It seems that foggy, snowy afternoon in Moscow was yesterday, when a 19-year-old Gianluigi Buffon made his national team debut, substituting an injured Pagliuca and valiantly protecting the Italian goal; a responsibility he would assume at the highest level in the subsequent two decades.
Keeping a clean sheet for Italy again in last week’s Euro 2016 qualifier match in which the Azzurri beat Bulgaria, the 37-year-old veteran has completed his 150th international appearance, an endeavor spanning over 18 years.
Few today would deny that Buffon is one of the best goalkeepers in football ever: a goal-keeping genius, a world champion, a charismatic leader, a super consistent performer. The easiest way to measure an athlete’s greatness is obviously to count his or her trophies and numbers. But to take a look at his or her competitors might be an even more convincing way. That is to say, in order to better understand what Buffon has achieved in his international career, it would be more than helpful to review the other Italian goalkeepers who have been playing understudy roles behind him.
Italy has been famous for her capacity to produce world-class goalkeepers – from Giampiero Combi to Enrico Albertosi, Dino Zoff to Walter Zenga. Had a young Buffon not risen to stardom and maintained his performance for so long, many of the following names might well have achieved greater as the goalkeeper for Italy. These ten players’ unused call-ups and appearance numbers for the national team since Buffon’s debut on Oct 29th, 1997.
- Gianluca Pagliuca (Born: Dec 18, 1966; Unused Call-ups: 0; Appearances: 6)
Pagliuca rose to fame in Sampdoria’s league-winning season in 1991. He then became the first choice of Italy and played a vital role in Italy’s runner-up campaign in World Cup 1994. Losing his place to Angelo Peruzzi in Euro 1996, Pagliuca managed to reclaim it soon after. As mentioned at the start of this article, it was Pagliuca whom Buffon substituted for in a World Cup 1998 qualifier playoff game between Italy and Russia.
Although playing every minute in World Cup 1998 at the age of 32, Pagliuca never received another call from the national team.
- Angelo Peruzzi (Born: Feb 16, 1970; Unused Call-ups: 19; Appearances 12)
Peruzzi was counted among the best goalkeepers in mid 1990s. The sturdy man’s performance was an important part of Juventus’s dominance in the league and their three consecutive appearances in the Champions League final from 1996 to 1998. However, his prospect in the national team seemed to reach an end.
Buffon took the number one shirt after World Cup 1998 and a lanky Francesco Toldo became the second choice. Peruzzi’s career also declined before he enjoyed some fine seasons with Lazio, which enabled him to be a substitute in Italy’s glorious World Cup journey in 2006.
- Francesco Toldo (Born: Dec 2, 1971; Unused Call-ups: 37; Appearances: 22)
Francesco Toldo might have been a number one goalkeeper for every single national team in the world except Italy. His miraculous performance in the semifinal of Euro 2000 was undoubtedly enshrined in the history of football.
But that is probably the only impression that people have for Toldo in the Azzurri jersey – He got that chance only because Buffon injured. Because of his top form when representing Inter, Toldo got Trappatoni’s promise during World Cup 2002 that if Italy won the first two group-stage games, he would play the third game. Unfortunately, Italy lost to Croatia in their second game and Toldo never played a single minute in the World Cup.
- Christian Abbiatti (Born: Jul 8, 1977; Unused Call-ups: 29; Appearances: 4)
When a 21-year-old Abbiatti superseded an aged Sebastian Rossi and helped AC Milan win the 98/99 league title, Italians were more than happy to see that their talent pool of goalies seemed never drought – at worst, Abbiatti would be a great backup choice.
It is fortunate for the Azzurri that Buffon rarely missed games but at the same time unfortunately for Abbiatti that he never had the chance to prove himself on the international stage, leaving only 4 national team appearances on his personal record book. Abbiatti played nearly 400 games for AC Milan throughout his career – there is no reason that he could have not done well in blue.
- Morgan De Sanctis (Born: Mar 26, 1977; Unused Call-ups: 60; Appearances: 6)
If you ever wonder who has the most unused call-ups in the Azzurri’s history, the answer is Morgan De Sanctis. He has been called to international games for 66 times but sat on the bench for full 90 minutes for 60 of them. With the likes of Peruzzi and Toldo still in form, a young De Sanctis could not make it to the bench in his early 20s.
Wearing the blue jersey to win the European U21 Championship in 2000, De Sanctis made his international debut at the age of 28 and played five more games in ten years thereafter.
- Carlo Cudicini (Born: Sep 6, 1973; Unused Call-ups: 1; Appearances: 0)
At one stage in the early years of the the last decade, England supporters would have dreamt of Cudicini turning out for the Three Lions.
Like what happened to Abbiatti and De Sanctis, his best years exactly overlapped with the unshakable Buffon and Toldo duo, so that he was not even considered as a bench player for the Azzurri. Although widely regarded as one of the best goalies in the Premier League history, Cudicini’s record of representing his country is an astonishing zero.
- Flavio Roma (Born: Jun 21, 1974; Unused Call-ups: 5; Appearances: 3)
Another outstanding expatriate Italian keeper, Roma had eight solid seasons with Monaco and helped the club reached the Champions League final in 2004.
As with Cudicini, Roma’s brilliant performance in a foreign club was largely neglected by either Trappatoni or Lippi. His only involvement with the Azzurri happened in 2005, when Lippi tried to find some substitutes for some summer friendly games.
- Francesco Antonioli (Born: Sep 14, 1969; Unused Call-ups: 7; Appearances: 0)
Starting for the Azzurrini that won the European U21 Championship in 1992 and being a promising star of AC Milan in early 90s, Antonioli’s subsequent career seemed lackluster.
Although he never secured a position in San Siro, he did become a reliable player in Serie A. Specifically, his solid years in Roma brought his name back to national team coaches’ consideration. Dino Zoff called him to join the team before Euro 2000 as the third-choice goalkeeper, but he had no chance to play at all.
- Marco Amelia (Born: Apr 2, 1982; Unused Call-ups: 38; Appearances: 9)
Italian football fans started searching for the “Next Buffon” long time ago but kept disappointing themselves all the time. Amelia, four-year younger than Buffon, was called by Lippi as a third choice in World Cup 2006. Having some quality seasons with Livorno, Amelia was then regarded as the most promising guy to inherit the number one shirt from Buffon.
People had little idea on how much longer the latter would remain in throne, nor did they predict the decline of Amelia. Buffon still starts for Italy today but Amelia has been unemployed for months.
- Salvatore Sirigu (Born: Jan 12, 1987; Unused Call-ups: 55; Appearances: 14)
Currently ranking as the second most unused call-up player in the Azzurri’s history, Sirigu’s long-expected day to wear the number one shirt has yet to come. However, Sirigu did reach a height that his peers born in 1980s (Amelia, Marchetti, Viviano, Mirante, Consigli, etc.) have yet to accomplish: The Palermo youth product made a great leap in 2011, joining a soon-to-be dominating Paris Saint-Germain and playing consistently in the Champions League.
Sirigu even started in Italy’s opening game at World Cup 2014 against England, when Buffon was not fit to play, but most of the time Sirigu still has to wait patiently on the bench. Pundits tend to view Euro 2016 as Buffon’s last major international competition, but who knows if the man will head for Russia in 2018, when he will be at the same age as Zoff in 1982? Poor Sirigu.