In a world where popularity means more than actual ability and, in a month when fans hope their clubs will buy the latest young superstar in the transfer market, Gianluigi Buffon celebrating his 40th birthday reminds us that sometimes, the good guys with an enduring legacy win.
Unlike so many icons before him, Buffon has exploited his ego for good and dumped aside all the negative residue. There is nothing he enjoys more than playing between the sticks for Juventus and Italy before that, but aware of his age and the impact it can have on his performances, he’s keen to not outstay his welcome as No. 1.
“I want what’s best for the team, to understand what kind of clothes I can wear, whether Juventus think I can still be important. I don’t want to become a problem for Juventus or my teammates,” he said.
There comes a time when nostalgia and affection for a legend becomes so overpowering that the player becomes almost bigger than the club and has to then be forced to depart in somewhat degrading fashion. Buffon has recognised the possibility of that happening, but rather than become a problem, he wants to be part of the solution by only staying on at Juventus if those around him — genuinely and sincerely — feel he would still add value to team.
The very fact the best goalkeeper of our generation remembers every blunder so clearly so as to immediately point them out the moment he’s asked demonstrates keen self awareness and the insatiable appetite for more, for perfection. By pondering his future, Buffon is determined to not disappoint those around him but to also not disappoint himself. He is desperately trying to avoid being a man who clings to former glories, regaling old tales of brilliance to anyone who will listen.
Based on what we have seen from the goalkeeper this season, time has robbed him of neither his agility nor his mind. He is still hungry for glory, still hungry for improvement but most importantly capable of adding so much value, both on the pitch and off it.
It is precisely his elegance, his class, his empathy and his warm demeanour that has reminded many of us of what it means to be a true sportsman. To be competitive but kind to the opponent, to show loyalty to those around you, to help and encourage your teammates both on and off the pitch and to forgive those who cannot do the same. Buffon applauds the opponent, celebrates his teammates and demonstrates footballing brilliance at every turn, keen to be a true example of humanity for both his children and all those watching.
It is he who helped nurture a struggling Alvaro Morata, who encouraged Andrea Barzagli to keep pushing on despite his age and who produces a dispassionate defence of the excellent Massimiliano Allegri at every turn because those men deserved his support. He doesn’t buy into popularity or exaggerated branding of modern stars, but instead appreciates real ability. It is perhaps why he recognised a kindred spirit in Iker Casillas, a man who much like he did, often put the welfare of his country and club before his own.
Italy lost its soul when Buffon retired from the national team as he put a beloved human face on a side often criticised for its ageing and scandalous ways. When the time comes, the Old Lady and her fans will lose a little bit of their heart when Buffon retires, a player who reminds them of the spirit of the game and of legends like Gaetano Scirea, the very emblem of true kindness and elegance in sport.
Until then, Juve will celebrate him and with him as the goalkeeper turns 40 on Sunday but just before then, he has been included in the squad list set to face Chievo Verona on Saturday evening. Included but unlikely to play, Allegri would prefer it if Buffon was to start the Coppa Italia match against Atalanta on Tuesday.
A match against a physically aggressive Chievo side won’t be easy and Allegri is yet to decide whether to play with all four attackers or opt for a packed midfield. What is more or less determined is that Federico Bernardeschi will play and he’s one Allegri hopes will be a game-changer for Juventus in the weeks to come. Until then, he needs to grab this opportunity and make the difference to help Juve keep picking up the points as they chase Napoli.
It won’t be easy, Chievo know how to keep things tight and nervy against the big sides and Juventus won’t be any different.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.