Andrea Pirlo loved to pull pranks on Gennaro Gattuso. The two midfielders played together for more than a decade with Milan and Italy, winning everything from Serie A to the World Cup and Champions League. They became fast friends, but that did not stop Pirlo from stealing Gattuso’s phone one day and texting his agent, offering his sister in return for an improved contract.
It was not the practical jokes, though, that tormented Gattuso the most. Harder to cope with were the existential crises provoked by training alongside such outlandish talent. As he mused on one occasion: ‘When I watch Pirlo play, and see him with the ball at his feet, I ask myself if I could even truly be considered a footballer at all.’
Pirlo himself is not a footballer any longer. He confirmed his retirement on social media after New York City FC, the club with whom he has passed the final two and a-half years of his career, were eliminated from the MLS playoffs.
Six months after Francesco Totti’s curtain call, Italian football bids farewell to another of its most iconic stars. While the Roma forward was a one-club man, Pirlo was almost the opposite: that rare example of someone who swapped between great rivals without losing the affection of either. They still love him in Milan, just like they do in Turin. And just about everywhere else in the world besides.
Looking back, it is hard to pinpoint precisely when Pirlo transcended from domestic darling to global brand: a face that launched a thousand memes. Was it the 2006 World Cup win, or perhaps the Panenka to deceive Joe Hart at Euro 2012? Was it the autobiography, translated to English and laced with expletives? Was it just the vineyard and the beard?
What we know is that somewhere along the line he achieved that highest form of footballing recognition: the stage at which a player’s name becomes synonymous with their position. The ‘Pirlo role’ is understood worldwide as the one in which he did his best work: sitting in the pocket in front of the defence, picking out passes like an NFL quarterback.
It is easy to forget that this was not always his position. Pirlo had been identified as a special talent long before he broke through into the first team at Brescia in 1994, but back then he was a No10. Only after a difficult spell at Inter did he return on loan to his first club, who by this point had Roberto Baggio on their books.
The manager, Carlo Mazzone, moved Pirlo back into midfield as a means of getting both players into his starting XI. Even today, Baggio cites his favourite goal as one that he scored for Brescia against Juventus in 2001 – set up by a 35-yard Pirlo pass over the top of the defence.
How many other players have Pirlo to thank for the most memorable strike of their careers? Fabio Grosso, certainly, whose extra-time winner against Germany in the semi-final of the 2006 World Cup was made possible by a scandalously cool no-look pass.
That nonchalance was part of the appeal, Pirlo’s majestic technique was only enhanced by the cool he exuded in the most high-pressure moments of his career. It was, in some degree, a façade, Pirlo acknowledging in his autobiography that he has a talent for keeping his emotions hidden. But he also admitted in the same book that he never relished running for running’s sake.
‘One part of my job I’ll never learn to love is the pre-match warm-up,’ wrote Pirlo. ‘I hate it with every fibre of my being. It actually disgusts me. It’s nothing but masturbation for conditioning coaches, their way of enjoying themselves at the players’ expense.’
That is one thing he will not miss, and there was an admirable frankness in the manner that he pre-announced his retirement during an interview with Gazzetta, explaining that, at 38 years old, the strain of maintaining match fitness had become too much. ‘You realise your moment has come,’ he said. ‘Every day you have physical problems, you can’t train because you always have some ailment. At my age, it’s OK, to say, ‘that’s enough’.’
It is not as though he still had anything left to prove. He wept on the pitch after losing the Champions League final with Juventus in 2015, but unlike most of his team-mates he had already lifted the big-eared trophy twice.
With a Club World Cup and two Uefa Super Cups in his collection, Pirlo has raised just about every major trophy available to him. And yet you wonder if any of them mean more to him than the lifelong dream he fulfilled by playing at the Maracanã for Italy in the 2013 Confederations Cup. The free-kick he scored that day took a personal fantasy beyond anything that even his childhood self had dared to imagine.
Pirlo is a ferocious competitor who never hides from the bitterness he felt in defeat. But he is also an aesthete, and a dreamer. He was good enough to have it both ways.
You can understand why it all seemed a little unreasonable to a man like Gattuso, a man who built a very fine career out of more mundane gifts. Not everyone, though, is so intimidated by brilliance. The most eloquent tribute might be the one delivered by Gigi Buffon, quite possibly the best-ever to play his own position, after Pirlo arrived at Juventus in 2011. ‘When I saw him playing,” said Buffon. “I thought to myself, ‘God exists’.’
Conor Lynott – Sports Editor