Parma legend Gianluigi Buffon prepares to return with Juventus
Juventus' visit to Parma on Saturday might be a moving experience for Gianluigi Buffon, for it might be the last time he faces former club Parma at the Ennio Tardini.
Now 37, one of the game's all-time great goalkeepers is by no means finished. His intention is to become the first player to represent his country at six World Cups, and you have to admit there'd be a certain poignancy about Buffon finishing his international career in Russia in 2016, given it was the setting of his first Italy cap in 1998. There's also ulterior motivation to carry on velcroing up his gloves in the form of the example set by Dino Zoff, who won the 1982 World Cup as a 40-year-old.
While Buffon has a general idea of what he'll be working towards over the next three years, Parma don't have a clue. Declared bankrupt last month with debts of €218 million, the team has only been able to continue playing after the FIGC and Lega made a €5 million solidarity fund available and Sky Italia, the main broadcaster, paid its latest tranche of TV rights in good faith in order to help pay their expenses.
Yet April 15 looms large. It's another date with destiny for the club as it is then that trustees appointed by a tribunal will have to update it on whether the money raised is enough to ensure Parma can finish the season.
If they do, a further €74 million will still have to be found to allow the Serie A cellar-dwellers to be eligible for a license to play in the second division next season. If they don't, then their remaining matches this season will be forfeited and, upon folding, they would have to start again under a new name at the bottom of the football pyramid in Italy.
Watching all this happen to Parma, the club where he made his legend, has of course resonated deeply with Buffon. "Every day I read more and more surreal stories about Parma in the papers," he wrote in a statement published on his website in February. "For what it's worth I care a lot about expressing my full solidarity with everyone who works at the club."
Buffon joined Parma in the summer of 1991. He was 13 and goalkeeping had only been his thing for a year. Previously he had played in midfield and liked to score goals, not stop them, as he pretended among friends to either be Marco Tardelli or Nicola Berti. Italia `90, however, changed everything. He was captivated by the performances of Cameroon's Thomas N'Kono, after whom he would name one of his sons, and decided to go between the posts instead.
Raised by an athletic family -- father Adriano represented Italy in the shot put, mother Maria Stella held the national discus record for 17 years and sisters Guendalina and Veronica also were champion volleyball players -- it seemed a career in professional sports was Buffon's destiny.
He had offers from Bologna and Milan and his parents visited where he would board in Lodi if he were to choose Rossonero. Instead, though, Buffon instead took the path least travelled.
"I made the strangest, most unorthodox decisions even then," he reflected. "I chose Parma. They were a new club. They had been in Serie A for just over a year." Ermes Fulgoni, the academy's goalkeeping coach, would soon become a mentor. In training he had Buffon save shot after shot, come for cross after cross. Every session was followed by a lesson, a teaching.
At the Under-15 European Championship in Turkey in 1993, Buffon saved two penalties and scored one in a semi-final shootout against Spain. In the final with the Czech Republic, he missed but stopped three and Italy triumphed. His exploits made the front-page of La Gazzetta dello Sport.
After flying home, he caught the train from Rome back to Parma but didn't have a ticket. Asked to explain himself, Buffon said he had just returned from the Euros. "I read about it in the papers," the conductor revealed. "There was an article... It spoke very highly of the goalkeeper. Buffon I think he's called." Quick as a flash, Buffon replied: "That's me." There was no penalty this time and he was allowed to travel for free.
Precocious is the best way of describing the young Buffon. He was of the opinion that if you're good enough, your age shouldn't matter. One day, Fulgoni turned to him and said: "You'll be starting in Serie A by the time you're 20." Most aspiring footballers would be thrilled with the faith shown in them but Buffon shrugged: "What will I do until then?"
Invited to pre-season with the first team in Folgaria in 1994, opportunity knocked while Luca Bucci was on holiday after playing for Italy in the World Cup. The following summer, Buffon toured the United States and Canada but he misbehaved and did everything coach Nevio Scala asked the players not to do. "It's my fault if he ever had to go to a psychiatrist," he recalled. "I was a little undisciplined and above all rebellious."
Specifically told not to eat anything unhealthy while at Niagara Falls, Buffon didn't hesitate to order an ice cream the size of the Statue of Liberty's torch. Staying at a hotel by a golf course, he messed around on a buggy and was fined four times his wages. He was young and didn't wish to miss out on what other kids his age got up to but he had a reckless streak.
He would still follow Carrarese, his hometown club that he now owns, away from home. He was an ultra. He alluded to trying marijuana in his biography "Numero 1". "Never enough to test positive... even though they didn't do anti-doping in the youth championships." He used to nip around without a helmet on a 80cc Vespa and still managed to be late for training either because he slept in or because he was taking the top down on his Fiat Barchetta.
Parma's old guard, especially captain Lorenzo Minotti, didn't know what to make of him and so when Scala announced that Buffon would be starting against Milan on Nov. 19, 1995, there was some trepidation.
Bucci had been injured in a UEFA Cup game, while Parma's No.2 Giovanni Galli had left, upset that he wasn't getting regular playing time even in the domestic cup competitions and Alessandro Nista, his replacement, was unavailable after a long injury lay-off.
"I sensed I would be playing," Buffon admitted. "Or at least I hoped I would even though I couldn't quite believe it. But that week I did some extraordinary things in training. Every day I went out on the pitch more determined, more convinced in my own ability. I didn't make any mistakes."
Even at 17, Buffon was so relaxed that, much to his teammates' consternation, he fell asleep on the 10-minute bus ride from the hotel to the Tardini. Young and fearless, even facing Zvonimir Boban, George Weah and Roberto Baggio wasn't enough to keep Buffon up. Instead he felt ready for the challenge.
"I had a huge desire to make a name for myself as a goalkeeper," he said. "I couldn't wait for the referee to blow his whistle so that I could show my stuff. I couldn't wait for the fans to point me out and say: 'That's Buffon'."
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As the 20th anniversary of the game approaches, Buffon's debut remains one of the most remarkable and spectacular you'll ever see. How he thwarted Baggio time and again was particularly breathtaking. The baptism of fire continued with Juventus and Napoli yet Buffon emerged from the flames without even breaking a sweat.
Upon his return to fitness, though, Bucci got his place back. After getting a taste of first-team action, his rival wanted more and grew embittered on the bench. There were offers from Verona and Genoa, the team his uncle and aunt had convinced Buffon to support as a kid -- a Grifone sticker graced the back window of their car. However, he heeded advice to stay and another chance soon came.
Unfairly scapegoated for Parma's poor start to the 1996-97 season under Carlo Ancelotti, Bucci was sacrificed and Buffon never looked back. The Gialloblu recovered their form and finished runners' up behind Juventus.
Trophies arrived in 1999: the Coppa Italia, UEFA Cup and Italian Super Cup. With the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Juan Veron and Hernan Crespo, it was the best Parma XI of all-time and they had a comic book action hero in goal - Buffon, who flew off his line and across his goal, had taken to wearing a Superman T-shirt under his jersey.
"Between 1998 and 2001 we were fortissimo and won less than we deserved for the efforts made by the club and the players we had on that team," Buffon argued. "If the shirt we were wearing had been Juventus', we would have won everything and opened a cycle. I'm talking about having a winning mentality, something that tradition gives you. If a few of us were two or three years older and had more conviction, today there would be more than a monument in Parma to remember our achievements."
A world record fee for a goalkeeper saw him join Juventus for €45 million in 2001 and it remains money well spent, for Buffon is still one of the game's elite. The explosiveness and power perhaps isn't the same, but experience and his reading of the game more than makes up for that decline.
Buffon hasn't suffered like his great contemporary Iker Casillas has at Real Madrid and remains a difference maker. Captain of Juventus, he has long been considered a club legend and only Alessandro Del Piero and Giampiero Boniperti have made more Serie A appearances for the Old Lady.
However, Parma will forever have a big place in Buffon's heart. It was there that Superman learned to fly and Saturday will be emotional.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.