Gianluigi Buffon still relishes being centre of the storm
Legendary Italian goalkeeper will play his 1,000th senior match when Albania visit
Gianluigi Buffon: “I blew €20m, it went up in smoke but I safeguarded the livelihoods of 1,200 families.” Photograph: Claudio Villa/Getty Images
A small but significant piece of football history should unfold at the Stadio Renzo Barbera on Friday night.
Italy’s World Cup qualifier against Albania in Palermo provides the stage for Gianluigi Buffon to play the 1,000th senior match of a career spanning more than two decades and promises to be another step on the road towards the Azzurri and Juventus captain’s sixth World Cup.
At 39 a goalkeeper who jokes about “maybe” considering retirement “at 65” retains the ultra-sharp reflexes which have made him not only a household name but also a beacon of stability in an increasingly turbulent world.
Like many celebrities, Buffon possesses a social conscience but few invest €20 million of their own money into failing businesses.
In December 2015 he poured precisely that amount into Zucchi, a floundering yet historic, high-fashion Milanese textile manufacturer.
“I blew €20m, it went up in smoke but I safeguarded the livelihoods of 1,200 families,” said a player currently fretting about Serie A’s future.
Although Juventus are still owned by Italy’s Agnelli family, Roma and Internazionale are now under respective American and Chinese ownership and Milan continue negotiations with a Chinese consortium. This trend sits uneasily with Buffon.
“Foreign investors in Serie A? It’s bad for Italy, ” he said. “It’s a setback for our football and traditions and mirrors the bad economic situation in our country.”
He has previously spoken out against the “financial doping” – essentially clubs living way beyond their means – that, not so long ago, threatened to ruin Serie A but paradoxically has arguably extended the career of a man desperate to delay retirement until he wins the Champions League with Juventus. The trophy has become very much the itch Gigi is determined to scratch.
“If I’d already won the Champions League, I’d be drained. The fact that I’m still to win it pushes me on.”
If this season seemingly offers as good a chance as ever, that possibility appeared a distant dream when, back in 2006, Juventus’s embroilment in a match-fixing scandal saw The Old Lady relegated to Serie B and stripped of two league titles.
Whereas Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Gianluca Zambrotta, Emerson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic promptly exited stage left, Buffon – his stock soaring after Italy’s World Cup triumph in Germany – stayed loyal before proving integral to winning his team an immediate top-tier return. As a mark of their gratitude, Juve placed large adverts in Italy’s three leading sports papers thanking him.
Very much a three-dimensional figure in an all too often monochrome, binary game, Buffon has spoken openly about the depression he suffered more than a decade ago and his decision to overcome it with the help of psychiatrists rather than medication.
“It was crucial not to take medicine,” he said. “Without depending on drugs, I was the architect of my own destiny.”
Genetics have played a key role in his long-standing domination of the goalkeeping scene. That Buffon has a record-holding Italian discus-throwing mother, a junior shot-putt champion father and a European volleyball star sister suggests superior upper-body strength and stellar hand-eye co-ordination run in the family.
An increasing aptitude with his feet also helps explain the longevity of a career that began at the age of 17 with an astounding debut for Parma in a goalless draw against Milan featuring superlative-defying saves from Roberto Baggio and George Weah.
Perhaps tellingly, after moving from Parma to Juventus in 2001 for a record €50 million, Buffon rejected an opportunity to join Barcelona, preferring to remain within easy reach of Carrara, his Tuscan hometown.
Twice married and a father of three, Italy’s most-capped international – Albania will be his 168th Azzurri appearance – attributes joining the 1,000 games club (others in a distinctly select band include Paolo Maldini, Ryan Giggs, Raúl, Javier Zanetti, Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence) to “fortune with injuries and professionalism”.
Not to mention extraordinary mental durability.
“You see how good a goalkeeper is after he makes a mistake and is filled with remorse and indecision,” said a goalkeeper expected to finally hang up his gloves after Russia 2018.
“Sometimes a number one’s confidence goes but, to me, being in the centre of the storm is exciting.”