When tourists visit southern Italy, they often head straight from Naples and Pompeii to Sicily, catching the overnight ferry. They miss Basilicata and Calabria, leaving it largely untouched by outsiders.
If tourists do manage to find themselves in Reggio Calabria, they are likely to visit the Riace bronzes. These immaculate Greek statues, dating back to 450bc, resemble warriors in peak physical condition with flowing hair and chiseled beards. In many ways, a mature Andrea Pirlo, the one who was at the heart of Antonio Conte’s all conquering Juventus side, looked like these priceless Greek sculptures.
When Pirlo arrived in southern Italy as a 19-year-old though, he was far from the hipster favourite he would later become. He had a full lock of hair, but it was not untamed. He was fresh faced and ready to learn.
Having been developed at the Primavera of Brescia, he moved across northern Italy to Inter. Playing in an advanced number 10 role, Pirlo was fast becoming one of the most prodigious young talents on the peninsula.
Yet during the 1998-1999 season, dubbed as the “season of four coaches” at Inter, a succession of Misters, including Luigi Simoni, Luciano Castellini, Roy Hodgson and Mircea Lucescu came and went. Only the latter really had any faith in Pirlo, but out of 20 appearances in Serie A, 15 were from the bench.
A new era rolled in at the Nerazzurri with Marcello Lippi in the dugout, but Pirlo was still on the outside. So, in the summer of 1999, Pirlo found himself somewhere many deliberately avoid, Calabria.
The southern province is not a football hotbed. Yet with Reggina playing in Serie A for the first time in their history, there was a buzz around the region.
Pirlo missed the opening two games of the season, as Reggina made an impressive start to their debut Serie A campaign. Having drawn against both Juventus and Fiorentina, many were surprised Franco Colomba threw Pirlo straight in for his debut against Bologna. The gamble paid off. Reggina beat the Rossoblue and the following week scored a late winner to beat Piacenza. Eight points from four games was a remarkable return for a club that had never before competed at such dizzying heights.
Much of this was down to the vibrancy and youth that Reggina could call upon. Up front was fellow Inter loanee Mohamed Kallon, who finished as the side’s top scorer in Serie A with 11 goals, five in front of the next best Pirlo. Kallon had fallen foul of the foreign players rule in Serie A which restricted the number of overseas players in each squad. As a result, he joined Pirlo in Reggina, with both players aiming to prove their worth to the Nerazzurri.
Alongside Pirlo in the Reggina midfield was Roberto Baronio. Another product of the Brescia academy, Baronio had also found himself at Reggina on loan, from another of Italy’s big clubs Lazio. The duo would forge a partnership like that of Pirlo and Calabrian born Gennaro Gattuso in the years to come. Pirlo would dictate play behind Kallon, whilst Baronio would hold back looking to break up opposition attacks. Having played with Pirlo for Italy’s under-21 side, it was actually Baronio who persuaded his midfield companion to join him at Reggina: “Every time we saw each other at the Under-21s, I told him ‘Come to Reggio we will play together’. I pretty much became his agent”.
Off the pitch, the pair were close too. Pirlo referred to Baronio as his brother. They were inseparable away from the training ground, bonding over their shared experience in the deep South, away from their parent clubs.
By the half way stage of the season, Reggina’s form had plateaued, winning just once in 13 games. Despite this stuttering form, Colomba was massively impressed with Pirlo’s application and talent.
He was always the first to arrive at training and the last to leave. Even at this early stage of his career he was almost complete. You could see the player he was about to become.
Indeed, Serie A had already been treated to Pirlo’s future trademark. At the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi against Hellas Verona, he perfectly curled a free kick over the wall and past the helpless goalkeeper. In another glimpse of the future, he scored at San Siro against AC Milan in a famous 2-2 draw for the Amaranto.
In January Massimo Taibi joined the side, following a terrible spell at Manchester United. Bought by Sir Alex Ferguson to replace the great Peter Schmeichel, Taibi’s horror career at Old Trafford will forever be remembered for the blunder against Southampton as he let Matt Le Tissier’s tepid shot crawl through his legs. Back in Italy, Taibi got back to his best and helped steady the ship in Reggio.
Pirlo scored huge goals in narrow home wins against relegation rivals Bologna and Lecce as well as another trademark freekick against Milan, meaning the Rossoneri were the only side he scored against both home and away. A corner had been turned. Reggina even went to the Stadio Olimpico and comfortably beat Roma 2-0.
With a draw at home to Verona, Reggina secured their Serie A survival with one game to spare. Pirlo’s six goals had been decisive, earning his side seven points with the club staying up by just four points. On the final day of the season, Reggina went to Lazio with the Scudetto still on the line. Lazio eased to a 3-0 win and watched on as Juventus fell to Perugia in biblical conditions. Reggina had certainly played their part in their first Serie A campaign.
Pirlo had shone after being given a sustained period in the first team. He narrowly missed out on the young player of the year award, which went to Baronio. In the summer the pair would help lead the Azzurrini, along with the likes of Gattuso, Simone Perrotta and Morgan De Sanctis, to European Championship glory in Slovakia. Pirlo scored in the opener against England while Baronio scored in the other two group games. Italy qualified straight for the final where Pirlo scored twice against the Czech Republic to secure Italy, at the time, a fourth crown.
Despite Pirlo being the top goalscorer and player of the tournament, as well as representing Italy at the Olympics in Sydney, the talented midfielder could not break into the Inter side. This was even more strange given Marco Tardelli, who replaced Lippi in October, had been in charge of the Azzurrini during the summer and had witnessed first-hand what Pirlo could do.
For someone so clearly talented, just 40 appearances at Inter was a travesty and says more about the club’s travails at that time. Eventually, the Nerazzurri would make their gravest error of them all, allowing Pirlo to move to cross-town rivals Milan, where a modern calcio great would quikcly emerge.
Baronio, on the other hand, never fulfilled his potential. Back at Lazio, he was a useful squad player but severe injuries and a succession of disappointing loan spells put pay to his undoubted talent. He made his Azzurri debut in 2005 but narrowly missed out on the 2006 World Cup squad, where his old partner would shine in Germany.
In Italy, many football commentators and pundits talk about the grinta and the passion of local provincial sides. With the number 30 on his back, wearing the now iconic Amaranto shirt with ASICS and Caffè Mauro on the front, Pirlo produced glimpses of the star that he would later become. But more importantly, being part of a small provincial side was more than just a footballing education for a young Pirlo, it imbued him with the drive and determination which later ensured he reached the very top.
As the man himself would later reflect:
“I grew up at Reggina, not only from a technical and tactical point of view, but also as a man. The spell at Reggina strengthened my character and it’s where I learned to always play with that provincial team spirit.”
Words by Richard Hinman: @RichardHinman