Gigi Buffon’s ambition still burns
The pain of missing out on a sixth World Cup finals will undoubtedly linger, but that’ll only heighten the evergreen Gianluigi Buffon’s desire to go one better than 2017 and finally win the Champions League
Eight or 10 scudetti? The records say that Gianluigi Buffon has eight, with two lost to Calciopoli. But in the name of love and art, Gigi claims 10. “The federation, Wikipedia or the league say it’s eight and I’m not debating referees, judges and laws, but no one can deny my right to feel they’re all mine,” Buffon wrote in Turin daily La Stampa after Juventus’ scudetto win in May. “My first love was a girl I met at middle school. The feeling was unrequited. But what does it matter – for me it was love. Recognition isn’t everything in life.”
If Wikipedia did list 10 scudetti in Buffon’s honours section, it would also note that his nearest challengers had won just eight, none of them in the modern era. What it does record in relentless detail is the churn of awards, achievements and milestones he’s leaving in his wake: the all-time unbeaten Serie A record two campaigns ago as he drove the Bianconeri to the title; his spot in last season’s UEFA Team of the Year as Juve kept six consecutive Champions League clean sheets; his FIFA Best Goalkeeper of the Year Award in October…
La Gazzetta dello Sport recently enlisted sports medicine experts to determine exactly how the Italy goalkeeper had maintained such high standards for so long. Neurosurgeon Giovanni Broggi revealed that the correction time between Gigi’s eyes, optic nerves and cerebellum was minimal, allowing him to perceive ball speed and trajectory in a flash. Physiology professor Arsenio Veicsteinas said his muscular reactivity was probably that of a 25-year-old, stressing the role of his glycolytic white muscle fibres – those which are vital to 100-metre runners, and which are exhausted in seconds.
“My secret?” said the man himself, chuckling. “I’m very good friends with the president.” He has tried to answer more extensively, mulling over the genetic and psychological heritage drawn from his family of sporting over-achievers, his undying appetite to improve and his team ethic. “The real ingredient I never lacked was great lucidity and mental strength.” It’s hard to disagree.
“It struck me straight away how carefree he was,” added Luca Bucci, the goalkeeper displaced by a 17-year-old Buffon at Parma. “Over the years he has changed and matured. The older Gigi gets, the more he enjoys himself. And he is clairvoyant in goal – he always knows where the ball’s going to go.”
Giorgio Pellizzaro, a distinguished goalkeeping coach at Europe’s top clubs alongside ex-chelsea and Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri, is under the impression that “every error [Buffon] makes slides over him”.
According to Buffon, they couldn’t be more wrong. “For me, making a mistake is a shock,” he said. “It takes me days to recover and I envy those who make more of them. The shock isn’t so great.”
He isn’t thick-skinned then; he just has a mind like a vice. “For me in that moment begins a part of the challenge that is wrapped up in the game’s most difficult job. Being in the eye of the cyclone is a stimulus for me.” He likens goalkeeping to the luckless lot of the referee, saying psychologists ought to study such masochists.
Buffon’s errors against Spain and Udinese in October 2016 will have stung him, and the grim reapers of cyberspace were soon sharpening their scythes. But the shot-stopper waited until after his succession of game-winning saves (one from a penalty) against Lyon on matchday three of last season’s Champions League to unleash a devastatingly methodical retort.
Having listed his professional qualities and recent achievements, he concluded: “So, if in two months I make five errors, I will be the first to remove the inconvenience, because I’ve always been an added value to my teams and the role of dead weight doesn’t suit me.” And, just to bleed a little guilt from his detractors: “As someone dear to me used to say: ‘If you drive a nail into a fence you can also remove it, but the hole remains all the same.’”
As the season progressed, Buffon saved momentously from Andres Iniesta in Juve’s Champions League quarter-final win over Barcelona and thwarted Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe in the semis. Now Italy began chattering about the Ballon d’or.
Over-excited and on Instagram, central defender Leonardo Bonucci once described an incredible Gigi Serie A performance as “ILLEGALE”. The same word, in a more sombre context, may well have occurred to thousands of non-swedes as the Azzurri lost their World Cup play-off in November. It prevented Buffon from becoming the first player to be picked for six World Cups and froze his international cap tally at 175 – fourth on the world all-time list.
He’s promised to retire altogether after this campaign unless Juve fill the Champions League-shaped gap on his bucket list (apparently, the potential prospect of a UEFA Super Cup in Estonia and World Club Cup is simply irresistible). In the future, Gigi has talked about taking charge of a second-tier national team, allowing the 39-year-old to enjoy an episodic football fix while still having the freedom to devote himself to other interests.
But his crowning ambition’s in the bag. “My objective,” he said back in May, “is to stop playing and have others say that it’s a shame I did.”