Gianluigi Buffon’s career looked like it might be reaching its end as early as 2010. At the age of 32, chronic back trouble was keeping him out for increasingly long spells.
Juventus were having to call on the likes of Alex Manninger and Marco Storari with worrying regularity, and at half-time of the opening game of Italy’s abysmal 2010 World Cup campaign Buffon was replaced by Federico Marchetti after suffering a herniated disc which was by that point plaguing his career.
Goalkeepers and back trouble don’t normally go well together, and such persistent problems can often spell the end for shot-stoppers. But Buffon is a very different type of keeper, with a very different mentality.
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Having returned from that World Cup injury seven months later, he has added another 397 career appearances to his CV in the 12 years since. In that spell he has picked up 19 further winner’s medals, including nine league titles with Juve and Paris Saint-Germain.
These days, he is back with his first club Parma, recently returning after a spell out with hamstring trouble. He turns 45 on Saturday, but there remains no end in sight to what has been an incredible career.
Buffon has made more than 1100 senior appearances since his Serie A debut for the Gialloblu as a 17-year-old against reigning champions AC Milan, while his first appearance for his country is the stuff of legend in the Bel Paese. Coming on as a substitute half-an-hour into the World Cup qualifying play-off away to Russia in freezing, snowy conditions in Moscow, the then-19-year-old turned in a fantastic performance to help the Azzurri claim a first-leg draw before going on to win the return game and qualify for the 1998 finals in France.
The best bit about Buffon, and the thing which has given him the ability to keep playing into his mid-40s, is his attention to detail. For a goalkeeper, he has tremendous work-rate and for decades now he has stood out as the king of being able to come up with a vital intervention after a period of inactivity.
That quality was particularly important in his first of two spells with Juventus, whom he joined from Parma in a €52 million move in 2001 which would remain a world record for a goalkeeper until Alisson Becker signed for Liverpool in 2018.
Juve got their money’s worth and then some. He was the constant through a period which saw the Old Lady win regular league titles, reach a Champions League final, then go through the ignominy of demotion after the Calciopoli scandal. After their immediate return but subsequent struggle to challenge in Serie A, Antonio Conte came in to lead a new-look Juve in a brand new stadium to the first of nine straight Scudetti. And still, Buffon was there at the forefront. As the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet and Mauro Camoranesi gradually moved aside, Buffon became Mr Juventus.
For a goalkeeper to be shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or 10 times is something special, and Gigi even came second to Azzurri team-mate Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 after they had won the World Cup together. That he came fourth 11 years later, still a regular for Juventus, again a Champions League finalist, and every bit as important as he ever was in the Italy national setup says great things for his professionalism down the years.
He could go on forever. His current Parma deal lasts until the summer of 2024, and he has hinted that he’d be happy to play on into his mid-50s.
“I had 10 years with Parma in my first spell, then 20 with Juventus, one with Paris and another two with Juve and now I close the circle with Parma,” he told Alfredo Pedulla last summer. “And I’m not 100 yet! Could I retire at 55? More or less. For 10 years I’ve been thinking about when I might retire but then I always go on.”
Gianluigi Buffon has given his life to football over the last three decades, but we could be seeing plenty more of him for some time yet.
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