In the pandemonium that followed Juventus’s home win over Palermo earlier this month, supporters twice invaded the pitch. The Bianconeri had just been crowned champions of Italy for the second year running, prompting over-eager fans to rush the field in the hopes of joining their heroes’ celebrations. But by the time they reached their destination, most of Juventus’s players had already fled, sprinting down the tunnel and taking refuge in the changing rooms.
One player, though, did not run. Gigi Buffon stayed on the field as long as the stewards would allow, accepting a T-shirt from one fan—a member of the Viking Juve group of Ultras—and hugs from many more before finally being dragged away by a posse of men in fluorescent orange jackets. It was a telling scene. Few players identify as closely with the fans as Buffon, a man who still considers himself to be one of them.
The only difference is, Buffon does not support Juve. He likes his employers very much, as you might expect for a player who has spent 12 such happy and successful years with a single club, even choosing to stick by them after they were dropped to Serie B as a result of the Calciopoli scandal in 2006. But Buffon’s true love remains Carrarese, the team he supported as a boy.
Growing up in Carrara, a coastal town in northern Tuscany, Buffon quickly became obsessed with his local team. As a child he would watch games from the Curva Nord of the Stadio dei Marmi, a small concrete bowl with space for 5,000 or so people. As he grew older, he began to stand among the Ultras, bare-chested in his preferred game-day attire of blue jeans and an open leather jacket with no shirt underneath.
At times he even fought for his side. Asked during a 1998 interview with La Repubblica if he had ever traded blows with an opposition supporter, Buffon confirmed that he had. “Every now and then, yes,” he said. “After a game between Carrarese and Bologna five years ago, which Bologna won through absolute robbery, we caused a bit of a scene outside with the opposition fans.
“I’m not saying it’s right, but if you limit yourself to fighting with fists then it doesn’t seem that tragic to me either. The tragedy is when someone brings a knife with them from home.”
By the time of that interview, Buffon was already established as Parma’s starting goalkeeper, a fact which made attending Carrarese games altogether less straightforward. He would still get down whenever he could, however, taking advantage of gaps in the schedule to rush home and catch a game.
Even when he wasn’t able to physically follow his team, his enthusiasm never waned. For years, Buffon has worn gloves bearing the acronym: “C.u.i.t”, a nod to the Commando Ultras Indians Trips, the supporters group to which he belonged. In 2006 one of the goalkeeper’s sisters told Corriere della Sera how he still used to practice that group’s chants.
“There’s a little house next to our cottage,” she said. “He likes to close himself in there, where nobody can disturb him, and then do you know what he does next? He starts singing the songs of the Ultras! One time I spied on him through the window; he looked crazed. He was jumping around like a boy.”
Buffon was not going to let a career in football change him, nor the way he felt about his team. But one thing that did alter was his bank balance. By 2010, the combination of sporting income, endorsements and outside business interests had made Buffon a wealthy man. When Carrarese were relegated to the fifth-tier of Italian football, Serie D, that summer, he decided to intervene.
Together with four others, including the journeyman striker Cristiano Lucarelli, Buffon formed a consortium to buy Carrarese in July 2010. Their arrival seemed to herald a bright new dawn. The club’s relegation was reversed after other teams were unable to meet the Lega Pro’s registration requirements for the following season. Carrarese had themselves been struggling economically, but could now invest to strengthen their squad.
Within a year they had been promoted, securing their passage to the Lega Pro’s Prima Divisione—the third tier of Italian football—with a playoff victory over Prato. They followed that up with a solid mid-table finish a year later. Nevertheless, some of the club’s investors were getting restless. Like most other clubs throughout the Italian football pyramid, Carrarese were consistently losing money.
Hence, in July 2012, Buffon bought out the remaining four members of the consortium to take sole ownership of the club. At his press conference to confirm the transaction, Buffon also informed the club’s fans of a number of new appointments. His wife, Alena Seredova, was to serve as an official club ambassador. She would later be elevated to honorary president.
Alena confessed to never having watched Carrarese before, but Buffon declared himself thrilled at her involvement. “It makes me very happy to have Alena here with me,” said Buffon. “Even though she has told me many times that I am crazy to take on all these duties, she has also understood and shared in my decision. She will give us a hand in ‘spreading’ our colours, our name, and our history.”
Buffon had some more tangible plans for improving the club’s fortunes, stating that the region had always produced talented young players but too long allowed them to be signed up by teams from further afield. “This is an outrageous mistake,” he said. “We will try to take advantage of this natural opportunity, focusing strongly on our football school and youth sector.”
He would also use his footballing connections, he said, to secure loans of promising players from a number of top-flight teams. The club’s new manager, Carlo Sabatini, had an impressive contacts book of his own. His brother Walter is the sporting director of Roma.
Speaking at the same event, Sabatini told reporters that his priority was to get the team playing a brand of entertaining football that would bring fans to the stadium. Instead he brought an angry mob right to the changing room door, a group of Carrarese Ultras storming the tunnel at the end of a 3-0 home defeat to Benevento in October, the club’s fifth consecutive loss.
Sabatini promptly resigned, but his successor fared little better. Nello Di Costanzo was fired in February 2013 with Carrarese still bottom of the division. He was replaced by Ivo Iaconi, who scraped together seven points from the next eight games, not enough to peel them off the foot of the table. The team would need a victory over third-placed Latina in its final fixture to have any chance of avoiding relegation.
That game was played on Sunday at the Stadio dei Marmi. Of course, Buffon was in attendance. Less than 24 hours earlier he had joined his Juventus team-mates for their official Scudetto presentation, but now he found himself anxiously watching from the stands as the team that he owns and supports fought for its third-tier survival.
In the 33rd minute Carrarese took the lead, Nicola Corrent converting from the penalty spot. Thereafter, though, they became cautious, inviting the visitors on. With just over a quarter of an hour to go, Tomas Danilevicius, formerly of Arsenal, equalised with the help of a heavy deflection. The hosts poured forward, and in the dying moments enjoyed more than one golden opportunity to restore their advantage. But they failed to take them. The game finished 1-1.
At full-time Buffon followed his Carrarese players over towards the Ultras, a group who showed little sympathy for their plight. The team was jeered and heckled as Buffon looked on gloomily. How could things reach this point? He had tried to intervene much sooner, not only by changing manager but by persuading the former Lazio, Palermo and Chievo striker Stephen Makinwa, a man capped 16 times by Nigeria, to join the club back in November.
Makinwa had chipped in with six goals but could not halt the slide. Carrarese finished with just 21 points from 30 games. Their problem was not so much in attack as defence; they finished with a league-worst 51 goals conceded.
With his club still losing money, and a playing career of his own to worry about, it had been speculated that Buffon might try to sell up. He was quick to nip such talk in the bud. “I will certainly not give up after today,” he said on Sunday. “I am sad, though. I won’t hide the fact that this was a personal defeat for me. I’m the one to blame.”
In the immediate term, Buffon’s plan is to find out whether there is any hope of having the relegation reversed along similar lines to what happened in 2010. The sad reality of football in Italy’s lower divisions is that clubs go bankrupt with shocking regularity. As Buffon was quick to note, “We are up to date on all our payments and balances, which cannot be said for every other team.”
But regardless of what happens with relegation, Buffon promised to do what he could to make the team more competitive next season. As every supporter knows, there are some problems that you simply cannot walk away from.