Written by Jon Clarke
The tension was palpable. Eighty thousand eyes watched on as Lucas was brought down in the 94th minute. Familiar and reliable hands mopped up the stray ball with relief. The whistle blew. Full time... no. Penalty. Uproar. Pandemonium. For the first time in this competition, the sportsman left him. The veteran became a vulnerable boy on the playground. His passion overflowed, his heartache too much. Red card. More than likely his last Champions League game, the trophy eludes Gianluigi Buffon yet again.
We’re not ones to talk about destiny and fate here, but one has to feel that this giant of the footballing world was never meant to win the most prestigious club trophy. In fact, Buffon’s relationship with UEFA’s golden competition is not too dissimilar to a Shakespearean tragedy. And we all know how they usually end.
The referee who shot Bambi: Michael Oliver sending Buffon off against Real Madrid in the 2017/18 Champions league quarter final.
Why do people love Buffon so much?
I’m sure we aren’t shedding light on anything new by stating that Buffon is one of the most popular, well-loved footballers in the world. Why? Well aside from his obvious adoration from Juventus fans (who are the ninth most popular club in the world) - he’s captured the hearts of many neutral fans. To do so requires far more than supreme goalkeeping talent, which he has in abundance. Most of the love actually comes for three other reasons…
1. He’s the last throwback to 1990s Serie A
Nostalgia is one of the most powerful emotions a human can feel. Serie A in the 1990s was arguably the most dominant and superstar-filled league in football history. Of the ten Champions league finals contested between 1990 and 2000, eight of them involved an Italian team, and three of them were won by Italian teams (Milan in ‘90 and ‘94, Juventus in ‘96). It’s impossible to name all of the stars that played in Serie A during this time, but here’s a few *deep breath* - Zidane, Del Piero, Totti, Baggio, Maldini, Ronaldo, Van Basten, Gullit, Maradona, Batistuta.
A testament to just how talent-rich the league was, just take a look at this Parma team photo (yes, Parma) from 1999. Notice a familiar face?
Crespo, Veron, Thuram, Cannavaro and a 21 year-old Buffon.
A lot has happened since this golden age of Serie A. The mythical Del Piero took the twilight of his career to Australia before fading away in India with Dehli Dynamos. Totti, King of Rome, finally yielded and hung his boots up last season. Yet the ever-present, ethereal Buffon is still between the posts as Juventus’s number one, even at 40 years old.
The fact that he is the last link to that Serie A era makes him very precious to any football fan. Buffon has played with immortals, gracing every competition with class, loyalty and passion. He evokes and represents the best of the beautiful game. And though we didn’t see that when he uncharacteristically lost his head against Real Madrid - it goes to show what the competition meant to him - even at that ripe old age. Most would have a c'est la vie attitude by then. But the fire will always burn bright until the very end for these elite athletes. Just ask Zizou.
2. He’s a gentleman of the sport
When Juventus were demoted to Serie B in 2006, Italy had just won the World Cup. As runner-up to the Ballon d’Or, Gigi Buffon had the pick of clubs. He was just 28 years old at the time, and the prospect of the world’s best goalkeeper slumming it in Serie B was very much a reality. And so the exodus began. Ibrahimovic left for pastures new with Inter Milan. So did Viera. Cannavaro went to Real Madrid. Zambrotta and Thuram went to Barcelona.
Almost the entire spine of Juventus left - apart from four key players. Trezeguet, Nedved, Del Piero and Buffon. Of the four, Buffon was perhaps the most puzzling to have stayed. Afterall, Del Piero had been at Juventus since 1993 - he was the captain and icon of the club. His reasons for staying were clear: devotion and love. But this came just four years into Buffon’s tenure with the Turin giants. Why should he stay when surely more money and (more importantly) European trophy chances, lay elsewhere? One word. Loyalty.
We strongly advise you spend the next four minutes watching these highlights.
In the modern game, loyalty is extinct. With players changing clubs on a whim, contracts becoming meaningless, and money being the driving force behind most transfers - loyalty is the most rare element of modern day football.
Buffon has loyalty, he’s shown it, he’s lived it. It was rather bizarre to watch these legends take the field at Rimini (a small Italian team with a stadium capacity of just 9,700).
Of course, with those four legends remaining, Juventus sailed straight back to the top flight. His loyalty was repaid and a true legend of Turin was born.
3. There's a warm sense of humanity to him
As a football fan, there’s nothing that will bring a lump to your throat like Buffon walking past the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens. Tissues at the ready, we thought we'd just remind you how devastating it is...
Iconic: Buffon walks past the Champions League Trophy on June 3rd, 2017 after Juventus suffered a 4-1 defeat to Real Madrid.
Buffon has cried many times. When Italy fail to qualify. When Juventus crash out of Europe. It’s an emotional rollercoaster for anyone routing for him. But what makes him perhaps more special is his ability to laugh. For every sombre moment, Buffon has given many great ones. From having staring competitions with the mascots, to all the warm hugs and laughs with many players - he really is the ultimate nice guy in football.
He frequently takes time out of his day to spend with fans, and has made many classy gestures in his time - applauding the Swedish national anthem when Italian fans booed it, writing a dedication poem to his role as a goalkeeper, and hugging Cristiano Ronaldo mere moments after being knocked out by his penalty kick. Buffon cannot help but show his class, and we cannot allow a single moment of madness tarnish that.
Buffon taking some time to lend a hand in a children's football match in Tuscany, June 2016. Exemplary.
He was wrong for the way he protested, but the frustration, magnitude and context of the situation were too much, even for the most calming of players. He knew, the world knew, that it was his final shot at Champions League glory. The manner in which this moment was taken from him was cruel, and his full-blooded Italian heart couldn't deal with it.
So let’s all raise a glass to arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time. Consistency, loyalty, passion and humanity are just a few of the many words you could use to describe Buffon. In a game where the number of zeros on a paycheck determine a player’s destination, Gigi is now an endangered species we need to protect. He’s the last beacon of light, shining back to a time when players stayed with a club for the love of it.
As such, his legacy is one that will live forever in the beautiful game. Yet to many, it will remain an unbearable tragedy that he never did win the most prized trophy in club football.
Try not to feel too sorry for him though, as this is the safest the World Cup has ever been...
Buffon lifting the most coveted prize in football, the World Cup (2006)