Gianluigi Buffon ran triumphantly, alone, to the anticipant, raucous Juventus fans in the Curva Sud. The applause was mutual, the celebrations were shared, a collective admiration apparent even for those that know little of the legendary goalkeeper. A guttural roar of joy emulated from behind the goal as Buffon, in all his unrestrained, passionate glory, leapt into the air with a powerful pump of his fists.
Monaco had been beaten, the players had departed, Juventus were in the Champions League final. But this felt, in many ways, like Buffon’s moment. The man who made his career debut for Parma in 1995, joined Juventus in 2001 and remained ardently loyal to the club through the infamous Calciopoli scandal is on the verge of that elusive European trophy, set for his third and perhaps last final.
If Real Madrid emerge victorious in Cardiff, there will undoubtedly be sympathy for Buffon. He is a player whose expressive, emotional outbursts – win or lose – often appear cathartic, although for him the Champions League represents the final “dream” of a career of irrefutable, unprecedented success.
Subjectivity can often be the parameters that define the perception of a player’s greatness, but there is little disagreement when discussing Buffon. His popularity is transcendent, not just in Turin or Italy, but globally. There is an endearing honesty, a refreshing openness about Buffon, which when combined with his sheer talent and enigmatic eccentricity, make for a beloved footballing character.
Then, of course, there is his longevity. Buffon once joked about playing until the age of 65, but, not far off 40 now, that doesn’t seem overly far-fetched. There is something eternal about Juve’s grand old man; his apparent refusal to slip into any form of decline and the youthful vigour with which he springs to the aid of his defenders suggest he remains more in the early evening than the twilight of his career.
That’s not to say that Buffon is some genetic freak of nature – although he is the son of a discus record holding mother, and a junior shot put champion father. Asked recently of the secrets to his lastingness, he admitted the seductive allure of finally lifting the Champions League trophy has played a part: “I’ve been asking myself for years what drives me to keep playing,” he said. “If I’d already won the Champions League I’d be drained. The fact that I’m still to win it pushes me on.”
Read | How Manuel Neuer, Germany’s 11th man, is revolutionising goalkeeping
Perhaps victory against Real Madrid, we could see Buffon begin to wind down. Or perhaps not. He is still very much number one for the Azzurri and has demonstrated equally impressive longevity on the international stage. As Barney Ronay puts it: “Buffon made his debut for Italy when Tony Adams and Gazza were still trying to win the World Cup.”
Their successors are still trying, but Buffon managed it 11 years ago, instrumental in Italy’s 2006 World Cup success. He has since reached 168 caps, which added to his club appearances, takes him to a total of over 1,000 career games.
As much as Buffon’s greatness is often considered to go hand-in-hand with the Bianconeri, his unique brilliance was evident while at Parma in the years before his move to Juventus. At the age of 17, a teenager with an air of uncanny maturity and assertiveness for his tender years emerged onto the Serie A scene with a debut befitting of the player he would become. AC Milan were held to a goalless draw, largely because of two astonishing Buffon saves to deny Roberto Baggio and George Weah. Perhaps tellingly, former Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff would later recall: “I’ve never seen a debut like his for the personality and quality he showed.”
A young Buffon was a key component in a Parma team remembered fondly as the golden age. Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Čech once said his emergence “changed everything” for the goalkeeping profession, and that certainly seemed the case when Juventus paid €53 million to bring him to Turin in 2001. Even in today’s climate of excessive transfer fees, that remains the world record for a goalkeeper. Buffon, though, was largely unfazed: “Juventus went to see me, thought ‘fuck, this Buffon really is a phenomenon’ and paid a lot of money for me. I really didn’t have any problems with it at all.”
Such confidence and apparent self-assurance – traits crucial to Buffon’s imposing and intimidating in-game presence – have often led to an assumption that he is untouchable, unflappable to the point of being impermeable. That may be the case on the pitch, but off it, Buffon has spoken openly and poignantly of his battles with depression over a decade ago.
Having reached the age of 26 and come to the realisation that he was no longer in his youth, he claimed the reasons for his mental health problems were “almost trivial in a way”, although he has since been outspoken in his opposition to medication. “It was crucial not to take medicine,” he said. “Without depending on drugs I was the architect of my own destiny. I tried to find the way out on my own, speaking with some friends.”
Read | Juventus, Calciopoli and a year in Serie B
The pressure that came with the increasing importance of his performances and leadership for both club and country had clearly had an effect. “Depression can happen to anyone,” he said, a clear reminder that there is often more to a player’s, and a person’s mindset than meets the eye.
Buffon overcame that adversity, but there was still the Calciopoli scandal to come in 2006. Buffon was accused of participating in illegal betting in Serie A matches, and though he was eventually cleared of all charges a year later, Juventus were demoted to Serie B and stripped of their two previous scudetti.
If he were to have left at that dark period in the club’s history, few would have been overly critical. But he had already rejected a move to Barcelona, content with life close to his Tuscan hometown of Carrara, and he had little attention of abandoning ship. The likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimović departed, perhaps understandably, while Juventus were left to rebuild and re-emerge. They did so, with Buffon there for the journey back to prominence, and eventual calcio dominance.
That period of Buffon’s career is often pointed to as one that demonstrates his stoicism, his undying allegiance to the Old Lady, although having experienced the tempestuousness of football at the top level, Buffon often views things with far less romanticism. He considers himself a realist. Looking back on Serie B far from nostalgically, he described it as “difficult, an experience” but not enjoyable.
But enjoyment isn’t the key for Buffon, at least not in the traditional sense. His career is one of achievement, influence and inspiration. His successes have been borne of dedication, of exceptional mental strength in a country that, possibly more than any other, can be ruthlessly critical of goalkeepers even after the slightest of mistakes. That makes Buffon’s ability and willingness to embrace the move to a more technical, footwork oriented goalkeeping game even more commendable.
It’s an indication of how long Buffon has been playing at the top level that he was beginning his career as the back-pass rule was enforced. It meant the need for adaptation and adjustment, of which some were not capable, and kept him a step ahead; an extra string to his already impressive bow.
Read | The insatiable rise of Parma in the 1990s
Buffon, for all his trophies, his records, the constant praise he receives, is far from egotistical. Instead, he is somewhat self-deprecating, a humble, intelligent man whose global superstardom differs greatly to many others who have reached similar levels of acclaim. He claims his prolific appearance rate and consistency can be put down to “fortune with injuries and professionalism” and that he became a goalkeeper in the first place as “all a little by chance”.
Then there’s his assessment of the goalkeeper position itself. In an interview with the Guardian, he said: “You need to be a little masochistic to be a goalkeeper. Because when you play in goal, you know the only certain thing in life is that you will concede goals. And you also know that conceding goals is not something that brings you happiness. Unless your masochism is actually a perversion. Then that’s different.”
It might seem that he is in a way cynical, but Buffon has taken goalkeeping, both in action and in thought, to a completely different level. He is both a role model and an innovator in a position that is often neglected as simplistic, lacking in the intricacies of other roles on the football pitch. And not dissimilar to compatriot Francesco Totti at Roma, he is far more than simply a player. Buffon has come to represent Juventus, the club and its supporters.
Earlier this year, he claimed that “even if I were to be offered twice my salary elsewhere, I’m staying at Juve for life”. An unsurprising statement, but one that makes it clear Buffon sees the bigger picture. He didn’t leave Juventus when Barcelona came calling, he didn’t leave when they languished in the second tier embroiled in accusations of corruption, and he most certainly won’t leave for China or the US to see out his career with more financial reward.
Buffon’s impact at Juventus will be timeless, his status as an Italian great is already established and, despite his claims that “imagination, inspiration and talent” in modern football have been “anaesthetised”, he will be a profound influence on the next generation of goalkeepers, those that look to break the mould and challenge the stereotypes labelled upon a footballing scapegoat. Still, those young players can expect nothing less than his wry sense of humour if ever looking to him for guidance. Buffon’s advice? “Change. Don’t be a keeper.”
As Buffon applauded the Juventus fans in the Curva Sud after victory against Monaco, the feeling of understanding had never been clearer. This could be his final opportunity, the perfect opportunity, to add the missing piece of an already astonishing career. Like any of football’s greats, he is not without flaws, nor is his story a fairytale, but victory would likely evoke emotion in everyone but those of a Real Madrid persuasion.
The fans crave the Champions League title for Juventus and for Buffon, though really there is very little difference between the two
By Callum Rice-Coates @Callumrc96