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40 Seconds, 40 Years: Against Real Madrid, Gianluigi Buffon exits not as a god, but as a man

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Real Madrid v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Perhaps in 500 years historians will mark the movie ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ for its anthropomorphic rendering of gods in the decaying days of men, much as, today, historians look back on the gods of Mount Olympus not as super-human deities but, rather, the very projections of humanity’s shortcomings: squabbles, pride, and jealousy. These gods are remembered today as the expression of the desires and fears of men.

What we remember, instead, are the heroes who, though flawed, existed perfectly within the limits of being human: Achilles and his arrogance, Hector’s dooming stubbornness, and the reckless curiosity of Odysseus.

Gianluigi Buffon leaves football not as a hero, but as a man. Somewhat uncannily, the piece I wrote on Il Capitano, which makes the same essential point, also came to fruition: “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.”

Though the end was clear, the means was not; instead of making his exit as a victor, or even as a noble loser, Buffon was sent off with a red card in the moment in which hope was extinguished.

In 40 seconds in Spain, Buffon showed his 40 years of uninhibited humanity.

1-6 | During the anthem

This moment during every game seems wrought with subliminal signs and expressions of who players really are. As the anthem drones on the stadium speakers in the background, as the flags are raised, as the linesmen take their place, some players scowl, some close their eyes, and some nervously rub their hands together, or stretch, or sway side to side. In front of each player stands a child, and the children display their own idiosyncratic responses to the camera and the occasion.

When the camera pans all the way down to the black-clad Buffon, he’s shifting his weight back and forth between his left and right feet. The keeper is one of three Juventus players — Medhi Bentaia and Mario Mandzukic are the others — who’s resting his hands on the child’s shoulders, but Buffon, in his typically physically affectionate fashion, is rubbing the boy’s shoulder.

The little Spanish boy isn’t bothered at all — actually, he winks at the camera.

7-20 | At the coin toss

Down 3-0 versus arguably one of the best players in the history of the sport, not to mention the thunder of the Santiago Bernabeu, Juventus’ captain strolled to the center of the park easily. As if there were no pressure. As if he had called up his neighborhood friends to scrap around in an abandoned lot or field.

He kisses Marcelo on the cheek, backs up, cracks a joke, then embraces Marcelo again. The whole time, of course, Buffon is smiling the whole time.

Before the storm, it’s hand gestures, kisses, and laughs.

21-25 | Goal No. 2

If the first goal was business — a mathematically necessary step to achieving the end goal — then the second was belief. The second was the spark of ethereal hope, the fire in each man’s chest.

Stephan Lichtsteiner’s perfect cross to the Croatian striker-winger, in virtually the identical position he was for the first goal, was set perfectly for Mandzukic to hammer his team one away from a tie.

And it was another Rorschach test, too.

The goalscorer himself unleashes a mild amount of excitement, seemingly fueled by that trademark anger which he brings to the field. He gives and receives some high fives. But there’s certainly no celebration.

Other players immediately retreat to their half, knowing that, although Juve have harnessed the momentum and cranked up the pressure, the real work has just begun.

Massimiliano Allegri barks instructions, tugs at the edge of his jacket, and points to his eyes. There’s no time to be happy, he seemingly says. It’s time to focus, think, see, to pay attention.

And then there’s Gigi Buffon, completely on his own end of the spectrum. He forms two fists, stares down at the pitch, gurgles a scream, and pumps both arms. He doesn’t quite involve anyone else. It’s almost a private gesture, in a way. A moment between him and the field alone. But there’s certainly little restraint.

26-32 | The Equalizer

Buffon’s reaction to Blaise Matuidi’s equalizer is the absolute limit of one end of the emotional spectrum of humanity: joy.

Now, instead of looking down, he’s looking up. Instead of staggering forward, slowly, sort of meandering in place, his pumping knees mirror his pumping fists as he barrels toward the stands. Instead of something private, this is something public, looking up to the Juventus supporters who’d traveled from Turin, straining his neck muscles, his voice box, expending all sorts of energy.

Eventually, Buffon slows down, spreading both arms wide and lifting his palms to the sky. He wants it. He wants everything the game is, and he invites it.

33-40 | The Decision, The Card, The End

Gigi Buffon is a man who, in his footballing career, has reached the absolute summit — raising the World Cup trophy in 2006 — and who, in equal parts, has faced the depths — defeats in the Champions League finals, relegation to Serie B, and, if Juventus’ season goes awry after last Sunday’s loss to Napoli, potentially a final year with the club with not a single trophy.

When Michael Oliver called a penalty on Benatia, drawing not the ire but the unrestrained rage of Buffon, and subsequently showed the keeper a red card, Buffon felt the polar opposite of what he felt a half-hour earlier. In a snap, he’d traversed the entire emotional spectrum to the other side, the other limit.

With the ball in his arm, Buffon gesticulates, his hair swinging wildly back and forth, his eyes widening and narrowing. He shoves his teammates out of the way; he points. All the while he’s screaming. And finally he leaves.

Gianluigi Buffon is, as I’ve said, heart — all the way around. He doesn’t just wear his emotions on his sleeves; he throws them around. And I think Carolina_bianconero said it brilliantly after the game:

In the moments following the penalty call, San Gigi took up the mantle of every Juventino watching around the world, expressing the outrage and hurt of millions as only a man made of heart could do. I don’t believe that any earthly keeper would have made any more difference in goal in that situation, and I felt almost gratified that rather than again see our defeated captain gazing skyward at full time, we witnessed a tornado of fury and passion take its leave through the tunnel.

For such a player, and by all accounts for such a person, this end doesn’t square with everything built before it.

Whether or not you agree with the penalty decision, there is no question a career with the proportions of Buffon’s deserved a more fitting and fair end — in other words, there’s a palpable sense of unfairness, even if the call was correct. There is contradiction, misalignment.

But the contradiction is perfect, because it’s perfectly human. There is nothing more ordinary than encountering injustice, unfairness, and frustration. And there is nothing more ordinary than saying things in a moment of passion.

The word that comes to mind is “earnest” — an earnestness which is either completely unaware of how people will view him, or else completely apathetic to how people will view him. Earnestness stands in opposition to posturing, which always, perpetually considers the cost-benefit analysis of being seen — of course, Cristiano Ronaldo is the poster child for this, seemingly always aware of how he’s being viewed, of what he can do and say to make himself look good.

I don’t think Gigi cares about what you think. And I don’t mean that in the annoying teenager way, where the person is actively doing things to appear like he doesn’t care what other people think. I mean I really believe — there is no way to empirically prove this — that Buffon’s mind is somewhere else, some other time, in the moment of the passion and his own bodily, emotional reaction, on the pitch, in the stands with his supporters, his club’s supporters, because that language above, I think, is right in the end: “San Gigi took up the mantle of every Juventino.”

That night in Madrid, Gigi did things for which some people lost some degree of respect for him. He reacted in a way they looked down upon, judged. They put him in a new box, downgraded him, wrote him off.

But that’s earnest. Earnest is human. And that’s Gigi.