If a tough guy goalkeeper with a penchant for ripping off his jersey to reveal Superman T-shirts one day admits he’s afraid of dying, would he be any easier to beat in a one-on-one? Is the aura he projects in order to psyche out his goal’s would-be assailants compromised by such a confession? Or, to reframe much the same question: how was it that Hartdog—he of the neck-bulging tunnel exhortations to “be fucking brave, lads”—failed to spook dinky little Pirlo from panenka-ing in his peno in Kiev that night? Bark worse than his bite?

Everybody knows Gigi Buffon is a great goalkeeper, perhaps the capo di tutti capi. Italy knew it from the moment he debuted for Parma at 17 years old and shut out the eventual champions’ Ballon D’Orsome forward line of George Weah and Roberto Baggio. Juventus knew it when they paid €53m (£32.2m) for his services in 2001, which still, 14 years of demented capitalist boom economics later, remains a world record fee for a goalkeeper by some €20m. It’s perhaps this fact more than any other that provides the most eloquent testament to his brilliance, the most succinct way of saying: Yeah, Buffon: pretty fucking decent, even if he’s never done it on an inclement Wednesday night in Stoke

Given his reputation for invincibility, could Buffon admit he was depressed? He didn’t think so. “The problem was if I had said: ‘I am going away for two months to get better’ I would have been finished. Because every time after that, if I had failed with a save or whatever, I would have been reminded of that period. I just couldn’t allow myself to go away for two or three months to get better.”

So he put on a brave face. Behaved ‘like a man’. Maintained the tough guy persona.

The Latin persona, from which ‘person’ and ‘personality’ derive, originally meant ‘theatre mask’. Perhaps our personhood is just that: a performance for the Other, fuelled by our oddly insistent chemistry. Our most intimate personalities are just a negotiation between the supra-personal forces that shape our lives—from politics to peer pressures, technologies to taxation—and the sub-personal forces—hormones, urges, fantasies, neuroses, that nudge us along, acting in strange ways. Call them external and internal forces, if you like, or social and biological. But somewhere in all that, there we all are—you, me, Buffon, the Pope—trying to make sense of things: the events that happen to us, the events we help happen.

Gigi the depressive. Gigi the joker. Gigi the prodigy. Gigi the elder statesman. Gigi the union man. Gigi the Fascist. Gigi the football club owner. Gigi the ultra. Gigi the leader. Gigi the rebel. Where in all that is the real Gigi? Where is the true self?

The ‘individual’ always emerges through socialisation, his integration into groups. To what degree do you conform, and to what degree do you rebel? What are the terms of entry? What scope is there for you to put your own stamp on things? How much are you compelled to embody its codes? All 17-year-old boys cultivate the tough guy persona—think of the incipient maskulinity of the inner-city amibovvered boys, ostentatiously displaying strength, usually as indifference (to be bothered is to show vulnerability, which makes you a soft touch)—and the 17-year-old Buffon, entering a Parma dressing room with Hristo Stoichkov, Fabio Cannavaro, Roberto Sensini, Fernando Couto, Tino Asprilla, Dino Baggio and Gianfranco Zola, had little choice but to do likewise. If you don’t project strength—if your back four don’t believe in you—you don’t get picked. Social evaluation plays itself out as a personal trait.

And yet perhaps it was always there, handed on by his athletic nature-nurture. His grandfather’s second cousin, Lorenzo Buffon, won six scudetti as Milan’s goalkeeper. His mother, Maria Stella, was national discus record holder and three times Italian shot put champion, the event at which his father, Adriano, competed at national level. His brother played basketball for Italy, while sisters Guendalina and Veronica played professional volleyball, a sport through which Buffon’s muscular and lithe 6’3” frame was also honed, alongside an improvised game in which he used to somersault over obstacles with his hands tied behind his back. It wasn’t long after converting from a midfielder at 13 that Buffon knew he was cut out for goalkeeping.

One of Parma’s centre backs, Luigi Apolloni, recalls the young Buffon’s swagger. “I remember him arriving, this teenager, to speak to our manager, Nevio Scala. Right away he said: ‘Listen, boss, in a normal month I train really well for 29 days. But one day a month you need to accept that I’m not going to be myself, because I’ll be having a bad day. And you need not to get angry about that.’ He was making a joke, but it was a joke that told you how confident he was and because of that how much potential he had.”

Then there’s that mythical Serie A bow, which led the famously dour goalkeeping legend Dino Zoff to remark that he had “never seen a debut like his for the personality and quality he showed.” Brave, physically imposing, agile, possessed of instinctive positioning and organisational sense. Buffon was the real deal. A total natural.

Of course, you need a certain amount of confidence to deliver such a stellar debut performance, but the performance would only have increased that confidence. Perhaps too much, for the cocky young keeper was, by the 1998 World Cup, prima-donna-ishly refusing to dive in a training session, miffed at being No3 behind Gianluca Pagliuca and Francesco Toldo. He was sent to the dressing room in disgrace.    

Gigi was a precocious man-child, still with a lot of growing up to do. And in Italy—which didn’t acquire its stereotypes entirely without reason—the macho or “strong man” provides an alluring framework into which boys-becoming-men fit their attitudes, their poses and postures. Looming large here is of course Benito Mussolini, founder of Fascism: “We become strong,” he said “when we have no friends upon whom to lean, or to look to for moral guidance,” an austere fantasy he smeared all over his country. And quite what Il Duce—he of the view that “For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative”—would have made of Buffon’s refusal to pull for the azzurri cause can only be guessed at.

Buffon himself has been suspected of harbouring Fascist sympathies. He once revealed a t-shirt emblazoned with what he claimed not to know was an old Fascist slogan: boia chi molla, variously translated as “he who gives up is a scoundrel” or “death to cowards.” This happened, coincidentally enough, against Lazio whose ultras are infamous for their far-right leanings (see Di Canio, Paolo; tattoos).

The whisperings grew louder in summer 2000 when Buffon requested the No 88 shirt, which may well mean two fat ladies to bingo enthusiasts but not so for neo-Nazis, for whom it’s code for Heil Hitler, ‘H’ being the 8th letter of the alphabet. Of course, it’s obvious when you put it like that, but again Buffon claimed not to realize. Having clarified that his original choice, nixed by the Italian FA, had been No 00, he explained to his accusers: “I have chosen 88 because it reminds me of four balls and in Italy we all know what it means to have balls: strength and determination. And this season I will have to have balls to get back my place in the Italy team.”

Do we take Gigi’s word for it, or is this a genuine far-right flirtation? What would a court rule? A shrink? A priest? Counter-evidence could be inferred from the fact that his first hero was Thomas N’Kono—the Cameroon ‘keeper in Italia 90 who captured a 12-year-old imagination still to encounter the adult world’s hand-me-down ideas of masculinity—after whom Buffon named his firstborn son. Perhaps we need his stance on the corporatist state before we make a definitive call.

Of course, a moment of whimsy or rashness can come to define a person if the narrative settles around them in that way; and Buffon can be thankful this was the pre-social-media age, before Twitter’s legion of ten penn’orth merchants and knee-jerkers could wade in, bristling with faux indignation, branding-irons at the ready. Fascist! Might it all just be a clumsy way of expressing togetherness? After all, the fascio after which the Fascist Party was named were the bundles of wooden rods in a broom: weak individually, strong when together, which is surely a constant trope of all sports teams, and one that would particularly concern a goalkeeper, there on the edge of things in his different coloured jersey, with the power of catching and punching.

While Buffon knew he was special as a goalkeeper, manifesting itself in occasional impetuosity, he also told FourFourTwo: “I feel as if I am a normal sort of person, especially if I let in a goal that in reality I should have saved. Maybe I’m the only footballer who isn’t interested in cars. My Lancia Y gets me around.”

While a youth team player at Parma, the “normal” Buffon would frequently carry a stash of fanzines for his hometown club, Carrarese (which he later bought as part of a consortium that included Cristiano Lucarelli, iconic player at Italy’s famously communist-leaning Livorno—which is perhaps more circumstantial evidence against his imputed Fascist leanings—before eventually becoming outright owner). He went to their games, standing on the curva, surfing the expectations and personifying the values of the puffa-jacketed ultras at his shoulders. Showing balls.

Paramount amongst those values is loyalty—not something that pre-exists in the flesh, but that is demonstrated through acts—and there’s a story of a young Buffon leaving Fiorentina’s stadium and spotting the bruised and bloody capo of Parma’s ultras, whom he promptly bundled into his Porsche. ‘Il Volpo’, the Fox, scarpered at a police checkpoint, but then flagged Buffon down at a nearby junction and the pair drove back to Parma together, where they went clubbing into the small hours.

In his autobiography, Numero 1, Buffon also admitted to having smoked a spliff (although he says he turned down ecstasy)—from one perspective, an act of rebellion; from another, an act of fitting in (perhaps seeking the acceptance of Il Volpo).

Illustration: Daniel Duncan / @danielduncan

When Freud suggested that in the unconscious, everything is a question of population, he meant that people’s fantasies concern where they are in relation to the bodies of others: intimacy and sociality. Are they in the thick of things (Buffon the ex-ultra, jumping on the crush barrier when celebrating penalty saves), or are they on the edge, The Outsider of Jonathan Wilson’s Camus-referencing book on goalkeepers, in which he describes their inherently perilous psychological reality? “No sportsman, surely, so regularly confronts the arbitrariness of the fates as the goalkeeper. A deflection, a bad bounce, a gust of wind, a momentary misjudgement, a brilliant strike, and everything for which he has striven in the rest of the game is wiped out.”

Which returns us to our original question, and another of Buffon’s autobiographical confessions: that between December 2003 and the following June he suffered depression, struggling to get out of his car at Juve’s training complex. “I never understood why then, why not before, why not after,” he later elaborated, indicating that this was a fully-fledged existential crisis. “Perhaps that was the moment of my passage from youth to adulthood. I wasn’t satisfied with my life and football. My legs would start shaking all of a sudden. It was a dark period because I am a sunny and optimistic person. I was thinking, ‘How can rich and normal people suffer from depression?’ They are terrible moments. You completely lose your sense of self, and nothing is rational.”

(Buffon, essentially, is all three members of Nirvana rolled into one. A physical hybrid of Novoselic, tall and bendy like an AirDancer, and Grohl—fundamentally kind, but if he turned there’d be no negotiations, just a bullet in the head—and yet with something of the intensity of Cobain.)

The trigger was in all probability the catenaccio of the 2003 Champions League final, which Juventus lost to Milan in a penalty shootout following a turgid 0–0. Buffon later described how all the energy had left his body by Shevchenko’s fifth, decisive penalty, having believed, momentarily, that he’d saved the fourth kick, to level things up, only for the ball to float over his outstretched arm. In that fleeting instant, his mind perhaps prematurely investing some new personal glory, was he instead confronted with a sense of his own limitations, the death of a young man’s fantasy of immortality and invincibility? Did Superman find his Kryptonite? It was certainly the lowering of the macho mask—if only to Buffon himself—and what emerged was not the “true man” but that man’s encounter with the truth of humanity, its vulnerability.   

Buffon has been rightly praised for his candour, yet it’s telling that the admission only came in 2008, by which time his reputation had become bulletproof. Italy had won the World Cup, making him a national hero; and, along with Alessandro Del Piero, he had stayed at Juve when they were stripped of the two scudetti won under Fabio Capello and demoted to Serie B in the wake of the Calciópoli match-fixing scandal.

The Italian squad were in their pre-tournament ritiro when the subpoenas rolled in, obliging them to return home to testify (Buffon himself was in front of magistrates, accused of involvement with sports betting websites). Not only that, the day after Italy’s last-gasp last-16 victory over Australia, news came through that Juve’s recently retired stalwart fullback, Gianluca Pessotto, had jumped from a fifteenth storey window at Juve’s training complex while clutching a rosary, simultaneously shocking and galvanising the azzurri.  

If lifting the World Cup makes you an instant national hero—Buffon made a crucial save from Zidane near the end of extra time, not long before that head butt—then staying at Juve after demotion and the exodus of Ibrahimović, Cannavaro, Trézeguet, and other stars makes you a bianconeri legend (did it make the others “cowards”?). Prior to the World Cup, he had been contemplating “a new challenge” and was close to signing for Milan—second-tier football provided the Ballon D’Or bronze medallist with that challenge. “In the end it was a simple choice for me,” he said. “If Juve had to go down to B then I had to go with them. I didn’t really need to think about it. Juve helped me become a world champion and therefore I owed them a huge debt.”

He also came close to leaving in 2011, after a fallow, trophyless period and back-to-back seventh place finishes. Antonio Conte persuaded him to stay, and with Juve’s symbolic rebirth underscored by a move out of the Stadio Delli Alpi into a swanky new home, they have since gone on to win five straight scudetti: a Serie A record. There was a second Champions League final, too, the team of Pirlo, Tévez, Vidal and Pogba—all of whom have since left Turin—unable to down the mighty Barcelona of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, which remains the major gap on his CV.

Reaching football’s experiential pinnacle at 28 provides an existential safety net: if I never do anything else in the game, at least I’ve won the World Cup. But of course that’s not how the very best think, and Buffon has ploughed inexorably on, racking up the records and medals, honours and awards—a list as long as his arm (well, not his arm; your arm).

He currently has 161 international caps, and intends to stick around until he turns 40, until the next World Cup in Russia, which will be his sixth: another record. By then he will have chalked up eight years as captain, emulating his two predecessors, Cannavaro and Paolo Maldini.

Over this late-career period, Buffon has become an increasingly statesmanlike figure. In 2012, he was elected vice-president of the Italian Footballers’ Association (AIC), the first time an active player had held this position. At the recent Euros, he was seen winning and losing with grace and equanimity—consoling a finally vanquished Iniesta after beating Spain; congratulating his heir as the top ‘keeper, Manuel Neuer, after Italy’s quarterfinal exit. Not as interesting, but more edifying.

But then, he was also screaming like a madman after pulling off crucial saves from Piqué and Iniesta, the fires burning as brightly as ever. Indeed, pundits have long been scrutinising him for signs of decline and in April 2013, after allowing a David Alaba long-ranger to sneak through in a Champions League quarterfinal, Franz Beckenbauer observed that Buffon had gone down “like a pensioner”. Buffon took it in good humour, even appearing on the satirical TV show Striscia la Notizia to accept a blanket, dressing gown, and pair of slippers.

But then, only last season the old man in the Old Lady’s goal broke Sebastiano Rossi’s 22-year-old Serie A record for the longest stretch without conceding: 973 minutes in total. Proof of undiminished prowess, or just of an unbreakable defence—the BBC of Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini? Buffon only made 33 saves during that run, only one of them considered outstanding.

In many ways it’s testament to Juve’s recent dominance, but then after a 1–0 defeat at Sassuolo left them with 12 points from ten games, Buffon was moved to say to his team: “We need to have a profound examination of conscience. As captain I cannot permit us to go on playing this way. We need to start showing some humility otherwise we’re going to waste a season making an embarrassment of ourselves. At 38 years old, I really don’t have any interest in it.” They proceeded to win 25 of their next 26 games, romping to the title.  

The record brought into focus the tension between the individual and the collective, the occasionally awkward negotiation of which had peppered Buffon’s career. Statistics may try and isolate individual contributions, but football is too fluidly holistic to be properly measured this way—even the anomalous goalie. It’s testament to Buffon that, having surpassed Rossi’s 730-minute mark—in the Turin derby, no less—he posted a long and goofy Facebook status recognising the contribution of each and every one the squad. For example: “Evra: if he was not there, we’d need to buy him.” “Marchisio: the only player I know who is coloured black-and-white.” “Lemina, simply Juve-worthy.” “Padoin, wherever you put him he will be, and be very well.” “Morata: there is always a need for him.”

Perhaps today’s Gigi isn’t “better than ever”—Zoff, who himself lifted the World Cup as a 40-year-old captain, rated the young Buffon “the greatest ever, better even than Yashin”, yet considered himself the superior keeper in his thirties—yet those sixteen-plus hours of impregnability seem to have rejuvenated the Juve keeper’s desire to go on forever, to not yield to time. A service to the nation, or servicing one’s own inner Peter Pan? Selfless or selfish? In all probability, Russia would not be a bridge too far—he remains Italy’s numero uno No 1—but then two years is a long time for 38-year-old athletes, even goalkeepers.

Either way, he knows the sun is setting—he has spoken wistfully about no longer being able to swap shirts because it makes him melancholic: “They make me think that I have had lots of beautiful adventures that are now coming to an end”—and has mooted a possible career in talent-spotting and recruitment in China and the USA.

Meanwhile, he continues an intensely sentimental late-autumn tour, a colossal, charismatic figure now more humble, more human, more rounded than that injudicious (in gesture, rather than decision-making) bambino. He has become a father figure, but not a strict, erratic, and paternalistic one, like Mussolini. Or Di Canio.  

In the aftermath of the Euros, photos emerged of Gigi on holiday playing in goal in some kids’ pick-up game. With some players it might have seemed an artfully contrived PR stunt (those high-spec cameras that just happened to be there to record it from multiple angles). With Gigi it seemed entirely unforced, unaffected, a “normal guy” who slugged it out in Serie B having come third in that year’s Ballon D’Or and who bought his childhood club and who hugs the vanquished opponent before he celebrates—a desire to get in amongst it without having the amongst it stop and admire.

You can imagine the boys’ conversations when they got home. “Dad, Dad!! We just had a kickabout with Buffon, and I scored a goal!” “Son, what have I told you about telling fibs?” Maybe some midfielder from that game will slip back between the posts. Maybe one day he’ll call his firstborn son Gianluigi.

This interview originally appeared in Issue 7 of MUNDIAL, which has long sold out. You can subscribe or buy the latest issue here. Illustration supplied by Daniel Duncan / @DanielDuncan