No. No. No. No. OH PLEASE GOD NO!! Say it ain’t so! Please, God, tell me that this didn’t happen. Tell me that the international career of, in my opinion, the greatest goalie to ever live, is not going to end this way! This must all be a bad dream right?
Sadly, this is the real world. Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 Russia World Cup, losing 1-0 on aggregate in their qualifying playoff to Sweden, and Gianluigi Buffon’s international career is over. When he announced he would retire from football after this coming World Cup, nobody even dreamed of the possibility that that would mean his career would be over before the World Cup even started. But it is, and football is worse off for it.
How did it get this way? How did such a storied career come to an end in such a devastating fashion? Three words, Gian Piero Ventura. Italy’s now ex-manager makes Jurgen Klinsmaan look like Joachim Low. Italy may not be the dominant World Cup winning team they were 10 years ago, but this team is beyond good enough to make it to Russia. This man’s decisions were enough to get him locked in a mental asylum. He consistently failed to pick Jorginho for the national team, despite him being one of the most in form midfielders in Europe at the moment, on the grounds that because he was born in Brazil he was not Italian. By the time he was finally pressured to select him, it was too late for the Azzurri. Jorginho’s passing ability might have come in handy during all those qualifiers they blew don’t you think? He also has never once started one of Europe’s finest wingers, Lorenzo Insigne, in his XI, and when Insigne does get playing time, it is always out of position. He only got 15 minutes of time in BOTH LEGS of the Sweden playoff, and that was as a midfielder. Maybe play a world class winger on the wing Ventura? This situation got so bad that in the second Sweden game, when Daniele De Rossi was summoned to come on off the bench, he screamed at Ventura “What the f*ck are you doing putting me in there, we need to WIN” before pointing to Insigne instead. Has this idiot ever watched a Napoli match? They are in first place in the Serie A, and Insigne and Jorginho are a major reason why. He also had Andrea Belotti, one of the hottest prospects at striker in the world, and Ciro Immobile, currently the leading goalscorer in all of Europe at his disposal, and failed to play them up top together during the Sweden games. This mixture of idiocy and xenophobia from the manager has led to an all time great’s Italy career getting about the worst sendoff possible.
But enough talking about the failures of Italy, it is now time to pay tribute to an all time great. Lets list all of his many accolades, shall we? Buffon is one of the greatest keepers of all time, with diving saves that defy belief, unbelievably quick reflexes, and quite simply, some of the best pure shot stopping ability the world has ever seen. Starting his career at Parma, he quickly made his name as one of the best young keepers in Europe, leading to Italian giants Juventus to pay 52 million euros for him, still an all time record fee for a goalie. He is still at Juventus to this day. He has won the Serie A goalkeeper of the year award 7 times, UEFA goalkeeper of the year twice, been in the UEFA team of the year 4 times, been in the World team of the year 3 times, been both runner up and third place in Ballon D’Or voting, still the highest a goalkeeper has ever finished in that award, and he has even won the UEFA Player of the Year award itself, in 2002-03. He has the most clean sheets in Italy history, most clean sheets and consecutive clean sheets in Serie A history, and will break the Serie A all time appearance record by the time this season is over. He has the fourth most appearances of any international player ever, and the most of any European player. He has won 4 Coppa Italias, 6 Supercoppa Italianas, one Europa League, 10 Serie A titles, and of course his greatest achievement, winning the 2006 World Cup. Italy had an incredible team, but nobody was expecting them to win it all, because Italian football was rocked by scandal that summer. But they did, and a lot of that was down to Buffon. He only conceded 2 goals in the whole tournament, one was an own goal and the other a PK. So he conceded NO GOALS FROM AN ACTUAL SHOT ON TARGET DURING A GAME IN THE WORLD CUP! That is mindblowing! His one handed save in extra time against Zinedine Zidane in the World Cup Final will be forever remembered as one of the most clutch saves ever, and he won the tournaments Golden Glove award. What an amazing career! Gigi is a role model to goalies anywhere, like me.
But Buffon is more than just a legendary goalie, he is a class act, incredibly loyal, and a pretty good poet too. When he broke the Serie A most minutes without conceding a goal record, he did not brag, but instead wrote a poem thanking all of his teammates for all the good work they did. That isn’t even the only time he has written poetry, he once composed an ode to the goal he protects, which included the lines “From the day I turned my back on you, I began to love you. I swore to protect you. To be your first and last line of defense” and “I always thought of your wellbeing above my own”. You would think he was writing to a lover instead of a net between some metal sticks! What a guy! In what would turn out to be his final game, when Italian fans booed the Swedish national anthem, Buffon loudly applauded it to shut them up. Also, when Italian players were talking during the French national anthem one time, Gigi shut them up. He has also been an incredibly loyal servant to Juventus. In the Italian football scandal of 2006 I mentioned previously, also known as Calciopoli, Juventus was found guilty of ensuring they had favorable referees for their matches, sometimes even locking refs in closets for 48 hours before games to ensure they favored Juve. As punishment, Juventus were forcibly relegated from the Serie A to the Serie B. Their manager and most of their stars jumped ship and left for other big teams, but Buffon shocked the world when he announced he was going to stay with the club and stick it out. He was 28, in the prime of his career, coming off a summer where he had just won the World Cup. Any team in the world would have killed to have him as their goalie. But he stayed, and played in the second tier of Italian football with Juventus, leading them back up to the Serie A. Imagine how many trophies he would have won if he hadn’t sacrificed personal glory to rebuild his club! He might have actually gotten that monkey off his back and won the Champions League, the one trophy he has yet to win, despite making it to the final three times. I am sure he thinks about that every day, all the Champions Leagues he would have won had he gone to Barcelona or Real Madrid. But he stayed, and that shows all time great leadership and incredible character.
Finally, Buffon truly loves his country. I have never seen any athlete be so openly patriotic and proud of where they come from as Gigi is for Italy. If you have never seen him belting out the Italian national anthem before a match, have you even truly lived? He is completely out of tune, but he does not care, he screams that anthem out at the top of his voice every single time. Watching him sing is honestly a highlight of any Italy match. Also, just look at his interview after Italy failed to qualify. He was standing there, tears streaming down his face as if his mother died. You could feel the pure hurt in his voice. This man loves his country, and he deserved to compete in one last World Cup for the Azzurri.
Buffon will be 40 years old at the end of this season. His career has spanned 23 years. He has been playing for so long that a whole generation of Italians have known no goalie on their team but him. His replacement on the national team will be 18 year old wonder kid Gianluigi Donnarumma, who was actually named after Buffon! His contract with Juventus is up after this year, and they signed a goalie last summer. It looks like the writing is on the wall for a great career, and all anyone wanted was to see his last match be on the games biggest stage in Russia, competing for one last World Cup with his beloved Italy, then going off into the sunset. Sadly, that just was not to be. However, we should not cry because it’s over, but smile because it happened. Gianluigi Buffon is an all time great goalkeeper, and despite the horrible end, we were fortunate to see him play, and should remember his great career, rather than how it finished. I know I will watch the last Juventus game this season now, and probably shed multiple tears, as should anyone who loves this game. Grazie Gigi, for all you have done for football!