writes Dónal Óg Cusack.


Gianluigi Buffon - My merciless and bold No 1

Tonight’s Champions League final is a stage for extravagant attacking talents — but for this netminder, the real storyline is between the posts for the Old Lady of Turin, writes Dónal Óg Cusack.

Gianluigi Buffon - My merciless and bold No 1

When the Nazis built the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, they created a special seating area for their top party officials and for Hitler. Many years later, with the stadium in decline the local athletics organisers used to amuse themselves by ushering Primo Nebiolo, then the head of world athletics, into Hitler’s old seat on Grand Prix nights.

They used to say the same sort of things about Nebiolo then as they do now about Blatter.

It’s hard to know if Sepp Blatter will be looking for a bunker or a good seat in Berlin tonight but there are so many good storylines in this Champions League final that one of the best may get overlooked.

People will watch Xavi’s farewell with a tear in the eye. Just about everybody will hope the Messi-Suarez- Neymar trident comes up with a moment of wonder so we can say that we were there.

Myself, I’ll be watching Gianluigi Buffon come back to the stadium where he had his finest moment. I’ll be hoping he keeps yet another clean sheet in that calm and confident manner of his. I’ll be watching how he warms up. I’ll be watching how everything he does tells you how confident he is in his ability.

Last year’s final was another painful chapter in the slow disintegration of the great Iker Casillas. The Spaniard finished up as a winner, though. Tonight Buffon might come away again without the one honour he has missed out on but still he is likely to keep on playing for another three years until he is past 40.

As he says himself, it seems a waste to walk away when you are playing so well. (Coincidentally Buffon gives a lot of the credit for his early development as a keeper to the great Italian goalkeeping coach Villiam Vecchi, who worked with him at Parma for three seasons as Carlo Ancelotti’s goalkeeping coach. Vecchi has just left Real Madrid, along with Ancellotti, having spent the last few seasons working on Casillas at the other end of his career. Vecchi could tell a few interesting stories).

At his peak, Casillas might have had the edge on Buffon when it came to being the greatest active keeper in the world but Buffon’s longevity and ability to maintain an amazing level of excellence pushes the Italian a notch higher in the all-time great keepers list. Both men are in anybody’s top five of all time — the only argument is where.

Tonight is a strange one if you enjoy watching goalkeepers. At the other end keeping goal for Barcelona will be the German Marc-Andre ter Stegen who doesn’t feature in Barca’s domestic league business. Claudio Brava has that job. I don’t know what Buffon thinks of that arrangement but I can’t imagine Juventus, who have always prided themselves on having great goalkeepers and great leaders in the number one jersey, ever buying into it.

Rotating goalkeepers seems like a refutation of everything Buffon stands for. He is brilliant in a conventional way and as he has grown older, his game management has become better and better, and he has used an incredible positional sense to compensate for the natural decline in his reflexes.

That decline has been made worse by back problems he has since suffering a slipped disc a few years ago, but overall, the standards haven’t dipped. The point is that Juventus have come back to life winning four Serie A titles on the trot by keeping Buffon and Pirlo as the wise cornerposts of the team.

Like Pirlo, Buffon is the perfect example of a player who has used his intelligence more and more when the other components start to go. His intelligence, his confidence and his authority won’t wear away with age. Many people have commented that tonight, Barcelona’s forward line will face one of the meanest and best organised defences in Europe. One of the main reasons for that level of organisation is Buffon. The reported injury to Chiellini makes Buffon even more critical to Juve.

Tonight for 90 minutes, he will bully and cajole and encourage the men just in front of him. And they will jump when he tells them to jump. It’s part of the aura. I don’t see that working with the rotating goalkeeper idea. You want a guy who has seen it all and who can still do it all.

I watched Buffon on the night three years ago when England lost to Italy in the penalty shoot-out at the quarter-final stage of the European championships. England losing a penalty shootout was a good bet anyway but when you saw Buffon as Italian captain go into speak to the match officials and the England captain Steven Gerrard before the shoot-out, you would have bet your house on Italy. Gerrard was pale and tense.

Buffon rubbed Gerrard’s head, cuffed him on the cheek, and had huge grins for everybody. Some people would call that behaviour smart or even sledging. Only Buffon knows if it comes with age or part of his character anyway. You couldn’t hear what he was saying but his body language told you enough. For me, it told that he was thrilled to be involved in this. It told me that he owned this.

When it came to the kicks, Joe Hart mugged and gurned like a schoolboy as the Italian kickers approached. Buffon stood tall. He watched great penalties from Gerrard and Rooney go past him without seeming to even notice. By the time Ashley Young hit the bar with England’s third penalty, you knew the game was up. Ashley Cole hit England’s fourth softly into Buffon’s midriff as if he could see nothing else in front of him but the great goalie. Buffon had controlled the entire piece of theatre from beginning to end. Typical.

He will be the least nervous player on the pitch this evening. Messi, Neymar and Suarez won’t intimidate him anymore than the trio he faced on his Serie A debut for Parma when he was just 17 years old. He held Weah, Baggio, Simone and Savicevic scoreless that day and won the man of the match award. (the highlights are still worth a look: https://youtu.be/mmUFxYwWWlQ).

Afterwards he was told that he had the ability to be a Serie A regular at the age of 20. His response was to ask what he was supposed to do until then. By then, he had been goalkeeping for about five years, infatuated with the position while watching Thomas N’Kono play for Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup (Buffon has named a son after the great Cameroon keeper).

As it turned out, he didn’t have to worry about filling in the years until he was 20. He made his debut for Italy at 19 coming in to play in a World Cup qualifying play off against Russia on a freezing night in Moscow. Vecchi had taught him to be “merciless and bold.” He replaced the injured Gianluca Pagliuca and his first act was a brilliant save. Italy got the draw they needed to bring home to the second leg in Napoli and Buffon got another man of the match award.

Since, he has won six Serie A titles with Juve and another which was taken away again during the Italian soccer scandal of 2006. Buffon won the World Cup with Italy that same summer conceding only two goals (an own goal v USA and Zidane’s penalty in the final) and going 460 minutes unbeaten. His influence and talent were at their best in extra-time of that World Cup final when he made an astonishing save from a Zidane header.

Within weeks, his beloved Juventus had the previous years Serie A scratched and got relegated to Serie B. Buffon had the pick of his suitors but stuck with the Bianconeri. He has had the same agent Gilvana Martina (a former keeper) since he was 16. You don’t imagine that the agent puts Buffon under much pressure.

Six Serie A titles and just three caps short of his declared target of 150 caps for Italy is not bad work for a man who has suffered several injuries. He also underwent a bout of severe depression back in 2003/2004 at a time when many would have said he was playing at his peak. He has told how the darkness got so bad that for a while he could scarcely bear to get out of his car to begin training most mornings — he sought help and found a way out of the darkness.

In fact 2003 should have been his year. Juventus won the Scudetto but lost the Champions League final at Old Trafford in a penalty shoot-out to AC Milan.

Tonight he has an air about him of a man returning to finish off a job.

Buffon’s long career is full of these little circles which he dissects in a straight line. This summer, Manchester United are probably going to lose David de Gea to Real Madrid to replace Casillas. United have forgotten the benefits of having long-standing goalkeepers between the sticks. Schmeichel lasted most of the 90s and wasn’t replaced until the club went after Edwin Van der Sar, who has the distinction of being the first foreign goalie ever to play for Juventus.

He was pushed out of Turin by the arrival of Buffon in 2001 but went on to be a stabilising influence at Old Trafford. Back then though Juve spent £32.6m of the money they had received for selling Zinedine Zidane to Real Madrid on a keeper. How many Serie A points has Buffon won them since then? Meanwhile Zidane’s son Luca won the European U17 Championship with France last month. He is a goalie and saved three penalties in a shoot-out at the semi-final stage.

If Madrid sign de Gea for the long haul, what chance has Luca Zidane of ever playing for Real? After he made that Serie A debut at 17, Buffon said he felt he “belonged there”. As much as anybody on the field in Berlin tonight, he belongs there. And he’s not done yet.

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