UEFA.com debates the merits of Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas, the best goalkeepers of their generation who on Sunday will lead their sides out for the UEFA EURO 2012 final.
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On Sunday two goalkeepers will lead the sides out for a major tournament final for only the second time. At the 1934 FIFA World Cup, Italy's Gianpiero Combi and František Plánička of Czechoslovakia, perhaps the finest custodians of their time, wore the captain's armbands in Rome. Almost 80 years later two of this generation's finest exponents of the noble art, Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas, will match the feat in Kyiv – Graham Hunter, Richard Aikman and the men themselves debate their merits.
Buffon: Buffon is one of Italy's most popular sportsmen and one of the best goalkeepers in the world. At the top of his game since making a standout debut as a 17-year-old for Parma FC against AC Milan, he has kept goal for the national team for a decade and a half. A veteran of the 2006 World Cup-winning campaign, on Sunday he can add a EURO winners' medal to his glittering collection on what will be his 120th appearance. Gigi is a proven winner, an inspiring leader and an engaging, intelligent man off the field to boot.
Casillas: You do not need to look beyond his nickname, San Iker (Saint Iker), for an idea of the reverence in which Casillas is held by Real Madrid CF and Spain fans. Perhaps more importantly, certainly within this impressive squad, the 31-year-old's captaincy has served to both inspire and unite – he is a proper leader, a real force behind the positive spirit that runs rich among the party. And one heck of a goalkeeper.
Buffon: Just watch Buffon singing the 'Inno di Mameli'. Few players boom out the lyrics with as much emotion as the 34-year-old, who sings the words with heartfelt, closed-eyed passion. A larger-than-life presence, Buffon is always issuing orders from his penalty area where, despite being in the last line of defence, it is his voice that can generally be heard above everyone else's during matches. As quick to chastise a team-mate as he is to offer encouragement, he is the unquestionable and unquestioned leader of the side.
Casillas: He leads by example and nobody – even when Carles Puyol was in the squad – trains with more intensity, more dedication. Casillas works himself like a demon, often refusing the days off given to players who have played the night before. There he will be, working to perfect his game – it is contagious. Puyol, according to Casillas himself, was the dressing-room leader but it was the goalkeeper who held court in clear-the-air talks with Xavi Hernández and Vicente del Bosque when unease threatened to grow between the Real Madrid and FC Barcelona contingents.
Buffon: Having won three Serie A titles, a UEFA Cup and a World Cup and played in 59 UEFA Champions League matches, Buffon is no stranger to the big stage. Indeed he thrives in his role as team leader and the man charged with ensuring Italy maintain their reputation as one of the hardest sides to beat. "Every time I go on the pitch I tell myself I want to relive another experience because they are such strong emotions, which everyday life can't give you," he told UEFA.com. His displays at this EURO have more than proved his mettle again.
Casillas: He made his international debut in 2000, just two weeks after turning 19, under former Madrid favourite José Antonio Camacho. Camacho said that two things about the youngster stood out immediately: his cold-veined, nerveless acceptance of pressure and an immense capacity to bring off one-on-one saves when called upon. These traits have served him well throughout his national-record 136 caps to date.
Buffon: He has had mixed fortunes in penalty shoot-outs. He was on the losing side when Juventus were defeated by AC Milan in the 2003 UEFA Champions League final, and four years ago kept goal when Spain overcame Italy in the UEFA EURO 2008 quarter-finals despite denying Daniel Güiza. That said, Buffon helped Italy win the 2006 World Cup final on spot kicks, even though the only player to miss, David Trezeguet, was denied not by his glove but the bar. Recent history is also on his side; Gigi saved from Ashley Cole to help the Azzurri past England in the quarter-finals.
Casillas: There was a pervasive feeling that Spain were rather cursed by penalties after being eliminated from EURO '96 and the 2002 World Cup after shoot-out failures and UEFA EURO 2000 after a missed spot kick against France. However, Casillas has now made crucial penalty saves in each of the last three major tournaments to send Spain marching on – against Italy in 2008, Paraguay in 2010 and Portugal this summer.
Casillas on Buffon
Gigi is a great person; a role model for all of us. For the footballing world he is already a legend, and it's great he continues to play. For me, it was great growing up and developing my skills alongside such a great goalkeeper. He started his career very early. He's actually three years older than me, but he was successful very quickly and, for eight or nine years, he has been one of the best three, or let's say five, goalkeepers in the world. The other top keepers always change, but he is always among the best.
Buffon on Casillas
Casillas said good things about me, so now I will tell you many bad things about him! Honestly, I don't have to use up many words to say how good he is, the results are there for all to see. He has won everything there is to win and has been on the same great level for so many years now, which is possibly hardest of all for a goalkeeper. Spain almost never concede goals and Casillas is the main reason for that.