Andrea Pirlo: Italy’s loss in MLS’ gain


It’s June 7, and upon the final whistle being blown in the Champions League final, a teary Andrea Pirlo bids an emotional farewell to European football. The man who courageously led a stunning Juventus revival following the Calciopoli scandal was seemingly too fragile to bottle up his emotions. And in amongst Barcelona’s jubilation, an endearing image made its way into the limelight, there stood the 36-year-old being consoled by his younger deputy.

“I am lucky that I get to play with my hero – Andrea Pirlo. I make no secret I want to become like him”, Paul Pogba mused. When Pirlo made his Champions League debut back in 1998, the Frenchman was just 5-years-old. And on a night when Italian football finally redeemed itself after years of being overshadowed by the other ‘more popular’ leagues, the legendary playmaker was taking his final bow and passing on his leadership baton to a younger generation.

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Pogba’s quote, though, is rather telling. Italian football over the years has produced magnificent midfielders the likes of Valentino Mazzola, Marco Tardelli and Rino Gattuso. Yet none can aptly compare to the maestro that is Pirlo; a player who transcends the club and is adored by many.

In an age for athletes where the technical advancements and tactical changes has seen the game evolve, it was Pirlo’s genius and technical efficiency which saw him become one of a few remaining midfield architects to play football in its purist form. He was footballer who was slow, weak but had the ability to glide effortlessly across the pitch with the prowess to dictate play with ease and remain untouchable.

“He’s the epitome of class; a man who leads the team using all the weapons that some consider antiquated yet, for me, are irreplaceable: deception, the pause, the fake, precision. These are all the exact opposite of that word that is so fashionable today and such a disaster for the game: intensity,” said Real Madrid legend Jorge Valdano.

But it was the same intensity that threatened to rid the game of playmakers like Pirlo. Having initially struggled to fully integrate into the Inter Milan set-up, making 40 appearances over two seasons, Carlo Ancelotti prudently employed the veteran into a deep-lying playmaking position where he showed his true quality as the regista in a star-studded midfield containing Kaka, Clarence Seedorf and Gattuso. The quartet would later reach three consecutive Champions League finals, two semis and a quarter-final where they won two titles.

He would also later help Italy end a 24-year drought to lift the World Cup in Germany back in 2006, where he assisted Materazzi’s equaliser before also scoring in the shoot-out. “I don’t feel pressure … I don’t give a toss about it. I spent the afternoon of Sunday 9 July, 2006 in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup,” he later remarked.

Having arrived from enemy territory after being released by Milan in 2011, not only did Pirlo simply revive his career upon setting foot in Turin, but he also brought back hunger into a club which had been embroiled in scandal. He brought leadership to youngsters, charisma to the dressing room, comradery with his fellow veterans and adorned himself to a club.

Juventus became more than a club, but the physical manifestation of a philosophy he himself believed in. “Being a Juventino is to carry oneself with pride and dignity. Till the very end as President [Andrea] Agnelli would say,” he wrote in his memoir.

Conte’s tacticial innovations following Pirlo’s arrival allowed the Italy international to rediscover his majestic touch as he controlled the rythmn and deliver incisive passes as he provided 13 assists, a league high. Perhaps ironically, it was unwanted former Milan player who helped the Bianconeri pip the Rossoneri to the league title.

In the following seasons, he would win three consecutive domestic player of the year accolades. Even in his final hurrah, a season halted by several injuries, Pirlo was still the difference as Juventus and, as his form in recent seasons might suggest, the 36-year-old still has a lot to offer, both on and off the field.

Despite his fine record, it’s fair to say Pirlo, as the Juventus so eloquently put it, cannot be merely summed up by statistics. But while his European adventure is over, he career continues on.

On Monday, Juventus ended speculation by announcing that the 36-year-old would join MLS’ newest franchise, New York City FC, a move indeed brings to an end a remarkable playing career in Europe. Yet, it simultaneously opens a new window of opportunity in football’s fastest growing market, both as a spearhead of an already star-studded line-up and also as a mentor and idol to ambitious starlets.

New York’s inability to attract marquees to its city since Pele and Beckenbauer led the now defunct New York Cosmos franchise has left the Big Apple on the sidelines. This has been reflected NYRB’s lack of silverware in recent seasons as well as poor attendances where they have not averaged more than 20,000 spectators per match since 2001. Even so, despite previously boasting marketable players the likes of Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and Tim Cahill, MLS clubs hadn’t yet won over the hearts of New York sports fans.

The creation of NYCFC became a turning point, and with the acquisitions of David Villa, Frank Lampard local stars the likes of Mix Diskerud, the franchise has become an overnight sensation, boasting average attendances of 29,000 this season.

In a side which has struggled to link midfield creativity with David Villa’s ruthless attacking, the club will certainly do better offensively with a player who still has the ability to dictate the tempo of play, and adds a different dynamic to a side which has scored just 20 goals in 18 matches thus far. Given his age, he will also act as a mentor to the club’s emerging young talents and lead a faltering squad as they attempt to reach the MLS play-offs.

As the MLS’ shiniest addition yet, Pirlo will fill empty seats; his pedigree, competitive spirit and charisma, which resonates well those who dwell in New York, will undoubtedly gauge the interest of the wider community. In particular, his arrival would increase the profile of the club amongst America’s Italian community, the same community who helped make New York Cosmos a hit in the 1970s when Giorgio Chinaglia led the side four championships after Pele’s departure in 1977, 1978, 1980 and 1982.

Pirlo’s move isn’t a retirement, instead the beginning of another chapter in his career. This time, though, instead of catapulting Italian football to the top, he’ll be bringing the beautiful game to the masses.