After thirteen years, ten different coaches and a countless number of team-mates, the man in the Juventus number one jersey remains the same. Defiantly standing between the posts as he always has, Gigi Buffon made his 500th appearance for the Bianconeri on Wednesday evening, the goalkeeper becoming only the fourth player to surpass that milestone with the Turin giants. His time with the club has been a lesson in consistency, with the 36 year old routinely delivering outstanding displays each and every time he pulled on the gloves.
The €51 million it cost to bring him from Parma back in 2001 remains a record sum for a goalkeeper, and yet it has never appeared to be too high for a man who is now captain for both club and country. Since arriving, he has ended a season as league champion eight times, winning the World Cup while appearing in both the Champions League and European Championship Finals along the way. A raft of personal awards has also been bestowed upon him, and he was runner-up to Fabio Cannavaro in the voting for the 2006 Ballon d’Or.
While he has now become as synonymous with Juve as the famous black and white stripes, there have been many occasions when things could have been so very different. It began with the World Cup in 1990, the performances of Cameroon shot-stopper Thomas N’Kono inspiring a 13 year old Buffon to abandon his hopes of becoming a famous striker and change position. Five years later he would be playing in the top flight, famously keeping the mighty Milan at bay on his debut as he helped Parma to keep a clean sheet at San Siro.
None other than Dino Zoff remarked that he had “never seen a debut like his for the personality and quality he showed,” looking on as the youngster embarked on a career which would eventually surpass his own legendary accomplishments. Quickly supplanting Luca Bucci as first-choice for Parma, he would make his international debut in 1997, securing Italy’s place in the World Cup with a stellar display away to Russia. He would be part of the team which lifted the 1999 UEFA Cup, adding triumphs in the Coppa Italia and Super Cup as he was twice named Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year.
Then came his move to Turin and that huge transfer fee which recognised his incredible skill set and ability, already showing the all-round brilliance which continues to separate him from his peers. Winning four league titles in his first five years, his on-field excellence had masked a tumultuous time away from the game. Buffon has since admitted suffering from severe depression during this time, confessing that he would arrive for training “filled with fear.”
Luckily, unlike so many others, he spoke to his family and closest friends, eventually getting professional help for his problems. “I did see a psychologist and that helped me enormously,” he remarked later, and by 2006 he would be ready for a new challenge. It appeared that would be with Milan, discussing a deal to move to the Rossoneri as that season drew to a close and seemingly ready to end his time with Juventus.
Then there was Calciopoli.
Exploding like a bombshell, the scandal destroyed the landscape of Italian football, leaving it unrecognisable and relegating the Bianconeri to the second tier as punishment. Staying with them after that was “a simple choice” according to Buffon, the goalkeeper deciding that lower league football was suddenly more appealing than a move to San Siro. The club would quickly secure their return to Serie A, stars like Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved helping them to top the standings in a campaign which saw Juve sweep all before them.
If Juve had to go down to B then I had to go with them. I didn’t really need to think about it. Juve helped me become a world champion and therefore I owed them a huge debt.” – Gigi Buffon
The following few years were filled with abject mediocrity, the club struggling to compete with the likes of Inter and Roma as they rebuilt a playing squad which was as damaged as their reputation by the effects of Calciopoli. Following two dire seasons in which they had finished in seventh place, Roma appeared to have convinced Buffon to move, only for circumstances to once again keep him in Turin. Having believed the club lacked the ambition to once again reach their previous level of greatness, the arrival of former team-mate Antonio Conte as coach would see him reverse that decision.
Three record-breaking campaigns would follow, with Juventus recording an entire season undefeated and marching to three consecutive league titles for only the second time in their storied history, but his list of personal achievements is no less impressive. He has been named to the FIFPro World XI twice, made the UEFA Team of the Year three times and earned the prestigious IFFHS Goalkeeper of the Year award no fewer than four times. The IFFHS also elected him the best goalkeeper of the 21st Century back in 2012, and it seems he is set to extend his stay with Juventus, an agreement on a new contract believed to be close.
That deal should run until 2017 and while it remains unlikely that he will overtake Del Piero’s club record of 705 games, it would be no surprise to see him overhaul Gaetano Scirea’s 552 and Beppe Furino’s 528 appearances for second place on that list. He has come a long way since his debut against Venezia back in August 2001, and there is no doubt his milestone deserved a greater occasion than a 1-0 loss to the team he supported as a boy.
But just like Calciopoli, the years of mismanagement following Juve’s return to the top flight, and his own personal demons, defeat at the hands of Genoa will merely act as another obstacle in his path. Gigi Buffon has proven over the last thirteen years that he always emerges triumphant, and for that Juventus and her supporters should be truly thankful.
Grazie 500 volte San Gigi!