Gianluigi Buffon is far from finished after 1,000 games between the posts
As Juventus flew to Portugal last month for the first leg of their round-of-16 tie with Porto, a club official approached Gigi Buffon and congratulated him. The Juventus captain was about to make his 100th appearance in the Champions League. "I'll be honest with you. I was a little upset about it," he joked. "I thought I had played a lot more of them. Let's just say it was a terrible blow to my ego."
It could have been more too. As his agent, (and former Genoa, Torino and Lazio keeper) Silvano Martina, revealed this week, Buffon had an agreement to join Barcelona in 2002. But that summer, he left Parma for Juventus instead, for what remains a world-record transfer fee for a goalkeeper. "Gigi" has been there ever since.
Had Buffon abandoned ship, like his former teammates Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Gianluca Zambrotta, Emerson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, when Juventus were relegated in the 2006 Calciopoli scandal, he would have passed this landmark a long time ago. He might have even been part of the Milan side that won the competition in Athens the following season. But that just isn't Buffon.
One of the reasons he's considered one of football's truly great leaders is that everybody knows they can count on him to be there no matter what. The easy way out isn't for him. He stayed true to Juventus in their hour of need, going down to the second division at a time when he was the game's undisputed No. 1, just a few short weeks after lifting the World Cup and narrowly missing out on becoming the first goalkeeper since Lev Yashin to be awarded the Ballon d'Or. People should never forget that.
Because of his decision to stick by Juventus, on Sunday in Genova, he broke yet another record. During a gritty 1-0 win over a resurgent Sampdoria, the minutes Buffon has played for Juventus in Serie A finally ticked past those of Giampiero Boniperti, the Old Lady's legendary former striker and president who coined the club motto: "Winning isn't important. It's the only thing that counts."
"It's a great accomplishment," Buffon said. "It's down to a lot of things -- not just talent. I don't think talent is enough to have the kind of continuity I've had in my career. It's not an end point. I think -- or rather hope -- to be able to extend this record further and that I still have many important minutes left in my legs, my head, my heart and my hands."
From Genova, Buffon travelled back to Carrara, his hometown, for a Father's Day dinner with family. A toast was made to his achievement. Buffon's brother-in-law then ordered another bottle of bubbly. "What else are we celebrating?" Buffon asked. It wasn't anybody's birthday.
"We told him that his next appearance would be the 1,000th of his career," Guendalina, his eldest sister and a former European champion volleyball player, told La Gazzetta dello Sport. Fright night's World Cup qualifier against Gianni de Biasi's Albania in Palermo will be Buffon's millennial.
Already the most capped Italy international, Buffon joins an exclusive club of just 17 players to play 1,000 games. The list includes Paolo Maldini (whom he will surely surpass as Serie A's all-time appearance leader), Javier Zanetti, Ryan Giggs and Raúl. But it mostly features players in his position. The top three are goalkeepers: Peter Shilton, Rogerio Ceni and Ray Clemence.
"To be on the brink of this achievement gives me the feeling that I have been both fortunate and a professional," Buffon said.
He has been lucky in that he has generally avoided serious illness and injury. However, Buffon will be the first to tell you that it hasn't always been easy. He suffered a depressive episode from December 2003 to June 2004. Reflecting on that time in an interview with Kicker this week, he explained how important it was for him to resist the temptation to go on a course of medication to treat it.
"I remained master of my own destiny," he said, dependent on only himself to get through it.
Then in 2010, there were the back problems that forced him to miss the defence of Italy's World Cup and go under the knife.
Some wondered if he'd ever be the same, and for a time, his form did wobble. But it wasn't for long, and frankly, the past two seasons have been some of the best of Buffon's career; witness the run to the Champions League final in 2015 and the Serie A record he set for minutes without conceding (973) in 2016.
Of course, experience helps. Buffon acknowledges that he is a different goalkeeper than the one who burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old, with that jaw-dropping debut against the Milan of George Weah and Roberto Baggio. He has had to.
The game has changed. Goalkeepers are expected to play with their feet and start building the play from the back. As other members of his generation have declined, struggling to adapt with the evolution of the goalkeeper as an extra outfield player, Buffon has taken it all in stride.
Buffon intends to become the first player to represent his country at six World Cups. Gianluigi Donnarumma and Alex Meret are going to have to wait their turns, though the competition they provide keeps him young and spurs him on.
But the World Cup in Russia isn't the only dot on the horizon obscuring Buffon's plans for retirement. The other is the Champions League and ending his pursuit for a winners' medal.
Twice a runner-up, Buffon has been candid enough to admit that he might have already hung up his gloves if he'd been on the winning side in 2003 or 2015.
"I've been asking myself for years what drives me to keep playing," he said. "This inner conflict brings out strong motivations in me. If I had already won the Champions League, I would be drained. The fact that I am still yet to win it pushes me on."
Could this finally be the year? Juventus are the only unbeaten team in the Champions League. They haven't lost at home in the competition in almost four years and have won all of their games on the road this season. Barca, Real and Bayern remain the favourites, but they aren't what they once were.
But even if Juventus were to win for the first time since 1996 this year or next, it doesn't necessarily follow that Buffon would call it a day and take up a role upstairs, either with Juventus or as team manager of the national team, like his beloved Gigi Riva did for many years.
Buffon says he will carry on as long as his body will allow him to.
"I still do not feel like an old guy at the age of 38," Buffon said last year.
"Who knows? I might retire at the age of 65."
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.