The goalkeeper will equal Fabio Cannavaro's appearance record for Italy on Tuesday night but there was a time when he did not want to get out of his car at the training ground
"To the fans it does not matter a damn how you are. You are seen as the footballer, the idol, so no one thinks to stop and ask you: 'Hey, how are you?'"
Ten years ago Gianluigi Buffon would get into his Fiat 500 in the morning and drive to Juventus' training ground, filled with fear. On the outside everything appeared normal, on the inside he felt sick. One moment everything would be fine, the next his legs would start to shake uncontrollably.
The Juventus and Italy No1 was suffering from depression. The fact that he on Tuesday night will match his friend Fabio Cannavaro as Italy's most capped player is a lesson to all footballers out there: if you suffer from depression, seek help.
That is what Buffon did. He spoke to his family and his closest friends, realised he was suffering from an illness and contacted a psychologist. It was not straightforward, though, he admitted five years later when he revealed the "dark periods" he had been through in 2003 and 2004.
"To the fans it does not matter a damn how you are. You are seen as the footballer, the idol, so no one thinks to stop and ask you: 'Hey, how are you?'
"The problem was if I had said: 'I am going away for two months to get better' I would have been finished. Because every time after that, if I had failed with a save or whatever, I would have been reminded of that period. I just couldn't allow myself to go away for two or three months to get better.
"But I did see a psychologist and that helped me enormously. But it was something I had had to revaluate. I thought psychologists were people who rob, figuratively of course, money from the insecure. But they are not. They are people who are there to help you and if you find a good psychologist, they will allow you to talk about everything and open up, without the slightest of fears, and that is no easy thing."
The goalkeeper had seen the psychologist for more than six months when he suddenly realised that he was better. "It happened all of a sudden, where I used to be scared of going to [the pitch]. At the European Championships in Portugal during the match between Italy and Denmark, a horrendous match, I was the only one smiling."
Buffon had made his Italy debut as a 19-year-old in October 1997 in the snow against Russia. He came on for the injured Gianluigi Pagliuca and immediately saved heroically from Dmitri Alenichev and ensured Italy qualified for the following year's World Cup. He had made his Serie A debut with Parma two years before that and won the Italian Cup, the Italian Super Cup and the Uefa Cup before joining Juventus for €51m, replacing Edwin van der Sar, who was Fulham-bound.
Twelve years have elapsed since that move to Juventus and it is easy to forget that he once played for another club. He has become a one-team man – like Paolo Maldini, Ryan Giggs and Steven Gerrard – without being one, so closely associated is he with the Bianconeri these days.
At 35, and a World Cup winner, his numbers are staggering. He will earn his 136th cap against the Czech Republic on Tuesday night. That is 10 more than Maldini and 24 more than the legendary Dino Zoff. "Equalling the record of my close friend Fabio Cannavaro doesn't give me that much pleasure," Buffon said this week. "But getting to 150 would be quite nice …" The fact that he has played 25 games at major finals is perhaps the biggest testament of his longevity.
He is not about to give up either. Italy are on the verge of qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil next year and he recently said that he would happily sacrifice four or five years of his career to win the Champions League, the one major title he has not won.
But there have been a few lows as well as all the highs.
In 2000, Buffon was heavily criticised for choosing the squad No88 while at Parma. Italy's Jewish community was quick to point out that the figure is a neo-Nazi symbol. "H" is the eighth letter of the alphabet, so 88 equates to HH, or Heil Hitler. The fact that Buffon had previously worn a shirt bearing the slogan "Boia chi molla" – "Death to cowards" – which was used by fascists in Benito Mussolini's day, did not help.
His mother, however, came to the goalkeeper's defence and he said: "I chose 88 because it reminds me of four balls and in Italy we all know what it means to have balls: strength and determination. And this season I will have to have balls to get back my place in the Italy team. But I am ready to change numbers if that will help. I didn't know the hidden meaning of 88."
Juventus' relegation to Serie B after the Calciopoli scandal during that World Cup-winning year of 2006 was also hard to take. But while there were rumours that Buffon would follow in the footsteps of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Patrick Vieira, Cannavaro and Emerson and leave the club, he chose not to and explained his reasons for staying in an interview with FourFourTwo in 2008.
"Maybe I had a different upbringing from other players, maybe a different education, especially from my parents in terms of the way I should behave when it came to my dealings with others. I've made a lot of mistakes in my life but I think that's normal for someone who wants to grow and develop. You will have to overcome plenty of obstacles and it is normal that you should stumble sometimes.
"However, if you behave in a certain way at the end, say over 10 or 20 years, you end up doing the right things. As for the rest of the things that go on around football, I feel as if I am a normal sort of person, especially if I let in a goal that in reality I should have saved. Maybe I'm the only footballer who isn't interested in cars. My Lancia Y gets me around."
Buffon's mother was a discus thrower and his father a weightlifter. They instilled in him certain values and they have contributed to Buffon becoming arguably one of the five best goalkeepers the world has ever seen. His brilliance has been so prolonged that it is sometimes easy to forget how good he is.
After his heroic display in last Friday's qualifier against Bulgaria, the journalists swarmed around him, wanting to know how he had produced such magnificent saves. "I don't know why you are still surprised," he said, smiled and walked away.
He has got a point.