His face is everywhere. On advertising boards, on TV, on the front of his bestselling autobiography. Impassive. Serious. Above all, bearded. Andrea Pirlo has become, almost imperceptibly, the top player in Italy’s national team. For years, he was undervalued, sometimes ignored. Yet even though, at 35, he will be one of the oldest players at the World Cup, he seems to get better with each passing year. In part, this is because his game doesn’t require physicality. Pirlo’s speciality is the precise pass, free-kick or penalty.
There is something unique about the man. In the crazy world of Italian football, Pirlo emerges as a calm thinker. That may be why his new autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play, swiftly became the bestselling soccer book in the UK and US. He has already won a World Cup. Few other players at this year’s tournament know more about the game – and the madness around it – than Pirlo.
We are meeting in the Vinovo-Juventus training complex, outside Turin. I’m not given a specific time for the meeting until the day before, and I wait anxiously by my computer for confirmation. I am a professor of Italian history, and although I have written a history of Italian football, I’m not used to interviewing players. Until he actually walks into the room, I don’t believe it is really going to happen. Pirlo is perfectly coiffured, elegant, modest, quietly spoken. The beard is luscious. His voice is deep, he speaks clearly and very precisely: every word is carefully measured and placed, like many of his passes.
Since he arrived at Juventus in 2011, he hasn’t stopped winning. The day after our interview, Juve sealed their third scudetto (championship) in a row, without actually playing (Roma, their closest rivals, lost to the bottom club). Remarkably, given Pirlo’s age, the club has just offered him a new two-year contract. But on the day we meet the mood is, temporarily, a little gloomy. Juve had gone out of the Europa League in the semi-final. That elimination wasn’t meant to happen, and the newspapers are blaming Juve’s coach, Antonio Conte. Even if you win and win, in Italy you are never more than one game away from another polemic.
Pirlo has travelled a long way to get to the top. He was born in Lombardy, and in 1995, aged 16, made his professional debut for the local team, Brescia. There he was lucky to encounter the great Italian playmaker (or fantasista) of the previous generation, Roberto Baggio. “I played with Baggio when I was young,” he tells me. “I grew up with his myth and to actually play with him was like being in a dream. I tried to hang out with him, to study how he played and to learn from him.”
How has the life of a top player changed since those days, nearly 20 years ago? Pirlo’s reply is emphatic: “For me it has always been the same. Nothing has changed. I stay at home, I play, I train, I go home. That’s it.”
Pirlo doesn’t appear on the endless “shouty” TV programmes. “No,” he says, “I have never seen them. Unfortunately there are many of these kinds of programmes and [I suppose] it gives work to lots of journalists. Football is one of the main talking-points in Italy, after all. But you don’t have to watch them. You can watch something else instead.”
As a teenager, Pirlo attracted attention from scouts and bigger clubs. Some teammates refused to pass to him, a sure sign that they thought he was good. But it took a long time to find his best position. In 1998 he joined the team he supported, Inter Milan. But his timing was disastrous. Pirlo was loaned out, and then couldn’t get in the first team. Marco Tardelli, one of Inter’s managers, rarely selected him. In 2001, both parties decided to cut their losses. Pirlo was transferred to AC Milan.
Over the next few seasons Pirlo became a star. He credits his coach, Carlo Ancelotti, with finding him a role just in front of the defence. “Ancelotti moved me to a new position and helped me raise my game,” he says. In a settled team, Pirlo built strong understandings with teammates – in particular, AC Milan’s goal poacher, Filippo Inzaghi. “He knew when I would make a pass and I knew how he would move … we could understand each other’s positions without looking at each other.”
Pirlo went with Italy to the World Cup in Germany in 2006. His moment came in the semi-final, against the hosts in Dortmund. After 119 minutes there was no score. Then, Pirlo recalls, “There was a corner [to Italy] and the ball came out to me. I couldn’t shoot and I saw [Fabio] Grosso out of the corner of my eye, and I saw he was unmarked so I tried to give him the ball … it was a through ball which allowed him to hit it with his left and the rest was down to him.”
Pirlo knew exactly where he was placing the ball: on the left-footed Grosso’s left peg. It was a perfect assist, in a packed penalty area, in a fraction of a second. Grosso swung his foot and the ball went into the corner of the goal.
The pass is Pirlo’s trademark: he delights in assists, and rarely scores from open play. He makes his job sound simple: “I look for space so I can get the ball and then start to conduct the play.” I ask if an assist is more difficult than a goal. He seems surprised, but then says, “Yes, many times an assist is more difficult than a goal; you need to find the right space and measure the force used in order to provide your teammate with the right position in order to score.” But he doesn’t glory in the past. When I ask him to name his best pass ever, he shrugs: “I don’t know … maybe the one to Grosso in 2006. I don’t remember any particular pass I have made.”
After that semi, the World Cup final against France went to a penalty shoot-out. Pirlo was asked to take the first penalty. Despite his reputation, his record with penalties is a mixed one. He has taken three for Juventus – and missed all of them. He also missed one in Milan’s disastrous shoot-out in the Champions League final of 2005 in Istanbul against Liverpool. In his book, Pirlo says that he contemplated retiring after that game as “nothing made sense any more”.
Although he says he “doesn’t feel pressure”, the book’s description of that 2006 penalty is evocative – he calls the walk to the spot “a blizzard of agony”. He tells me he chooses how to take each penalty based on the particular situation, instead of by consulting a battery of statistics. “I decide then and there. Not before … I am not worried about particular goalkeepers … I don’t take them into consideration, beyond their position … I decide on the basis of what is happening around me, the ‘context’, and this leads me to make different decisions.” Against France his decision paid off. Pirlo, with a range of assists, a goal and that pass in the semi-final, was voted “third best” player in the tournament.
He finally became a celebrated footballer, picking up a whole range of nicknames: “the metronome” (because he gives rhythm to the team), Mozart (for his creativity), “the professor” (because he studies football) and, my particular favourite, “the architect” (because he builds play).
His reputation has its downsides: opponents have learnt to mark him tight, and he doesn’t have the pace to escape. Pirlo appears, at times, to wander about the pitch looking for space, for a metre or even a blade of free grass in which to perform his craft. His other speciality is free-kicks. He spends hours trying out new ones, trying to emulate the great Brazilian exponent of dead balls, Juninho Pernambucano. Nothing is left to chance.
With Milan, Pirlo won the Champions League in 2003 and 2007. During Italy’s botched World Cup of 2010, he had the good fortune to be injured, and played only 34 minutes of the campaign. Yet in 2011, in a baffling decision, Milan let him move to their historic rivals, Juve, without demanding a transfer fee. They have come to regret it.
Pirlo has been at the heart of the renaissance of Juve, a club relegated to the second tier of Italian football in 2006 for its role in the calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Juve had struggled to return to the top – until Pirlo arrived. Pirlo attributes the recent success partly to their new stadium: it is “worth 10 points a season”, he tells me. “It doesn’t have barriers and the crowd is close to the pitch, but nothing bad happens. And nothing bad ever happens in England either. Everything has changed [here]. It’s more of a family atmosphere. It’s a day of sport. The whole climate is different there.”
Now he is confident about Italy’s chances in what will be his last World Cup. “I think we will play well – we have everything in place in order to have a successful tournament. Every child’s dream is to take part in a World Cup in Brazil – I’m lucky to have this opportunity.” When I ask if the team plays all’italiana (Italian style), I’m not sure exactly what I mean, but Pirlo assumes I am referring to a defensive form of football. “No!” he says. “We play attacking football. We try to control games and enjoy ourselves, and we have often succeeded in this. It will be the same at the World Cup.” And Pirlo will be the fulcrum through which much of their game flows. Opponents know it too. He expects to be man-marked throughout: “This has happened time and again to me for 10 years or so. I expect it to happen again.”
In Italy’s opening match, on June 14, they will meet England, the side they overcame in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 thanks to a perfect cheeky penalty from Pirlo. As England’s keeper, Joe Hart, dived obligingly out of the way, Pirlo’s delicate chip sailed slowly into the net. Hart was able to watch it, almost as if he were admiring Pirlo’s craft. It’s a penalty known as the “Panenka”, after the moustachioed Czech who pioneered it in 1976.
Joe Hart, if you’re reading this, here’s a tip for you, from the architect himself (with a smile on his face, so don’t be too sure): “I won’t choose the Panenka next time, because he will be ready for it.”
John Foot is a professor of modern Italian history at Bristol University. His books include ‘Calcio: A History of Italian Football’. To comment on this article please post below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org