On Thursday afternoon, Italy and Spain meet yet again -- this time for a Confederations Cup semifinal in Fortaleza, Brazil. When Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas exchange pendants and contest the prematch coin toss, there'll be a particularly warm embrace -- you usually witness that between a pair of goalkeeper-captains anyway, but Buffon and Casillas are becoming particularly familiar foes.
This will be the 11th time Buffon and Casillas have met -- four times in Champions League clashes between Juventus and Real Madrid, and now seven times for their national sides. Their amazing consistency over such an extended period, and their status as World Cup winners, means both should be considered among the all-time goalkeeping greats, and while this remains very much a friendly rivalry, it has arguably become the greatest goalkeeping battle of all time.
The duo rose to prominence at a staggeringly young age -- a 17-year-old Buffon famously kept a clean sheet on his debut with eventual Serie A champions Milan in 1995 and made his international debut just two years later. Casillas, too, made his senior debut at 17 and was an international -- and a European Cup winner -- by 19.
Now 35 and 32 respectively, the longevity of the two goalkeepers is particularly astounding, and these days, we marvel at their caps record. Buffon has 131 caps and will surpass his old teammate Fabio Cannavaro's record before next summer's World Cup, while Casillas is already Spain's most-capped footballer, on 146.
However, they were already trendsetters once they'd established themselves as international regulars and dependable choices for major club sides. Traditionally, goalkeepers established themselves at a later age than outfield players, but Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech was particularly inspired by Buffon and Casillas' precocious development.
"Oliver Kahn, Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar inspired me early in my career," Cech told UEFA last season. "Then Buffon appeared and changed everything. Later, Casillas was very interesting -- he started to play for Real Madrid, historically one of the best teams in the world, at the age of 17 or 18. So I told myself: 'OK, if he can play for a big club so young, age is not an obstacle, there is no reason why I can't make it too.'"
However, even Casillas defers to Buffon -- who is three years older, and therefore became established slightly earlier. "Buffon has my admiration and maximum respect," he told Onda Madrid ahead of their meeting in last year's Euro 2012 final. "He is an exceptional goalkeeper and is still amongst the best. For goalkeepers that are a little younger than him, he has been a reference, he has driven us and we wanted to be like him. We have a good relationship and every time we meet it is a pleasure."
There's a subtle but passionate rivalry between Italian football and Spanish football, involving both technical and stylistic differences, and a sense of direct competition considering Spain have overcome Italy on their way to the past two European Championships. Whether an individual prefers Buffon or Casillas is probably a reflection on whether they've absorbed more Serie A or La Liga over the past decade -- similar debates could be had between Andrea Pirlo and Xavi Hernandez, Fabio Cannavaro and Carles Puyol or Alessandro Del Piero and Raul Gonzalez. But the competition between Buffon and Casillas is so interesting because it remains so basic -- relatively few tactical or fitness concerns come into it, and it's a straight battle between two talented players.
Casillas looks up to Buffon literally as well as figuratively, as the Italian is nine centimetres taller than the Spain No. 1. The difference is obvious when the duo embrace, and it's also a key factor when it comes to commanding the penalty area -- Casillas' all-round goalkeeping game is less impressive than Buffon's. Casillas rarely strides from his goal line to claim crosses and relieve the pressure on the defence, whereas Buffon is an amazingly imposing, powerful figure. It's always a little difficult to know quite whether Buffon qualifies as 'tall,' in the Francesco Toldo mould, or "big," like Angelo Peruzzi. He's both.
Buffon remains a considerable force in the penalty box, and a huge presence inside the goal itself. That simple concept of "presence" shouldn't be underestimated for goalkeepers in top-level sides, who frequently need to make only two or three saves per match but are capable of outwitting opponents psychologically on the rare occasions they glimpse the whites of the goalkeeper's eyes.
Buffon's distribution is also better, which is a little surprising considering Casillas comes from the Spanish school that favours short passing from the back. However, Casillas' throws and kicks are much less impressive than his two understudies in the Spain national side, Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina, who both developed at Barcelona, where they were encouraged to play out from the back at an early age.
With Real Madrid usually playing with a big, powerful No. 9, Casillas is more accustomed to kicking long than goalkeepers at many top-level modern sides. Buffon might not be renowned for long, Schmeichel-style overarm throws, but his kicking is good -- his calm forward passing enables the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Pirlo start passing moves from deep.
In terms of leadership, the two men have different approaches. Buffon is a vociferous, old-school leader who barks out instructions to his defence and noticeably leads the singing of the national anthem. Casillas is more timid, leading by example and leaving on-field leadership to centre back Carles Puyol when the centre back is fit, although Casillas' relationship with Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez has been crucial in keeping the Spain squad harmonious, despite recent Clasico-based tensions.
Casillas' strong suit is the traditional goalkeeping attribute -- his reactions are incredible, which means he's an astonishingly capable shot-stopper, and marginally superior to Buffon in this respect. Casillas' dives seem more elastic and far-reaching, and his lightning quick footwork to scramble across his goal line compensates for his relative lack of height. The only drawback, in this respect, is Casillas' tendency to palm the ball back into play, and Real Madrid have often conceded goals from rebounds over the past decade.
When comparing two goalkeepers, traditionally the superior shot-stopper is automatically considered the better option -- that, after all, is their primary responsibility. The Buffon versus Casillas debate, however, prompts you to reconsider your views on goalkeeping in general: Casillas is marginally more impressive at making saves, but Buffon is superior in all other areas.