Keeping up with the changes at No. 1

Should next Saturday’s Champions League final resolve itself into a head to head contest between Ronaldo and Gianluigi Buffon, the outcome might not only decide the game but also the winner of this year’s Ballon d’Or.

Keeping up with the changes at No. 1

Tradition, however, appears to be weighted firmly in favour of the superstar goalscorer: Somewhat remarkably, in the 61 years since Stanley Matthews was the inaugural winner of the most prestigious player of the year award, only one goalkeeper has managed to get his gloves on the gong — Russia’s legendary man in black, Lev Yashin, and that was way back in 1963.

Not that ‘Gigi’ Buffon needs any further official recognition to be judged among the greatest and most successful players in the history of the game. Indeed, one of the principal reasons many neutrals will be rooting for Juventus against Real Madrid in Cardiff is because they know that should the Old Lady prevail, the Old Man, at the age of 39, will finally add that elusive Champions League medal to his glittering store of 22 trophies, including the 2006 World Cup and, most recently, this year’s league and cup with Juve.

Not surprisingly, he is especially highly regarded by his goalkeeping peers, among them Irish legend and Uefa technical instructor Packie Bonner, who assured me recently in Dublin that he has no hesitation in including the Italian in his personal pantheon of all-time greatest Number 1’s.

“I have a slide I put up when I’m doing my presentations on goalkeeping,” said the Donegal man. “The first one I put up is (Dino) Zoff — I played against him in 1981 when Liam (Brady) was with Juventus. Then Pat Jennings. I was lucky to play against Pat also, when he was at Arsenal. He hasn’t changed. I don’t know if you’ve met him recently but he’s exactly the same. Then it’s (Rinat) Dasayev. He was a wonderful goalkeeper around the time of the European Championships (in 1988, when Ronnie Whelan famously left him grasping thin air as Ireland drew 1-1 with the Soviet Union). He could come in and play in the modern game, there’s no question about that. He was wonderful.

“Then I put up (Peter) Schmeichel. It’s kind of a generational thing. And (Edwin) van der Sar: He was probably the first what you could call goalkeeper-coach, the way he played and organised things on the pitch. Then there’s Buffon and (Iker) Casillas and (Manuel) Neuer and (Hugo) Lloris. And that’s not counting our own goalkeeper, Shay (Given).

“That group I mentioned, they were nearly all captains. Then you could talk about Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton and those guys. They were a big influence when I was younger. I played against Peter when I was 16 for Finn Harps in Ballybofey in a friendly against Stoke — Terry Conroy and Garth Crooks were in their team too — and later played against him at the World Cup and in his testimonial. There have been a lot of influential goalkeepers — but, now of course, the game has changed completely.”

And one of the reasons for Buffon’s career longevity, Bonner suggests, is that he has adapted to change better than most: The proverbial old dog who has continued to learn new tricks.

“At this moment in time, even though he’s 39 years old, for me he is the benchmark,” said Bonner.

“And the reason why is that he’s adapted. When you think back, there was a time when he wasn’t great with the ball at his feet — he was like all us old goalkeepers, you know, having come through a system in which that wasn’t what you did. But he adapted so well.

“I did a good study on him in the Euros last summer, when (Antonio) Conte was the manager of Juve and Italy. The way Italy played — it was almost three passes and you were up beside the striker. And Buffon was a big, big part of the whole thing, whether it was sending the ball long or out to the side. So for me, he was a leader. That’s what you see in him. You can see it in his face that he is actually in total control of everything that’s going on.

“Yes, he’ll make mistakes, like we all do, but he’s proficient at making saves at critical times and he is a great influence on the rest of them. And, as I said, he has adapted. There was one game, Germany v Italy, at the European Championships, where Neuer had 82% of his actions with the ball with his feet and Buffon was up around something like 74%.

“It was quite incredible, way above the norm. The norm is something between 60 and 70. That’s the way the game has changed.”

Bonner himself has never made any secret of the fact he struggled with the introduction of the back-pass rule which so radically altered the role of the ‘keeper between his appearances for Ireland at the 1990 and 1994 World Cup.

“It was incredible. I was coming to the end of my career and, suddenly, I had to change.

“I remember Ronnie Whelan passed the ball to me in one game and I just smashed it straight back to him. ‘I don’t want it, here you go’. Ronnie just laughed.”

When I asked Bonner if he’d like to be playing now, he replied: “Yeah, I would actually — just to see if I could adapt and do what Buffon has done. I might have made a few more bob out of it too!”

Needless to say, even as a retired member of the goalkeepers’ union, Bonner is fervently hoping that Buffon’s Juventus claim the glittering prize next Saturday.

“I would love it,” he smiled. “For him, alone. I’m not interested in anybody else!”

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