32 players to watch, May 2010

Player To Watch #12: Gigi Buffon

Number 12: Gianluigi Buffon

Position: Goalkeeper

Country: Italy

Club Team: Juventus, Italian Serie A

American Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”: Martin Brodeur, Goaltender, New Jersey Devils

World Cup Final. Berlin 2006. It’s the wee moments of stoppage time at the end of one of the most physically grueling, fiercely contested title matches in the history of the beautiful game. The French have dominated the run of play in the final twenty, and the Azzurri hope only to get the game to extra time. Willy Sagnol, who earlier on had nearly put the French ahead with an effort of his own, finds space on the Italian right flank. He crosses perfectly, slicing between two Italian defenders to a shockingly unmarked Zinedine Zidane. The whole world awaits a massive French celebration. In Paris, supporters raised their arms towards the heavens in anticipation of exuberation. Head meets ball, and it is perfectly placed towards the upper right corner. Nearby, French forward David Trezeguet raises his arms to celebrate. This is a perfect football moment in time, but there is one final turn in the tale. One final raised arm. It’s the arm of Gianluigi “Gigi” Buffon. It’s the arm that meets the ball and flicks it harmlessly over the crossbar. It’s the arm that forced extra time. The arm that ultimately created the perfect storm of extra time leading to the game being remembered more for a head butt than two spectacular saves, more for the water cooler discussions of what exactly Marco Materazzi said then the crossbar Trezeguet hit in penalty kicks that all but assured the Italians their first Cup in 24 years. It’s the arm of the greatest goaltender to ever walk the earth, and it’s the same arm that forms the set of limbs that will determine whether an aging group of Champions can rise one more time and together defend their World Championship this summer. This is Gigi Buffon, and he’s our number twelve player to watch.

Buffon has goaltending in his bloodlines. His cousin, Lorenzo Buffon, was the Azzurri’s keeper in the 50’s and 60’s, as well as a fine player for Inter Milan. Buffon is also the consummate professional and loyal employee—he stayed with Juve through the match-fixing scandal and its Serie B relegation, despite the risk that staying with a relegated Old Lady could threaten his form in the lead-up to the 2006 World Cup. Those concerns permeated the Italian media in the build-up, and Buffon answered them as confidently as he answers long drives with his perfect lines and incredible athleticism. He guided the Azzurri to the Cup with 453 consecutive scoreless minutes, conceding only two times in seven matches (an own goal against the United States, and a penalty in the final against France). He has several times been named Italian Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year, has won nearly every competition there is to win, and would likely wear the captain’s armband for the Azzurri if not for the ageless Fabio Cannavaro, who incidentally is the only Italian on the Preliminary World Cup roster with more caps than Buffon.

Viewed in nearly every informed circle as the finest goalkeeper in the World, Buffon will be the critical cog in the Italian title defense. Let’s call an ace and ace: the Azzurri are an old team– marvelous at defending but less dangerous in the attack than they have been in probably five finals. To defend the championship, they’ll need help from the youth on their bench and they’ll have to stake their bet that an aging backline in the twilight of their careers can weather the wear and tear the Cup Finals tight schedule entails. Enter Gigi, who at times dons a fashionable scarf when the weather or custom demands it. The 6’4 keeper with gymnast-like reflexes may offer more intangibly than he does on the field—teammates feel confident playing in front of him, and a backline unconcerned about what happens behind them can play with great feel and confidence. Although they’ve drawn one of the weakest groups in the tournament, a second-round matchup against Cameroon could provide a tricky test, and past that game—Buffon may need to stand on his head to keep the Azzurri’s dream of a defense alive. My guess is the four-time world keeper of the year will do just that, and when all is said and done—a deep Italian run could result in Gigi being more than the greatest keeper in the world—it could result in him being remembered as the Greatest Keeper of All-Time.

Enter soulmate Marty Brodeur, without question the greatest NHL goalkeeper of all time. The statistics speak for themselves: 602 wins (most all time), 110 shutouts (most all time), 23 playoff shutouts (most all-time), most 40 win seasons (8). Hell, Marty has been so good at everything he’s even forced two rule changes. The first, known as the “Brodeur Rule”, prevents goaltenders from handling the puck outside of a trapezoid area behind the net. This was aimed directly at Marty, whose stick-handling prowess was often integral to the Devils defensivemen avoiding physical forechecking in the postseason. The rule is controversial but not nearly as controversial as calling Brodeur a “system goalie”, whose success produced another rule change. You can argue all you want about the three-time Stanley Cup Champion, four-time Venzina Trophy winner (NHL Best Goalkeeper), five-time Jennings Trophy winner (NHL Goalkeeper with 25 starts on team conceding the fewest goals) benefiting from the Devils neutral-zone trap, defense-first system. But slow down a minute.

This “system-goalie” claim, as my TYAC cohorts (half-jokingly) bring up when I praise Brodeur, is exactly where the Buffon comparison gets fascinating. After all, the few Buffon detractors that exist point to the fact that he is often untested, and that he benefits from the Italians highly-defensive catenaccio strategy, which essentially adds an extra layer to the defense in the form of a sweeper, charged with cleaning up after an already tremendous backline that marks man-to-man. Offense is certainly not the focus of the Azzurri strategy—they rely on lethal counterattack, just as the Devils relied on turnovers in the neutral-zone to generate offense in the form of odd-man rushes. This style typically results in one or two goals a game, both in soccer and in hockey, and the idea is that the defense and the goalkeeper make the relatively small margin for error manageable. While the Italians no longer rely on a sweeper, the system remains in place in modified-form. The Devils were so good at it that the NHL outlawed it, but a modified version is still part and parcel of what Devils hockey is all about. The engine that drives the success—well—for the greater part of two decades (and one decade in Gigi’s case), has been the brilliance of Buffon and Brodeur. For Marty, the system and the accolades failed this year, as after a dominant regular-season the 2nd seeded Devils fell to the dreaded Broad Street Bullies in five games in the first round of the NHL Playoffs. For Italy to avoid a similar early exit—they’ll need what the Devils have needed for two decades: Gigi to stand on his head. Don’t bet against him.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com or @nwb_USMNT.

Neil W. Blackmon

  • Jon

    Is it odd that when I play Mike Tyson’s Punchout and face Don Flamenco there’s something about him that reminds me of Gigi Buffon? Is it even more odd that it’s 2010 and I have recent instances of playing Mike Tyson’s Punchout?

    Great piece Neil

  • Amy

    Gigi color coordinates his scarves too 🙂 Periwinkle and light blue for the Azzurri; Black, Gold and occasionally creme for the Old Lady. Awesome.