Having gone into the tournament with extremely low expectations, Italy surprised everyone at UEFA Euro 2016, recording a comprehensive victory over a heavily fancied Belgium in the group stage before eliminating holders Spain in the last 16.
They would eventually be defeated by Germany in the quarter-finals, beaten via a penalty shootout after the game ended in a hard-fought 1-1 stalemate in which neither side could find a vital second goal. Yet perhaps more than any other player, Gigi Buffon did not deserve to end up on the losing side in Bordeaux.
As he has done so many times throughout his stellar career, the Juventus and Italy captain reaffirmed his greatness in France this summer, turning in a string of superb performances that showed just why he is so important to club and country.
The Azzurri began in impressive fashion thanks to that aforementioned win over Belgium, but they needed their goalkeeper to ensure the result went in their favour. Even before Emanuele Giaccherini had opened the scoring, Buffon had been called upon to deny Radja Nainggolan, turning his fierce effort around the post after just 10 minutes.
According to statistics taken from ESPN FC, the 38-year-old would make two more stops, helping his side to keep their first clean sheet as they emerged 2-0 victors on the night.
Sweden and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were up next, but the team neutralised the new Manchester United striker and ensured another shutout and a 1-0 win.
With top spot in Group E assured, Buffon would sit out the defeat to the Republic of Ireland, but he returned to shine once more against Spain. Italy had suffered a heavy run of negative results against La Furia Roja, with their last tournament victory over them coming way back at the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
They would end that taboo in some style, however, goals from Giorgio Chiellini and Graziano Pelle securing a 2-0 scoreline that failed to reveal just how thoroughly the Azzurri outplayed their opponents.
Yet despite his team largely dominating, Buffon was again crucial. Denying a header from former Juventus team-mate Alvaro Morata shortly after half-time, he would then perform an excellent save to keep out Andres Iniesta as Spain slowly began to fight back, the two men sharing a smile in recognition of the other’s effort.
“We deserved to finish it earlier, and we suffered in the last 15 minutes,” said Chiellini after the game, per CNN.com, going on to praise the legendary Italian goalkeeper. “There was a saint behind us,” the burly defender continued, “and he stopped everything.”
He did, indeed, with ESPN FC figures showing he made five saves—including the stunning late stop to prevent Gerard Pique from grabbing a goal—to keep Vicente del Bosque’s side scoreless and secure Italy’s path to the next round.
It was there that their previous advantages were negated in a game that became a tactical stalemate, but the Azzurri No. 1 was again responsible for keeping his side in a match they otherwise could have lost.
He played down comparisons to his Germany counterpart at a pre-match press conference, telling reporters that “it would be offensive I think to compare [Manuel] Neuer to a 38-year-old goalkeeper,” only to defy his own age once the game got underway.
A save from Thomas Muller ensured the match stayed scoreless until Mezut Ozil netted in the 65th minute, only for Buffon to rebound with a sensational fingertip effort to deny Mario Gomez—and a Chiellini deflection—just moments later.
Extra time came and went. In the penalty shootout, Buffon managed to block Muller, making him the first German player to miss from the spot since 1982, but he could not stop keep out Jonas Hector’s effort despite going the right way.
Italy would lose 6-5 after a staggering 18 penalties, with Buffon in tears as he applauded the Azzurri supporters before Sami Khedira and Neuer offered their condolences, the latter telling the UEFA website he had “never experienced a shootout like this.”
“To see Gigi crying made me feel very bad sitting in front of the television,” Paul Pogba told reporters after helping France set up a semi-final clash with Germany, per FourFourTwo. “He is a great goalkeeper, he gave his best and so did the team. They produced a very good game, but this is football.”
Meanwhile, speaking to Rai Sport on Sunday (h/t Football Italia), Buffon insisted Italy should be proud of what they had accomplished at the tournament, believing it would help them as they move on to prepare for the 2018 FIFA World Cup:
We reached the Euros looking like a chaotic bunch of minnows, but we return home as a solid side that people fear and respect. What we leave behind is an enormous treasure and it mustn’t be wasted. We’ve proved that with the culture of hard work and sacrifice we can climb mountains – and we did.
That is an important inheritance for the future.
It certainly seems that is true, and incoming Italy boss Giampiero Ventura will now have a strong foundation on which to build, but the veteran coach will also be thankful that Buffon has not called time on his international career.
This summer, just like the 2015/16 campaign, proved that the Juventus captain still has much to offer and he continues to be a vital part of his team’s success. The sloppy goal Italy conceded to the Republic of Ireland—when Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu stood in for Buffon—shows just how much he is missed.
Despite his advancing years and having already won countless trophies, Buffon remains both hungry for success and a true hero for Juventus and Italy, with neither ready to contemplate life without him any time soon.
Thankfully nor is the man himself. “Personally, I'm fine,” Buffon said after the Azzurri were eliminated, per Fox Soccer’s Ryan Rosenblatt. “I still get fired up by these games and I feel that I've still got something to give to this squad.”
An opportunity to become the first player to feature in six World Cups would appear to be spurring him on, just as a desire to taste the ultimate glory of a UEFA Champions League win does with the Bianconeri.
Last term he set a string of records, becoming the first player to keep 10 consecutive clean sheets in Serie A and managing a final tally of 21 in the league alone, with Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri clear in his opinion of his captain.
“It's one thing seeing him only in one game when you are his opponent, but it's another when you see him training every day,” the coach told Sky Sport Italia in November last year (h/t ESPN FC). “I believe he's the best goalkeeper in history.”
After his performances for Italy this summer, few would argue with that assessment as Buffon once again showed why he deserves such plaudits.