MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - At 39 years of age, Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon can look back on a career where he has won almost everything there is to win in the game - except for the Champions League title.
On Saturday Buffon, the finest goalkeeper of his generation, can add the medal he misses the most if his Juventus team can overcome 11-time European champions Real Madrid in Cardiff and make him the oldest player to win the continent’s top prize.
At club level, Buffon got off to a winning start, claiming the UEFA Cup and the Italian Cup with Parma in 1999. With Juventus he has won the Italian league ‘scudetto’ 10 times, although two of those titles were later rescinded following investigations.
In the colours of the national team, under the guidance of his former Juve coach Marcello Lippi, Buffon won the World Cup with the Azzurri in 2006, making up for the disappointment of missing out on Italy’s European Championship success in 2000 due to injury.
Twice the keeper has been in the final of the Champions League but both times the Bianconeri went home as runners-up - to AC Milan on penalties in Manchester in 2003 and against Barcelona in Berlin two years ago.
Buffon’s career has not been all about glory, however. Those investigations into match-fixing and other irregularities saw Juventus relegated to Serie B, but the keeper stuck with them in the second tier through the 2006-07 season.
On a more personal level, Buffon has battled depression and has also dealt with having his personal life - particularly a divorce and second marriage - heavily covered in the Italian media.
But his brilliance as a keeper is widely recognised and his enthusiasm for the game and his warm personality have made him hugely popular with his peers of all clubs and nationalities.
“If they weren’t up against Madrid, I would want to him to win the Champions with all my heart,” former Real keeper Iker Casillas said this week.
“He deserves it - Gigi shouldn’t end his career without a Champions League,” added the Spaniard, currently with Portuguese club Porto.
Former Barcelona midfielder Xavi has no mixed feelings in rooting for a Buffon and Juventus win.
“I think Juventus will win the Champions League. I want them to do it for Gigi Buffon,” he said recently.
The keeper himself has made no secret of the fact that he desperately wants that missing medal.
”It would mean a lot for me. It would be the greatest joy of my career, together with the World Cup, because it would almost be a reward – the end of a very difficult road paved by bravery, stubbornness and hard work.
“I have always wanted to win it and I have always been convinced that I can do it together with my team, the fans, my colleagues,” he said.
With just one year left on his contract at Juventus and his 40th birthday on the horizon, this might be the Tuscan’s last chance to taste that joy.
Editing by Tom Heneghan