The first time I noticed him, he’d sparkled before the losing lottery of penalties, wearing a pink half-sleeved jersey for Juventus against AC Milan in the Champions League final of 2003. I’m no football nut — I get my kicks from rugby. But it was the first football game I ever watched in the company of J-school classmates, and I reverentially accepted — like children learn their prayers without knowing what the chants mean — that Maldini was the game’s presiding deity. Though, I was thoroughly distracted by the knight in the untucked, matte pink armour. Dark-ish Indian-ish hair in a sea of Europeans too, for sake of a hugely delusional kinship.
Those nine months of learning journalism tend to fuse friendships and loyalties for life, because you’re all thrown into a boiling cauldron. So, through the pre-match chatter where two Italian giants were to face off for European honours, we in our very early and very impressionable 20s, emerged with a shared devotion for Juve’s Pavel Nedved who wasn’t even playing that final with accumulated yellows.
I learnt to grieve the absent, even before I knew what the Frodo-haired Czech looked like. And then there was Gianluigi Buffon. It was the first of haunted faces I would see. Not Buffon’s. But Inzaghi’s — whose hands held his head and eyes refused to blink when his powerful header was punched up and Milan denied as Gigi dove left full stretch, even when he seemed to be leaning right. Inzaghi’s look of disbelief was what I’d watch football for subsequently.
The penalties which Milan won 3-2 scarred me so much that when Gigi did his pursed lips — talking to himself frenzied thing for Italy, who went to shootout against France at the World Cup three years later, I refused to watch the endgame till I was told he would not be lynched since he’d won at Berlin. Often, the mightiest of warriors have the wimpiest of followers, and like a complete chicken unfit to watch football’s deciders, but who roar loudest once it’s all done, I perfectly fit in.
My favourite among the haunted faces left by a Buffon save though is an AS Bari teammate of Gionatha Spinesi who was thrice thwarted — the first header patted back into play, then a foot-to-hand contact skirmish where a sliding Buffon pushed away, and then got quickly back on his feet to safely clutch the third shot. This teammate would be seen in old clips sprawled on the ground thumping his fist on the ground and bawling away his frustration into the earth over the shot-stopper’s flying act.
Gigi has twice denied Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane in his playing days — most famously the point-blank header at the Word Cup which ended in the familiar hand-clutching-head response of the Frenchman who walked towards goal mumbling, but also in a 2003 Champions League face-off where the Italian would tap the curling free kick out, cutting angles that the cameras never could see. Buffon reminded me of my childhood mythological hero Ghatotkach who in a very poor TV production was shown swallowing cannon balls hurled at him.
Gigi of course didn’t gobble Teamgeist, he merely used the gloved hands to take the sting out of the racing shot — knowing instinctively his weapon of choice: the flicking fingertips or patting whole digits or stomping palm or a balled wrist or flinging his whole body on the line, sticking a leg out. At 39 years 126 days, Gigi Buffon has stuck his neck out to stake claim on a trophy — which, should he win, will make him the oldest winner of the UEFA Champions League. Unlike that first final in 2003, I know the principal antagonists I ought to hex on Saturday evening at Cardiff — Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos. Mentions of those other defensive knights — Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini — roll easy off the tongue now, and I’ve trained the mind to dislodge Zidane from the divine pedestal when he plays Gigi’s team.
For, what’s not to like about Gigi, who says he must be the only one of his footballing breed not interested in cars, since his quirky city-model, a Lancia Y, gets him around? Or who believed it was an easy choice to take a demotion with his club (punished for a match-fixing scandal), since Juventus had helped him become a world champion and he owed them a huge debt. ‘If Juve had to go down to (Serie) B then I had to go with them.’ Or who after he’s left opponents holding their heads over 90 minutes, will go kiss every forehead on the field: the disarming charm after the gallant save. I’ll leave the rhapsodizing over strikers to better writers and football fanatics, but defense is what I dig — fielders in cricket, Spurs in basketball, Italy in football.
Numbers do no justice to regal defenses or to the last man standing Buffon — him the master of concentration. Buffon is what you fantasise nation’s militaries should be: assured and unconquerable seeing the whole game in front of them, not likely to be provoked, never given to crossing lines, unfazed for all of the 90 minutes, never running out of patience. It’s not just a minute’s blitz where a striker with a hit, justifies his existence.