It doesn't get much bigger than the semi-finals of the Champions League. The quadrennial festival that is the World Cup remains football’s most traditional tournament, but there's an argument to be had that Europe’s foremost club competition has overtaken it in terms of quality.
The sense of occasion was palpable in Turin last Tuesday, when Juventus hosted Real Madrid in the first leg of their final-four tie. The Italians, who had just wrapped up a fourth consecutive Serie A title, were attempting to reach their first European final since 2003, while Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid were battling to take another step towards becoming the first side to retain the trophy in its current format.
As the minutes until kick-off ticked away and the atmosphere – boosted by the iconic Champions League anthem – grew louder, the enormity of the occasion for both clubs and the individuals involved was clear. The two had met at the same stage 12 years ago, Juve triumphing 4-3 on aggregate, and the 22 players lining up this time around were all desperate to make their mark.
A glance at the two men who had gathered in the centre circle, though, suggested that this was just another game. Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas were calm and collected, relaxed enough to share a joke as referee Martin Atkinson tossed a coin to determine which side would begin the match.
As two of the greatest goalkeepers of all-time embraced, hands tucked into gloves and armbands adorning their biceps, it would have been easy to mistake this for an insignificant friendly. Focused but unflustered, determined but composed, this was merely another day at work for two men who have seen it all.
Buffon and Casillas, now 36 and 33 respectively, are approaching the end of their remarkable careers. With almost 1,500 club appearances and 24 major trophies between them, both have become symbols of the very essence of Juventus and Real Madrid; captains on the field, leaders off it and, above all, the representatives of two of football’s biggest and most global giants.
On Wednesday they will come face to face at the Santiago Bernabeu, with a place in the Champions League final at stake for what could conceivably be the last time in their careers.
Juve get Buff
Buffon was perhaps always destined to keep goal. His mother was a discus thrower and his father represented Italy at the shot put; Lorenzo, his mum’s cousin, played between the sticks for Milan and Inter, his uncle was an international basketballer and his older sisters became volleyball players. The hand-related sporting gene has passed down the generations.
Buffon began his career at Parma, making his first appearance in a game against Milan in 1995 aged 17. Dino Zoff, the legendary Italian goalkeeper who won 112 caps for his country, commented afterwards that he had “never seen a debut like his for the personality and quality he showed”.
Juventus brought him to the north-west in 2001 for £32 million, a fee that remains by some distance a world record for a goalkeeper. Buffon has won eight top-flight titles – two of which were revoked – in the subsequent 14 years, plus the World Cup in 2006.
The only trophy at club level he has yet to get his hands on is the Champions League. The Carrara-born shot-stopper saved penalties from Kakha Kaladze and Clarence Seedorf in the 2003 final against Milan but even that wasn't enough after three of his team-mates failed with their efforts. Having already won the UEFA Cup and Coppa Italia at Parma, Buffon needs Ol’ Big Ears to complete his set.
Casillas’s association with Real Madrid stretches all the way back to 1990. Born 11 miles from the centre of the capital, he joined the club’s academy as a nine-year-old and made his debut for the first team aged 18.
His breakthrough moment came in the 2002 Champions League Final, when first-choice stopper Cesar suffered an injury after 68 minutes with Madrid defending a 2-1 lead against Bayer Leverkusen.
Casillas came on to make a host of late saves which helped Vicente del Bosque’s side hold on and secure their ninth European Cup. From there Casillas went from strength to strength, soon establishing himself as one of – if not the – best goalkeepers in the world.
He has endured some difficult moments over the last couple of years, and a downturn in form has been increasingly met with boos and whistles from Los Blancos fans.
Casillas was caught on camera swearing at the supporters who heckled him during Madrid’s 2-2 draw with Valencia on Saturday, but insists he will remain at Real despite their rumoured interest in David de Gea.
Whatever happens this summer, there can be no doubting that Casillas is one of the best players in Madrid’s entire history. He is behind only Raul in the list of all-time appearance makers and has amassed an incredible list of individual and collective honours, including five La Liga titles. They may be one of the biggest clubs in the world, but Real Madrid may never again produce a keeper as good as Casillas.
Style vs Substance
Given that Casillas and Buffon have competed at the top of the game for so long, comparisons between the two have always been inevitable. The Spaniard has been the more spectacular of the two, with his speed, agility and reflexes allowing him to make numerous sensational saves. The Real Madrid man is an acrobat, and probably has the superior highlights video on YouTube (because that's what counts, right kids?).
(Ed - Oh, go on then: you were probably going to look this up anyway.)
Buffon has proved himself as more of an all-rounder who uses his positioning, organisational and decision-making talents to close off angles and minimise the attacker’s chances of scoring. He is more physical, too, and has a better command of his penalty area.
Much like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, though, it is better to simply enjoy rather than compare the duo. These two titans of the game have given so much to their clubs over the past decade-and-a-half, evolving from players to skippers and examples of what it means to play for their respective giants.
One of them will be a loser on Wednesday night but, regardless, both Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas will go down in history as two of the greatest goalkeepers to have ever walked the earth.
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