“If we lost because the emotions got the better of him, or he made a mistake, then it would have been a problem for us, and for him,” Scala said. Di Palma encouraged him to make the change.
And so the night before the match, Scala knocked on Buffon’s door. “Gigi,” he said. “What would you say if I said you were playing tomorrow?”
Scala laughed as he remembered Buffon’s response. He did not flinch, or even miss a beat. Long before he became the world’s finest goalkeeper, the captain of his club and his country, the unquestioned leader of the Juventus team that will face Real Madrid in Saturday’s Champions League final, the 17-year-old Buffon simply looked into the eyes of the most successful manager in Parma’s history and said: “Don’t worry. That will be no problem at all.”
The next day, Buffon produced a performance so flawless it bordered on unrealistic: courageous and spectacular and, given his age and the opponent, astonishingly assured. Dino Zoff, the gold standard of Italian goalkeepers, said he had “never seen a debut like it, for the personality and quality he showed.”
Scala remembered, at the end of the teams’ scoreless draw, both Bucci and Nista congratulating the teenager. Scala had been worried that Nista, in particular, might resent being bumped for a youth team player, but whatever irritation he had harbored had evaporated. “Both of them knew they now had a great rival for a place,” Scala said.
That is an understatement. Within a year Buffon had supplanted them both. By 2001, he had become the most expensive goalkeeper of all time — a title he still holds — when he joined Juventus for $42 million.
Now 39, he is still going: the winner of 10 Serie A titles and the 2006 World Cup. Buffon has played more times for Juventus than anyone else and has won more caps for Italy than any other player, too. He is determined to play on for at least one more season, to achieve his aim of becoming the first player to appear in six World Cups.
On Saturday, he has the chance to fill the one yawning gap on his résumé: Buffon has never won the Champions League.
He has twice come close: breaking down in tears after losing to Milan on penalties in the 2003 final at Old Trafford, and again when Juventus was beaten by Barcelona two years ago in Berlin.
There are those, even among the most ardent Real Madrid fans, who would see Buffon’s finally ending his wait as something of a solace for defeat on Saturday. Iker Casillas, the Spanish club’s former goalkeeper, has said Buffon “deserves” to win it at least once before he retires.
It is a measure of the esteem and affection that Buffon inspires that few would disagree. In the autumn of his career, Buffon has become one of that rare breed of players who seem to transcend partisan rivalry, a player who belongs not to a specific team but to everyone.
Scala does not claim he saw any of this coming that night in the hotel 22 years ago, does not pretend that he knew the “confident, rather than presumptuous” teenager would go on to greatness.
“You could tell he had all the qualities to be a very good goalkeeper,” Scala said, but only that. He did not know then that Buffon would go on to become “the best goalkeeper in history.”
It is connected, too, to his longevity. Buffon’s standards have barely dropped with age. He is still, as his former teammate Andrea Pirlo said, possessed of an “infectious enthusiasm” for the mere act of goalkeeping: Every summer, pictures emerge of him joining in a pickup game on some sun-drenched beach, a cast of impossibly glamorous Italians gathering around to watch.
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