Even at 41, even after such a glorious career, Gianluigi Buffon is still searching. Searching for the perfect ending.
“For me the Champions League will forever be the highest level, the best tournament to play in,” Buffon explains. “I say thank you for all the emotion that the Champions League has given me. But I hope to have another opportunity to win it because it would be the perfect end to my career.”
That opportunity continues when Paris St-Germain travel to Old Trafford to face Manchester United in the first leg of their hugely-anticipated last-16 tie. Buffon will be in goal for PSG having been lured away from his plans to retire at the end of last season when he left Juventus, and when an exceptional career appeared to be closing.
The word “legend” is used freely in football but it supremely applies to Buffon, the greatest goalkeeper of modern-time, of all-time; a true, iconic great. “An honour to be part of your history,” was one of the many birthday messages recently posted on social media for Buffon. It came from his PSG team-mate, Neymar.
This is Buffon’s 24th season since making his debut aged just 17. He finished on 176 caps for Italy, nine Serie A titles, five Italian Cups, a Uefa Cup and the small matter of a World Cup win, in 2006. All he needs is the Champions League for the full set.
It has not always been straightforward. Buffon is a candid and reflective character and in a recent interview with Vanity Fair magazine he spoke about his battle with depression early in his career.
“It’s not a problem for me to discuss that period of my life,” he says now. “It was very difficult and I would like to be an example for other people and be able to say to them, ‘guys, something like that can happen. But don’t worry. You just have to work on it, work on yourself, just to go outside of that condition. It’s very important’. Now I am fine and I can speak about this because I want to be that example to others.”
Buffon is an example – great example – and has been throughout his career, and is also now, at PSG, where he takes on a far greater role than simply being a player. Having believed his playing days were over it is fascinating to hear him speak about what he feared he would miss most.
“I close my mind,” Buffon explains, closing his eyes. “For the five hours around the match it is all I am focussed on. I don’t want to think about anything else. I love being in this condition. I am in this situation where I have prepared and then I wait and I wait and the match arrives and during it I realise my dream. Every time. It’s my life, my role on the pitch.”
And what happens when he is no longer able to be in that “condition”, that state of being? “This is a question that I put to myself just to say, ‘Oh, Gigi, what will happen when this situation changes?’” Buffon admits, laughing loudly. “And my answer is… I don’t know, but I need to find a solution because I love football. It has given me such strong emotional events, strong emotional times and this is the normal life of a player.”
Buffon is no “normal” player, as could be seen by the reaction when, last year, after 17 years with Juventus, he announced he was leaving, believing he was retiring, believing it was the right thing to do and so he started to think – what next?
“I needed three or four months to prepare to stop,” Buffon explains. “In that moment I thought life was going to be different and I had to come to terms with that. I like to play at the highest level or not at all. Never did I think that Paris-Saint Germain would ask me to carry on. But, also, physically and mentally I felt good last year. For me it was a pity to stop.
“When PSG called me it was a great surprise but then I was sure I wanted to perform again. I am here and life has directed me to continue, has decided I should continue, so I have continued. I have been given one last opportunity because these things you feel inside yourself.”
Buffon has come painfully close to winning the Champions League, losing no fewer than three finals with Juventus in 2003, 2013 and 2015, and suffering that raw, difficult semi-final defeat to Real Madrid that ended with him losing his cool and being sent off for abusing Michael Oliver. But now he feels PSG can do it. His warm, open, tactile personality has helped integrate him into the dressing room and when this interview ends there is a hug and another loud laugh.
There are big players, big personalities at PSG and none more so than Neymar who, unfortunately, will miss the United tie through injury but Buffon has made a huge impact on and off the pitch in the way he has dealt with them. To illustrate that point he recalls an incident when he threw the ball out too quickly in a game, putting Neymar under pressure with the Brazilian losing possession.
Buffon later apologised in the dressing room. “If you say to me, ‘Gigi, you have made a mistake’ that is so important,” he says. “It is not criticising each other it just helps you to grow up together and have the humility. I have been the captain of Juventus many, many times and I think, also, that a captain has to have that role. When I make a mistake I don’t worry but I am able to say, ‘I made a mistake and we need to work even harder to improve’.”
Buffon admits the PSG players were probably “curious about me” when he joined. Kylian Mbappe, at 20, less than half his age, refers to him affectionately as “granddad”. “They probably wanted to try and understand who is arriving and why?” Buffon says. “That’s normal. After that the most important thing is to be at their disposal. Just to say, ‘guys, I am here for the team, for the club’. I went to Paris to play and be an important player but if I can also be an important man off the pitch as well than that would be even better.
“This is already a very great club with a strong team and we are working on creating a very strong personality. I would like to arrive at a similar situation to the one we had at Juventus. It’s quite different because at Juventus we played together for many, many years, but we are working on it. To do that you have to create a family.”
Buffon’s voice is booming but there is also an animated, emotional intensity summed up by the letter Buffon wrote in 2015, after setting a new Serie A record for the longest time without conceding (974 minutes), to the goal that he defends.
“More than 25 years ago I made my vow: I swore to protect you. Look after you. A shield against all your enemies,” Buffon wrote and that sentiment endures.
“I understood very early on that if you want to win something important, to win a trophy, that you have to be very strong on the pitch,” he says. “Strong against the other players but also very strong with yourself, to tell yourself: I do not want to concede a goal. I do not want to turn and pick the ball from the net. I will not let the ball pass me – and to be stronger and stronger with that in every match.
“But you have to decide to do this kind of job because it’s a role with a lot of responsibility. You know that the one possibility you have to do a good job is to keep a clean sheet and that is very difficult to do every game. But for me making a save is as important as scoring a goal and it is a similar feeling.”
Even though Buffon’s career is drawing to a close he still has a youthful enthusiasm and is loving life in Paris, enjoying a relative degree of anonymity and indulging his passion for art – particularly the work of Marc Chagall, a romantic painter who clearly appeals to his personality – something he discovered more than a decade ago as he dealt with his depression.
“It’s strange, you know, but I am young inside,” Buffon says. “The most important thing is to be able to joke with yourself. It’s very important not to be too serious. You spend a lot of time in the dressing room, together, and with young players.
“But there are also particular times when you need to see the signs – I want to be young with my team-mates, to dream day by day, but there are some moments, some days, when you understand when your role is different and then you must be much more serious, you must be older than the others just to suggest to them which is the right way, which is the right behaviour, which is the right feeling.”
Finally Buffon offers an exclusive. It might not be his last season, after all. “There is an option for one more year (at PSG),” Buffon reveals. “And I hope to sign the renewal. I think that when in a contract you have the option for a year it’s very important that both parties are satisfied. I am satisfied and I hope to stay because I understand the team and myself can grow further in the next year.”
PSG are also satisfied. Very satisfied. Especially if Buffon can also achieve that perfect end to his career.
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