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In the panopticon of the footballing world, wherein the players are watched via satellites, in the flesh, or printed on the front pages, their character and personality are under public surveillance around the clock. And so, it is those whose character truly shines that win this global game of Big Brother.
The beginning of my love for Gianluigi Buffon stemmed from this notion. This charming, outspoken and talented man captured my imagination from a very young age. In 2006, I remember the gleaming gold Italian goalkeeper kit, and the outlandish being that inhabited it. Tongue in cheek, Gary Lineker introduced him to me on the build-up to the World Cup final, quoting the response when Buffon was questioned about penalties: “I don’t watch penalties in my hotel room. I watch naughty videos.”
It feels as if he has been around forever, his career spanning my entire life time on this planet. Making his debut in 1995 for Parma at the age of 17, he played against the AC Milan great Franco Baresi, who was born in 1960. This year Buffon played in the Juventus side against Torino, which featured Vincenzo Millico – born August 2000.
But it’s the stories this abundantly enticing character has been involved in that ensure he remains in our increasingly shortening attention spans over his lengthy career. Despite winning the World Cup final containing Zinedine Zidane’s antagonistic end in 2006 and being accused of participating in illegal betting on Serie A matches which saw Juventus relegated due to the Calciopoli scandal, which resulted in the previous two titles being stripped, the Juventus keeper stayed on to become part of the club’s folklore.
And who can forget 2018? When he referred to Michael Oliver as a “beast” instead of a human, for sending Buffon off in what was believed to be his final attempt at winning the Champions League for Juventus in the quarter finals against Real Madrid, when 23 years of frustration of chasing the elusive title unsuccessfully spewed out from Buffon in a torrent of verbal abuse on the Premier League referee.
But that passion encapsulates him brilliantly. That clear emotional bond he has for the club he remains at to this day, despite a season-long hiatus at PSG the season following the Oliver incident, the understanding of what that club means to the people of Turin was exemplified in that firework display of a protest against Oliver. I yearn to see that character from an English club goalkeeper or captain, just envisage Nick Pope showing such visual vivid emotion, roaring that the referee is misinformed in the most expletive way possible because England have just been denied another World Cup on a questionable decision.
There are seemingly endless stories regarding this man. Buffon was accused of being a neo-Nazi when choosing his Parma number, after opting for the rather conspicuous 88 shirt. Italy’s Jewish community were concerned, as it corresponded alphabetically to HH, and supposedly meant ‘Heil Hitler’.
Buffon had previously worn a shirt associated with fascism which read “Boia chi Molla” (Death to Cowards), a term from the Mussolini era. In response to the controversy, Buffon called a press conference stating “I chose 88 because it reminds me of four balls and in Italy, we all know what it means to have balls: strength and determination. And this season I will have to have balls to get back my place in the Italy team.”
Buffon started his life as a striker, but aged 12, in his own words: “I turned my back on my goal. And I will keep doing it as long as my legs, my head and my heart will allow. More than 25 years ago I made my vow: I swore to protect you. Look after you. A shield against all your enemies. I’ve always thought about your welfare, putting it first even ahead of my own.”
And he remained true to his vow. In his second season, he was part of the remarkable young Parma side that stunned the Serie A by finishing second, the year after he won the UEFA Cup, the Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year award, and his first Ballon d’Or nomination. The season after in 2001, Buffon graduated to Juve as their most expensive purchase ever at 52 million euros.
In 2002/03 he picked up the UEFA Club Player of the Year, equivalent to the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year award today, and in 2006, placed second in the Ballon D’or, the only goalkeeper alongside Manuel Neuer and Oliver Kahn to reach the top three of the awards in the 21st century.
In his first four years with Juventus he won three Serie A titles and went on to reach a total of 10. He also collected five Coppa Italia trophies, a Ligue 1, oh and that World Cup. The man is a great, a champion, and an icon.
Buffon is the finest goalkeeper of the previous generation. I distinctly remember watching hours upon hours of YouTube compilations as a child of his miraculous saves, most of them probably for the camera, but all of it making the game as beautiful as it is. A lack of Champions League trophy puts no taint on a mesmerising and inspiring career.
In the last evolutionary phase of a large star, a supernova occurs. As Buffon enters his at the age of 42, I expect he too will go out in some kind of powerful stellar explosion. And I think he agrees, when questioned about it he answered: “How do I imagine my last ever game? Maybe I’ll go out like Zidane, headbutting someone on the pitch!”
Article by Ollie Mud via Football’s Finest