Friday June 5th, 2015

The last time Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo played at the Olimpiastadion in Berlin, they won the 2006 World Cup, beating France on penalties in the final. Both played a key role: Pirlo scored the first penalty in the shootout; Buffon was an icon of composure throughout. On Saturday, they will return to the same stage, this time looking to win the Champions League for Juventus (2:45 p.m., FOX).

Pirlo has remained a consistent presence at the back of midfield. He is 36 now and what little pace he once had has deserted him, but his capacity to rotate possession and occasionally sling one of those raking passes out to the flanks to alter the course of an attack remains undiminished–or, rather, almost undiminished; there were worrying signs of fallibility at times in that second leg of the semifinal win over Real Madrid.

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Still, his pass completion rate remains over 85%, even though an average of 6.9 of those passes per game are defined as “long”–that is, they travel over 30 yards.

It’s true that these days he needs Claudio Marchisio and Paul Pogba to do the bulk of his running for him, but even in the days of Antonio Conte and his intense pressing, Pirlo was always deemed a luxury worth having.

“The phrase 'We're going to Berlin' always remains in my head,” he said, recalling a song Italian fans sung in 2006. “I hope it can happen again. Is it destiny? I hope so.”

For Pirlo, this will be a fourth Champions League final–the other three with AC Milan: two won, one lost. For Buffon it will be a second: in 2003 he played against Pirlo in Juve’s last final. For both Juventus and Buffon, a lot has happened since.

He had had probably the best season of his career in 2002-03, but that Champions League final was a bitter disappointment. It was 1-1 as Alessandro Nesta stepped up to take Milan’s fourth kick in the penalty shootout, Paolo Montero having just missed Juve’s fourth. Nesta scored and Buffon, he admits, was left demoralized.

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“I was convinced that I’d saved it and instead it went in,” Buffon wrote in his autobiography. “I was certain he’d shoot to the left and I dived there. But too early with respect to the ball, which instead had a strange trajectory and surprised me. When [Milan forward Andriy] Shevchenko arrived at the spot for the last penalty, I was already in the dressing room, the adrenaline that had accompanied me until that moment had abandoned me.’

After the game, Buffon stood in a corridor outside the locker room, winding down with a cigarette and, hardly aware he was speaking aloud, asked, “When the f**k will I get another chance like this?” 

Juve director Roberto Bettega, a goalscoring legend of the club, happened to be walking past. “At Juventus,” said, “they tend to come along rather a lot.”

But Buffon became consumed by self-doubt, a staggering revelation for somebody who had always seemed so confident: “It was as if my head weren’t my own, but someone else’s: as if it were continually elsewhere.”

His legs would tremble involuntarily and he found himself acting out of character: after Italy’s draw against Denmark at Euro 2004, for instance–“a horrendous game”, as he notes–“I was the only one who smiled.” He began to think that everything in football and around his life was superficial and cited a line supposedly from Marilyn Monroe with which he vehemently disagreed. “Better to cry in a Rolls Royce than on a full tram.”

He wanted for nothing from a material point of view, he said, but slipped into despair because he lacked certain human values. For seven months he was treated by a psychologist for depression.

Gianluigi Buffon celebrates after winning the 2006 World Cup with Italy in Berlin, site of this year's Champions League final.
Roland Weihrauch/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Buffon stayed when Juventus was relegated as punishment for its part in the calciopoli scandal in 2006, helping the club to immediate promotion. Whatever your thoughts on the validity of the punishment or how Juventus conducts itself generally, it’s fair to say that after four straight scudetti, reaching the Champions League final represents a full recovery.

Buffon, too, has been back to his best this season after a couple of years when his age–he is 37–had seemed to be catching up with him. Nobody doubts that Barcelona is the favorite, but Juve has a sense of destiny about the return to Berlin.

“I'm going back to Berlin after nine years,” Buffon said. “I’m curious to see whether the feelings and sensations will be the same. After nine years–some of which have been really difficult–to come here again and make it with the whole team, the whole staff, the whole club and all our fans, that is just something great and something really rewarding.”

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