MILAN: As Juventus look to end a 21-year-wait for the Champions League title, there are those who believe goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon can end a 54-year wait and be officially crowned the top shot-stopper in Europe.
The rock of a team that recently embellished its growing pedigree with a record sixth consecutive title and record third successive league and Cup double, Buffon, many believe, is in firm contention for the Ballon d’Or.
Given the dominance in recent years of Cristiano Ronaldo, a key threat on Saturday when Juventus meet Real Madrid in Cardiff, and Barcelona nemesis Lionel Messi, such an accolade is not to be underestimated.
Especially when considering the only previous goalkeeper honoured was Russian legend Lev Yashin, in 1963.
Many have come close, including Buffon, who in 2006 finished second to Italy teammate and Real Madrid defender Fabio Cannavaro.
But to match the feats of Yashin, known as the ‘Black Spider’ for acrobatic goalkeeping feats that wowed the beautiful game in the 1960s, is going to take some doing.
AC Milan legend Gianni Rivera, who finished second to Yashin in the 1963 vote, has echoed many in the game who believe Buffon, still in search of an evasive Champions League title, will only get close if Juve are crowned European champions.
“It was a historical first, but it was right to give Yashin his award,” Riverai recently said in an interview with Corriere della Sera. “I only found out later I’d come second.”
He added: “Buffon deserves to win it for what he’s still doing on the pitch. If he wins the Champions League with Juventus, it will be the crowning glory of what has been an extraordinary career.”
Now 39 and heading towards retirement following the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Buffon remains one of the world’s best.
In a season that has seen Juventus ditch a conservative 3-5-2 formation for a more inventive and attacking 4-2-3-1 in which defensive duties remain a priority, Buffon has been superb.
Especially in Europe, where he defied his years and produced three remarkable stops on his way to seeing Juventus put one leg into the final with a precious 2-0 win over Monaco at the Stade Louis II last month.
It is not for nothing that Buffon, who has seen Juventus through thick and thin — remaining with the club following their demotion to Serie B following the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal — is regarded, in parliamentary terms, as the ‘Speaker of the House’.
At the head of the Juventus dressing room there are two, plush seats that resemble thrones.
Buffon sits on the right, with notoriously media-shy but hugely-respected Croatian forward Mario Mandzukic to his left. From there, Buffon commands the dressing room.
Although the big ‘keeper is the first one to admit: “You have to make the saves. If I’m not making saves, then I can’t start giving lessons.”
The last time Juventus triumphed in the competition was in 1996, when the Turin giants beat Ajax at the Stadio Olimpico.
After two successive runner-up places in 1997 and 1998, the Italians lost the final a further two times in 2003 and 2015, for a record tally of six runner-up places.
Ending their hoodoo might just give Buffon, described recently by France Football as “the only real rival to Ronaldo”, a fitting end to his career.
Defender and teammate Giorgio Chiellini, though, said the ‘keeper should only deserve it based on his performances this year.
“I’m lucky to have played all my career alongside Buffon. He deserves the Ballon d’Or for what he’s achieved this year. I hope he wins it, but it would be a consequence of us winning in Cardiff,” he said Monday.
France Football, though, tempered those hopes, adding: “But Buffon is a goalkeeper and even if Juve triumph in Europe there is always this handicap: the one of not having one’s destiny in his own hands.
“Ronaldo can decide how much to give of himself. Buffon has to wait for the opportunity. That’s the difference.”