Santo Buffon is rightly regarded as one of the greatest keepers of all time. His career at Juve has been a testament to loyalty, decorum, outstanding service and dignity. Nobody wants to consider his succession, but at 38 years of age, it is assuredly a major issue which Beppe, Paratici, Allegri, Agnelli and the club as a whole are facing with increasing pressure.
It is rare to find players at the very top who remain at one club for 15 years. When this occurs it is more often than not a sign of not just a special player but also a special man. Gianluigi’s bond with the club and the millions of Juventini world wide is unbreakable in many ways, for he will live long in the hearts of all who have witnessed his talent, devotion to the cause and unwavering ambassadorial quality. Not only has he consistently performed at the very highest level, he has also comported himself both on and off the field in such a manner which befits eternal reverence.
However, the clock is ticking. Whilst he is a freak of nature, and remains in fine form, at some stage we must accept that time will be called on the living legend’s playing career.
This is not intended to present as a eulogy, for I believe with firm conviction that he will remain our number one until the expiry of his contract in 2018. Zoff, a fellow juventino retired after a glittering career aged 41, after lifting the world cup in ’82.
Yes yes! He made a terrible error of judgment in the recent World Cup qualifier against Spain, yet before that moment we were pummelled by the slick passing of the filthy foes, barely showing spirit or confidence or any semblance of cohesion. It was only after that calamity that La Nazionale not only roused from their slumber but very much took the game to our opponents until the final whistle. I am not suggesting by any measure that it heralded the beginning of the end, the onset of old man time catching up with the Great Man’s mind. It was merely a useful catalyst to begin pondering our options for the future.
And so, rather than begin to cover his sterling career, allow my heart to relive the glory and the agony, expound the humble virtues of a player who transcends the prototype footballing mercenary, I aim instead to deliver a brief peek at the options for succession.
The Brazilian was brought in on a free transfer from Fiorentina in the Summer of 2015. It was a fair coup given how well he had performed during his four year spell in Florence. The discussions which were held during the negotiations must have included – we can assume – discussion of playing time; namely if he would have any chance of dislodging Santo Buffon. Why else would a first choice keeper, available on a free, with ambition and experience, move to any club to play second fiddle? Assurances must have been given of his games in the Coppa Italia and perhaps more. Possibly he rolled the dice of risk and decided to bed into the squad and wait for an opportunity which has never appeared. For the man on the throne has – thankfully – remained close to ever present. Which is yet another feather in his crown. His physical conditioning is superb!
In his debut season in black and white, Neto made 8 appearances. First choice for the title winning coppa italia campaign, yet only brought into the first XI other than which when Buffon was struggling with minor ailments. Thus far this term he has made just the one entrance into the field of competitive action, deputising for our Number One in the second half of the 4-0 drubbing of the Sardinians.
His agent, Stefano Castagna, recently made suggestion of agreements not being honoured…
“This was not our agreement,”
“When Neto chose to join Juve and to come to Turin, a clearly defined path of growth was laid out.
“If they are now looking for another solution [as Buffon’s successor], we will have to find a solution.
“Neto asked in the summer if he could go and play somewhere else, but the club asked him to remain as Buffon’s understudy.
“He’s made himself available for the club, but in view of his own objectives with the Brazil national team I think there is every reason for him to find a new club in January.”
“Neto definitely married Juve because he considers them a top club, so he would leave with a heavy heart,”
“But at this point, we need to sit around a table and clear everything up — for the good of Juve and to protect a professional who is appreciated by the whole of Europe and has all of his career ahead of him.
“Juve cannot play with the career of such a good player who all of Europe wanted.”
It is tricky at best to determine if Neto or any other has the potential to step into the holy boots, yet clearly he is a top drawer keeper. Unfortunately, his ambition to play, to forge a place in his national side and to feel the cut and thrust of regular first team action may not align with the form and longevity of the incumbent. I suspect we will try to loan him, for if the club have given any guarantees to the player it confirms that we value his services highly. How highly is another matter entirely. At 27, Neto is in a period of his career where he deserves to be playing, if he is to reach the heights to which he aspires. Unless given chances to gain match sharpness, to mesh with the defence and gain confidence and cohesion, he will push to leave.
23 year old Mattia Perin appears the most likely candidate to usurp Buffon for La Nazionale. Given our proclivity to purchase Italians and the player’s age, I have an inkling that he is very high on our list of potential purchases. Much will depend on how he recovers from his ACL injury suffered in early 2016. He is now back as first choice for Genoa and faring well enough. I personally see him probably top of the list, for his natural talent is rather special, he plays for a club from whom he will surely move if his trajectory of form picks up where it left off last April and he is Italian. There are few goalkeepers of his quality plying their trade at provincial clubs domestically or further afield.
The 17 year old appears ear-marked by Buffon to follow in his footsteps, at least with La Nazionale. Making his debut at 16, the huge 6ft 9 monster of a lad has made the number one spot between the sticks at AC Milan his own and whilst there are moments of impetuous youthful exuberance, his shot stopping, positioning and concentration are astounding for one of his tender years. His precocious talent, blessing from Buffon and choice of agent (Raiola) all place the shot-stopper high on the list of pretenders to the crown.
‘Donnarumma is a chosen one,’ Buffon said.
Of our own flock, only Nicola Leali appears to stand any chance of finding opportunity in our first team. With a close to solid two seasons under his belt in the top tier, the 23 year old moved to Greek side Olympiacos in the Summer. Certainly his biggest test so far. It has taken a couple of months but Nicola was given the chance to impress in the Europa league recently and produced two sterling performances, one of which found him Whoscored Man of the Match (0-1 v Young Boys).
He has long displayed sublime reflexes and we must harbour hope of his continued blossoming. A return to Italy after Greece, perhaps to replace Neto as our number two, possibly beckons.
It remains to be seen whether the club are able to persuade any of the above to come in as a number two, for I find it hard to believe that Buffon will be ushered out of the first XI, for it will be his decision, his dignity and love for the club will make that decision when the time comes. Until which the club must focus sternly and without emotion on continuing to treat Buffon with the respect he deserves whilst also maintaining a keen eye on the future.
To find a world class reserve such as Storari is very tricky indeed, which leaves us likely having to groom our next number one carefully and intelligently. Perhaps from afar in the shadows. Leali is the only obvious option to bring in as an understudy, yet the aura of training with and learning from a living legend may well lead to Perrin or Donnarumma appearing in the ranks next Summer.
We must savour every moment of our beloved Gigi…For it is once in a generation to find a player and a man of his calibre.