IIt has become a bit difficult to trust Gianluigi Buffon when he talks about retirement. In 2017, he told me that he had made the decision to hang up his gloves at the end of the season, his seventeenth as a Juventus player. Recalling the fear he once felt at the prospect of a life without football, he said there were “almost none” left.
A year later, we were in France, talking about his surprise move to Paris Saint-Germain. What could he say? The offer had come out of nowhere, an opportunity for one more adventure: living a new culture, playing with Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, writing one last spectacular chapter.
Today, the 43-year-old Buffon is back at Juventus, testing the bass limits of my laptop speakers as that irrepressible laugh erupts on a Zoom call from Turin. “Look, in my head, there really is a final stop sign, a high bar, which is June 2023,” he insists. “That’s the maximum, really, really the maximum. But he could also stop playing in four months. “
Maybe. Buffon’s contract at Juventus runs only until this summer, but it would be a surprise if an extension didn’t come. Beyond that, let’s just note that Buffon preceded all those “highs” with an acknowledgment: “I have learned that nothing is safe in life.”
It is a truth that the events of the past year clearly brought home. Italy was the first European country affected by the coronavirus pandemic last spring. In a matter of days, a nation went from being a normal business to a total national blockade.
“Look, I have to be honest, for me the first month of confinement was really beautiful,” says Buffon, with a rare touch of shyness in his voice. “At first, the pandemic gave me time to dedicate to myself. That is something that had not happened to me in my entire life.
“I have to stay with my wife, my children all day. To be able to dedicate myself to my hobbies, to my reading, to my things. It was a beautiful moment that I never thought I would have, and I made the most of it and loved it. Then of course as time goes on it gets heavy. You think more and more about what others are going through. “
He is well aware of the blessings that made his confinement more comfortable, and was quick to point out that staying home is a different reality when you live in a large house with a garden, compared to a crowded apartment.
However, money is not a panacea either. Buffon has spoken with admirable candor about his struggle with depression in the mid-1920s – a time when wealth and football awards came easily but couldn’t fill what he described as a “black hole of the soul.” Opening his eyes to worlds outside his own, beginning with an unplanned visit to an art exhibition, was what helped him find a path.
“I think that what really allows you to be well is an existential happiness,” he says. “Feeling within yourself that you are a happy person because of what you have done, what you are doing, what you are becoming… When I read a book or watch a movie and take something from it, I feel better. If I get new knowledge, that’s what makes me feel good.
“I am a person who really needs nothing when I am at home with my wife and children. We talk about everything, and I have time to dedicate myself to gather information, to see new curiosities. I feel like a person who continues to grow. I don’t know if I’m getting better or worse. I hope better! But doing this makes me feel good. “
If life at home is so enriching, why has Buffon found it so difficult to leave football behind? He has played professionally for 26 years – long enough for him to now play alongside Federico Chiesa, the son of his former Parma teammate Enrico.
The simplest answer is that Buffon believes he still has something to offer. He’s not an avid football fan, but it didn’t escape his attention that Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl this year at age 43.
“They say that when you get to my age, decline happens all at once, from one moment to the next. I do not believe it. I feel what I feel, and the sensations that I have inside of me do not make me think that there is going to be a sudden collapse.
“I am also someone who firmly believes in destiny, in destiny. When Juventus offered me the opportunity to come back, I thought: ‘Virgin! You never know, maybe there is a reason, something why I should go back there. One last great story to write. So I have to be honest, there is also a part of this that comes down to that little bit of ego that we all have. “
His last great goal in football, and in that he has been constant since we met, is to play a Club World Cup. Entry to that tournament, for European teams, requires winning the Champions League, the only important piece that has escaped.
Yet it is the journey that excites you more than any destination. Buffon has previously confessed to feeling some disconnect from his own accomplishments after they are achieved. He was happy to see how Italy’s 2006 World Cup brought the country together, but his best moment came during the final itself, against France, sharing moments of exquisite tension with teammates who had worked their entire lives to be there. .
Among them was Andrea Pirlo, now his coach at Juventus. They had represented their country together since they were under 15 years old. “My friendship with Pirlo goes back a long way,” says Buffon. “In practice, me, him and [Gennaro] Gattuso had known each other since 1993 … When you have the fortune and the ability to share a journey like winning the World Cup, I really think that sealed our relationship. Not our friendship. You don’t judge a friendship by winning World Cups, but it sealed a bond. It gave us a shared understanding that can never be broken. “
When Pirlo later joined Juventus as a player, Buffon recalled watching him train and thinking, “God exists.” When Pirlo was announced as Juventus coach this summer, his reaction was different. “So I have to call you Mister now!?!?!” Buffon tweeted, using the Italian word for “Boss”.
“Of course!” responds when asked if he’s adapted to addressing his old friend in new terms. “That was the first thing I did. In front of other people, it will always be ‘Lord’. It is a question of roles, a question of respect, a question of intelligence. As long as we are here, he has one role and I have another. When we leave this place or go out together, then we can be Gigi and Andrea. “
The player-manager relationship is easy, he says, because of the history between them, a shared trust in each other’s intentions. Pirlo wrote in his autobiography about seeking Buffon’s gaze before taking his penalty in the final shootout of the World Cup, knowing it would help calm his nerves.
Buffon smiles at that thought, perhaps remembering the younger version of himself that never felt as cool and serene inside as his performances might lead people to believe. Is there something you would like to go back in time and say to yourself now, from the other side of a spectacular career? “Let’s say yes, there are some tips I could give myself,” he responds after a pause. “But I remember how it was and I know how I am now. I need to have my own experiences. I need to mess up. If a person is never wrong and never pays the price for it, in my opinion they will never really understand.
“It is important to do the wrong things in life. And it is even more important to pay for your mistakes. If you do not pay the fee, that fee will continue to be owed until the end. Feeling shame is an essential part of growing up. It makes you feel bad, it makes you reflect, it makes you look at the nuances of a situation ”.
With age, many mistakes are easier to keep in perspective. However, mistakes on the soccer field only get harder to digest. “When I make a mistake in a game, I honestly feel very uncomfortable. Totally distraught. I’m used to expecting the best of myself, so if I can’t do things perfectly, I feel great shame. “
It hasn’t happened often this season. That’s partly because Buffon plays less than he used to, handing over the starting goalkeeper job to Wojciech Szczesny when he left for Paris three years ago. But there are plenty of games for everyone, and Buffon has delivered commanding performances in key matches, including the Coppa Italia semi-final and Barcelona’s 3-0 win at Camp Nou to clinch the Champions League group.
At 43, Buffon still has a role to play on a team that, despite recent wobbles, has yet to be eliminated from any of the competitions in which he participated this season. A team led by one of his oldest friends, and which includes, in Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the greatest talents of all time.
“To tell the truth,” he says again, “I never imagined that I would continue playing for so long. But these are beautiful stories, I think. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism