Gianluigi Buffon owes the first of his 175 Italy caps to a stroke of fortune.
As a 19-year-old greenhorn, he travelled with the senior team to the Dynamo Stadium in Moscow as a back-up to Gianluca Pagliuca in October 1997 for a World Cup qualification play-off.
And as luck would have it, Pagliuca was injured after just half an hour, meaning Buffon, totally untested at senior international level to that point, was sprung from the bench.
It would not be until after the 1998 World Cup that he cemented himself as first-choice in the Italian set-up but the important thing is that he got in. He proved that he could be trusted under the most exacting of circumstances regardless of his age.
Despite turning 40 in January, Buffon is still out here playing some 21 years later and, until now, has denied the same kind of opportunity to his heir apparent, Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Buffon’s Azzurri journey was supposed to be at an end with defeat to Sweden in the World Cup qualification play-offs in November. He will tell Maurizio Castanzo in a Canale 5 interview on Thursday night that he foresaw his national team swansong in Russia this summer but it didn’t happen like that.
Now, with Italian football having had three months to cool off and reflect on its failures, Buffon has reportedly decided that it is not the end of the road after all.
Media sources in Italy expect him to be named for Italy’s friendly matches in March and for Buffon to play on until the 2020 European Championship, having been contacted by interim coach Luigi Di Biagio.
There is no question that if a player remains at the right level – performance-wise – then he has every right to put himself in the reckoning for a place with club or country.
But Buffon could probably do Donnarumma and Italian football a favour in the long-term by putting his individual quest for a happy ending to one side and graciously taking his leave.
The game has not seen a goalkeeper of Donnarumma’s potential since Buffon himself first emerged at Parma more than two decades ago.
He is an awesome specimen, a commanding presence in the goal frame. He is learning plenty about life in the hothouse having played more than 100 matches for AC Milan already.
He doesn’t turn 19 until February 25. But for a player of such sky-high potential, Donnarumma’s international experience is sadly lacking and he needs more of it. Buffon is blocking his path.
The international goalkeeping position is a tricky one as it cannot necessarily be shared out. For club games, a coach can decide on a league goalkeeper and a cup one and that can be a successful formula.
Internationally speaking, however, and the shirt can only go to one man. Up front or in midfield, a prospect can start on the bench and be assured of a few minutes here and there or even a start in some lower pressure competitive matches. It doesn’t happen like that for goalkeepers in national teams.
Given that he made his club debut aged 16, Donnarumma could and should have one full international tournament under his belt and another to look forward to this summer.
By the time he’s 21, he will have none. If Buffon opts to play on, then Donnarumma could well be 23 by the time he pulls on the Italy shirt in tournament football.
He’s played four measly matches for his country – all friendlies. It is not enough to say his time will come. This is his time and Buffon ought to give it to him.
He should be able to recognise that he himself might not be the goalkeeper he is today were it not for getting that early opportunity which came – perhaps – before he was even ready. Instead, it looks like he might pull up the ladder and deny his natural successor the experience to prepare himself for a decade and more in the Italian goal.
What more has Buffon got to achieve? He’s won it all – save a Champions League – but cannot do anything other than tarnish his legacy at this stage.
And tonight he will reveal that talks will take place with Juventus president Andrea Agnelli at the end of the season over a new contract. Another season, another quest to win the big one.
The unpalatable truth, however, is that Juve might have to move on from Buffon to have a shot at getting their hands on the European Cup.
He has shown this season that while his influence remains strong, his reflexes and reliability are not what they once were.
He was badly at fault for Christian Eriksen’s goal for Spurs in the Champions League in midweek and spilled a few more efforts besides.
At Juve, he’s got another goalkeeper of enormous potential in Wojciech Szczesny behind him in the pecking order. Each Champions League knockout and each crucial Serie A encounter Buffon claims for himself is another opportunity denied to the Poland international.
Buffon will always be remembered as one of the greatest goalkeepers and one of the very best players of this era but time waits for no man. No one is about to chop down his legend and a departure is likely to be on his own terms.
But for the greater good it might well be time for Gigi to exit the stage.