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Angelo Peruzzi: A hero caught between gods

The goalkeeper is a huge part of Juve’s history, but he’s never mentioned in the same breath as other club legends.

Angelo Peruzzi of Juventus FC Getty Images

If you were to ask someone who wasn’t a Juventino to name a Juventus goalkeeper, the response you would likely get is Gianluigi Buffon. Dig deeper, or talk to someone of a certain age, and you might hear Dino Zoff’s name.

Those are the Big Two, the legendary names, the gods of the goal. There are 17 Scudetti between them. (Yes, I’m counting the lost two.) A few weeks ago when I picked the Juventus dream team I would assemble to play a game with my life on the line, they were the two keepers I put on the list.

But for all their glories, neither of them won a European title. Both won the UEFA Cup, the predecessor to the Europa League — in Buffon’s case before he arrived in Turin — but neither has held up the Cup With the Big Ears, despite five combined trips to the final. Buffon may yet do so if Juve manage to win the competition in the next two years, but it would be as Wojciech Szczesny’s backup.

It was in a conversation with some friends about that article I wrote that one of them commented just how little one of the Juventus keepers that did win a European title is talked about these days. That conversation stuck with me, and I got to thinking about Angelo Peruzzi, one of the men who was caught between those two legends.

Peruzzi broke into the league with Roma in 1987, and after a successful year on loan with Hellas Verona in the 1989-90 season looked set to be the long-term keeper for the Giallorossi in 1990-91. But he failed a drug test for a banned appetite suppressant early that year and had to serve a yearlong drug suspension.

He signed with Juve the next summer. He backed up Stefano Tacconi — who himself had replaced Zoff between the sticks and had won the team’s first European title in the ill-fated 1985 final at Heysel — for his first season, but impressed enough that he forced the older man out of the side. In 1992, Tacconi moved to Genoa and Peruzzi took over as the starter.

He spent the next seven seasons entrenched as Juve’s No. 1, generating a reputation as one of the best goalkeepers in the world.

Shorter and stockier than the archetypal keeper, Peruzzi had to make some sacrifices in his game. In particular, he was never able to command his penalty area the way we saw Buffon do for so many years. When he did move to meet a cross, he would very often punch it as opposed to catching it. But his strengths more than ironed out that weakness. He was a virtuoso at reading the game, and could time runs off the line to parry a shot or clear a ball away as well as anyone in his time. It was a skill that would have meshed very well with the high lines and zonal marking systems Maurizio Sarri’s been installing in the last year. He wasn’t the kind of passer Juve’s current head coach would like, but he was adequate for the way the game was played in his time.

He was also an excellent penalty stopper, which is was the basis of his greatest triumph.

Juve came into the 1996 Champions League final as underdogs against a high-powered Ajax side that had beaten AC Milan in the continental showpiece the previous year. But Marcello Lippi’s pressed hard and earned a 1-0 lead, one that Peruzzi did his level best to defend. He ran back to his line to claw a Nwankwo Kanu header off the line after the second ball from a corner, but spilled a free kick into danger just before halftime for Jari Litmanen to poke home and tie the score.

It remained 1-1 through extra time, setting up a penalty shootout for the cup. A young Edgar Davids stepped up first and tried to fake Peruzzi out and put the ball down the middle, but he stood his ground and swallowed up the attempt. With Juve leading the shootout 3-2 going into the fourth round, Peruzzi faced down Sonny Silooy. The defender never stood a chance. Peruzzi was never fooled and parried away the shot to his left. That left Vladimir Jugovic to slot past Edwin van der Sar and give Juve their first title that they could truly celebrate.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Final - Juventus v Ajax
Edgar Davids’ penalty is saved by Angelo Peruzzi
Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images

Peruzzi remained the starter for three more years. He kept his game at an extraordinarily high level. Saves like this insane double stop against Francesco Totti stood out, but Peruzzi preferred to stay upright as much as possible. But there were some blunders as well, notably in the Champions League final the next year when he got caught in no man’s land and chipped by Borussia Dortmund’s Lars Ricken, sealing Juve’s 3-1 loss.

Over his eight years in Turin, Peruzzi added a UEFA Cup, a Coppa Italia, and three Scudetti, as well as the UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup — the spiritual predecessor to the current Club World Cup — in 1996.

Everything comes to an end, though, and by 1998 Peruzzi’s time at Juve did. It was the result of a perfect storm of conditions. Peruzzi had been injured in the 1997-98 season, missing nine games in the league. That, combined with injuries to Alessandro Del Piero and Zinedine Zidane, saw Juve stumble to a seventh place finish. Van der Sar was ready to leave Ajax, and Inter offered a large amount of money to bring Peruzzi to Milan to replace Gianluca Pagliuca. The deals were made.

Peruzzi didn’t enjoy much success in his single season at Inter, despite his playing well. He moved on to Lazio, where he settled in for yet another excellent run, lasting seven seasons in the capital and exemplifying the longevity for which Italian goalkeepers are rightly famed. He even added another Coppa Italia to boot. While injuries had always kept him from taking over the top spot in goal for the national team — and the emergence of Buffon may have eclipsed him anyway — but he did serve as the Azzurri’s backup at the 2006 World Cup, and has been credited as a major locker room presence for that championship squad.

Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (R) PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP via Getty Images

And yet, for all this success and glory, the likes of Buffon and Zoff are always the ones that come to mind first when we think of Juve’s last line of defense as opposed to Peruzzi, or Tacconi for that matter, despite their lack of a European crown. Why?

Part of it could be the attitude Juve sometimes has for its priorities. Despite their current obsession with a third Champions League crown, Serie A has always seemed to be the club’s priority over the years, and Zoff and Buffon far outstripped the men they bookended in terms of Scudetti won. It could as easily be length of tenure — while both Tacconi and Peruzzi held their positions for extended periods, they both fall short of the 11 (Zoff) and 17 (Buffon) years that the others served as starters. In Buffon’s case, his status as one of the “Five Samurai,” the ones who stayed with the team through the aftermath of the calciopoli scandal, probably does a lot to enhance his tenure in the eyes of fans. Peruzzi’s long tenure at Lazio also probably dings him, giving him a legacy at both clubs as opposed to Buffon, who was, and remains, synonymous with Juve for closing in on 20 years.

And then there’s the matter of their international success. Zoff started for the Italian national team for 15 years, racking up 112 caps in an era where there weren’t as many international games. Buffon took things one step further, holding on to the starter’s shirt for 21 years and playing in 176 games, a record that will take some time to break. Both started on World Cup winning teams. Peruzzi has a winner’s medal, but he was Buffon’s backup. Indeed, at the height of his career he was always cursed with bad luck, missing out on major tournaments due to injury and only starting in one, Euro 1996, which saw Italy bow out in the first round. Tacconi had even less luck, getting stuck behind Walter Zenga and earning the nickname “the world’s best backup” over the course of his international career.

Then of course you have to confront the fact that both Zoff and Buffon were probably better goalkeepers. Neither shared the inherent weakness of Peruzzi’s physical stature, making them more complete keepers regardless of their era. They matched, and even exceeded, Peruzzi’s impressive longevity, and all in all won more with Juve — even if they never won the biggest jewel in Europe’s crown. And, at the end of the day, soccer is the kind of game where the number and type of titles you win can only go so far when it comes to judging greatness. Ted Williams never won a World Series for the Boston Red Sox, but no student of baseball history would deny his place as the greatest hitter of all time. Buffon and Zoff may not have the Champions League in their trophy cases, but that doesn’t take away from their overall greatness.

This, just like his international career, seems to be Peruzzi’s lot in life. He was good — very good. At the peak of his Juve career he was one of, if not the best goalkeeper in the world. But he was also unlucky. Unlucky to have been followed so soon after his tenure by the greatest keeper of all time, unlucky to have another titan like Zoff in the team’s history. Make no mistake, he has a place amongst Juve’s heroes. He just happens that his moment in history was caught between two gods.