When Fabio Quagliarella was felled just outside the penalty area in the 88th minute of Juventus’ scoreless clash at Genoa, one name was on everybody’s lips. This was Andrea Pirlo territory. The Bearded Genius was the player to take responsibility in front of Genoa’s boisterous Gradinata Nord.
At the other end, Gianluigi Buffon could only watch and hope. Was he confident as Pirlo placed the ball? “Of course, there’s always hope when Pirlo’s on the ball, even if he’s in my penalty area. He’s one of those players who can change a game.”
The Stadio Luigi Ferraris held its collective breath. Mattia Perin built his defensive fortification. Unfortunately for Genoa, the wall and goalkeeper were helpless. One caress of the right foot later, Pirlo secured Juve three points. Perin got close, but the free-kick was simply too good. “It wasn’t one of my best goals, I’ve scored a lot,” shrugged the ever-modest Pirlo.
It was Il Maestro’s fourth Serie A goal of the season. His 12th overall for Juventus. Of those, 10 have come from a dead-ball. The last non-free-kick Pirlo goal was against Roma in April 2012.
That dead-ball proficiency has rocketed the Lombardy native up the list of all-time Serie A free-kick specialists. The strike at Genoa was Pirlo’s 25th in the top flight, putting him just three behind record holder Sinisa Mihajlovic. Francesco Totti is the only other active player in the top 10, on 14 goals.
When faced with a defensive wall, Pirlo can call upon a full bag of tricks. Aside from curling up and over, the No 21 is adept at burrowing under the wall, or going around it. Then there’s the maledetta – cursed – shot, hit with power to glide through the air with an unpredictable trajectory.
For Pirlo – who says, “many of my colleagues see in me an example to follow, to copy and maybe even out-do” – practice is the key. “I’d like to see young players understand how important set-pieces can be, because they can often decide the outcome of a game. All it takes is a little practice every day and you can improve your touch and accuracy no end.”
Pirlo told the Gazzetta dello Sport that in the days of each Serie A team using a specific and slightly different ball for home matches, he made sure to be sent the upcoming opponent’s model before an away game to practice his technique.
He studied his heroes growing up. “Since I was a child I watched tapes of [Roberto] Baggio, Zico and [Diego] Maradona,” Pirlo noted to the Daily Mail, “and then I tried to replicate them just playing on my own against the wall. Certainly it’s talent but you have to cultivate that talent.”
The 34-year-old credits training alongside the Divine Ponytail at Brescia as a big step in his development. Another contemporary he idolised was Juninho Pernambucano, the former Brazilian international who made the art of the free-kick look decidedly simple. Pirlo wrote in-depth on free-kicks in his recently released autobiography, specifically Juninho.
“I collected CDs, DVDs, even old photos of his games and eventually I came to understand. It wasn’t an immediate discovery. It took time and patience.” Pirlo’s training ground goal was to unlock the secret to Juninho’s style.
Initially he wasn’t successful. More balls scattered the outer reaches of Milanello than hit the net.
Then the discovery. “Juninho didn’t hit it with all his foot, but with only three toes.” When Pirlo went to test the theory, he hit the top corner. “It would have been a goal even with a keeper there.” Four more successful attempts later, Pirlo was on the money. Juninho’s secret was out of the bag.
One person who hopes Pirlo loses his golden touch is Mihajlovic. “Sportingly I hope he doesn’t manage to overtake me,” the Serbian told the Gazzetta. “He’s very good, but if we count the ones I scored in Yugoslavia too, Andrea would have to be born again to catch me.”
Sampdoria’s boss, who once exclaimed, “I don’t think I would ever have played football if free-kicks had never existed,” challenged the Juventus star to a showdown. “I’m up for it. Ten free-kicks each. We’ll see who scores the most. Like gunslingers. I’ll let him choose the ball and the goalkeeper.” No response yet from Pirlo.
While that confrontation is on the backburner, Pirlo remains a dead-ball example to follow. An expert in different styles, but guaranteed to give you the same result.
Top 5 Pirlo free-kicks
5. Genoa vs. Juventus, Serie A 2013-14
When Juventus needed a goal, Pirlo was their man from the set-piece. A superb last-minute effort in which Grifoni goalkeeper Mattia Perin scampered quickly to cover a lot of ground in an attempt to stop it, but was left stranded by Pirlo’s centimetre-perfect execution.
4. Italy vs. Scotland, World Cup 2006 qualifying
Sinisa Mihajlovic once scored a hat-trick of free-kicks in one game. Here, Pirlo grabbed a brace. The Azzurri had started World Cup qualifying unconvincingly, but at his home stadium in Milan, Pirlo rocked Scotland with a free-kick in each half, the second the pick of the two – curled expertly into the corner.
3. Milan vs. Schalke 04, Champions League 2005-06
As the Rossoneri welcomed the German club to San Siro, qualification from the group stage was on the line. Milan knew a win would take them through. Just before half-time, Pirlo stepped up to net a wonderful effort from nearly 30 metres. The dreaded maledetta had done the trick. Milan went on to win 3-2.
2. Inter vs. Milan, Serie A 2007-08
The Derby della Madonnina demands the best. Just 18 minutes in to the first 2007-08 edition, Pirlo answered the call. He drilled a free-kick over the wall so quickly and with such precision, Julio Cesar couldn’t – or didn’t bother – to move.
1. Cagliari vs. Milan, Serie A 2007-08
With Milan headed for a draw at Cagliari, Pirlo lined up a set-piece 30 metres from goal. He nonchalantly hit a rifle that swerved from one side of the Stadio Sant’Elia to the other, before nestling in the net. Goalkeeper Marco Fortin’s look of astonishment says it all. Cursed indeed.