Neil Loughran: Gianluigi Buffon the type of hero who touches a generation

After 21 years at the top, Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon forms part of the consciousness of a generation of football supporters
Neil Loughran

TUESDAY, November 8 2016 is a day the world will never forget. Donald Trump, president-elect of the United States.

Take a moment, another moment, to consider that. He walks among us, commander-in-chief, the fear-mongering master of middle America, soon to be leader of the free world.

Pitched up in Good Morning Britain’s US studio, blurry eyes could just make out Piers Morgan struggling to contain his glee. Surely, he will be next - hot-shot young journalist turned disgraced newspaper editor turned TV celebrity and talk show host turned prime minister in waiting. You read it here first.

And why not? After all, we are told to encourage our kids to believe that anything is possible. Growing up, the wearying world of global politics was little more than an occasional boring talking point amongst adults at the dinner table.

The idea of anything being possible was often provided by the leading sporting figures of the day, not power-hungry men in suits. When that sportsperson is a contemporary in terms of geography or age, those ties can become even stronger.

Take my dad, for example. He spent much of his youth kicking a football about the large green area at the bottom of Cooneen Way in the middle of Belfast’s Cregagh Estate. Occasionally, a shy kid from nearby Burren Way would join in.

Small in stature, with a mop of black hair and a cheeky grin, he was about a year younger than the rest. When the ball was at his feet though, age became an irrelevance.

Plenty of good footballers emerged from that stretch of grass, but nobody quite like this. Lightning quick with swivelling hips that would make Elvis blush, left foot, right foot, he was a master of both. Kick him and he got back up again.

What was the name again? ‘George, George Best’. After he was spotted by Manchester United scout Bob Bishop and whisked off to Old Trafford, Best would return to the family home regularly, cutting a dash in his leather jacket and Chelsea boots. He was the superstar on their doorstep.

You heard it here first - Piers Morgan to be the next British prime minister  

Even when Best’s football career went off the rails and his descent into alcoholism accelerated, my dad’s interest in and affection for the ‘Belfast Boy’ never waned.

I remember being hoisted over railings to meet Best at the official opening of the new Virgin Megastore on Royal Avenue back in 1990. He was there to cut the ribbon and sign copies of his new video (ask your parents, kids) and I couldn’t resist saying: “You used to play football with my dad.”

Best smiled and shook my hand. Knowing my dad, he probably died a death somewhere in the background. But this wasn’t a case of worshipping a sporting idol - far from it.

Instead, part of my dad’s youth, and memories associated with it, were wrapped up in Best’s story - the story of a lad from the same area who made the journey from humble beginnings out in the green to gracing the Theatre of Dreams.

Bizarrely, watching Gianluigi Buffon belt out the Italian national anthem before the friendly with Germany in Milan on Wednesday night, a similarly sentimental wave washed over me.

The veteran goalkeeper was making his 167th appearance for the Azzurri, equalling the European record set by Spain’s Iker Casillas.

Now, I never played football with Gigi Buffon out the front of my house. I never looked through the living room window to see him stride down the street, a made man. I have no connection to him whatsoever. I’ve never even seen him play in the flesh.

What I do have, though, is a vivid memory of watching this tall, gangly teenager single-handedly hold the great AC Milan team of the mid-1990s goalless on his first-ever game between the sticks for Parma.

Fabio Capello had assembled one of the best club sides the game has ever seen. In attack, they were a fearsome proposition. George Weah was one of the best strikers in the world at the time, Roberto Baggio was in his prime. Dejan Savicevic could pull a rabbit from the hat at any stage of the game.

Imagine being 17 and facing that - on your debut? Just four years previous, at Italia ’90, 41-year-old Peter Shilton was still ambling about England’s six yard box. Packie Bonner was 34 when he denied Romania’s Daniel Timofte from the penalty spot.

The position of goalkeeper was traditionally meant to be for the experienced head - it required not just a different set of skills to those plying their trade outfield, but a different mindset and maturity level.

Yet, Buffon was a different animal. Rather than worrying about his A-levels, there he was pulling off save after save and leaving an indelible mark on anybody fortunate enough to have been inside the Stadio Ennio Tardini or tuned into Football Italia.

That he was only three years my senior made my appreciation of his heroic feat all the more great. From that moment forth, whether Buffon or Best, you’re invested in this guy.

Sport has the magical ability to allow an affinity that is struck up in a second to last for a lifetime. Twenty-one years on, I’m not ashamed to admit I had a lump in my throat when Buffon was the first man to wrap a congratulatory arm around Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane in the euphoric seconds that followed the Republic of Ireland’s win-or-bust Euro 2016 victory over Italy last summer.

It was a class act, from a class act. And it was with a strange sense of pride that I watched him celebrate yet another milestone in a career that first caught fire all those years ago - long before any of us gave a damn about Brexit or Donald Trump.

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