'Time to move on' for tearful Buffon as Italy look to future
It ended where it all began. Twenty years after Gianluigi Buffon made his debut for Italy in a World Cup play-off, one of the most extraordinary careers in international football drew to a close in another.
It was poignant in a way that Sweden were the opponents. Dino Zoff, the only No 1 to rival Buffon in Italian goalkeeping lore, also played the last game of his international career against them in 1983.
Buffon had hoped to emulate Zoff and win a World Cup in his 40s. Alas it wasn't to be. His dream of becoming the first ever player to represent his country at six World Cups also went up in smoke. But it's a measure of Buffon's greatness that even his association with an event as traumatic as Italy missing out on the tournament for the first time in 60 years does nothing to tarnish his remarkable career.
It's estimated not being in Russia next summer will cost the Nazionale €100m in lost earning potential. That's nothing compared with what they're losing with Buffon's retirement. He didn't have a save to make in the second leg. But the Juventus goalkeeper still left a big impression.
As San Siro whistled the Swedish anthem, the sportsman in Buffon applauded just as he did when the same happened before a friendly against France a year ago. He then sang the 'Inno di Mameli' one last time. The sight of Buffon chanting the lyrics louder and prouder than anybody else in ground, always an event when Italy play, will be sorely missed.
It was hard for anyone without a Swedish passport to suppress the desire to see him score and prolong his career in blue another six months when he went up for a corner in the dying seconds with Italy needing a goal to take the game into extra-time.
After losing a second Champions League final in three years in June, it's been an emotional 2017 for the veteran. But Buffon wasn't thinking about himself when the final whistle blew on Monday night.
In floods of tears as he spoke to RAI, the state broadcaster, his first concern was for his country and the "social" impact of Italy not going to the World Cup. Italy can no longer count on the boost it would give the economy. There was growth of 4pc when Italy won the competition in 2006. Unemployment fell by 10pc.
Buffon's objective, he revealed, was to keep the hopes and dreams of the next generation alive. He tried to put on a brave face, saying he didn't want to cry in front of the kids watching at home in case it made them think twice about wanting to play for their country in the future. When Ruggiero Rizzitelli hit the post against the Soviet Union and Italy missed out on the European Championship in 1992, it didn't change how he felt about the national team. It wasn't a turn-off. His hope is that the youth of today in Italy still grow up wanting to wear that blue shirt regardless of what has happened over the four days.
To show that level of lucidity and social responsibility in the heat of the moment speaks to the leadership Buffon provides for this team. His wisdom will be keenly missed as will that of Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli, the other surviving members of the 2006 triumph, who also announced their retirement with heavy hearts. The three of them fronted up and faced the cameras in the hours that followed. Giorgio Chiellini spent half an hour in the mixed zone.
The same can't be said for Italy's manager Giampiero Ventura who ducked interviews with RAI and Sky Italia, appearing for a brief press conference only after midnight. The president of the FIGC Carlo Tavecchio is yet to speak. Both have attracted criticism for not resigning with immediate effect.
Buffon will hang up his gloves for good at the end of this season unless Juventus win the Champions League. Juventus president Andrea Agnelli has made him promise to come back if that happens and play the European Super Cup and Club World Cup. Buffon insists he doesn't feel his age and hardly shows it. Last month he was named Goalkeeper of the Year at FIFA's The Best awards, recognition for the saves he made from Andres Iniesta, Valerie Germain and Kylian Mbappe in the knockout stages of the Champions League last season.
But, as Buffon reiterated on Monday, "time moves on." The time is now for Gigio Donnarumma to get his chance with Italy. Wojciech Szczesny is waiting in the wings at Juventus and Buffon, putting side before self, respectful of the club's plans, has agreed to make way without the same rancour that trailed Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti as they left the stage.
Agnelli has told Buffon his door is open whenever he feels like talking about the next phase of his career. It might come at Juventus. It might not. He could be a director. He could follow in Zoff's footsteps and turn his hand to management. A year ago, Buffon expressed his wish to coach a national team one day, which is funny as there might just be a vacancy coming up… Italy would come too soon for Buffon. But it's hard not to see him in a role with the FIGC in the future. Then again, the same was said about Paolo Maldini.
"The most beautiful thing about tonight," Buffon said, "is seeing San Siro like this. With fans spurring us on for 95 minutes. This is the magic of the national team. Milanisti, Juventini, Romanisti, Napoletani, Laziali, all united in supporting a shirt that's part of our DNA and part of our lives." All united in saying another thing too: Grazie Gigi. (© Independent News Service)