His scruff beard has plenty of gray sprinkled in these days. His boyish good looks have been replaced by the face of a grizzled veteran and is accompanied by a deep, baritone-like voice. Gianluigi Buffon looks every bit of the part of a 37-year-old goalkeeper who has seen just about everything there possibly can be, that's for sure. The one catch: He doesn't play like he's officially in his late-30s, though.
We're officially to the part of Buffon's career where anniversaries become more and more about his insane longevity and also impressive at the same time. We've passed the 150-cap mark with the Italian national team, and, as of Friday, we're going to be at the 20-year milestone since Buffon made his Serie A debut with Parma way back in 1995. Hundreds of thousands of minutes have been played since then. The number of saves that blow your mind are most certainly in the hundreds, too.
He has achieved more than just a few things in a Juventus goalkeeper jersey. He has stayed loyal when others decided not to. He has become the role model to many, even the bane of their existence to others.
We're spoiled as Juventus fans to have such a world-class player hold down an incredibly important position like goalkeeper for such a long period of time. Not many clubs can say they've had a keeper even close to Buffon's caliber be with them for going on what is now nearly 14 years. That's longer than a lot of careers, but for Buffon, we know there's more to come.
All of this from a baby-faced teenager who made his debut against Inter before his 18th birthday. James Horncastle wrote the following in his own Buffon retrospective for ESPNFC on Thursday:
His debut was so spectacular, the whole world soon knew him as Superman. In a top-of-the-table clash Buffon kept a clean sheet. But not just any clean sheet. He denied Stefano Eranio and Roberto Baggio in the first half, Marco Simone and George Weah in the second. He wore No. 12 that day, but as his teammate Fabio Cannavaro once said: "Gigi has No. 1 stamped on his skin." He has a legitimate claim to be considered the greatest of all time.
Yep, it was the start of something truly special. The goalkeeper position officially got its first glimpse at the next big thing. Nobody probably could have predicted that he'd still be one of the best 20 years later, but, as Cannavaro pointed out, they knew the then-17-year-old Buffon was on the cusp of being regarded as 'San Gigi' on the regular.
A lot will be made of the Old Gigi vs. Young Gigi battle in goal this weekend when Juventus hosts Milan in Turin. The timing of it is rather convenient seeing as it will be a day after Buffon's 20-year anniversary. Both were teenagers when they made their debuts in Italy's top flights — Buffon at 17 years old, Donnarumma all of 16 years old. The hype will be about how one is the next in line to replace the other, and we know which is which in this case.
We know it's only natural for the Italian press to ramp up the hype machine a few levels above normal knowing that the all-Gigi goalkeeper battle is about to go down at Juventus Stadium this weekend. Gigi Donnarumma is the latest of a herd of young Italian goalkeepers to be tabbed as the heir to Buffon's longstanding throne. And, as is also natural, Buffon only has so many years left because he can't go on forever as much as we hope that was the case. Taking part in the 2018 World Cup in Russia is his goal — which would mean he'd be the first player ever to take part in six World Cup tournaments — as is playing at the same godly level he is at the age of 37.
He's talented, obviously, but we don't know what kind of goalkeeper Donnarumma will be in five or 10 years from now. The initial signs are more than just pretty okay. But as we know, keepers are a rare and interesting breed. But we do know what the elder Gigi in the all-Gigi showdown is all about. And we've known it for a long time. That's something we'll never forget.
There will be more anniversaries to celebrate. More saves to get up a scream happy kinds of cuss words all about the living room. Just more Gigi being Gigi — which is never a bad thing.