The making of Pirlo: 'From an early age, I knew I was better than others'
“When I see Andrea Pirlo play, when I see the ball at his feet, I ask myself if I can really be considered a footballer” – Gennaro Gattuso
Down the stairs, or the escalator for the impossibly lazy, come a dozen Juventus players. An hour before meeting Barcelona in the Champions League final, they traverse a small concrete valley before bounding up another set of steps and into the warm evening glow that illuminates Berlin’s Olympiastadion.
They emerge, to polite applause, and the group scatters. At its front, 22-year-old forward Alvaro Morata crosses himself before sprinting onto the pitch, changing direction every couple of strides to dissolve any nervous energy.
His strike partner Carlos Tevez, an ADHD footballer utterly incapable of even momentary stasis, follows suit. Another six break into a jog, swinging arms from side to side and performing a couple of stretches.
There is one of the dozen, however, who is yet to even reach a trot. His gaze – hidden behind a squinty stare and a shock of flowing brown hair – is fixed on a football about 20 paces onto the pitch. While his team-mates jog widths, scanning the crowd, he follows with the same ball at his feet. As the intensity increases under the gaze of fitness coach Simone Folletti, he stretches with a leaning shrug and sprints with a weary sigh, all the while hoping for another touch of the ball. Andrea Pirlo, you see, hates the warm-up.
The warm-up is nothing but masturbation for conditioning coaches. I need to do something to avoid getting depressed.
“It actually disgusts me,” he wrote in his fascinating 2014 autobiography I Think Therefore I Play. “It’s nothing but masturbation for conditioning coaches. I need to do something to avoid getting depressed.
“If you’ve got Bar Refaeli [a stunning Israeli model] lying naked in front of you, you can’t just wink at her and say: ‘Wait there – I’ll be with you in 15 minutes.’ It’s exactly the same when you’re about to play Real Madrid, Barcelona or any other superpower.”
It’s this sort of attitude that has enshrined the modern Pirlo cult. The Twitter-breaking tears shed as Juve lost 3-1 to Barcelona only add to the allure. His eminently quotable memoirs and that luscious beard may help – he looks naked in pre-facial hair pictures – but Pirlo is unique in 2015 football.
We all know what he’s won (the 2006 World Cup, those Champions League trophies in 2003 and 2007, six Serie A titles and various other trinkets too numerous to mention), but the relentless quest for silverware isn’t what matters. Nor does defeat in Berlin.
Now 36 years old, why does he matter? Fans and managers want multi-functional players. They want players like his Juventus midfield partner Paul Pogba; players who can do everything well, without necessarily excelling in one specific discipline. All Pirlo does is pass. He doesn’t run, can’t head the ball and isn’t particularly strong in the tackle.
In short: fantasy. Art first, result second. England definitively fell for Pirlo with his scooped Panenka penalty against Joe Hart in the Euro 2012 quarter-final shootout.
Yet he’d done it before, 20 years earlier, aged 13. The cult of Pirlo, football’s last luxury player and under-the-surface prankster, actually begins in a 750-year-old Danish town most famous for its natural history museum…
“Sometimes Andrea delighted too much in his own passing ability – I had to spank his ass”
Hjorring is a nondescript market town a few kilometers from the northern tip of Denmark, full of quaint redbrick-roofed houses seldom more than two storeys high. With the exception of a light entertainment revue festival, its most noteworthy event is the annual Dana Cup, which features 25,000 youth footballers from around the world, competing at age groups from under-12 upwards.
This is not a school trip. We’re here to win, so you’d better behave.
In 1992, Roberto Clerici took Voluntas U15s, an amateur side from Brescia in northern Italy, to the tournament. His captain, weighing just five stone, was a 13-year-old playing two years above his age group. Andrea Pirlo. “This is not a school trip,” Pirlo huffed at his team-mates. “We’re here to win, so you’d better behave.”
He led by example with his feet. To reach the semi-final, where they’d eventually be knocked out of the competition, Voluntas were taken to penalties. Pirlo took the decider. Win or bust.
“You could have heard a pin drop,” recalls Clerici. “He went towards the keeper with the ball under his arm. He took his run-up. He slowed down. He caressed it. Scooped it. We nearly dropped dead. Andrea is like that: even then you couldn’t tell him anything. He had the same look on his face as he did against England in Kiev at Euro 2012.”
After every Voluntas training session, Clerici held a penalty tournament “so as not to have a queue for the shower”. When a player missed, he went to get changed. The last one standing was always Pirlo.
“He was well aware of his ability,” Clerici, who still sees Pirlo regularly, tells FourFourTwo. “Sometimes he delighted too much in his own passing ability, and I had to spank his ass – good-naturedly, obviously! He never made many fouls, because he wanted to play football and didn’t want to stop the others from playing, either. He did the hardest things almost without ever making a mistake. Even though his family were comfortable, financially speaking, he didn’t need extra motivation, and that’s very important.”
Beginning on a family holiday to Tuscan seaside resort Viareggio as a four-year-old in 1983, football was everywhere in Pirlo’s childhood.
He was a calm, silent boy, but not introverted. He thought only of football.
“He played games on the sand with his brother Ivan and their friends, who were at least two years older,” recalled mother Lidia. "People stopped to watch him and said: ‘That kid is fantastic.’ He thought only of football. He was a calm, silent boy, but not introverted. He never hung around with bad company, partly because he stayed in the yard playing with Ivan until dinnertime. There was a bit of rivalry between them, but no jealousy.” Ivan went on to carve out a decent semi-pro career.
As children, the brothers would practise around the home with balls of wrapped-up stockings, Andrea insisting that his beloved Marvel action toy Big Jim played football, too.
With all that practice in the streets and corridors of Flero, a small village to the south of Brescia, it didn’t take long for Voluntas’ professional parent club to take an interest in young Pirlo. Meanwhile, a meeting was called at Brescia’s local rivals, as Atalanta aimed to poach the 14-year-old. Fearing a “diplomatic incident”, Atalanta president Antonio Percassi resolved: “He should be left in peace.”
“He left me speechless; I’d never seen anything like it,” said Cesare Prandelli, then an Atalanta youth coach (and Pirlo’s future Italy boss). “I got the distinct impression that everyone was watching him and him alone, thinking the exact same thing: ‘This is the one. This is the new talent.’”
“Does this lad think he’s Maradona?”
Pirlo writes in his autobiography: “From an early age, I knew I was better than the others, and for that very reason tongues were soon wagging. Everyone talked about me, too much as a matter of fact, and not always in a good way.”
Matters came to a head in another youth team game for Brescia. Jealous at the newbie’s outrageous talent, his own team-mates refused to pass him the ball, their parents questioning from the stands with increasing volume: “Does this lad think he’s Maradona?” Pirlo’s father Luigi, unable to deal with the catcalls and the tears streaming down his son’s face, ran to the other side of the pitch to escape, and barely attended his matches for years hence.
Go and pick up that ball. Give it a stroke – it belongs to you. The jealous folks don’t deserve it.
Undeterred, Pirlo trusted his own talent and waltzed his way to a couple of goals. “Go and pick up that ball,” he told himself. “Give it a stroke – it belongs to you. The jealous folks don’t deserve it.”
He did at least have one influential fan at the club: first-team coach Mircea Lucescu. Within a year of joining Brescia, Pirlo was training with the senior pros and playing pre-season friendlies against the likes of Red Star Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest.
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Lucescu had to quash an internal revolt among Brescia’s grizzled 30-year-olds as this cocky teenager dribbed past one of their number before going back for more, over and over again. Pirlo says that in the early days, there were up to “10 attempted murders” per training session.
“A few were jealous of him and afraid at losing their first-team place,” Lucescu’s Brescia assistant Adelio Moro, who went on to give Pirlo his senior debut in May 1995, tells FFT. “He was very calm, even though he was playing in a difficult role: attacking midfield. He was a real introvert, but he was very professional – an example to everyone. I wish more players were like him, not just technically speaking, but also as a human being.”
Marco Schenardi, the player substituted by Moro for Pirlo’s debut, has fond memories of the youngster’s early years at Brescia.
“He told me that for him it was a dream to take my place on the pitch,” Schenardi tells FFT. “He was very lucky to have a coach like Lucescu – he had the intuition that Andrea was a great player.
He seemed indolent – you didn’t bet too much on him to become a leader, but he became one through his talent.
“You could see he had great qualities, although you also saw this kid who seemed indolent and you didn’t bet too much on him for the future, despite his enormous quality. His character wasn’t the kind that made you think he could become a leader, but he had the fortune to become one through his talent.”
With the squad finally harmonious behind a 17-year-old Pirlo, Brescia won the 1996-97 Serie B title; the problem for the Little Swallows would be holding on to Andreino. “We’ll never have the money to buy a player like Pirlo,” admitted president Gino Corioni. “He will be our symbol. I’ll hold on to him for as long as I can if we stay in Serie A.”