Gianluigi Buffon's 1000th game just a number for evergreen goalkeeper full of surprises

Charlie Eccleshare
Gianluigi Buffon is a legend of the game - REUTERS

In September 2013, Gianluigi Buffon had just produced a masterful performance for Italy in a 1-0 win over Bulgaria, and was surrounded by eager reporters after the match wanting to know how at the age of 35 he was still pulling off such stunning saves.

Buffon smiled and responded: "I don't know why you are still surprised."

It was a fair point, and four years on we should still not be surprised by anything that Buffon, now in his fortieth year, achieves. On Friday night, he will reach yet another milestone by making his 1000th career appearance in Italy's World Cup qualifier against Albania in Palermo.

In doing so Buffon joins an exclusive club that includes Ryan Giggs, Paolo Maldini, Raul, Javier Zanetti and Peter Shilton, and he says, only half-jokingly, that he hopes to play until he is 65. 

The son of a a discus thrower mother and a weightlifter father, Buffon was endowed with pedigree sporting genes and a will to win that has served him well in a career spanning more than two decades.

As with any player who has stayed at the top for so long, Buffon has had to evolve through a number of different eras. When he made his debut for Parma in 1995, Edwin van der Sar, Peter Schmeichel and David Seaman were among the best goalkeepers in the world.

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The position has changed markedly since then.

The robust physical presence in goal gradually gave way to a more agile prototype, which itself then morphed into the modern-day 'sweeper keeper'. Throughout all of the changes Buffon has remained at the top of the class, and at 39 years old he is as good as he is ever been, routinely breaking records for clean sheets and customarily picking up Serie A titles. 

On his professional debut, he made outstanding saves to deny AC Milan's George Weah and Roberto Baggio, and while the strikers he faces may have changed, Buffon remains an infuriatingly difficult goalkeeper to get the better of. 

In fact, Buffon is stronger now than ever, shaped by the struggles he has faced. In 2000, he was heavily criticised for choosing the squad number 88 while at Parma. The figure is a neo-Nazi symbol (8 and 8 correlating to 'HH' or 'Heil Hitler) and the decision went down particularly badly with Italy's Jewish population. The fact he had previously worn a shirt with the fascist slogan "Boia chi molla" ("Death to cowards") did not help his cause. Buffon swiftly denied having any knowledge of the number's significance, and offered to change to something else. 

The biggest battle of Buffon's life though has been overcoming depression, which he suffered most acutely from between 2003 and 2004. 

Buffon playing for Parma in 1999 

"To the fans it does not matter a damn how you are," he later reflected. "You are seen as the footballer, the idol, so no one thinks to stop and ask you: 'Hey, how are you?'

Seeing a psychologist helped Buffon emerge tougher from the experience, and it provided him with some much-needed perspective when Juventus were relegated to Serie B in light of the 2006 Calciopoli scandal.

Unlike almost all of his team-mates, Buffon resisted big-money offers to leave the club, partly in order to remain close to his home-town of Carrara in Tuscany.

"Maybe I had a different upbringing from other players, maybe a different education, especially from my parents in terms of the way I should behave when it came to my dealings with others," he said in 2008. "I've made a lot of mistakes in my life but I think that's normal for someone who wants to grow and develop. You will have to overcome plenty of obstacles and it is normal that you should stumble sometimes.

"However, if you behave in a certain way at the end, say over 10 or 20 years, you end up doing the right things. As for the rest of the things that go on around football, I feel as if I am a normal sort of person, especially if I let in a goal that in reality I should have saved. Maybe I'm the only footballer who isn't interested in cars. My Lancia Y gets me around."

Buffon

As well as driving a humble car, Buffon has never been afraid to speak his mind on social issues. He has challenged the huge sums of money involved in football, and urged clubs to resist foreign takeovers. "Foreign investors in Serie A? It’s bad for Italy,” he said. “It’s a setback for our football and traditions and mirrors the bad economic situation in our country."

Buffon also invested £15m of his own money two years ago into Zucchi, a prestigious but failing Milanese textile manufacturer, explaining the decision by saying: "I blew €20m, it went up in smoke but I safeguarded the livelihoods of 1,200 families."

It is now 16 years since Buffon joined Juventus, and 20 years since his debut for Italy. In that time he has won the World Cup, seven Serie A titles, three Coppa Italia, and the Uefa Cup. 

On a personal level, he has won the Uefa club goalkeeper of the year and Serie A goalkeeper of the year (11 times), been named in the Uefa team of the year, finished runner-up in the Ballon d'Or award and picked up 168 Italy caps, a national record. 

He also holds the records for most minutes without conceding in Serie A, most matches in a row without conceding, most clean sheets in a season, and most clean sheets of all time

But there is one prize missing from the Italian's CV: the Champions League. “I’ve been asking myself for years what drives me to keep playing,” he says. “If I’d already won the Champions League, I’d be drained. The fact that I’m still to win it pushes me on.”

Even the evergreen Buffon can only have a few more attempts left at winning the competition. But were he to do it, we really should not be surprised. 

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