"Maybe I could even end my career with a headbutt like Zidane did,” said Gianluigi Buffon before Wednesday night's Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Real Madrid. “I could nut somebody - who knows."
By the end of the evening, the parallels with Zidane were unavoidable. Buffon, in a moment of uncontainable rage, had confronted referee Michael Oliver with too much aggression after a late penalty was awarded.
His protests earned him a red card. He left the pitch in ignominy, but his emotional response was understandable, if excessive: Juventus had overturned a 3-0 deficit at the Bernabeu and were on course to take the tie to extra time. It was an astonishing comeback and Buffon’s hopes of a first Champions League title were still alive.
But Lucas Vazquez went down under a challenge from Mehdi Benatia in injury time and Oliver pointed to the spot. Buffon appeared to travel the distance from his line to within an inch of Oliver’s face in a nanosecond.
And then, after a prolonged protest led by the veteran goalkeeper, he was gone. Cristiano Ronaldo scored the penalty and Juventus were gone too.
An ignominious exit
This was likely Buffon’s last appearance in the competition, a disappointing end to an inimitable career at the top of Europe’s most prestigious competition.
As with Zidane, though, the ignominy of Buffon’s exit could become a part of the legend. For so long the Champions League has been the elusive trophy, the trophy he has needed to complete the set and sign off on an enviably illustrious career.
Buffon is 40 now, though, and will almost certainly go without a Champions League. There had been a feeling at the Bernabeu that this might be his year, too: he had made a number of saves, marshalled his defence and kept Real Madrid at bay throughout. But it was cruelly taken away amid the ambiguity of Oliver’s late decision.
Buffon, as always, did not hold back. His expressiveness, his inherent spontaneity, is what has endeared many to him.
Overcome by fury
There are few more likeable and that, largely, is why there was such sympathy for a player who had been overcome by fury, who had clearly terrified Oliver and later claimed that he had “a rubbish bin for a heart”.
“A human being cannot decide the elimination of a team with such decision,” Buffon said. “When I don’t feel I’m good enough, I put myself in a corner. He should do the same. It’s a matter of sensibility. It means you don’t know where you are, which teams are playing, you don’t know shit.
“I know the referee saw what he saw, but it was certainly a dubious incident. Not clear-cut. And a dubious incident at the 93rd minute when we had a clear penalty denied in the first leg, you cannot award that at this point.
"The team gave its all, but a human being cannot destroy dreams like that at the end of an extraordinary comeback on a dubious situation.”
Life goes on
Buffon had clearly not calmed down. His manager, Max Allegri, insisted that his reaction was “understandable” and most will agree.
Buffon’s emotion throughout was palpable: he celebrated his side’s third goal as if a fan in the away end. This meant a lot, and when the late penalty was awarded he knew the reality was a heart-breaking exit, the last chance to win Ol’ Big Ears: gone.
“We had done something which seemed impossible,” he said. “It’s a pity it ended like this, unjustly. It was one-tenth of a penalty. But life goes on.” Life goes on and Buffon’s career goes on.
This in many ways, though, felt like an end.