The Italian Regista

IN modern football, you will find it almost impossible for a player to be practically universally loved by fans across the globe. Harry Kane should be hugely popular for his style of play, his goals and his loyalty (so far) for Spurs, yet people find things to hate about him. It was the same for Steven Gerrard and many more players. Yet, there’s always one who has escaped criticism, gained fans almost every single game and has become a cult icon amongst fans of football. A World Cup winner, a Champions League winner, multiple time Scudetto winner, one of the most loved midfielders in the history of the game… Andrea Pirlo.

Born in Flero, Italy on May 19th 1979, Andrea Pirlo has become known for being one of the game’s greatest ever deep lying playmakers. Not only was his influence felt on the field, he has forged himself a public image of a fashion icon, a personification of a free spirited, cool veteran. No one else could have pulled off that look; only Pirlo could have with his long hair and stylish facial hair, strutting his stuff around the pitch for some of the most historic clubs in Italian history.

When Pirlo started his career at Brescia, he was predominantly a supporting striker. It would probably be best to compare him to a Thomas Muller or a Dele Alli, someone who wasn’t a midfielder and wasn’t a striker, but played in that purgatory position between the two. Not a false nine, but not an attacking midfielder. Pirlo made his debut at the age of 16 and became Brescia’s youngest ever Serie A player. I must admit, it’s almost impossible to imagine a fresh faced Andrea Pirlo, but legend has it that he was once a teenager.

It wouldn’t be too long until he found himself being chased by one of the big teams in Italy, a real giant. Pirlo would then join Inter Milan under his coach at Brescia Mirecea Lucescu – who by this time had joined Inter – and set himself the challenge of breaking into the first team at the Nerazzurri. But it wouldn’t quite work out as easily as we may have expected.

You have to remember at this point in his career, he was an attacking playmaker and a secondary striker. He wasn’t exactly pulling up any trees in his position, and with so many talented players at the cub at the time, he only had one option. He had to go out on loan. Initially he went to Reggina and performed extremely well. Pirlo came back to the San Siro full of confidence but he didn’t have that starting spot nailed down, and once again he had to go out on loan. However this loan would completely change his career. One could argue that if Pirlo didn’t have this loan move, he may not have been the player we all grew to love.

A return to Brescia came next for a young Andrea, but the player who was occupying the position Pirlo wanted was a certain Roberto Baggio, Pirlo’s idol when he was growing up. It didn’t take an expert to figure out that Pirlo wasn’t going to force the great Baggio out of the attacking playmaker position, so Pirlo had to reinvent himself. Brescia boss Carlo Mazzone had the brain wave of deploying Pirlo slightly deeper, just in front of the back four and not as a defensive midfielder but as a “quarterback”.

It changed Pirlo’s game completely, with his long range of accurate passing being perfectly suited to the role and he became a key player in this Brescia team. After his loan spell came to a close, Inter felt that they didn’t need Pirlo. They eventually sold him for just over €17M to their arch rivals AC Milan. If that Brescia loan move was the first huge moment of the young midfielder’s footballing life, this move across to the other Milan side was the beginning of a legendary career.

There’s a reason Pirlo was later called the “metronome”, because he makes teams tick and his ability was taken to a world-class level by Carlo Ancelotti in a 4-3-2-1 alongside players like Clarence Seedorf, Genaro Gattuso and just behind the Brazilian Kaka. It was a perfect midfield of creativity from deep, toughness and defensive solidity in Gatusso, a mixture of both in Seedorf and a quick playmaking master-class from Kaka in the hole, in front of the three-man midfield.

Rivaldo and Rui Costa also played huge roles in this side alongside Pippo Inzaghi, Andriy Shevchenko and Hernan Crespo up top. It was a recipe for success and in 2003 Pirlo and Milan would beat his future side Juventus in a 0-0 penalty shootout. It wasn’t the best final, admittedly for the neutral, but it was the peak of that Milan side at that particular side. They followed up that Champions League win with a Scudetto victory the following season, but soon came that final in Istanbul. Arguably the greatest final in European Cup history, it almost caused Pirlo to retire, saying: “I thought about quitting after Istanbul, nothing made sense any more. The 2005 Champions League final simply suffocated me.”

It shook Pirlo to his core and changed him as a man. He had always been a laid back personality but it seemed to be taken to the next level following that defeat. It wasn’t arrogance, but more like a Dimitar Berbatov kind of style. He wasn’t going to run everywhere because that wasn’t his game, but when he got that ball onto his right foot he could change the match and his teammates were fine with that. They knew he would produce, and he did exactly that in 2006 when he was a pivotal part of the Azzurri winning the World Cup in Germany against France.

This was all prior to one of the biggest moments in Calcio history, when Calciopoli struck and dented Juventus, the reigning Serie A champions. The scandal hit many teams but predominantly Juve, leaving the two Milan clubs to battle it out for the Scudetto. In 2007, Inter may have won the league but Milan got revenge on Liverpool in Athens to capture the Champions League, the second of Pirlo’s career.

Between 2007 and 2011, Pirlo was the veteran of a new Milan team containing the likes of Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexandre Pato as they won Serie A once again in his final campaign. But when it was announced that Pirlo would be leaving on a free in the summer, the market never really went in for him. He was quite an old player who never put in the required running that certain teams wanted in a midfielder, so he was left with one option. That option, however, added more life to Pirlo’s career. Many felt he was over the hill, finished, done. But Juventus didn’t think so, and he was the conductor in the Old Lady’s new orchestra.

Pirlo was the perfect midfielder for that Juve side. Alongside the energetic and tough Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, a more advanced version of Pirlo himself. Then when Paul Pogba arrived it added yet another dimension to both Juve and Pirlo’s game and transformed into a legitimate Italian dynasty.

As the great Pole Zbigniew Boniek said: “to pass the ball to Andrea Pirlo is like to hide it in a safe.” He was so secure on the ball that intense pressing wouldn’t affect him. England had Scott Parker man marking him at Euro 2012 and Pirlo still managed to run the game. At the final whistle Parker was dripping in sweat and Pirlo didn’t look like he’d even played. His hair was still perfect, there was no perspiration and he ran Parker and England ragged on that day.

His swan song at Juventus and eventually New York City FC in MLS only pushed his cult hero status even further. He was like fine wine, he got better with age and showed no signs of slowing up because of how he played and how he looked after himself. He left Turin with four Serie A titles, he left Milan with two Scudetto’s and two Champions League honours and even won a World Cup. Not many players can have a trophy cabinet like that, and that’s why he is so loved by fans.

As his own t-shirt said, ‘No Pirlo, No Party’ and to this day he is still adored by fans of the game and a lot of “hipster” fans. His stint in America didn’t affect his career and the perception from fans, but whilst he may not be as good as Xavi, Iniesta or even Sergio Busquets, these players wouldn’t have been as loved or as appreciated if it wasn’t for Andrea Pirlo…

By Tom Scholes with artwork by Barry Pirovano

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