Sport360's Stuart Appleby pays tribute to Juventus and Italy legend ahead of his final match for the Turin giants on Saturday
Goalkeepers are a different breed of footballer. They train and prepare differently, and tend to have either a largely extravagant personality or curiously introverted one.
It takes a certain type of character to occupy the loneliness of two white posts and a crossbar, so much so, that those who do are indebted for life into the goalkeepers’ union – an inclusive yet exclusive club for shot-stoppers.
Its ethos, if you like, boils down to the fact, that as a keeper, you and live and die by the sword.
You know for every good moment, flying save or penalty shootout success where you’re the hero, a moment of disaster, a mind lapse of kamikaze proportions, is just around the corner when you wish you could sink into the pitch. The men between the sticks are always in it together.
That union, for the worse, will miss Gianluigi Buffon‘s regular presence. The legendary Italian will play his final Juventus match on Saturday and lift his ninth Scudetto crown for the Old Lady after their clash against Verona at the Allianz Stadium.
The 40-year-old, who recently changed his mind about retiring at the end of the season, is now apparently mulling over several interesting options to extend one of the game’s great careers, which has spanned over two decades.
The good news is that the 2006 World Cup winner will not completely fade away into the sunset but his final Juve game after 17 years feels like the end of a very special era.
You didn’t have to be a fan of the Bianconeri to have felt sadness when Buffon was sent-off for an out-of-character tirade against Michael Oliver during the recent Champions League quarter-final exit to Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Hopes of finally landing a European Cup medal were extinguished that night following a moment that mirrored that of Zinedine Zidane‘s famous headbutt, which ironically came during that match in Berlin all those years ago that defined the biggest trophy success of Buffon’s career.
Like Zidane, though, Buffon is and has always been about so much more than silverware. Personality, sportsmanship and a lasting legacy of greatness are more important attributes.
Few can match an icon of Buffon’s stature. Ivan Rakitic said once, that if a child had to draw a picture of a goalkeeper – they would scribble the Italian in caricature form. Simply put, that summed up the measure of the man.
If this is a goodbye at the top level, he will be missed by all generations. Regardless, his legacy and status among the pantheon of goalkeeping greats – something that probably doesn’t matter too much to a man without an ego – has been set and stone for years.
Many would argue he deserved the 2006 Ballon d’Or over Italian team-mate Fabio Cannavaro – and they had a point given Buffon shared a great amount of the defensive load with the centre-back. It wasn’t to be.
Still, he is on a par with the legendary Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin – the only keeper to have won that award in history, and that came in 1963.
While the likes of compatriot Dino Zoff, Yashin, Gordon Banks and more recently Peter Schmeichel, Edwin van der Sar and Iker Casillas among the other great goalkeeping names – Buffon’s longevity (he won 176 Italy caps) does place him near the top.
The ‘Maradona of Goalkeepers’ – a term Cannarvaro used to describe Buffon – and he was nailed on with that remark. It is almost unheard of for a goalkeeper or defender to rival men like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the individual stakes, but he has just done that for many years.
Back in March 2016, after breaking the record for the longest amount of time without conceding a goal in Serie A history – 974 minutes – Buffon penned an emotional poem to ‘his goal’ about his love for the game and then wrote individual letters to his team-mates.
One verse read: ‘More than 25 years ago I made my vow: I swore to protect you. Look after you. A shield against all your enemies. I’ve always thought about your welfare, putting it first even ahead of my own.’
For Buffon, it was never about money but doing what he loved, team success and most importantly loyalty. Let’s not forget, he undeservingly went down with the ship as Juventus were relegated to Serie B due to the match-fixing scandal in 2006.
What next? The fact he has not deteriorated as a player, makes it difficult for Buffon to walk away completely. He will get the perfect send-off this weekend and you wouldn’t think he would take up any old challenge just for the sake of it.
In a sense it doesn’t even matter because Buffon will continue to have a great and positive impact on the game we all love for years to come whatever he goes on to do. The sad thing is, he was the last in a dying breed of footballing statesman that we won’t see again.
If only they made them like him now.