Miralem Pjanic comes full circle on Tuesday when Juventus visit Olympique Lyonnais, the club where he took his first big step up the career ladder.
It was in the OL jersey as an 18-year-old that he stayed behind to study Juninho Pernambucano’s free kicks in training and practice with the master. Even making only five starts that first season, you can’t buy an apprenticeship like that.
"I've practiced about 10,000 free kicks from every single position on the pitch. It takes more than 10 years to learn," Pjanic explained, keen to stress his devotion to the craft. A man who speaks six languages fluently is someone who can be relied upon to do his homework.
Eventually when Juninho left in 2009, the teenager took on the mantle, complete with Number 8 Lyon jersey.
“I called Juni before the season began to ask his permission to wear his shirt. He told me not to worry about it and to not put too much expectation on my shoulders.”
Pjanic’s life and career has been a series of stepping stones, of apprenticeships and learning curves. At the age of 26, the move to Juventus suggests he’s ready to put all of that study together and forge his own way.
Born in war-torn Bosnia to a professional footballer father, the Pjanic family moved to Luxembourg to seek a better life. Practising his dribbling and free kick skills against the garage door, Pjanic was encouraged but never pressured to follow in his dad’s footsteps. His love of the ball and great ambition, combined with his parents’ mature outlook on life, led him to FC Metz, a club located only 50km away from Luxembourg, where the family resided.
“It wasn’t difficult to convince them,” explained Carlo Molinari, President of the club. “They realised Metz provided a perfect launching pad for their son’s career. They were familiar with the house and the training centre and knew the kids were supervised academically.”
A club renowned for developing many great players, Pjanic integrated well within his new surroundings, safe in the knowledge he wasn’t too far from home. Described as a marvellous player to coach, Francis De Taddeo, head of the training centre, also noted how strict the youngster was with himself, how ambitious he was for his age and how much he looked to learn from those who surrounded him.
Boasting vision and intelligence, Pjanic’s composed demeanour and fierce ambition drove him to further his footballing intelligence slowly and steadily.
Tracked by the biggest clubs in the world, from Arsenal to Bayern Munich, the 18-year-old midfielder chose Lyon, a phenomenal team at the time, but one that would have the patience to develop the young prodigy.
Surrounded by better players and forced to adapt to the pressures of a big club, Pjanic worked day and night to hone his craft. He became, in the great Juninho Pernambucano’s words, the best free-kick taker in the world today.
Scoring the vital goal that saw Lyon defeat Real Madrid to progress into the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2010, the player then moved on to Roma. Almost mirroring his idol Zinedine Zidane’s path in life, he knew that Italy would help him acquire the physical and mental strength to progress his career.
Visionary, elegant and intelligent, Pjanic was regularly treated to a symphony of compliments by Italy’s many newspaper columnists. The fans may have turned on him on occasion and inconsistent performances did cause frustration, but he was a player who could resolve the type of game that one can find in Serie A.
Asked how Roma overcame a defensively tough Parma, Rudi Garcia replied: "We gave Pjanic the ball and watched him score a genius free kick."
While he was a master at set pieces, he was never more beautiful to watch than when he scored from open play. Gliding past Sulley Muntari, evading Riccardo Montolivo’s attempt to tackle before manipulating his way past Adil Rami, that sumptuous goal Pjanic scored against Milan in April 2014 will forever be etched into the mind of every footballing pundit. His mesmeric talent enchanted even the most neutral of fans.
Last season, no player provided more assists than the Bosnian in Serie A. In addition to scoring 10 goals, he also produced the second highest number of key passes per game. Roma depended on him to beautify their game and he seemed happy, but the chances of silverware remained slim. It was like studying at a university with a great nightlife, but not the best degree.
It’s amazing to consider a player of such talent has lifted no trophies at all in his career. The only prize he ever received was individual, as Bosnia-Herzegovina Player of the Year for 2014.
The desire to further his footballing education and develop within the halls of a club used to winning led him to Juventus. “When I arrived at Vinovo I discovered this special mentality. This will to win that Juve breathe and you feel in every match.”
Now Miro takes all he has learned and returns to Lyon, where he hopes to show old friends a few new tricks.
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