Surviving the snow – Gigi Buffon’s eventful Italy debut
Gianluca Pagliuca was hobbling, heavily. Moments earlier, he had done well to intercept a through ball at the feet of Andrei Kanchelskis but it had come at a cost. The Russian winger had been unable to halt his sprint for the ball, and had collided with Italy’s first-choice goalkeeper as a result.
Two of Italy’s medical staff swiftly arrived on the scene to assess the damage. Pagliuca clearly wanted to continue, but his body wouldn’t allow it. He limped away, requiring assistance from the medics who helped him along the by-line. As he departed, his replacement trotted onto the pitch, hurriedly trying to put his gloves on, having clearly been caught off-guard by the situation. That replacement was a 19-year-old Gianluigi Buffon.
Just two years earlier, he had made his Serie A debut for Parma, keeping a clean sheet against league leaders Milan, which contained Roberto Baggio and George Weah. That was an early signal of his extraordinary talent, but there was still little doubt that his international bow was a daunting prospect.
As the teenage goalkeeper took the gloves for the first time for the national team on October 29, 1997, he could hardly have asked for less suitable conditions. The VFB-Arena, home of Dynamo Moscow, was covered in snow, and the heavens had not let up since the game started.
The ground staff had worked miracles to make the pitch playable, but with snow continuing to fall, it became evident that this game would be about character and resilience rather than skill and eye-catching football. And the prize at stake, you may ask? Just a place at the 1998 World Cup in France.
Italy have a habit of making things difficult for themselves, and their attempt at qualifying for the last World Cup of the 20th century had been no exception.
Placed in a group with England, Poland, Georgia and Moldova, Gli Azzurri had started their campaign with four straight wins under the tutelage of Arrigo Sacchi and Cesare Maldini. This included a 1-0 triumph at Wembley, with Gianfranco Zola netting the decisive goal. Then things went awry.
The side faltered with the finish line in sight, drawing their final two away matches against Poland and Georgia. This set up a winner-takes-all clash against the English in Rome, which finished goalless, leaving Italy second in the group, a point behind Glenn Hoddle’s men.
A play-off would decide Italy’s fate, and so to Russia they went. Now with almost an hour still on the clock, they had an inexperienced, certainly at this level, keeper in goal, in front of a partisan crowd and in conditions that were more presentable for skiing. If Buffon was not up to it, this was the type of night that could expose his shortcomings.
Buffon may have been nervous, but he didn’t show it. Just ten minutes after coming on, he made his first noteworthy contribution. Russia attacked down the right flank, with the ball cut back to Dmitri Alenichev inside the Italian penalty area. Despite being under some pressure, the midfielder arrowed his shot towards the bottom-left corner.
Buffon had to react quickly. He did. Leaping to his left, he clawed the ball behind for a corner. He jumped straight back to his feet, clenching both fists in celebration as if he had scored a goal at the other end. Defender Fabio Cannavaro, earning just his 11th cap for his country, immediately congratulated the shot-stopper, bumping his head against Buffon’s chest. A Russian breakthrough just before half time would have been disastrous for Italy. The team had needed Buffon to step up, and he had delivered at the crucial moment.
With the scores level at the interval, Italy raced out of the blocks in the second half. Four minutes after the restart, they took the lead. In a game lacking in quality, Roberto Di Matteo produced a classy pass, slipping the ball perfectly into the path of Christian Vieri. The Italian frontman did the rest. Buffon’s save now looked even more important, and had arguably been the catalyst for Italy finding another gear in the opening stages of the second half.
However, just two minutes later, their advantage was wiped out. Substitute Dmitri Khokhlov found space on the right-hand side of the box and fired the ball into the six-yard area. Sergey Yuran could not quite reach the cross, but his presence was enough, as Cannavaro slid in to inadvertently divert the ball into his own net. Russia were level, and Buffon’s clean sheet was gone.
Whilst temperatures were still below freezing, the action was beginning to heat up. The visitors would need a calm head at the back if they were to return to Italy for the second leg in the driving seat.
That is exactly what Buffon offered them. Demonstrating maturity beyond his years, the young goalkeeper steadied the ship. His handling was secure, as was his decision-making.
Whenever he got his hands on the ball, Buffon would compose himself before launching a goal-kick from his hands into opposition territory. It was far from pretty, but it was what was required for a game played in dreadful conditions.
The match ended 1-1, with Buffon’s first half save proving to be the highlight of his debut. It had been a challenge, but he had passed his first test in between the sticks for Italy, and shown that he was here to stay.
The Italian papers agreed, proclaiming: “He adapted to his role straight away and he was decisive towards the end of the first half with a great leap to deny Alenichev.”
Despite his impressive first appearance, Buffon would only be on the bench again for the second leg, which Italy won 1-0 to progress to the World Cup. He would have to wait until early 1999 before he could establish himself as his country’s clear first-choice goalkeeper.
From that point, he would rarely relinquish the gloves for much of the next 20 years, securing his legacy as one of the greatest goalkeepers to play the game. He would go on to collect 175 more caps for his country, and alongside Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Alessandro Del Piero, who all featured in that Russia match, he would lift Italy’s fourth World Cup in 2006.
It all started on a snowy Moscow night, where Buffon displayed calmness, maturity and class. They were qualities that would serve him well for the rest of his career, and he is not finished just yet.
Words by: Sam Brookes @sam_brookes2