Andrea Pirlo can sometimes give the impression of not being entirely present, as if his mind is drifting off to other places. In 2015, he did a photoshoot on a rooftop in New York. As cameras clicked and lights flashed, he stood there unmoved, impassive, waiting for it all to finish. According to one journalist, his facial expression did not change for an hour.
Italians know Pirlo for his deadpan countenance. Gianluca Vialli once joked that his heart beats at thirty-five beats per minute. Pirlo is aware of it, writing: “My face, with its fixed expression, doesn’t let on what I’m thinking…” Nor do his words: when Marcello Lippi said that ‘his feet do the talking for him’—an oft-cited quote since Pirlo’s retirement last week—he was referring to his apathy in interviews. One of the most intriguing players on the pitch can be one of the most boring off it.
Q: Do you have any pre-game rituals?
A: I don’t have any, I go on the field and think only about the game.
Juventus once tried to capitalise on his aloofness. They placed him on a bench in a Sydney park, then tried to entertain him. In the video, an artist turns up and starts balancing an axe on his cheek while juggling knives. Pirlo throws him a lazy look. An opera singer performs; Pirlo barely batts an eyelid. Next come three street dancers, then two pretty women who ask him to come surfing. Pirlo glances to the side and says nothing. ‘Pirlo is not impressed,’ says the video. Then viewers are encouraged to create their own material in a bid to woo the master.
Q: What’s your favourite film?
A: It’s hard to choose only one, because there are so many.
Some may think Pirlo is just trying to be cool, but his reticence is no facade. Until he joined New York City in 2015, he shunned almost all publicity. “I restrict myself to the dressing room and to the pitch, those are my boundaries,” he wrote. On bad days, when condemned to the bench or the stands, he used to close his eyes and recall something that relaxes him; what appeared was not an urban celebrity lifestyle, but an image of his own bare feet crushing grapes in a giant oak barrel. Such memories—‘daydreams that allowed me to still feel alive’—came from his rustic childhood, when Pirlo harvested grapes on his grandmother’s farm near Brescia. They were days that shaped the player he came to be.
Q: What is the one thing that fans might not know about you?
A: There are many things they do not know about me…
Pirlo was a prodigy. At four, he began playing with his brothers and friends on the sand near his family’s seaside resort in Viareggio. A silent boy obsessed with football, he’d buy La Gazzetta dello Sport to study accompanying videos of free-kicks scored by Zico, Michel Platini and Roberto Baggio. At home, he’d aim a sponge ball at the edges of the living-room window, using a sofa as a makeshift wall. When people saw him play, they’d stop and say: “That kid is fantastic.”
Pirlo began playing with older kids. At thirteen, he captained Voluntas U15 at Dana Cup in Denmark, performing with such confidence that, in a shoot-out in the semi-finals, he converted the decisive penalty by chipping it down the middle. “At an early age,” he wrote, “I knew I was better than the others.”
One day, Cesare Prandelli, then a youth coach at Atalanta, saw one of his assistants burst into the room, out of breath, saying he had seen an ‘insanely good’ kid playing for local rivals Brescia. Prandelli was struck by his fervour; this assistant had seen thousands of talents. As it was, Brescia were playing Atalanta the next week, and Prandelli turned up to get his first glimpse of Pirlo. “He left me speechless,” Prandelli wrote. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I got the distinct impression that everyone was watching him and him alone, thinking exactly the same thing: ‘This is the one. This is the new talent.’”
So good was Pirlo that he soon caused jealousy at Brescia. As he danced past players and scored, onlookers viewed his elegance as arrogance. ‘Who does that kid think he is? Maradona?’ This included his own team-mates, who in one game refused to pass to him. Pirlo broke down in tears on the pitch. “That sort of thing shouldn’t happen to someone so young,” he wrote. “At that age, you should be scoring goals and celebrating. But the fact that I scored so many upset a lot of people.”
Pirlo kept evolving to the extent that laws were broken to maintain his progress. He played his first international match for the U15s, even though he fell outside the minimum age limit for playing tournaments; the selector, Sergio Vatta, had called him up for ‘work experience’. According to Pirlo, Brescia considered a similar trick to let him play for the reserves. “It’s funny,” Pirlo wrote. “Women knock a few years off their age, but people always seem to want to make me older.”
Just a year after joining Brescia, Pirlo was training with the first team. Jealous seniors would launch ‘ten attempted murders’ on him per session, but coach Mircea Lucescu encouraged him and handed him his Serie A debut against Reggiana at sixteen. “He was very calm, even though he was playing in a difficult role: attacking midfield,” assistant coach Adelio Moro told FourFourTwo (FFT). “He was a real introvert, but he was very professional—an example to everyone.”
Pirlo impressed when given the chance and, when Brescia got relegated in 1998, they could no longer hold on to him. The buyer was Lucescu, now at Internazionale, which meant Pirlo joined up with his favourite club and his favourite player: Baggio. He endured a turbulent season, however, with Inter changing coach four times: Luigi Simoni, Lucescu, Luciano Castellini and Roy Hodgson. Next season came Lippi, who loaned Pirlo to Reggiana.
Pirlo matured at Reggiana, learning to fight when times got tough. On the training ground, coach Franco Colomba had to cut the power to make him go home. Yet his quiet disposition remained intact. “The first time I saw him smile, and it was only a hint of one, was when we were sure to avoid relegation,” Colomba told FFT. “We thought: ‘So he is a human, too—he feels emotions!’”
When Pirlo returned to Inter, he struggled. Lippi soon got sacked and Pirlo felt his replacement, Marco Tardelli, never gave him a chance “Had Lippi been in charge, I’d have stayed at Inter for life,” Pirlo said. Instead he went on loan to Brescia in January 2001.
At least Baggio was now at Brescia too, having joined the previous summer. “I grew up with his myth and to actually play with him was like being in a dream,” Pirlo told The Financial Times. “I tried to hang out with him, to study how he played and to learn from him.” Pirlo would play only ten games in that spell, but they transformed him. With Baggio up front and Dario Hübner just behind, coach Carlo Mazzone decided to try Pirlo in a defensive midfield role. “Initially the rest of the team mocked my decision,” said Mazzone. “But I just asked everybody to always give him the ball, nothing else.”
The discovery was genius. Pirlo would launch long passes to the strikers, between the lines or in behind. Brescia could now involve their chief passer in the early stages of their build-up, while opponents also had Baggio to mark. The highlight of their partnership came when Pirlo clipped a pass over the top that Baggio—with one touch—at once brought down and took past the goalkeeper to score. “When we played together, everything started with him,” said Baggio. “He always had the great gift of being able to visualise and anticipate plays before everyone else.”
To their eternal regret, Inter gave up on Pirlo. In 2001, they sold him to AC Milan, where Carlo Ancelotti had a dilemma. He had a squad brimming with prolific playmakers—Rivaldo, Rui Costa, Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf—but Silvio Berlusconi demanded that they all play. According to Ancelotti, Pirlo one day suggested that he play in front of the defence, since it had worked so well under Mazzone. “I had my doubts,” wrote Ancelotti. “I was afraid that Pirlo might create problems in terms of timing, because he likes to take the ball and keep it. A safe with a slow combination.” Still, Ancelotti tried it out in the Berlusconi Trophy. “I was astonished,” he wrote. “He started playing with beautiful simplicity, and he became an unrivalled player.”
Pirlo soon became known for his long-range passes. The way he struck the ball might have been linked to the playing conditions of his childhood. He played on sand, where you have to loft the ball, almost chip it. Thus his passes tended to hang in the air, sailing slowly over rival defenders, suspended just long enough for the strikers to collect them. The opposite was true of, say, Xabi Alonso, whose long passes were harder. Whereas Alonso often needed an angle, Pirlo could hit a ball straight over the defence, knowing its featherlight weight would make it drop just between the back line and the goalkeeper. So delicately did Pirlo hit his passes that strikers could even start their runs after the ball had left his foot and still end up reaching it.
As for vision, Pirlo looked around often, scanning the pitch. “He epitomised everything I thought best about head movement and body position and angles,” Steven Gerrard wrote. Pirlo himself would say his secret was to keep things simple, but that did not explain how he could see gaps where others did not. “It’s more a question of geometry than tactics,” he said. “The space seems bigger to me.” Ancelotti put it best, saying that “Pirlo spots a pass in a split-second that lesser players could spend a whole lifetime waiting to see”.
With Pirlo as the architect, Milan won Serie A in 2004 and reached the Champions League final in 2003 and 2005, winning the former. A year after the defeat to Liverpool, Italy won the World Cup under Lippi. Pirlo dazzled, providing a no-look pass for Fabio Grosso’s strike in the semi-finals, and his creator-destroyer partnership with Gennaro Gattuso blossomed. “In difficult moments,” said Gattuso, “I just gave it to him.”
Off the pitch, Pirlo espoused the class of the Milan veterans, particularly Paolo Maldini, whom he considers his best ever team-mate. “He taught me how to conduct myself,” Pirlo wrote. Another was Alessandro Costacurta who, like Maldini, had been at the club since the glory days of Fabio Capello and Arrigo Sacchi. They would advise Pirlo on everything: positioning, dinner manners, choice of tie. Yet Pirlo also played pranks. “The people who know me closely know that I’m a sociable person,” he would say. “Many times, for those who don’t know me, this doesn’t even seem true.”
The victim was often Gattuso. Once, Pirlo stole his mobile and messaged Milan director Ariedo Braida, pretending to be Gattuso and offering Gattuso’s sister in exchange for an improved contract. At the 2006 World Cup, Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi would annoy him, particularly when Gattuso was about to fall asleep in his nightcap and leopard-print pyjamas. At Milan, they’d wind him up at the dinner table over his grammatical errors. Gattuso would reply by attacking them with a fork, which, according to Pirlo, caused injuries grave enough for players to miss games. Even if true, this would not have been the maddest thing Gattuso did at Milan. Once, during a training session, he ate a live snail.
Pirlo nearly joined Real Madrid after the 2006 World Cup. They had agreed a contract and Pirlo wanted to go, but Adriano Galliani said no. A year later, Milan avenged Istanbul by winning the Champions League. Another two years on, Pirlo had agreed terms with Chelsea, now led by Ancelotti, only for Galliani to block his path again. In 2010, Pep Guardiola courted Pirlo in his office, yet once more Milan refused his wish to go.
One can imagine that Pirlo met a likeminded soul in Guardiola. He loves attacking football and values elegance. His favourite athlete is Roger Federer. Even as a kid at Dana Cup, Pirlo always sought to create. “He never made many fouls,” coach Roberto Clerici told FFT, “because he wanted to play football, and didn’t want to stop the others from playing either.”
Conversely, Pirlo scorns those seeking only to destroy. He lost his respect for Sir Alex Ferguson when he sent Park Ji-sung to man-mark him. The players who shadow him are also disdained, one of the most persistent being the Malta player André Schembri.
Pirlo: “Are you actually having fun out there? I feel sorry for you.”
Schembri: “Who said anything about having fun? I’m simply carrying out the coach’s orders.”
Pirlo: “But you’re never going to enjoy the game like this.”
Schembri: “Ah, but neither are you.”
Above all, Pirlo pities his markers. “They’re players—more than that, they’re men—who’ve been asked to go out there and act without dignity, destroying instead of creating. They’re happy to come across as utter crap as long as they make me look bad, too.”
In 2011, Milan repeated Inter’s mistake by letting Pirlo go. Having won Serie A, Massimiliano Allegri felt Pirlo was too old to protect the defence and wanted to shuffle him left in favour of Massimo Ambrosini and Mark van Bommel. The club offered him a one-year extension. Pirlo wanted three plus his old role. When he realised he had to leave Milan, he cried.
When Juventus got him up for free, they couldn’t believe it. Gianluigi Buffon exclaimed: “God exists!” Antonio Conte would write that he had been contacted by a representative of Pirlo, enquiring about Pirlo’s role in the project. “Tell him not to worry,” he replied. “We’ll take him, he’ll be useful. We’ll have some fun together.”
Soon Conte installed Pirlo as the central playmaker in a 3-5-2. Juve stormed to the title undefeated and Pirlo notched up thirteen assists, becoming Serie A Player of the Year. The next two years brought more of the same: Juve lifted the scudetto, Pirlo retained the award. According to Gattuso, Pirlo benefited from getting whipped into shape in his first year. “You know how Conte is, he’s a bad guy for a week but after that you start to feel good,” Gattuso said, according to Football Italia. “He needed that. The work put strength in his legs and he got that desire back.”
Pirlo shone for Italy too. Coached by Prandelli, they reached the final at Euro 2012, beating England on penalties in the quarter-finals. In that shoot-out, Pirlo repeated his Dana Cup trick by chipping Joe Hart. Pirlo denied it had been prepared; it was merely the most logical solution to Hart’s goal-line theatrics. “I wasn’t showing off. It’s just not part of myself…” Pirlo said, according to Twelve Yards. “After the game, team-mates asked me: ‘Andrea, are you a fool?’ They were astonished. But I wasn’t. I knew why I did it.” According to the same book, Buffon said Pirlo’s audacity changed the psychology of the contest. “That gave us huge relief to go on and finish it off,” he said. “Pirlo turned the shoot-out into our favour; after his penalty, the England players looked frustrated, like they had lost some determination.”
The 2014 World Cup did not go as well for Italy, though Pirlo still found the time to torment Hart, drawing on his practice at his family home to strike a long-range free-kick into the woodwork. The shot swerved so suddenly that Hart first went right, then stood rooted to the spot. It is usually said that players send goalkeepers the wrong way from the penalty spot—Pirlo did so from twenty-five yards out.
Whether voluntary or not, Pirlo has become an international cult figure in recent years, even though he had already entranced Serie A for more than a decade. His beard became iconic. In 2013, he released a lively autobiography that armed admirers with punchy quotes. How many of the jokes actually came from him is hard to say—the ghostwriter, Alessandro Alciato, also co-wrote Ancelotti’s 2010 autobiography, which had a similarly witty tone—but in any case, they create an odd contrast to the bland statements he offers in person.
Q: What’s your best pass ever?
A: I don’t know… maybe the one to Grosso in 2006. I don’t remember any particular pass I have made.
Pirlo got even more exposure at New York City. Doing press was part of the package: social media, club videos, interviews. And yet his habits seemed to change about as much as his facial expression on a rooftop photoshoot. He still ran a winery with his dad near Brescia. Eight months in, he was still ordering his clothes from Italy. He still went to Italian restaurants, still prepared for games by eating pasta with tomato and chicken.
Q: How has the life of a top player changed over the last twenty years?
A: For me it has always been the same… I stay at home, I play, I train, I go home. That’s it.
In the foreword of the autobiography, Prandelli wrote that Pirlo was “still the same kid I saw all those years ago”. Just as Pirlo refused to change his role, so has he refused to change himself. Even when he left Italy, Italy never left him.