The stories behind Gianluigi Buffon’s five finest saves

Orson Welles once said that in this life, nobody gets justice. It’s either good luck or bad luck.

Last Saturday, the Citizen Kane of goalkeepers lined out at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff looking to right a simmering wrong. Gianluigi Buffon was finally within sight of a trophy that, despite two previous attempts, had eluded him throughout his 22-year career.Alas, it wouldn’t be third time lucky, with Real Madrid breaking Juventus hearts in a comprehensive 4-1 victory.  At 39, time is fast running out for Buffon to fill the gaping hole in his medal collection.  Even if he fails, though, it’s been an astonishing career full of jaw-dropping athleticism and improbable saves. Here are just a few of them.

For Parma vs. Gionatha Spinesi, Pascal De Greogrio & Antonio Cassano of Bari (Serie A, 1999)

Parma had looked home and dry after Marcio Amoroso nodded in a Johan Walem corner against Bari in their league encounter on 5 November 2000. That was before Gionatha Spinesi latched on to a second half free kick to guide a header which, for any other goalkeeper in the world, would have ended up in the bottom corner. Buffon, however, had other ideas, diving low to stop it at his left hand side before recovering to block rebounds from Pascal De Gregorio and a spotty-faced prodigy by the name of Antonio Cassano.

For Parma vs. Alvaro Recoba of Inter Milan (Serie A, 2000)

After a gruelling Serie A season finished in 2000, Parma and Inter were level on 58 points. A playoff was convened on 23 May at the Bentegodi Stadium in Verona, with the winner granted the fourth and final  Champions League place.

The match is remembered more for Roberto Baggio’s astonishing duet of strikes, the first of which had caught Buffon off guard from a free kick. Despite the 3-1 defeat which consigned his team to the UEFA Cup, however, the Parma ‘keeper made what remains one of his most acrobatic saves to date.

Alvaro Recoba had just been recalled from a scintillating loan spell at Venezia, and by the time Inter’s number 20 wound-up for a strike from 30 yards, everybody knew it would be on target.  Striking across the ball with venom, Lilian Thuram and Paolo Vanoli could only watch as the ball arrowed towards the top corner. Buffon had taken a step in the opposite direction before throwing himself into the air from a dead stop, a strong left palm sending the ball out for a corner. Roberto Baggio’s wide-eyed, mouth-covered expression said it all – how did he save that?

For Italy vs. Hugo Brizuela of Paraguay (World Cup, 1998)

Friendlies are normally drab affairs, particularly so before a World Cup. When Italy faced Paraguay on 22 April 1998, however, fans at the Ennio Tardini were greeted to an attacking masterclass from Franceso Moriero. After his overhead kick had given the Italians the lead, it was his thump from 30 yards that made the result safe, before the South Americans won a corner in the second half.

As the ball swung in to the box, a Carlos Gamarra knockdown found its way to substitute Hugo Brizuela. A mere three yards out, Paraguay’s No.7 thought he’d already scored when he instinctively shunted his left boot towards the ball. He reacted quickly, but Buffon was quicker, palming the effort off the goal line and away from danger. Brizuela’s incredulous reaction, turning to the referee as if some ungodly rule had been broken, only added to the legend.

For Juventus vs. Filippo Inzaghi of AC Milan (Champions League, 2003)

Few look back on the 2003 Champions League Final kindly, where AC Milan and Juventus bored an exasperated Old Trafford crowd into submission. Indeed, most of the stadium was already nodding off when Andriy Shevchenko found Clarence Seedorf on the right wing after 16 minutes.

The Dutchman’s low cross met the diving head of Pippo Inzaghi, the Italian planting a finish into the bottom right corner before his counterpart laid out a strong left palm. Buffon’s fist-pumping, vein-throbbing celebration was met with applause in the stands, with most of the bleary-eyed fans swearing they really had seen it, they were just resting their eyes.

For Italy vs. Zinedine Zidane of France (World Cup, 2006)

Italian football had been rocked by the Calciopoli scandal by the time  Marcello Lippi’s men headed  to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The Azzurri stepped over the wreckage to reach the final of the tournament on 9 July, thanks in no small part to the acrobatics of their by then 28-year-old ‘keeper.

The game had been billed as the swansong for Zinedine Zidane’s career, and so it had proved right up until that headbutt against Marco Materazzi. Perhaps it was part frustration for the header that Buffon had tipped over the bar just minutes earlier.

With 13 minutes gone in extra time, Willy Sagnol had delivered a cross from the right-hand side onto the French captain’s head, who couldn’t believe his luck as he bulleted a finish towards the roof of the net. As it had had so many times throughout his career, Buffon’s sinewy right hand got in the way, tipping the ball into the Berlin night as the ball went out for a corner.

Zidane screamed out in frustration, and we all know what happened next.

Words by Chris Weir: @chrisw45