When Gianluigi Buffon made his professional debut for Parma in November 1995, most of his new teammates weren’t even born. If I’d wanted to check that fact on the internet back then, I couldn’t Google it: I’d need to use a search engine like WebCrawler (it’s still around, in case you want to go old school) on a browser like Mosaic and hope that someone had uploaded the birth dates of players somewhere on the nascent worldwide web since, obviously, football clubs didn’t have websites. (Their first form of technology was end-of-season DVDs.)
Five-and-a-half years later, after making his debut for Italy and establishing himself as one of the best keepers in the world, he moved to Juventus in 2001 for around €54.5 million. It wasn’t just a world record for a goalkeeper, either; it’s a record that would stand for 17 years, until Alisson (€62.5m) and Kepa Arrizabalaga (€80m) moved to Liverpool and Chelsea, respectively.
Two decades — and 11 league titles, five domestic cups and a World Cup — later, Buffon is back where it all started. It’s not surprising, then, that Parma chose to go the superhero route, opting for the #SupermanReturns hashtag in his “welcome back” video.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” he tells ESPN. “The idea that an athlete can return to the same after 20 years, in the same role as before… wow… I don’t know how many athletes in any sport have had that privilege. It’s something I wanted badly…”
Buffon is now 43 years old. He backed up Wojciech Szczesny at Juventus the past two seasons, but still managed to start 29 matches over that span — enough of a sample size to know that he can still contribute on the pitch. “Age is just a number” is also just a cliche, of course, though you look at the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (39) and Cristiano Ronaldo (36) and wonder if there isn’t some truth in it. Sure, goalkeepers have more longevity, but Buffon has gone way past that.
The hunger is there, as well as the fitness. You wonder how long it will continue.
“I hope for [Cristiano’s] sake that I quit first,” he says, laughing. “And I do have an idea in my mind of when that time may be… but I also reserve the right to bring that day forward or postpone it!”
Buffon has been asked about his longevity for many years, offering the stock answers you might expect. Professionalism, taking care of his body, luck in avoiding major injuries, enthusiasm, good genes, desire — all of these things are likely true for elite athletes who perform beyond their years. But Buffon goes beyond that, citing examples of how you can use age to actually improve.
“Honestly, there are many aspects in which you can better as time passes,” he says. “I learned this lesson when I was maybe 36 or 37. I began to realize that if you’re serious about it, you do things the right way and you’re in the right mental frame, you’ll never stop learning and bettering yourself.
“I’m being perfectly honest that when I compare myself now to what I was before, I’ve improved in a number of areas, where maybe before I was weaker. Obviously, I will have declined in others — that’s normal — but overall, when I look at myself objectively, I don’t feel that I’m worse than I was six or seven years ago.”
Everybody knows what age does to us. At a certain point, you lose muscle mass, strength, agility, your recovery time gets longer: all these things come along together. But that is only part of being a goalkeeper. Buffon cites experience, mental strength and the ability to read a game, all of which makes sense. But there are others, too.
“I’ll give you a very obvious example,” he says. “I’ve always had a pretty good right foot when it came to passing. [Buffon was a midfielder until he was 14 years old.] The game has obviously evolved in the past 25 years and keepers are asked to do much more with their feet than before. I was fine with that, because I was very confident on my right. My left was OK, but I’d really only use it to clear the ball or to hit a short pass — never to actually pass it long or accurately.”
“But then I started really started working on it in my mid-30s, and I really improved,” he adds. “I never thought I’d get to the point where my kicking is almost equal with either foot, but that’s where I am. I genuinely believe that through repetition, serious training and muscle memory, all with the right mindset, almost nothing is impossible for a human being.”
Back to Parma. When he left in 2001, they were coming off a golden era: nine straight top-five finishes, two wins in the Coppa Italia, a UEFA Cup and a Cup Winners’ Cup. They were blessed with superstars, from Lilian Thuram to Gianfranco Zola, from Hernan Crespo to Fabio Cannavaro, from Claudio Taffarel to Tino Asprilla. The 15 or so years after that would see the club go bankrupt, two owners face prison time in separate cases and Parma be reformed in the amateur ranks.
A year ago, they were bought by Iowa businessman Kyle Krause and after being relegated, Buffon will start over in Serie B.
“I was cheering for them to stay up all of last season — I’m a Parma fan, after all. I joined at 13 and stayed for 10 years,” Buffon says. “Parma launched my career. They helped me become what I am, and now maybe it’s my turn to help them go back to being great. Like they have been before, and like how they deserve to be. But I want to be clear. I didn’t choose Serie B: I chose Parma.”
To him, the only thing that is different is that the climb back up the ladder begins in Serie B, rather than near the bottom of Serie A. But he knows where he wants to take them.
“Sometimes you get lucky, and this club is very lucky to have been taken over by a guy like Krause,” Buffon says. And then, unexpectedly, he pulls out a stat. “He’s ambitious and he has every reason to be. When you talk about Parma, you’re talking about the fourth-most successful Italian club in Europe, in terms of trophies. Overall, we’re 16th. We need to respect and honour that history.”
As for when he may call it quits, there’s no “use by” date on his sleeve. Few athletes, in any sport, are as introspective and as open as Buffon. A few years ago, he detailed his bouts with depression in his early 20s, how they rocked his belief that “if you have money and success you can’t be unhappy” and how he developed the tools to deal with his mental health issues.
In a sporting world that is often macho and testosterone-laden, it’s a refreshing voice and a reminder, that even this Superman had his kryptonite, a challenge he acknowledged, faced and conquered.