Before most games with the Italian national team, Gianluigi Buffon stands with the captain's armband as he belts out the anthem with his eyes closed. He never appears to take a single moment in that jersey for granted.
He has made 139 appearances for the Azzurri—more than any other Italian—and this will be his fourth World Cup and ninth major tournament. It may also be his last.
Buffon is 36. He hasn't determined how much longer he will play for his country. A few years ago, many in the media doubted he could ever perform at this level again, but he is now a three-time defending champion with Juventus, and he is still capable of making crucial saves.
Buffon kept 18 clean sheets in Serie A last season and conceded just 20 goals, according to FOX Sports. He is not too busy behind one of the best defences in Europe. He didn't have to make a high number of saves last season, but he dove, sprawled and punched away the danger at the biggest moments.
That's what Buffon is made for. He is 6'3", lanky, athletic and spectacular. He likes to roam in his area as well.
"He commands his box, intimidates forwards with his size and makes fine reaction saves," writes Jonathan Wilson in his book, The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.
For all his instincts, Buffon is traditionally not too reliable in the penalty kicks—"I'm never relaxed when the game goes to penalties," he told FourFourTwo—but he is undoubtedly a leader and an example for the players new and old to the Azzurri.
During the 2006 World Cup final in Berlin when midfielder Andrea Pirlo was up to take his penalty in the shootout, the midfielder picked up the ball and approached the box. He tried to catch Buffon's eye. Pirlo wanted some sort of approval from a known source of confidence.
"I could have done with a nod, a gesture, a little bit of advice, anything," Pirlo writes in his book, I Think Therefore I Play. "But Gigi had enough problems of his own to worry about and didn't have time for mine."
In that tournament, Buffon had gone 453 minutes without conceding a goal. The only two goals he did allow were an own goal and a penalty from Zinedine Zidane. At that time, Italy was a crime scene—Calciopoli was just beginning—and Buffon was also being interviewed by authorities about possible bets placed on international games, per Sky Sports.
Buffon admitted that he did do some recreational betting, but he said he never gambled on games inside Italy. He cleared his name like so many balls to his net.
Buffon was not always so cool in distress. He suffered mentally and emotionally after the 2003 Champions League final. Juventus lost the game on penalties at Old Trafford. After that, his legs would tremble while playing. He used to be scared of going to the pitch.
"It was as if my head weren't my own, but someone else's," Buffon is quoted as saying in The Outsider, "as if it were continually elsewhere."
He slipped into a deeper state of depression between 2003 and 2004. He consulted with a psychologist for six months and gradually opened up to teammates and friends. He didn't want to stop playing.
"I just couldn't allow myself to go away for two or three months to get better," Buffon told The Guardian.
If he had left, he said would have been finished.
Being a goalkeeper wasn't even his first choice. He played as a midfielder and striker before he turned 12. Since then, he has felt the desire to play outfield. It's still in him.
"I scored lots of goals, and when a kid gets lots of goals it's the nicest thing in the world," Buffon said to The Telegraph. "Then you grow up, become stupid and become a goalkeeper, right?"
He was slender and tall as a teenager. He was inspired by Cameroon goalkeeper Thomas N'Kono in the 1990 World Cup, and so Buffon's dad pushed him to play as a goalkeeper. Then Parma recruiter Ermes Fulgoni scouted him. Fulgoni told Sports Illustrated that he went home to his wife and told her that he spotted "a lad who is going to be great."
Buffon had no technique but made fantastic saves, and that's because Buffon was never really schooled in the art of goalkeeping. Buffon instead acted on instinct, "on what seemed like the best thing to do in that particular moment," he later told FourFourTwo.
"There was no process; it was reactions."
Here he was, now 13 years old, and he decided to give it at least a year at being a goalkeeper. He went in net during scrimmages with friends. After that, he stayed in net permanently.
Those humble beginnings shaped Buffon. He was always a man of the people. Sure, he would go on to marry a Czech model (since divorced) and appear in commercials. But he would still smoke cigarettes after games and on the beach. He went clubbing with ultras and gave them rides, and he paid to go watch Parma games with the ultras in the stands.
In his first year as a pro, he still rode his 50cc Vespa to the stadium, per The Telegraph. (He was never interested in vehicles; he would later drive a simple Lancia and a small Fiat 500.)
After several years with Parma—where he won the UEFA Cup—he was sold to Juventus for a record £32 million. The price tag never bothered him.
"I'm proud of it. If they hadn't taken me, another would have paid the same figure," he told The Telegraph.
Buffon was confident in his abilities without being arrogant, and he has backed it up. Buffon has been the No. 1 goalkeeper for Italy since 2002. He even went down to Serie B with Juventus when coach Fabio Capello, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta all left. Buffon missed just three Serie B games during that 2006-07 season.
His loyalty is unquestionable, and his performances equally so. Italy missed him dearly in the last World Cup in South Africa, where he played just 39 minutes before leaving with a back injury.
Italy finished last in their group.
In Brazil four years later, Buffon is healthy and ready.
"Both individually and as a squad we're preparing to surprise people," he told reporters, via The Globe and Mail. "I'll keep playing as long as I don't become a reserve. Once the day comes that I get benched, that's when I'll hang my boots up."
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