Grim play and a dreary final most often come to mind when the 1990 World Cup is discussed, but the life of a 12-year-old Italian boy changed dramatically by what he observed during that month of play.
At the time, attacker Gianluigi Buffon stepped onto the field to score goals rather than prevent them, but watching the heroics of Cameroonian keeper Thomas N’Kono playing in a third World Cup convinced him to take a different path.
Led by N’Kono and striker Roger Milla, Cameroon stunned defending world champion Argentina, 1-0, in its opening game, and made history by being the first African team to reach the quarterfinals of a World Cup. A 3-2 loss to England ended the fairy tale for Cameroon but ignited dreams within Buffon.
“All the eyes of the world were on players like Diego Maradona and Gary Lineker, but I was mesmerised by Thomas N'Kono,” said Buffon to the BBC. “It was the things he did for Cameroon during that World Cup that inspired me to become a goalkeeper myself.”
Apparently, Buffon soon made an impression on N’Kono was well. When the Cameroonian keeper retired he asked Buffon, with Parma at the time prior to his move to Juventus in 2001, to play in his farewell game.
“I first met him when he was 20 and he was with Parma,” N'Kono said. “A year later, I asked him to play in my farewell game in Cameroon. He said 'yes, no problem', but I never thought he would come. Then, at the last minute, he called me to say he was at the airport about to come to Cameroon. It was amazing."
Amazing is the right word to describe the career of Buffon, who is Italy’s all-time caps leader with 168 and was selected to five World Cup teams, including the 2006 squad that captured the trophy. At the club level, he helped Parma win a UEFA Cup in 1999 and made 220 appearances in all competitions; for Juventus has won eight Serie A titles and is second on its all-time list with 621 games played.
About the only item missing from the resume is a Champions League winners’ medal, which he can collect Saturday if Juve beats Real Madrid in the final. He and Juve lost in the 2003 and 2015 finals, and if the Italian giant loses to Real, it will tie Benfica for the most losses in a European Cup/Champions League final (7).
“I have always maintained that, in football, making the final means nothing if you don't win it,” said Buffon. “I don't look at the Champions League as the trophy that evades me - but, yes, it is a big dream for me to win it.
“It would be great joy. There's nothing better in life than getting your reward, because you know how hard you've worked, how much you've sweated for it - and with team-mates who've worked even more to get it.”
At 39, Buffon has shown no signs of slowing down or losing his ability or enthusiasm. His presence in the final for Juve has drawn a lot of sentimental support, and not only from former teammates such as Gianluca Zambrotta, who captained the World Cup-winning team in 2006. "He deserves to win this trophy,” said Zambrotta.
That sentiment is shared by many of his rivals and colleagues, including a goalkeeper who has won the same trophies for Spain and Real Madrid.
“If they weren't up against Madrid, I would want to him to win the Champions with all my heart,” said Iker Casillas, who left Real for Porto in 2015. “He deserves it - Gigi shouldn't end his career without a Champions League.”
Buffon’s childhood idol has some advice to go along with his best wishes. “Enjoy it - enjoy it like you always have,” N’Kono said. “If you enjoy what you do in life you will always do it without any pressure.”
Buffon's mentality is key to his success.
Gigi lost today, but will keep the record books ticking. Note - Cannavaro was Italy's World Cup winning captain in 2006. Not Zambrotta.
1990 would be N'Kono's second Cup, though he was also in the squad in 1994.