Gianluigi Buffon still has a role to play with Italy, writes Giancarlo Rinaldi, in drawing comparisons with Dino Zoff’s situation faced in 1978.
Brandts. Haan. Nelinho. Dirceu. Their names rang out like sniper shots aimed at taking down the glorious career of one of Italy's finest. And yet, four years later - as if his goalkeeper's kit had been constructed of Kevlar - Dino Zoff was lifting the World Cup in one of the most iconic images in the Azzurri's history.
For those of you too young to remember, the Juventus legend became a scapegoat for defeats by Holland and Brazil which gave a bitter end to Club Italia's trip to Argentina in 1978. In both matches, Enzo Bearzot's men lost a lead to two blistering long-range strikes. The Dutch defeat cost them a place in the final, while succumbing to the South Americans lost them the third and fourth-place play-off.
People quickly forgot all the years of great service Zoff had provided as they called for him to be replaced. They also ignored the knock to the head he had taken not long before the first Oranje strike whistled past him. He is 36-years-old, they reasoned, his days at the top level are over. It was time, perhaps, for someone like eternal understudy Ivano Bordon - nearly a decade his junior - to take up the post.
Instead, Dino drew strength from his disasters and went on to enjoy a glorious Indian summer to his career. There would be a couple more Scudetti - his bread and butter with Juventus - and that memorable Mondiale in Spain. Even his famously impenetrable features had the slightest hint of vindication in his victory smile.
I could not help thinking of him recently as people started to train their sights on Gigi Buffon. His performances at the Confederations Cup had some speculating his days in international football might be numbered. Their evidence came from shots which whistled into his goal or he failed to parry away into the safest of areas. He's 35-years-old, they opined, it’s time to let somebody like Salvatore Sirigu - nearly a decade his junior - get their chance.
The Juve shot-stopper had a chance to give a quick-fire response to his critics in a third and fourth-place penalty shoot-out with Uruguay. He saved three out of five and gave a lie to the view - which I have myself purveyed - that stopping spot-kicks is not a forte. They may not have been the best attempts, but they still had to be saved.
The clamour for him to be replaced between the posts died down a little after that but there still remain some doubts simmering away in the background. Certainly, if Cesare Prandelli were contemplating a change, he would need to make it now. There would be little or no sense in dropping an Italian institution on the eve of a major competition.
But, surely, there is no need to press the panic button just yet. After performing at the top-level for years and with the inspirational qualities he can provide, Buffon still has a fair bit left to offer. And it's not as if his potential replacements are flaw-free.
There is, of course, a nagging concern over injuries - particularly to his back - which have threatened to draw his career to an end before. That situation will have to be monitored closely in case it starts to send his form into decline. Otherwise, I reckon he has earned a bit more time before jettisoning his services is seriously considered.
It is another era, of course, from the one in which Zoff enjoyed his wonderful twilight years. Few would expect Buffon to play on into his 40s at the very highest level in these more physically demanding days for a goalkeeper. But, don't forget, his next World Cup is just a year away - not four like Dino's was back in 1978.
If Bearzot had listened to the public outcry back then, think of the moments we might never have had. That great goal-line grab against Zico's Brazil, raising the trophy aloft to the triple cry of Campioni del Mondo and, of course, a game of cards with the President on the plane home. Old Enzo knew it would be daft to ditch Zoff after a couple of shaky matches and, I suspect, Cesare understands exactly the same when it comes to Buffon. He might not lift another World Cup next year - the odds are probably stacked against it - but he at least deserves the opportunity to have the chance of doing so.
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