Gianluigi Buffon had the perfect farewell planned: Concluding his glorious international career exactly where it started, in Russia.
In a bonus sixth World Cup.
It wasn’t mean to be, though.
Two decades after making his Italy debut on a snowy field in Moscow in a World Cup playoff, Buffon was in the jersey in Milan on Monday in another playoff. But the Italians drew the game with Sweden and lost the playoff 1-0. Buffon, the captain, wore the hurt on his face.
“It is upsetting that my last match decided we didn’t qualify for the World Cup,” he said, wiping away tears.
In his record 175th appearance for Italy, Buffon was hardly tested and even ventured forward in a desperate attempt to score on two corners late in the match at San Siro. But four-time champion Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Not for me, though, but for (Italy),” Buffon said. “I’m sorry that we failed at something that could have also been important on a social level. That’s the only regret I have.
“We didn’t leave anything out on the pitch.”
If Italy had qualified, Buffon, who will turn 40 in January, would have become the first player to travel to six World Cups.
Buffon’s first was in 1998 in France, and he was the second-choice goalkeeper behind Gianluca Pagliuca and didn’t play. Germany great Lothar Matthaus and former Mexico goalkeeper Antonio Carbajal played in five World Cups.
Buffon will also miss out on a chance to become football’s most capped player. He ends his career fourth on the all-time list behind record-holder Ahmed Hassan’s 184 appearances for Egypt, Mohamed al-Deayea’s 178 for Saudi Arabia, and Claudio Suarez’s 177 for Mexico.
Buffon was one of the driving forces behind Italy’s run to the 2006 World Cup title, where he didn’t concede a single goal to opponents in regulation time over the course of seven matches — letting in only an own-goal by Cristian Zaccardo and a penalty by Zinedine Zidane in the final against France.
He helped Parma to the UEFA Cup title way back in 1999 and has since won eight Serie A titles with Juventus, including the last six.
Buffon has also been on the losing side in three Champions League finals with Juventus, the first in 2003 and the other two over the last three seasons.
Buffon announced in June that this season will be his last unless Juventus wins the elusive Champions League, in which case he would continue for one more season to try and also win the Club World Cup and other trophies.
After all, he’s still at the top of his game. Three weeks ago, Buffon was named UEFA club goalkeeper of the year.
Fortunately for Italy, another Gianluigi is ready to replace Buffon. At 18, Gianluigi Donnarumma has a similar stature to Buffon — he’s even a bit taller — and is already in his third season as the starter at AC Milan.
“A lot of these kids are talented, including Donnarumma and (reserve goalkeeper Mattia) Perin,” Buffon told RAI state TV. “I wish these kids a lot of luck.”
Veteran midfielder Daniele De Rossi could have taken over as Italy captain but he also announced he was retiring after the playoff, as did the 36-year-old Barzagli.
“There’s definitely a future, because we have pride and strength,” Buffon said. “We’re stubborn and hard-headed. After ugly falls we find a way to rise back up.”