The generation of superb Italian goalkeepers overshadowed by the emergence of Gianluigi Buffon

The generation of superb Italian goalkeepers overshadowed by the emergence of Gianluigi Buffon

It’s the afternoon of 19 May 2018, and the 41,000 plus capacity crowd at the Allianz Stadium is surging with emotion. So too is the iconic goalkeeper who departs the pitch in the 63rd minute, waving a final goodbye to the adoring fans he’s given the lion’s share of his glittering career to. Although Gianluigi Buffon’s next career move is uncertain, his decision to depart Juventus and bring an end to one of the beautiful game’s most notorious marriages feels like the end of an era.

Although Buffon would later opt to extend his career in Paris, the then 40-year old’s decision to depart Turin after 17 seasons of unprecedented, unparalleled brilliance was more than enough to put the footballing world in a reflective mood. Now that Buffon was clearly entering the twilight of his career, where did he rank amongst Italy’s, or indeed the world’s, greatest goalkeepers?

If defending in Italy is considered a modern art-form, then goalkeeping – the last line of defence – is no exception. Ever since 1934 when legendary stopper Gianpiero Combi captained his country to World Cup glory, there has rarely been a moment in time when a debate surrounding the world’s greatest goalkeepers does not contain at least one name from Il Bel Paese.

Before Buffon, the benchmark for elite Italian goalkeeping had long been set by Dino Zoff. Zoff was blessed with an unshakable calmness on the pitch and, while he was a phenomenal shot stopper, his exquisite positional sense meant he was rarely forced to make spectacular saves. In the latter years of his career, Zoff’s reputation took on a greater mantle than just that of a quality goalkeeper. His decade-spanning career for both club and country lent him something akin to statesman-like status on the peninsula by the time he captained the Azzurri to World Cup glory in 1982.

From the moment Buffon signed for Juventus from Parma in the summer of 2001 – his £33m transfer fee shattering the world record for a goalkeeper – the temptation to view the Carrara-born stopper as the heir apparent to Zoff, another Juve great, has been too much for many to resist. These notions were rubberstamped when a Buffon inspired Italy lifted their fifth World Cup in 2006, ensuring that Buffon, long considered the finest goalkeeper of his generation, could finally assume equal footballing status to his elder countryman and end the eternal search for the next Zoff.

While there’s no denying that the parallels in career trajectory between Buffon and Zoff create an irresistible lineage-based narrative, that doesn’t go to say that the years in between their respective reigns of terror represented a barren period for Italian goalkeepers. In fact, closer inspection quickly shows that the 1990s were littered with so many top keepers that Sebastiano Rossi – winner of a Champions League, multiple Scudetti and perhaps AC Milan’s greatest keeper- failed to win a single cap for Italy.

In November 1991, Milan legend Arrigo Sacchi took over as manager of the national team and quickly began to phase out Walter Zenga from his role as first choice in the Azzurri goal. Inter legend Zenga, himself part of a famous four-year battle for the number one jersey with Juve’s Stefano Taconi, had been Italy’s first choice for the best part of five years, his defining moment coming at the 1990 World Cup in Italy where he embarked on a record-breaking run of 518 minutes without conceding a goal as the hosts reached the semi-finals. 

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With nicknames as colourful as Spiderman and Deltaplano – Italian for hang glider – maverick Zenga represented the absolute antithesis, in both style and demeanour, to the stoic Zoff. Whereas Zoff’s cautious efficiency was designed to minimise the need for the spectacular, Zenga was a spring-legged showman with a penchant for producing the sort of highlight reel saves that would be gold dust in the YouTube generation. 

Although he perhaps lacked the calming, authoritative demeanour of his predecessor, Zenga’s career was nonetheless filled with individual and team honours. Almost unanimously regarded as Inter’s greatest goalkeeper, Zenga won domestic and European silverware with the Nerazzurri and was named the world’s best goalkeeper in three consecutive seasons by the IFFHS. While Zoff remained the yardstick to which future Italian keepers would be compared, there is no doubt that Zenga’s influence can be seen, to varying levels, in the style of many that succeeded him.

For the rest of the decade, the jersey would be monopolised by two names: Angelo Peruzzi and Gianluca Pagliuca. Part of Sampdoria’s most successful side, Pagliuca had been a key member of the team who had won the club’s first ever Scudetto in 1991 and had impressed greatly in their valiant but unsuccessful attempt to topple Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in the following year’s European Cup final.

If Zenga and Zoff represent opposite ends of the goalkeeping spectrum, then Pagliuca’s cat-like style was perhaps more indebted to that of Spiderman than it was the Juventus icon. While he may not have been quite as idiosyncratic as his maverick predecessor, Pagliuca was blessed with superb reflexes and the ability to produce spectacular, acrobatic saves at the drop of a hat, not to mention a fiery temper that was straight from the school of Zenga.

Indeed, it was his form for Sampdoria that convinced Sacchi to make him first choice for the 1994 World Cup. Despite a red card against Norway in the second group game threatening to derail his tournament, Pagliuca regained his place from Lazio’s Luca Marchegiani – the most expensive goalkeeper in the world at the time – after his two-game suspension, and went on to have a memorable tournament as Italy progressed to the final.

After famously planting a kiss on the goalpost as a superstitious thank you for saving his blushes from a spilled Mauro Silva shot, Pagliuca became the first person in history to save a penalty in a World Cup final when he dived low to deny Márcio Santos in the shoot-out. Unfortunately, the unforgettable misses of Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio meant that the World Cup would be going to South America as the Sampdoria stopper missed out on football’s ultimate prize.

Pagliuca would follow his World Cup antics by singing for Inter, his £7m fee breaking the transfer record set by his understudy Marchegiani. While his classy performances for the Milan giants did nothing to harm his reputation as an elite goalkeeper, Pagliuca’s grip on the Italian jersey was significantly compromised by the development of Peruzzi in the ensuing years. 

At a comparatively small five-foot-eleven, Peruzzi possessed an unorthodox physique for a goalkeeper, his stocky appearance more akin to that of a cruiserweight boxer than a high-level shot-stopper. Nicknamed Il Cinghiale (The Boar) in reference to his brutish build, Peruzzi would use his physical advantages to bully centre forwards and dominate his box. While these strengths may have been easy to predict based on the Roman-born keepers’ appearance, his deceptive athleticism and explosive reactions were completely at odds with his sturdy aesthetic.

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To say that Peruzzi, three years Pagliuca’s junior, had a rocky start to his career would be an understatement of some magnitude. A Roma academy graduate, Peruzzi found limited playing opportunities at the Giallorossi and was loaned out to struggling Verona for the 1989/90 season. This proved to be Peruzzi’s breakout campaign, his outstanding performances highlighted by his saving of a Roberto Mancini penalty that kept Verona’s doomed relegation battle alive for a little longer. 

Sadly, the promise from the Verona season would be derailed emphatically the following campaign. Shortly after returning to Roma, Peruzzi was suspended for a year after failing a drugs test for Phentermine, an appetite suppressant he began taking following public criticism from the Roma coach about his weight. Reminiscing on the event in 2015, Peruzzi said: “It was the worst shit I’ve done in football. I was wrong, I paid with a year suspension and it was absolutely right.” 

Unhappy with the level of backing offered to him by the club, Peruzzi sought to rebuild his career away from Rome after serving his suspension. Any suspicions that the scandal would deter bigger clubs from looking at the young prospect were quickly dispelled when he signed for Juventus at the beginning of the 1991/92 season. It was in Turin that he would establish himself as one of the best goalkeepers on the planet.

Spending his debut season operating largely as back up to long-time Bianconeri keeper Taconi, Peruzzi was given his chance to shine the following year as manager Giovanni Trapattoni instilled him as his first choice – and he never looked back.

After winning the UEFA Cup in his first season, Peruzzi proceeded to win every domestic and European trophy possible in seven years with the Old Lady as the Turinese established themselves as the most dominant force on the continent under Marcello Lippi. His crowning moment came in the 1996 Champions League final against Ajax, where his two decisive saves in the penalty shootout meant Juventus lifted club football’s top prize for only the second time in their illustrious history.

Peruzzi’s exploits meant that he had usurped Pagliuca as Italy’s number one by the time the national side travelled to England for Euro 96. In a tournament largely remembered for its hedonistic backdrop and the hosts swashbuckling style, Italy had a tournament to forget, stuttering their way to a group stage exit. 

Despite the disappointing campaign, Peruzzi was in no way to blame for the failure and remained Italy’s number one in the ensuing years. Now widely acknowledged as one of the best keepers around and with two consecutive Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year awards to his name, it looked as though France 98 would finally grant Peruzzi the opportunity to represent his nation at a World Cup. Unfortunately, a last-minute injury ruled him out of the tournament, and it was once again Pagliuca who would provide the last line of Azzurri defence.

Yet again, Pagliuca made the most of his opportunity to shine on football’s biggest stage – his exquisite one-handed stop from a Tore André Flo header against Norway providing one of the saves of the tournament – but Italy would again endure the agony of a penalty shootout defeat, this time against hosts France in the quarter-finals.

Read  |  Francesco Toldo: the understudy whose semi-final masterclass helped Italy to the Euro 2000 final

With both Peruzzi and Pagliuca still operating near the peak of their powers, it seemed realistic that both men would compete for Italy’s top spot for years to come, until a young pretender named Buffon came along and swept aside all that came before him.

Although the inevitable of rise of the precocious Parma prospect came as little surprise – his jaw-dropping professional debut as a 17-year-old against Milan in 1995 saw him make exceptional saves against figures like Baggio and George Weah – few could have anticipated the speed in which he would put two genuine world-class keepers in the shade as he established himself as Italy’s undisputed number one. 

Buffon’s near two-decade run as Italy’s stopper would begin during their Euro 2000 qualifying campaign, and it was an injury on the eve of the tournament that would provide the only notable interruption to his dominance. In a warm-up match against Norway, Buffon broke his finger whilst saving a shot from John Carew, ruling him of the tournament.

With Pagliuca now firmly out of the picture, the expectation would have been for Peruzzi to reclaim the spot he had held for much of the previous five years. However, in an uncharacteristic act of petulance, the 30-year-old had pulled out of the squad prior to Buffon’s injury as he was unwilling to play second fiddle to the Parma man. While this freak set of circumstances would’ve left most nations at crisis point, Italy had an embarrassment of goalkeeping riches during this period and could call on another world-class stopper in the form of Francesco Toldo.

An ever-present member of Fiorentina’s famous 1990s side, Toldo must have wondered if his big chance at international level would pass him by after years playing back-up to Peruzzi, Pagliuca and later Buffon. Standing at a monstrous six-foot-five, Toldo possessed the archetypal look of an imposing goalkeeper and had the talent to go with it. 

Beginning his career with Milan, Toldo was never afforded an opportunity to shine with the northern giants and was loaned out on numerous occasions before Fiorentina finally granted him his big break in 1993. Over the next few years, he would establish himself as one of the most important members of an outstanding Viola side that included the likes of Gabriel Batistuta and Rui Costa. Having been a member of Cesare Maldini’s Italy under-21s that won the 1994 European Championship, it was predicted by many that Toldo would emerge as the eventual successor to the Peruzzi-Pagliuca duology. 

The emergence of the prodigious Buffon, however, looked to have ended his ambitions for a sustained run at international level before fate dealt him the greatest of hands at the Euros. In a career-defining tournament, Toldo became a national hero as his inspired performances were instrumental in Italy’s route to the final.

His magnum opus was undoubtedly the semi-final performance against hosts Holland. After losing Gianluca Zambrotta to second yellow card early in the game, Italy, despite boasting the mythical magical trio of Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro, were powerless to prevent the avalanche of Dutch attacks coming their way. In the game of his career, Toldo made numerous key interventions, the pick of his saves an agile low dive to rebuke Frank de Boer’s penalty, his animated post-save celebrations providing one of the tournaments immortal moments.

Read  |  Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and the last stand of great Italian defending

His performance in normal time allowed Italy to hold on for a penalty shootout. Unlike the heartbreak experienced by Pagliuca, Toldo became a national hero as he saved two efforts – the first from Paul Bosvelt and then yet again from De Boer – and booked his nation’s place in the final. Although an agonising golden goal from David Trezeguet would see Italy suffer heartbreak at the hands of France once more, Toldo’s place in Italian folklore was secure, with his semi-final performance the greatest moment an Azzurri keeper had enjoyed at a tournament since Zoff had lifted the World Cup in 1982.

Although the rest of their careers would see them overshadowed by Buffon, Peruzzi, Pagliuca and Toldo continued to enjoy domestic football. The older of the three, Pagliuca, was replaced by Peruzzi as Inter keeper in 1999 and moved to hometown club Bologna, where his career enjoyed an Indian Summer. Peruzzi, who followed Lippi to Inter, only spent one season in Milan before Lazio broke the world transfer record for a goalkeeper and brought him back to Rome in a £15.7m deal.

The Lazio Peruzzi signed for were a big-spending, star-studded outfit that had just won the previous season’s Scudetto, but the onset of financial problems slowly eroded their standing as one of Europe’s top clubs. Nevertheless, Peruzzi became a legend during his seven years at the Olimpico and came to be seen as a symbol of stability in an often-chaotic period for the club. Such was Peruzzi’s standing in Italy that, at 36, he was selected as back-up to Buffon by Lippi for Italy’s triumphant World Cup 2006 campaign and was described by his long-time mentor as being “one of the secrets to success”.

After one more season in Florence, where he lifted the Coppa Italia, Toldo signed for Inter for £17m in 2001. His first four seasons cemented his standing as one of Europe’s elite goalkeepers, winning another Coppa Italia as well as producing some exceptional performances in the Champions League. His later years saw him operating as a back-up to Brazilian Júlio César as Inter established themselves as the dominant force in Italy. His final season before retiring was Inter’s infamous treble campaign under José Mourinho in 2009/10, although Toldo only made three cup appearances in total.

While the talents and achievements of these great Azzurri keepers are without question, it is tempting to wonder what sort of legacy each would have enjoyed had their careers not been sandwiched between the unshakable shadows of Zoff and Buffon. Amazingly, Zenga, Peruzzi, Pagliuca and Toldo all made the shortlist for the Ballon d’Or at least once in their careers, showing the esteem they were held in by the footballing world at their respective peaks.

In an era where almost any other national team would have killed to have a goalkeeper the calibre of Toldo, Peruzzi or Pagliuca at their disposal, Italy’s embarrassment of riches resulted in the three stars having to compete with each other – and later Buffon – just to get on the teamsheet.

In any other position, the emergence of two or three world-class players from the same nationality would be cause for euphoria; sadly, Italy’s goalkeeping surplus in this decade arguably compromised each of their international careers. Nevertheless, all these men enjoyed phenomenal careers and were key components in a golden age of Italian goalkeeping, the likes of which we may never see again.

By James Sweeney @James_Sweeney92

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