Few players exist at the top end of modern football whose popularity and endearment transcends the sport. There is no debate among rival fans or nations about Gianluigi Buffon’s status in the game, a goalkeeper whose continued excellence at the highest level feels like it has lasted a lifetime.
For many it actually has – the Tuscany-native made his debut for Parma as a 17-year-old against Milan in November 1995, a match in which he fittingly kept a clean sheet.
Earlier this year, Buffon surpassed the 1,000 professional appearances milestone for both club and country, averaging over 45 games per season in a spell spanning 22 years. A career which has been illustrious and trophy-laden, there was genuine widespread sympathy within the sport when the one trophy that has consistently eluded him – the Champions League – came within agonising touching distance earlier this year as Buffon fell to his third final defeat with Juventus.
“If I’d already won the Champions League I’d be drained, but that I’m still to win it pushes me on,” he explained. He has won the World Cup and amassed 22 clubs medals, although two Serie A titles with Juventus were subsequently awarded to Inter due to the Calciopoli scandal, through which Buffon remained loyal to the Turin giants, even after their demotion to Serie B.
His loyalty and dedication have been widely lauded and a huge part of his popularity stems from his authenticity – he speaks his mind and is open, real and passionate. He always acknowledges the fans at the end of matches and can be seen celebrating with Juventus’s fans in the Curva Sud after many victories. His admirable passion and emotion creates a unique bond with fans and followers alike.
Whilst Buffon has been wedded to the Bianconeri and Italian national team since 2001, his early genius and potential was evident with Parma. The Gialloblu enjoyed their golden years during the 1990s and early 2000s, with Buffon a key component of a defence that included Lillian Thuram, Fabian Cannavaro, Hernan Crespo and others who were all on their path to global stardom.
His debut clean sheet against the Milanese giants saw Buffon produce two outstanding saves from Roberto Baggio and George Weah. Italian goalkeeping legend Dino Zoff commented: “I’ve never seen a debut like his for the personality and quality he showed.”
Such was his consistent level of class for Parma, his €52m move to Juventus in 2001 still stands as the record transfer for a goalkeeper to this day, despite inflation and a heavily bloated transfer market. Whilst such an outlay was a supreme show of confidence by The Old Lady, Buffon took the move in his stride. “They met with me, told me they really liked my performances and paid a lot of money for me. I don’t have a problem with that.”
Buffon’s success was immediate – three consecutive clean sheets to open his Juventus account in a debut season which saw them concede only 22 league goals in 34 matches, with Buffon being crowned Italian Goalkeeper of the Year for the third successive season as he won his first Serie A. The following campaign saw them reach the Champions League final but despite another clean sheet in the final against Milan, he was denied the trophy by a penalty shootout loss.
More acclaim, trophies and personal awards followed before the 2006 Calciopoli scandal. Buffon was accused of being involved in illegal betting activities – which he was later cleared of – while the club were stripped of trophies and demoted. Such claims threatened to derail his participation in Italy’s World Cup campaign but the decision was taken to stick with him and his performances helped the Azzurri to the title.
Buffon’s decision to stay amidst a stream of star departures made him a cult hero with the club’s fans. Legendary boss Jupp Heynckes remarked: “he showed himself to be faithful to the team, it was a great gesture.”
A Open Mind
The goalkeeper’s openness and honesty trumped perception of his indestructible and unflappable confidence as he openly discussed his own mental health issues at the time. He claimed they did not stem from the controversies surrounding his actions but rather the realisation he was no longer a youngster and the growing expectation and responsibility he now assumed both personally and professionally.
However, not only did he not let these issues derail his career but he let them define it as he became famed for his leadership, inspiration and longevity. His dedication to the Juventus cause has been rewarded with a further six top-flight titles and three Coppa Italia crowns as their domestic dominance was rebuilt and re-established.
Internationally too, he is the highest capped of any active player – at the time of writing he has 173 whilst his expected retirement after next summer’s World Cup should push him comfortably over the 180 cap limit.
Hanging Up the Gloves
Like all tales of prolonged success, the 39-year-old can be thankful he remained injury-free – although, as a goalkeeper, he is less exposed to such risks. But in an era when the names of Paolo Maldini and Francesco Totti became welded to their respective clubs, Buffon has become a legendary figurehead for Juventus.
His story isn’t one of mystic or romance and nor is he without his weaknesses. But when the goalkeeper finally hangs up his boots, and his gloves, the world of football will be significantly worse off.
Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?