American sports commentators aren’t shy of throwing in a superlative or two when they get excited. One of my favourite sports documentaries is Michael Jordan’s Air Time, which includes several lengthy montages of action featuring flabbergasted comments like, ‘That’s ridiculous that’s so good!’ and ‘WHO’S GAME IS IT? IT’S MICHAEL JORDAN’S GAME!’ (that second one was practically shouted down the mic – hence the caps lock).
It’s hard to compare a footballer with Jordan’s total dominance of his sport, but there are a handful around who, like Jordan, are so demonstrably better than their peers that their interventions can determine the course of game. Andrea Pirlo is one of them.
Even in the present era, with its relentless dissection of tactics and statistics, it’s comforting to know that some individuals can rise so far above the crowd that no empirical evidence is needed to support their claim to greatness. There is evidence, of course, Pirlo has won everything – but you don’t need to know that, you just need to watch him play, as I was lucky enough to do for the first time last Monday.
Pirlo played 35 minutes of an international friendly between Italy and Nigeria at Craven Cottage. Admittedly, this was about as meaningless as a football match can be: two nations who have just concluded their World Cup qualifiers, playing in a neutral venue, just days after a previous fixtures. But, this ridiculous setting made Pirlo’s quality all the more enjoyable.
The roar from the crowd that greeted his introduction in the second half was a wonderful moment on its a own, reflecting the status he has achieved among his country’s fans. It was obvious who everyone had come to see, and nobody left disappointed. It’s not like the other Italian midfielders on display were rubbish. They were all technically competent, but that’s an unremarkable quality. Pirlo’s introduction gave Italy a hundred times more purpose, and it happened instantly.
There was no time wasted getting up to speed, he began to dominate from the moment he stepped over the white line. His fist act was to receive the ball in central midfield, turn instantly, and waft a 40 yard cross field ball perfectly into the stride of the advancing Pasqual. It was a trick he proceeded to repeat on numerous occasions, and Nigeria appeared powerless to stop him. Poor Pasqual must have been exhausted from all the space he was running into. Even when faced with a three or four advancing green shirts that appeared to block all his escape routes, he found a pass to a teammate. And not just a pass to keep possession, a pass that put Italy on the front foot again and again, pushing Nigeria back into their half.
I know I’m getting ridiculously carried away with one performance in a friendly, but so was everyone else in the crowd. It was wonderful to watch. He moves constantly without the ball, always looking left and right to check the location of his teammates. He must have a freakish ability to compute all this information in his mind, because when he receives the ball he appears to know exactly where everyone else is. It’s weird how easy he makes this look. Riccardo Montolivo captained Italy until Pirlo replaced him. Montolivo is a good player, he is the captain of AC Milan, but he is not even close to Pirlo’s class.
Pirlo doesn’t even look like other footballers. He’s obviously very fit, but he doesn’t look or move like a professional athlete. When he was warming up at halftime, the other Italian subs were darting about and practicing bits of skill, while Pirlo was gently meandering across the pitch, stroking the ball to his teammates. And, then there’s the beard. These days beards have become quite common, but the key difference here is that Pirlo doesn’t look like a wanker. He looks ace.
Pirlo is 34 and – providing he stays fit – he’ll be orchestrating Italy’s midfield in Brazil next summer. His influence will surely start declining soon, and eventually his legs will go. He’ll find it harder and harder to dominate games against elite clubs and national teams. Thankfully that period is not yet upon us, and until then, we should take every opportunity to watch this grand master at work. One of the greats.