The best goalkeeper of the 21st century and an all-time great, the retirement of Gianluigi Buffon, inevitable as it was, added searing injury to the insult of Italy’s World Cup qualification failure.
And while green shoots of recovery have already sprouted between the posts in the form of Gianluigi Donnarumma, that may not be enough to spare the Azzurri a painful period in the major tournament wilderness as they adjust to their diminished circumstances.
Nurtured at Parma during the peak of Serie A’s powers, Buffon was an unused member of what was then a typically imposing Italy squad at the 1998 World Cup.
The 20-year-old would have rubbed awestruck shoulders with Alessandro Costacurta, Giuseppe Bergomi, Demetrio Albertini and Roberto Baggio in a team captained by Paolo Maldini.
Beaten finalists in the previous tournament, Italy could also call on Alessandro Del Piero, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Christian Vieri in the full bloom of youth. This was not a golden generation, though, but business as usual for Calcio.
Buffon had to wait until the next World Cup to inherit the gloves from Gianluca Pagliuca and Francesco Toldo, duly retaining a fittingly assured grip on them for the subsequent 15 years.
7320 – Days have passed since Gigi Buffon’s debut with the National team in 1997, since then he has won 175 international caps. Hero. pic.twitter.com/tnfPAgCt5b
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) November 13, 2017
There has been more disappointment than joy during that decade and a half; a controversial round-of-16 defeat to co-hosts South Korea in 2002 was followed by the shame of a group-stage exit at Euro 2004.
Buffon and his contemporaries memorably, infamously, then enjoyed their great triumph on the international stage at a time when Italy’s domestic game was gripped by the throes of ‘Calciopoli’.
The demotion of Juventus to Serie B was the bitter aftertaste to World Cup glory for Buffon and his club colleagues in 2006. And while the Bianconeri arose transformed from that blow, the Azzurri have waxed and waned.
Subsequent World Cups have not been kind to the Nazionale, who suffered group-stage exits in 2010 and 2014.
A limited team trod a careful path to the final of Euro 2012, only to be ripped apart by Vicente Del Bosque’s great Spain side.
And not even Antonio Conte, master tactician and architect of Juve’s revival, could orchestrate more than a run to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, hobbled as he was by meagre resources.
In the 11 years since Italy’s World Cup success in Berlin, Buffon has borne first-hand witness to a steady decline, most keenly felt in the final third.
Marco Verratti, Lorenzo Insigne and perhaps Andrea Belotti are arguably the only current Italy players worthy of the storied predecessors who shared a changing room with the young Buffon.
The stalwart custodian can at least walk away safe in the knowledge that AC Milan teenager and namesake Gianluigi Donnarumma appears equipped to fill the considerable void left in the goalmouth.
— Italy (@azzurri) November 13, 2017
The same cannot be said elsewhere on the pitch, Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi having joined Buffon in calling time on their international careers.
They could yet be joined by Giorgio Chiellini, leaving the successor to hapless head coach Gian Piero Ventura, who is expected to be sacked or resign, with the unenviable task of trying build a new Italy team from the country’s weakest pool of talent in half a century.
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