In the 2011 indie film “Win Win,” a nebbish wrestling coach played by Paul Giamatti asks his star athlete what it’s like to be so good. “I guess it just feels like I’m in control,” he answers. Giamatti nods and wistfully says, “That must be nice.”
Can a goalkeeper, even the best, ever be in complete control? It’s a largely reactive position, full of dark unknowns, the threat of cruel deflections and unpredictable bobbles ever-present. We are sometimes reduced to the role of spectator, marginalized by our own team’s successes. We are occasionally left exposed and unprotected, made to pay for the mistakes of others. Our own mistakes, rare though they may be, are always noted and never forgotten.
We most certainly can be in control, however. Whatever your level, you know the feeling of playing a blinder. There are days we simply cannot be beat, when we surprise even ourselves, when our feet are light and we have the reflexes of a jungle cat. Sometimes in the midst of such crackling form, we even have luck on our side, too. That’s when you know something special is happening.
And even then, I can’t imagine how great it must feel to be Gianluigi Buffon.
Everyone has their favourites, and I make no secret of the fact that Gigi Buffon is mine. Technically, there isn’t much separating goalkeepers at the very top of the profession. Buffon’s reflexes, handling, strength, and reading of the game are all of the highest order, but then you could say that about two dozen or more keepers today, and I frequently find myself awestruck by a piece of work from Joe Hart or Samir Handanovic or Hugo Lloris (or Neuer, Adler, De Gea, etc etc). But there’s an added element with a keeper like Buffon, a presence and standing among his fellow professionals that his younger counterparts have yet to earn, no matter how accomplished and confident they may be. This comes from lifting trophies in front of the entire world, of course, as well as brilliant individual play, and it is something Buffon shares at present with only Iker Casillas.
Going back to that idea of “control”: how nice it must be to stand in the tunnel, lined up next to your opponents, knowing not a one of them could reasonably doubt your ability or question your nerve, knowing all of them have, at some point, sat at home and watched you play on TV. It’s like being a goal up before kickoff.
Earlier I said goalkeeping is “largely” reactive. What I mean is that we can’t always decide when we’re going to be involved in the run of play. We may want to come for every cross, but not every cross is a keeper’s ball. Sometimes we need patience. But the best keepers make the position proactive when it matters: goal scoring opportunities. The best keepers stand up big, make themselves a target, don’t sell themselves too early but may appear to do so, baiting the attacker into shooting where the keeper wants him to shoot. I like to call this ‘Controlling the Narrative.’ It means playing your part in controlling what happens in a game, rather than being a passive part of the audience, or worse – a victim. Buffon has been doing it masterfully since he was seventeen years old.
Did you know that last piece of information, by the way? I didn’t. I knew he’d made his debut for Parma sometime in the nineties, but I hadn’t known he was only seventeen, hadn’t known that he debuted against AC Milan in their grandest pomp, hadn’t known that he’d kept a clean sheet. But it didn’t surprise me, and I’d wager it doesn’t surprise you, either. At thirty-four, he’s hardly on his last legs, but unlike his contemporary Iker Casillas, who debuted as a teenager and can still look and act like one, Buffon has always been something of a grumpy old man. Before FIFA tightened kit regulations, he sometimes looked like a vagrant who’d wandered onto the pitch and taken residence in an empty goal. In a Euro 2008 qualifier against Scotland played in an apocalyptic downpour, he wore a huge, bright blue waterproof jacket underneath his short-sleeve green goalkeeper top, and capped it off with some kind of wrapping that encased his head in blue fabric with a hole on top, from which his hair stuck out crazily. With his long blue sleeves ballooning from beneath his green top, and a sprout of hair waving above his head, he looked like anything but an elite athlete. But all he did is make a series of confident saves as Italy booked their passage to the finals with a 2-1 win.
Gigi is not perfect, of course. He was powerless to prevent a rampant Spain from overwhelming Italy in the Euro 2012 Final by a 4-0 scoreline, but was still the outstanding goalkeeper at the tournament. He hasn’t really kept up with the modern trend of dynamic, attacking distribution, generally preferring to roll the ball to a defender, but in all other aspects, he’s a goalkeeping machine. He was blessed with an unusual physique, the enormous wingspan and lean limbs of Edwin Van der Sar or Peter Cech, but with much broader shoulders and a stronger upper body, making him a beast in aerial challenges and one-on-one duels. But there have been many goalkeepers with similar physiques and skills who haven’t had anything like the impact on the game Buffon has. And there’s a very good reason for that: force of will.
I believe that a fiercely competitive spirit is a goalkeeper’s greatest attribute, and there is no greater warrior in the modern game than Gianluigi Buffon. He does not play to the crowds or draw attention to himself with silly faces at penalties; he simply focuses all efforts on keeping the ball out of the back of the net. Watch him as he stalks his six-yard-box, eyes wide, hair sprouting like water in a Roman fountain, directing his defenders who trust him implicitly. You can almost feel the competitiveness flowing from him. There are goalkeepers who aren’t too bothered when they concede, as long as the goal is not their fault. Goals, after all, are part of football. I have been guilty of thinking this way on occasion. I suspect Buffon never has.
“I have the idea that although a man’s life is compounded of thousands and thousands of moments and days, those many instants and days can be reduced to a single one,” Buffon said in a 2005 interview with Mariana Castillo Deball. “So my single image in the media is precisely about the moments when I try to stop the ball. They are all stills of instantaneous decisions. At the end of the day, it’s a collection of images where I always appear in midair—flying. I like it that the entire record of my life is of it occurring in the air.”
I like it too.