Gianluigi Buffon: A tribute to one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time

In Depth

Gianluigi Buffon joined an exclusive club on Friday night when he lined up for Italy against Albania in what was his 1000th career game. Just another milestone for the Juventus goalkeeper, who collects records like he gathers clean sheets.

The 39-year-old joins six of his goalkeeping brethren in a group of 18 players to hit four figures in senior appearances.

Longevity comes somewhat more easily for stoppers, with Peter Shilton, Rogerio Ceni and Ray Clemence occupying the top three slots, but Buffon’s achievement is impressive still. And he is not finished yet.

Buffon has raised the possibility of hanging up his gloves after the World Cup in Russia next summer, which gives him a realistic chance of cracking the 1000 club’s top 10 and the top three of the most capped international players ever.

Perhaps only then, when his astonishing list of achievements is complete, will we consider whether for the last two decades we have had the privilege of watching the greatest goalkeeper of all time.

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It is, of course, a subjective question, not one that can be measured simply by shutouts.

More senior observers will reminisce over Russia great Lev Yashin, the cigarette-smoking Black Spider, who, it is claimed, saved a penalty roughly every five matches throughout an 812-game career.

Anglophiles will point to World Cup winner and scourge of Pele, Gordon Banks, as well as Peter Shilton, who played at senior level for a third of a century.

Those shaped by his style will fight Peter Schmeichel’s corner, while younger fans will put Iker Casillas and Manuel Neuer in Buffon’s class. Even Buffon rates the German as the best in class at present.

“Neuer has his own era, the best one in the category ‘modern ‘keeper’ for years,” the Italian told Kicker recently. What defines a modern keeper remains up for debate.

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Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp appreciate the concept of a modern keeper who contributes as much to the attacking play as they do to the defence of their goal. But as both coaches have recently discovered, new doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Neuer is indeed the finest gloved playmaker, but it is far simpler to play rush keeper when you turn out every week for the all-conquering Bayern Munich and world champions Germany. Neuer’s working brief is vastly different to the overwhelming majority of his peers.

That is not a slight on Neuer or to say that he isn’t trusted to do what some have come to see as the dirty work of goalkeeping. His presence is undoubtedly one of the factors in his teams’ dominance.

But, though perhaps the approach of Guardiola and Klopp will become the norm among future coaches, for now and the foreseeable, most managers will gravitate towards a secure stopper more than a creative one.

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READ: Claudio Bravo and the difficulty in using stats to assess goalkeepers

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In that category, Buffon is peerless. Though Casillas and Neuer have dominated the world’s best goalkeeper award over the last decade, and the likes of Petr Cech and Oliver Kahn have demonstrated their own brilliance, no one can match Buffon’s flawless consistency over the last 20 years.

His reign as Italy No.1 has spanned the most unsettling era for goalkeepers, who were previously left alone in almost every sense.

The job specification has changed, but since his Serie A debut in 1995, Buffon has evolved seemingly effortlessly, acting as everything from conventional shot-stopper to first line of attack and all things in between.

Despite his showreel of incredible saves, so often at critical times, it is rather more difficult to clip up a YouTube video of the most impressive facets of his game: Buffon is a born leader who almost never makes mistakes.

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Juventus boss Max Allegri called criticism of Buffon “blasphemous” after the keeper made a most uncharacteristic error on international duty last October, and former Italy and Juve coach Marcello Lippi raised a similar point: ”We are talking about the No.1 in the world.

“He has been the best throughout his career. I have been telling him the same thing for 20 years now: when a normal goalkeeper makes a mistake, nobody says anything, but when Buffon makes a mistake, it’s news.

“But you cannot argue about Buffon. Buffon is Buffon, the No.1.”

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That pursuit of perfection is what has inspired Buffon to be the best for so long. Rather than taking pride in all he has achieved, he remains driven by the few things he hasn’t.

The Juventus stalwart readily admits he might have retired by now had he won one of the two Champions League finals he has competed in: “I’ve been asking myself for years what drives me to keep playing. If I had won the Champions League I would be empty: the thought spurs me on.”

Buffon has repeatedly spoken of the masochistic tendencies required to be a goalkeeper, especially at the highest level.

“A masochist and egocentric as well,” he told the Guardian. “A masochist because when you play in goal, you know the only certain thing in life is that you will concede goals. And you also know that conceding goals is not something that brings you happiness.”

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However the job may have changed, the psychological profile of the best, most consistent keepers remains the same, and though that ‘perverse’ way of thinking may seem out-dated to some, often it is mentality that separates the great from the good.

Yashin summed it up: “What kind of a goalkeeper is the one who is not tormented by the goal he has allowed? He must be tormented! And if he is calm, that means the end.”

Tormented soul though he may have been, like all the greats, Yashin knew how to surpress it for the sake of the team in front of him.

“The trick,” said the Russian, “is to smoke a cigarette to calm your nerves and then take a big swig of strong liquor to tone your muscles.”

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Buffon, who enjoys a cigarette, though probably not as part of his warm-up routine, gets a similar kick out of playing a role and agrees with Yashin on the importance of keeping up appearances.

“The most important thing for a goalkeeper is the sense of certainty you transmit to others. You have to transmit that, regardless of what you might actually be feeling.

“Even if you are not sure of yourself, you need others to believe you have control of the situation and that they can rely on you.”

Parma put their trust in Buffon when he was just 17 – only five years after he chose to be a goalkeeper.

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Inspiration came to young Gigi from an unlikely source: “I fell in love with keeper role during the 1990 World Cup in Italy,” he told Corriere dello Sport.

“I didn’t imitate Maradona or Lineker, not even Roger Milla, but rather Thomas N’Kono, Cameroon’s keeper, who back then was 38 years old but entered my dreams and conditioned me.

“It is because of him that I arrived where I did. He was a keeper out of the ordinary, he did some things I’d never seen”

So inspired was Buffon by his N’Kono, he named his first child Louis Thomas in honour of the Cameroonian. His second son, David Lee, incidentally, was named not after the Chelsea defender of a similar era, rather David Lee Roth, the Van Halen singer.

Buffon was certainly on fire on his Serie A bow. Thrown into the Parma side against eventual champions AC Milan and a forward line which featured George Weah, Roberto Baggio and Zvonimir Boban, he made a string of fine stops to preserve a clean sheet.

One save from Baggio, when the young keeper came flying from his line to block a header, hinted at why Buffon was to become known as Superman.

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It was a moniker Buffon embraced, with the teenager wearing a t-shirt under his jersey emblazoned with the superhero’s logo. It was on parade regularly during his second season as Parma’s number one, during which he saved Ronaldo’s penalty during a home match against Inter.

With the ball still in play after his parry, Buffon, after double-checking his side were safe in possession, disappeared behind his goal, mounted the advertising hoarding and celebrated furiously with the fans.

Buffon has always embraced the extremes of emotion that come with goalkeeping. Since his debut, the Tuscany-born stopper has been able to remain calm and composed upon command, while his occasional explosions, either in joy or rage, are almost always timed to perfection for the benefit of everyone around him.

When his world record move to Juventus came in 2001, there was never any doubt that Superman would not be able to carry the weight of the 100 billion lire price tag.

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Buffon helped Juve dominate Serie A, winning the Scudetto four times in his first five seasons at the club. The Calciopoli scandal stripped Juve of the last of those two titles, but it was then that the goalkeeper sealed his status as a Juve legend.

Buffon returned from Germany in summer 2006 as a World Cup winner and holder of the Lev Yashin Award, but what awaited him was a season in Serie B.

That prospect was too much for the likes Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Gianluca Zambrotta and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who all jumped the sinking ship.

Buffon, though, is a different breed of footballer, not just because of his goalkeeping perversion, but because, as Carlo Tavecchio, president of the Italian Football Federation, described him at the weekend: “He is a person with a great sense of ethics and morality.”

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“I could’ve left that summer and I was contacted by important clubs,” Buffon told Corriere dello Sport. “But I decided to stay at Juve first of all because I believe in gratitude. It’s a value that we’d do well as a society to bring back to the surface.

“I also wanted to prove in concrete terms that the values of football I believe in are not just declared and trotted out rhetorically, but put into practice.

“Football is not just a business, it is also sentiment. The sport would die without the former or the latter, we ought to know that. In my small part, I tried to prove that was the case.”

Juve overcame a nine-point deduction to return to Serie A at the first time of asking, and Buffon played a major role in returning the Old Lady to the top of Italian football.

But, aside from that one season away, by 30 when most keepers are approaching their peak, Buffon had already been playing at the top level for 13 years and in the Italy side for over a decade.

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Injuries, which aside from surgery on a dislocated shoulder in 2005 had rarely been a concern for Buffon before, were starting to take their toll, with questions asked of how many miles the stalwart had in the tank.

“Physically I started looking after myself more since I turned 30. It requires sacrifices to stay at a certain level,” acknowledged Buffon, who, like Juventus, rediscovered his invincible aura in 2011-12, when the Old Lady went unbeaten under Antonio Conte to win their first Serie A title since Calciopoli.

“It’s funny when they announce your funeral and then you go and prove them wrong,” said Buffon after making a mockery of whatever obituries were being written.

“Now they can go to my funeral, but they will not find anybody there. This is what I live for, to make people eat their words.”

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Though criticism, adversity and defeat has been Buffon’s fuel for his many triumphs, one of his greatest victories came off the pitch but still in full glare of the spotlight.

“From December 2003 until June 2004 I was suffering from depression,” he told FIFA.com in 2008.

“I never understood why, not then, not before and not after. I wasn’t satisfied with my life and football. My legs would start shaking all of a sudden.

“It was a dark period because I am a sunny and optimistic person. I was thinking, ‘how can rich and normal people suffer from depression?’”

Progress has been slow in removing the stigma around mental health in sport, but 13 years ago, even that was a long way off. Even when Buffon acknowledged the need to reach out for help, his options were limited.

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Illustration by Ashley Lightfoot

READ: A tribute to Iván ‘Bam Bam’ Zamorano and his memorable career

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“The problem was if I had said: ‘I am going away for two months to get better’ I would have been finished,” he later told the Guardian.

“Because every time after that, if I had failed with a save or whatever, I would have been reminded of that period. I just couldn’t allow myself to go away for two or three months to get better.”

Despite his initial misplaced scepticism over seeking professional help – “I thought psychologists were people who rob, figuratively of course, money from the insecure” – Buffon sought the help he needed and opened up to those closest to him. It worked.

“It happened all of a sudden,” he said. “I used to be scared of going on to the pitch. At the European Championships in Portugal during the match between Italy and Denmark, a horrendous match, I was the only one smiling.”

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Despite his aura of invincibility on the pitch, Buffon’s battle shows Superman is human. He has flaws and fears – notably, of wasps, a phobia which almost stopped him taking to the field once under Fabio Capello.

And like any individual, he has made mistakes.

While at Parma, he paraded a fascist slogan handwritten on a vest under his jersey, and less than a year later caused controversy by opting to wear on his shirt the number 88 – a figure with neo-Nazi connotations.

On both occasions, Buffon offered explanations, insisting there was no far right significance to his actions. Still, he felt harshly treated:

“I played for the national side at 19. It would have been fair to allow me to make mistakes,” he said later. “Instead there was, in my view, excessive criticism.

“I’m not stupid. Now nothing disturbs me, whether I play well or badly.”

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Unlike many players, not even the prospect of retirement unsettles Buffon, nor does the emergence of the heir to his throne, Gianluigi Donnarumma. After his 1000th appearance on Friday, the veteran hinted that he could play on beyond next summer.

“I don’t even know if I’ll retire after the World Cup,” he said. “Of course I have objectives, but there are no certainties. I need to search deep within myself and work out how I feel.”

The tournament in Russia offers Buffon the perfect opportunity to make an exit from stage as grand as his entrance against Milan in 1995.

The Italy captain will be a month older than Dino Zoff was when he led the Azzurri to World Cup glory aged 40 in 1982. Another 18 months at the top level also offers a couple more stabs at the missing title that keeps the fire burning.

Neither Juventus, nor Italy, are heavily fancied to give Buffon the send-off many feel he deserves.

But a wise man would not bet against Superman flying off into the sun next summer with a Champions League medal sat upon the S on his chest.

Words by Ian Watson. Illustration by Paul Clay.

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