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Buffon of the football circus

Priyansh | Updated on May 26, 2018

Heart on the sleeve: Heart on the sleeve Buffon was initially attracted to goalkeeping mainly to wear a different jersey from his teammates, in addition to the cap and gloves   -  REUTERS/ MASSIMO PINCA

Whether in Turin or Paris, the goalpost is safe in his thoughtful, committed hands

As I write this, Gianluigi Buffon is reportedly preparing for a move to Paris. His farewell at Juventus did not, after all, turn out to be his goodbye to football. Just days before his final game with the Italian champion, he turned his thoughts away from retirement. It was only his 17-year association with Juventus that ended. He may still win the Champions League, a lifelong dream, but elsewhere.

It does appear difficult to imagine Buffon in any place other than Turin. But it equally seems ironic to paint a man forever driven towards difference with a fixed identity. Buffon’s initial attraction to goalkeeping stemmed from a desire to wear a jersey that was different from his teammates’, in addition to a cap and gloves. He stood out even as a goalkeeper with his short sleeves, a departure from the covered arms of his peers.

Treating the penalty box like his manor, he strolls about with supreme confidence, his commanding presence a hefty counterpoise to the threatening striker. Of course, there are other keepers who could boast similar attributes. But Buffon is different because his imposing self owes not to a large physical presence, say like Peter Schmeichel. Instead, he remains a lean figure to this day.

This must help his reflexes, which have barely slowed even though he has turned 40. His reflections too are sharp as ever. He is consumed by thinking about his vocation; which must seem odd for a man who describes himself as someone who is easily distracted.

Arguably, the role of a goalkeeper naturally lends itself to a reflexive disposition. There is plenty of standing, waiting, and watching. Buffon, when he gave up life as a midfielder, was arrested by the possibilities that arose for a goalkeeper. “As a goalie, my working hours are very short; I really need to put all my attention into what I’m doing,” he said once in an interview to Cabinet.

In another interview to EightByEight, though, Buffon’s words showed that his working hours are longer than he admits. They go beyond merely safeguarding the goal. “The thing you have to remember about the goal is that she was around before I ever showed up. The goal is a mother who is looking for help and needs to be saved.”

The above response, delicious and evocative in equal parts, is a window into the interesting pathways on which Buffon’s mind wanders. Perhaps all goalkeepers are reflexive in their own way but nobody else posits ideas as wondrously as the Italian custodian. Buffon is not just a thinker of football, but also of the games he encounters outside the playing field.

These are questions he may have encountered early on. Buffon famously belongs to a family of sportspersons; he is a “competitive animal” by nature, in his own words. However, the Carrara-born does not want to see sport as serious business alone; trivial amusements are equally important to him.

Buffon loosely translates to ‘a clown or a buffoon’, as he discussed in the interview to Cabinet, and the goalie is not averse to treating football as a circus.

Perhaps this view of his can be traced back to the time his soul descended into a “black hole.” In 2004, so consumed was Buffon by stress and the imperative to win, that he could literally not sit still. Depression lurked in the corner. The solution, though, arrived in a manner that was Buffon-esque.

He woke up one morning and acted on a desire to view some paintings. Buffon walked to an exhibition on a whim. The visit was like an epiphany — he realised there was more to his life than football. The goalkeeper was only 26 then, and the sudden blazing realisation proved to be a decisive mental shift for the Juventus legend.

By then, Buffon had established himself as one of the world’s best goalkeepers, but he was still two years away from his greatest triumph. In 2006, he was a key figure as Italy conceded only twice on the way to its fourth World Cup trophy. However, Buffon cherishes the triumph for what it meant to his teammates, family and fans. Although it sounds like a cliché, he is known to be a fan of the journey; once the objective is achieved, his focus shifts to the next struggle.

It is safe to assume that the emotional churn over leaving Juventus will soon be overshadowed by his next challenge. Buffon still wishes to be a continental champion at club level and Paris Saint-Germain offers him that possibility. If he fails, something else will arrive for his sauntering mind. Perhaps he will learn Chinese, as he mentioned in the past. It would not be unlike Buffon.

Priyansh is an independent writer based in New Delhi

Published on May 25, 2018

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