Gianluigi Buffon: Destiny and short sleeves with the world’s most expensive keeper

By Paolo Bandini
Photography by Danilo Scarpati
Styling by Elle Korhaliller

This article first appeared in Issue Three of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2011/12

It happened 25 years ago, but in Gigi Buffon’s mind it might as well have been 25 minutes. “I remember seeing this kid was about to cross and being aware that there was an attacker in the middle of the area,” he says. “Rather than stay on my line, like every other kid was doing at that time, I found myself coming out. By the time the ball got there I was already upon him. His shot hit me and the ball went out.”

He slaps his chest, hard, with the palm of his right hand as he recalls the save, demonstrating where the ball struck him but also recreating the sound and the feel of the moment. In his mind’s eye he can see not only the other players but the grass, the trees, that scruffy pitch out in the suburbs of Carrara, a small city in the northwest corner of Tuscany. Above all he can see, and hear, the handful of spectators stood watching on the sidelines.

“My parents weren’t there because they had to work that afternoon, but the ones who were made this noise – ‘heeey’ – as if to say they had never seen a thing like that before. Besides the fact they weren’t expecting it from me because I wasn’t used to playing in that position, they also weren’t expecting it because I was just eight, nine years old. They weren’t used to seeing kids who did things like this at that age.”

Nor was Buffon used to doing them. This was his first ever match in goal, and not one that he had been training for. He was, and would remain for several years afterwards, a midfielder – one talented enough to represent Tuscany in youth competitions alongside such future professionals as Cristiano Zanetti and Marco Rossi. He had wound up in goal that day only because his team’s regular keeper was injured, and because his coach felt the replacement should be somebody tall.

And yet, right away he knew that this was a significant moment. “Even at a young age I was already aware that I would want to treasure certain moments, preserve them in my mind, because I somehow knew that many years later I would want them again. I remember two or three snapshots like this of the first saves that I made. As a kid they had an incredible importance to me.”

Over the coming years Buffon would volunteer on two or three more occasions to fill in at the position but at that age it was scoring goals, not preventing them, which he truly relished. It was not until 1990 – at 12 years old – that he decided to switch full time. He, like everyone else, had been watching the World Cup hosted in Italy that summer, but while the rest of the peninsula were busy cheering on Azeglio Vicini’s Azzurri, his imagination was being stoked by a rather more unlikely figure.

Thomas N’Kono did not feature in the official team of the tournament, nor would he have made it onto those of many fans from outside his home country of Cameroon. Although he had made a handful of impressive stops – most notably denying Diego Maradona in a group stage upset of Argentina – he had also conceded four against the Soviet Union and given away what turned out to be the decisive penalty in his team’s quarter-final defeat to England.

Nevertheless, Buffon was smitten. Cameroon became his new favourite team, so much so that for years he would still insist on being the Indomitable Lions whenever he played Subbuteo (a game which he loved). “I have always been a bit of a non-conformist,” he says, smiling. “I’m always looking for personalities who convey something more to me beyond the obvious. I got this sense from Cameroon – who certainly weren’t a well-known team at that time, nor one that had lots of fans pulling for them (in Italy).

Gianluigi Buffon

“Now, everyone plays with short sleeves. I don’t know if I was the one who started the trend, but I was definitely the first one to do it.”

“With N’Kono I liked the way in which he interpreted a match, his eccentricity. He would do a somersault on the pitch during a game or make a save with his fists and knock the ball 100 metres away. There were things about him that were a bit special, unusual for us Europeans.”

He stood out from the crowd, in other words, and that was something which Buffon too aspired to do. For the first time, he became aware of advantages to being a goalkeeper he had not previously considered. “For me, just the idea of having my own personal shirt, that was different from the others, of being able to put on a cap and some gloves, these were big motivations,” he says.

Buffon professes to not being that interested in fashion, insisting that if he looks well put together when he is seen out and about in Turin then the credit must go to his wife Alena. But on the pitch it has always been a different matter. Taken in his younger years with the outrageous fluorescent colour schemes worn by keepers such as Jorge Campos, he took to designing similar shirts for himself to wear.

Whilst that phase would pass, others proved more long lasting. “When I was a teenager everyone used to play with long sleeves, but I liked to play with short sleeves – it was a young and sporty look which I thought was cool,” he says. “Now, everyone plays with short sleeves. I don’t know if I was the one who started the trend, but I was definitely the first one to do it.”

The world got to see those short sleeves for the first time on 19 November 1995, when Nevio Scala gave Buffon his Serie A debut for Parma against Milan at just 17. He was ahead of his time in more ways than one: three years earlier Ermes Fulgoni, his goalkeeping coach in the youth system at Parma, had told Buffon he was good enough to be a Serie A starter by the age of 20. “Oh,” replied the 14-year-old. “Well, what am I supposed to do until then?”

Famously, Buffon was not featured in the official team photo for that game, having already run off to get warmed up. But his presence was certainly not forgotten as he kept a clean sheet, making key saves to deny Roberto Baggio and Marco Simone. Two years later, at 19, he made his debut for the national team, replacing the injured Gianluca Pagliuca in a World Cup qualifying play-off against Russia in Moscow (this time in long sleeves, but rolled up the elbow).

Although unable to prevent a Fabio Cannavaro own goal, he once again impressed, and Italy progressed to the tournament proper. If he made it all look effortless then the truth was that he was every bit as nervous as a teenager with a nation’s hopes on his shoulders ought to be. “To be honest, when I saw Pagliuca staying down after his collision with Andrei Kanchelskis, I couldn’t breathe,” he would later admit.

“I wanted to bury myself under the bench.”

These days, though, it is precisely that fear which drives Buffon on. A cliché it may be, but it also remains true that goalkeepers, more than any other players, are destined to be cast as heroes or villains. With a World Cup, four Serie A titles (though two were later revoked in the wake of Italy’s Calciopoli scandal), and a UEFA Cup under his belt – as well as all manner of personal accolades – it is fair to say Buffon has played the hero more often than most. But he too has committed his share of fumbles, slips and howlers.

“But in the end, after many years of playing, that’s the thing that keeps you alive,” he protests. “You need to know when you go out on the field that you are risking a lot. Every time you risk being vilified, but the thing you know is that every time when you go on the field you will live strong emotions. This is my role. And this is the thing that makes me happy. It is the greatest motivation you could have after 16 years of a career.”

Certainly Buffon does not come across as a man short of the latter. When we are first introduced at the Turin studio where The Green Soccer Journal’s photo shoot is taking place, a colleague makes a quip about Buffon playing at the 2014 World Cup. The follow-up question asking if he is not worried about one of Italy’s new batch of talented young goalkeepers – Emiliano Viviano and Salvatore Sirigu have each received their first caps in the last 15 months – is met with a flat “no”.

At 33, Buffon has suffered significant back problems over the past year but rather than giving in to age and the inevitable wear and tear of a long career he has worked his way back to what he believes is “optimal physical and mental condition.”. “I’ve had some bad luck,” he says. “But it has given me back that rage which maybe otherwise you lose over time – a great desire to be the best again for at least another three or four years. And in these years I really want to win something.”

That goal seems eminently attainable now that things are also looking up for his club side. Juventus appear more ready to challenge for the Scudetto than they have at any point since the 2006 relegation that formed part of their punishment for Calciopoli. The appointment of former captain Antonio Conte as manager has galvanised the club, as have astute signings such as Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Matri and Arturo Vidal, and indeed the opening of the new purpose-built Juventus Stadium. No other team in Serie A own their home ground.

Gianluigi Buffon

“I think destiny gives you signs and little shoves. And then it’s up to you to interpret those and decide whether to follow a destiny or not.”

Yet while Calciopoli set Juventus back in so many ways, it may also be the only reason why Buffon is still at the club today. The goalkeeper was the subject of a number of approaches in 2006 and has since acknowledged that he was “very close” to joining Milan following the World Cup. Yet rather than pushing him further towards an exit, the club’s relegation eventually persuaded him to stay – providing a whole new challenge at a club where he was beginning to feel stale.

“In these 11 years at Juventus there have been three or four years in which the possibility that I would stay in Turin has been really low,” he says. “And then certain things have happened (such as Calciopoli) which have ensured that I stay. And in the end it is a thing that makes me happy, because years go by and now you see we have become a competitive team again, and you know that if we win something it is going to mean something more.”

“Plus now I have the third most appearances of any Juventus goalkeeper and soon I will be second on that list. So you realise that these things didn’t happen for no reason – you rediscover your destiny over time. Maybe if destiny has it for me to stay for another three or four years I will wind up as the goalkeeper who has the most appearances ever for Juventus.” He presently trails the leader in that regard, Dino Zoff, by just over 100 appearances.

Destiny is a recurring theme in our conversation, just as it has been in interviews Buffon has given in the past. “I think every one of us has a destiny,” he says at one point as he reflects on his career. “And it was in my destiny to become a goalkeeper. If it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have had any reason to change position like I did as a teenager.”

Such words suggest a fatalistic outlook, yet when pressed Buffon rejects the suggestion that our lives are already mapped out for us. “I think it’s a case of both that, and some free will,” he argues. “I think destiny gives you signs and little shoves. And then it’s up to you to interpret those and decide whether to follow a destiny or not.”

Buffon has no regrets over the way he has chosen to follow his. He feels no envy towards players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who left Juventus in 2006 and has won a league title every year since – with Inter, Barcelona and Milan, saying simply “I think I’ve won quite a lot”. He also rejects the notion that choosing the life of a goalkeeper might mean choosing a solitary existence.

“I feel involved,” he says, when asked whether he has ever felt isolated from team-mates on the pitch or in the dressing room. “When you become a mature person and footballer you understand that beyond making saves there are lots of things you can do to help your team. Maybe what type of advice you can give to your team-mates – depending on the situation. You seek out a dialogue with them, you seek their trust. There are many other components like this that over time you manage to appreciate.”

“When you are a kid you only think in a selfish way about your performance: ‘I made a save, I’ve done my bit’. But as you grow you realise that beyond making a save you can do many other more important things: commanding the area or giving advice to a team-mate. Many times that will keep you from having to make a save – because your team-mate doesn’t make a mistake and as a result the opponent never gets a shot off.”

Nor, he insists, is boredom ever an issue, even when playing for teams who might not allow opponents a shot all match. When Buffon talks about “living the whole match”, he does not mean it as a fan might – even if he too was once a young and exuberant regular on the Curva at the games of his local team Carrarese. His sister has recalled in the past how a young Buffon would sneak off to a spare room when he thought nobody was around, and work himself up into a frenzy bellowing out the chants of the Ultras.

The memory causes Buffon to break into a broad grin. His affiliation to his local club has remained, and he recalls finding time to go and see in his early years as a professional, joining his old friends in the stands whenever Parma had an away game nearby. These days he supports Carrarese in a different way, having recently become a shareholder and a director at the club.

When he is playing, though, he sees the action in a different way. “Living the match means that in every instant, every second, I am already thinking about what could happen,” he says. “Even when we are attacking, I am thinking: if they counter-attacked, how would things unfold? So I watch the match, but I am two or three seconds ahead of what’s happening, because I’m always thinking about the possible dangers.”

Such thinking is one of many qualities that sets Buffon apart, that have allowed him to become recognised as one of – if not the – greatest goalkeeper of his generation. He has picked up the best goalkeeper award eight times at Italy’s annual Football Oscars, and was named the best in the world for the decade 2000-2010 by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics.

But what are, in Buffon’s opinion, the qualities that make a goalkeeper special? I put to him the words of the late Edmondo Berselli, a greatly respected Italian writer and journalist. “A great goalkeeper cannot be recognised just from their physique,” he wrote. “Nor only from their courage, from their thought processes, from their positioning, from their open-mindedness or their madness. They can be called Zamora, Jacsin, Zoff, Banks or whatever they want, but the fundamental characteristic of an extraordinary goalkeeper is one and one alone: the ability to create miracles.”

He shuffles in his seat as he formulates a response. Buffon appreciates that this is the way that many outsiders see his profession, how his work is perceived by the audience at large – almost just as snapshots of heroic saves and interventions. “Certainly over the course of a career certain moments will stay in the collective consciousness,” he says. “Everyone will always remember that save I made from Zidane in the World Cup final (a header palmed over the bar in extra-time). But that image belongs to others, not to me.

“I think that the true goalkeeper needs to have a strong physique and he needs to transmit his confidence to the team – even if he makes a mistake, this is just relative: the team must feel confident with their goalkeeper. And he has to make few mistakes. Because that is the difference: a great goalkeeper, a true champion, can only make three or four mistakes in a year. If you are making 10, then you could make 1,000 saves too but if you’re making that many mistakes then for me you’re not a great goalkeeper.

“And then, of course, every now and then you have to make a great save too. But I would make that the last thing on the list. The other three things are for me more important.”

Buffon, of course, qualifies under either assessment. Revisit his magnificent, soaring save to deny Alvaro Recoba while at Parma, or the jaw-dropping reflex stop to deny Paraguay’s Hugo Brizuela while playing for the national team in 1998 and it is easy to see understand how he acquired the nickname Superman. Yet if he is still the first name on the teamsheet for club and country, it is above all because of the keeper’s extraordinary consistency.

Well, that and a continuing desire to achieve. “I want to win everything,” he says. “But I know not everything will be possible, because for instance right now Spain are very strong. Having said that, I am convinced that something can happen again with the national team.”

After all, as Buffon can attest, destiny does not always pan out the way that most people might expect.

This article first appeared in Issue Three of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2011/12

Iker Casillas Best Coast