Journalists were asking because, not for the first time, there had been confusion and astonishment at what they’d seen from the press box at La Favorita in Palermo on Friday night as Italy played Bulgaria. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?” No, it’s Buffon.
Spectators could be forgiven for thinking he’d stepped inside a telephone box, changed from his Italy No.1 shirt into a blue suit with a red cape and re-emerged just as a ball came into his penalty area from the right. Todor Nedelev, the Bulgaria winger, played it back across into the six-yard box where Ivelin Popov slid in, connected and prepared to celebrate. It looked a certain goal. But then the Superman theme tune began to play.
Buffon shuffled from the far post, dived backwards and from point blank managed to push it away. “Non ci credo,” said Rai’s co-commentator Beppe Dossena. “I don’t believe it.” There was disbelief in the stands too.
How did Buffon do it? La Gazzetta dello Sport’s Luigi Garlando had an idea. “Buffon patented the teleporter,” he wrote, “and moved in a flash in front of poor Popov who was left like Pelé in front of Gordon Banks in 1970.”
It was the 48th minute. Italy were 1-0 up by virtue of a header from Alberto Gilardino, the striker and [imaginary] violin player with Peppa Pig, his daughters’ favourite children’s TV character, tattooed on his bicep. For the score to remain the same at full-time, however, they’d need Superman to fly into action again.
And so when Thiago Motta headed a Bulgaria corner perilously towards his own goal just after the hour mark, Buffon came to the rescue and kept it from sneaking in at the near post. Moments later, he was on the floor once more, pushing another header this time by an unmarked Dimitar Rangelov away from danger.
“Buffon saved us,” said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli. “He was extraordinary. It was as if he scored two goals with his saves.”
While watching the 35-year-old leap around on Friday night, an anecdote from his childhood sprung to mind. As a kid, Buffon used to go to i Bagni Unione 1920, a resort on the coast. He still considers it to be his favourite place in the whole world. He and his sisters Guendalina and Veronica used to play games on the beach there, one of which Buffon credits as great preparation for his career as a goalkeeper.
“They tied my hands behind my back and I had to clear obstacles doing somersaults,” he recalled in his autobiography Numero Uno. “How many knocks I must have taken on the head! But I like to think it was this way that I overcame the fear of throwing myself about, diving on the ground even when there isn’t snow to soften the landing.”
Snow was coming down incidentally when Buffon made his senior debut for Italy as a 19-year-old against Russia at the Dynamo Stadium in Moscow back in October 1997. Replacing the injured Gianluca Pagliuca after half an hour of the first leg of this play-off to qualify for the following summer’s World Cup, he was decisive within minutes of coming on.
Catching Paolo Maldini out, Andrei Kanchelskis dashed down the right, crossed into the box and found Dmitri Alenichev who, aiming to the goalkeeper’s left, saw the teenage Buffon divert his shot magnificently around the post for a corner. A statue of Lev Yashin stands outside the north entrance to that ground. The save Buffon produced was worthy of the great man. Italy, as it turned out, would draw 1-1 that day.
A Fabio Cannavaro own-goal was all that got past Buffon, which brings us nicely to tonight’s qualifier against the Czech Republic at the Juventus stadium in Turin. It promises to be a special occasion of great personal significance.
Not only can Italy book their place at the World Cup with a victory and qualify with two games to spare for the first time in their history, but Buffon - on his home ground and in front of his wife Alena, a Czech like the Azzurri’s opponents - will also write his name into the record books by joining Cannavaro, La Nazionale’s all-time most capped player, on 136 appearances for his country.
Who better to congratulate him than Thomas N’Kono, the former Cameroon keeper, after whom Buffon named his first son, whose performances at Italia 90 greatly inspired him to change position from playing in midfield for his boys’ teams Canaletto and Perticata, al la Marco Tardelli, Nicola Berti and another idol Lothar Matthaeus, to play in goal instead.
“Only great athletes get to 100 caps,” N’Kono told Il Corriere dello Sport. “My compliments, because he really deserves them. Over the years he has established himself at international level as one of the best if not the best of all time.”taly's first choice goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi (C) poses with reserve Giancarlo Pagliuca (L) and third string Gianluigi …
Few would dispute that claim. After Yashin, Buffon should perhaps have become only the second goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or in 2006, missing out in the voting to his World Cup-winning team-mate and captain at the time, Cannavaro, known as 'the Berlin Wall' after his heroics in Germany.
“As a young goalkeeper he was the best of the last half a century,” said fellow legend Dino Zoff. “I have never seen a debut like his [as a 17-year-old for Parma against Milan on November 19, 1995] for the personality and quality he showed. In the long run, however, the old Zoff … well.”
The inference here is that Zoff feels Buffon was better, much better, than him in the early stages of their respective careers. In the later phase, however, he believes he was superior than Buffon is now. Remember, Zoff of course won the World Cup at 40 in 1982, his miraculous save from Oscar in the 3-2 win over Brazil proving decisive on the road to glory.
And yet, while it’s true that more errors have crept into Buffon’s game over the last year than we’ve come to expect from him, when Zoff was his age, many were calling for him to quit the national team after he was beaten twice from outside of the box by Ernie Brandts and Arie Haan as the Netherlands knocked Italy out of the semi-finals of the 1978 World Cup.
Reaching the final in Argentina was, according to the great journalist Gianni Brera, “a question of dioptres” - a withering allusion to Zoff’s eyesight.
Everyone makes mistakes. Andrea Bertolacci, Mauro Icardi, David Alaba, Neymar and a parried Hernanes shot that Miroslav Klose pounced on a week ago have left Buffon looking human over the last year or so. But in the same period he has still managed to hit the kind of heights that only Superman can.
Recall the way, for instance, he stopped Glenn Johnson from close range in the Euro 2012 quarter-final, the free-kick he tipped over from Marco Reus in the semi, how decisive he was against the Czech Republic in Prague where Italy drew 0-0 before the Confederations Cup and the penalty saves he made in the third place play-off against Uruguay at that tournament.
Buffon has still got it, he’s still many people’s world No.1. Iker Casillas is on the bench at Real Madrid; Petr Cech, his opponent on Tuesday, has at times come under similar scrutiny and held his hands up on Friday, taking the blame for the Czechs’ defeat to Armenia; Manuel Neuer goes on walkabout every now and then like in the first leg of Bayern’s last-16 Champions League tie with Arsenal last season; Pepe Reina continues to make mistakes even after moving from Liverpool to Napoli; Joe Hart is in a slump; and Julio Cesar, the Brazil No.1, is still at QPR in the Championship.
Bearing all that in mind, those who criticise Buffon should cut him some slack and remember what he has achieved. His longevity is remarkable.
Last week Buffon said he sometimes felt embarrassed at how he’d denied so many other good Italian goalkeepers a chance in the national team over the last 16 years. He shouldn’t. Zoff did the same and as was the case with him at 35, provided he stays healthy and continues to produce, he’s got another couple of tournaments left in him. “I’d like to win something [with Italy] again,” Buffon told Sky Italia. Maybe, like Zoff, he will.
Buffon’s old Man of Steel T-Shirt may have gone, but the Adventures of Superman continue. Instalment 136 for Italy premieres in Turin tonight. Be sure to catch it.
James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.