IN JANUARY 2009 GIANLUIGI BUFFON WAS HONORED BY THE INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF FOOTBALL HISTORY AND STATISTICS AS THE BEST GOALKEEPER SINCE 1990. FOR BUFFON, NOW 32, IT WAS A REMARKABLE ACCOMPLISHMENT—not only because of the famous names he had trumped, but also because in 1990 Buffon wasn't even a goalie.
Born in Carrara, Italy, Gianluigi was a 12-year-old midfielder when Italy hosted the '90 World Cup. During those games he experienced what he would later describe as "a lightning strike." Gianluigi began to idolize Cameroon's Thomas N'Kono, an African goalkeeping legend whose Indomitable Lions upset '86 champion Argentina in the first round and made an inspired run to the quarterfinals. When Cameroon botched what would have been one of the greatest upsets in Cup history—giving up a 2-1 lead to England on penalty kicks—Gianluigi wept. He decided that summer to move between the sticks. N'Kono, known for his exuberant, sometimes reckless style of play, would be his model.
Gianluigi stood out immediately in his new role. Ermes Fulgoni, who recruited the 13-year-old to Parma, recalled the moment he spotted him: "I went home and told my wife, 'Today I've seen a lad who is going to be great.' He had absolutely no technique but made the saves."
Buffon believes his lack of schooling at the position played to his advantage. "I had no time to think things through, so I acted on instinct, on what seemed like the best thing to do in that particular moment," he later told FourFourTwo magazine. "There was no process; it was reactions."
Those reactions would carry him to his first Serie A start—a scoreless draw against AC Milan—at age 17, in 1995. Parma would win an Italian Super Cup and a UEFA Cup with Buffon before collecting a $45.9 million transfer fee, a record for a goaltender, to send him to Juventus in 2001. There he would start his serious trophy collection: Serie A championships in 2001-02 and '02-03 (plus league titles in '04-05 and '05-06 that were vacated due to a referee scandal), and UEFA MVP and Best Goalkeeper awards in 2003.
In 2002 Buffon made his first World Cup start for the Azzurri, and in a quarterfinal match against the host South Koreans he had the opportunity to improve on his role model's performance. Buffon remembered the PKs that ended N'Kono's Cup run in '90, and there he was in the game's fourth minute, facing one himself. He got low on Ahn Jung-Hwan's kick and punched the ball wide, keeping Italy alive in what would eventually be a shorthanded defeat.
Four years later, at the '06 World Cup in Germany, Buffon had a 453-minute scoreless streak and allowed only two goals (one of them an own goal) in Italy's run to its first Cup in 24 years. Again Italy's fate hinged on a penalty kick; in the final France's David Trezeguet aimed high on a PK and bounced the ball off the crossbar. Buffon, whose chatter and skill at head games would get him voted to FourFourTwo's Most Hated team in '09, was credited with forcing Trezeguet to change his technique on the fateful shot.
Buffon continues to emulate N'Kono: He is tall and lanky, and his game has few weaknesses. He has become a respected free-kick defender (his tournament-salvaging penalty stop against Romania's Adrian Mutu at Euro '08 has been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube), and he has developed into a wily one-on-one-specialist—what he calls "an unrestrained goalkeeper," just like N'Kono. Buffon even gave his son the middle name Thomas, after his idol. In 2010 what could be sweeter than for Buffon to win one for N'Kono on the African pioneer's own continent?