You will never understand Andrea Pirlo, the latest of the Italian World Cup winners in 2006 to hang his boots, if you see him as anything but part of a greater whole.
The former Inter, Milan and Juventus midfielder played after an idea of football that was entirely based on being part of a team. He was a director of play, a student of opportunity, someone whose brilliance emerged by extracting the brilliance out of his fellow teammates.
Yet the Maestro was part of something in a wider sense too, in that his story intersects so closely with that of Italian football over a certain period that he comes closer than anyone else to embodying it as a whole.
He stormed the Champions League with Milan, giving Carlo Ancelotti the trunk to build his iconic 'Christmas Tree'. He declined together with the Rossoneri, joined the Old Lady, carried them (and was carried by them) back to the summits, did all of this with the Azzurri too.
There is no significant Italian player since the turn of the millennium that Pirlo did not play either with or against, or both. He was on the pitch when Alessandro Del Piero waved goodbye to the Juventus Stadium, and before that when Paolo Maldini played his final game against Fiorentina.
It is easy to forget, nowadays, the breadth of this regista's career, but the first Italian champion he shared the football field with was Roberto Baggio. In fact, among the Divin Codino's most beautiful goals (against Juventus, no less) was an incredible first-touch control on a long ball that came straight from the confident feet of the Metronomo Bresciano.
I'm not going to try and retrospectively paint that - gorgeous - moment of football as some deeply significant omen, but there is a point to recounting it, and this is it: in nearly everything that was grand about Italian football over the last twenty-odd years, Pirlo was involved somehow or somewhere. Just about the only important exception was, I think, Jose Mourinho's Inter.
That he was involved in so much that was so great may explain why Italy's finest midfielder was seldom the star of his teams. There were strikers and stars and poster-boys that were a lot more marketable than his long, melancholic face. At Milan there was Kaka, at Juventus there was Paul Pogba. The Maestro was the object of great respect, for sure, but never idolatry.
Even in the tournament that represented beyond argument the man's finest hour – the World Cup triumph in 2006 – it would be inaccurate to say that Pirlo 'stole the show' in any sense. Even Fabio Grosso did that better. The truth is that Pirlo partook equally in the heroics of a team that was already incredibly talented, and overperforming to boot.
More to the point, and as always in his career, the Metronomo worked at his best in that World Cup because of the fact that he was part of a greater whole. Opposing teams assumed that the fulcrum of play would be Francesco Totti, and they ironically left a fully-fit Pirlo with a degree of tactical freedom that he would never enjoy again. It was the anonymity of the Maestro that truly unleashed him.
In later years, Pirlo's game became more eye-catching – even a bit histrionic, if you think of his chipped penalty in Euro 2012 – but at 27, the Azzurro had reached football Nirvana. He possessed the perfect balance of physicality and technique, athleticism and experience, heart and brain.
Aesthetically, watching the number 21 was in some ways more reminiscent of billiards than of calcio. The sobriety, the intelligence, the precision of it. No samba, no step-overs, no flip-flaps, no biting, no head-butting, no talk. Only old-fashioned, imperishable Italian football.
That a midfielder should be called the most quintessentially Italian player of his generation speaks to his heritage. This is a football nation that became famous for rocky defenders, and for strikers who were either very cynical or very visionary. Pirlo broke that mold.
After 2006, it became commonplace to discuss any up-and-coming midfielder as 'the new Pirlo'. I've seen the title bestowed upon Luca Cigarini, Andrea Poli, Alberto Aquilani, Riccardo Montolivo and Marco Verratti among others, but these juxtapositions do little more than unfairly diminish the youngsters.
In fact, the aptly-nicknamed Maestro stands in a class of his own. If only for a trophy cabinet that looks like the set-up of an exhibition, he deserves to be called no less than the greatest Italian midfielder of all time.
A player who knew how to combine elegant style with brutal efficiency, Andrea Pirlo was the greatest man on the pitch because he never tried to be greater than the pitch. He showed Italians that you can be both understated and glorious, and this was the last and perhaps the best lesson left to us by the Maestro.
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