Twenty-two years ago, at the young age of 17, Gianluigi Buffon’s career started. It was at home against eventual league champions AC Milan — who had conquered Europe the year before — and the debuting goalkeeper had managed to keep the likes of Roberto Baggio at bay. It was a sign of things to come for Buffon, facing up against the best goal scorers the sport had to offer, matching them every step of the way. Just ask Lionel Messi how many he’s stuck past the Italian veteran. Labelled by some as the best to ever grace a football field, even Messi has never been able to get the better of him.
And yet, it feels like Buffon’s long, illustrious career is still missing something — a Champions League winners medal.
The final matchup with Real Madrid on Saturday is more than just a game for both Juventus and Buffon. It’s their chance to right the wrongs of past failures. A penalty shootout defeat to Milan in Manchester back in 2003 still hurts, as does the shock 3-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund in 1996. Two years ago in Berlin, Juve faltered against a much more experienced Barcelona side. Barring the Dortmund loss, Buffon has been around for the other two close-but-not-close enough moments. They negotiated past tricky knockout rounds but fell at the final hurdle each time.
For Juve, this is about claiming their spot at the top of the European pyramid.
For Gigi, it’s about adding the final missing piece to a stellar trophy cabinet.
He’s won almost everything. That cabinet consists of multiple Serie A, Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia titles, a UEFA Cup, a Serie B winners medal and the jewel in the crown, a World Cup triumph with Italy in 2006. But even with being a World champion, it feels as if Buffon deserves, more than needs, a Champions League victory to finish off the loose ends. As great as that achievement in 2006 was, a win this Saturday would mean even more. The journey to Cardiff has been much longer and harder than just the passage taken this season.
Back in 2006, during the Calciopoli scandal, many Juve players departed due to the club’s sanctioned relegation to the second division. Buffon could have been one of them. But instead he, amongst others, displayed the strongest form of loyalty and resisted the temptation to move on. Eventually Juventus were back in Serie A, though it would still take some time for them to recover from what had just occurred. Embarrassing Europa League thrashings by Fulham were part of the process before Antonio Conte revolutionised the Bianconeri upon his arrival as manager. Juve still struggled to make an impact in Europe, but their dominance of Italian football had finally returned. Max Allegri took over from Conte in 2014 and further improved on his predecessor’s work.
Having found himself on the bitter end of the penalty shootout at Old Trafford in 2003, Buffon would have expected to have returned to the biggest game in club football a lot sooner. Instead, he took the hard road, and it was all down to his love for the club. He refused to jump ship to a European giant who weren’t undergoing a significant rebuild, and accepted the potential consequences of that decision. There was a strong possibility he would never get another chance to become a Champions League winner. But his patience paid off when Juve conquered their opponents this weekend, Real, during a thrilling semifinal clash in 2015. They, led by Buffon, were back in the big game.
The Bianconeri came up short on that occasion, but the feeling this time around is they are more ready. There are no injury concerns, no key players lacking match fitness, and this may not be agreed by those in the Spanish capital, but Juve are the better team. After playing through years of shortcomings and disappointments, Buffon has the chance to once again justify his decision all those summers ago when he refused to leave Turin.
He waited 12 years to get back to the final, and though this wait has been shorter, the burning desire to capture the trophy which has eluded him remains as strong as ever. Each victory in the knockout rounds visibly meant a great deal to him, realizing this is the best chance he’ll have to triumph on the European stage. 22 years on from when he announced his name to the world for the first time, Buffon finally has another opportunity to ensure his fairy tale career won’t be without the ending it deserves.