With another landmark just around the corner, Giancarlo Rinaldi pays tribute to the goalkeeping and Italian football institution that is Gianluigi Buffon.
With his eyes closed in concentration, he belts out the words with the same passion he did as a boy. An arm around a teammate, he prepares himself to go into sporting battle once again. Since Rino Gattuso retired, nobody gives their all to L’Inno di Mameli quite like Gigi Buffon.
On Tuesday night, with all probability, he will match the record of another pillar of La Nazionale, Fabio Cannavaro. And, as he moved towards that 136th cap, his powers showed no signs of fading. Once again, Superman saved the day with a couple of breath-taking stops in the vital victory over Bulgaria on Friday night. “You thought I was dead,” his steely gaze seemed to say. “Well, think again.”
This love-affair with the blue of his country started two decades ago. As a 15-year-old he was part of an Italy youth set-up which also featured a certain Francesco Totti at the European Under-16 Championships in Turkey. From that day on he has gone on to play for the national team at every age level with honour and outstanding ability.
I have written before about comparisons between Buffon and another Italian legend, Dino Zoff . It speaks volumes about the qualities of the ‘keeper from Carrara that his only credible competitor for the title of greatest Azzurri No 1 of the modern era is of such a standard. I count myself fortunate to have seen two such stars in action between the posts for Italy.
The thing about Gigi is that he has been an integral part of our story for what seems like a lifetime since making his full international debut in October 1997. In the snows of Moscow, he looked like getting off to a winning start thanks to a Bobo Vieri goal. In an ironic twist of fate, it was Cannavaro, the man whose record he will almost certainly surpass, who knocked an own goal past him to deny him an opening victory.
Since then, he has been through almost every joy and heartache with us. From the embarrassment and anger of defeat by South Korea in 2002 to the ecstasy of lifting the World Cup in Germany four years later and every emotion in between, Buffon has been our constant companion. Like some indomitable ship’s captain standing on the deck during the most terrifying storm, he has transmitted calm and confidence in the most trying of conditions. As long as we have Gigi, you think, we are going to be OK.
It is not just about the saves, although there have been plenty of those over the years. What feels most admirable is his attitude to playing for his country. Most of us can only dream about representing the Azzurri and soon Buffon will have done it more often than anyone else in history. And yet you get the impression that it means as much to him now as it did when he was a teenager in Istanbul back in 1993.
Some of our sporting superstars seem to take international football for granted or, it appears, consider it something of an inconvenience. The slightest niggling knock or fear of getting injured for a forthcoming club fixture and they are more than happy to drop out of a squad or leave the field of play. With Buffon, however, it is quite the contrary. You would have to knock him out with a tranquilliser dart in order to get him to leave the Azzurri without a fuss.
It is that level of commitment which makes him like a lightning conductor for the emotions of us mere supporters. He seems to know how much La Nazionale means to Italians around the world and channels that power into his performances. When he makes a save, we make a save and when we punch the air to celebrate success, he does exactly the same. He might have more ability than most of us could dream of, but that does not make him feel distant. And his post-match comments carry a kind of dry, self-deprecating humour of which Zoff himself would have been proud.
Such has been the searing standard of his displays that he has made most of his understudies and would-be replacements over the years wilt and wither away. No doubt, he will have to put away the gloves some time in the not-too-distant future and we will all start to appreciate the significance of what we have lost. But, in the meantime, as he hammers out the national anthem against the Czech Republic, we should all say a heartfelt “Grazie” for the 136th time.