After debuting with Ronaldo last week, John Nicholson talks us through why everybody loves the Joe Hart-slaying Andrea Pirlo.
Who’s this then?
Andrea Pirlo was born in 1979 in Flero, Italy. His career began at Brescia in 1995 as a more attacking midfielder. He played for them for three years before being signed by Inter Milan. Across three years, he simply could not break through into the first team on a regular basis. By 2001 he was already 22 and it looked as though he was going to end up not fulfilling the talent he’d shown in his teens when he had made his Serie A debut at just 16.
Fortunately, newly-appointed A.C. Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti appreciated his talents and he was sold to them for 33 billion Italian lire in June 2001. He’d seen Pirlo on loan back at Brescia the previous year being deployed as a deep-lying midfielder, the playmaker, and decided to play him in the same role. He would later say: “Pirlo spots a pass in a split-second that lesser players could spend a whole lifetime waiting to see.”
Suddenly it all clicked into place and his elevation to legendary status was underway.
In 2002 he won his first cap for his country, the first of 116 which would include World Cup success in 2006.
He won eight trophies with Milan including two Serie A titles and two Champion Leagues.
2011 saw him take a free transfer to Juventus on a three-year deal, winning four consecutive Serie A titles with them. He wrapped up his playing career with three seasons in the USA playing for New York City. In total he played 756 games, scoring 73 goals in the process.
Sheridan Bird, formerly of the F365 parish, now an Italian football television star, was good enough to give me some additional insight into our man:
“The low point of his Inter (and maybe club) career was when Inter played Swedes Helsingborgs in an August Champs Lge qualifier in 2000. Inter were ravaged by injuries (already) and the primadonnas were still on holiday. So Pirlo was forced to play on the left wing on a 442. It didn’t work. Inter went out. Anger and outrage all round.”
“At Milan, Allegri wanted to sell Pirlo because he preferred Mark van Bommel in front of the defence. How grim is that? Like replacing Raffaello with a drunk, brawling decorator with one arm. Needless to say Pirlo did brilliantly at Juve after leaving Milan.”
“A guy I met played with Pirlo at Inter. He’s Benoit Cauet, hard-working midfielder and all-round nice man. Benoit said: ‘Andrea was similar to Michel Platini. Naturally they played in different positions, but Andrea, like Michel, had a fragile physique but a very quick mind. Pirlo had fabulous vision and incredible technique. He saw things three times faster than other players.'”
In the latter years of his career he grew a fine, dense, rich, treacle brown beard, possibly the only beard that looks expensive, as though purchased from an exclusive tailor. When combined with the artfully side-parted long-ish hair, it all added to a slightly dishevelled but always stylish look of a man who is so smooth that he turns the air around him into the softest silk.
Why the love?
Well, first and foremost he is just so damn cool. More stunningly handsome than good looking, there is something genuinely exciting about him to look at, not just in how he looks but in how he comports himself. He is resolute but never hard. You sense his emotions are being suppressed rather than being absent. That is very attractive – indeed, sexy.
When it comes to football, if there was a single game which best illustrated his artistry, perhaps it’s the 2014 World Cup game against England. England looked like silly dogs in a park chasing after a ball. He was constantly available, always knew what he was going to do when he received the ball and totally ran rings around them, barely breaking sweat in the process. It was an extraordinary performance and showed a man at the peak of his powers defining what it is to absolutely boss a game.
In a performance which echoed his own against England two years earlier when his 131 passes were more than the entire England midfield, he made 108 passes in total, only misplacing five.
It looked like he was playing a higher form of the game; he was. England galumphed around with heavy feet while Andrea danced on air. To watch these highlights is to watch a football artist of the highest order.
While his long passing game is obviously brilliant, he is just as effective with those short vertical passes in the final third. The key to so many of them is the speed with which the pass is seen and made, even in a tight space. His brain is so quick-thinking that he can dispense a defence-splitting ball in half a heartbeat.
Never hurried, as he got older he seemed to find more and more space. Some look upon his four titles at Juventus as the most elegant period of his career. He joined aged 32 and just dictated the play with grace and elegance until he was 36, adapting his role perfectly so that he really didn’t have to run much and could just operate within a restricted radius and yet still be the best player on the pitch. Amazing.
But it didn’t stop there. He was a master of the dead ball, capable of scoring outrageous free-kicks and penalties. Loved a curler into the top left. He strikes the ball with a perfectly smooth rhythm, his arms, torso and feet all working in perfect synchronicity. He glides through the air without resistance. It is as though his whole body is the perfect golf shot.
It’s important to acknowledge though that while he is loved for his football, he is every bit as much loved for oozing cool without even trying. He has a very distinct image and yet there is no sense that it is in any way contrived. There’s not an ounce of show pony about him and it is exactly that which makes him so glamorous and desirable. It seemed perfect to grow his legendary beard towards the latter end of his career, almost a symbol of his ageing years as an elder statesman of huge heft and grit.
There is also a stillness and a calmness to everything he does on, or off the pitch. He even seems to blink in slow-motion. Nothing is ever hurried. He also gives the impression of being emotionally reserved most of the time. And like all people who withhold their emotions, when they do explode, it seems all the more moving for it. In an emotionally incontinent era, he feels like the grown-up in the room.
He also owns a vineyard – I mean he just would, wouldn’t he?
Three great moments
When he did this, it numbed the pain of every England fan.
What strange magic did he perform here?
There are hundreds of wonderful passes. This must be one of his best:
What the people love
A huge response today with some lovely words from fans. I think what is so remarkable about him is that, in the very best sense of the words, for many of us he was a role model. Something to be. Something to aspire to be, in our own way, in our own lives. He embodies something so many of us admire, combining charisma with huge talent. It is an irresistible mixture.
With each caressed pass
Conducting his orchestra
Tempo set, sounds shaped
— 4_4_haiku (@4_4_haiku) March 27, 2020
‘Sir Andrea Pirlo, to give him his anglicised full title.’
‘His mesmerising performances in Euro 2012. First time I have seen a player attract the ball like a magnet. Never sprinted, just seemed to know where the ball would be. Plus his penalty against England.’
‘A brilliant, brilliant, brilliant footballer. From forward to midfield maestro, he led a midfield that included Gatusso, Seedorf and Kaka, which says a lot about the man. World Cup winner, Champions League winner, all round sexy bastard. What a man.’
‘The pass to Grosso in the 2006 World Cup semi final was glorious. Surrounded by Germans, under unimaginable pressure and he delays before measuring a perfect reverse pass. Some footballers are capable of doing everything at their own tempo in any situation, and he was one of them.’
I met him in a lift in Manaus during the World Cup in 2014. We were staying in the Italian team hotel. His beard was magnificent. He looked at me as if to say “you’re not cool enough to be in this lift with me”. He was right. Career high.
— Dan Walker (@mrdanwalker) March 27, 2020
‘In the England v Italy Euros game in 2012 Pirlo must have had about 500 touches – the game’s pattern was as follows: Joe Hart lumped it long, the ball found its way to Pirlo and that was that for the next 2-3 minutes – repeat for 120 minutes – just a wonderful footballer.’
‘Played the game at his own pace. Oozed class, and like all the great players, always seemed to have loads of space on a crowded pitch. Regista.’
‘Recently I met him at Kittila airport (Finland). Coolest guy in departures without being a knob.’
‘His book is a sensational quick read. In a world with making football all about 1s and 0s he was a renaissance man keeping the soul of football alive.’
Watched him walk up the tunnel at the Etihad making a cardigan, trackie bottoms, trainers, polo and a cardie look like the coolest outfit available (you try & pull it off)
Then played even better than he looked.
Poetry in motion, precise, controlled, masterful & imaginative. 👌🏻 https://t.co/VLZ0YsWJiZ
— Darren Fletcher (@DFletcherSport) March 27, 2020
‘Was lucky enough to see him play, couldn’t take my eyes off him even when he wasn’t on the ball, an immense footballing talent and a joy to watch.’
‘Reminded me of the players we used to associate with Italy and Italian football in the early glory days of Football Italia on C4. As the great Billy Connolly used to call them, “shiny people” who barely moved but at the same time were everywhere. Beautiful in every sense.’
‘His entire demeanour was of absolute relaxation as if the game was unfolding in slow motion in front of him.’
‘A player who got better as football changed. Saw him in the Confed Cup in SA in 2009 vs Brazil and he was awful. Mind you, he was playing with Andrea Dossena.’
How many players are better in their 30s…not many. He grew into himself as a player. He was good at AC but great at Juve where he was 30 throughout…
— Graeme Bailey (@GraemeBailey) March 27, 2020
‘I think Milan allowing him to go for free to their greatest rival is now widely regarded as one of the very worst footballing decisions of all time. Were they reducing the wage bill to bring in Ronaldinho? Either way it was positively disastrous. #nopirlonoparty’
‘The Euro 2012 QF against England that he absolutely dictated – while Gerrard and Parker ran their bones to dust attempting to stop him – was a masterclass.’
‘Saw him playing against Ireland in Croke Park. It was like he was playing the game in his bathrobe and slippers. Don’t think he ran once at 3/4 pace yet still dictated the entire match.’
‘He almost definitely doesn’t give football a second thought these days. That chapter is done. Probably now spends his days in vineyards, bistros, art galleries, and doing carpentry. And I bet he’s bloody good at that as well!’
Any contribution from Joe Hart, whose career he seems to have more or less ended with *that* Panenka?
— Barry Glendenning (@bglendenning) March 27, 2020
‘Classy player on and off the pitch. I must admit I keep an eye on what he’s wearing and might just have made some purchasing decisions based on it…’
‘I don’t really care if he’s “overrated” or not; he’s one of the very best. I loved watching him play. He oozed class and in a game dominated by athletic players and pressing, he seemed to play at a different speed. I love players who make the game look effortless, exactly as Pirlo did.’
‘Pirlo was the last great glamour player before the game became oversaturated with coverage. Touching the era of the greats rather than athletic machines of today.’
‘The epitome of ‘cool’ (see also Rui Costa). Nonchalance is an underrated quality in a footballer and he has it in spades. Combined with a killer beard, what’s not to admire.’
The epitome of ‘cool’ (see also Rui Costa). Nonchalance is an underrated quality in a footballer and he has it in spades. Combined with a killer beard, what’s not to admire…
— Barney O’Kelly (@barneyokelly) March 27, 2020
‘I don’t feel his contribution at Milan is truly appreciated. He was instrumental in that side and it wasn’t until he went to Juve that everyone seemed to jump on the bandwagon. He allowed Kaka to be completely free.’
‘Should probably have a brand of cigars named after him. Pure class, touch, technique, tremendous beard.’
‘He was unique in that he was a playmaker who improved when he went further back in the formation to a more defensive role, despite not actually doing anything defensive. Nearly impossible to do as Gerrard showed in his final couple of seasons at Liverpool.’
‘Nobody really knew what he did and how he did it, til he actually did it. Then people clapped and understood. I think one of those that you can say “looked like he didn’t really play the game, the game asked him to play every now and then”.’
— Mark Clemmit (@MarkClemmit) March 27, 2020
One imagines Andrea now spending his time wandering around an exhibition of Italian Poor Art in a handmade linen suit the colour of a Mediterranean pool. He’s done some cheering Heineken adverts like this one. He’s apparently doing his coaching badges but it is hard to imagine him being a manager. So often the most brilliant players find it frustrating to work with players who are not half as good as they were. And even very good players are only half as good as Mr P.
But whatever he goes on to do, as the famous beard gets a little more salt and pepper to it, he will continue to be a style icon and we will still be watching his highlights reels when we need cheering up. Cheers, Andrea. Thank you for making football a better place.
The F365 Show is on hiatus until the football returns. Subscribe now ready for its glorious comeback. In the meantime, listen to the latest episode of Planet Football’s 2000s podcast, The Broken Metatarsal.