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.
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.
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.