Buffon's Champions League fairy tale eludes him in heartbreaking fashion
CARDIFF, Wales -- Gianluigi Buffon knew it was over.
Cristiano Ronaldo had just scored his second goal of the Champions League final, a lethal short-range finish in the 64th minute. That made it 3-1 for Real Madrid over Juventus, on their way to an easy 4-1 win. Even Buffon, one of those rare men who can talk himself into greatness, had to accept that one trophy would remain out of his reach.
For the third time, he would lose the last club game of the year.
Buffon stood near the top of his box, alone, with his hands on his hips. He was almost alarmingly still. He watched Keylor Navas, his lesser, his better, celebrate in the opposite goal. He stared down the length of the field for a long time.
Play restarted, Buffon rooted to his lonely spot. He leaned over and put his hands on his knees. Then they came back to his hips. Then he put his gloves to his face, and he began to bargain his way into the first stages of the peace that he will have to make with himself.
"It's a big disappointment, because we thought that we'd done everything necessary to play this final and finally win it," Buffon said after he'd watched Real celebrate for a little while. "Naturally there are a few regrets."
Sentiment had been on his side. He's 39 years old, and he isn't just nearing his football end. Now he's rocketing toward it. It was odd, in a way, how a man who had lived out so many of his dreams remained the object of wishes from strangers. His career is close to flawless. He has won nearly everything he could have won. But a victory in Cardiff would have completed it. He knew that as well as any observer.
"This game is very important to me," he'd said the day before. "I've been playing for Juventus for many, many years. I got more than I gave. But at the end of the day, winning would be the perfect finale."
He paused, just for a moment.
"People like fairy tales," he said, and then he took his leave from the room.
If there is an easy lesson in Buffon's defeat, it's that fairy tales don't always come true. If there's a harder one, it's that whether they come true isn't always up to us.
His first half was almost inconsequential. His first touch of the ball, a goal kick, didn't come until the 11th minute. His next three touches were with his feet, too. He didn't have a chance on the only shot he faced, Ronaldo's perfect opening finish in the 20th minute. He still hadn't touched the ball with his hands.
Buffon didn't until the 24th minute, when he picked up a slow roller and threw it down the field. In the next 17 minutes, Mario Mandzukic scored his wonder goal, a beautifully weighted overhead volley that eluded Navas, and there was a growing sense of frenzy elsewhere on the pitch. But Buffon didn't get near the action. Giorgio Chiellini finally passed the ball back to him almost out of pity.
His second half was more eventful than the first, but he still didn't touch the ball with his hands very much. He made one save. Otherwise, shot after shot blurred past him.
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The second goal he allowed was a bad one. Casemiro took a stab from more than 30 yards out. There was a deflection, and Buffon was flat-footed, slow to react. The ball dropped between his outstretched hand and the post.
Ronaldo scored his second three minutes later. Marco Asensio buried a fourth Real goal near the final whistle, but it didn't change the result except to make it more humiliating. Buffon was already deep in his tragic repose by then.
Even legends can be made spectators to their own fates.
The afternoon before, after Buffon had spoken of fairy tales, Juventus took the field for their final training session. Buffon and his backups, Neto and Emil Audero, worked out together. The reserves did twice the work of their master. When Buffon did take part in the drills, Claudio Filippi, his goalkeeping coach, took a little off the ball.
Toward the end of the session, the keepers were joined by the outfield players, who lined up to take shots. Neto stood in one goal. Audero took his place in the other.
Then Buffon did the most haunting thing. He stood behind Neto's goal, on the wrong side of the net, planted directly behind the next man in line. Every time Neto moved to stop a shot, Buffon moved a little with him. Then he moved a little less. Then he moved not at all.
Maybe his fate wouldn't prove up to him, but it seemed in that moment that he knew what it would be. It was almost as though he were practicing for life as a memory.
There was the great Gianluigi Buffon, already part shadow, already part ghost.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.