The curtain is finally closing on the career of one of the greatest players of the last 20 years. It’s time to look back on of one of Italy’s finest, and the class and charisma that imbued every move he made on the pitch.
Amidst the triumph and heartbreak of the October international break, with nations desperate to book their tickets to Russia for next summer’s World Cup, one bit of news trickled through, almost unnoticed. Andrea Pirlo, Italy’s midfield maestro for so many years, was hanging up his boots at the end of the MLS season.
Pirlo was never destined to be just another footballer. His youth level coaches knew that, those that watched him knew that, and he knew that. He began his career as a trequartista, an advanced playmaker looking to create chances for the strikers in front of him. In 2001, his unimpressive form for Internazionale led to Pirlo being loaned to Brescia, his first professional club, and the one that gave him his Serie A debut in 1995 at the age of 16. With the legendary Roberto Baggio occupying the trequartista role, manager Carlo Mazzone moved Pirlo back into the role of regista, a deep-lying playmaker.
The Magician of Milan
This move galvanised the young Italian’s career, and earned him his move to AC Milan. Over the years, Pirlo developed into arguably the best regista of the modern game. By moving him further back, Mazzone allowed Pirlo to take advantage of having the entire offensive field of play in front of him.
At Milan, Carlo Ancelotti used him in the same role, and with players of the calibre of Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Kaka and Andriy Shevchenko around him, Pirlo flourished. The other players were his paints, San Siro his canvas, and the ball his brush. The artist was primed to create masterpieces, and in his time at the club, the trophy cabinet was always well stocked. When the hierarchy at Milan felt he was finished at the age of 32, Pirlo, with a point to prove, moved on to Juventus. Milan has not won a trophy since.
Under Antonio Conte at Juventus, Pirlo was reborn. In his thirties, he could not move as quickly as before, but here he was supplied with Paul Pogba, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal, men willing to do the running for him. This left Pirlo with the time and space to do what did best: create.
He would feint one way, then another, as his opponents stumbled, left awestruck by his delicate, efficient movement. They could only watch as time after time, Pirlo threaded pass after pass through the tightest of gaps. They were left bewitched and bemused as Juventus strolled to a league title in every season Pirlo was with the club. In 2015, he moved on to the MLS, recognising that his body could no longer withstand the rigours of the Italian top flight.
He saved some of his most memorable showings for when he played for the national team. At the 2006 World Cup, he was integral to the side, winning three man-of-the-match awards, including those for the semi-final and the final, as Italy won the tournament for the first time since 1982. His moment of casual genius in the semi-final will live long in the memory. With the game deadlocked in the last throes of extra-time, Italy had a corner that was half-cleared. The ball fell to Pirlo, who brought it down, before taking a second touch. He then took a third, a fourth and a fifth, waiting, like a coiled viper, ready to strike. With his sixth touch, he looked away, and slid the ball between two German defenders for Fabio Grosso to curl home. The calmness and precision were both astounding, and mundane. Pirlo made the impossible look effortless.
Six years later, he ran England ragged over the course of their Euro 2012 quarter-final, outrunning and outpassing their entire midfield. The game went to a penalty shootout, and with England leading 2-1, up stepped Pirlo. Joe Hart, England’s goalkeeper on the night, hopped up and down on his line, yelling, trying to throw the Italian off. Pirlo strolled up to the ball, and nonchalantly chipped it down the middle of the goal, as Hart flung himself to his right. The goalie could only stare in shock as he hit the ground, and the ball nestled gently in the net. Italy went on to win, and the world raised its collective glass to Pirlo once more. Throughout his years with the national team, Pirlo seldom disappointed. He became the benchmark that all future Italian midfielders would be held against.
In a world where footballers seem to be getting fitter, faster, and stronger, Pirlo pulled everyone back, and made them play the game at his pace. His vision and technique were almost unparalleled, and his trophy haul speaks for itself. As Ancelotti put it: “Pirlo spots a pass in a split-second that lesser players could spend a whole lifetime waiting to see”. As he winds down his playing career with New York City FC this winter, all we can do is stand, applaud, and say “Grazie Pirlo”, one last time.