At the age of 38, Gianluigi Buffon has achieved yet another milestone in his legendary career, beating the Serie A goalkeeping record for the longest run without conceding a goal. Needing to go unbeaten in only the first three minutes of Sunday’s Turin derby against Torino to eclipse the previous record of 929 minutes – set by Sebastiano Rossi back in the 1990s – the Juventus keeper did just that.
A 2006 world champion with Italy, Buffon eventually extended his run to 974 minutes before being beaten from the spot by Andrea Belotti in the second half, not that it stopped Juve from running out comfortable 4-1 winners.
As we reminded you recently, behind one legendary figure there is very often another. And the inspiration for the Italian custodian’s stellar career has been none other than former Cameroon keeper Thomas Nkono, whose exploits at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™ encouraged the young Buffon to try his hand between the posts.
In an interview with FIFA.com, the legendary Indomitable Lions shot-stopper, who is now a goalkeeping coach with Spanish club Espanyol, spoke of his pride at having inspired the great Buffon, one of only three players in the history of the game to have appeared at five World Cups.
FIFA.com: how do you feel about being idolised by such a goalkeeping great?
Thomas Nkono: It’s an honour for me to have inspired a player who has given so much joy to football lovers, and to have influenced his career. I also feel very proud to have opened the way for lots of keepers in Africa, to have shown that it is possible to succeed at the highest level.
Did you have an idol when you were young? Who was your ‘Thomas Nkono’?
I didn’t really have an idol. I’d heard on the radio about legendary players like Lev Yashin and Ricardo Zamora and other keepers from more recent times, but in Cameroon there was no way of watching them, so I had to use my imagination. I learned to play in the street and I had my first real training sessions with Vladimir Beara, the former Yugoslavia goalkeeper, when he came to take charge of the Cameroonian national team. I had the talent, but that was the first time I did any real specific work for my position.
Can you tell us about the first time you met Buffon?
Fortunately, our paths have crossed a few times. The first was in Italy, when he was just starting his career with Parma. I think he was surprised to see me. At the time I had no idea what I meant to him. I saw him again at the 1998 World Cup, which I attended as my country’s goalkeeping coach. I took the opportunity to invite him to my 25th anniversary celebrations in Cameroon, which was his first time in Africa. We’ve stayed in contact ever since and we send each other messages when something big happens. He named his son Thomas in my honour. I was surprised by that but I was also very touched.
What can you tell us about Buffon’s style?
To my mind, he symbolises better than anyone the development of the position since the back-pass law was changed. He’s one of those players who excels at reading the game and who knows what has to be done when you play with a high back-line. He’s the leader of a generation which has taken goalkeeping to a new level. Buffon has always been a calm keeper. He might not be all that spectacular, but he’s terribly effective and, with all the experience he has now, he keeps things a lot simpler and he’s more effective in everything he does. You can’t have a great team if you don’t have a great keeper, and he’s always known how to handle the pressure of being in big teams that are there to win. As far as I’m concerned, it’s no surprise to have seen him get where he is today. Goalkeepers have the misfortune to be watched more closely than the guys who score the goals but, if you ask me, Buffon is one of the best players in the world and has earned his place as one of the greatest keepers in the history of the game.
Can you sometimes see yourself in him?
Perhaps in the way that he stays calm, in his ability to put things into perspective. That’s the only thing I can see, though. I was a lot more agile and I used to leap around more.
What would you like to say to him today?
Quite simply, to savour the moment, because sometimes when you get close to the end you’re not really aware of how lucky you are. It [the end] is going to come but, while waiting for it, you have to make the absolute most of this wonderful profession. When it’s all over, he might find that love for passing on his knowledge to the younger generations, which I’ve been fortunate enough to do in becoming a coach. I’ve no idea what he wants to do, but you never know what you’re going to end up doing. I have quite a few friends who never saw themselves doing that but who went on to become great coaches.