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The Journey is Everything

The Journey is Everything

By January 25, 2018 Issue 12

Winning matters, but Gianluigi Buffon sees beauty only in the trying.

gigi_1Gigi Buffon does not know exactly when he became a grown-up. He was still a kid when he made his Serie A debut, a lanky 17-year-old with enough adolescent arrogance to believe he belonged on the same pitch as Roberto Baggio and George Weah. Who were we to argue, after he shut out both players and helped Parma to draw with a Milan team bound for the Scudetto?

At the age of 21, Buffon won the Coppa Italia: his first major piece of silverware. Two years later, he joined Juventus for €52 million, becoming the most expensive goalkeeper of all time. By 30, he was a world champion who had won every top domestic trophy in Italian football several times over.

As Buffon closes in on his 40th birthday in January, he’s preparing to call time on an extraordinary career. Having already retired from international play after Italy’s shocking elimination from the World Cup, he’s also planning to leave Juventus at the end of the season unless they win the Champions League, in which case he’ll continue for one more: to represent the Bianconeri in the Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup, two competitions he has never had a chance to take part in.

Yet that youthful exuberance still lingers. It’s enough to see the grin that stretches across Buffon’s face when he’s invited to pick out hats from a table for Eight by Eight’s photo shoot, or the enthusiasm with which he soaks the stylists after being invited to pop a bottle of champagne. “I drink little,” he explains with a face that speaks of pure mischief. “But I celebrate quite a bit.”

You could not mistake this version of Buffon, however, for the one who first exploded into our consciousness at Parma. It is not just the laughter lines and gray-flecked stubble that give his grown-up self away, but the overriding sense of calm that surrounds him.

That might sound like a strange thing to say of a man whose footballing success has always relied on his preternatural composure. But the Buffon we saw on the pitch was never a complete reflection of the person who existed away from it.

“Back when my age would have marked me out as a kid,” he recalls, “I was already living with this continuous conflict between the boy who wanted to live his life, make mistakes, and form his own experiences without overanalyzing them, and the responsibilities that came with my professional role.

“To some extent I was already mature, consciously reflecting on things internally. But the part of me that was still a kid always wanted to impose itself. There was a voice saying, ‘No! Come on, this is rubbish, you’re only 17 years old! It’s right that you keep on being a kid.’ ”

 

What does it mean to be a grown-up, anyway? Might our answers be informed by language itself? English makes a clear distinction between teenagers and adults, but the Italian ragazzo is applied to a young male from middle school right into his 30s and beyond. Professional coaches invariably refer to their players as ragazzi, regardless of age.

“I don’t think there’s a fixed point at which a ragazzo becomes an adult,” says Buffon. “I think you feel it within yourself. You feel it when that ragazzo, who might struggle to control himself in lots of different situations, learns how to tame his impulses. That’s where you realize that you have grown up: the moment when, before reacting to something, you manage to stop and count to five.”

Or perhaps that definition is too simple. Upon contemplation, Buffon decides to reframe it. “Actually, there is really just one substantial difference. You become an adult after you’ve gone through all the different experiences of being a kid and after you have either beaten or been beaten by your insecurities.

“When you’re a kid, you fight against these insecurities in an ostentatious way. When you are an adult, you feel secure in yourself. Once you feel like a calm and balanced person, you don’t have that drive to show your thoughts off in such an obvious way.”

The younger Buffon needed to be noticed. That was part of the reason he chose to play in goal in the first place. He told me as much in a previous interview, saying, “The idea of having my own personal shirt that was different from the others, of being able to put on a cap and some gloves, these were big motivations.”

Even among keepers, Buffon found ways to stand out, wearing short-sleeve jerseys at a time when his peers dared not to expose their elbows. During his Parma days, he also wore a Superman T-shirt underneath his kit. And yet at 20, he confessed to one interviewer that you were more likely to find him reading Topolino—a Disney comic—than anything by DC or Marvel.

There were other aspects of childhood identity that Buffon clung to. He had grown up supporting his local team, Carrarese. Even as his career took off at Parma, he continued to rush home on rest days to watch them play. He would stand and sing on the Curva and even got caught up in the odd brawl.

“I think that I am 80% a very rational person, a person steered by reason,” he muses now. “The other 20%—which would have been more like 70% when I was younger—is craziness. I think that’s part of every person’s makeup. For some people it’s more, and for some a little less.

“If I have lasted all these years at the highest level and am still able to perform to this level, then I owe it above all to that little bit of madness I kept for myself. If, at 17 years old, I had needed to be serious and rational all the time, by now I’d be nothing but mush. I’d be a broken man.”

Instead, he is more secure in himself than ever. As recently as 2014, Buffon confessed to feeling a “moderate fear” of retirement. Asked whether he had that same sense of trepidation today, he replies, “Almost none.”

I put it to him that he seems more contented than he did when we first met, at the start of this decade. “Eh, I don’t know,” he replies. “I’ve had a happy life, in the sense that I have always tried to put a happy face on and to make sure that I draw the most positive aspects out of everything, whether that be a person, a friend, life itself, or even a negative situation at work.

“But today, now that I’m 39 years old and I’ve had the career that I’ve had—yeah, you could say that I’m definitely much more satisfied. When you have certain ambitions for your work and for yourself as a man, and you reach a moment many years later when you can step back and see that you had the strength, the courage, and the determination to reach them, clearly that will give you satisfaction. It gives you a sense of confidence in who you are.”

To be a grown-up is not the same as to be a finished article. Even as Buffon prepares to retire, he scrutinizes his performances diligently, looking for aspects of his game to refine. “I’m always trying to perfect the things I know how to do,” he says. “Maybe right now I know how to do a certain thing well enough to score an eight, eight and a half, nine out of 10. I want to make it a 10.”

It makes sense, then, that the final years of his career should be some of the best. He has finished atop Serie A 10 times with Juventus (though two titles were subsequently stripped from the club as a result of the Calciopoli scandal). Whether you count them all or not (Buffon does), it remains a remarkable truth that more than half of his league triumphs have arrived since he turned 34.

One trophy, of course, has eluded him. Buffon has played in three Champions League finals and lost them all. He has acknowledged that this very omission may have extended his career. “If I had won the Champions League there would be nothing left,” he told the German magazine Kicker in March. “The fact I haven’t pushes me on.”

Off the pitch, Buffon has sought a different kind of self-improvement. He has spoken candidly in the past about his battle with depression, a “black hole of the soul” that became so profound for him in 2004 that some days his leg would start shaking for no reason. An impromptu decision to walk into an art exhibit one day helped him on the path to recovery.

“I would never have done something like that before: just wake up in a morning and go to see some paintings,” he says. “It’s quite something when you realize at 24 years old, 25, that your reason for being is not just going to the pitch, training, playing a good match, winning.

“Those are fundamental things. You have to always keep them in mind. But in the middle of all this, there is an important space which you need to dedicate to yourself, to evolution.”

Buffon would not describe himself as any sort of art buff. He goes to the odd exhibition every now and then when something catches his eye. What these experiences have taught him is to appreciate the moment he is living in right now, and the opportunity it offers to learn something new, rather than sitting and obsessing over some distant desire.

It would be naïve to attribute Buffon’s depression to any single cause, but it was certainly a disorienting shock to learn in his early 20s that money and fame—both of which he had in abundance following the move to Juventus—did not add up to happiness. Among the most profound lessons, he says, was the discovery that even winning the biggest trophies could never deliver the buzz he was hoping for.

“When you set out on a journey, you envisage the place that you are trying to get to and you see only fantastic things,” he explains. “So you fight to get there, you give the best of yourself, the beast inside of you comes out.”

“And then you arrive, and you say, ‘OK, it’s beautiful here, this is a lovely place to be.’ But it never gives you that same sensation you felt when you were on the journey, when you were pounding away at yourself, trying to give everything you have.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a disappointment, to reach an objective you had been working toward. But the truly beautiful thing is that moment when you are still fighting. When you get to the end, it can be gratifying, it can give you a certain sense of peace for a while. But there is always a little bit of that familiar feeling: Oh shit, that’s it? It ends here?”

Nothing could have brought that point home more vividly than Italy’s World Cup win in 2006. The Azzurri had entered the tournament under a cloud, their preparations overshadowed by uproar back home over Calciopoli.

To win a World Cup in any circumstances is extraordinary, something only a tiny fraction of players will ever experience. For Italy to do so in that moment felt almost impossible. And yet, even here, after a penalty shoot-out win over France in the final, Buffon felt a little underwhelmed, “because we had gone like madmen for a month, all that tension, fighting away. And then we won, and it was fantastic. But I was happier, I think, one hour before, when we were in the middle of that last game against France, and I felt like my heart was about to explode.”

What does he remember of it now? “Of the match, honestly, nothing. Of the celebrations, what made me happy was to see all those other people so excited. I was happy, of course I was, I was satisfied with what I had done. But I was satisfied in a rational way. To see other people going out of their heads, that was the thing that made me truly happy.

“I went home as a world champion, but if there hadn’t been people everywhere, parties going on in the streets, I would have gone out the next day as usual to grab a little bit of focaccia. I’m a world champion, but it doesn’t change my life. Seeing what it meant to other people, how it brought Italy together for a little while, that was what made it truly gratifying.”

That thought takes us back to Parma, and the Superman shirt he used to wear. Does it feel like being a superhero sometimes, to enjoy a football career as successful as his? To be able to bring joy into the lives of people you have never even met?

“Eh, that is an important part of why I carry on playing,” says Buffon. “And why I played in the first place. The idea that you can work toward an important objective together with a group, the team, the club, the technical staff—my greatest pleasure comes from the fact that we do it together and then share it with the fans.

“When we win, yes, for me, I’m happy. But I’m happier for them, to bring them that kind of joy. Ultimately, I think of myself a bit like an instrument who had the fortune to be used for this purpose.”

The journey matters more than the destination, goes the old saying, but every journey must have a destination in the end. For Buffon, retirement is no longer some fuzzy point on the horizon but a concrete harbor in full view. He no longer fears a life after football, but has he prepared for one? Has he planned out his farewell to the fans?

“Every now and then I think about it,” he says. “Not a lot, though. One thing I don’t love in life is to get caught in the middle of a scene that feels manufactured. It’s inevitable that when I play my last match, there will be something set up so that other people can have the chance to do something nice for me. If it was my birthday, it’s normal that there would be a cake.

“But honestly, all this stuff that happens without any spontaneity does not appeal to me—things that are predefined. I don’t even want to imagine it. I want something to happen, I want there to be lots of smiles, and I know some people might even get emotional. I hope all that will happen. But I really do want there to be lots of smiles, because in the end I’m a happy person. That’s how it should be.”

And what will he do the morning after, once the cake has been eaten and the tears wiped away? Back down to the local shop for a slice of focaccia? Will he take the time, as he has suggested previously, to go off and learn Chinese?

“That’s the 20% of me that is still crazy,” he smiles. “Things like that do motivate me. I think that I have an important quality, that of being good at communication, of knowing how to build empathy with people.

“When you can talk to anyone, you can build contacts and open up your mind. And when you speak with a person without the need for a third party translating, it allows you to have a conversation that is very immediate, without filters. It allows you to carry weight with that person and allows them to carry weight with you. In my opinion, it’s a beautiful thing.”

For now, the plan is simply to leave doors open instead of closing them. Buffon does not have a job lined up yet for retirement and does not intend on committing to one until after he has hung up his gloves. He would like to carry on contributing to the world of football, although the one idea he has excluded is that of working as a coach.

“Right now, I’m still a player,” he says. “The day after I finish, then I’ll start thinking about what comes next.”

And what about the bigger picture? One more aspect of growing up lies in the acceptance that life does not go on forever. Where has this whole conversation been leading us if not to that most fundamental question: What is the meaning of it all?

Buffon does not often find himself at a loss for words. He has been filling the studio with noise ever since he got here, chatting to anyone and everyone, booming out deep belly laughs. And he tries to answer immediately. “The meaning … The meaning of life, it could be … well … huh.” Finally, he allows himself a moment of silence. “It’s a search for our own happiness,” he finally says. “Without doing harm, and without behaving badly.

“By behaving badly, what I mean is behaving in an unjust way with people. Because behaving badly could mean smoking a cigarette for you, it could be drinking a beer for me. That’s subjective. But behaving unjustly in your relations with others is a different thing.”

Has he met his own standard so far in life? “I have not been perfect,” he says. “But I don’t think I have too much to beat myself up for from this perspective, either. And the part of my life that I have left, I’ll will use to try to perfect myself more.”

There are some things Buffon knows he will miss. Days will feel a little emptier without the camaraderie of the changing room, the opportunity to put himself at the service of a shared cause. You get the impression, though, that he is looking forward to no longer occupying a space at the center of a nation’s attention.

“Football, especially as it is lived here in Italy, is the most important test in your formation as a man,” he says. “Because, in the end, the amount of actual football that gets played is very little. And it interests very few people. The media, newspapers, the TV, they’re interested in everything except the real stuff. Everything except what happens on the green rectangle.

“‘Buffon is angry.’ ‘Buffon is happy.’ ‘Buffon is getting married.’ ‘Buffon is not getting married.’ ‘Buffon is leaving.’ ‘Buffon is having kids.’ ‘Buffon is not having kids.’ People are only really interested to know whether Buffon took a piss up against the post.”

He laughs, but you can feel the exasperation. Buffon wishes for a more thoughtful public discourse—not only on footballing matters—and believes journalists could make more of an effort to educate their readers instead of playing to the lowest common denominator.

It is a sentiment many people share, though few could relate to his specific experience. Buffon has lived more than half of his life under a national media spotlight and had defining moments before a worldwide audience as well. If he remains uncertain of quite when he became a grown-up, perhaps it’s because his life story has been treated like public property since he was 17.

What a story it has been, though: the kid who became a goalkeeper at 12—after being won over by the eccentric style of Cameroon’s Thomas N’Kono during the 1990 World Cup—and went on to become Italy’s most capped player at any position.

He will miss that green rectangle to which journalists never pay enough attention. More than that, he’ll miss the white metal frames at each end. Just last March, he wrote a poem to his goal and posted it on Facebook. “The day I stopped looking you in the face,” read one line, “is the day that I started to love you.”

What does the goal mean to him? “When you’re a little kid, it’s the dream,” he says. “You imagine your dreams together with the goal. Because you want to be a keeper, you want to grow up, you want to have a career, you want to go far. You want.

“Then, when you’re older and living this profession at the highest level, the goal becomes your responsibility. You know that you have to defend it from everything. And there are days when you see the goal and you think, For fuck’s sake, you again? I need to defend you today? Well, maybe I’m going to do it a little bit less well … ”

That laugh again. Only this time it carries a melancholy note. “No, the duty of playing at the highest level is that you still need to find the strength within yourself to get the right response and defend your goal even if you don’t feel like it.”

It sounds a bit like the relationship a parent might have with a child: loving them and taking responsibility for them even when they’re being a pain in the butt. “No, it’s more like a mother!” exclaims Buffon. “More like a mother than a son!

“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. You could say that now a new life is beginning for me without her. It does not scare me anymore, because she raised me so well.”

Just like that, we’ve come full circle. Gigi Buffon may not know exactly when he became a grown-up. But he knows that he is ready, at last, to leave home.

This article originally appeared in issue 12 of Eight by Eight, a quarterly magazine fusing longform football writing with high quality illustration, photography and design. Learn more about the current issue here, and follow Eight by Eight on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Photographs  by Roger Neve.

 

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