Since its inception, Football, the beautiful game, has undergone monolithic changes; changes in every spectrum and every essence which constitute the game. While some say, the game has ‘advanced’, others bemoan its decline.
In an era where players are judged by their stats like pass success rate, assists and goals, Andrea Pirlo heads the list of players who rise above such mortal judgments. Not because his stats are miserable, but solely because the Italian midfield maestro cannot be defined by such finite numbers.
Pirlo has been overlooked for Ballon d’Or in the past, and in all probabilities he will be once again discounted. He has neither scored numerous goals like Messi or Ronaldo nor raked up assists like Ozil, and Xavi trounces him when it comes to number of successful passes made. Either way, even before the result is declared, it can be predicted that the trophy will be awarded to Messi or Ronaldo.
No one can argue that if this happens, Messi or Ronaldo wouldn’t have deserved it. In fact far from it, they would be the most deserving candidates for this individual honor after their record-breaking season. But it is not the winner people debate about, it often is about the names which are excluded from the shortlists; Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlan would concur.
But, this is not about Pirlo winning or being nominated for Ballon d’Or and certainly not about Messi or Ronaldo winning it. History of this game will testify a lot of great names who haven’t won individual awards or World Cups, but romantics of this game will also testify that these ‘failures’ have only made them more of a cult hero. Paolo Maldini didn’t win the world cup or Ballon d’Or, players like Del Piero, Paul Scholes, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Eric Cantona have all missed out on the top European individual honour. That is an amazing list in itself. Maybe some players are above all these.
In the current generation, every central midfielder is compared with Xavi. The Barcelona man is seen as the benchmark. But is it a prerequisite for greatness? Certainly not. Infact, Pirlo and Xavi have such different requirements in the team, that they shouldn’t be compared. Arguments like Xavi has completed ‘n’ number of passes or his pass success rate is higher than that of Pirlo is disillusioning at the very best.
Stats depends upon lot of variables. It is not just about the man who is passing the ball, it is also about the person to whom the pass is made. Xavi is surrounded by technically gifted players like himself in Iniesta, Fabregas, Busquets and Alonso. All these players are world-class in their own rights. While Pirlo is surrounded by Marchisio, Montolivo and Thiago. Passing to Iniesta and passing to Montolivo is certainly not the same thing.
The other things that affect the stats is the way individual teams play their game. Barcelona and Spain play differently to how Juventus (earlier Milan) and Italy play. Pirlo doesn’t play in a team employing tiki-taka. When a midfielder is playing short passes, his passing stats will be good because there is less risk while passing short. This is no rocket science.
Pirlo plays in teams which are more direct in their approach and his main job is to pick out players with defense splitting long balls, which certainly comes with lot more chances of being unsuccessful. Most of the times, the player for whom the ball is aimed for will be caught offside while at times, his control will let him down and the pass will be marked as unsuccessful. This is not to say that Xavi is not capable of playing long-balls or he doesn’t play them. It is just that Pirlo has to attempt long balls at far more regular intervals, because his teams play a different brand of football.
It is hypothetical to think how Xavi and Pirlo would have performed if they would have exchanged teams. But it shouldn’t come down to this hypothesis, instead we should count ourselves lucky that we live in an age where we are able to experience the delight of watching both of them perform at the highest level.
Pirlo, one must remember, didn’t start is career as a deep-lying playmaker. After joining Inter from Brescia in 1998, he was played more as a trequartista. But, Pirlo didn’t have all the qualities that a traquartista needed, specially pace and the ability to run at defenses. He had an unsuccessful stint at Inter failing to grab a regular spot in the starting line-up, and was loaned out to Reggina and Brescia. AC Milan signed him up in 2001 and it took an experiment from Ancelotti to bring out the best in him.
In a pre-season friendly, Carlo Ancelotti fielded Pirlo as a ‘regista‘, and the rest, as they say, was history. Running past defenders and pace were never the traits of Pirlo. Vision to pick out a player and his run, technique to execute the pass and ability to control the tempo of the game- these are his fortes. One of the most iconic image from the recently concluded match between England and Italy was when Andy Carroll slided in to tackle Pirlo off the ball, and the Juventus playmaker just calmly sidestepped and continued. Another unnoticed, and certainly unsung attributes of Pirlo is his ability to move into open spaces on the pitch; he does it with such grace that it hardly gets noticed.
There are certain aspects of football, which you can train a footballer on and improve upon. A player can learn to shoot with his standing leg, a player can work-out in the gym to increase stamina and physical strength, but there are certain things one cannot teach or train a player to develop. You are either born with it or you learn to live without it. Grace is one such thing. Some footballers when playing well give the impression of working hard and giving it their all, while players like Pirlo hardly seem to sweat over a match. They are like ballerinas on football field, they never ‘run’ past their opponents, they ‘stroll’ past them.
Another iconic image from the England-Italy quarter-final, best described in the words of Henry Winter, “Pirlo receiving MOTM award from an Englishman (sponsor). Not a hair out-of-place, not a bead of sweat on him..“
It is only now that Pirlo is getting such affection from the media, why? Not because he has just propelled Juventus to a Serie A title (that too unbeaten), not because he has pulled Italy on his shoulders before, infact such praises were not audible when Italy won the world cup in 2006. But, because he put up a masterclass against England. For those who have followed Pirlo over the years, he has been doing the same consistently against every team.
One can only hope that Pirlo is not just remembered for ‘the penalty’ he took. Yes, it oozes class and only few have the guts to attempt it in such a pressure situation, but Pirlo was just being ‘normal’. Class comes normally to him. Similarly, talks about whether he should win the Ballon d’Or, whether Xavi is better than him are immaterial.
As Markus Zusak (author of The Messenger) once said -
“Sometimes people are beautiful.
Not in looks.
Not in what they say.
Just in what they are.”
The above holds true for Andrea Pirlo. Sometimes people are legendary, just because that’s what they are.