Gianluigi Buffon: The thrilling and unbeatable movie star

Matt Stead

Gianluigi Buffon was – and still is – a mixture of icy veins and red hot passion. And Johnny loves him.


Who’s this then?
Gianluigi Buffon is a 42-year-old 6′ 4″ Italian goalkeeper born in Carrara, Tuscany. One of the greatest glovemen of the modern era, he started out at Parma, playing 220 games for them between 1995 and 2001.

From the get-go he was a remarkable talent. His debut aged just 17 was legendary:

His reputation was such that his subsequent transfer to Juventus attracted a world-record goalkeeper’s transfer fee of 100 billion lire (€51,645,690).

He became an absolute superstar playing for the Old Lady, managing 656 games from 2001 to 2018 before taking a year on PSG’s books, then returning to Turin on a year-long contract, playing 11 games before the lockdown kicked in.

Although his contract expires at the end of June, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was kept on for another year given some of his performances, such as a nine-save game against Milan in the Coppa Italia semi-final.

He is also Italy’s most capped international with 176 appearances, winning the World Cup in 2006. He holds the records for most appearances for Italy as captain and has been called up for a record five World Cup tournaments.

His list of club honours include three with that wonderful late 90s Parma side which, in the 1998/99 season, won the Coppa Italia, Supercoppa Italiana and UEFA Cup. He won nine Serie A titles at Juve along with four Coppas Italia, five Supercoppas and a Serie B title in 2006/07.

For a long stretch of his career he was widely regarded as the finest goalkeeper on the planet, with many dozens of personal awards to show for it. In 2006 he was second in the Ballon d’Or, registering just ten fewer votes less than compatriot Fabio Cannavaro. Only Lev Yashin has done better as a goalie.

He holds the record for the longest run without conceding a goal in Serie A history: over 12 league matches. He was unbeaten for 974 consecutive minutes during the 2015/16 season. He also holds the record for the most clean sheets in Serie A, and with the Italy national team. Currently his 1,112 games across 25 seasons puts him at eighth in the all-time professional appearances table and if he plays another 22 it would take him past Xavi into third, with Peter Shilton ahead in first on 1,390.

Impressively, he named one of his sons after David Lee Roth of Van Halen.

None other than Zlatan Ibrahamovic said of him: “The best goalkeeper I have ever faced was Buffon. When I was at Juventus, it was already difficult to get past Cannavaro and Thuram in defence during training sessions. If I managed to get past them, then I would find Buffon, and it was almost impossible to beat him!”


Why the love?
With slicked, jet black hair, tanned skin, and those wild mercury eyes, he has always been an elegant player for whom time moves a little more slowly than for us mere mortals. His mixture of icy veins and red hot passion is very attractive, best seen when saving a penalty. One moment he is still and focused, the next after a huge burst of energy to reach and save the ball, he’s up and screaming, eyes alight. Ooooh yeah, baby.

He was everything you might want from a keeper: tall, strong, brave, agile, super-fast reactions and commanding when he needed to be. He was also comfortable with the ball at his feet and in some ways is the progenitor of the 2020 keeper as outfielder.

Keys to his success have been brilliant positioning – which made hard saves look easy – an instinct to stay on his line to give himself more reaction time and a perfect diving technique which made him both graceful and hard to beat. Strong arms and legs meant the ball just bounced off him. There was never even a whiff of chocolate wrists about him. Indeed, if you watch a reel of his penalty saves, what strikes is how solid his hands are. Even the hardest struck ball simply never goes through him, it always bounces off. A hard, firm hand just swats away any ball that is within his reach.

Oddly, though he’s not a cat-like, agile keeper, he seems to be able to get down to a fast, low strike quicker than most. He’s also got that telescopic quality where you think he’ll never reach a powerful top-corner strike but suddenly, he seems to distend his whole body to tip it over.

As his reputation grew, he acquired a self-perpetuating, invincible aura about him. At times, he seemed impossible to beat. And all the screaming and roaring like a beast only added to his intimidating presence. His penchant for wearing a black scarf/snood and headband somehow became ineffably cool.

But this is no squeaky clean, goody-two-shoes player. There is also something of the night about him which only adds to his mystique.

In 1999 he wore a t-shirt underneath his jersey with ‘Boia chi molla’ (‘who gives up is a scoundrel’) handwritten on it, which was unfortunately a neo-Nazi slogan which he claimed not to be aware of.

While at Parma in 2001 he chose 88 as his shirt number, again, claiming to be unaware of its Nazi connotations. He later talked of it being a rebellious, transgressive but youthful indiscretion.

It seems unlikely that he was ever a card-carrying fascist and there has been nothing since to suggest he is.

Around the same time, in 2000, he falsified a high school accounting diploma to enrol for a law degree at the University of Parma. This cost him a 6,350,000 Lire fine in 2001. He later admitted this was of great regret to him and that he had been dishonest.

For a while he was implicated in the Calciopoli scandal in 2006 and was given a proper grilling by the police. He was on every news channel reporting to the police station to give evidence. He admitted to placing bets on games but only until it was outlawed in October 2005. He denied ever placing wagers on Italian games and was cleared of all charges in December 2006.

Then there was the 2017/18 UEFA Champions League quarter-final second-leg match away to Real Madrid when he went totally bloody bonkers at Michael Oliver’s decision to give a penalty to Real Madrid for Cristiano Ronaldo to score and win the tie 4-3. After the game he was still raging and got a three-game ban for saying, among other things, that Oliver should’ve been in the stands eating crisps, which, on reflection, wasn’t the worst insult ever delivered. Gigi later apologised, saying: “I behaved in a way that was not usual for me. After that match, I went beyond the limits with the things I said about the referee and I apologise for that.”

It was never a penalty, though.


What the people love
To a British audience, he was exotic and distant, somehow. He wasn’t like a keeper we’d see in these lands; he didn’t look, play or perform like anyone here. He had brooding glamour and the sort of innate, unforced style that is organically impressive. So any time we saw him in the Champions League on home soil, it felt like we were being visited by a movie star. He had that sort of exotic status and it has lived long in the memory of many fans.

We start, as ever with a lovely 4_4_haiku:

‘I went to the West Ham vs Juventus opening game at the London Stadium. In a game containing Dybala, Dani Alves, Pjanic, Payet etc, to say he was the player I was most excited to say I’ve seen play live (in a friendly) as a goalkeeper says it all really.’

‘Made short sleeve keeper shirts cool. One of the best in his position. Should make anyone’s top 5 list for GKs.’

‘My Uncle met him and Asprilla in a restaurant in Parma in the mid ’90s. He got their autographs on the back of the restaurant business cards, which he then gave to me. He said he was a nice guy. I also have a distant relative who played for Parma youth team around the same time as Buffon was coming through, they ended up rooming together. Again, he said he was a normal guy who smoked and played video games in his free time.’

‘I loved his haircut when Arsenal beat Juventus 3 – 1. Oh, and how distraught he was to concede the first goal too.’

‘Every football fan’s favourite possible fascist.’

‘Best goalkeeper of his generation. My favourite save of his was his penalty save v Adrian Mutu at Euro 2008. Almost dived past the ball but reached back with his hand and deflected it on to his leg and away. Brilliant save.’

‘He kept out greats like Pagliuca, Peruzzi, Toldo from the national team. Those guys would have graced many a national team. All of them world class.’

‘When he played at St James’ Park in the Champions League he had a special pair of gloves made with the Tyne Bridge on them.’

‘Terrific goalkeeper who just got better with age. He could have left Juventus when they were demoted but he stayed loyal. Always the first name on my world XI. He’s definitely among the greats!’

‘He has a phenomenal turn of phrase. When asked about potentially becoming a manager, he said: “The pitch is the most beautiful part of the game; it gives you emotions which bring meaning to life.” I just think that’s wonderful.’

‘Back in 05 at Anfield, at the end of the game he turned and stood and applauded the Kop. Said later he’d never known an atmosphere like it. To see a legend stand and applaud and take it in, having been beaten…legend.’

‘Elite hairline.’

‘I know they say Yashin but I’m going with Buffon as the GOAT. Consistently brilliant from a young age, part of that mythical Parma side, beat out world class keepers every step of his career, had personal demons so wasn’t annoyingly flawless. Tonnes of personality, stayed with the Old Lady even through relegation and if ever you engage in mild escapism by daydreaming of pulling off a flying fingertip save instead of smashing a goal, you’re paying homage to Buffon and what he did for the position from 98-06. Flawed yet wonderful man, best ever keeper.’

‘Has more clean sheets for Italy than Zoff did… more appearances than anyone else in Serie A. Played for a team that cheated and bribed their way to success yet is universally admired, and widely loved. If you didn’t want Uncle Gigi to win the European Cup… you have no soul.’

‘He’s one of the greats of the game and most people seem to love him, but every so often there’s something that makes you pause. Like the negative side of him seems to get buried, certainly a lot more than with other footballers.’

”It’s rare for people to say that a goalkeeper made the game look effortless but Buffon often did.’


Three great moments
A bullet header from one of the world’s best? Nah, that was never going in.

Fast arms, hard hands = no goal.

Need three saves to win a penalty shootout? Not a problem.


What now?
The lockdown may extend his career by another season, even at 42. He will surely still fancy he’s got something to offer Juventus.

He’s always had an eye for business. Does he have his own wine business? Of course he does and of course it is called Buffon #1. A bottle of his Salento Primitivo 2015 will cost you about £26. His line of wines is limited to only 90,000 bottles per year – 30,000 white, rose and red each.

He was also briefly owner of his hometown club, Carrarese before it eventually went bust.

A keen card player and gambler, he’s played in Poker Stars tournaments, so maybe that is something he might move into in the future. Like many footballers who have been in the elite of the elite, he is almost too good to go into management or coaching; it would surely be frustrating to spend your time around people who can’t do what you found so easy.

As I’ve written and compiled this, watching so many of his saves, what comes across profoundly is the intensity with which he played the game. The explosions of emotion must be a product of that; a release from it. Easily one of the most thrilling goalkeepers of the modern era. Saluti, Gigi.

John Nicholson

We could not keep away from the camera for long so we made a Football365 Isolation Show. Watch it, subscribe and share until we get back in the studio/pub and produce something a little slicker…