When Gianluigi Buffon moved to Juventus for a then world-record fee of €52million back in 2001, more than a few eyebrows were raised. The Bianconeri were amongst the richest in the land but splurging such a huge fee for a young goalkeeper was met with groans.
In his years coming up at Parma, Buffon had proven himself to be a golden pillar for the future of Italian football. When it came to replacing the departing Edwin Van der Sar, the Bianconeri sought Italy’s very best to create a protective ring around their backline for years to come. But even they could not have predicted the influence he’d have on the club’s growth.
Fast forward 18 years, and the endgame of the Bianconeri’s decision-makers has come full circle. A bonafide legend in this neck of the woods, Buffon is now also recognized among their greatest captains of the 21st century.
Buffon didn’t assume the captain’s mantle up until more than a decade of guarding the posts for the Italian giants when the legendary Alessandro Del Piero decided to call time on his career in 2012 and Antonio Conte saw the custodian fit to lead them into the new era.
The Bianconeri’s iconic evolution into becoming Italy’s dominant best had just begun, and Buffon’s experience was key to inscribing the winner’s mentality into the squad. Having won everything apart from the coveted Champions League title in his years at Juventus, there was none better to lead the Old Lady into a glorious new reign than their number 1.
However, he hadn’t always enjoyed unbridled success at Juventus and was one of those accused in the Calciopoli scandal which rocked the club to its core in 2006. Watching many of his team-mates bail on a sinking project, nobody could’ve denied him the opportunity of a big-money move elsewhere.
Yet, like Del Piero, Buffon stuck with the club that had given him everything and garnered the admiration of the fanbase along the way. Piece by piece, he helped bring Juventus back to the podium of Italian football and was quintessential in their 2011/12 title win after Conte had revolutionized the club’s style.
Coming off the back of a season where he had an 82% save rate and kept 21 clean sheets in the Serie A, one could say he was in the second prime of his career. By then, everyone in Italy was well aware of just how good he was guarding the posts for the Champions.
The son of a famous Italian discus thrower, the 6’4” goalkeeper’s reach was the strongest weapon in his arsenal. Despite his size, Buffon’s immaculate shot-stopping ability and tendency to make swift dives is a testament to supreme athleticism, something not many goalkeepers can be proud of.
While the reliable Wojciech Szczęsny has taken over as the number one these days, Buffon shepherded the Bianconeri to success for many years before the Polish international came on board. By maintaining consistency in their league dominance, he asserted himself as among the world’s very best, racking up clean sheets along the way.
However, Buffon shone on his own on Champions League nights. His phenomenal work in Juventus’ victory over Monaco in the Champions League semi-finals in 2017, where he made a string of crucial stops to keep Kylian Mbappé and co. quiet, led to then-manager Massimiliano Allegri hailing him as the world’s best.
In 2016, Buffon turned back the clocks to give a game-winning performance when Juventus defeated AC Milan 2-1 at The San Siro. He made incredible saves time and again, with his heroics forcing team-mate Leonardo Bonnucci to describe him as “illegal” for the incredible shift he put in.
Earlier on in 2017, he once again led the way, this time against Barcelona, keeping a clean sheet at Camp Nou despite the persistent onslaught led by Lionel Messi. Buffon did his absolute best to help lead his side to two Champions League finals under Allegri, but was unable to avoid the inevitable as first Barcelona and then Real Madrid dominated Juve on both occasions.
Now, as a goalkeeper, there’s only so much the Italian Superman could do when it came to influencing his team when he was the captain. But he always tried rallying the troops by keeping out attacks, inspiring them to maintain peak performance levels and march forward while he dealt with the danger in between the posts.
He was known to be a very cool and composed captain who rarely lost his mind, with the exception of the Champions League encounter against Real Madrid in 2018, when he lashed out at Michael Olivier for his dubious last-minute penalty decision. Otherwise, Buffon was a calm leader who knew how to get his message across his team-mates by ushering them forward.
His enduring consistency even deep into his 30s after initially starting as a teenager has been the wonder part of his career and reason for praise from many opponents over the years as well. Sergio Ramos offered his ode to the Italian before the Champions League final in 2017, saying, “Buffon is a legend and he will be remembered as one of the best goalkeepers in the history of football. He is an example for anyone who wants to live and experience this sport and he has shown that age has been no barrier.”
Former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard also had kind words for the Italian last year, relaying his respect and admiration for Buffon’s consistency. He said, “For sure (he’s one of the absolute greats). Definitely deserves the legend tag. Mr. Consistency.”
“Always been around the top of the game. World Cup winner and a top character as well to go with it. I’ve been lucky enough to have conversations with him. He’s a top human being,” he further added.
Beneath his humble persona on the field, Buffon is also an inspiration to every one of it thanks to his humanitarian work. Named as the UN Goodwill Ambassador for the World Food Programme recently, he explained how his motto is to make people aware of the hunger problem around the globe and make everyone understand they can help eradicate it in their own ways.
He explained, “I was very proud to receive the call and accepted quickly, as I love a challenge. I don’t kid myself that I can change the world, but can give my small contribution by setting an example. We need to create a contagious system of virtue that can do good and, bit by bit, we can feed all those who need it.
“I’d like to spread this message to everyone within and beyond the football world. The primary objective is to make people aware of the problem, to realise ‘in my own way, I too can help.’ When there are many, we can achieve great things together,” he also added.
Apart from this, he’s also a big contributor for various charities and used to auction off his captaincy armbands after each match during the years he was the leader of Juventus. He also joined UEFA’s “Respect Diversity” program in 2012 as a means to fight against racism and discrimination when the persisting issue still wasn’t being widely discussed in the footballing world.
So it’s no surprise that after he made a shocking return to the Bianconeri earlier this year after a tearful goodbye last year, Buffon was mobbed by thousands of fans greeting him upon touchdown back in Turin.
It was a huge summer for Juventus – they broke the bank to sign teenage sensation Matthijs de Ligt, had to deal with the Paulo Dybala controversy and saw a change in the dugout with the arrival of Maurizio Sarri. Yet it was Buffon’s return that was received with the biggest reception, something which only proves his stature among the fans.
The Italian superman might have to be happy sitting on the Turin bench most of the games these days, but his impact on the club’s dominance in Italy cannot be understated. Having broken all sorts of records imaginable in a highly decorated career, Buffon has seen it all and done it all.
Yet when he still appears on the pitch, aged 41, that childish giddiness and unparalleled leadership are evident in his performances. Despite taking on the role of a goalkeeper, who is always under the radar and ostracized for making mistakes, Buffon took the captain’s role with pride and constructed the indomitable, rock-solid reputation the Bianconeri now thrive on.
The day when he finally hangs up his boots (and gloves) and moves into the next part of his career isn’t far away now. But rest assured, when he does decide to exit from the beautiful game, the name Buffon will remain synonymous with Italian football for the rest of time.
Written by Uttiyo Sarkar
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