The last temptation of Andrea Pirlo

Paul Simpson – former FourFourTwo editor and now ed of the official UEFA Champions Matchday magazine – on an Italian icon

Andrea Pirlo must have the most intriguing beard in the UEFA Champions League. Since its appearance, Juventus’s iconic playmaker has variously been likened to Jesus Christ, a nobleman from the Italian Renaissance and all-action movie hero Chuck Norris.

For those of you who haven’t seen Norris on celluloid, he is usually a heroic lone wolf – although, as Anthony Lane noted in The New Yorker recently, he more closely resembles a lone marmoset. Norris is one of the stars of Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables 2, a flaccid blockbuster in which the superannuated male leads, Lane suggested, needed not only stunt doubles but also acting doubles.

Christ, Pirlo and Norris: Now that's a dinner party

Pirlo is still far from expendable for club and country. Understandably, he hasn’t started this season in the same spectacular form that had pundits’ jaws dropping in studios across the world during Euro 2012, but he is integral to a gutsy, intelligent Juventus team that has – as the manner of their comeback suggested against Chelsea – forgotten what it’s like to lose.

There will be those who pounce on every quiet match to insist that Euro 2012 was his Indian summer: that he should not, at the relatively ripe old age of 33, have succumbed to the temptation of testing himself in the UEFA Champions League, a competition he has already won twice. That said, if every player followed that safety-first approach, football would be a much duller sport.

But where did that beard come from? Beards are clearly on trend in Italian football at the moment. In the national side, Antonio Cassani, Mattia Destro, Alessandro Diamanti, Claudio Marchisio, Antonio Nocerino, Pablo Daniel Osvaldo and Giuseppe Rossi have all decided not to bare their chins to the world. Nocerino’s is so luxuriant you wonder if the midfielder is paying homage to the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose novels were regarded as pre-match inspirational texts by Gennaro Gattuso.

Pirlo certainly looks distinctive on the cover of the new Champions Matchday, out now. As one of the game’s pre-eminent, deep-thinking, deep-lying playmakers, Pirlo didn’t really need to acquire any more gravitas. But the beard has a poetic truth to it. If you’re going to be football’s equivalent of the beard-stroking intellectuals that once dominated the world’s cafes, you might as well look the part.

It means, for example, what when you are asked by Champions Matchday interviewer Paolo Menicucci to define the playmaker’s role, you can stroke your beard while you consider the question. In a nutshell, after reflecting on the role, Pirlo said that to be a real playmaker you need to be good at everything.

Off the pitch, Pirlo is as laconic as Gary Cooper in an old style Western. Even on it, as a sublime regista, his acting register is as narrow, yet effective, as the hero of High Noon – or Robert Redford, who modelled his style on Coop’s. A minimalist in an age of show-offs, fancy dans and loudmouths, Pirlo remains one of football’s low-key superstars.

Champions Matchday 2 magazine it out now. Check the Twitter feed at @ChampionsMag