“I DON’T FEEL pressure … I don’t give a toss about it. I spent the afternoon of July 9 in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup.” Andrea Pirlo
Despite his obsession with playing his PlayStation, Andrea Pirlo is one of the few players who truly had the ability to extend their career beyond the typical lifespan of his peers, while still being able to play sumptuous football along the way.
There are so many examples of players who just couldn’t adapt to losing their pace, or recovering from a major injury, and it’s not just one-dimensional players who are affected by physical changes. Once they’re past their peak, there’s just no way to maintain the previous standards that sometimes kept them at the top of the game.
Wayne Rooney is the latest player that looks likely to attempt to reinvent himself in a new position, but will he ever be able to have the same impact in midfield compared to when he used to run rampant up-front in his youth? It doesn’t look likely given his somewhat lacklustre showings so far, but the point is that he’ll miss his pace and power as they continue to slowly desert him.
Perhaps it’s the partly because Pirlo was never one of the most athletic players on the pitch, but his adaptability is sometimes disregarded when discussing his overall career. As much as he when he morphed into a bearded symbol of cool in 2012, Pirlo has continued to reinvent himself on the pitch, and he’s one of the few players that seems to improve with age. It’s all the more surprising given his rocky start in the game.
His professional career started in Brescia, where Pirlo made his name at his hometown club. He started his career playing mostly as a second striker and attacking midfielder, and Inter Milan soon came calling for the trequartista after a few eye-catching displays.
Opportunities were limited at the Nerazzurri despite impressing during loan spells back at Brescia and Reggina, and it simply wasn’t working out at his parent club. It all came crashing down when he was unable to break into the team after three attempts, and he was eventually sold to AC Milan after making little headway. It was a torrid time for the playmaker, but he also started to change his style to adapt to the demands of his new managers.
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In many ways, when he started out Pirlo was unrecognisable from the player that we know today. He was first utilised in an attacking role, with a view to using his technical ability to unlock teams with his range of passing and intelligent play. His physical limitations left him struggling to justify a starting spot at times, but a mixture of circumstance and coaching acumen did provide some light at the end of the tunnel.
While he was back on loan at Brescia, the legendary Roberto Baggio had taken his position in attacking midfield, so manager Carlo Mazzone decided to play him a defensive role, which revitalised his ailing career and allowed him to play to his obvious strengths.
Moving to AC Milan in 2001 proved to be a masterstroke, and it’s where he made two of the most important connections of his early career. Gennaro Gattuso was to be the enforcer in their midfield partnership – allowing Pirlo to shed much of his defensive responsibilities – while Carlo Ancelotti allowed him more freedom by trusting his player to track back and receive the ball in his own half as he had at Brescia.
He learnt how to pull the strings, and soon became one of the most prominent players in his position. He’s under no illusions about the impact the two managers had on his career: “When I look back now, I realise that I owe everything to Carlo Mazzone and Carlo Ancelotti, the two most important coaches that I’ve ever had. Under Ancelotti I got right into the role straight away because he trusted me even though he had more experienced players available to him.”
In May 2003 he picked up his first Champions League win as Milan faced off against Juventus, with the midfield pair helping to yield almost instant results. It took penalties to separate the sides, and Pirlo himself had long since been substituted in the 71st minute, but it marked the start of an incredible run of trophies and accolades that most others could hardly dare to dream of.
Former Inter president Massimo Moratti duly remarked: “The biggest regret I have had in my career as Inter president was selling Pirlo to Milan. It was my decision to give him away and this was clearly a big mistake.”
Clearly, but at least he had the good grace to admit his mistake.
By the time Pirlo made his third European Cup final appearance in 2007 he was already a World Cup winner thanks to his exploits in Germany during the previous year. He capped a great run in the tournament by playing every minute of the final – along with his partner-in-crime Gattuso – and fired in the first penalty as they beat France in soul-destroying fashion after Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head-butt.
There will always be pain when looking back at the 4-0 loss to Spain in the Euro 2012 final, but at least he had a say in the biggest tournament of them all and remained relevant to the national side over the past decade.
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Pirlo has lit up the international stage since 2002, earning numerous nicknames that give credence to the idea that he is a footballing genius with near unrivalled technique. His fellow players call him Il Architetto (The Architect) for obvious reasons, and it’s reasonably apt when you factor in the control and influence he’s had over his teams during the years.
He was often relied upon to provide a creative spark, while simultaneously retaining the ball and giving his teammates the chance to recover and get into position. His vision facilitated his passing range, while he was a massive part of the success enjoyed by the various teams he played for.
At club level, Juventus completes the trio of large Italian teams he signed for. In 2011, after a decade of service, he was suddenly deemed surplus to requirements at AC Milan, and it was later described as the biggest mistake of Adriano Galliani’s career by the man himself, which seems to be a common theme if you let Pirlo leave.
It’s fair to say that he left a little earlier than he should have; he helped lead Juventus to the next four Serie A titles as he rolled back the years, as well as having an unbelievable tournament during the 2014 World Cup.
There’s still a sense that he’s somewhat languid during games, as though he potters about like some elderly gardener, but that’s always going to be an unfair appraisal of his overall contribution to the team, which is often built around his particular set of skills.
There’s a reason why he has been at the heart of so many winning squads over the years, and his ability to retain and redistribute accurately are sometimes dismissed because he doesn’t charge around in the vein of Jordan Henderson or earlier iterations of Wayne Rooney.
Great squads tend to have a mix of both types of footballer. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the two sides of the game, and they couldn’t function without each other. Pirlo may get most of the praise, but he does come at a price for his teammates while they don’t have possession.
His time in Italy was incredibly successful, yielding six Serie A titles, a pair of Champions League wins, and the knowledge that he had played a major part in the revival in Italian football. The ghosts of losing to Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final were banished with the capture of his second medal in Athens, while he had become an international hero and an Italian hero.
His time in his homeland eventually came to an end when news broke that he would be moving to the US to play Major League Soccer football in 2015. Much has been made of Pirlo playing for the newly formed New York City FC, and it did seem as though he had finally waved goodbye to Europe for a while, possibly in more ways than one, as it could also spell the end of his international career.
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MLS is considered to be a retirement home for many players and Italian manager Antonio Conte decided not to include him in his squad for Euro 2016. Pirlo spoke of hoping to play his way into contention earlier this season, but for now it’s likely there will be no party. It’s a shame, but even Pirlo can’t last forever, especially in a league where most of the players live in a completely different wavelength.
Age catches up with all of us, and it can sometimes be intensified on the football field because of the magnified nature of the game. Every incremental slip from grace is documented and discussed, while there are always pundits and fans alike that are willing to stick the knife in at the first available opportunity.
As one of the greatest players of the last few decades, Pirlo has accomplished more than most dare to dream of, but even he seems unlikely to be able to maintain his incredible standard of excellence as his 40th birthday begins to loom over the horizon.
It’s clear that he doesn’t just want to collect an easy pay cheque, while he only wants to continue for as long as he’s able to make a real contribution while playing: “I hope to play for as long as possible but I don’t just want to be tolerated in the team. When I realise it’s over, it will be over.”
There’s no shame in calling time on a storied career that most players could hardly dream of, though that doesn’t mean that he should have to hang up his boots just yet. He never had to rely on his physical attributes, and modern sports science has improved to allow for even more longevity if you take steps to prolong fitness.
When do does call time he’ll be missed by many across the globe, but at least he’ll have more time to hone his skills on the PlayStation, relaxing in the warm glow of near universal adulation as he sits back in his vineyard.
It’s rare to find players who seem to be so universally liked, but it’s more than the usual hipster posturing when it comes to Pirlo. Italians are known for their historical empires, but Pirlo was more than an emperor on the field. He was a true leader, and more than just a glorified dead-ball specialist or a great passer.
He’s one of the greatest Italian footballers of all time, and his impact on the game is still being felt in the twilight of his career. It remains to be seen how quickly Italy can replace their mesmeric creative hub.
“I’m a bit of a wandering gypsy on the pitch, a midfielder continually on the lookout for an unspoilt corner where I can move freely, just for a moment. All I’m after is a few square metres to be myself. A space where I can continue to profess my creed: take the ball, give it to a teammate, teammate scores. It’s called an assist and it’s my way of spreading happiness.”
By James Milin-Ashmore @jamoashmore