A few days ago, Andrea Pirlo was asked to pick seven body parts from footballers of his era to create the perfect player. The midfielder chose Xavi's brain, Lionel Messi's left foot, Gennaro Gattuso's heart, Jaap Stam's strength and Hernan Crespo's hair. For right foot and vision, Pirlo named himself. And why not! Anybody who has encountered the Italian's genius would find it hard to disagree with him.
Although one suspects that if he was asked to choose the perfect knee, Pirlo's would be the last name on the list. Knee problems have dogged the Italian for a long time. And Pirlo realised he can't go on any longer, announcing his retirement at the end of the current MLS season.
In an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport on Saturday, the 38-year-old revealed, "You realise yourself that the time has come. Each day, you have physical problems and you can't train as you would like to because there's always some niggle. At my age, it's fine to say enough is enough. You don't have to carry on until you are 50. I'll do something else."
Something else. Pirlo has a vineyard near Brescia in northern Italy. There are also rumours of him being involved with Antonio Conte at Chelsea in a coaching role. Pirlo did not put that rumour to rest. "I don't know what yet. I will return to Italy in December. Assistant to Conte? If that's what people are saying. I have my ideas, but I will allow myself time to decide. Am I thinking of coaching? Just because you were a good player doesn't automatically mean you can do it. You need to be willing to do it and prove yourself in the field. That spark within, you need it to ignite, and it's not ignited within me yet."
"The spark is not ignited within me yet", such a Pirlo thing to say. Or at least, something that the Pirlo we think we know would say. Conte knows how to ignite that spark, though. When Pirlo moved to Juventus in 2011, many thought retirement was around the corner. But despite knee troubles, Pirlo was rejuvenated.
Conte was aware of what the regista could do for him. He changed his formation, moving from a 4-2-4 to 4-3-3, thus allowing Pirlo more space. It was quite remarakable that Conte should go to such lengths for one player; if we have learnt anything about the manager, an individual is always smaller than the collective for him.
But Pirlo was no ordinary individual. He changed himself. The midfielder became more aware of what he ate and modified his diet. "I changed my diet the moment I understood that my metabolism was changing. Until I was 30, my body was used to my routine of eating pasta every single day. Nowadays I eat it just on the day of a match."
This is important as we recall Pirlo's transformation from an unsung player to cult hero; it was a consequence of the reimagination of his self.
Anecdotes about Pirlo abound. And his skills only engorged these myths. Pirlo's Maledetta (the cursed one) freekick — inspired by Juninho — was effective not because of its swerve, but because there were different iterations to it. The curse was in its variety.
Or even his role as regista. It was not that he was the first deep-lying playmaker. But under Carlo Ancelotti at Milan, Pirlo in some senses rediscovered himself. As he found himself in a deeper position, he calibrated his compass. His long through balls became more pronounced; it added to his aura. By his later years, Pirlo had a more controlling influence on the game. It's not like this was an arrow the Italian didn't already possess in his quiver. But Pirlo's works refined over the years.
I think therefore I play
That's the Cartesian reference Pirlo wanted to emphasise in his autobiography. His play was bound up in thought. Pirlo's football derived its life from his vision, his ruminations, his conflicts.
What was never in conflict was his enduring role in the Italian national side. The stories of Italy's best displays in the 21st century are all linked to Pirlo. At the 2006 World Cup, the midfielder provided assists for Fabio Grosso's decisive goal in the semi-final and Marco Materazzi's equaliser in the final. Six years later, at the European Championship, Pirlo was the totemic figure of a campaign that took Italy to the final. Beyond the goals and assists, he led his country with a measured hand at the till and was also responsible for creating the only goal Spain conceded at the Euros.
His absences hurt Italy. Pirlo barely played in the disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign which ended in a group stage exit. There were more. For at least a decade, it was difficult to imagine an Italian side without Pirlo at the centre of its plans. When he announced his retirement from international football, Pirlo said it was akin to "hanging up my heart".
But once he left Serie A to play for New York City FC, the heartbeat dimmed. Pirlo made 60 appearances for the MLS club but, in his last season, his influence is receding. Pirlo knew his time has come.
Now that he has confirmed his departure, it's worth recalling those years when Pirlo really came into his own. After his move to Juventus, the ageing footballer did not just have a point to prove. He was also a freer being — somebody who embraced himself and seemed more assured. His confident demeanour brought out the stories and myths about him. Pirlo's cult grew.
Even in retirement, it is unlikely the glow around him will pale. Pirlo's leaving may not have the emotional resonance that someone like Francesco Totti engendered, but that is a consequence of the circumstances in which he finds himself. But ever since he left Italy, he has been acutely missed. Now that the separation is final, the void will become more apparent. Pirlo leaves a hole.
His body may not have been perfect to play football but his mind was. As sharp as Xavi's, or for that matter, anyone else's.
Published Date: Oct 10, 2017 12:52 pm | Updated Date: Oct 10, 2017 12:52 pm