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15 May 2015

The redemption of Gianluigi Buffon

To watch Gianluigi "Gigi" Buffon play football is to witness the art of goalkeeping. Everything he does on the pitch is textbook.

He positions himself flawlessly. He exudes control. He reads matches with a measured, almost computerized rhythm.

He reacts like a feline, making the seemingly impossible saves a repeated reality. He commands the penalty box powerfully. He distributes the ball accurately.

He approaches penalties with the demeanor of someone who always knows where the taker will shoot. And he's made stops that would astonish even the Soviet great Lev Yashin.

In short, he's the prototype of the modern goalkeeper. Don't believe me? Watch this:

His qualities, his consistency and the accomplishments they've led to separate Buffon from his peers, and even from his predecessors. Many consider the tall Tuscan "Superman" the greatest goalkeeper of all-time.

But on June 6, in the same stadium where he won the 2006 World Cup with Italy, the legendary Juventus shot-stopper will seek the ultimate redemption.

Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon makes a save during the second leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinal between Real Madrid and Juventus on Wednesday, May 13, 2015 at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid.
Daniel Ochoa de Olza/The Associated Press)

Redemption for Gigi?

Why would a World Cup winner, eight-time Serie A champion and owner of 34 individual honors (including the International Federation of Football History & Statistics' Best Goalkeeper of the Last 25 Years and 21st Century awards) require any measure of sporting redemption?

The short of it: It's the classic story of the one that got away. He's never won the UEFA Champions League.

The long of it: Juventus has had a checkered history in "the aughts." Since winning the Champions League in 1996, the team has been marred by heartbreak and scandal. In other words, it's taken much longer than it should have for Juventus and its 37-year-old shot-stopper to return to the pantheon of European club football. 

The beginning of heartbreak 

In 2003, Buffon's second year at the club, Juventus met Italian rivals AC Milan in the Champions League Final at Old Trafford in Manchester, England. The match went to penalties.

Buffon faced five well-struck shots and stopped two—his first save a thunderous, gravity-defying, double-fisted punch at full stretch of a low, rasping strike by Clarence Seedorf.

Unfortunately for Buffon, his teammates missed three. That was the last time Juventus came close to winning the Champions League.

A scandal erupts   

Shortly after the 2006 World Cup, Juventus was relegated to Serie B for its part in the Calciopoli scandal. Along with four other teams, the Old Lady (La Vecchia Signora) of Italian football was deemed to have rigged matches through a thick network of managers and referee organizations by selecting favorable referees.

As a result, the 31-time league champions were relegated to Italy's second division (Serie B), exiled from the Champions League for a season and stripped of their 2005 and 2006 Serie A titles. Many of Juve's top players, such as Lillian Thuram, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Fabio Cannavaro and Patrick Viera, immediately jumped ship.

But the then-28-year-old Buffon and captain Alessandro Del Piero stayed on to help the team back into the top flight.

In 2006, Juventus was relegated to Serie B for its role in the Calciopoli scandal. Despite an exodus of top names, Buffon stayed with Juventus to help them win promotion back to Serie B.

Climbing back to the top

After a string of decent league finishes (third in Serie A in 2007-08, second in 2008-09), Buffon's next few years were blighted by back injures and the team finished seventh in consecutive seasons.

Despite winning Serie A from 2011-2014, Juventus never advanced past the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

Through bad luck or possibly fate, Buffon has been made to wait for another crack at a trophy that has eluded him throughout his career. Until Wednesday.

Buffon celebrates after his teammate Alvaro Morata scores the go-ahead goal during the second leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinal on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid.
Andres Kudacki/The Associated Press)

Against Real Madrid in the second-leg of their semifinal matchup, the keeper was impervious. A Cristiano Ronaldo penalty aside, Buffon was as commanding as ever.

A sprawling one-handed stop of a swerving 25-yard Gareth Bale missile and an improvised near-post lunge to keep out a left-footed whack from Kareem Benzema kept Juventus in the match and allowed the team to advance to its first final in 12 years.

Even his counterpart, the great Iker Casillas of Madrid, showered the Italian with praise before their semifinal tie. "For somebody like me who's dreamt of being a goalkeeper, he represented a figure we could only hope of one day being able to be showcased with," Casillas said.

"Da Berlino alla B.....dalla B a Berlino!!!!! questa e la vita!!" 
("From Berlin to Serie B.....From Serie B to Berlin!!!!! That's life!!" —Tweet from Gianluigi Buffon)

Now Buffon has a chance, perhaps a final chance, to redeem the lost years of disappointment, injury and scandal.

On June 6 at Berlin's Olympiastadion, in his 533rd appearance for Juventus, Buffon can add a pesky piece of coveted silverware to his astonishing trophy haul. Standing in his way is a Barcelona side featuring possibly the greatest attacking trident of all-time in Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar ("MSN" for short).

The odds heavily favor the Catalans, but the odds favored Madrid in the semifinal, as well. The real mark of a legend is an ability to defy the odds and rise to the occasion. Now, few would dismiss Juventus' chances. And none should begrudge the great Buffon if he finds his final redemption.