When Italy take to the field at the Juventus Stadium for their third and final international friendly of the summer against the Netherlands this evening, they will do so once again without iconic goalkeeper Gigi Buffon.
The 40-year-old, who left Juventus last month and is reported to be in negotiations with Paris Saint-Germain, has yet to make his future intentions clear. Though at the time of writing it looks likely he will agree terms with the French champions, the possibility still remains that he could retire altogether. Should he opt to extend his playing career, it might not include internationals. As far as new Azzurri boss Roberto Mancini is concerned, the door remains open for a potential return to the fold.
But if Buffon, as expected, is not intending to resume his Azzurri career, he has made the correct decision to turn down the offer of a swansong appearance against the Dutch in Turin. The legacy he leaves and his status as one of world football’s greatest ever shot-stoppers will never be questioned, but Italy have now begun a new journey under Mancini and should be looking ahead to future challenges in the upcoming UEFA Nations League and Euro 2020 Qualifiers – not back at former glories.
The ideal scenario, of course, would have been Buffon bowing out on the crest of a wave at this summer’s World Cup – with the Azzurri having enjoyed success in Russia and the goalkeeper having become the first ever player to feature at six tournaments. As sporting history tells us, however, fairy-tale endings come few and far between even for its icons.
And so Buffon was unexpectedly deprived of one last tournament in his Azzurri legacy. Sweden’s 1-0 aggregate play-off win last November prompted the 40-year-old to immediately announce the end of his international career – eight months earlier than anyone would have anticipated. Although a great wave of sadness greeted the news and the circumstances in which it came, Buffon’s decision to go was both logical and inevitable.
If at that time it appeared Buffon and the Azzurri had made a clean break, the goalkeeper then reversed his decision and made himself available for March friendlies against Argentina and England, as uncertainty continued over whether or not he would retire altogether at the end of the season. Though part of Buffon’s change of heart came out of a sense of duty, his renewed presence in the squad in many ways mirrored the muddled thinking and prolonged state of limbo the Nazionale were in at the time.
Having been turned down by Carlo Ancelotti, the Azzurri handed the task of presiding over the early spring international double-header to interim boss Luigi Di Biagio. It was obvious the Under-21 Coach had little chance of securing the job full-time, while the extended inquisition into World Cup failure and the ocean of time until Italy’s next competitive fixture combined to ensure there was a limit to how productive the Azzurri could hope to be that week. In low-key circumstances, Buffon won his 176th cap by playing the full 90 minutes against the Argentines.
If it hadn’t already, this lengthy period of reflection and limbo should have ended with Mancini’s appointment as Giampiero Ventura’s permanent successor last month. With a full-time Coach finally in place and the Nations League beginning to come into view on the horizon, the Azzurri have rightly been using the past fortnight as the first step on their road to redemption under the former Inter, Manchester City and Zenit St Petersburg boss.
With this in mind, it is only right that Buffon will not feature against the Oranje this evening. Mancini has already had the opportunity to take a closer look at Gigio Donnarumma and Salvatore Sirigu in the matches with Saudi Arabia and France respectively. With another suitor to Buffon’s crown, Mattia Perin, the Italy Coach will have learned a lot about the goalkeeping tools at his disposal.
The time for sentiment ended with Mancini’s arrival. Now the Azzurri must build for the future – a future that, as things currently stand, does not feature the great Gigi Buffon.