TURIN, Italy, May 10 – Cardiff beckons for Gianluigi Buffon and an elusive Champions League winners’ medal is not the only prestigious prize within the gangly reach of one of the great goalkeepers.
At 39, Buffon feared his chance to win club football’s biggest competition might have gone after featuring in losing Juve teams in the 2003 and 2015 finals.
But the 2006 World Cup winner has never been one to let anything slip easily through his fingers.
His exemplary form this season has been a key reason for Juve’s irresistible advance on the Welsh capital, where they will face Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid on June 3.
And if Buffon and co. do return from Wales victorious, what price the skipper crowning a silverware-sprinkled career by becoming the first goalkeeper since Lev Yashin in 1963 to win the Ballon d’Or?
With Real Madrid the more likely opponents, shutting out Cristiano Ronaldo would inevitably bolster Buffon’s prospects of ending the Portuguese striker and Lionel Messi’s recent monopoly on world football’s leading individual award.
The notion that “Gigi” deserves nothing less is already being pushed noisily by the adoring Italian media.
But the well-travelled Claudio Ranieri, whose long career included a stint managing Buffon at Juventus, says the case for Buffon is founded on more than patriotic fervour.
– ‘Done nothing yet’ –
“If they win the Champions League I really think he would deserve it,” the former Leicester and Chelsea boss told SkyItalia.
“It is a very particular role and it is not easy. They have only given it to a goalkeeper once, with Yashin. But if you ask, who is the best footballer in the world, then yes, the answer can be Buffon.”
Juve booked their second final slot in three seasons on Tuesday by beating Monaco 2-1, completing an impressive 4-1 aggregate win in front of home supporters convinced this could be their year.
As a club, Turin’s Old Lady has a habit of stumbling on the doorstep of glory. Eight times Juventus have reached the final match in the world’s most prestigious club competition, but only twice have they brought the trophy back to Italy.
“We had some tough moments,” Buffon said after sending a young Monaco side packing.
“And it would have been even harder if we had gone out there with our noses in the air. But we didn’t, we knew we had to suffer.
“Now this final is here. But it counts for nothing yet.”
– ‘Impossible into reality’ –
Juventus were well beaten when they lost to Barcelona in 2015 in what was their fourth final setback since they beat Ajax in 1996.
Heartbreak followed in 1997, 1998 and 2003 and many feared Juventus’s days as a great force in European football were over when the club was caught up in a match-fixing scandal and relegated to Serie B following the 2006 World Cup.
Buffon was among the club’s leading stars who opted to stay and he has been a pillar of its rebirth as the predominant force in Italian football.
A point at direct rivals Roma on Sunday will wrap up a sixth straight Scudetto and, with a Coppa Italia final to come against Lazio on May 17, a memorable treble looks like a distinct possibility.
There is little doubt about which piece of silverware counts most.
“When we played in the 2015 final, everyone thought it would be my last in the Champions,” Buffon said. “Even I thought it, even if underneath I kept hoping.”
And the sense of being on the brink of history was underlined in a tweet from Italy’s most capped player on Wednesday.
“We will be remembered for our actions,” he wrote. “For our capacity to turn the impossible into reality.”