“AM I lucky?” he asked. “Maybe up to a point. Good luck helps, of course, but it’s up to me to go out on the pitch.”
These were the words of a teenage rising shot stopper, who just made a sensational national debut against Russia following Gianluca Pagliuca’s injury in Italy’s road to the 1998 France World Cup. A similar scenario was witnessed two years prior when he made his club debut for Parma due to a Luca Bucci injury.
At that stage of his life Gianluigi Buffon was considered one of the most fortunate players to grasp these opportunities. Now, at 40 years of age, with three Champions League final defeats can we still count the goalkeeper a ‘lucky’ man?
It was the last group stage game for Italy in the World Cup, they already failed to win their first two fixtures and their final game was against Cameroon. Somewhere in Carrara, a family sat in their living room anxiously supporting the national team. Father Adriano was on his feet, his wife and his two girls were trembling, and a four-year-old Buffon had sparkling eyes filled with laughter at the fact the opposition’s goalkeeper was named Thomas N’Kono.
“The first keeper I really took notice of was Cameroon’s Thomas N’Kono during the 1982 World Cup,” said Buffon. “But that was really because of his name. It was in Italia ‘90 that I started to be inspired by his goalkeeping. First off it was his ability but what really made him stand out was his bravery, in particular his diving to make saves. The way he played inspired me to start playing like him. He played how I felt the game should be played.”
Although the former Espanyol goalkeeper was Buffon’s first inspiration, the deadly boots of the Carrara native forced him to start as a midfielder for his home side and despite hoping to follow in the footsteps of his beloved N’Kono, no team wanted to keep him between the posts.
However, Gigi reached his goal, playing in his favourite position for local club Bonascola, there he fulfilled his potential and a number of the top flight teams came flocking to sign the emerging talent.
With the Rossoneri putting a contract on the table it was surprising to see Ermes Fulgoni get away with the deal for Parma.
“As soon as I saw Gigi, I said to myself, ‘This kid is a phenomenon.’” Said Fulgoni.
Buffon grew up in wisdom and stature at the youth ranks of the Crociati and by the time he was 17, Nevio Scala asked him if he’d be ok making his debut the following day and knowing Buffon you would know he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
Grit and determination were written all over the teenager’s mind as he built a wall, stopping Scudetto champions that year Milan, led by two Ballon d’Or winners Roberto Baggio and George Weah to end the game 0-0.
“My League debut was my greatest game. To make your debut in Serie A at 17 against Milan, who were all-conquering in those days, was unbelievable. Then to keep a clean sheet was absolutely fabulous for me. I could have never have dreamt of such a debut. The next day my name was all over the papers and if I am honest it went a little bit to my head.”
Buffon stayed modest and dedicated, he made his utmost effort, and was rewarded with three trophies at Parma winning Coppa Italia, Supercoppa Italiana and most importantly his first European triumph; the UEFA Cup. Along with Hernan Crespo, Lilian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro they formed one of the greatest generations for the Ducali.
Sadly, as we know the rest of the story, here stands a full stop and it is not to halt my words but to draw a line for Saint Gigi’s only international glory on a club level as every other Everest he climbed ended up in massive disappointment.
2002/2003 Champions League (The First):
A young, brimming with hope Buffon stood tall against Luis Figo, with a penalty chance for the Portuguese legend to draw the game level on the return leg of the Champions League semi-final.
David Trezeguet and Alessandro Del Piero spent the night outclassing and outplaying the Real Madrid defence and it took Paolo Montero one sliding error to foul Ronaldo and offer the Meringues a turning point they have been longing for.
However, with both arms Gigi turned a grieving silenced stadium into a celebration all over the city of Turin as he stopped the no 10’s penalty, paving the way for Pavel Nedved to fire his brilliant strike and send the Old Lady to an all Italian final with Milan.
Juventus had to play the final without the suspended Czech, forcing Marcelo Lippi to put on his defensive A game, bogging the play down in central midfield, as none of his midfielders had enough talent to fill the boots of Nedved.
Only two headers could have taken the game either way, one from Antonio Conte that hit the cross bar and another thundering effort from Pippo Inzaghi that was unbelievably met by the left palm of Buffon, considered to be one of his greatest saves ever.
The goalkeeper continued his marvellous form, denying the penalties of Clarence Seedorf and Kakha Kaladze, yet his teammates missed three, forcing Gigi to suffer his first Champions League final defeat.
“Losing on penalties in 2003 was very painful, but since I was only 25, I was fairly calm because I was convinced I’d win many more. That’s the exuberance of youth. I was so close to winning it on that occasion; they missed three penalties in that final – I saved two of them. Strange things happen. It wasn’t meant to be and we weren’t good enough. In sport and life, those who deserve it more probably end up getting their rewards.”
2014/15 Champions League (The flashbacks):
Next to Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Juventus were the least seeded to walk out with the most prestigious European trophy.
The other three teams hoped the draw would serve them the Bianconeri on a plate and it was Los Blancos that had the wheel of fortune ticking on their side.
Unlike what they expected, the boys in black and white stripes took Real Madrid by storm, Buffon had his Super Gigi gloves on, leading the “BBC” with his larger-than-life personality. Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal were an indestructible force in the middle of the park whilst Carlos Tevez had his warrior spirit and never die attitude. It was on loan youngster Alvaro Morata who stabbed his former team, scoring two of Juventus’ three goals to secure qualification.
It was a flashback for the shot stopper who reached his last Champions League final 12 years prior, defeating the same side from Madrid, and standing on the ground at Olympiastadion Berlin brought Buffon back to his favourite memories were he triumphed with the grandest prize, the World Cup.
Nevertheless, facing Barcelona’s “MSN” at that time, meant this was a David and Goliath battle, Buffon fought hard to go from Serie B back to Berlin, but what he was hoping to achieve was nothing less than a miracle.
Ivan Rakitic gave the lead to the Blaugranes with less than five minutes on the clock and Lionel Messi’s teammates continued to dominate the game all the way until the 55th minute. It was then, that young Spaniard Alvaro Morata scored in the final, and for about ten minutes every Juventus fan had faith that something phenomenal could happen.
It did not end up like the Bible story or any expected fairy-tale as Luis Suarez and Neymar forced their dominance over the game, ending it 3-1, as Buffon bowed down again failing to accomplish his dream.
2016/17 Champions League (The worst of all three):
It is the year where Allegri’s army got their revenge over Barca and la Joya pulled out his deadly golden left foot, curling two beauties past Marc-André ter Stegen.
Juventus’ no 10 has arguably put on a better displays than his home performance against Barcelona, but that by far was his most important one.
A brace from Dybala, a header from Giorgio Chiellini, masterclass defending from the “BBC” and a couple of brilliant saves from Gigi took Juventus past the Catalonian side with a clean sheet in both fixtures.
The semi-final with Monaco was not the challenge that would have felled this Old Lady, as Gonzalo Higuain and Dani Alves guaranteed victory over the two legs; it was a question of Juventus’ mentality in the competition’s final that had doubters raising eyebrows.
Buffon started the game with a record of passing Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane in every possible knock-out fixture he has faced either of them in, in any competition. With the current unstoppable form of the Bianconeri, the trophy that had been missing for over 20 years did not seem out of reach.
The game kicked-off evenly with the two sides well matched, until Ronaldo opened the scoring. Seven minutes later Alex Sandro crossed the ball to Higuain whose chested pass found Mario Mandžukić who fired what could be the best goal in the history of Champions League finals. A goal that sent Gigi screaming to the fans, who were shivering in wonder that this could finally be their moment.
As the second half, kicked-off Real Madrid controlled the tempo of the game and Casemiro’s shot was deflected from Khedira into Buffon’s net. Juventus turned into bohemians, as the two midfielders were fragile and nervous, while the defence failed to form the cohesive unit they were once capable of. Ronaldo stepped up to add another one of his customary vital goals and Marco Asensio added a fourth to leave it 4-1 to the side from Madrid.
According to Buffon, this is the club game that he would do anything to play again.
“Yes, I’d like to replay the Juve-Real Madrid Champions League Final from last year,” he said. “Because we lost without putting on to the field the qualities and characteristics of Juve.”
The situation as it stands:
Sweden hand-in-hand with Gian Piero Ventura denied Saint Gigi the opportunity to become the first player to ever participate in six World Cup tournaments. The lasting memory for Azzurri fans will be the 40-year-old apologizing with tears bursting from his eyes.
A scene that hit the football world hard enough that Rakitic wished Buffon could go to Russia instead of himself.
“Buffon is really unique, he has the respect of everyone, I’m really sad that he won’t have a last chance to play in a World Cup. If I could, I would give him my place.”
While Juventus teammate Sami Khedira felt the pain of his Captain and vowed to give his all to make the goalkeeper hold the Cup with the Mickey Mouse Ears at the end of the season.
“Seeing Buffon cry hurt everyone, Italians and non-Italians. Buffon’s a great sportsman, a living legend.
“He’s only missing one trophy, so we’ll help him win it.”
As Juventus kicked off the season with poor performances and following significant improvement, there might be an opportunity for them to reach another final, they could go on and win the whole thing, but there is a big chance they will not. There is a likelihood that Buffon will retire by the end of the season, there is a very small possibility that he may stay another season because he is so obsessed with winning the trophy.
Only one thing is certain, every Juventino is solely obsessed with the prospect of Gigi no longer standing between their posts. He is a man that irreversibly changed the stature of a goalkeeper at the club.
The Juventini will deeply miss his shot-stopping skills, his unbelievable reliability and his command over the backline but more importantly they will miss that connection they held with him for years. The emotion he transfers to the fans behind his net and the smile on one of the most humble ethereal beings to ever appear in the Bianconeri kit.
Buffon might or might not win the Champions League; the mere simple reality will remain that whenever he decides to hang his boots, he will walk out of the Allianz Arena a club prophet.