As the dust settled on Italy’s miserable World Cup campaign, so did the unfathomable realisation that Andrea Pirlo may never don the famous Azzurri jersey again.
Prior to the World Cup, Pirlo had stated that his international career would be coming to an end once his sojourn in Brazil was over. His reasoning that the time had come for younger players to take centre stage was wholly understandable, given his advancing years and widespread calls for younger players to be entrusted.
After a second performance of epic proportions against England in an opening 2-1 victory, the Italians became expectant and placed their trust in the evergreen star. The country had just given the best passing display seen at a World Cup in 48 years - an accolade not possible without Pirlo’s contribution.
However, his influence wavered in their remaining group matches, and the nation promptly crashed out at the first hurdle for the second time running. But the 35-year-old gave a glimmer hope to his compatriots when he announced that all may not be lost: “If the new Coach asks for my availability, I would willingly return.”
Ever since his debut in 2002, Pirlo has been the most important member in La Nazionale’s development. While the likes of Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero, arguably more stylish contemporaries, spent their Italy careers stealing the headlines, the midfielder was quietly at work, laying the foundations for a glorious era in the Azzurri cycle.
In the current Italy set-up, Pirlo’s role of regista has begun to diminish, as the entire team is instructed to maintain possession. Although he continues to dominate the centre-circle, his mobility has evaded him. His mental sharpness has only increased with experience, meaning he is still able to orchestrate attacks at free will – providing his team-mates offer ample movement around him.
Before the reign of Cesare Prandelli, the Azzurri were known primarily as a counterattacking team, built on the ideals of catenaccio. Pirlo’s primary role under Marcello Lippi was to release the ball quickly on the break. It may not sound that ravishing, but the ability to remain calm and make a split-second decision in the pressure cooker of international football cannot be underestimated.
Following on from the 2010 debacle, Prandelli engineered a shift in Italy’s style of play – one which certainly plays to the strengths of an ageing Pirlo. The former Fiorentina boss once again made Pirlo the focal point of his philosophy, which has been to turn the side into a team that can relentlessly adapt itself to the opponent while remaining in control at all times.
Yet there are certain issues with Pirlo’s continued indispensability. Prandelli’s approach has faced criticism for a variety of excesses - too similar to the Spanish tiki-taka system that has nosedived in efficacy over the past 18 months, too much tactical convolution and too much reliance on the No 21 to “make a magic pass” in the words of Brazil great Zico.
Pirlo’s impact has also suffered at the hands of heavy pressing. Two of the world’s fittest sides, Spain and Bayern Munich, carried out their best efforts to stifle the midfielder, and it rendered Italy and Juventus one-dimensional, as they recorded convincing defeats in both Euro 2012 and the Champions League without reply. However saddening it may be, his brilliance has been clouded by sentiment at times.
Lippi blindly entered the South African World Cup in the hope that the class of 2006 could repeat their heroics of four years prior, without a contingency plan to boot. Still, it’s hard to blame Pirlo for their joint failures. The ex-Milan ace was ruled out for most of the group stage due to injury and can’t be held accountable for the lack of another creative presence on the pitch.
But Pirlo is like a fine wine, as Juventus have seen since grabbing him on a free transfer from Milan three years ago. The creative heartbeat for both club and country, there still isn’t an equal and may never be another of his ilk. With that in mind, his availability crucially bides Italy some extra time in moulding their plans for the future.