Scuffet, Perin or Someone Else? Who Will Succeed Gigi Buffon as Italy's No.1?
Gigi Buffon is in no rush to hang up his gloves. The Italy goalkeeper turned 36 in January, but he is under contract at Juventus until 2015 and has already begun negotiations on a 12-month extension. His agent, Silvano Martina, recently told reporters that he expects Buffon to stay on at the club for another four years (source in Italian).
Even the player himself, though, will not know how realistic that assessment actually is. Goalkeepers can typically prolong their careers much further than their outfield counterparts, but once decline does set in, it is often painfully swift. Nor will Juventus retain any player just for sentiment’s sake—a point made forcefully when they declined to renew Alessandro Del Piero’s deal in 2012.
So whilst it is possible that Buffon will indeed carry on at the top level for several more years, it is also conceivable that this summer’s World Cup could be his last major international tournament. Already, Italians are beginning to ask who will succeed him as their country’s No. 1. Here we take a look at the potential candidates.
In all probability, Federico Marchetti’s moment has already passed. At 31 years old, he could potentially bridge the gap between Gigi Buffon and a younger candidate, but even that has started to look less likely after some erratic performances for Lazio this season.
That is a shame, because, at his best, Marchetti is magnificent. Lean and agile, he has a knack for the spectacular stop, and his full-stretch dive to claw away an Arturo Vidal header in last season’s Coppa Italia semi-final will go down in Lazio folklore.
But it is also true that when Marchetti did get his one big shot with Italy, replacing an injured Buffon at the 2010 World Cup, he ultimately failed to impress. Whilst it would be unfair to make him the scapegoat for the Azzurri’s shambolic early exit, he was at fault on two of the three goals that they conceded during their tournament-ending defeat to Slovakia.
Suffering with asthma might just be the best thing that ever happened to Salvatore Sirigu. He had been training as an attacker for a local amateur side, Puri e Forti, at 11 years old, when coaches concluded that his condition would hinder him too much as an outfield player. Instead, observing Sirigu’s unusually large hands, they told him to have a go in goal, a story told in more detail here by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
Sixteen years later, Sirigu has established himself as the starting goalkeeper for a Paris Saint-Germain team that is closing in on its second consecutive Ligue 1 title—not to mention the semi-finals of the Champions League. Blessed with exceptional reflexes, he is a highly impressive shot stopper but can still appear timid at times in coming for crosses.
With seven caps to his name at 27 years old, Sirigu is the natural next-in-line for Italy, and he ought to be hitting his peak at the right moment to succeed Buffon. But with a number of talented younger goalkeepers emerging, he cannot take anything for granted.
The last 36 months have been quite the rollercoaster for Mattia Perin. A product of the Genoa youth system, the 21-year-old spent each of the last two seasons out on loan—first with Padova in Serie B and then with Pescara during their brief return to the top flight.
While the former experience went well, the latter bordered on disastrous. Perin conceded 66 goals in 29 games with Pescara, eventually losing his place in the starting XI to the journeyman Ivan Pelizzoli—a player who had previously been his back-up at Padova.
And yet Genoa still felt confident enough in Perin’s talents to name him as their starting goalkeeper for this season. He has rewarded them with performances of such growing stature as to catch the eye of the Italy manager Cesare Prandelli. Called up to train with the Azzurri on a number of occasions this season, Perin is yet to win his first senior cap, but he still might find his way into this summer's World Cup squad.
Outspoken and light on his feet, Perin cuts a commanding figure on the pitch. But his confidence can also betray him, leading him to make reckless decisions at times.
With 25 caps for Italy’s Under-21 team already under his belt, Francesco Bardi is an obvious candidate to one day replace Buffon, but he might need to find a way to crack the starting line-up at his own club side first.
Signed by Inter in 2011, he has spent the three years since out on loan. Despite performing to a consistently high standard with Livorno and Novara, he is not likely to get the chance to start for the Nerazzurri unless Samir Handanovic is sold.
Born in the same year (1992) as Mattia Perin, and standing an identical 6'2" tall, Bardi is another talented shot-stopper, but he needs to work on his distribution. For now he seems to have fallen behind his Genoa rival in the international pecking order, but both players will know that they have many years of competition ahead of them.
To describe Simone Scuffet’s rise as “meteoric” feels like a gross kind of understatement. Two months ago, he was an anonymous 17-year-old kid on the fringes of Udinese’s first-team squad, one who had never played in a professional game in his life and did not appear likely to do so any time soon, given that both Zeljko Brkic and Ivan Kelava were still ahead of him in the club’s pecking order.
But then Brkic hurt himself during warm-ups before Udinese’s game against Bologna. Manager Francesco Guidolin threw caution to the wind, inserting Scuffet, not Kelava, into his starting line-up. Udinese would go on to win 2-0, and have not looked back since.
Ten games into his Serie A career, Scuffet has already kept six clean sheets. Long before that, observers had begun to draw comparisons with Buffon—another player who made his Serie A debut at 17 years old, without conceding a goal.
This is something of a golden moment for emerging Italian goalkeepers, and there are plenty more who could eventually find their way into contention for the Azzurri’s No. 1 shirt. Twenty-one-year-old Nicola Leali (above) was touted as Buffon’s heir for both club and country when he joined Juventus from Brescia in the summer of 2012, although his form on loan at Spezia this season has been mixed.
Alessio Cragno, another product of the Brescia academy, is also receiving attention from top-flight teams after impressing this season as a starter for the Rondinelle. Meanwhile, another highly-touted young Inter goalkeeper, Raffaele Di Gennaro, is gaining valuable first-team experience at Cittadella.
Any one of those three could turn out to be Buffon's eventual heir, but for now they—just like everyone else—will all have to wait. The Italy goalkeeper is still not yet ready to relinquish his position. And nobody else has been good enough to force him to do so just yet.