Dear 17-year-old Gianluigi,
I write this letter to you tonight as a 41-year-old man who has experienced many, many things in life, and has made some mistakes. I have some good news and some bad news for you. The truth is that I am really here to speak to you about your soul.
Yes, your soul. You do have one, believe it or not.
Let’s begin with the bad news. You’re 17 years old. You’re about to become a real footballer, like in your dreams. You think that you know everything. But the truth is, my friend, you don’t know shit.
In just a few days, you will get the chance to start your first Serie A match for Parma, and you don’t know enough to be scared. You should be in bed, drinking warm milk. But what are you going to do? You’re going to go to the nightclub with your good friend from the Primavera.
You’re just going to have one beer, right?
But then you exaggerate a bit. You play the movie character. The strongman. This is how you usually cope with this pressure that you don’t even know that you feel. Soon, you’ll be outside the club, arguing with some police officers at one in the morning.
Just go home. Go to bed.
And please, I beg you, don’t piss on the wheel of the police car. The officers will not find it amusing, the club will not find it amusing, and you will risk everything that you’ve worked for.
This is the kind of chaos that you bring upon yourself, for no reason. There is a burning inside you that will lead you to make mistakes. Of course, you think that you are showing your teammates that you’re strong and free, but in reality, this is a mask that you wear.
In just a few days, you will be gifted with three things that are very, very intoxicating, but also very, very dangerous.
Money, fame, and the job of your dreams.
Now, you’re surely thinking, What could possibly be dangerous about this?
Well, this is a paradox.
On one hand, it’s true that a keeper needs confidence. He needs to be fearless. If you give a manager the choice between the greatest technical keeper in the world, and the most fearless keeper in the world, I guarantee you that he will choose the fearless bastard every single time.
On the other hand, a person who is fearless can easily forget that they have a mind. If you live your life in a nihilistic way, thinking only about football, your soul will start to wither. Eventually, you will become so depressed that you won’t even want to leave your bed.
You can laugh if you want, but this will happen to you. It will happen at the height of your career, when you have everything a man could ever want in life. You will be 26 years old. The keeper of Juventus and the Italian national team. You will have money and respect. People will even call you Superman.
But you’re no superhero. You’re just a man like anyone else. And the truth is that the pressure of this profession can turn you into a robot. Your routine can become a prison. You go to training. You come home and watch TV. You go to sleep. You do the same the next day. You win. You lose. It repeats and repeats.
One morning, when you get out of bed to go to training, your legs will start shaking uncontrollably. You will be so weak that you won’t be able to drive your car. Initially, you will think it’s just fatigue, or a virus. But then it will get worse. All you’ll want to do is sleep. At training, every save will feel like a titanic effort. For seven months, you will have a hard time finding joy in life.
At this moment, we must pause.
Because I know what you’re thinking reading this, at 17 years old.
You are saying, “How is this possible? I am a happy person. I am a born leader. If I will be the keeper for Juventus, making millions, then I must be happy. It is impossible to be depressed.”
Well, I must ask you an important question. Why did you decide to devote your life to football, Gigi? Do you remember?
And, please, do not just say that it was because of Thomas N’Kono. You must go deeper than that. You have to remember every detail.
You were 12, yes.
The 1990 World Cup was in Italy, yes.
The first match was Argentina vs. Cameroon at the San Siro, yes.
But where were you during the first match? Close your eyes. You were in your living room, all alone. Why weren’t your friends there, like usual? You can’t recall. Your grandmother was in the kitchen, making lunch. And it was so hot that day that she shut all the windows to make the room more fresh. It was completely dark, except for the yellow glow of the television.
What do you see?
You see this strange name. CAMEROON.
You don’t know where Cameroon is. You didn’t even know such a place existed before this moment. Of course, you know Argentina and Maradona, but there is something magical about the players from Cameroon. It’s so hot under the summer sun, but their keeper is still wearing a full suit. Long black pants. Long green shirt with the pink collar. The way he moves, the way he stands tall, the fantastic mustache. He captivates your heart in a way that is unexplainable.
He is the coolest man you have ever seen.
The commentator says his name is Thomas N’Kono.
There’s a corner for Argentina, and Thomas runs out into the crowd and punches the ball 30 yards in the air. This is the moment that you know what you want to do with your life.
You do not want to be simply a goalkeeper.
You want to be this kind of goalkeeper.
You want to be wild, courageous, free.
Minute after minute, watching this match, you become who you are. Your life is being written. Cameroon scores, and you become so nervous for them to hang on that you cannot physically take it anymore. You leap off the couch. You spend the entire second half pacing around the television stand. When Cameroon has a second man sent off, you cannot even bear to listen.
For the final five minutes, you crouch behind the television with the sound off.
You peek out every once in a while to see what’s happening, then retreat.
Finally, you peek out, and the Cameroon players are celebrating. You run straight out into the street. Two other kids from your neighborhood do the same thing. Everyone is yelling, “Did you see Cameroon? Did you see Cameroon?”
That day, a fire is born inside of you. Cameroon is a place that exists. Thomas N’Kono is a man who exists. You will show the world that Buffon exists.
This is why you became a footballer. Not because of money or fame. Because of the artistry and style of this man Thomas N’Kono. Because of his soul.
You must remember this: money and fame isn’t the purpose. If you are not taking care of your soul, if you are not looking for inspiration in things outside of football, you will deteriorate. If I could give you one piece of advice, it is to be much more curious about the world around you when you are still young. You will save yourself, and especially your family, a lot of heartache.
To be a keeper is to be courageous, it is true.
But to be courageous is not to be ignorant, Gigi.
At the depths of your depression, something strange and beautiful will happen. One morning, you will decide to break your routine and go to a different restaurant in Torino for breakfast. So you’ll take a new route through the city, and you’ll walk past an art museum.
The poster outside will say CHAGALL.
You have heard this name before. But you don’t know about art.
You have things to do.
You must be on your way.
You are Buffon.
But who is Buffon?
Who are you, really?
Do you know?
This is the most important part of this letter. You have to walk into that museum, on that specific day. It will be the most important decision of your life.
If you do not walk into that museum, and you carry on with your life as a footballer, as Superman, then you will continue to lock all of your feelings away in the cellar, and your soul will deteriorate.
But if you go inside, you will see hundreds of paintings by Chagall. Most of them will do nothing to stir you. Some good, some interesting, some that say nothing to you at all.
But then you will see one specific painting that will hit you like a lightning bolt.
It is called The Walk.
It’s an almost childlike image. A man and a woman are in a park, having a picnic, but everything is magical. The woman is flying away into the sky, like an angel, and the man is standing on the ground, holding her hand, smiling.
It is like the dream of a child.
This image will transmit something from another world. It will give you the feeling of a child. The feeling of happiness in simplicity.
The feeling of Thomas N’Kono punching the ball 30 yards.
The feeling of your grandmother calling to you from the kitchen.
The feeling of sitting behind the television in the dark, praying.
As we get older, we can easily forget these feelings.
You must go back to the museum the very next day. It is essential.
The woman at the ticket booth will look at you in a funny way. She’ll say, “Weren’t you just here yesterday?”
It doesn’t matter. Go back inside. This art will be the best cure for you. When you open up your mind, the inner heaviness that you feel will be lifted, like the woman being lifted into the air in Chagall’s painting.
Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images
There is an incredible irony in this moment. Sometimes I think that life must be written for us. So many unexplainable and beautiful things that will happen to you that seem to be connected. This is one of them.
Because when you are a young player for Parma, you will do something out of ignorance that will mark you. Before a big match, you’ll want to make a big gesture to show your teammates and the fans that you are a leader, you are courageous, you are a big character.
So you will write a message on your shirt that you once saw carved on a desk when you were at school.
You’ll write, “Death to Cowards.”
You think it’s just a motivational cry.
You don’t know that it is a slogan of the far-right fascists.
This is one of the mistakes that will cause your family a lot of pain. But these mistakes are important, because they remind you that you’re human. They will remind you, again and again, that you don’t know shit, my friend. This is good, because football will do an excellent job of trying to convince you that you are special. But you must remember that you are no different from the bartender or the electrician, who you will be friends with for life.
This is what will get you out of your depression. Not remembering that you are special, but remembering that you are the same as everyone else. You cannot comprehend this now, at 17 years old, but I promise you that real courage is showing weakness and not being ashamed.
You deserve the gift of life, Gigi. Just as everyone does. Remember this.
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
Things are connected in ways that you are too young and naive to see now. My only regret is that you did not open your mind to the world sooner. Perhaps this is just who you are. At 41 years old, you will still feel this burning inside. You will still not be satisfied, I am sorry to say. Even holding the World Cup trophy in your arms will not soothe this feeling. Until you have a season where you don’t let in any goals, you will not be content.
Yes, perhaps it is true that you have always been this way.
Do you remember the first winter you went to visit your uncle in Udine, up in the mountains? Or is this a memory that only an older man can recall?
You were four years old. It had snowed overnight. You had never seen snow before. You woke up and looked out the window, and you saw a dream. This whole country turned white.
You ran outside in your pajamas, and you didn’t even understand what snow was. But there was no hesitation. You looked at the white snowbank, and what did you do? Did you think? Did you wonder? Did you run inside for your coat?
No, you jumped right in. Fearless.
Your grandmother was screaming, “Gianluigi!!!!!!!!!! No! No! No!”
You were soaking wet, grinning.
You ended up having a fever for a whole week.
But you didn’t give a damn.
No hesitation. Right into the snow.
This is who you are.
You are Buffon.
You will show the world that you exist.