Insight

Keeping Perspective

Gianluigi Buffon has lost three Champions League finals, but he insists there are no regrets as he reflects on the “joy and emotion” of over two decades and 100 games in the competition

WORDS Paolo Menicucci | PORTRAIT Michael Regan

The dictionary definition of obsession? “A persistent idea that continually forces its way into consciousness, often associated with anxiety.” There are many who believe Gianluigi Buffon is obsessed with winning the Champions League, a trophy that has consistently eluded one of the world’s great goalkeepers for over 20 years now. But believe me, I do not see any trace of anxiety when we meet at Juventus’s La Continassa training base to discuss his relationship with the most prestigious club competition of all.

“Look, from time to time, I smile because someone, as is right and normal, asks me whether it’s an obsession,” he explains. “I smile because there’s nothing further from the truth than it being an obsession for me. Probably one of the strongest reasons why I’m continuing to play is the Champions League. From a certain point of view, I will always be thankful to the Champions League, because it gives me that joy, that emotion, that dream that I probably otherwise wouldn’t have. For me, the Champions League will always remain something dear, to keep close to my heart.”

Buffon palms away Dani Alves’s shot in the 2015 final (above); the Italian keeper collects under pressure from Alan Shearer in 2002 (right)

When he got his first taste of the competition back in 1997/98, he was a completely different person: an exuberant teenager who wore a Superman shirt under his Parma jersey, which he would flash to the crowd after making a save. Now he is calm, thoughtful, loquacious. A 41-year-old man who has seen it all during a career that has brought myriad trophies, including the World Cup with Italy in 2006.

One thing has never changed though: the goose bumps when he hears the famous Champions League anthem before another European night. “Yes, it’s always the same. With a more advanced age, maybe it becomes greater too, because I think you have more sensitivity compared to when you’re a boy. I have to say, the feelings that I get, that it unleashes, are very strong.

“This is a song I’ve heard many times – more than 100 – but the best thing is that you never get tired of hearing it and you never get used to it. Because the moment this music plays, you know you’re at the centre of the footballing world, at the beating heart of football. And that gives me joy, even now at 41. It gives me goose bumps, it gives me adrenaline and it gives me fulfilment. I feel I’m in the place where I want to be, the highest level of football.”

When I think back on my Champions League career I can say I’m satisfied. Because I’m convinced I performed, for 95% of the games, in a special way, at a high level.

Buffon has gone agonisingly close to getting his hands on the trophy three different times, losing a trio of finals with Juventus: first to AC Milan on penalties in 2003, then against Barcelona in 2015 and Real Madrid two years later. Does he have regrets? None at all. “When I think back on my Champions League career I can say I’m satisfied. Because I’m convinced I performed, for 95% of the games, in a special way, at a high level. I don’t have any regrets or sorrow about losing three finals because, in the end, if we’d been better than the other team we would have won. We didn’t win because we deserved to lose – we weren’t good enough.”

While he is pronouncing those wise, honest words, my mind goes back to the Old Trafford final in 2003, when Filippo Inzaghi met Clarence Sedoorf’s cross with a superb diving header. I’ve talked to the former Milan striker a few times since and he still can’t believe how Buffon managed to dive to his left and tip that ball out for a corner. A feeling doubtless shared by Dani Alves every time he rewatches Buffon palming away his shot (despite initially going the wrong way) during the 2015 final in Berlin. Not good enough? Those are three words I don’t think we could ever associate with this particular goalkeeper.

The dictionary definition of obsession? “A persistent idea that continually forces its way into consciousness, often associated with anxiety.” There are many who believe Gianluigi Buffon is obsessed with winning the Champions League, a trophy that has consistently eluded one of the world’s great goalkeepers for over 20 years now. But believe me, I do not see any trace of anxiety when we meet at Juventus’s La Continassa training base to discuss his relationship with the most prestigious club competition of all.

“Look, from time to time, I smile because someone, as is right and normal, asks me whether it’s an obsession,” he explains. “I smile because there’s nothing further from the truth than it being an obsession for me. Probably one of the strongest reasons why I’m continuing to play is the Champions League. From a certain point of view, I will always be thankful to the Champions League, because it gives me that joy, that emotion, that dream that I probably otherwise wouldn’t have. For me, the Champions League will always remain something dear, to keep close to my heart.”

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Buffon palms away Dani Alves’s shot in the 2015 final (above); the Italian keeper collects under pressure from Alan Shearer in 2002 (right)

When he got his first taste of the competition back in 1997/98, he was a completely different person: an exuberant teenager who wore a Superman shirt under his Parma jersey, which he would flash to the crowd after making a save. Now he is calm, thoughtful, loquacious. A 41-year-old man who has seen it all during a career that has brought myriad trophies, including the World Cup with Italy in 2006.

One thing has never changed though: the goose bumps when he hears the famous Champions League anthem before another European night. “Yes, it’s always the same. With a more advanced age, maybe it becomes greater too, because I think you have more sensitivity compared to when you’re a boy. I have to say, the feelings that I get, that it unleashes, are very strong.

“This is a song I’ve heard many times – more than 100 – but the best thing is that you never get tired of hearing it and you never get used to it. Because the moment this music plays, you know you’re at the centre of the footballing world, at the beating heart of football. And that gives me joy, even now at 41. It gives me goose bumps, it gives me adrenaline and it gives me fulfilment. I feel I’m in the place where I want to be, the highest level of football.”

When I think back on my Champions League career I can say I’m satisfied. Because I’m convinced I performed, for 95% of the games, in a special way, at a high level.

Buffon has gone agonisingly close to getting his hands on the trophy three different times, losing a trio of finals with Juventus: first to AC Milan on penalties in 2003, then against Barcelona in 2015 and Real Madrid two years later. Does he have regrets? None at all. “When I think back on my Champions League career I can say I’m satisfied. Because I’m convinced I performed, for 95% of the games, in a special way, at a high level. I don’t have any regrets or sorrow about losing three finals because, in the end, if we’d been better than the other team we would have won. We didn’t win because we deserved to lose – we weren’t good enough.”

While he is pronouncing those wise, honest words, my mind goes back to the Old Trafford final in 2003, when Filippo Inzaghi met Clarence Sedoorf’s cross with a superb diving header. I’ve talked to the former Milan striker a few times since and he still can’t believe how Buffon managed to dive to his left and tip that ball out for a corner. A feeling doubtless shared by Dani Alves every time he rewatches Buffon palming away his shot (despite initially going the wrong way) during the 2015 final in Berlin. Not good enough? Those are three words I don’t think we could ever associate with this particular goalkeeper.

Despite the nation’s proud history of producing gifted footballers, it was not until 1988 that a Belgian player first lifted the European Cup: right-back Eric Gerets captained PSV Eindhoven to victory against Benfica on penalties. It was coach Raymond Goethals who next left his mark, leading Marseille to the title against AC Milan in 1993, two years after they had lost the final on spot kicks to Crvena zvezda. Yannick Carrasco became Belgium’s first scorer in a final, for runners-up Atlético Madrid in 2016, before Divock Origi went one better in June this year, finding the net for winners Liverpool against Tottenham Hotspur, on a night when goalkeeper Simon Mignolet– now at Club Brugge – watched from the Reds bench.

Belgian players enjoying success with an English team is one thing, but Belgian clubs finding reason to celebrate in England is something else, particularly in London. After Club Brugge lost at Wembley in 1978 (Jan Sorensen is pictured above right in the semi-final, with Gaetano Scirea of Juventus), Anderlecht and Royal Antwerp both suffered heartache in the English capital, the former losing the 1984 UEFA Cup final to Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane and their domestic rivals finishing second best to Parma under the old twin towers in the 1993 Cup Winners’ Cup decider. With the EURO 2020 final to be played at Wembley in July, could today’s generation of stars provide Belgium with reason for cheer in north London?

The dictionary definition of obsession? “A persistent idea that continually forces its way into consciousness, often associated with anxiety.” There are many who believe Gianluigi Buffon is obsessed with winning the Champions League, a trophy that has consistently eluded one of the world’s great goalkeepers for over 20 years now. But believe me, I do not see any trace of anxiety when we meet at Juventus’s La Continassa training base to discuss his relationship with the most prestigious club competition of all.

“Look, from time to time, I smile because someone, as is right and normal, asks me whether it’s an obsession,” he explains. “I smile because there’s nothing further from the truth than it being an obsession for me. Probably one of the strongest reasons why I’m continuing to play is the Champions League. From a certain point of view, I will always be thankful to the Champions League, because it gives me that joy, that emotion, that dream that I probably otherwise wouldn’t have. For me, the Champions League will always remain something dear, to keep close to my heart.”

Buffon palms away Dani Alves’s shot in the 2015 final (above); the Italian keeper collects under pressure from Alan Shearer in 2002 (right)

When he got his first taste of the competition back in 1997/98, he was a completely different person: an exuberant teenager who wore a Superman shirt under his Parma jersey, which he would flash to the crowd after making a save. Now he is calm, thoughtful, loquacious. A 41-year-old man who has seen it all during a career that has brought myriad trophies, including the World Cup with Italy in 2006.

One thing has never changed though: the goose bumps when he hears the famous Champions League anthem before another European night. “Yes, it’s always the same. With a more advanced age, maybe it becomes greater too, because I think you have more sensitivity compared to when you’re a boy. I have to say, the feelings that I get, that it unleashes, are very strong.

“This is a song I’ve heard many times – more than 100 – but the best thing is that you never get tired of hearing it and you never get used to it. Because the moment this music plays, you know you’re at the centre of the footballing world, at the beating heart of football. And that gives me joy, even now at 41. It gives me goose bumps, it gives me adrenaline and it gives me fulfilment. I feel I’m in the place where I want to be, the highest level of football.”

When I think back on my Champions League career I can say I’m satisfied. Because I’m convinced I performed, for 95% of the games, in a special way, at a high level.

Buffon has gone agonisingly close to getting his hands on the trophy three different times, losing a trio of finals with Juventus: first to AC Milan on penalties in 2003, then against Barcelona in 2015 and Real Madrid two years later. Does he have regrets? None at all. “When I think back on my Champions League career I can say I’m satisfied. Because I’m convinced I performed, for 95% of the games, in a special way, at a high level. I don’t have any regrets or sorrow about losing three finals because, in the end, if we’d been better than the other team we would have won. We didn’t win because we deserved to lose – we weren’t good enough.”

While he is pronouncing those wise, honest words, my mind goes back to the Old Trafford final in 2003, when Filippo Inzaghi met Clarence Sedoorf’s cross with a superb diving header. I’ve talked to the former Milan striker a few times since and he still can’t believe how Buffon managed to dive to his left and tip that ball out for a corner. A feeling doubtless shared by Dani Alves every time he rewatches Buffon palming away his shot (despite initially going the wrong way) during the 2015 final in Berlin. Not good enough? Those are three words I don’t think we could ever associate with this particular goalkeeper.