Regular and loyal readers of this little blog know that Gianluigi Buffon is the No. 1 reason why I started following Juventus many years ago. If you're new to this part of the internet or didn't know before reading that last sentence, well now you know and are hereby forgiven.
Take it as a warning. Take it however you want, really.
It's hard to write about somebody like Buffon sometimes. I mean, what else is there to say about such a stoic figure like him that hasn't already been said? He's one of the best goalkeepers we've ever seen play the position. He's a legend for both Juventus and Italy — and it has been that way for as long as most of us can remember. He's a hero to hundreds of thousands of people, including the guy who's responsible for writing this post.
But let's try nonetheless, shall we?
Tomorrow, barring any kind of major catastrophe in Turin, Buffon will take the field at Juventus Stadium like he has done the past two years. His pre-game routine and preparation will likely be the exactly same. But things won't look entirely the same. The team he will be playing for won't be wearing those all too familiar black and white stripes. The crest on his jersey will look different than what he's worn every other time he's played a game at Juventus Stadium.
Despite the slight differences, it will certainly be a special game no matter what the final result is.
This will be Buffon's 136th cap with the Azzurri, tying the man he took over the captaincy from, Fabio Cannavaro, for the most in the history of the Italian national team. He will belt out the Italian national anthem with the same ferocity he has for the previous 135 times he's taken the field in an Italy goalkeeper kit. And ever since Cannavaro retired, Buffon will be wearing the captain's armband and lead Italy out of the tunnel.
And it couldn't be taking place at a better place. A place he has called home. A place where he is truly beloved.
"It would represent a special achievement, but not necessarily something unthinkable seeing as I started playing for the national team very early.
"It's a wonderful feeling, because I've had 16 incredible years, even though I suffered an injury that could have changed a lot of things. I believe that I've done well over the years and always been determined to keep pushing myself.
"Of all the Italy matches I've played, I can tell you that the last hundred have not just been games of football but much more than that: they have been played with passion, spirit, emotion, the sense of responsibility that comes from representing your country and the desire to make our fans happy."
We've seen Buffon accomplish plenty of things since he signed with Juventus over a decade ago. We've seen him kiss the Scudetto, kiss the World Cup trophy and celebrate hundreds of goals with the enthusiasm of a young boy. We've seen him experience his share of lows, too — both on a team level and a personal one. It wasn't that long ago when Buffon was coming off a serious back injury he picked up at the 2010 World Cup and his subsequent return was anything close to the player we had come to adore.
Ever since that doomed 2010-11 Juventus season, though, Buffon has come back and been Buffon again. How many players would be able to go through a serious injury — let alone be in their mid-30s — and be just as good as they were when they entered their prime? I guess it's only further confirmation of just how rare of a talent he is.
And that's just the thing. The goalkeeper position can be so cruel to some people. Some countries have gone through keepers every couple of years, arriving at each World Cup with somebody else as their starter and then, once the tournament ends, the cycle starts all over again. They're consistently looking for an answer in goal, consistently shuffling through options whenever a major tournament arrives.
Not Italy. Ever since he made his debut in the snow against Russia in 1997, Buffon has been the constant in Italy's goal for nearly two decades. When Buffon made his Azzurri debut, I had just turned 11 years old. Come the third week in October this year, I'll be turning 27. Let that sink in for a second. Hundreds upon hundreds of players have been called up to the national team between that snowy night and Tuesday's game against the Czech Republic. Some made an impact, some were able to be regular call-ups for a good amount of time, plenty failed to even get a handful of appearances.
Buffon's just going on 136 appearances and counting.
We can scream and debate all we want about who 'The Next Buffon' will be whenever San Gigi does end up retiring. And the reality is that the day we bid farewell is going to be sooner rather than later. That's just life. People can't avoid getting old. But for now, there's only one Buffon — and that's the way it should be.