Gianluigi Buffon will go down as one of the greatest ever goalkeepers, but that doesn’t mean he’s been imperious throughout his career, writes Gaby McKay.
“Even Superman is sometimes ‘only’ Clark Kent,” a banner behind his goal read. “Gigi, always our superhero”.
It came after a rare, high profile mistake. Gianluigi Buffon had rashly come off his line in a match against Spain, only to produce a fresh air kick and leave Vitolo the simple task of rolling into an empty net. The goalkeeper was back on Serie A duty, and the Juventus fans had a message for him.
The message was clear: no-one, not even the great Buffon, is infallible. And indeed the man himself would be the last person to claim such a status, given his career has been as much about overcoming adversity as it has about excellence.
It’s easy to forget now, but Buffon struggled in his first few months at Juventus after his world record move from Parma. Still only 23, the Carrara native made a series of uncharacteristic mistakes in his first months in Turin, leading some to question the fee the Bianconeri had shelled out for him.
Those early jitters settled down though, and he won the Scudetto in each of his first two seasons in Turin, as well as reaching the Champions League Final in 2003. Juve lost on penalties, but Buffon couldn’t be blamed after a stunning first-half save from Pippo Inzaghi, and three spot-kicks saved in the shoot-out.
Seven years after that defeat, there were even rumours Buffon’s career as a top-level goalkeeper was over. Since 2008 he’d been suffering with a series of injuries, and Italians groaned in despair when he had to be substituted at half-time in the Azzurri’s first game of the 2010 World Cup.
Italy went out at the Group Stage, with Buffon failing to make another appearance after the back injury. In the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons he failed to crack 30 Serie A appearances, and in the campaign following the World Cup he managed just 16.
We now know, of course, that this wasn’t the curtain call for Superman, and he defied the odds to get back to his very best.
Off the pitch too Buffon hasn’t always kept as clean a sheet as he does on it. Ahead of the 2006 World Cup the goalkeeper was accused of betting on football matches, something which is illegal for players in Italy.
Then 28, Gigi was suspected of betting on five Juventus matches between 2004 and 2005, along with Antonio Chimenti, Enzo Maresca and Mark Iuliano.
Buffon voluntarily spoke to prosecutors, where he admitted to having placed bets but insisted he had bet only on foreign matches, and stopped when the FIGC made it illegal in 2005.
"I bet on foreign football and other sports because it wasn't possible to do it in Italy," Buffon told magistrates at the time.
"When it was no longer allowed for us players to do that, I stopped betting immediately. It was December 2005. I never bet on Juventus or on other teams in the Italian league."
In December 2006, prosecutor Stefano Palazzi dropped all charges against the Italy goalkeeper.
More seriously, his time at Parma featured accusations of fascist sympathies. In September 1999, the goalkeeper wore a shirt emblazoned with the words 'boia chi molla', which had been used by Italian fascists.
Then aged just 21, Buffon apologised unreservedly. The phrase, which loosely translated means 'death to those who give up' - though in fascist terms it’s more 'death to traitors' - was meant in a purely sporting sense, he insisted, a reminder to himself not to give up. Having been unaware of the connotations, the future Italy captain held his hands up.
“When I wore that shirt I was stupid. I didn’t know it was a phrase used by the fascist regime.”
Certainly he hasn’t shown any fascist sympathies since, and indeed Buffon spoke powerfully about the holocaust after Lazio fans left Anne Frank stickers in Roma’s Curva Sud earlier this season.
Admitting a mistake on the pitch, or a naive error off it, is one thing but the goalkeeper has also spoken candidly about a subject which is largely taboo in professional sport.
From 2003 to 2004, while his performances on the pitch were as impressive as ever, Buffon was fighting his own private battle with depression.
“I wasn't satisfied with my life and football. My legs would start shaking all of a sudden,” Buffon told FIFA’s website in 2008.
“It was a dark period because I am a sunny and optimistic person. I was thinking, 'how can rich and normal people suffer from depression?’
“They are terrible moments. You completely lose your sense of self, and nothing is rational. The fact is that when you suffer from depression, you don't have to be afraid to ask for help and to speak with those who are close to you.” Depression is widely misunderstood even outside of football, so for a leading player in such a macho environment to speak honestly about his struggles was as brave as it was rare.
Really it’s his shortcomings as much as his heroics which make Buffon the legend he is. It’s the saves and the trophies he’ll be remembered for, but it’s the human side which forges his emotional connection to fans all over the world.
Who can relate to Superman? Give me Clark Kent any day.