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.