Buffon saves Italy, for now

Times Staff Writer

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon on Friday pulled off one of the most dramatic and important saves not just in soccer’s Euro 2008 tournament but in the 44-year history of the European Championship.

It came on a penalty kick in the 81st minute of the Italians’ game against Romania at the Letzigrund stadium in Zurich, Switzerland.

The match was tied, 1-1, when defender Christian Panucci fouled Daniel Niculae, and Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo pointed to the penalty spot.

Adrian Mutu, the flamboyant and oft-controversial striker who earlier had scored Romania’s goal on a splendid bit of opportunism only to have Panucci tie it up within 60 seconds, stepped up to take the shot from 12 yards.

If he scored, Romania probably would have won the match and stood a good chance of going through to the quarterfinals while world champion Italy would have been eliminated.


So Buffon stood poised on his line and waited, his green jersey grass-stained and sweat-soaked from 80 minutes of hard work, a black scarf knotted around his throat, the yellow captain’s armband wrapped around one biceps, dark stubble on his clenched jaw, his eyes intent and focused on the moment.

Then came the shot.

Instead of picking one corner, Mutu blasted his effort straight down the middle. Buffon threw himself to his left and would have been beaten had he not reached up and back to bat the ball down with his right hand and then kick it away with his right foot, all while in the air.

It was a matter of hand-to-foot-to-safety, an astonishing save that not only kept the tie intact but kept Italy alive in Euro 2008’s so-called “group of death.”

Having made the memorable save, Buffon pumped his gloved fist into the air and let out a yell of triumph. Mutu, meanwhile, was reduced to near tears and was so out of the game afterward that he had to be substituted.

After such drama, Friday’s other match, in Bern, where Netherlands advanced to the quarterfinals with a 4-1 rout of France, was almost tame by comparison.

Italy next plays France on Tuesday in a repeat of the 2006 World Cup final. Only Buffon’s heroics Friday make that game still meaningful.

Jones reported from Los Angeles.