Buffon fire still burns after all he's achieved
The glory: Dusk had fallen on Turin. The stands were empty. The confetti littering the pitch at the Juventus Stadium was the only evidence of what had gone before. A 3-0 win against Crotone had sealed a sixth consecutive Serie A title for Juventus, and most of the squad were in the dressing room drowning their triumph.
All except one. As the players' children enjoyed an impromptu game of football on the pitch last Sunday night, there was Gigi Buffon: 39 years of age, a scudetto medal around his neck, keeping goal.
In a way, it was a moment that encapsulated Buffon (below) more than any save or statistic or trophy. It is why he is not only one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but the best loved, and why many neutrals will be rooting for Juventus in Cardiff on Saturday.
The Champions League is the one missing piece in a career that has spanned more than two decades. In the intervening years, the nature of goalkeeping has changed significantly. Buffon has lifted the World Cup and laboured in the trough of depression. But above all, he has endured. And he still has unfinished business.
Buffon's debut for Parma in 1995 has since passed into legend. Thrown in against Fabio Capello's legendary Milan team, with Roberto Baggio and George Weah up front, Buffon made a string of saves to earn a 0-0 draw. Already he was beginning to display the style that would come to define him: an essentially reactive goalkeeper in the classic Italian tradition.
"Technically, with his feet, you wouldn't say he looks a natural," says David Preece, a former Sunderland goalkeeper and now a coach. "He's not a keeper like Marc ter Stegen, Claudio Bravo or Manuel Neuer. But his positioning is perfect. He's very deep. He never strays far from his line. That gives him an extra split second to see the ball, judge the flight, move his feet. And more often than not, he catches the ball. The other thing that stands out is his shape when diving. It's almost faultless. His arms and legs and body are all in sync. Everything is solid."
But there is another side to being a goalkeeper. Buffon knows well the pain of defeat. He has known relegation, playing a season in Serie B after Juventus were demoted for their part in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. He has known disgrace: he almost went to jail in 2000 for falsifying a diploma in order to enrol at the University of Parma. But his biggest battle was faced in private.
For much of 2003 and 2004, Buffon suffered the darkness of depression in silence. He would drive to training sick with fear. He would sink into despair before and after big games. "It was as if my head was not mine, but someone else's," he later remembered. "As if I were continually elsewhere."
Only by gradually opening up to family and friends, and then seeking medical help, did Buffon eventually emerge from his darkness. But the fatalistic outlook on life has never truly left him. "When I make a mistake," he said, "I often need 10 days to regain my balance. I envy those goalkeepers who slip up more often, because for them a mistake is not a real shocking experience."
The search for fulfilment does not end when he steps off the pitch. Buffon's strong sense of social conscience has been demonstrated not just with words but deeds. Two years ago, he spent £17m of his own money buying a struggling Milanese textile company. "It went up in smoke," he later said, "but I safeguarded the livelihoods of 1,200 families".
Buffon's contract at Juventus runs until 2018. A sixth World Cup in Russia next year is a strong possibility. But patently, the end is close. He says that winning that elusive Champions League title, after losing finals in 2003 and 2015, would be "the greatest joy of my career, together with the World Cup". Yet he has also said that it does not preoccupy him. And sometimes you wonder what really motivates him. Is he drawn to the game despite himself? Or is he still striving for something?
Perhaps the answer lies in that image last weekend, of Buffon faithfully keeping goal as children buzz around him. When you get to Buffon's age, when you have won what he has won, lost what he has lost, perhaps football is all there is left. You can pile up the cups and count up the trophies, but ultimately, football is its own reward.
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