UEFA Champions League final: Gigi Buffon makes his case for the Ballon d’Or

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Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

winning the league title and the Coppa Italia in the same year — was only voted to No. 9 on the list in 2015-2016, below Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, is unconscionable. There is no acceptable reason why Buffon and fellow keepers like Iker Casillas and Manuel Neuer have been consistently disrespected when it comes to deciding the best players in the world.

This is not an argument for a lifetime achievement award. Even though he’s 39 years old, Buffon is the best goalkeeper in the world, and he has arguably been the world’s top performer at any position this season. He deserves the award because he has earned it.

Juventus conceded only one goal to a Monaco side that had scored almost 150 before their Champions League semifinal matchup. Juve had gone 690 minutes before that lone Kylian Mbappe goal in the second leg broke through in a game that was the 150th of Buffon’s European career. The last time Buffon saw an opponent’s shot hit the back of the net before Mbappe was back in November, during a 3-1 group stage win against Dinamo Zagreb.

Buffon has also won Serie A for the fifth consecutive time with Juve, and he’s done so, once again, like every other time, in excellent fashion. The team allowed 26 goals and has held the record for least goals conceded for the better part of five years now. That’s not only a matter of a great defense but also of having a steward who prevents any disasters when the backline is breached.

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That’s the ultimate disqualifier for goalkeepers. That goals conceded, clean sheets, saves made — if defenders are smart, they limit good opportunities for forwards and the keeper only has to face shots that he shouldn’t have a problem with. Save ratio, or anything really that serves to complement the position, is a byproduct of a great defense and cohesive team play.

That’s fair — a keeper who plays behind a disciplined team will always look better. Or at least the most well-known ways of judging keepers will be in his favor. But if we disqualify the achievements of keepers under the reason of good play, then we can just as well start dismissing the goals of forwards in the same breath. After all, it’s the team that creates most of the opportunities for them.

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In judging the ability of singular players in a team game, reducing the impact of great keepers due to the greatness of their defense is a ridiculous slippery slope. That a team game requires several working parts doesn’t take away from Buffon’s individual brilliance. And since the Ballon d’Or is an individual award, it should reward that.

Though the second leg against Monaco was more of a celebration of Juve’s team defense, Buffon still managed to thwart Mbappe with an excellent save at the near-post a few minutes before the young forward would score. The save and goal perfectly highlights the disparity between the world of forwards and goalkeepers.

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Mbappe was barreling down on goal from the left after receiving a through ball, and Buffon came out a bit to close the angle. In doing so, which was necessary, he also put himself at risk of being beat by a ball across the face of goal. It was a gambit that he had to make. Mbappe chose to shoot, but Buffon had guessed on the cross. He dove to his left, to the inside, while the shot was going to his left. Still, in that split second, Buffon somehow managed to use his legs to deflect the shot for a corner.

It’s deemed as a save that he’s supposed to make, since keepers shouldn’t be beat at their near post. But he was in the middle of an unenviable position — either choice that he made to stop the play could have well been fatal — yet he managed somehow to deter the cross and save the shot. It’s the epitome of “get you a man who can do both.”

Keepers live in a pressure cooker that forwards are free from. The best forwards, with the highest conversion rates, still miss a multitude of chances. It comes with the territory. In creative endeavors, like playing up top, constant failure is an accepted consequence of the position. Ronaldo can play 58 games and score 52 goals while taking 5.7 shots per game — clearly missing more than he scores — and still be excellent.

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Keepers don’t get that leniency. A forward can miss a litany of chances and still be the best in the world. Keepers miss a few saves, and they become a running joke like Claudio Bravo.

Juve managed to prevent Monaco from getting shots off or threatening Buffon for most of that second leg, but when the French team did break through, Buffon had to make every save. To deter every shot, he had to catch or punch out every corner and cross that his defenders missed. There is no margin of error at goalkeeper, which is the premise for the suggestion that one has to be mad to play that position.

Mbappe can miss the first chance and score the one after and be celebrated. Had Buffon missed the first save and conceded the second as well, it would have been a disaster.

If there’s any position that really showcases individual ability in the soccer field, it is the goalkeeper, who is under more pressure than anyone else on the field. Even the defenders have the keeper to bail them out if they make a mistake.

The simple terms of goals and assists are important; they’re what wins games. For the longest time, the best players in the world have been determined by who scores and assists the most. Yet, if scoring goals is super important, then preventing them should be honored in the same manner.

If forwards are highly regarded for scoring goals while converting less than half the chances that they get, it’s absurd that keepers are forgotten when their jobs call for the inverse. They have to consistently be excellent in the most critical job situation on the pitch. To disregard them in the conversation for best players in the world is scandalous.

Each position should be judged on its merits. A forward can be judged by goals and assists because that’s what they should do. A midfielder should not be. Neither should a defender or a goalkeeper. An award for the best player in the world should reflect these positional differences.

If Buffon is being judged on how well he is at doing his job, which is to prevent goals, to thwart the threat when all else fails, then he has been the best player this season. The Ballon d’Or should go to him. That only a few defenders have ever won it is bemusing. That only one goalkeeper has lifted it is inexcusable.

Buffon has deserved to win the Ballon d’Or before, and he deserves it now. If the award is to reflect the best player in the world this season, it needs to go to the 39-year-old goalkeeper, whether he wins the Champions League or not.

But if he shuts out Real Madrid, it’ll certainly make his argument stronger.




http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2017/6/3/15728158/gianluigi-buffon-juventus-vs-real-madrid-2017-uefa-champions-league-final

 

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