Time waits for no man, not even for one as nonchalantly exquisite as Andrea Pirlo. Following his announcement that he had played his last match as New York FC got eliminated from the MLS play-offs by Columbus Crew, the tributes poured in.
Legends of the game, ranging from Zinedine Zidane and Fabio Cannavaro to Gigi Buffon and Kaka, all posted messages on social media, toasting to a legendary career. European aristocrats, such as Pirlo’s former clubs Juventus and Milan to Bayern Munich, did likewise.
A plethora of videos and pictures were uploaded as dedication to the maestro’s finest moments, some even just as a testament to how outrageously suave Pirlo – including the growing of the game’s most luxurious beard - eventually became.
But it could’ve been all so different; we might not be gushing superlatives over his career today had it not been for that wily old sage, Carlo Mazzone. By the time Pirlo joined Brescia on a six-month loan in 2001, he was on the verge of becoming another in a long line of highly talented individuals failing to make their way through the crazy house that was late 90s/early ‘00s Inter. As ludicrous as it sounds, Pirlo was in grave danger of falling through the cracks.
Simply too slow to be a No.10 in a game that was increasingly emphasizing brawn over brain, Mazzone’s genius was too foresee that he could deploy Pirlo further back and utilise his up-to-then scarcely seen passing range.
Pirlo’s eureka moment came against Juventus towards the end of the 2000-01 season. The goal is famous for Roberto Baggio’s jaw-dropping first touch, pulling the ball from the sky like he was having a kick-a-bout in his back garden. Yet many forget that it was Pirlo who originally put the ball there. Seeing Baggio’s dart in behind the flat-footed Juve defence, Pirlo’s lofted pass was inch-perfect. “When we played together everything depended on him,” Baggio said about Pirlo.
He never looked back.
Pirlo was an anomaly in the opening years of the 21st century; a central midfielder who was neither strong nor fast. Pep Guardiola once remarked that his kind of player went extinct around this time, as clubs concentrated more on speed and power and less on the artistic aspects of the game. Guardiola was released by Barcelona at the age of 30, despite holding legendary status, because he was merely a passer of the ball. How things would evolve by the end of the decade.
The prototype midfielder was a box-to-box player in the mould of Roy Keane, Edgar Davids and Patrick Vieira. Players who could seemingly do everything. All the biggest teams during this period had at least one such player. Guardiola felt isolated; a man time forgot. Pirlo could also be put in the same category, a player raging against the dying of the light in many regards. There was little physicality to his game. Incidentally, Guardiola joined Brescia following his Barça release, as a Pirlo-replacement.
Yet as the game demanded ever-increasing speed and stamina, he was a throwback, a player who moved at his own pace, patiently waiting for opportunities while chaos ensued around him.
It would take the winning of the World Cup in 2006 for Pirlo to get the global recognition his talents deserved. While Fabio Cannavaro would win the Ballon d’Or later that year for his Braveheart-esque performances in Germany, Pirlo was the brains of the side. The architect who dictated play. He would score one and assist three in the tournament. Is his angled no-look pass to Fabio Grosso one of the greatest in history?
Much like Baggio before him, Pirlo seemed to keep his best performances for the Azzurri. He was Italy’s standout performer on their path to the final of Euro 2012, whilst in the process destroying Joe Hart’s career with one of the most beautiful examples of a Panenka ever seen.
Many tried and failed to replicate Baggio’s heroics for the national team. Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti both fell short, Antonio Cassano couldn’t defeat his own demons. There hasn’t been a better outfield player in the last two decades for Italy than Pirlo. A silent leader who done his talking on the pitch.
Pirlo, especially in the latter, fully-bearded years of his career, reached rarified status in Italy: Transcending all club rivalries. Again resembling his childhood idol Baggio. There’s almost a sense that he belongs to all of Italy, not merely one club, despite playing for all of the ‘big three’. You would be hard pressed to find a fan of Juve, Milan or Inter who is critical of Pirlo. He’s morphed into a cultural icon, and not just in the realm of football.
Mention the word ‘regista’, to someone of Italian persuasion or otherwise, and the first name that will spring to mind is Pirlo. Just like Claude Makelele came to define his role as a deep-lying destroyer, Pirlo’s name will forever be associated as a deep-lying creator. Others came before and will come after him, but nobody perfected it like he did.
It’s a genuine sliding doors moment in the history of Italian football: What if Mazzone hadn’t felt inspired to move Pirlo 30 metres backwards? Where would his career have gone? Would we be reflecting on a trophy-laden career today? It must be remembered that Carlo Ancelotti was initially hesitant on playing Pirlo as a ‘quarterback’ at Milan, until Pirlo assured him it would work, based on the Mazzone experiment.
The possibilities aren’t worth thinking about. What is certain is that without Pirlo, the game would’ve lost some beautiful moments. And for that, we all owe Mazzone a great debt of gratitude.