Ronaldo or Messi? It’s a question that will be discussed until the day only cockroaches roam the Earth and all its land is barren.
It’s not one I ever get involved in. I’ve only placed the Portuguese fitness product peddler first on the billing because I thought that if I didn’t and Cristiano read it, it might upset him. I’m considerate like that.
The build-up to the Champions League final this week isn’t about the two freaks of modern day football. And as much as he would like it to be about him, it isn’t even about Ronaldo. This week is about Gianluigi Buffon.
Buffon isn’t just a surname. It’s a prelude to a question. That question being “Is he the best there’s ever been?”. My answer to that is yes.
The discussion about the merits of Peter Schmeichel, Manuel Neuer or even Lev Yashin never ends in a full denial of Buffon’s claim to the title and that says so much. Even those that might disagree cannot do so without adulation.
It has felt strange to look up to someone and hold them in such high esteem when they’re 17 months your junior but it was only recently I realised I was actually older. Such has been the maturity shown in Gigi’s performances, even during the formative years of his career, he never seemed a contemporary. I hesitate to use the word ‘peer” simply because the only comparison I can bring myself to draw is that our careers shared the same timeline.
As another goalkeeper, I could only dream of reaching the levels of consistency he kept but aspire to be him? I needed a telescope to gap the difference. Men are from Venus, Buffon is from Mars and those who come close are just spacemen.
What makes Buffon so special is that his positioning and his decision-making are unerring. How often do you see him in no man’s land or caught making rash decisions because his starting position has put him at a disadvantage? It’s as rare a sight as panic in his eyes.
We find ourselves in an important stage of evolution in goalkeeping and the growing influential role in the way their team plays and this has placed a greater value on them that was more than overdue. Keepers aren’t just there to make saves but essentially that’s exactly what we do and to do that requires sound technique and an efficiency in movement.
Buffon has both, and his former life as an outfield player helped ease him through the introduction of the back pass rule.
I’ve said in the past that you could set your watch by his diving technique. His positioning when facing shots is deep, almost stuck to his line, giving him the optimum time to see the ball and react with his feet, then hands. More time to decide whether to catch, parry or punch and more often than not, he is right.
There’s a photo of Buffon in his back garden as a child, diving to stop a ball low down to his left. He can’t be much older than 12, the time he decided to be a goalkeeper. Arms stretched forward towards the ball. Head forward tucked in behind. Legs slightly too far forward but will forgive him that. Attacking the ball. His body forming a shape that should have been carved in marble and placed on a plinth during the Renaissance.
If I’d been around at the time and shown that picture, I could have told you that kid had the makings of a great keeper. It looks so natural, as if born to do it. And he was.
The mental battles he has talked of only serve to prove that despite his greatness, Superman suffer like the rest of us with the responsibilities and the consequences of being the last man but his strength of character has pulled him through.
For many, goalkeeping isn’t a job and it’s a calling and I’m jealous of the way other countries revere their keepers as more than just the last kid picked in the playground.
Whilst on my very first goalkeeping coaches course with the SFA, I came across a young Portuguese coach, Hugo Oliviera. Most watched on and smirked as he talked us through his assessment session, using the analogy of the penalty box as our castle and that we were the knights defending it. I loved the enthusiasm with which he spoke about goalkeeping for someone who was still in his mid-20s. Hugo is now Marco Silva’s goalkeeping coach and still full of the same passion.
Buffon’s love letter he wrote to his goal last year reminded me of this approach. Taking pride in defending something precious and dear to them, rather than playing with fear of it being breached. The romanticism is beautiful in a game stripped of it.
Almost 40 years after Brian Clough was quoted as saying Peter Shilton was worth an extra 10 points to his side, the wider perception of keepers as second class citizens on the pitch is finally ebbing away, in no small part to the likes of Gianluigi Buffon.
Not only has he excelled at keeping the ball out of the net, he has made it catwalk cool. He is the Chanel of goalkeeping. A stone cold classic. Never in vogue, yet never out. Always and forever, Gigi. Always the very best.