For Samuel, because he asked
Look at the little half-pint. Words seem impossible – where to find them, how to pronounce them. Andrea Pirlo is a footballing rebel, the likes of which the game has virtually never seen; he always did the opposite of what he was told to do: took a good thirty yards back from the spot where he was supposed to thrive as a trequartista, became an oligarch’s dream but always managed to be left in peace. Deemed a man of laconic, ponderous depth, he still wears girlish and eccentric T-shirts, moving along with sinewy grace as though his limbs poured all out into his latest through-ball. Perhaps, now that the burrows of his craggy beard are rife with sweat and fatigue, it is easy to figure out Pirlo. He wasn’t a communist, and he didn’t side with the others, either. All he wanted was to do his job well, make his mother proud.
Andrea’s “social skills,” as coaches and teachers call them these days, never developed through regular interactions with his peers. Even in the early days at Brescia no one thought that he was particularly concerned about his own socialization. The man setting the plastic targets on the training camp adored him; so did the woman at the bakery. Long before Pirlo became the homo sacer of Italian midfield, he belonged to the protected realm of adult, polite speech; a teammate wouldn’t dream of tormenting him with mean-spirited teasing. And if he spoke, no silly phrases or posturing. By the same token, though, Andrea wasn’t one to hang back. He met confrontation head-on, and was the ultimate scraper in the dynamic duo he formed with Rino Gattuso at AC Milan: not the other way around. No bully ever frightened him, but because he relied on penmanship rather than adrenaline, there was no solidarity. In sum, Pirlo had always played soccer like a talented, almost jaded schoolboy for whom the classroom offered no real answers. So he remained cautious, waiting to see if he’ll find them at the university.
The ultimate scraper – with so many ugly tattoos and preteen sexuality clouding the view, Pirlo’s world in today’s soccer feels an ocean distant, like a resolution pushed off to a future date or a much-discussed final exam that comes and you hadn’t had the time to properly prepare for it. But a scraper he is, despite all evidence to the contrary: a grizzled, tough guy disguised in ivy and linden foliage. I would not have fielded him against Barcelona in the 2015 final of the Champions League; or, at least, I have serious doubts. But I would never go against Sassuolo, Empoli, Cesena without him in front of the defense.
It is in the provincial games where Andrea Pirlo comes out for what he really is: a problem-solver who didn’t waste time on hysterics or sentimentality.
He just sits there, making himself available, bells starting to ring in his head. He’s testing you, stupid. And he stomps the ball without looking, many yards a piece, like the click of bicycle gears or a cigarette butt thrown outside the balustrade. And for the many who couldn’t keep up with the speed of his thinking, logic flew out of the window. The older Pirlo gets, the less there is comfort. He’s there to get a different job done; yours is to adjust, deal with it.
Indeed, this is the weapon of all weapons, since the beginning of the game – emotional blackmail. Andrea launching into his spiel, the others choking in despair. To his opponents, if you care to spell the obvious, most successful Pirlo passes feel like the Union proposed a forty-percent reduction in wages.
The province is the matrix of Pirlo’s game: long dull days of cats strolling in the sun of the Roman ruins of Brescia, long dull days of wine-making on the hills. Milky fog at Christmas, and for Easter spit, rain, a faint smell of urine under the porticoes. The stadium’s walls are covered in damp. Pirlo is at his best when the whole city had taken shelter indoor. It is easy to forget he was there, that way. There are no miracles in his line of work, but only few moral imperatives – to have a man in the middle of things. He is good at this job. He takes care of large families, and they respond in kind. A Pirlo goal from a free kick is like wiping mud from the boots, sparkling white that had seeped into linens and laundry. If you let the handiwork shine, it hides the flaw.
And every day on the pitch might die on the spot: essentially unknowable, yet without agonizing. The Pirlo case: res ipsa loquitur. The companions are a cohort of lone boulders, meditative telegraph poles with their birch wood splintering. The full-backs run for a scrap of dignity, like the career of those who depend on construction. Theirs is a sinking job: advancing, progress, change – grabbing, shaking shoulders. They know that a Pirlo ball is always likely to sky down, boiling or blinding at Andrea’s recommended dosage.
Many commentators compare Pirlo to Xavi. Understandably so: quotes from their lectures being passed down from generation to generation; two almost diminutive midfielders unpredictably pulled into Sócrates’s orbit, the realm of bearded democracy. The style, though, could not tell them more apart, if on a scale of equal ambition. Xavi rarely took a step backwards to defend his pass, trusting new chances and the protection of his teammates. He moved tense and elastic, as if he were a wind, 3 or 4 on the Beaufort scale. Pirlo – especially in his late style – often defended his breathing space with cunning shrugs and pirouettes. That space is like a bald spot, he himself digs it with gravitas. Which is a big problem if you’re in a hurry to find out the answers. Like his Spanish colleague, Pirlo is full of incendiary ideas and really loves to provoke, but what he cares about is how we think. Xavi’s footballing tone is one of injunction: read the pages I recommended you. Pirlo’s tone is one of mild despair, the lawyer who painfully retraces his sources before the final verdict.
Both Xavi and Pirlo, as it is only obvious, take their brilliance for granted. But only one of the two (the Spaniard) is interested in supporting a tactical position. Pirlo likes to sit back and watch the show, from time to time with dire consequences springing from his frequent, moronic mispasses. He needs those mistakes. Even if he played, by the end of his career, in one of the most competent sides in Europe, capable of switching systems of play in a nanosecond and flattening the midfield diamond, when needed, he would always be, by personal temperament, a rather solitary man. For it is only when you let loose, for a while, that you can then storm out, slamming the door of the citadel and scaring the defenders like applied electroshock to their genitals. Brilliance is a given. No amount of praise is ever enough.
Xavi and Pirlo know there will always be someone who’s better. Their trick is to make them go through their textbook in order to get there, force them into a face-to-face when the evening spotlights flood the stadium. In the book of football one is the sewing stitches, the other a bookmark; flip the back spine from the cover up and find them with your fingers where they are and where they were meant to be. They’re laughing Methuselah’s laugh.
Up until his last year with Juventus, when his late style had already touched and surpassed the breaking point, Andrea Pirlo remained fast – according to the charts of average mileage per game, but not so much for the liking of the human eye – precise and resilient like hard steel. But something crept from the outside, insinuating deeply into the man’s cheekbones: something like tenderness, which in Pirlo’s case might just be plain sadness. To look good besides him, his fellow midfielders still had to dope themselves like a race horse. Which isn’t all that great an accomplishment, if you ask me. Only a few players – Gattuso and Seedorf, certainly, then Marchisio and Pogba, all of whom had been Pirlo’s runner-ups for years – understood that Andrea is perfectly fine if someone else gets to be flag-bearer at the school parade.
It would be too easy to take those did abandon their teams in mid-flight as either visionaries or mercenaries. Contrary to popular belief, winning with Juventus is deeper, less certain: it’s like writing the abstract supine of vixit on the board, relying solely on what academics called embedded knowledge.
Winning with AC Milan must feel more like a veteran poet with his ennui, who wakes up dead drunk and still convinces you in a phony tête-à-tête that the greatest wisdom is simplicity. Andrea Pirlo has experienced it both ways. And he never looked in a hurry to find out the difference. AC Milan made him famous, first. But I suspect that by a strange calibration of faith, chance, and decision-making, Andrea will always remain a true bianconero at heart. There was no money involved in that sale, only surveying. And Turin is quite the city to be a bourgeois collector, a gentlemanly footballer pragmatically poised to repeat a successful history ad libitum – a little relaxation between freight trains, wondering if he remembered to bring his father’s Mont Blanc.
Many commentators also treat Pirlo as the ultimate teacher of football. It is a fair idea, naturally, but also a puzzle to which I have a specific solution to offer. While there is a lot to learn playing besides Pirlo, his mentoring skills do not depend at all on schooling and pedagogy – nor do they merely derive from charisma and experience alone – but rather on that delicate, and often tantalizing, relation that binds master and apprentice in a well-furnished shop. In other words, Pirlo is equipped with the panoply of duties, designes, and schedules that characterize a specialized artisanal job, such as those found in the printing ateliers during the early years of the typographic art.
Indeed, what one learns from Pirlo, even with the failing sight of advancing age, is skill in the sense of instrumental know-how or embodied knowledge. Old types never fail. And the most advanced of Andrea’s passes, too, must give way to what the team is supposed to supply in their stead. All told, Pirlo is a “master” in the precise definition of a functionary engaged in his firm’s division of labor. Every game is like a 212-page folio, so it totals fifty-three sheets, which in turn implies a production rate of a sheet a day. To make the plan more surveyable to his teammates, using Pirlo like a staple, the coach makes sure that some words and phrases have been capitalized as a guide. Printers, like footballers, are after profit. And Andrea Pirlo, that man of genius, does not have a privileged status, but stays there, discussing with the other workmen among moveable types, the compositors, the punch-cutters.
Take, for example, the case of Mirko Vučinić. Deservedly or not, eastern football has frequently been branded and dismissed with shades of lazyness, accused of hurtful delays. Yet, in their partnership, it was Pirlo who shook Vučinić from his own reputation of sweet, Slavic torpor and made out of him a particularly reliable worker – able to provide assists and goals at regular intervals, assembling the alphabets from their scattered boxes, as it were.
Andrea Pirlo is an authentic footballing rebel. He is so powerful on the field that he paradoxically becomes a liability for the team as well. And the deep source of this medicine man is the immemorial scribal routine that went down to us as tacit knowledge; the miner who knows where to cut the rock.
When all this will be over – the soccer and the gear – Andrea will return to Brescia and to wine-making. Confessions and signatures dispatched, to shut the journalists up. Put an end to the rumors once and for all. But I like to think that he and Vučinić will have a reunion at an abandoned factory, like in the old days. They would reminisce all the passes spiked with their special cognac, banking on the fact that the defenders were not used to narcotics. And they would smoke twenty hand-rolled cigarettes in two, equivalent to four normal packs. It is in moments like this that one understands the secrets of the workshop: the master, the mood-lifter, and the proletarian humor. It is because of days like this that one sees just when and why Balotelli was lost to the game: Pirlo himself couldn’t save him, make a proof-editor out of him. You wouldn’t guess it from looking at him. But the little bearded lizard has balls.