Gianluigi Buffon tears were agonisingly beautiful, a moment to weep over the loss of an era
Gianluigi Buffon not only represented a player, he was an emblem of an era whose passing will be felt more acutely than Italy’s failure to qualify for a World Cup, writes Desmond Kane.
Even in a moment of such national sporting sorrow, football, the world’s most beautiful and beastly game, has never appeared so weirdly well formed.
In an era when multi-millionaire football players are accused of lacking the passion, heart and soul of yesteryear, Gianluigi’s Buffon’s very public display of weeping and remorse after the World Cup-shattering 0-0 draw with Sweden in Milan was something to behold in all its foreboding state of repentance.
But then, perhaps, it should not be such a surprise because Buffon is from yesteryear, an iconic goalkeeper who will be celebrated as a true totem of a dying breed. The greatest goalkeeper of all time? As a curator of timely saves and success around the globe, most probably.
Amid the advent of social media and dwindling attention spans, and an era of self-serving and self-absorption, it is almost impossible to imagine another Italy player being as widely recognised and appreciated as Buffon in his years with Parma, Juventus and Italy. The Roma forward Francesco Totti would be the natural comparison, but he too has succumbed to time and tide.
While Sweden riotously celebrated their 1-0 aggregate success by wrecking a pitchside Eurosport studio with as much glee as Abba fans hitting the dance floor for Waterloo, Buffon faced his Waterloo, his soul left raw and exposed by the grim reality of the moment. After 175 caps and 20 years representing his country, this was how it would go down for Europe's most capped figure, the end of his dreams snuffed out by a Sweden side who simply played at portraying Italy.
The agony and the ecstasy. Buffon will not depart alone. He is likely to be joined by his Juventus companions Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele de Rossi of Roma amid the national feeling of upset.
Buffon intends to retire from club football at the end of the season. He has amassed a veritable treasure trove: the UEFA Cup win with Nevio Scala's Parma side in 1999, including Lilian Thuram, Dino Baggio and Hernan Crespo, saw him become the world's most expensive goalkeeper when he moved to Juventus for £32.6m in 2001.
Since setting out with Parma in 1991, he has wrung every bit and more out of his career in superseding the 1982 World Cup winner Dino Zoff as Italy's finest keeper, but sometimes excellence is not enough: Buffon was left on national television, his thoughts utterly dismembered as he tried to explain how it had come to this.
Gianluigi Buffon of Parma.Eurosport
“I am sorry for Italian kids who dream of the national team," said Buffon.
A figure who had been part of folklore by lifting the Azzurri’s fourth World Cup in 2006 was suddenly among a squad that had failed to take their customary place at a tournament, the magic of which they had been pivotal in creating.
In some sort of weird symmetry, Italy last missed a World Cup in 1958 in Sweden, when the host nation were doused 5-2 by Pele and Brazil in Stockholm.
Football giveth, and football taketh away. Yet there was something agonisingly beautiful about the way Buffon bowed out. Would it have been better to sign off at the World Cup finals in Russia next summer? Absolutely. But rather than some Russian outpost such as Volgograd, here he got the chance to say goodbye to his people at home, before 80,000 at the San Siro, one of the sport’s greatest cathedrals. Even if it did feel like invading private grief.
Buffon at the 2006 World CupAllsport
The much-maligned Italy national coach Giampiero Ventura had urged the San Siro “to take us by the hand” as the four-time champions attempted to avoid failing to qualify for the first time in 60 years, a time when Sir Edmund Hillary reached the south pole. It is a long way down after navigating such lofty peaks.
In the end, it was Buffon who needed an arm around his shoulder.
"I am not sorry for myself but for all of Italian football," said Buffon. "We failed at something which is also something on a social level. I am very sad that my last match will coincide with us not qualifying for the World Cup."
He deserved better than this even if Italy didn’t. Or maybe he didn't. Perhaps his watery grave was peculiarly poignant. Hs tears were not in vain. In his weeping cameo appearance, Buffon reminded us that the key to his longevity is hard work, perseverance and a genuine passion for his calling in life. He was a professional who cared about his people. His earnings are a by-product of his ability and dedication.
As he mourned Italy’s loss, so too should we mourn his departure from the world game. Buffon not only represented a player, he was an emblem of an era whose absence will be hankered for long after Italy have sat out the finals.
This article was published after Italy lost to Sweden in their World Cup play-off match in November