Normality. Gianluigi Buffon, or “Gigi” as he was affectionately known, could tell his yearning for it was growing by the day and becoming more desperate with each team practice. The rhythmic toil of sweat, recovery, rest and repeat had started to eat away, and starve, his brain of any semblance of an extended life beyond his burgeoning career. No stranger to duress and pressure, the Juventus and Italian national team goalkeeper was now in need of saving his own well-being from slipping further. For there he stood, feeling drained before practices had even convened, with players circled around coaches, all calmly anticipating what their instructors would next expect of them.
Back between the goal posts it was. Buffon understood as much about repetition and consistency as anyone on the football field. Yet Buffon’s spontaneous snags or parries were no longer buoyed by seemingly effortless and graceful floating through the air. Rather, he felt slow; his body sluggish; as if stuck in a stupor.
There is something poetic about peering into a person’s mind without the thoughts, words and images spilling out into a muddled mess that you then have difficulty in discerning or deciphering. Such an exercise is even more impressive when an individual feels lost within their own thoughts, directionless both within the network of their memories and numb to their immediate surroundings. Being able to express these feelings of distress that do not simply equate to fatigue or burn-out was exactly what Buffon so eloquently articulated. There was an instinctive desire to move beyond the instinctive leaps, dives and cradling of the ball that defined his career and to him signalled an itching discomfort towards the familiar in his life. And so, he went for a walk.
“If you always seek external solutions to your internal problems, you will never be able to really solve them and you will never be able to judge yourself and value yourself for what you’re worth…you’ll always be looking for external help, alibis, excuses. Instead, life must be lived according to your limits and your virtues.”Gianluigi “Gigi” Buffon on facing his own trials and tribulations when dealing with depression around the 2004-05 Serie A season.
Buffon describes that particular start to the day as an effort to do something different. Breaking the routine that had “shrivelled his mind”, Buffon stopped off at a new place for breakfast. Yet the best part of his morning was an awakening on the horizon. Meandering about after breakfast he paused in front of, hesitated and then entered an exhibition featuring the art of world-renowned artist Marc Chagall. Buffon enjoyed it, so much so that throughout 2019, he made headlines across the media landscape opening up about how the “simple things”, described within his Players’ Tribune video as “different incentives” to those ruling his football-centric life in the early 2000s, can lend meaning and joy all while altering ones’ outlook on and appreciation for life.
Buffon might be criticized for normalising a simplistic view of mental disorders in suggesting that adding simplicity, reflection and diversity in activity into your life can aid in alleviating the omnipresence of, for instance, depression. However, this discourse of Buffon reflecting how an athlete’s lifestyle and self-imposed purpose can become all-consuming is very valuable in a sport-crazed society where we scrutinise and compare achievements, statistics and intangibles down to the finest details. In meritocratic, data-driven societies where what we do for a living often corresponds with attaching labels, it is refreshing to see such engagement with being more than an athlete. Further to that Buffon conspicuously argues, “I believe that every man has a creative side, and should find a way to express it. It must serve as motivation.” He quickly adds that this does not mean a strive for perfection, or as he states “to be the number one in the world”, but finding solace in the normality of expression and creativity.
Coincidentally, the city of Turin also played a part in shaping my childhood heroes, of which the steadfast Buffon was one of mine. A friend of my father’s, Giacomo, instilled in me a love of all things Juventus. From the Alessandro Del Piero jersey to David Trezeguet’s autograph, I rooted for them knowing that the last line of defence was their strongest. From one strength to the next, I now realise, many years on, that the greatest testament to what “Gigi” Buffon is as a person is his eloquence and sensibility.
Above all, Buffon seems to have methodically approached the balancing act he sought when defining boundaries within his personal- and sporting lives. In our constant striving for achievement and victory, the athlete and competitor in each of us would do well to tap into this sentiment embodied by the #MoreThanAnAthlete movement. We wish “Gigi” all the best as his 2019/20 season with Juventus enters the final three months of pivotal games.