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“Are you ready?” Parma’s coach Nevio Scala asked. The young lad blatantly replied, with all the boldness of his 17 years: “Yes.” “Then you are playing today.”
And so, the legend of Gianluigi Buffon was born.
We don’t know what Scala had in mind in the days before Round 10 of Serie A 1995-96. Parma’s starting goalkeeper Luca Bucci was injured. His second-in-command was Alessandro Nista, a seasoned veteran with more than 150 caps between Serie A and Serie B on his shoulders. He looked like the obvious choice to mind the goal of the Ducali in the upcoming match.
The upcoming match, by the way, was no ordinary game. On November 11, 1995, the Ennio Tardini Stadium was expected to welcome Fabio Capello’s Milan, an invincible armada which had won three Scudetto in the previous four years, and would go on to easily capture another one at the end of the season.
The Rossoneri, the most dominant club in the early ‘90s, could boast an attacking line featuring Zvonimir Boban, Roberto Baggio, and George Weah. One would wonder how this could not be ruled out by some antitrust authority on grounds of unfair competition. But Parma didn’t need to be scared: The Gialloblu were also a European powerhouse in that golden decade of Italian football. At just 23, Fabio Cannavaro was already towering in defense. On the front line, you could read the names of Gianfranco Zola, and Bulgarian Ballon d’Or Hristo Stoichkov. Both lineups were just dazzling.
And still, we cannot but wonder what the heck had Nevio Scala in mind when he decided to pass over Nista, and deploy 17-year-and-10-months-old Gianluigi Buffon as starting goalkeeper against Milan. A debutant in the most fascinating and sensitive role, the one where traditionally experience matters the most. An unknown lad against one of the most powerful striking forces a football club could lineup in those days. It was a shock for the world of calcio.
More recently, Buffon’s designated heir Gianluigi Donnarumma made headlines in a similar way with his debut in Serie A at the sensational age of 16 years and 8 months. But that was different. In the age of information, Donnarumma already had a considerable hype surrounding him. He was a predestinato. Back in 1995, with the Internet still barely accessible to the average Italian fan, very few had any idea about who Gianluigi Buffon was when he triumphantly entered the stage of the bel gioco.
The most experienced and aged football lovers could associate the name Buffon only to Lorenzo, another goalkeeper who had collected 277 caps with Milan and 15 with the Azzurri between the ‘50s and the ‘60s. He was a distant kin of the young Gianluigi, a cousin of his grandfather.
Back to November 11, 1995, the story goes that, minutes before his debut against the Rossoneri, the future Gigi Nazionale gave a sample of his personality, remarking to his teammates in the changing room: “Let’s hope they get a penalty, so I can save it.” Then he tied his shoe laces, put his gloves on, and started his journey into history.
As it turned out, Milan were not awarded any penalty on that day, but that didn’t prevent Buffon from making a shiny debut. The scorecard at full time read 0-0, the Rossoneri kept at bay by a superb performance of the bold boy, who saved the day for the Ducali in at least four occasions. He collected the scalps of Stefano Eranio, Roberto Baggio, Marco Simone, and George Weah.
His technique was still so-and-so, but tremendously effective. Buffon showed an attitude to “attack” the ball, run for it rather than waiting for the action to unfold, which was unprecedented for a goalkeeper in those days – as his teammate Alessandro Nista would later note in an interview.
Right, Nista. What did the experienced goalie have to say about being passed over by his younger teammate? “Pretty much nothing, as since the very first day I landed in Parma, I realized there was this lad from the youth team who was a phenomenon.” Nista recalled calling his agent, and asking “What did they signed me for? They’ve got this guy here that he’s like he is driving a Ferrari, while I’m driving a regular car.”
After his exploit, Buffon quietly stepped back, as Luca Bucci recovered from his injury and regained his starting spot. However, it didn’t take much for him to impress Carlo Ancelotti, the new coach for the Gialloblu in the 1996-97 season, and lead him to change the ranks.
Gianluigi Buffon became the starting goalkeeper for an elite Serie A club at just 18, and less than one year later would also make his Nazionale debut – the youngest keeper to do so in Italy post World War II. Luca Bucci, on the other hand, who was peaking at 27, and had been the Azzurri’s third choice goalie during World Cup 1994, never saw his career fully recovering after this letdown. Sometimes football is cruel, and one episode can alter the course of a career for good or for bad.
In other cases, you are just gifted, and destined to shine from the very moment you set foot on the pitch.
November 11, 1995 – Serie A 1995-96 Round 10
|PARMA (5-3-2): Buffon; Mussi, Cannavaro, Sensini, Fernando Couto, Benarrivo; D. Baggio, Brambilla, Crippa; Zola, Stoichkov (65′ Melli) (Nista, Apolloni, Inzaghi, Asprilla) Coach: Scala|
|MILAN (4-4-2): Rossi; Panucci, Costacurta, Baresi, Maldini; Eranio, Albertini, Desailly, Boban; R. Baggio (78′ Simone), Weah (Ielpo, Tassotti, Di Canio, Donadoni) Coach: Capello|
REFEREE: Mr. Boggi from Salerno
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Crippa, D. Baggio (P), Panucci, Desailly (M)