The Maestro exhales, his wooden chair creaking back and forth as he finally takes a seat. The sun begins to set over the hills of Fiero, illuminating the vineyard in golden-red rays. The valley between Lake Garda and Lake Iseo funnels a crisp harvest air through the pergola on the villa’s patio. He stretches his arms out and runs his fingers through his long straight hair. He tilts his head back and crosses his legs. It’s the first time he’s put down the gloves all day.
Antipasti sits on the table from the midday riposa along with the various libations of his labour, each wine label bearing the Pratum Coller name. Eos, a fruitful Rosé; Marzi, a red with a floral essence; Nitor, an elegant white next to a sweeter desert wine called Monos; and Arduo, a classy Sangiovese blend. He pours himself a glass of Arduo – the complex reserve – twisting the bottle at the end of the pour more like a sommelier than a typical farmhand.
Andrea Pirlo puts his lips together, takes a small sip and then slowly closes his eyes. For a moment he is simply still. The first sleepy thoughts are of tomorrow’s work between the vines, then his family. One more sip; a last flutter of the eyes, his faithful companions Pablo and Birba will watch over things.
As he slips into a dream world, moments from his playing days cascade into his mind like a vintage being poured into a decanter. Visions flash in his consciousness. A symphony of goals orchestrated by passes from the finest conductor. Then the trophies; the relationships; the friends; the coaches. He is brought back to the five greatest moments of his career, each with their own complexity and notes – just like his wines.
Eos – Dawn in Brescia
Pirlo’s career began in the Montenetto hills of Fiero that the Pratum Coller vineyard now overlooks. An attacking midfielder, he dominated the youth leagues in the area and Brescia’s academy were quick to take notice.
After little more than a year at the club, Coach Mircea Lucescu decided the 16-year-old had impressed enough to warrant a chance in the first team. Achieving this personal victory was no small feat for the teenager. In fact, during his boyhood years, Andrea’s mental toughness was constantly tested.
He was a predestinato, a young player destined for great things. Blessed with the ability to dribble past and score against the entire opposition on his own, his was often labelled as flashy or arrogant. But he was just thriving off instinct rather than trying to be something he wasn’t. Insults became so common his father would leave the terraces to avoid the constant berating.
The contempt directed towards young Andrea left him feeling isolated and marginalised. At a stage of life where one yearns to feel accepted, his teammates refused to pass him the ball.
After one incident when his Brescia youth teammates refused to pass him the ball for an entire match, the 14-year-old Pirlo burst out crying. There and then, he had a choice to make – sink with the lot of them, or push his way forward. The adolescent reached within, and chose the latter.
The same parents who accused him of trying to be like Maradona, and their children who had refused to pass to him, would soon be shouting his name from the stands. On May 21, 1995, Pirlo became the youngest professional in Brescia’s history.
Lucescu’s instincts served him well, as the teenager continued to develop, earning a starting role two seasons later. Just before his 18th birthday, Andreino inspired Brescia to the 1996/97 Serie B title. The young playmaker was making a name for himself on the peninsula.
Marzi – Youthful vigour in the 2003 Champions League
They say you should never meet your heroes, some things are better left to the imagination. That rule could apply to Pirlo’s spell at his boyhood club, Inter. Supposed to be the next big step in his career, a springboard to greatness, it ended in terrible disappointment.
Lucescu left Brescia for the Nerazzurri in 1998, bringing his playmaking protégé with him. Unfortunately, the reunion of mentor and apprentice did not work out. In stark contrast to what was promised to the player and his agent in the negotiating room of the Angelo Moratti Sports Centre, Pirlo spent the majority of the time on the bench. Needing playing time to grow, it was clear it wasn’t going to happen in the black and blue of Inter.
Climbing the highest mountain is never linear and Pirlo needed a subtler slope before the next ascent. A loan move back to Brescia saw him paired alongside the great Roberto Baggio and the two combined to conjure some magical moments – the 45-metre pass followed by sublime first-touch and goal from Baggio against Juventus springs to mind.
Later that year, Pirlo was sold to cross-town rivals AC Milan, a return back to the Promised Land albeit in different colours. Carlo Ancelotti had taken charge of Milan after his dismissal from Juventus. During the 2000/01 title race, the Bianconeri had finished second in the standings behind Roma – a finish deemed unacceptable by club management. While questions were still being asked about the technician, he was viewing his new 22-year-old midfielder in a different light to previous coaches.
Ancelotti reinvented Pirlo’s position, placing him in front of the defence, rather than as a trequartista further forward. It was a pivotal moment in the young player’s career. From then on, he flourished as a regista, or deep-lying playmaker. The midfielder and Mister spent the next two years growing together, along with their star-studded squad. A relationship formed, as Rui Costa and Rivaldo were allowed more freedom further up the field to supply Andriy Shevchenko and Filippo Inzaghi. Pirlo, meanwhile, initiated attacks and controlled the tempo. The chemistry was there for all to see.
By 2003, it was time for revenge. Andrea was ready to show he deserved the tag of playmaking prodigy and Inter had made a catastrophic mistake, while Ancelotti was relishing the chance to come up against his ex-employers who had disposed of him so carelessly.
The journey to the 2003 Champions League final was tense. After a 0-0 draw against Ajax at the San Siro in the quarter-finals, the Amsterdam Arena became the theatre for one of Milan’s big European performances. A young, talismanic striker by the name of Zlatan Ibrahimović was looking to assert himself on the European stage, but the visiting Italians produced their best. Milan twice took the lead, only to be pegged back by Ajax. However, as the Dutch side continued to push for the lead, the deftest touch from Filippo Inzaghi sealed Milan’s path to the semi-finals. The Rossoneri’s next opponent? Inter.
Facing his old club in a Champions League semi-final was a moment of truth for Pirlo. A nail-biting 0-0 stalemate was followed by a 1-1 draw, but since Milan were technically the away team in the second leg, they secured qualification. Pirlo’s quick passing had limited almost all scoring opportunities for the blue side of Milan, while his midfield counterpart Clarence Seedorf gave meaning to the term “box-to-box.” Away goal ruling or not, Andrea had got the better of his ex-club, frustrating opposing midfielders throughout the 180 minutes.
Whilst Pirlo exacted his revenge on an ex in the semi-finals, Mister Ancelotti would have his a chance to prove Juventus wrong in the final. This constituted perhaps the biggest test of both Ancelotti’s and Pirlo’s careers to date. English trumpeters led the opening ceremony at Old Trafford, however the game itself did not match the occasion. Pirlo, though, was on fine form, keeping the ball moving and forcing Marcello Lippi’s side into hopeless pressing, pulling them out of position. Edgar Davids, the Pitbull, always missed his bite. The metronome could not be stopped.
After 120 minutes and no goals, the Rossoneri prevailed in a penalty shootout. Pirlo had established himself as one of the finest playmakers of his generation. Paolo Maldini won the Man-of-the-Match, but Pirlo was the standout in midfield.
Lucescu has since admitted benching Pirlo was one of his greatest errors.
Nitor – Golden grapes in Germany
Gianluca Pessotto peers down from the roof of Juventus headquarters, moving towards the ledge. He clutches his rosary beads and takes what should have been his final breath. Bouncing off the cars down below, he’s saved only after being operated on three times. The Juventino was one of 27 individuals indicted in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal.
Uncovered by Italian police in May 2006 as the nation prepared for the World Cup in Germany, Calciopoli rocked the country. A complex network of club managers and referee organisations were accused of match-fixing by selecting sympathetic referees. Milan vice-president and Serie A president Adriano Galliani, was one of the big names implicated after wiretapping on his phone revealed conversations discussing the assignment of “favourable” referees to Rossoneri games.
Bianconeri ex-General Manager Luciano Moggi was another caught at the centre of the allegations. With Juventus being the most represented side in the Azzurri squad, it caused huge unrest. But despite the ensuing chaos in the domestic game, the national team found strength and unity in adversity. From the moment they arrived in Germany, Pirlo along with Francesco Totti, Marco Materazzi and Fabio Grosso took charge to guide the Azzurri to the grandest prize.
Totti’s last-gasp penalty took Italy past Australia in the round of 16. Following a shower and a change of clothes, Captain Fabio Cannavaro took a seat at the post-match press conference. A staff member whispered in his ear informing him of Pessotto’s condition. There was a sudden change in his facial expression, apologising to reporters as he took his leave.
Afterwards, Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluca Zambrotta were given permission to leave camp to visit their friend and ex-Azzurri player. While the team was shaken up by the news, Andrea kept his calm. In fact, he had been the team’s most important player in the tournament so far, scoring a rocket against Ghana in the first round of the group stage, and assisting Alberto Gilardino with the second.
Pirlo approached the semi-finals in the same fashion as any other match – calm, collected, hair blowing in the breeze. After a full 90 minutes, the Azzurri found themselves in a deadlock against hosts Germany. What followed was one of the greatest nights in Pirlo’s and Italy’s histories.
Del Piero ran to take a corner kick in the 119th minute on the right side of the pitch. The German whistles were piercing as the ball flew in mid-air. Suddenly, they turned into shrieks of apprehension as the ball fell to Pirlo on the edge of the box. It felt like destiny when the mastermind played a no-look pass to Grosso, who curled the ball into the back of the net with his left foot, sending Italy into ecstasy.
“Andiamo a Berlino!” Fabio Caressa and Beppe Bergomi screamed over the Sky Calcio microphones. The prize was in touching distance now.
But the final in Berlin would be unlike any other match Pirlo’s Azzurri had encountered. Opponents France fielded a star-studded squad led by the greatest player in the country’s history – Zinedine Zidane.
After Zidane had converted a cheeky Panenka penalty early on in the final, the Azzurri fought back. Pirlo delivered a corner with laser like precision to the head of Marco Materazzi – the player sent off against Australia in the last 16 and who conceded the penalty earlier in the game – to level the scores. Then, in extra time, the moment of infamy. Materazzi goaded Zidane and the Frenchman responded with a head-butt. The game went to penalties, Italy’s awful history in shootouts looming large.
“You’re first,” Lippi commanded to Pirlo. Pirlo records those unforgettable moments:
I then lifted my eyes to the heavens and asked for help because if God exists, there’s no way he’s French.
“I took a long, intense breath. That breath was mine, but it could have been the manual labourer who struggles to make it to the end of the month, the rich businessman who’s a bit of an ass, the teacher, the student, the Italian expats who never left our side during the tournament, the well-to-do Milanese signora, the hooker on the street corner. In that moment, I was all of them. You won’t believe me, but it was right in that very moment I understood what a great thing it is to be Italian.”
Pirlo’s penalty set the tone. Italy scored all five of their spot-kicks. France scored four, David Trezeguet’s miss enough to ensure Pirlo’s prayers were answered. Andrea was a World Champion.
Monos – The sweetness of escaping Hades in Athens
“I thought about quitting because, after Istanbul, nothing made sense any more. The 2005 Champions League final simply suffocated me… We’d invented a new disease with multiple symptoms: ‘Istanbul syndrome.’ I no longer felt like a player, and that was devastating enough. But even worse, I no longer felt like a man.”
Milan’s amulet was mentally and emotionally destroyed. What happened in Istanbul was a moment that so affected him, he reconsidered his purpose in life and as a player. His Yin of calmness was usurped by his Yang of dejection, attached with the guilt that came with missing a penalty kick in the shootout.
Coming off the World Cup victory, Pirlo’s return to club action reignited his fire for revenge. While his face remained trade-markedly stoic, the fire in his eyes was unmistakable.
Finishing first place in their group ahead of AEK Athens, Anderlecht and Lille, he and Milan put their league point deduction in the back of their head and felt enthusiasm surrounding their European campaign.
A curler by Kaka in extra time saw Milan past Celtic, drawing Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals.
A cross by Massimo Oddo was converted by a rare Pirlo header, helping Milan take the lead at San Siro, but the Germans were quick to level the match at 2-2. In the second leg at the Allianz Arena, Milan resisted an early assault by Lukas Podolski and Co, but broke the deadlock with a rifle by Seedorf. As Pirlo and Kaka ran over to the goal scorer, a silence loomed over the crowd in Munich – they knew which way this match was going to end.
This confidence would be prodded in the semi-finals though. Milan were beaten 3-2 by Manchester United. With just 90 minutes back in Milan to overcome the deficit, number 21 took centre stage. With a look back to Alessandro Nesta before the opening whistle, the ball was then immediately passed to him. Pirlo knew in his heart he could overcome this uphill battle and Milan could avenge the nightmare of Istanbul.
The rain poured down and the stadium roared as Kaka opened up the scoring with a left-footed volley from the edge of Van der Saar’s box. Pirlo then inflicted more damage on the English, as his looping cross found Seedorf to put Milan ahead on aggregate.
After a 3-0 thumping of Manchester United, the Rossoneri found themselves back in the Champions League final. It couldn’t have been against any other club. It couldn’t have been any other way. Milan’s opponents in the 2007 Champions League final in Athens were Liverpool.
When Milan were awarded a foul just outside of Liverpool’s box moments before half-time, Pirlo knew he had to make the most of it. The English side were asserting pressure and a reaction was needed if Milan were going to avoid conceding.
Curiously, the free kick was one of Pirlo’s worst, but it deflected off Inzaghi and edged past Pepe Reina in the Liverpool goal. Milan finally had their moment. Inzaghi went on to complete the revenge after he rounded Reina and slid the ball into an empty net late in the second-half. Pirlo and Milan had escaped from hell. The ghosts of Istanbul had been laid to rest.
Arduo – An Old Lady with a complex character
“A pen, just a pen…” That was Pirlo’s gift from Galliani for his decade of service.
Pirlo had once again arrived at a crossroads. A player who had given his heart and soul for Milan was suddenly seen as a fringe player. The organisation had deemed him “ageing”. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Fabio Capello’s Real Madrid; Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona; Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea; a new American consortium at Roma; a blockbuster offer in the Middle East – offers were aplenty for the world’s best orchestrator and he was to be at the centre of their projects.
But when Italy’s most successful team came calling, Pirlo put Galliani’s pen to paper and signed for Juventus. Mistakes from Milan’s management would become unforgiveable, but Pirlo had distanced himself from the insecurities of the past.
Pirlo and Antonio Conte immediately struck up a relationship. The hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach was equally as competitive as Juventus’ new acquisition. Pirlo’s brain and serenity combined with Conte’s rage and vibrancy was the perfect duality to lay the foundation for a Juventus dynasty.
“One little speech, a few simple words, was all it took for him to win me over,” Pirlo remembered.
During his first season in Torino, Pirlo was arguably the best player in the world. He created over 100 chances and completed 2643 passes with an 87% pass completion rate. The numbers were staggering, but even more so when compared with others in the league, converting 500 more passes than any other player. The only player in the world to have completed more that season was Barcelona’s Xavi.
The Old Lady was back filling her trophy cabinet and their regista was named in the Serie A Team of the Year, the UEFA Team of the Year, and voted fourth in the 2012 UEFA Best Player in Europe Award.
Juventus had established a monopoly on the peninsula. The 87 points accumulated in the 2012-13 season saw them finish 15 points ahead of Milan, whose decline had well and truly begun. Meanwhile, four years at Juventus ushered in four Serie A titles and one more Champions League final appearance for the maestro.
Pirlo’s legacy was now untouchable. A footballing deity.
As Andrea awakes from his slumber, his dogs are looking up at him eagerly, wagging their tails. One last line of red-gold is on the horizon and the stars above him begin to shine down. He looks around the vineyard, with his hands scratching the dog’s heads. Just before heading in for the night, he gives a curious look to the bottles resting on the table. His hardened face gives a smile of satisfaction, for each represents a chapter in one of the most successful careers in Italian football history.
Pirlo stays where he is. People like him should be left in peace. He needs to keep enjoying himself and playing with happiness. I don’t want him to feel any kind of pressure. He must remain a player who belongs to everyone.
Percassi, Brescia president
A special thank you to Luca Hodges-Ramon for providing guidance on this piece, and to Ed Moynihan (Forza 27) for his wonderful graphic. Andrea Pirlo is a true role model who spreads love with every master pass. Truly Unico.
Words by Wayne Girard: @WayneinRome