Gianluigi Buffon retires: Five saves that defined his career

Gianluigi Buffon, the iconic goalkeeper with more than 1,000 professional appearances, has announced his retirement at the age of 45. A revered figure in football, Buffon's legacy as one of the sport's greatest goalkeepers and characters is undeniable.

Throughout his 28-year career, Buffon made countless awe-inspiring saves that solidified his status as a goalkeeping legend, from penalty saves against the football's finest to stops that seemingly define reality.

Let's take a look at five saves that were not only incredible, but also defined different parts of Buffon's career and character.

A debut to remember

It says a lot about Buffon's quality when he outshone two Ballon d'Or winners and a team of world-class talents as a 17-year-old. In a remarkable debut match against AC Milan on Nov. 19, 1995, a teenage Buffon gave Parma fans and Serie A enthusiasts their first glimpse of his talent by stopping the likes of Roberto Baggio and George Weah.

But the young Buffon's best stop came with only minutes to play. Marco Simone found himself in a prime scoring position after a header redirected a Milan corner kick to his feet. The Italian's first touch settled the ball, and he twisted his body to shoot from just outside of Parma's six-yard box.

It looked like a certain goal, but Buffon anticipated Simone's shot perfectly. He took a couple of steps forward as Simone set himself up, then dove to his left side and parried the shot away. Buffon's exceptional debut left legendary shot-stopper Dino Zoff in awe -- he said he'd never seen a debut quite like Buffon's, a testament to the young goalkeeper's potential.

The birth of Superman

By the 1997-98 season, 20-year-old Buffon was Parma's regular starting goalkeeper and a fan favourite. Fans especially loved the young goalkeeper for his aerial prowess, agility and ability to make Superman-esque diving saves, prompting them to nickname him "Superman."

Buffon played into the superhero persona. In a March 8 match against Inter Milan, Buffon spectacularly saved a Ronaldo Nazario penalty by diving low to his left and getting two hands in front of the shot. Immediately, Buffon faced the Parma fans behind his goal -- before the ball had even been cleared from his box -- and celebrated the save by showing the faithful a Superman T-shirt. The shirt had been given to Buffon by the Parma fans a few days before the Inter match.

The save preserved a clean sheet in a win over the visiting Inter Milan, but from a legacy perspective, it also cemented Buffon's status as football's Superman. He was pictured celebrating Parma's Coppa Italia victory the following season in that same T-shirt; and when Buffon rejoined Parma in 2021, the club announced his return with the hashtag #SupermanReturns.

Buffon's most difficult save

Buffon made a record-breaking move from Juventus for €52million in July 2001, becoming the most expensive goalkeeper signing in the world at the time. Two years later, Buffon was playing in his first-ever UEFA Champions League final, against AC Milan. And just like in his debut against the Rossoneri eight years prior, he frustrated his opponent with an all-time save.

In the 17th minute, Milan's Filippo Inzaghi unleashed a thunderous header toward Buffon's goal, seemingly destined for the back of the net. However, the incredible Buffon reacted in the blink of an eye, stretching out his hand to make a breath-taking save.

Inzaghi must have been convinced he had scored his 31st goal of the 2002-03 season. So when he saw his header directed wide, all he could do at that moment was sit on his knees and place his hands on his head. In the background, Buffon celebrated with a double fist pump.

Although Buffon's heroics kept the match goalless, Milan eventually triumphed in the penalty shootout, denying Buffon the coveted Champions League trophy. Despite the disappointment, Buffon regarded the save against Inzaghi as the most challenging of his illustrious career.

Buffon vs. Zinedine Zidane

During the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Buffon displayed his goalkeeping brilliance by conceding just one non-penalty goal in seven games. However, one moment stood out as a testament to his status as a world-class player.

With the score tied at 1-1 in the 104th minute of added time, French captain Zidane played a pass from the centre of Italy's half to Willy Sagnol on his right. Sagnol, a right-back, took a touch, looked up, and located Zidane with an accurate cross that eluded Italy's defenders.

Zidane had already beaten Buffon from the penalty spot in the first half, and for a moment it appeared he had put France ahead. But Buffon was ready for it. As the cross came in, he took a position closer to his line to give himself more time to react to a potential shot; and when that shot did come his way, Buffon acrobatically palmed the ball over the crossbar.

Credit: @FIFA YouTube

The image of Buffon mid-save -- mouth open, body fully stretched, palm against the ball -- remains an enduring memory from the monumental final. It encapsulated everything that made Buffon a goalkeeping great -- his determination, agility and ability to perform under immense pressure.

Italy went on to win the World Cup in a shootout, with Buffon earning the Golden Glove as the tournament's top goalkeeper. He later finished second in Ballon d'Or voting -- only the second Italian goalkeeper to achieve that high of a finish.

Long live the King

For the average footballer, 39 is well past retirement age. By that point, the average player is probably on a beach in Miami, several years removed from their playing career, basking in the glory of post-retirement life. But for Buffon, 39 meant backstopping Juventus to another Champions League final while collecting every major goalkeeper award he could've possibly won.

In 2015, Buffon led Juventus to their first Champions League final in over a decade, only to be thwarted by Barcelona's treble-winning trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar. Two years later, Buffon sought redemption against Barcelona in the 2016-17 Champions League quarter-finals. His moment of glory came in the first leg when he denied Andres Iniesta with lightning-quick reflexes, swinging his left hand to redirect the shot wide. Juventus eventually won the game and the by a 3-0 score.

Although the save was enough to hold Barcelona at bay, it wasn't enough to exorcise his Champions League demons -- Real Madrid bested Juventus in the final. Nevertheless, it showed that Buffon's reactions were still as sharp as ever, even as he approached 40 -- and that in the fight between Buffon and Father Time, the Italian was still the king.