Friday May 19 2017
Happy birthday, Andrea Pirlo

Today is the 38th birthday of former Inter, Milan and Juventus midfielder Andrea Pirlo.

Born in Fiero near Brescia, the young Pirlo began his career with Brescia playing in a trequartista role.

His performances soon led to a move to Inter, but he struggled to break into the squad in the 1998-99 campaign and was loaned to Reggina.

After another impressive season in the provinces he was again brought back to San Siro, but after just four League appearances Pirlo was loaned back to Brescia.

The great Roberto Baggio operated in the creative role high up the pitch, so Coach Carlo Mazzone moved the youngster into a deeper midfield role, playing almost as a quarterback.

Pirlo thrived in his ‘regista’ role, notably combining with Baggio for a stunning goal against Juventus at the Delle Alpi.

The midfielder picked the ball up in the centre circle, looked up, and pinged a perfect 40-yard pass into the path of Il Divin Codino.

Baggio killed the ball with his first touch, took it around Edwin van der Sar and stroked it into the net with his left foot.

Despite a fine season with his local club, Inter opted not to keep Pirlo for the 2001-02 season, selling him to city rivals Milan in a €17m deal.

If that seems cheap now, the deal was in fact partially funded by the movement of Dražen Brnčić in the opposite direction. Brnčić was last seen playing in the Belgian lower Leagues.

Rossoneri boss Carlo Ancelotti - who replaced Fatih Terim after a poor start - continued with Mazzone’s innovation, allowing Pirlo to pull the strings from a deep position as Milan finished fourth.

The 2002-03 season brought Pirlo the first silverware of his career, as Milan beat Juventus in Manchester to lift the Champions League.

The following season brought the Scudetto, with the midfielder scoring six times as the Diavolo finished 11 points clear at the top of Serie A.

Pirlo was not yet a key figure for Italy, but his performances earned him a trip to Portugal for Euro 2004.

The 2004-05 season brought another Champions League final, but Pirlo would suffer the most painful defeat of his career.

With Pirlo having set up Paolo Maldini for an early opener, the Rossoneri cruised to a 3-0 half-time lead against Liverpool in Istanbul.

What followed was perhaps the most dramatic turnaround in the history of the competition, with the Reds pulling it back to 3-3 and winning on penalties.

So ashamed was Pirlo by the capitulation, he wrote in his autobiography ‘I Think, Therefore I Play’ that he considered quitting football altogether.

He didn’t, and the following year brought arguably the greatest triumph of his career.

Having become a crucial part of Marcello Lippi’s Azzurri side - memorably scoring two free-kicks against Scotland to seal World Cup qualification - Pirlo scored the opening goal against Ghana at the tournament.

Pirlo played every game for Italy that summer, and was key in breaking the deadlock in one of the greatest games of modern times.

A pulsating semi-final against hosts Germany had somehow remained goalless for 180 minutes, when Alessandro Del Piero’s corner fell to Pirlo on the edge of the box.

Faced with a line of four German defenders, it appeared for all the world that the Milan man would simply attempt a speculative shot.

Instead, he feinted to pass out wide to Del Piero, before cutting a beautiful ball inside for Fabio Grosso.

The left-back curled it past Jens Lehmann first time, and Del Piero added a second with the last kick of the game. Andiamo a Berlino.

Against France in Berlin, the Azzurri fell behind early before Pirlo’s corner was headed in by Marco Materazzi.

There would be no more scoring, and the match went to penalties. Pirlo stepped up to take the first, a feeling he would describe in his autobiography:

“I lifted my eyes to the heavens and asked for help because if God exists, there’s no way he’s French. I took a long, intense breath. That breath was mine, but it could have been the manual worker who struggles to make it to the end of the month, the rich businessman, the teacher, the student, the Italian expats who never left our side during the tournament, the well-to-do Milanese signora, the hooker on the street corner. In that moment, I was all of them.”

Pirlo scored, as did everyone else, and Italy lifted a fourth World Cup, with L’Architetto named man of the match.

After gaining revenge on Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League final, and winning a second Scudetto in 2011, Pirlo became surplus to requirements at Milan.

Having benefited from Inter’s mistake in letting him go, Milan would commit a similar error as Pirlo joined Juventus on a free transfer.

Described by Gianluigi Buffon as “the signing of the century”, Pirlo had one of the best seasons of his career, providing 13 assists and controlling the tempo as the Bianconeri won the Scudetto unbeaten.

The lank-haired midfielder completed 87 per cent of his passes that season, making 500 more successful passes than any other player in the League.

He was similarly imperious at Euro 2016, memorably pulling off a Panenka penalty against Joe Hart in the quarter-finals as Italy went all the way to the final.

However, the Azzurri were smothered by Spain’s tiki-taka and were beaten 4-0.

The following summer brought his 100th cap in the Confederations Cup, and Pirlo marked the occasion by scoring a perfect free-kick at the Maracana.

Having racked up four Scudetti in a row, Pirlo helped Juventus to the 2015 Champions League final, but his influence was on the wane and he couldn’t affect the game in his customary way as the Old Lady went down 3-1 to Barcelona.

Pirlo left the field in tears, and it would prove to be his last match for the club.

Currently playing in Major League Soccer with New York City FC, it appears the current season may well be Pirlo’s last in football.

If he is indeed to hand up his boots, he’ll be remembered as one of the finest midfielders of all time.

Andrea Pirlo

Games: 741
Goals: 73
Honours: 6 Serie A, 2 Champions League, 2 Coppa Italia, World Cup
International Caps: 116
International goals: 13

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