Ahead of Euro 2016, we're ushering four international football stars into The Cult. Our third inductee is Italian goalkeeping colossus Gianluigi Buffon. You can read previous editions here.
CULT GRADE: THE IMMORTAL
I must begin by declaring an interest: Gianluigi Buffon is my favourite footballer of all time. Some people react oddly when I tell them this. They cock their head a little, add a narrow squint to their eyes and ask: "really?" There's particular emphasis on the "real" part of the word, as if saying it with such force will flick the reality switch in my head. Perhaps then I'll come to my senses and say, "Nah, it's Dennis Bergkamp, or Gareth Bale, or willowy Dulwich Hamlet centre-back Ethan Pinnock. Not a goalkeeper who I watch infrequently, and have never heard speak a word of English."
But it is true. Though I have no links to Italy, nor any particular affinity for Juventus, the club at which Buffon has redefined the word legend, he is my favourite. I'm buying packs of Panini stickers just to find him; I watch YouTube interviews with patchy English subtitles; were I not so dangerously close to 30, I'd probably have his poster on my wall.
Of course, Buffon is not the strangest player to hero-worship. He is – and I'll hear no arguments on this one – the single greatest goalkeeper of the past quarter-century. He's been Juventus and Italy's number one for 15 years and shows no signs of stopping, collecting pretty much every trophy – including the most coveted of all – along the way. Gianlugi Buffon, campione del mondo.
But there are players whose abilities have wowed me more – take the gravity-defying genius of Bergkamp – and others whose national passion stirs my own – that quintessential Welsh-boy-done good Bale. And I don't idolise footballers simply because they play at elite clubs and have a huge trophy haul – which explains the presence of willowy Dulwich Hamlet centre-back Ethan Pinnock. So why Gigi?
International football tournaments are for kids. Genuine, proper 10-year-old kids earnestly collecting stickers and statistics, or adult kids trying to recapture the fun of their childhood. I have truly never enjoyed anything with such uncomplicated joy as I did France '98. When we grow up, tournaments are a route back into those feelings. For me, the Euros are '96 and 2000: Gazza's iconic strike against Scotland, France winning it in extra-time on a golden goal against the Italians.
Know what that Euro 2000 final represented? The last time, to date, that Gigi Buffon was not Italy's first-choice 'keeper for a major tournament.
Buffon's longevity is the cornerstone of my affection; he has solidified in my mind as the greatest because he has always been there. I have a vague memory of Italian football before him. It's foggy, however, as he made his international debut in 1997 and had already been on the club scene for a few years by then. I was a child at the time, and the sight of this unflappable, teenage Parma goalkeeper – in lurid yellow kit with Parmalat branding – captured my imagination.
Buffon was there, too, in 2006. Stoic and strong, he was crucial to Italy's World Cup win. I was 19 and running home from a shift in a windowless Argos stockroom to catch the semi-final against Germany, in which he kept his fourth successive clean sheet.
And he is still there now, when I am something resembling an adult, setting new records and winning yet more silverware. He has always been there. And so I think that what he represents is a route back to childhood, via my teenage years; a definable football thread that runs through most of my conscious existence. Jobs and girlfriends and homes have come and gone, but there is always Buffon.
Euro 2016 will be his ninth major tournament with the Azurri – nine – and he hopes to make it 10 at the 2018 World Cup, which falls a full 20 years after France '98. If he does, Buffon will become the first man in history to appear in six World Cup squads.
That will probably be it. Thread cut, life floating into the sky like a balloon from a child's grasp. But until then there is Buffon, back between the sticks for the Italians this summer, a little reminder of everything that's come before, and a fleeting hint at immortality.
POINT OF ENTRY: SKY HIGH
As I've said, for me he is the greatest goalkeeper of the past 25 years, a fantastic shot-stopper but perhaps more importantly a colossal presence at the heart of his defence. I can't accurately judge the guys who came before that – to assess the virtues of a player who you didn't see in their own time strikes me as impossible, so I'll cap it at 25 years. In that period, he stands alone.
Here's a thing about the elite in sport: if you're good enough, you're old enough. The truly special understand their gifts in such an innate way that they can do it at 17 years of age as if they've been doing it for at the top level for 17 years.
So it was with Buffon. His debut for Parma (then an established Serie A side) came on 19 November 1995, when he kept a clean sheet against the mighty AC Milan. He was 17. By 21, he'd won the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup, before departing for Juve.
He made his international debut in October 1997, still 19 at the time, and went to the World Cup as third-choice keeper nine months later. He became number one after Euro 2000 and has never been seriously challenged since, only missing games through injury. That is how he's collected 157 caps and counting, more than any other player in the Azzuri's history.
And he has the trophies to match the stats. Nine Serie A titles, the World Cup in 2006, and another dozen that includes a UEFA Cup, three Coppa Italia, and six Supercoppa Italiana. He has also played on the losing side in the Euro 2012 Final and two Champions League Finals. Different outcomes to those games would have seen him collect the full set.
But Buffon's career has not simply been a succession of victory parades. Two of those Serie A titles were stripped from Juve for their part in Calciopoli, the betting scandal that swept through Serie A in 2006. Buffon was questioned, then later cleared of all charges by the Italian Football Federation, but Juve were relegated to Serie B for their involvement. He remained at the club, helping the Bianconeri to win the second-tier title, thus endearing himself to the club's fans even further.
He has performed a valuable role off the pitch, too. Buffon is one of the very few top-line footballers to discuss mental health issues while still playing the game, having battled depression in his mid-twenties. He opened up about it a few years later, speaking of the dark place he went to and his fears about discussing it publicly. Statistics also tell us men aged 30-44 suffer the highest suicide rate, meaning a key football demographic is at high risk. When one of the most respected names in the game discusses his own troubles, it helps to normalises the issue.
He is by no means perfect. As a 21-year-old at Parma he wore a t-shirt emblazoned with a neo-fascist logo, and chose to wear 88 on his shirt — a number that has neo-Nazi connotations. He explained both as naivety and ignorance; he has not made a similar gesture since, with both of these events now 15 years past.
I'm not naïve about this. But with no repeat offence, I can only give him the benefit of the doubt. As kids, no one warms us that we may one day have to judge our heroes as ordinary people.
THE MOMENT: ITALY VS. SPAIN, EURO 2012 FINAL
Because this is supposed to be Euros-themed – and because Gigi Buffon is human – let's pay tribute to a hero in defeat. Buffon was skipper of the Italian side that reached the Euro 2012 Final, keeping a clean sheet against England in the quarters and only conceding a late penalty to Germany in a 2-1 win.
But Italy could not compete with Spain in the final. They were not so much unable to live with them as incapable of functioning on the same continent. The Spanish ran out 4-0 winners, each goal leaving Buffon on his knees in the goalmouth, hands on hips, gazing at no one in particular. In those moments after he was beaten, he looked strangely human, a mortal like the rest of us.
Speaking about emerging from depression, Buffon said: "It happened all of a sudden. I used to be scared of going to [the pitch]. At the European Championships in Portugal, during the match between Italy and Denmark, a horrendous match, I was the only one smiling."