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A personal ode to Gianluigi Buffon

We all knew this day would come. That doesn’t make it any easier.

Juventus FC v US Sassuolo Calcio - Serie A Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This post was originally published when Gianluigi Buffon said goodbye to Juventus for the first time in 2018. With Buffon expected to announce his retirement before the week is over, we decided to re-publish this piece as an ode to the best goalkeeper there has ever been and there ever will be.

We all knew it would come. We never wanted it to, but we knew it would have to.

Earlier in the day on Thursday, Gianluigi Buffon took to the microphone at a press conference and announced that Saturday’s season finale against Hellas Verona will be is last game in a Juventus uniform.

It has been the assumption of pretty much everyone that this will be his final season in football, but there is less finality to this departure than most of us were expecting — he has reserved the decision as to whether he will retire or play elsewhere until after the emotion of Saturday has died down. That’s his prerogative, but it would certainly be nice if this didn’t end up being a repeat of the departure of Alessandro Del Piero, albeit handled far better from a PR standpoint.

Regardless of what might happen next week or next season, this is an emotional day for a lot of Juventini, and certainly for myself. It is no exaggeration to say that Gianluigi Buffon has been the reference point for my entire relationship with the game of soccer, and his announcement has taken me back quite a ways — almost 13 years, to be exact.

I didn’t follow soccer as a kid. I was offered the chance to play as a young child, but somehow my 6-year-old brain regarded the idea of playing soccer as a threat to my nascent baseball fandom and rejected it out of hand. Frankly, baseball remains the sport I love above all others, but I look back on that decision now with great regret.

For most of my childhood and adolescence, I was pretty much a two-sport guy: baseball and American football, with a sprinkling of college basketball come March Madness time. When I did think about soccer, it was as a foreign curiosity. I was tangentially aware of the 1998 World Cup, mainly because, at age nine, I was tickled pink by Andres Cantor’s trademark goal call on the Spanish coverage. The next World Cup in 2002 wasn’t even on my radar.

That all changed when I was 16.

Both sides of my family have been in America for more than a century, but we have always identified strongly with our Italian ancestry and have made great efforts to seek out and visit the places where our family originated from. Because of this, whenever I watched an international sporting competition, I always kept my eye on Italian competitors. I don’t remember what it was that first drew my attention to the 2006 World Cup, but the Italian national team started drawing me in like a magnet. I watched most of the street fight between Italy and the United States, and saw the Round of 16 game against Australia from whistle to whistle — probably the first time I had ever done so.

Whenever I watched the team, I became drawn to the goalkeeper. Buffon was at the supreme height of his powers at that time, and I knew greatness when I saw it. I also probably saw the parallels between goalkeeping and baseball’s catcher position, which I had just begun to play full-time on my youth teams. (To this day I’m told when I play pickup soccer that my goalkeeping style is rather unorthodox, and when I mention my baseball position I tend to get an understanding smile.)

Regardless of why, it was Buffon that I gravitated to more than any other player on that team. That was solidified by one moment during the semifinal against Germany.

Of course, there are many reasons why that game is legendary. But just as important and memorable to me as gol di Grosso is a moment that came about nine minutes earlier. It was the moment I truly became hooked on this sport — and the moment I became a Juventino.

It was the 112th minute, and Sebastian Kehl had found Lukas Podolski in space down the left channel. Podolski was 21 then, still young and full of promise, and he he had plenty of time to load up and fire with that howitzer of a left foot he had from point-blank range.

Buffon stabbed a hand into the air and tipped the ball over the bar — an incredible game-saving parry. It was that moment that my inner voice said “Whatever team that man is on is my team.”

Quarter-final Italy v Ukraine - World Cup 2006 Photo by Ben Radford/Getty Images

I was totally ignorant of calciopoli, which was raging throughout the entire tournament—indeed, the initial pre-appeal punishments had been handed down that day—or anything else. All I knew was Gianluigi Buffon was my favorite soccer player, and whatever club he played for would be the club I would cheer for.

From that day on, Juventus was my club, and I’ve come to live and die by them in the same way I do my equally beloved Philadelphia Phillies and Eagles — all because of Gianluigi Buffon.

There are so many reasons that I admire Gigi the way I do. Of course, his decision to stay with the team in the wake of the calciopoli farce has endeared him to many fans and made him synonymous with the club. His passion and will to win are infectious. Even at 40 years old, his fire burned white-hot. As he pursued the Champions League — the only club trophy he’s played for and never won — this season, his desire was palpable, whether he was grabbing Giorgio Chiellini by the jersey after a clearance against Tottenham or screaming at Michael Oliver during the debacle in Madrid.

He wanted to win, and he wanted to win with Juve.

The leadership he has exerted over this club, especially after he took over the captaincy full-time from Alessandro Del Piero, demands respect. He has served in that role for the last six years — a mark only six other men have ever equalled. Anyone who wants to be a leader, in sport or any other arena, should consider him required study. Those abilities reached their zenith in October of 2015-16, when he delivered what I like to call the Sassuolo Address. After a 1-0 loss away to Sassuolo that dumped Juve to 12th place, he publicly dressed down the team in his post-game comments, demanding better from them. The result? The team won their next 15 games and 25 of 26, going from 12th to first and winning a fifth consecutive Scudetto at a canter.

Also admirable was the way his playing style evolved as he got older and his physical abilities began to wane. He went from an instinctual, at times rash goalkeeper to someone who had mastered the mental aspect of goalkeeping. He made up for diminished reflexes with masterful positioning, and marshaled his defense so well that he often didn’t need to make saves at all.

Juventus v FC Barcelona  - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

But perhaps the most important thing of all is something far more etherial than the black and white of what happens on the pitch.

The 2013 revelation that he suffered from depression in the early 2000s went beyond football. That someone with a life that, outwardly, seemed perfect could still go through the ravages of mental illness — and that he could be so open about it and about the treatment he sought — was important for many sufferers of such conditions. That includes myself — I struggle with Social Anxiety Disorder on a daily basis. One of my closest friends, who I coincidentally met watching a Juventus game, credits Buffon’s openness about his condition for her decision to seek help for her own depression. More than once she has openly said that that inspiration changed her life.

Take all of that together, and you have the reason why this man reaches such high status for me, and for so many other Juventus fans all over the world.

He has become a symbol of this team, on the level of Boniperti, Scirea, and Del Piero. I could go through the statistics, but they’re really immaterial. Buffon is beloved, and will be beloved, because of who he is as much as what he’s accomplished.

All of us will get emotional when he leaves the field for the final time — perhaps taking a lap around the stadium the way his old teammate Del Piero did six years ago. Tears will be shed. But it will also be a treasured moment — a chance to say goodbye to a man that has meant so much to us — and certainly will for a long time to come.

Grazie, capitano. Fino alla fine.

Juventus FC v Genoa CFC - Serie A Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images