So, you’re Gianluigi Buffon, now that the dust has settled. Think about it, and for more than a moment, because it takes a while to separate the different shades to get a sense of what that would actually be like. Whatever else you find contained within it – the World Cup, won as the best kind of proof, given the Calciopoli carnage that preceded it, that this golden generation of Italians could actually play and not simply bribe their way to victory; the loyal following of Juventus down to Serie B and seeing the resurgence of the club to the point that it seems to have the only modern stadium in the country, in which plays the only football show in town (or to put it a trashier way, the last time any club but Juventus embarked on a title-winning season, Instagram wasn’t a thing); every single club and international record a goalkeeper could wish for; the utter and total adoration of said club and country, and Parma too – it is still bookended and punctuated by the kind of failures where you can’t help but wonder, what is the lasting taste of his Juventus career in Buffon’s mouth? Does he toss and turn at night, replaying how he won any of three agonising silver medals?
First the dour nothing of a Champions League final at Old Trafford in 2001, a ditchwater parody of Italian football capped by penalties where Buffon did everything he could, and Dida took the approach to starting positions that karmically inspired Jerzy Dudek; then 2015 vs Barcelona when it felt like there was no shame in losing; and then a few days ago when it seemed like, this could be the one, the fairytale ending.
Instead, and assuming – and an optimistic smile at the future tells us there’s no automatic need to do that – his Champions League finals career is finished, Buffon adds a grim final record to his collection. If you’ll forgive the gobbleydook, in the modern guise of the Champions League, one of the greatest goalkeepers the game has ever known is ‘the most losing Finals player’. Even Ballack, who loses every final he lays his eyes on, can’t compete, although he does to be fair have the dubious honour of a sadistic hat-trick: World Cup, European Championship and Champions League silver medals, and God only knows what that feels like.
In so many other professions, you blow it in your 20s or even your 30s, if you keep a little determination and your wits about you, you can get another shot. With football and sport more broadly, usually by the time you’re about 35, your life’s best work is unchangeable, unimprovable. Think about that for a moment. Do many ex-footballers drive themselves slightly nuts by going back to old games in their minds? Sol Campbell, for example, with all those England goals they disallowed. Gareth Southgate? I’m aware that this is a somewhat tawdry and pathetic selection with which to compare Buffon’s otherworldly sufferings, but hey, it’s England, you get what you get.
And they are otherworldly. If you were to show any player training with the youth team aged 16 a prospective list of Buffon’s career, with things like ‘World Cup’ and ‘most expensive player in your position’ and ‘endless league titles’ and ‘every record worth having’, they would bite not just your arm but your entire body off, regardless of whatever caveats were in the small print. Buffon’s career is not a failure at all. But it must, in some unholy moment on some unforgiving evening stood on a sumptuous Italian veranda with only cutely bucolic hills to gaze on, feel like a failure. And that is a different, but no less head-spinning and probably occasionally tear-jerking concept to try to get your head around. It’s almost impossible to decipher what extra level of greatness Buffon could have attained, if he had one or even two Champions Leagues to go along with it all…how differently, really, would he be seen? And yet the answer is, somewhat differently, if only in the peace afforded by his own mind.
Again, it should be reiterated: Buffon has never come off like a delicate flower. His career, and its various elements –the longevity, the determination to reinstate Juventus, the utter supremacy as Italy’s premier goalkeeper – is testament to that, and he did the whole thing with a happy, rugged dignity and bonhomie that I think won the affections of most of us.
So, unless life is way bleaker than I understand, I don’t imagine his Champions League failures are going to leave him hitting the bottle the moment the boots are hung up in Turin for the last time. But if you could label the emotion he seemed to be carrying around after the final whistle in Cardiff, I’d say it was confusion. And perhaps, we might speculate, the confusion of a career that seen in retrospect belongs to the pantheon of goalkeeping gods. And yet, a career that ended up feeling like this, again. That’s football for you: heartlessly uninterested in fairytales. With that in mind, things like Liverpool’s penalties win against Milan and Leicester’s title-winning season can be seen as swimming pools filled with champagne and winning scratch cards.
A realistic sense of failure is, of course, one of the things that best arms you for a sane life on planet Earth. Myself and the editor of this fine site have discussed what plays in the minds of that slew of players – Robert Earnshaw chief among them, but also Leroy Lita, Jermaine Beckford (now in League One at Bury after being released by Preston, incidentally), Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Glenn Murray, Cameron Jerome etc – who could bang in the goals at a level almost all professional players in this country would kill to reach, and yet, in the minds of a Premier League-addicted public, are failures. Do they see themselves that way? Each of those players mentioned has scored at least one Premier League goal, and yet most, I would suggest, are cast as comedy cameos.
What I’d like to think is that each of them knew how good they were, that it would never feasibly be enough to contend with the biggest of big fishes and so everything they could snatch at that level had a nice everything’s-a-bonus ring to it. I don’t like to think about footballers being tortured by the unchangeable epitaphs of their lives’ best work at 35. Except for John Terry, of course, where it causes me nothing but a snigger of glee that not a single minute of a successful European finals has big JT played.
But the yin to that yang – after 14 years of service and a domestic career that would run until 2009 – did Paolo Maldini really have to decide that Japan/Korea was his last World Cup? Of course, he has a domestic trophy haul that makes something of a mockery of Buffon’s gaps, but a penny for his thoughts, as the last penalty went in, in 2006. Would he have swapped places with the winning goalkeeper?
Toby Sprigings – follow him on Twitter here