Life exists on razor-thin margins, and often times the thrill of sports is how they often replicates the ups and downs of life. Games are won and lost in a moment, fortunes realized, or forever rendered to the realm of what if. Often these outcomes can seem unfair.
If you need an example, look at Gianluigi Buffon in 2017.
Five months ago, Buffon was at the helm of an ascendant Juventus side. Many were picking them to upset Real Madrid in the Champions League final. Such a victory would finally provide Buffon with the one trophy he was missing — a European championship. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Real Madrid outclassed Juventus and won the final 4-1. Juventini were treated to the sight of their hero in tears, unable to claim the title he so badly deserved.
Now, it has happened again.
Buffon, playing in his final season, is being denied even the promise of a World Cup appearance as Italy have failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. What was to be a triumphant victory lap and record sixth World Cup appearance has wilted into one more year for a terrific player. Granted, the chance of a Champions League victory is still possible, but few would, at this moment, pin Juventus as a Champions League favorite.
One might say this seems like a Greek tragedy, but that would be incorrect. Buffon is Italian, and Dante’s Inferno is a much more relevant metaphor. Those of us who appreciate Buffon — that is to say, anyone who appreciate the beautiful game — find ourselves in some horrific calico canto. The greatest goalkeeper of all time who is now unable to have one last run at another World Cup victory.
Watching the footage of Buffon and his teammates in tears after Italy’s failure to qualify, I couldn’t help but think of that night in Cardiff back in June. A great goalkeeper is irreplaceable, but even the best can only handle one small part of the pitch. A keeper isn’t too much of a factor when it comes to scoring, and there are several lines of defense before the 18-yard box.
Still, a great keeper will provide you with endless bailouts as Buffon has proven throughout his career, be it for Juventus or for the Italian national team. Even as many athletes fade with age, Buffon has remained at the top of his game. If we nitpick, we can find a few dips in quality over the years, but most people are still picking Buffon in goal if they have the choice.
But that was not enough. As great as Buffon is, he couldn’t make Juve’s midfield compete with that of Real Madrid. He could not force Gian Piero Ventura to call up the right players, or to find the right tactical setup. Still, he will miss out on the World Cup, and on that Champions League trophy, through basically no fault of his own.
We can see the beauty of the human condition in the struggle for victory in sports. Just the same, though, we can see the eternally human condition of loss when looking at those who are defeated. It just so happens that today, the greatest goalkeeper of all time is the one who was defeated. Superman has been felled, he has been held from the World Cup. For that, we are all losers.