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

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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.”

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