Gianluigi Buffon at 43: why messing up is key and what makes him happy

The Juventus goalkeeper’s last great objective in football is to play in a Club World Cup

It has become a little hard to trust Gianluigi Buffon when he talks about retirement. In 2017, he told me he had reached a decision to hang up his gloves at the end of the season – his 17th as a Juventus player. Reminded of the fear he once felt at the prospect of a life without football, he said that there remained "almost none".

A year later, we were in France, discussing his surprise move to Paris Saint-Germain. What could he say? The offer had come out of nowhere, a chance for one more adventure: to experience a new culture, to play with Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, to write one last spectacular chapter.

Today, the 43-year-old Buffon is back at Juventus, testing the bass limits of my laptop’s speakers as he booms out that irrepressible laugh on a Zoom call from Turin. “Look, in my head, there truly is a final stop sign, a maximum bar, which is June 2023,” he insists. “That is the maximum, really, really the maximum. But I could also stop playing in four months.”

Perhaps. Buffon’s contract at Juventus runs only to this summer, but it would be a surprise if no extension were to arrive. Beyond that, let’s just note that Buffon prefaced all those “maximums” with an acknowledgement: “I’ve learned nothing is certain in life.”


It is a truth brought home sharply by events of the past year. Italy was the first European country struck by the coronavirus pandemic last spring. In a matter of days, a nation went from business as normal to a full national lockdown.

“Look, I have to be honest, for me the first month of lockdown was really beautiful,” Buffon says, a rare hint of sheepishness in his voice. “At first, the pandemic allowed me to have time to dedicate to myself. That’s something that hadn’t happened to me in my whole life.

“I got to stay with my wife, my kids all day long. To be able to dedicate myself to my hobbies, to my reading, to my things. It was a beautiful time that I never thought I would have, and I took full advantage and I loved it. Then, of course, as time goes, it becomes heavy. You think more and more about what others are going through.”

He is very aware of the blessings that made his lockdown more comfortable, hastening to point out that staying home is a different reality when you live in a big house with a garden, compared to a crowded apartment.

Money, though, is also not a cure-all. Buffon has spoken with admirable openness about his struggle with depression in his mid-20s: a time when wealth and footballing prizes came easily but could not fill up what he described as a “black hole of the soul”. Opening his eyes to worlds outside of his own, starting with an unplanned visit to an art exhibit, was what helped him to find a way through.

“I think the thing that really allows you to stay well is an existential happiness,” he says. “Feeling within yourself that you are a happy person for what you have done, what you are doing, what you are becoming . . . When I read a book or watch a film and take something from it, I feel better. If I gain some new understanding, that’s what makes me feel good.

“I’m a person who really doesn’t need anything when I’m home with my wife and my kids. We talk about everything, and I have time to dedicate to taking on information, seeing new curiosities. I feel like a person who continues to grow. I don’t know whether I’m getting better or worse. I hope better! But doing this makes me feel good.”

Still going

If life at home is so enriching, then why has Buffon found it so hard to leave football behind? He has played professionally for 26 years: long enough that he now plays alongside Federico Chiesa, the son of his former Parma teammate Enrico.

The simplest answer is that Buffon believes he still has something to offer. He is no avid follower of American football but it did not escape his attention that Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl this year at 43.

“They say that when you reach my age, the decline happens all at once – from one moment to the next. I don’t believe this. I feel what I feel, and the sensations I have within myself don’t make me think there is going to be some sudden collapse.

“I am also someone who believes very strongly in fate, in destiny. When Juventus offered me the chance to come back, I thought: ‘Madonna! You never know, maybe there’s a reason, something I’m meant to go back there for. One last great story to write. So I have to be honest, there is also a part of this that comes down to that bit of ego all of us have.”

His last great objective in football, and on this he has been consistent ever since we first met, is to play in a Club World Cup. Entry to that tournament, for European teams, requires winning the Champions League, the one major piece of silverware that has eluded him.

It is the journey that excites him, though, more than any destination. Buffon has confessed before to feeling a certain disconnect from his own achievements after they are reached. He was happy to see how Italy’s World Cup in 2006 brought the country together, but his own highest high came during the final itself, against France, sharing moments of exquisite tension with teammates who had worked for a lifetime to be there.

Among them was Andrea Pirlo, now his manager at Juventus. They had represented their country together since the under-15s. "My friendship with Pirlo goes a long way back," says Buffon. "In practice, me, him and [GENNARO]Gattuso knew each other going back to 1993 … When you have the fortune and the ability to share a journey like winning the World Cup, I really believe that sealed our relationship. Not our friendship. You don't judge a friendship by winning World Cups, but it sealed a bond. It gave us a shared understanding that can never be broken."

When Pirlo later joined Juventus as a player, Buffon recalled watching him train and thinking: “God exists.” When Pirlo was announced as Juventus manager this summer, his reaction was different. “So do I have to call you Mister now!?!?!” Buffon tweeted, using the Italian word for “Boss”.

“Of course!” he replies when asked if he adjusted to addressing his old friend in new terms. “That was the first thing I did. In front of other people, he will always be ‘Mister’. This is a matter of roles, a matter of respect, a matter of intelligence. As long as we are here, he has one role and I have another. When we leave this place or we go out together, then we can be Gigi and Andrea.”

The player-manager relationship is easy, he says, because of the history between them, a shared trust in one another’s intentions. Pirlo wrote in his autobiography about seeking out Buffon’s gaze before taking his penalty in the World Cup final shootout, knowing it would help to calm his nerves.

Buffon smiles at that thought, perhaps remembering the younger version of himself who never felt as cool and collected on the inside as his performances could make people believe. Is there anything he would like to go back in time and tell himself now, from the other side of a spectacular career? “Let’s say that, yes, there are some pieces of advice I could give myself,” he replies after a pause.

“But I remember how I was, and I know how I am now. I need to have my own experiences. I need to mess up. If a person never messes up, and never pays the price for it, in my opinion they will never really understand.

“It’s important to get things wrong in life. And it’s even more important to pay for your mistakes. If you don’t pay the duty, that duty will still be owed to the end. Feeling embarrassment is an essential part of growth. It makes you feel bad, it makes you reflect, it makes you look at the nuances of a situation.”

With age, many mistakes are easier to keep in perspective. Errors on the football pitch, though, only get harder to digest. “When I mess up in a game, honestly, I feel so uncomfortable. Just totally distraught. I am used to expecting the maximum from myself, so if I can’t do things perfectly I feel this huge embarrassment.”

It has not happened often this season. That is partly because Buffon plays less than he used to, yielding the starting goalkeeper's job to Wojciech Szczesny when he left for Paris three years ago. But there are plenty of games to go around, and Buffon has delivered commanding performances in key games, including the Coppa Italia semi-final and a 3-0 rout of Barcelona at the Camp Nou to clinch their Champions League group.

At 43, Buffon still has a part to play on a team that, despite recent wobbles, has not yet been eliminated from any of the competitions it entered this season. A team that is managed by one of his oldest friends, and which includes, in Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the greatest talents of all time.

“Truthfully,” he says again, “I never imagined I would play on for this long. But these are beautiful stories, I think.” - Guardian