As a footballer, when you’re told that you are too old to play for AC Milan, then it really is time to hang up your boots. After all, the great Milan laboratory is the place that kept Alessandro Costacurta playing into his 40’s, the legend Paolo Maldini for almost a quarter century, and sees that most indisputable of goal-poachers, Pippo Inzaghi, still trying to break that offside trap past his 38th birthday, despite knee ligament injuries. Throw into the mix the likes of Gianluca Zambrotta – perhaps the best wing-back around 6/7 years ago – Alessandro Nesta and Gennaro Gattuso (who if he were a cat would almost certainly be on his ninth and final life) and the sports science department at Milanello has been keeping some of Italy’s best players of the last 15 years going well beyond their sell-by dates.
However, this summer the Rossoneri allowed it’s playmaker, the man Carlo Ancelotti built his team around, who made the 2003 and 2007 European Cup winners tick, not to mention his outstanding performances at the 2006 World Cup for Italy – he was named man of the match in both the semi-final against Germany and the final against France, as they lifted the trophy on a fourth occasion – to depart, casting him aside on a free transfer. There was no glitzy send-off, just an emotional embrace with some long-standing friends and teammates, and a statement of thanks, before sliding the player out through the back door. After 10 years making pass after pass, creating chance after chance at the San Siro – for the likes of Andriy Shevchenko, Hernan Crespo, Kaka, Inzaghi and latterly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Andrea Pirlo was released, a relative baby (in Milan terms) aged 32.
Whether it was the decision of the ultimate powers at Milan, the owner Silvio Berlusconi and Chief Executive Adriano Galliani, or the manager Massimiliano Allegri, not to renew the contract of Pirlo we cannot be sure. For many at the time, it appeared the right decision, to get his vast salary off the books, especially as the players style – his one-paced, slow, methodical approach play – didn’t fit in with the quicker style of play that Allegri incorporated at Milan in his debut season as manager. During the clubs Scudetto win last season, Pirlo made only 17 league appearances, injuries having appeared to take their toll, and he was often seen as more a hindrance than a help, nowhere near his best – A best which in the last 10 years would have he and Xavi Hernandez, the Barcelona and Spain midfielder, as the definitive playmakers in world football.
Nonetheless the player dubbed ‘l’architetto’ [the architect] by international colleagues has this season appeared reinvigorated by his move to Juventus, given the reigns to dictate play for the Old Lady by new manager Antonio Conte. Turin is no retirement home for Pirlo. He is clearly still keen to showcase his ability (after all, he has taken a pay cut of almost half to secure regular first-team football). With a spring in his step, and with the workaholic Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal alongside him in the Bianconeri midfield – note that as Gennaro Gattuso’s legs began to betray him in the past few years, Pirlo’s influence in the Milan midfield did likewise – the cultured midfielder has looked classy once more.
On the opening day he put in a mesmerising display against Parma, creating two goals in a 4-1 win from which point he has continued to impress for the Italian league leaders. Unquestionably his standout performance came prior to the international break in the 2-0 defeat of his former employers at the Juventus Arena. Pirlo was the standout player on the pitch, picking passes like Tiger Woods used to pick waitresses. Even Mark van Bommel couldn’t get close enough to kick him.
“I believe that signing a player of his level and worth for free has been the deal of the century,” declared Juventus and Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. “When I watched him play, I thought: ‘There is a God,’ because his class as a footballer is embarrassingly good.”
Pirlo’s tremendous form continued in Friday evening’s 1-1 draw against Serbia, a result which booked Italy their place at Euro 2012, with the Gazzetta Dello Sport labelling Pirlo as “impeccable” as he gave another passing masterclass. Long or short. In the air or on the ground, it didn’t matter as he made 72/81 passes, his calm, composed demeanour playing a key role as Italy did the job they needed to do, Pirlo at the heart of all that was good about the Azzurri.”Entrusting him with the ball is like investing in German federal bonds” wrote La Gazzetta.
On May 18, the day his release was made public, this most technical and cerebral of footballers appeared finished. Five months later, and buoyed by a new challenge, new surroundings and new teammates, Andrea Pirlo is proving that he is very much still alive and kicking.