Celebrating the Italian art of goalkeeping, from Zenga to Buffon

Regular visitors to Italy will have observed that every day jobs and tasks can be treated as an art form. Be it the barman, a waiter, a coffee vendor or street artist, there is a desire to excel in the task at hand. What’s the point in being a barman unless you are the best barman in the world? This approach to one’s work can make for some terrific viewing. In addition to creativity and skill, great professionalism is at the heart of what these everyday heroes do. Although not strictly your ‘everyday’ job, the work of an Italian goalkeeper in protecting his goal could fall into the above bracket.

From the flamboyancy and agility of Walter Zenga and Giaunluca Pagliuca, to the ruthless, ‘though shalt not pass’ mentality of Dino Zoff, Angelo Peruzzi and Gigi Buffon, there has always been something special about the Italian goalkeeper, or portiere, as they are referred to on the Peninsula.

Though not the first of the great Italian goalkeepers – Dino Zoff could equally have been the focus of what follows and has a fair claim to being one of the greatest of all time – my article begins with Zenga, as the start of my love affair with Italian football coincided with Zenga’s finest hour: the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

For many, Italia 90 is most memorable for its great theatre. The football may not have satisfied the purists, but the stadia, Pavarotti’s iconic anthem and Toto Schillaci’s exultant smile live long in the memory. To add to this terrific spectacle, Italy had a prize showman between the sticks. Of all the great stories and memories of Italia 90, Walter Zenga’s 518 minutes without conceding a goal – a World Cup record that stands to this day – takes some beating.

For a five-year-old watching on television, the name ‘Zenga’ alone sounded exotic. Although a showman, the Italian shot-stopper excelled at keeping the ball out the net, as his five games without conceding a goal attests. His goal was eventually breached by Claudio Caniggia and Argentina in the semi-final, a match Italy went on to lose on penalties. Italia 90 wasn’t Zenga’s first taste of major tournament action with Italy. He was also first choice at Euro 88, with the Azzurri again bowing out at the semi-final stage, this time to the Soviet Union.

On the domestic front, the charismatic Zenga spent a total of 16 years at Internazionale. He became a firm favourite with the Nerazzurri fans, earning the nickname ‘Spiderman’ for his athleticism and terrific reflexes. Although a deadly serious goalkeeper, Zenga also appeared duty-bound to entertain. In fact, the term ‘camera save’ could easily have been invented for the man from Milan.

Zenga was a key part of the Inter side that won the Scudetto in 1989 – he only conceded 19 goals all season – and the UEFA Cup in 1991 and 1994. He was also voted ‘World’s Best Goalkeeper’ three times between 1989 and 1991.

His eventual replacement at Inter, Gianluca Pagliuca, was cut from the same flamboyant cloth. When Pagliuca joined Inter from Sampdoria in 1994, his fee of £7 million was the most expensive in the world for a goalkeeper. Although of a slightly stockier build than the streamlined Zenga, Pagliuca was no less agile, and was also blessed with superb reflexes. During his time with Samp, he was part of the Scudetto winning side of 1991 and put in a fine performance in the following season’s European Cup Final, which the Blucerchiati eventually lost 1-0 to Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona.

Indeed, it may have been a trademark Pagliuca performance when Sampdoria visited Inter in 1991 that actually led to the Nerazzurri parting with that world-record fee three years later.

In a five-year stint at Inter, Pagliuca made 165 appearances and captained the Nerazzurri to UEFA Cup success in 1994. He also spent seven seasons at his hometown club, Bologna, before joining Ascoli in 2007. In a 20-year career in Serie A, he made 24 penalty saves, a top flight record.

The popular portiere also set two records during the 1994 World Cup in the USA, for which he was Italy’s first choice ‘keeper. The first record, however, was not one to be proud of; in the Azzurri’s second group game against Norway, Pagliuca became the first goalkeeper to be sent off in a World Cup match when he received his marching orders for a handball outside the box.

Despite this set-back, Italy went on to reach the final, where they met Brazil. One of the most memorable moments of a cagey match was Pagliuca planting a kiss on the goal post, which had spared his blushes after a long-range effort squirmed from his grasp. With the sides unable to find a goal in 90 minutes plus extra time, Pagliuca set his second record when his save from Marcio Santos saw him become the first ‘keeper to save a penalty in a World Cup Final shoot-out. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough for the Azzurri, as they went on to lose the shoot-out 3-2.

There was further penalty heartache for Pagliuca and Italy four years later when they exited the 1998 World Cup at the quarter-final stage to hosts France. Pagliuca had actually lost the Number One jersey to Angelo Peruzzi, but an injury to the latter ahead of the tournament saw Pagliuca play his second consecutive World Cup tournament. In total, he played 39 times for the national side.

In the early-to-mid 90s’, it wasn’t just the blue and black half of Milan that had a top quality ‘keeper between the sticks. Sebastiano Rossi was a mainstay of the great AC Milan side of this era. He may not have been as charismatic as Zenga or Pagliuca, but his record speaks for itself. In 12 seasons with the Rossoneri, Rossi made 240 appearances and set a Serie A record of 929 minutes without conceding a goal. This phenomenal run – surpassing the previous record set by the great Dino Zoff by 26 minutes – was eventually ended on 27 February 1994 by Igor Kolyvanov of Foggia.

Rossi also holds the record for the least goals conceded (11) in a 34-match Serie A season
With his great height and gangly frame, often topped with a baseball cap, Rossi was an iconic figure for the Channel 4 Gazzetta Football Italia generation. Perhaps due to the quality of the outfielders in front of him, and the strength of Zenga, Pagliuca and Angelo Peruzzi, Rossi never played for the national side. However, the struggles the Rossoneri endured in replacing him are a testament to his record and ability as a top custodian.

Angelo Peruzzi was a similarly unassuming and equally efficient shot-stopper. Three times Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year, he enjoyed spells with Roma, Verona, Juventus, Inter and Lazio. Peruzzi was capped 31 times for Italy and was first-choice goalkeeper for the Azzurri at Euro 96 in England. He is probably best remembered for his eight years with Juventus, during which the Bianconeri won an abundance of honours, including three Serie A titles and a Champions League. Peruzzi had a big hand in the Champions League final victory in 1996, saving two penalties against holders Ajax in the shoot-out.


Click to read ‘When Calcio Ruled The World: Angelo Peruzzi

Despite his stocky build, Peruzzi boasted excellent reactions and superb agility. His obvious strength and determination was perhaps a symbol of the all-conquering Juventus team of this era. Their football may not have been the prettiest at times, but their success was built on solid foundations and a strong team ethic. Such was Peruzzi’s standing in the Italian game, he was still, at the age of 36, part of the national squad that triumphed at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

As was the case with Rossi, timing can have a major impact in a goalkeeper’s international career, or lack thereof, in some cases. Arguably, Francesco Toldo had the talent to earn a lot more than his 28 international caps. Toldo, who spent the majority of his career with Fiorentina and then Inter, took the gloves for Italy at Euro 2000, after Gigi Buffon broke his hand prior to the tournament.

The giant goalkeeper excelled as Italy went all the way to the final, where they were beaten by a David Trezeguet Golden Goal for France. It was in the semi-final victory against joint hosts Holland, however, that Toldo enjoyed his finest hour in an Italian jersey. Having saved one penalty in normal time – after which Toldo performed an iconic celebration behind his goal – he saved another two in the shoot-out, on his way to a man-of-the-match performance. His three clean sheets and semi-final heroics saw Toldo named in the Team of the Tournament.

Since Toldo’s starring role in Euro 2000, the Italian goalkeeper’s position has become a one-man show. But what a show it has been!

buffon italy world cup

Over a period of 20-years, Gigi Buffon has written his name into Italian national team history

Gianluigi Buffon made his first professional appearance for Parma against AC Milan on 19 November 1995. In a sign of things to come, the 17-year-old kept a clean sheet on his debut. The following season, he nailed down the Number One position, and there has been no looking back for the Tuscan ever since. In his fourth season with the club, Buffon kept a clean sheet in the UEFA Cup final as Parma defeated Marseille by three goals to nil. He also won his first Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year Award during the same season.

Inevitably, the bigger clubs began calling, and, in 2001, at the age of 23, Buffon became the world’s most expensive goalkeeper when Juventus signed him for a fee of £32.6 million. Over the past 16 years with the Bianconeri, the records have continued to fall as Buffon has maintained an unbelievable level of consistency.

His loyalty to the club was put to the test when Juventus were relegated to Serie B in 2006, part of the fallout from the Calciopoli scandal. However, Buffon remained with La Vecchia Signora, and they returned to the top flight the following season.

Juventus, with Buffon as their skipper and bandiera, are currently closing in on their sixth successive Serie A title. The key to this success has been the Bianconeri’s very own BBC: Buffon, (Leonardo) Bonucci and (Giorgio) Chiellini, a trio that can also include (Andrea) Barzagli to complete the acronym. This defensive unit has been indestructible on the domestic front and, in March 2016, enabled Buffon to beat Sebastiano Rossi’s Serie A clean sheet record. His 973 minutes without conceding a goal is unlikely to be beaten anytime soon.

Despite two appearances in the final, Champions League success has, thus far, eluded Buffon. In 2003, his two penalty shoot-out saves still weren’t enough for Juventus to beat AC Milan at Old Trafford. Juventus were also beaten at the final hurdle in 2015 by Barcelona. Who knows, perhaps, it could be third time lucky for Buffon if the Bianconeri can reach this year’s final.
On the international front, Buffon played a key role in Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph. In seven matches, he was beaten only twice – a Zinedine Zidane penalty in the final and an own goal by Cristian Zaccardo against USA in the group stages.

Since making his senior debut for Italy at the age of 19 – he replaced an injured Pagliuca in a World Cup play-off match against Russia – Buffon has made 167 appearances for the national side, and is only 18 matches away from breaking the all-time record for international appearances. He has played at four World Cups – 2002, 2006, 2010 (though he was injured in the opening game against Paraguay) and 2014 – and four European Championships – 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016. Who would bet against this goalkeeping phenomenon making it five World Cup Finals appearances next summer, when he will be 40 years of age?

If it is not to be for Buffon next summer, the likelihood is that he’ll have been replaced by his natural successor, AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Since bursting on to the scene in October 2015 – when, at 16 years and 242 days, he became the second youngest goalkeeper to start a match in Italian football history – the comparisons with Buffon have been endless.

Donnarumma only turned 18 last month but has already made his international debut and at the time of writing, has 56 appearances for the Rossoneri under his belt. He has been heavily linked with some of Europe’s top clubs and it would seem inevitable that, at some point, he’ll replace Buffon as the national custodian.

What an act the youngster has to follow, but one thing is for sure: the future of Italian goalkeeping is in safe hands.

Words by Martin Dunlop: @Dunlop8

Martin’s passion for Italian football kicked off with the ‘Notti Magiche’ of Italia ’90 – from Toto Schillachi to Ciao, the mascot. He thinks the San Siro stadium is the finest building in the world!’