independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Gianluigi Buffon: 'I will smile when we've won, and we haven't done that yet'

AS the Italian players danced a huddle of joy in front of their fans in Warsaw on Thursday evening, there was one notable absentee from the post-match celebrations.

Gianluigi Buffon was already in the dressing-room, simmering with rage. The full-time whistle provided his cue to aim a flurry of expletives in the direction of his victorious colleagues, before marching down the tunnel.

Italy's wonderful 90-minute display might have provided his countrymen with the belief they can be crowned European champions tomorrow, but all their captain and goalkeeper could think about was their performance in the four additional minutes of injury-time.

A two-goal lead was halved by a sloppy penalty concession, and created a nervous finale which angered Buffon.

He remained consumed in those thoughts as he strode through the mixed zone area afterwards.

While other Italian stars waltzed through with a smile, Buffon wore an intense expression and, when stopped for a word, launched into an outburst that was clearly intended to send out a message to his exuberant colleagues.

"I will smile when we've won, and we haven't done that yet," he declared. "We are playing for something unique and totally prestigious, so it's not right with the performance we put in to risk it in the last five minutes and play with fire.

"If Germany had scored with a lucky ricochet for 2-2, we'd end up losing in extra-time 9-2. We are playing in the Euros here, and we cannot take it lightly. I always evaluate performances and attitudes rather than strictly wins or losses.

"We are still young, apart from a few old men in the squad, and need to learn. It's only right for the old men to tell them off and stir up trouble. I was angry."

You can be sure that his manager, Cesare Prandelli, approved of the rallying cry. When he was appointed in 2010, Prandelli made clear his desire to award Buffon's the captain armband. "Buffon is an example," he said.

During this competition, the 34-year-old has lived up to those words, combining his prowess between the sticks with a genuine sense that he is a leader.

reminder

As the teams entered the tunnel at half-time on Thursday, Buffon made a point of seeking out Mario Balotelli for a pep talk, a reminder to the match winner that there was still work to do. Before the penalty shoot-out with England, he pulled the scorer of the final kick, Alessandro Diamanti, to one side and provided relevant advice.

Before the tournament, however, his leadership skills were under scrutiny for a different reason. When he was dragged into the furore surrounding the match-fixing scandal, Buffon came out fighting, adopting a siege mentality stance in contrast with the apologetic mood that was in danger of ruining their chances.

"We are not all crooks," he said, before querying why the Italian press knew before anyone else that a dawn police raid of their Coverciano training camp would take place. His defiance struck a chord and, just like in 2006, controversy has brought the Azzurri closer together.

The assured nature of his performances here in Poland speak volumes for the Juventus man's mental strength. In the build-up, observers in Italy were asking if Buffon really did provide an example for others. In February, there were calls for Prandelli to strip the 119-times capped stopper of the armband for admitting he would have lied to the referee if he had noticed that a shot from AC Milan's Sulley Muntari had crossed the line when he cleared it away.

Hardly a controversy of John Terry proportions, but then Buffon has dealt with far more serious accusations early in his career. There have always been suspicions about his political leanings, dating back to his days at Parma, when his decision to wear 88 on the back of his jersey fuelled the belief that he shared the views of the neo-Nazi movement.

With H being the eighth letter of the alphabet, 88 is the number associated with 'Heil Hitler'. Buffon pleaded ignorance, stating that he chose 88 because it looked like four footballs, and also claimed to be unaware of the meaning of a T-shirt he wore that carried a slogan associated with Mussolini. 'Boia chi molla' means 'Death to the Coward'.

Buffon said that he saw the phrase carved into a desk drawer at school, and didn't understand the meaning. His explanations lent themselves to scepticism, and there were more guffaws a month ago when it was revealed that Buffon handed over 14 cheques worth a total of €1.5m to a Parma tobacconist and betting shop in 2010.

The cloudy details of his financial circumstances emerged in the week of the betting scandal that cost left-back Domenico Criscito a trip to the finals. Buffon's lawyer said there was a simple reason for his client's behaviour.

"The most significant bank transfer concerns the purchase of 20 Rolex watches, which have been in Gianluigi's safe for months," stressed Marco Valerio Corini.

No reason was provided for why Buffon needed a plethora of expensive timekeepers but, helpfully, a football tournament came along which shifted the focus.

If a period of personal turmoil concludes with a triumphant walk to lift the trophy tomorrow evening, it would be the crowning moment of a colourful career. He might even allow himself a smile.

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