At 43, Gianluigi Buffon is still ambitious. His transfer to Parma, the club that was relegated to the Serie B last year and the club where he started as a goalkeeper in the youth academy thirty years ago, seems like a step back, but nothing could be further from the truth. He expects to bring Parma back to Serie A this season and he hopes national coach Roberto Mancini calls him up for the World Championship in Qatar at the end of 2022. Even though Buffon is then 44 years old. Even though his replacement Donnarumma was chosen as the best player of the tournament at the Euros last summer. And even though if it’s been more than three years since he last played for the Italian national team. At Parma, Buffon will at least be able to play again, whereas for Juventus he was only allowed to play an occasional cup match last season.
He didn’t want to be a goalkeeper at all, little Gianluigi. He wanted to attack and score. Scoring goals gave him a much better feeling as a kid than stopping balls. He succeeded to do so in his first game for amateur club Canaletto di La Spezia, Buffon tells in his autobiography ‘Numero 1’. Little Gianluigi scored from a free kick in the first game he played as a six year old. Why go goalkeeping when you can score?
Canaletto, where Gianluigi played for two years, was a team associated with the church, there were prayers before the games. On occasion Buffon was already filling in as a goalkeeper at that time, but he remained a field football player, also when he decides to start playing when he is eight, at a new club Perticata, a satellite club of Inter Milan that is based in Carrara.
Buffon wanted to play on the field untill he was twelve years old. At that age, he saw N’ Kono at the playing at the 1990 match of Cameroon vs Argentina at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
N’ Kono was a bluffer, he was flamboyant. In a piece that he wrote for the website Player’s Tribune a few years ago, Buffon recalls what went through his mind as a 12-year-old boy sitting in front of the television during the 1990 World Cup, watching Cameroon’s game against Brazil.
THOMAS N’ KONO
He did’nt no where Cameroon was. In spite of the heat, Thomas N’ Kono was wearing a a full suit with long black pants. Buffon writes about what went through is had in those days: ‘The way he moves, the way he stands tall, the fantastic mustache. He captivates your heart in a way that is unexplainable.’
When Argentina takes a corner N’ Kono runs out of his goal and punches the ball 30 yards in the air. ‘Magic’, Buffon writes. ‘This is the moment that you know what you want to do with your life. You do not want to be simply a goalkeeper. You want to be this kind of goalkeeper. You want to be wild, courageous, free. This is why you became a goal keeper. Not because of money or fame. Because of the artistry and style of this man Thomas N’Kono. Because of his soul. ‘
When his father suggests a year later that he should try it as a goalkeeper for a year, Gianluigi agrees. He had argued against it before, but the inspiration of the Camaroene spectacle keeper convinced him. Buffon had to change clubs again as Perticata, the club where he played as a midfielder, didn’t want him in goal. “My real career started with Bonascola,” Buffon writes in his biography. Within nine months, Buffon was so good that three Serie A clubs wanted him. Buffon chose Parma, where he started in the youth academy at the age of thirteen.
Gianluigi Buffon became world champion in 2006 with Italy, but does not have too good memories of that day. He was exhausted, the tension of goalkeeping consumed him from the inside. Sometimes his legs were trembling when he was standing under the bar at Juventus.
In the piece for Player’s Tribune, published on October 19, 2019, the elder Buffon wrote a letter to himself at age 17, in which he talks about the mistakes he made in his life, the depression he ended up in and the way whereupon he managed to get out of it.
Italy’s arguably best goalkeeper ever was bullied as a kid. Buffone means buffoon and is an Italian swear word. Buffon was no sweetheart himself. As is often the case with bullied children, he became a bully himself. It certainly wasn’t the only stain on his career. Buffon graduated by buying a counterfeit copy of his diploma, he has been linked to several bribery scandals and he has allways had a big mouth.
At the age of seventeen Buffon made his debut for Parma in the Serie A. ‘You should be in bed, drinking warm milk’, the elder Buffon tells to the younger in the piece on Player’s Tribune. But in reality he drank beers at a club the night before the match, got in an argument with the police and pissed over the wheels of a policecar.
Buffon regrets the big mouth that he had when he was younger. Once he wore a message on his shirt saying ‘Death to the Cowards’. He says he didn’t know it was a slogan of far-right Italian fascists.
Buffon writes about the depression that came upon him when he was 26 years old. People called him Superman, but he got so depressed that het didn’t want to leave his bed.
He felt that his profession had turned him into a robot, thinking only about football, but he was certainly no Superman. One morning he gets out of bed to go to training, but than his legs start shaking.
At the depths of his depression, Buffon walked into an art museum in Torino that ran an exhibition with hundreds of paintings by Marc Chagall. When he sees the painting ‘Promenade’ it hits him like a lightning bolt.
Buffon describes: ‘It’s an almost childlike image. A man and a woman are in a park, having a picnic, but everything is magical. The woman is flying away into the sky, like an angel, and the man is standing on the ground, holding her hand, smiling. It is like the dream of a child.’
The image brought back to Buffon the feelings of happiness and simplicity that he was used to as a child. The feeling that he had when he saw Thomas N’Kono punching the ball 30 yards into the sky. The art worked a a cure for him. It lifted the inner heaviness that he felt at the time. ‘Like the woman being lifted into the air in Chagall’s painting.’
The image brought back to Buffon the feelings of happiness and simplicity that he was used to as a child
With his never ending career, Buffon has racked up endless records, but it’s still not enough for him. Last season he won the cup with Juventus, the 25th trophy he won with an Italian club, a record he now shares with Paolo Maldini. As a Serie A player, Buffon had already surpassed Maldini before. He has played 658 matches in the Serie A, Maldini 648 and number 3 Francesco Totti 618.
To overtake former Lazio goalkeeper Marco Ballotta as the oldest player ever in the Italian league, he will have to promote with Parma. Ballota played in Serie A at 44 years and 38 days, Buffon was 43 when he retired from the top tier in Italy, but he may still return to the Serie A in the years to come.