Somewhere, sometime soon Gianluigi Buffon will look back on his behaviour at the end of the second leg of Juventus’ game with Real Madrid this season and feel a bit silly. He might not regret what he did, and might still feel his ire and disbelief are warranted, but he will surely come to realise something. The best way a goalkeeper has of exacting revenge in that situation is to save the penalty. To do that, he has to be on the flipping pitch.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing and criticism of Buffon, some of it warranted and some feeling opportune, as though people had been waiting to put the boot in and were relishing the opportunity that had arisen.
Buffon took the route of explosive departure; a goodbye heralded by fireworks and red mist. He is not the first to take this path, but he is the most recent.
Not the only one to sign off in disgrace
Extreme talk suggested that the Italian goalkeeper’s career was tarnished by the incident, ending his last Champions League match in ignominy. He didn’t have to look far to see the lie in that sentiment. Just as far as the Real Madrid bench, in fact. Zinedine Zidane was master at the art of overreacting, and ended his career after a headbutt on Marco Materazzi. It may have lost France the World Cup Final but the Frenchman is remembered for goals in finals rather than red cards, his reputation as robust now as it ever was.
He was not even the only member of his team who looked set to sign off in disgrace. On leaving the field, Zidane passed the captain’s armband over to Fabian Barthez, a man only recently returned to the top table after a ban for spitting at a referee in a game for Marseille against Wydad Casablanca.
Barthez eventually returned, just as Eric Cantona did from the moment of madness that threatened to derail his career but was instead the making of him. Think of Cantona now and your mind turns to that goal against Liverpool, maybe, or his statement about seagulls. Cantona, of course, followed the first law of show business by retiring early – leave them wanting more.
Burn out or fade away?
It is a difficult balance for a footballer – is it better to burn out than fade away? It is impossible to do neither, but there are examples of players doing both. Look at Mark van Bommel. The Dutchman continued well after his peak, performing able service for first Milan and then PSV again as his career wound down. In his final career match, a 3-1 defeat to FC Twente, van Bommel was booked twice, and dismissed. That was rather in-keeping with his career, and acted as a neat full stop.
There have been memorable departures from the international scene, too. Diego Maradona was carted off from USA 94 in disgrace after failing a drugs test. Despite his stellar career, he never played for Argentina again. The incident barely manages a ripple in discussion of Maradona’s career, just one out of control moment out of many.
Stefan Effenberg’s departure from international football at that same tournament was no less spectacular. Having helped Germany race into a 3-0 lead against South Korea, Effenberg was substituted with quarter of an hour to go and the scoreline reading 3-2. Upset by the German supporters, the veteran midfielder gave them the finger as he left the field. His career was over, and while it might be the most famous moment he had in a Germany shirt, Effenberg is far better remembered for his time with Bayern. No harm done to that reputation.
The 1990 World Cup Final came a little early for Effenberg, but claimed two endings. Both Gustavo Dezotti and substitute Pedro Monzon were sent off in that match. Neither played for Argentina again and both rather saw their most famous moments disappear into thin air at the Stadio Olimpico.
So what is the alternative?
One can fade away, playing out ones days at progressively lower and lower levels. Julio Arca still turns out for South Shields, you know. I once saw Julian Joachim playing for Boston United and Barry Hayles is still scoring goals, and enjoying it, for Windsor FC.
This path was famously taken by the likes of George Best and Bobby Moore. The list of teams that the Northern Irishman turned out for is astounding, and seemingly every week on social media brings a photograph of him in an unexpected shirt. Hibs, maybe. Brisbane Lions. Stockport County.
Johan Cruyff was less nomadic, but still added spells in the USA and at Levante to his CV before returning to the Netherlands. Rivaldo took in AEK Athens, and Tashkent’s Bunyodspor on his global jaunt. He also ended up back in his homeland, and is now president of Mogi Mirim.
Nobody looks at the latter days of any of those great careers as anything other than bookends to great careers, opportunities for supporters of clubs to see their heroes almost embarking on a victory lap during which little is demanded of them except a few party tricks on the ball.
So, if going out in a blaze of stupidity doesn’t damage your reputation, nor does playing on long enough that there is only a flicker of the substance that made you great in the first place, which is the better path to take?
I think sometimes it is best to defer to the words of Monty Python, and this might be one of those times.
Given the likelihood that we’ll see Buffon dancing round a football pitch in Italy with a smile as wide as the Alps at some point soon, it is advice he may well hold in his heart already.
“You must always face the curtain with a bow. Forget about your sin, give the audience a grin, enjoy it it’s your last chance anyhow.”
These are the last days of one of the greatest footballers who has ever lived. He should be able to enjoy them, and we should be able to enjoy them. He did something silly, and we all know it, but forget about it for now. Its over.