In such an environment, it takes a brave man to cast off the running spikes and don a pair of comfortable loafers instead. It demands not only a moral courage but an intellectual capacity that far outstrips the run of the mill sprint slave. To drift through modern games at rarely above walking pace, yet to invariably be the key figure on the field, requires an intelligence so sharp, so acute, you could reassemble a peeled apple with it.
Such a man is arguably the best footballer on earth, and has been since around 2006 when he became one of those rare souls to play in a World Cup winning side. And yet Andrea Pirlo, for it is he of whom we speak, has never come close to winning the Ballon d’Or, nor any of those other baubles that are thrown in the direction of Messi and, perhaps this year, Ronaldo or Ribery. I suppose it’s inevitable really, for we are in an era where only the bright and shiny things catch the eye and the camera while subtlety, depth, substance, they are left to live in the shadows, minority interests in this world of the mass and the easy and the mainstream.
Pirlo is a throwback to a different game, one where it was not all about pace and power, a time before we were in thrall to the sports scientists, a time when we trusted the evidence of our own eyes and came to our own conclusions as to who could play and who could not, rather than being told by a computer printout. He comes from a time when football was still lauded as an art form, before the paranoid and the self obsessed began trying to constrict it to mere science. Here is a player that can touch the soul and enliven the mind, not one that can be reduced to the algorithms of a computer game. Little wonder the modern game would render him extinct.
For a footballer of intelligence, what can we do with such a beast? Dear God, the man might want to express himself, be more than a mere automaton, might actually choose to do his own thinking in the midst of a game. We can’t have that. And so football looks to breed squadrons of mechanical men who will do as they are told, buckle to the system and serve the star, the pyrotechnical Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic who can do the impossible. In essence, they look to turn football, 11 versus 11, into a boxing match, one versus one, where the other ten on each side are redundant entities, athletes charging hither and thither, crunching into tackles, recovering, overlapping, shuttling one another into blind alleys, simply cancelling each other out.
That is the joy of a Pirlo, an orchestrator, a conductor. With him in the team, you are not looking to a lead violinist to garner the killer reviews on his own. Pirlo introduces piano, percussion, wind instruments, the full panoply of strings, voices too. With Pirlo on the rostrum, everyone is involved, everyone is valued, everyone can potentially be the difference, everyone is brought to the party and given greater significance. It is about the group, not the individual.
Look at the evidence of 2011/12 should you require convincing. After Milan made the catastrophic misjudgement that Pirlo was past his best and allowed him to leave for Juventus, he responded with perhaps his greatest campaign, piloting Juve to an invincible, title winning season in Serie A before heading off to the European Championships where he dragged an otherwise insipid Italian outfit to the brink of the title.
On the way, they defeated England by a thousand cuts and by penalties. Were England unlucky? No. They were beaten by a side with better technique, for while penalties are a test of nerve at that stage, they are also a true test of quality, something that Pirlo proved emphatically. With his team trailing, at a point where they dare not miss another penalty, he scored with a slow motion chip aimed directly at where the goalkeeper was standing. In that instant, that moment of innovation and guile, he shifted the momentum irrevocably Italy’s way such that Young and Cole looked beaten men as they approached the penalty area. Though Italy were behind, as soon as Pirlo’s kick trickled over the line, the game was won.
Danny Blanchflower, one of the game’s great intellectuals, explained his own style of play as an expression of his ego, that he wanted more touches of the football than anyone else because he believed that he would do more with it than anyone else, though he was aware that footballers such as Cliff Jones might be more technically gifted. But Blanchflower had gifts that the quicksilver Jones did not. He had a footballing imagination that dwarfed his contemporaries. He could envision passing moves, he could visualise ways in which defenders might be moved out of position, how opposing formations could be bent out of shape. Blanchflower couldn’t run, he couldn’t head it and he really only had the one good foot. But he was the pulse of the Tottenham side that did the first double of the 20th century, he was its heartbeat and its brain.
It is the same with Pirlo. He plays much of his football on a sliver of turf, far more concentrated than the acres that the rampaging modern athlete is expected to cover. But he can achieve more to change the conversation within a game of football with a simple sidestep or a 180 degree turn than an army of middle distance runners can do over the course of a season.
Pirlo is no less than a footballing treasure, a player of colossal influence. He is Tolstoy to Ronaldo’s Dan Brown, the kind of player in whom we can see, understand and respond to all that the game should be. He has consumed and assumed the football of the Gods, he is the summation of a line that runs through Ockwirk, Hidegkuti, Di Stefano, Netzer, Giles, Zidane.
The likelihood is that Brazil 2014 will be Andrea Pirlo’s swansong. Record every minute of it on whatever device you’ve got. The chances are we will not see the like of him again. Football doesn’t want us to.
Away Colours now invites you to sit back and watch the following:
Article © Nigel Molesworth for @awaycolours 2014