<
>

Gigi Buffon, better than ever, must lead worst Italian side in years at Euros

Gianluigi Buffon had run out of patience. Everybody at Juventus knew the start of the 2015-16 season would be challenging, that growing pains were inevitable after Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente all moved on. But it was never supposed to be this bad. After 10 games, the Bianconeri had just 12 points and sat in the bottom half of the table.

As the players trudged off the pitch at the end of a 1-0 loss away to Sassuolo, Buffon gave it both barrels. "We need to have a profound examination of conscience," he said. "As captain I cannot permit us to go on playing this way ... We need to start showing some humility otherwise we're going to waste a season making an embarrassment of ourselves. At 38 years old I really don't have any interest in it."

It would be an exaggeration to say that this rant transformed Juventus' season. They required a 92nd-minute Juan Cuadrado goal to beat Torino in the Derby della Mole three days later. But with hindsight, it certainly looks like a turning point. Juventus won 25 of their next 26 games, drawing the remainder and stitching up a fifth consecutive Scudetto by the end of April.

Buffon's leadership was fundamental, and so, too, were his saves. Between Jan. 10 and March 20 he set a new Serie A record for the longest sequence that any keeper has gone without conceding a goal: an astonishing 16 hours and 13 minutes.

The credit was shared with Juventus's defence -- the brilliant BBC of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini -- but Buffon still had plenty to do. He made 33 saves during his unbeaten stretch, albeit none quite so breathtaking as the double stop that he later made to deny Carlos Bacca and Mario Balotelli during a win over Milan in April.

Most players, even goalkeepers, would be showing signs of decline as they approached the end of their fourth decade. Buffon, if anything, seems to be getting better. This season he averaged 3.94 saves per goal conceded in Serie A, the best ratio of any starting keeper across Europe's top five leagues.

How does this happen? If you ask Buffon, as the Italian newspaper La Stampa did in April, then it all comes down to motivation. "Up to 30 years old, I was carried by natural talent, combined with a good level of professionalism," he explained. "But since turning 30, I've gained a desire to sweat in the real sense of the word, to understand where I need to improve. Competitiveness, now, is essential."

Ask his teammates, though, and you might get a more straightforward answer.

"What makes Gigi special is that he's the best goalkeeper in the history of football," Chiellini said. "I've had the good fortune to play with many extraordinary players: [Fabio] Cannavaro, [Pavel] Nedved -- both Ballon d'Or winners -- [Alessandro] Del Piero, [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, [David] Trezeguet and plenty of other incredible players. The difference is this: Gigi remains the best ever at his position.

"Maybe [Diego] Maradona was the best ever outfield player, or maybe it was Pele. When you go through those other names that I listed, you can always find someone in the history of football who might have been even better than they were. But you can't find someone better than Buffon."

Of course, some people might disagree with Chiellini's opinion. And, of course, those people will be wrong. You could make a case that others have been better at their peak, and it seems unlikely now that Buffon will ever get to join Lev Yashin as the only goalkeeper ever to have won a Ballon d'Or. But no other player at the position has ever maintained such high standards for so long.

Luigi Apolloni was a starting centre-back for Parma back when the 17-year-old Buffon broke into the first team back in 1995. Even before the keeper's sparkling debut against Milan, when he thwarted George Weah and Roberto Baggio to keep a clean sheet, it was apparent that this was a special talent.

"He was just so certain of himself," Apolloni said. "I remember him arriving, this teenager, to speak to our manager, Nevio Scala. Right away he said: 'Listen, boss, in a normal month I train really well for 29 days. But one day a month you need to accept that I'm not going to be myself, because I'll be having a bad day. And you need not to get angry about that.'

"It was such a funny thing to see this way that he expresses himself. He was making a joke, but it was a joke that told you how confident that he was and because of that how much potential he had."

That cockiness has diminished over time, Buffon undoubtedly a more circumspect individual today than he was back then. He suffered with crippling bouts of depression during the early-2000s, but, as he tells it, eventually turned those into a positive by forcing himself to engage more with the world, going out to art shows and becoming a voracious reader of history.

What has not changed, though, is his passion for football. Buffon has always been a fan, as well as a player, one who stood and even fought together with the Ultras on the terraces at his local club Carrarese during his teenage years. Apolloni recalls him showing up for preseason training retreats with bundles of fanzines under his arm.

Buffon demonstrated his commitment to Carrarese by purchasing the club in 2010, initially as part of a consortium but subsequently buying out his fellow shareholders. One day, he may go back to standing on those terraces. But for now he still has his own playing career to attend to.

The thought that this might be nearing an end is almost too much to bear. Buffon used to love collecting the shirts of great opponents but nowadays prefers to give such mementos away. "They make me melancholy," he told La Stampa. "They make me think that I have had lots of beautiful adventures that are now coming to an end."

Not just yet, though. As long ago as 2011, Buffon told me during an interview that he hoped to play at the 2018 World Cup. At the time, that sounded wildly ambitious. Now, it appears more likely than not.

In the meantime, he can content himself with this summer's European Championship. Expectations for Italy are just about as low as they have been for any major tournament in Buffon's lifetime, with injuries to Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio stripping away what little optimism there was for a squad that already appeared short on quality in key areas.

Is it possible, though, that perceptions have now swung too far in a negative direction. After all, Italy were underwhelming in qualifying, twice beating Malta by a single goal, but they still have not lost a competitive game under Antonio Conte.

Besides, any team that does intend to send the Azzurri spinning out of this tournament is going to have to find a way past Buffon.

"As defenders we always have that hope," Chiellini said. "When the attacker beats us, when we get turned around, when we can see that he's about to stick it in the net and score, there's always that thought: 'Maybe Gigi will save me.'"

Very often, he does.