a lad, unrestrained passion for football is what drives you. As you grow, you realise that what stimulates you the most is the challenge. This is why I enjoy playing every game."
If he's still active and fit in summer 2018, Buffon is nailed on to make the Italy squad for a record-breaking sixth World Cup (he's currently tied on five with Lothar Matthäus and Antonio Carbajal). Even if he were displaced as number one – which appears unlikely – he would surely be part of the 23 thanks to his experience alone.
Of course, he is going to stop eventually, and 2018 seems a realistic target: he'll be 40 years old and his last hurrah would be the World Cup, which is surely every player's choice as a final stage. If Italy can rediscover the form of 2006, he could even bow out with the trophy in his gloves.
And when he does depart it's going to be strange for a while. Buffon has so dominated the number one shirt for Italy that it's hard to imagine anyone else taking his place. Yes, he's missed games with injury, but you always knew that when he recovered Buffon would be back between the sticks.
He is not Italy's first long-serving goalkeeper: Dino Zoff earned 112 caps between 1968 and '83. Finding another who will match those two won't be easy, but some are already looking towards AC Milan's Gianluigi Donnarumma – another teenage prodigy known as 'Gigi'. The 16-year-old became the youngest 'keeper in Serie A history when he started in Milan's recent 2-1 win against Sassuolo over the weekend, and he's already been linked with a move to Manchester United.
Of course, Donnarumma is far too young to make a definitive call on. He wasn't even born when Gianluigi Buffon made his Italy debut 18 years ago in the Russian snow.