Gigi Buffon appeared seriously disgruntled, head down, hands on his hips, contemplating the futility with a shake of his head, before reluctantly advancing to pick up the ball from the back of the net. Behind him, the Real Madrid supporters erupted, raucously celebrating their team scoring twice in the space of 3 minutes. The veteran stared into the distance with a straight face, hands on his hips, for what felt like an eternity. He has been here before, two years ago he had watched haplessly as Neymar Jr had wheeled away in celebration, ending his dream of winning the UEFA Champions League. This time it was Casemiro, another Brazilian, via a cruel deflection of Sami Khedira, flooring Juventus and leaving Buffon looking like a man who knew the dream was over.
It was a stark reality from the enthusiastic tone the veteran possessed 24 hours ago, chatting up about his dream finale. He had expressed hope about finally getting his hand on the one trophy that has eluded his distinguished career spanning three decades. 8 Serie A titles, 164 Italy Caps and a World Cup later, there isn’t a Champions League winners medal in his trophy cabinet, realistically, probably never will.
He must have felt it all back in 2003, wondering what it might take to finally win it. His first Champions League final against fellow country rival AC Milan, a young Buffon rose to the occasion, saving two penalties off Seedorf and Kaladze in the shootout, only to eventually lose when 3 Juventus players fluffed their lines from the spot.
Exactly 22 years ago, Nevio Scala had made the most important call of his coaching career. On the 19th of November 1995, he had handed a 17-year-old rookie his Serie A debut against the mighty AC Milan of Fabio Capello. The Parma first team goalkeeper was injured and Buffon was added to the senior squad.
“He started training with us on a Tuesday. He stood in goal and did extraordinary things – yet they seemed perfectly normal for him. Then, we started doing some drills with the forwards and nobody managed to score against him.
“I turned to my goalkeeper coach, Vincezo Di Palma, and I asked him if he could see what I was seeing. ‘This guy is a phenomenon,’ he replied. Both of us were speechless.” – Nevio Scala.
He spent the remainder of the week mesmerized by the talented youngster, unsure whether to play him. A visit to the dressing room on the eve of the game proved decisive.
“I decided to go to speak with Gigi,” he continues. “I didn’t give him any time to think about why I was there and I said this exact sentence to him: ‘And if I make you play tomorrow?’ His response? ‘No problem, coach.”
His faith was fully repaid as Buffon turned in one of the most memorable debuts in the history of Serie A, making incredible saves from Roberto Baggio and George Weah, with one world-class stop from Marco Simeone.
A star was born that day. A star so bright that it prompted the Old Lady to part with €53 million which, in today’s climate of excessive transfer fees remains the world record for any goalkeeper.
As legendary Italian Goalkeeper Dino Zoff would later recall: “I’ve never seen a debut like his for the personality and quality he showed.”
Gigi though was largely unfazed: “Juventus came to see me, thought ‘this Buffon really is something’ and paid a lot of money. I really never had any problem with that.”
This self-confidence and composure- crucial traits that built his intimidating and assertive image on the field. It created the aura that he is almost untouchable, even today.
It also helped him fight his own personal battle- depression. At the age of 26, he suffered from certain mental problems but was adamant not to take medication.
“I make the rules, without depending on drugs I carved my own destiny”.
This wasn’t the only adversity that he faced. Prior to the World Cup, the “Calciopoli” scandal unearthed. Buffon was also accused of taking part in illegal betting in various Serie A matches, though he was cleared of all charges a year later.
The blow was devastating on other accounts. Juventus were demoted to the Serie B and stripped of their two previous scudetti. Chaos reigned supreme. Several big names left the club, namely Fabio Cannavaro, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Patrick Vieira, Lilian Thuram along with their star manager Fabio Capello.
Few could have blamed Buffon if he jumped ship at that time as Barcelona came calling. But Gigi, along with David Trezeguet, Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved chose to stay and fight, eventually restoring the honor of a tainted club. He even received the first red card of his career at this point, as life in the second tier proved to be harsh. He described the experience as “difficult, but not enjoyable”.
The old lady was left to rebuild and re-emerge, a journey back to prominence and eventual dominance of recent times. Buffon was there, standing tall, even to this day. This period demonstrated his endurance, an undying allegiance towards his club. More of a realist, his dedication and mental strength has embodied his hunger for success.
“Everyone had to make their own decisions,” Buffon said. “It seemed right to stay with the club as a sign of respect for the way they treated me.”
The FIFA World Cup 2006 arrived. And Buffon, along with his azzurri teammates duly responded. They were crowned champions with Gigi playing a huge role in the penalty shootout victory against France in Berlin. To-date, he is still the most capped Italian player with 167 appearances. No other goalkeeper has appeared in as many matches at the UEFA European Championship (17).
In a country which can be overtly critical of goalkeepers, his willingness and tactical adaptability to embrace the transition to a more technical, footwork based goalkeeping game commands instant respect. It indicates how long Buffon has been around at the top level, displaying consistency, grit helping him to evolve- always a step further. It’s astonishing that even today, he remains irreplaceable.
Buffon, for all his achievements, is far from egoistic. He is simply a humble intelligent man who eyes his stardom from a very different angle than most superstars. He declares “luck and professionalism” as the secret to his consistency and prolific appearance rate. He jokingly stated that he wants to continue until the age of 65, which, to some extent doesn’t sound far-fetched when you consider the guy.
This is a man who has taken goalkeeping to a whole different level. A role model and motivator on and off the pitch, he is more than a legend in Turin. He represents Juventus, everything the club stands for. Throughout its journey from stardom to darkness and back to the very top, one name remained constant, Gianluigi Buffon. The coveted Champions League might not arrive, but this 39-year-old youngster will continue striving towards it. He will surely end his Journey at Juventus.
There are various contenders for the title of the best goalkeeper of his generation- Iker Casillas, Petr Cech, Edwin van der Sar being worthy contestants, but it’s hard to bet against the Italian. A new generation of exciting goalkeeping has emerged from then; Manuel Neuer, Thibaut Courtois and David De Gea leading the way, but Buffon remains the godfather between the sticks.
Write him off at your own peril.