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Skip the fairy tale: On Gianluigi Buffon, Juventus and normalcy

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Juventus v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

On July 9, 2006, Italy bathed in glory.

Four years after a World Cup exit shrouded in controversy, everything went right for the Azzurri: Andrea Pirlo’s silky corner to the skying Marco Materazzi, who equalized the game after a questionable penalty in France’s favor; Zinedine Zidane’s spontaneous headbutt; and David Trezeguet’s penalty miss to send the men in blue streaming in a victorious frenzy across the field in Berlin.

For the Italians it was, as they say, a fairy tale ending. Everything that had gone wrong in 2002 now went right. Every injustice was overturned. You couldn’t write a better story from scratch.

The main character was Gianluigi Buffon.

Final Italy v France - World Cup 2006 Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

It’s strange, really, in the weeks leading up to the new season, how infrequent the discussion of the iconic goalkeeper has been. Both in Turin — with the Leonardo Bonucci transfer, the aftershocks of Cardiff — and outside of Piedmont — with the Neymar saga, the shifting landscape of football — the noise has dampened the recognition of what will be, in all probability, Gigi’s swan song.

He’s the type of player on whom one would imagine, or hope, weekly encomiums across the globe would be published. He deserves tribute, it seems. At this juncture of a career as decorated as Buffon’s, fans like the language of fairy tale. They prefer that narrative: heroes and villains, legends, myths. They want someone larger than life, and Buffon is that rare character who, on the pitch and off it, is maybe capable to deliver.

Players, too, seem drawn to the lexicon of legend — whether inculcated or innate or a mutually reinforced cycle of the two. In fact, it’s the language Buffon himself used in the wake of Cardiff.

“Winning would be the perfect finale,” he said after the loss. “People like fairy tales.”

But here’s a truth: Fairy tales are unreal, and the language of the fairy tale — seductive and natural as it is — degrades the worth of those we seek to laud.

Gianluigi Buffon is not a legend, and he doesn’t want to be.

Two months to the day after Italy won the World Cup in 2006, Buffon and Juventus suited up for the first time in the club’s history in Serie B. After Calciopoli, the Bianconeri lost players to Inter, Fiorentina, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Juventus were stripped of titles and glory. Despised and demoted, the black and white lumbered through a year of second-league calcio.

Serie B - Rimini V Juventus
Buffon reacts during Juventus’ game 1-1 draw against Rimini on Sept. 9, 2006.

There’s no adequate way to describe the whiplash that Buffon must have felt from May to September in 2006. During the 2005-2006 campaign, Juventus lost a single game. They won Serie A with 91 points — Milan finished second but was dropped down the table after the punishments were doled out. Behind the Bianconeri and Rossoneri, Inter finished third with 76 points. In late May the scandal broke. In early June, the Azzurri flew to Germany to begin competition in the World Cup. On June 22, Italy defeated the Czech Republic 2-0 to advance to the knockout round. On July 4, Italy defeated Germany in Dortmund 2-0 to advance to the final. That same day, the president of the Italian Football Federation declared that Juventus should be cast to Serie B. On July 9, Italy won the World Cup. On Aug. 31, Juventus abandoned its appeal to the courts in Lazio, accepting its fate on the promise that the legal system would review the case again.

On Sept. 9, Juventus drew 1-1 against lowly Rimini — despite the opposition having a player sent off.

Through it all, Buffon stayed.

In late May of this year, Buffon wrote a column for La Stampa in which he explained why he remained in Turin:

We chose to stay together to honour a shirt, a club, a fan base. We lost everything to gain things which aren’t measurable and can’t be bartered: respect, affection. Founding values for a group and a team, because without us there would be no victories, records, and conquests.

It’s an unfashionable thing, these days, to believe in something greater than self — especially in sport. Without delving into individualism in the Western world — or the consumer-self-centrism of capitalism — much of today’s culture seems directed toward satisfying one’s self with immediate comfort and pleasure.

One of the more interesting threads through the Neymar saga is the speculation regarding the Brazilian’s motivations.

Did he leave for money?

Or did he leave to escape Lionel Messi’s shadow?

It’s certainly a false dichotomy contrived by those who want to write about an over-exhausted topic, but it’s interesting not because it’s indicative of any great observation about Neymar, but precisely because it acts as a projection of assumptions.

The discussion around Neymar’s motivation implies the only possible reason for leaving was self-gain. Money for self — the massive pay-raise — or glory for self — escaping Leo.

There is little consideration that he left — as he himself says — because he simply felt he needed to leave, or because he truly believes in Paris Saint-Germain as a club, or he wants to build something in French football. If you look at the pure logic of the discussion, absent of all the assumptions you may have about Neymar, PSG, or Barcelona, that’s simply the case.

The discussion has been whether he left for money or self-promotion. This assumption robs a player of his agency, his word. It doesn’t take a scientific study to know that human beings are more complicated than that.

There are other reasons a player wears the colors. Buffon is proof.

It’s easy to undercut any possibility of non-financial motive by identifying the club as a for-profit venture. But they are also, to fans, a symbolic representation. Of a city, of a history, of a movement. Fans are people, and when a player destroys this false dichotomy of playing for only money or self-promotion, it is at that point at which he becomes, for the fans, something greater. The metaphysical element begins. The player becomes a symbol of the place — a hero of it.

This seems particularly true of a country like Italy, a country that from the fifth to the 19th century wasn’t politically unified, let alone culturally, i.e. a country with strict (and lovely) local identities. Any time a major player moves intra-league, you see the evidence: jersey-burning, horrendous insults. People don’t just follow their clubs; they feel them. They feel a part of them.

Buffon makes fans believe that there’s something to believe in. It seems he believes it himself.

A few years before the tumult of 2006, Buffon endured what he called a spate of “dark periods.”

Rather than revisiting that period in rehashed detail, I merely want to point out that his life has not been one without difficulty — which is to say, it has been a completely normal life with completely normal problems.

Buffon has been married and divorced. He was the subject of scandal at Parma involving his choice of kit number — 88, a number with white nationalist connotations — and wardrobe choice: he once wore a t-shirt with a neo-fascist slogan written on it. If we take Buffon at his word, both were the mistakes of youth. He didn’t understand the significance of either. He wasn’t yet accustomed to the scrutiny which stardom invites. There is also, of course, the incident involving the falsification of a diploma at the University of Parma.

If you take away the scale, if you take away the limelight, Buffon’s problems are the problems any young person tackles. The principle, rather than the false magnification, is the aspect on which to focus: ignorance, deceit, poor reaction to pressure, not knowing how to cope with expectation.

To deal with circumstance and mistake, the former a fact of life and the demonstration of one’s inability to control others, to control the world around us, the latter evidence that no individual is perfect — this is what people do. Buffon has seen his fair share of both circumstance and mistake.

Michel de Montaigne, a 16th-century essayist, politician, and philosopher, wrote a line in one of his pieces that always creeps into my brain when considering celebrity: “There is little less trouble in governing a private family than a whole kingdom.”

Problems don’t change; they scale.

To be a footballer must be extremely difficult in that your problems are the same as they’ve ever been but not only are people — fans, the public — viewing them (your problems) differently, they’re viewing you differently.

Enter the language of idol, of myth. Or the cult of celebrity, however you like to think about it.

This is exactly the way Buffon phrased his struggle with and through depression:

To the fans it does not matter a damn how you are. You are seen as the footballer, the idol, so no one thinks to stop and ask you: 'Hey, how are you?' The problem was if I had said: 'I am going away for two months to get better,' I would have been finished. Because every time after that, if I had failed with a save or whatever, I would have been reminded of that period. I just couldn't allow myself to go away for two or three months to get better.

Trophy Birra Moretti
Buffon in action during one of his first appearances wearing Juventus colors.

Buffon touches on the idea of perception, and the language of mythology. Although Buffon’s symbolism was far from over — this period occurred before Calciopoli, the season in which he established his legacy at Juventus — his level of fame was at an all-time high. He’d been purchased for a record transfer fee, was considered one of the best keepers alive at the time and also the most promising of the future.

He was a celebrity footballer. He was no longer considered to be a normal person who struggled with normal things. Money is supposed to solve problems. Fame is supposed to solve problems.

(Interestingly, although this is the subject of scientific study rather than pure speculation, there is at least a correlative relationship between celebrity suicide and suicide ideation in the public, suggesting a logic that goes something like this: If Celebrity X has money, fame, glory, etc., and still commits suicide, then what reason do I — who may be seeking after those same things — have to live, if after all those things are attained, Celebrity X still commits suicide?)

Difficult as 2006 must have been, Buffon identifies 2003-2004 — a period of sheer dominance for Juventus and for Buffon personally — as the period in which he reached those depths.

In 1897, there were no airplanes. There was no Model T. Fiat didn’t exist. Italy had been a unified country for less than 30 years. Albert Einstein hadn’t introduced his Theory of Relativity. In the United States, women couldn’t vote.

Also in 1897: No World Wars, no Oreo cookie, no movies.

On a bench on Corso Re Umberto in 1897, a bunch of teenagers formed Juventus, naming the club after their age: iuvenis is the Latin word for young. They chose pink for their kits. Three years later the bianconeri would be born out of Nottingham, England, the country from which the sport was imported.

Terra Madre Festival By Slow Food Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Juventus is an old football club: 30 years older than Roma, 29 years older than Napoli, two years older than Milan. Juventus has a great and successful and difficult history, perhaps most summed up by the fact that no other club boasts as many runner-up finishes in the Champions League.

When Buffon eschewed fat contracts and sexy transfers in the summer of 2006, he eschewed them for this: Turin.

Buffon is playing in his 18th season for Juventus. In the black and white — or whatever color his keeper kit that year — he’s made 623 appearances. For both club and country, including his days at Parma, the man from Tuscany has watched the net more than 1,000 times.

Despite all of this, though, the wins and longevity, his days will end. They will end soon, in fact. They will end and they will be just a shred of the long history of the club. Gianluigi Buffon will retire without the Ballon d’Or. (He placed second in 2006, the same year in which he played in Serie B — a fact of which he is immensely proud.) In all probability, Buffon will retire without the Champions League trophy — something he claimed would've been the "greatest joy" of his career, right next to the World Cup.

Juventus is not about Buffon. Buffon is about Juventus. And Juventus is about Turin — a real city with real, graffiti-smothered streets, with real Italians and all the real genius and real frustration of each beating heart, of each train strike.

Gigi looks at 30 as his transition from adolescence to adulthood.

In 2008, when he turned 30, there were a great many things behind him — the birth of his first son, a World Cup victory, Calciopoli — and there were a great many things in front of him — six straight Scudetti, divorce, two more trips to the UCL finals, more children. It was at this juncture that he published an autobiography which chronicled his life to that point. An autobiography of youth, of iuvenis.

It was at that time, too, with the whole football world following his every step, with every young aspiring goalkeeper looking to him, with fans idolizing him, that he wanted to be like them: normal.

In an interview from that time, Gigi elaborates on why he first opened up about his depression.

I was not afraid to talk about it. I feel with the mistakes that I have made in my life, the right things that I have done, I feel myself now like a normal person. And I’m determined to live my life like a normal person. That means recognizing my weaknesses, and strengths, my qualities — without feeling shamed by the negative aspects.

It’s funny — isn’t it? — to think about everyone else thinking about being rich and famous like Gigi, and Gigi thinking about being normal, like everyone else.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Inter finished second with 76 points in 2005-2006, but AC Milan finished second in the table that year before punishments.