Locked within a legendary Milanese rivalry, AC Milan’s Lorenzo Buffon didn’t just duel for goalkeeping supremacy with Internazionale’s Giorgio Ghezzi, they also fought one another for the love and affection of Edy Campagnoli, the catwalk model turned television star who, during the late 1950s, was billed as the most famous woman in Italy.
The cousin of Gianluigi Buffon’s grandfather, Lorenzo’s footballing exploits put the family name in lights long before the 1978 arrival into the world of his cousin twice removed.
Born in Majano, a municipality in the Province of Udine, on 19 December 1929, Buffon benefitted from the misfortune of his first club, Portogruaro, when in the summer of 1948, and despite a comfortable mid-table finish, a restructuring of the lower divisions of the Italian league pyramid had cast the Serie C side into the newly created Promozione, a vast regionalised amateur system that initially equated to the fourth tier of the Italian club game but is now the sixth.
Having turned to their youth ranks for fresh impetus in the 1948/49 season, the Venice-based club battled ferociously for an immediate return to the condensed Serie C. The 18-year-old Buffon, unlikely to have been risked in the higher division, was given his chance in the Promozione by Portogruaro – and it so very nearly paid off.
Runners-up to local rivals, the free-scoring AC San Donà, it had been the goalkeeping of Buffon that had kept Portogruaro in contention for the title, conceding just 30 goals compared to the 51 that San Donà shipped. Ultimately it was the lack of a prolific striker that made the difference between success and failure, with Portogruaro finding the back of the net 34 times fewer than the champions.
Again, however, Portogruaro’s loss proved to be Buffon’s gain as, in the summer of 1949, an observant Milan swooped for his services. Three times champions of Italy in the first decade of the century, Milan were about to enter a 1950s which would see them return to the pinnacle of the domestic game and go on to almost unseat the Real Madrid of Alfredo Di Stéfano as champions of the continent in the 1958 European Cup final.
While the signing of Buffon flew under the radar, he was joined in that summer’s Milan intake by Swedish internationals Gunnar Gren and Nils Liedholm, who arrived on the back of the early promise shown by their compatriot Gunnar Nordahl, who had been signed the previous January and had plundered 16 goals in just 15 Serie A appearances during the back-end of the 1948/49 campaign.
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The foresight of the Milan president, Umberto Trabattoni, was as highly attuned to the potential of the teenage Buffon as it was to the polished products of Gren, Nordahl and Liedholm, an attacking triumvirate who would be given the eternal moniker of Gre-No-Li.
This marked the point in time when Milan as a city began to stand toe-to-toe with the undeniable power-base of Italian football, Turin, partly through the return to prominence of both Milan and Inter – who combined would win six of the 10 Serie A titles handed out during the 1950s – and in part due to the tragic loss of the Grande Torino side that perished at Superga.
Shortly after his 20th birthday, by January 1950 Buffon had made his debut for Milan, in a 5-1 win over Sampdoria. Any projected contest for the goalkeeping position was a short-lived one, as Buffon swiftly made it his own. Three weeks later, he was part of the Milan side that travelled to the Stadio Comunale for a historic encounter with Juventus. In the very first live televised Serie A game, Milan dismantled the Bianconeri 7-1, on an afternoon when the Gre-No-Li combination accounted for five of the goals, three of them from Nordahl. While the 1949/50 Scudetto still went to Juventus, that cold February afternoon served notice to Turin that something special was stirring in Milan.
A year later and Milan had ended their 44-year title drought, finding themselves in such a commanding position that they failed to obtain a victory in their final five games of the season, yet still clinched the Scudetto with a week to spare.
Buffon’s rise to prominence with Milan had been meteoric, and Ghezzi – just seven months Buffon’s junior – wasn’t far behind him, joining Inter in the summer of 1951 after spells with Rimini in Serie C and Modena in Serie B. Watching on from the sidelines as the new season began, by October Ghezzi was the first-choice goalkeeper for the Nerazzurri. Both of Milan’s evolving megaliths now had a young, dynamic and supremely talented goalkeeper with which to build their ever-strengthening line-ups in front of.
Juventus comfortably reclaimed the title in 1951/52, thanks to the goal-scoring exploits of not just the prolific Danish duo John Hansen and Karl Aage Hansen, but also domestic legend Giampiero Boniperti. The city of Milan struck back at Turin during the following five seasons, however, with Inter taking the Scudetto in back-to-back campaigns in 1952/53 and 1953/54, while Milan claimed the prize in 1954/55 and 1956/57, successes which sandwiched Fiorentina’s surprise but emphatic first Serie A title win.
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Led by Alfredo Foni, a World Cup-winning defender with Italy in 1938, and playing behind a watertight defence, Ghezzi stole a march on Buffon, not only for a place in the national team, but also in the battle for the heart of Campagnoli, who had come to widespread public attention thanks to an array of talents she had shown in opera, modelling and television.
Ghezzi travelled to the 1954 World Cup finals in Switzerland, while Buffon remained at home, the Inter ‘keeper winning the competitive battle for the gloves to play the initial group games against the hosts in Lausanne and then Belgium in Lugano.
A narrow loss to Switzerland and a 4-1 win over the Belgians meant that the Azzurri were faced with a playoff match in Basel – against the host nation once again – in which a place in the quarter-finals was the prize. With question-marks over Ghezzi’s mentality and a propensity to sometimes allow his emotions to get the better of him, it was instead Juve’s uncapped Giovanni Viola who kept goal for Italy in the match against the Swiss, who subsequently ran out 4-1 winners.
In the wake of their disappointing early exit from the 1954 World Cup – and Milan winning Serie A in 1954/55 – Italy soon turned to Buffon, just as Campagnoli would, the two eventually marrying in 1958, much to the angst of Ghezzi, who reputedly never recovered from his rejection by Campagnoli.
Milan’s return to title-winning ways in 1955 also coincided with the birth of the European Cup, and in a titanic semi-final against Real Madrid in 1956, the first leg of which was played out at the Bernabéu in front of almost 130,000 spectators, Milan came up desperately short of reaching that very first European Cup final, losing out 5-4 on aggregate despite a stunning late fightback that had Madrid on the ropes.
They might have come up short against Los Blancos but Milan had without doubt stamped their pedigree across the conciseness of the entire continent.
Following Fiorentina’s exceptional Scudetto of 1955/56, which they won by a 12-point margin, conceding only 20 goals in a campaign they navigated with only one defeat, Milan again won the title the following year. Having dominated so much of the 1950s with Milan and Inter respectively, the winds of change were beginning to blow for both Buffon and Ghezzi by 1958.
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It was a poor league season for both Milan and Inter in 1957/58, who could only manage mid-table finishes, while Juventus cruised through to win their first Scudetto in six years. This was compounded by Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup finals in Sweden, when the Azzurri slipped to defeat to Northern Ireland in Belfast in the group decider on a day when inconsistent club fortunes kept both Buffon and Ghezzi out of the line-up.
The only bright spots for Buffon were Milan’s run to the final of the European Cup – where he was in imperious form during the semi-finals against a post-Munich Air Disaster Manchester United – and his upcoming marriage to Campagnoli.
Whether or not it was by design or coincidence, ahead of Buffon and Campagnoli’s impending nuptials, Ghezzi departed Inter and the city of Milan in the summer of 1958 to join Genoa. He seemed to be a man backing away from the scene of his greatest triumphs and tragedies.
Any sense of victory Buffon might have felt over his great rival was only a fleeting one, however. Missing the 1958 European Cup final through injury, Milan again lost out narrowly to Real Madrid – 3-2 in extra time – in his absence. The next season brought Buffon and Milan another Serie A title but it would prove to be his last season with the Rossoneri. Suspicions over an escalating number of injuries prompted the Milan hierarchy to assess potential successors to Buffon.
Milan looked toward Genoa and controversially signed Ghezzi. It was a dramatic twist. Buffon went in the opposite direction and suffered the ignominy of relegation at the end of the 1959/60 campaign. Again, it had been a season where Buffon had sat out many games through injury, but, in the summer of 1960, it didn’t stop Inter taking a chance on him. Within a two-year span, Inter and Milan had essentially traded their iconic goalkeepers.
Despite Juventus taking the Scudetto in 1960/61, all eyes were locked upon the renewed rivalry in Milan between Buffon and Ghezzi. The first Milan derby of the season went the way of Buffon and Inter, while Ghezzi and Milan won the return fixture. With Buffon back to his very best and fully fit once again, the race was now on not only for the domestic honours but to keep goal for the Azzurri at their first World Cup for eight years.
Ghezzi and Milan won Serie A in 1961/62, but it was Buffon, with the fewest goals conceded all season, who won the battle for the World Cup, where he headed to Chile as captain of the Azzurri.
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Playing in Italy’s opening game against West Germany, Buffon kept a clean sheet in a goalless draw, but he was unfit to face the hosts in their second game. In what became known as The Battle of Santiago, Italy and Chile played out one of the most violent games of football the World Cup has ever known. Deputised by Carlo Mattrel, in his one and only appearance for the Azzurri, Buffon could only watch on in horror as his nation fell to a stark and brutal 2-0 defeat. When Buffon returned to the team to face Switzerland, Italy were already out of the World Cup thanks to the result of the previous day’s game between Chile and West Germany.
Neither Buffon or Ghezzi represented the Azzurri ever again.
The 1962/63 season offered wonderful compensation for both players, however. As Buffon and Inter won Serie A, Ghezzi helped Milan become the first Italian club to win the European Cup, when they defeated the holders, Benfica, at Wembley.
Two years later, both Buffon and Ghezzi had retired from the game. Buffon, once again affected by injury, wound down his career as cover at Fiorentina, and then in Serie C with Ivera, with whom he played his final games. Ghezzi strived for more major honours with Milan, but they narrowly eluded him.
Throughout their careers, Buffon and Ghezzi seemed to operate in symbiosis, and yet also seclusion of one another. Rivals both professionally and personally, the increasing degrees of one-upmanship lifted them both to ever dizzying heights. Buffon was efficient and reliable, with a great positional sense. The acrobatic shot-stopper, who went by the nickname ‘Lorenzo il Magnifico’, was offset by Ghezzi, the temperamental artist with great reflexes, agility and a knack of reading the game perfectly, who was bestowed the moniker ‘Kamikaze’ due to his habit of racing from his area to face down on-rushing attackers.
Ghezzi sadly died aged 60 in 1990, while Buffon lives on aged 88, having been able to watch the entire career of his cousin’s grandson, Gianluigi, while still maintaining his loyalty to Milan down the years, to whom he returned to as a talent scout, keeping a watchful eye on the emergence of Gianluigi Donnarumma, the next great iconic Italian goalkeeper-in-waiting.
Before Gianluigi Buffon there had been another in the shape of Lorenzo. Maybe in a further generation or so, another goalkeeping Buffon will emerge. If so, they will have their work cut out to come close to the achievements of their predecessors.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74