“As soon as I saw Gigi, I said to myself, ‘This kid is a phenomenon,’” the former goalkeeping coach tells Goal. “Parma’s sporting director wasn’t sure about him, as Gigi was a little flat-footed and his technique wasn’t great.
“But I knew that we could work on that. I told Parma, ‘You have to sign this kid up right away – before someone else does.’
“Luckily, they listened and Gigi came to play for us.”
Indeed, at just 13 years of age, before he had even had his first kiss, Buffon left his native Carrara to go to live in Parma.
As he did, he was inundated with parting requests from friends and Bonascola team-mates for official shirts, jerseys, shorts and even socks from his new team.
Coach Menconi, though, aimed a little higher. Convinced that his protégé was destined to represent Italy, he asked that Buffon send him the first jersey he would wear at every level for the national team.
Gigi vowed to do so but found the idea absurd, particularly during his early days in Parma. The glitz and glamour of playing for Italy seemed a long way away from the glumness and grind of life at his new home, the Maria Luigia boarding school.
It was – and still is – an impressive, brightly coloured villa, located just a short walk from the Stadio Tardini, but it was a difficult environment for a 13-year-old boy living away from his parents for the first time.
Being the outgoing, jovial character that he was, Buffon quickly made friends with his new room-mates: Andrea Tagliapietra, Steve Ballanti and Antonio Venturini. However, the latter left after just two months because “he missed his family. At the start, I wasn’t happy either. Even just the word, ‘boarding school’, didn’t inspire positive feelings.
“But, in time, I started to love it because, I suppose, I was institutionalised.”
There were kids at the Maria Luigia from every part of the country, from every type of family, from every type of socio-economic background.
As with any school, bullying was an issue, although Gigi had no issues in that regard: “If someone tried to mess me with once, they certainly didn’t try a second time.”
Buffon also tried to assert himself on the football field during that time but, if anything, he was guilty of trying too hard. He would show-boat and, consequently, make silly mistakes. Gigi naively thought he was still impressing all and sundry, but his antics didn’t go unnoticed.
After one particularly needless blunder during a trial game, Buffon was approached by Fabrizio Larini, the head of Parma’s youth sector, as he left the field.
“Try to change,” he said. “Otherwise, go home.” For Buffon, “it was like a bolt of lightning from a serene sky.” The warning had the desired effect. Buffon stopped show-boating. He refocused.
Just a month later, he saved three penalties – and scored his own for good measure – as Parma triumphed in the final of a four-team tournament in Molassana. It was a significant moment for Buffon; all of Parma’s youth team coaches now believed in him.
International recognition soon followed. Just over a year later, in May 1993, he helped Italy reach the final of the Under-16 European Championship in Turkey. The future king of Rome, Francesco Totti, played up front for the Azzurri but Buffon, despite being 18 months younger, stole the show, saving two penalties in the shootout success over Spain in the last eight before then stopping three in the last-four defeat of Czechoslovakia.
On the same day of the semis, the 16-year-old tennis player Maria Francesca Bentivoglio reached the quarter-finals of the Italian Open. The following morning, a nation had two new sporting stars to read about:
“Bentivoglio and Buffon,” read a headline on the front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport, “Italy applauds you!”