Andrea Pirlo has been world class for more than his beard and a panenka penalty
The Italian maestro will retire in December, but he may not be remembered for the right reasons
In and around the year 2012, the concept of ‘football hipsters’ ceased to be what it started out as. At its most basic, the term summed up the idea of taking enjoyment out of football away from the mainstream, just as some people did in their daily lives generally.
Like with anything, there were different levels; some would shun buying a Real Madrid or Manchester United shirt in favour of donning one from the Vancouver Whitecaps, whereas others simply appreciated a cultured through ball rather than a thirty yard screamer.
But five years ago, the meaning changed. Suddenly football embraced the mechanics and opened its eyes to other ways of playing and different styles. Pep Guardiola’s four-year Barcelona reign, which had just ended, had set the ball rolling by altering perceptions, but Andrea Pirlo’s stunning performances at Euro 2012 were the real catalyst.
When the whole world began to notice Pirlo
The quarter final against England was probably the moment things began to move. Pirlo, by this point a 33-year-old elder statesman of the game, proved the difference on a tight evening in Kiev; he was, in effect, the exact player England were missing, able to control the game at walking pace, without domination, pulling the strings with ease.
As the game entered penalties, the moment he has truly been remembered for came closer; Joe Hart’s mind games were no match for the Juventus midfielder, who had the audacity to chip the ball delicately down the middle, embarrassing the diving England stopper.
Once Italy’s progression was confirmed, all anybody in England could talk about was the absence of Jack Wilshere; the Arsenal midfielder had demonstrated his ability to control the big games, going toe to toe with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta against Guardiola’s Barcelona in the Champions League a year earlier.
More so than ever before, Wilshere was viewed as the great hope for the Three Lions and, if he stayed fit, the team needed to be built around him. This was just stage one of Pirlo’s growing influence on football culture.
The icon that is Pirlo
Over the next few years, as the linchpin of a marvellous Juventus midfield that also included Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba, Pirlo became something of a style icon. He grew a beard and drank wine in fields while wearing double-denim clothes; the legacy he was beginning to develop was changing.
Now, as one of the main attractions of Major League Soccer side, New York City FC, he has announced he will retire once his contract expires at the end of the year. Football is losing a unique character, but part of him is perhaps underappreciated, his ability on the pitch and the longevity of the success he has had.
It seems remarkable that a player who won the World Cup in 2006 and the Champions League twice in 2003 and 2007 with AC Milan, has only been latterly given recognition for his achievements.
It was he who played the pass to Fabio Grosso for the opening goal in the semi final victory over hosts Germany during that triumph with the Azzurri, and it was he who crossed for Paolo Maldini to score the opener in perhaps the most stunning European final in history, which the Rossoneri lost on penalties to Liverpool in Istanbul. Pirlo missed, but still played a huge part in the game, and in Carlo Ancelotti’s side generally.
Kaka stole the show in 2007, winning the Ballon d’Or after Champions League revenge over Liverpool, but the Brazilian would not have shone as brightly as he did if he was not given the license to play by Pirlo’s positioning and game management, the same traits he showed against England and in so many other games.
And yet, at that time, he was rarely given the spotlight himself.
Perhaps the game has just evolved. Around the same time, Xavi was struggling to gain much of a fan base at Barcelona, but Guardiola’s impact, not to mention winning the Player of the Tournament at Euro 2008 as a winner with Spain, changed all that.
Pirlo’s road to superstardom took a while longer, and he took pleasure in proving to everyone, both in and out of the game, just how good he was. Not only did viewers wake up to his true class in 2012, but Maximiliano Allegri, who released Pirlo on a free transfer after winning Milan’s 18th Serie A title a year earlier, was shown up spectacularly.
Juventus could hardly believe their luck as Pirlo went on to age like a fine wine; ironically enough, Allegri took charge in Turin in 2014, and he did not make the same mistake again.
Tributes to Pirlo’s career have flown in since he announced his intention on Sunday, with many paying homage to his passing and how easy he made football look. But those messages told only half the story; a pattern soon emerged as Pirlo was lauded as the ‘coolest man’ in football, something he wasn’t in his earlier days when he was winning World Cups and Champions League crowns.
Andrea Pirlo has become a footballing icon in his later years. He will be missed when he finally steps away from the game, but despite being one of the greatest midfielders of all time, his legacy will stand as the man who brought the ‘hipster’ ideology into the mainstream.
But, he did so much more than that.