Buffon set to match Zoff with 112 caps for Italy
The longer Gianluigi Buffon plays, the more his career mirrors that of his idol Dino Zoff.
Both players spent most of their careers with Juventus, both led Italy to World Cup titles and after Tuesday's friendly with Uruguay, both will have 112 international appearances - the record for an Italy goalkeeper.
''Technically I always tried to be like Zoff. He was a real maestro and the reference point for all the goalkeepers that followed him,'' Buffon said at Italy's training camp Monday.
But Buffon doesn't want to stop there.
At 33, he's within striking distance of the overall appearance record for Italy set by recently retired defender Fabio Cannavaro at 138, and Paolo Maldini's 126 caps.
''I'm hoping this is just one step for me,'' Buffon said. ''I'm hoping my national team career still has a ways to go, and my age gives me hope.''
Buffon has reached the milestone much quicker than Zoff, who was past 40 when he played his final game.
That's because Buffon started out so young - and his Italy debut was memorable. Aged 19, Buffon was rushed out onto a snowy pitch in Moscow when Gianluca Pagliuca got injured in the opening leg of a qualifying playoff with Russia for the 1998 World Cup.
Buffon raised some eyebrows when he ran out in shorts and an untucked jersey, but approval soon followed when he made a sprawling save shortly after leaving the frigid bench.
The match ended in a 1-1 draw and Italy beat Russia 1-0 at home two weeks later to qualify.
Buffon returned to the bench for the 1998 World Cup but soon thereafter became the starter when Zoff was called in to coach Italy.
A broken hand on the eve of the tournament forced Buffon out of the 2000 European Championship, but he then became a fixture for Italy at every major competition from the 2002 World Cup to the 2008 European Championship.
Buffon's performance during Italy's run to the 2006 World Cup title was his career highlight. Over the course of seven matches, the only scores he allowed were an own goal from Cristian Zaccardo against the United States and a penalty from Zinedine Zidane in the final.
The highlight of Zoff's career came at age 40 when Italy won the 1982 World Cup. Although his Italy record of 1,143 minutes without conceding a goal - over a 21-month period between Sept. 1972 and June, 1974 - still stands.
''For now let's say Buffon and I are level 1-1,'' Zoff told Italian daily La Repubblica. ''I'm happy for him. Gigi is a good kid, a great friend.''
Buffon missed most of last year's World Cup in South Africa due to a lower back injury that eventually required surgery, and he has been in and out of Juventus' lineup in recent seasons for a variety of physical problems.
''Gigi was better at a younger age than I was and he made his debut very early and had some unbelievable performances. But after a certain age things change,'' Zoff said. ''I played 11 seasons in a row for Juventus without missing one match and I think that's tough to beat.''
Zoff was also the only Italy goalkeeper to win both the European Championship (in 1968) and the World Cup.
Character-wise, the outgoing Buffon and the reserved Zoff couldn't be more different.
''Dino didn't talk much, but when he raised his voice everyone listened,'' said current Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, who played with Zoff at Juventus. ''Gigi is more open and accessible and he also does a great job at creating a winning group.
''Dino had a great ability to evaluate what was going to happen far before it did, but football was very different back then,'' Prandelli added. ''The game has changed so much for the goalkeepers in terms of velocity, the ball, and how they have to play with their feet now.''
Buffon replaced Cannavaro as Italy's captain, although he might surrender the armband to Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi for just one night against Uruguay since the match is being played in De Rossi's home stadium, the Stadio Olimpico.
Either way, Buffon will match Zoff.