A book review on Andrea Pirlo’s biography,’I think therefore I play’, with Alessandro Alssiato. Book review by Anushree Nande for Football Paradise.
“I’ve an opinion about everything and I’m not ashamed to express it, defend it and, where necessary, shout it from the rooftops.”
“All I’m after is a few square metres to be myself. A space where I can continue to profess my creed: take the ball, give it to a team-mate, team-mate scores. It’s called an assist and it’s my way of spreading happiness.”
These two quotes should tell you everything you need to know about the essence of one Andrea Pirlo and give you a good idea of what to expect if you pick up his I Think Therefore I Play (hint – pick it up).
Similar to Dennis Bergkamp’s Stillness and Speed, this is quite unlike a traditional autobiography of an athlete, or anyone really. It won’t give you a chronological account of Pirlo’s life from his birth in Flero in the Italian province of Brescia to his rise to the very top of Italian and world football. There aren’t detailed accounts of his times at each club, all the goals that he scored, all the players he played with, his family and children. But what this book will do is take you into the mind of one of the best deep-lying playmakers and free-kick specialists (he holds the record for joint-highest free-kicks scored in the Serie A) his generation, and the generations past, present and future, have ever seen.
It’s a fascinating journey because he’s a player who can analyse and opine on more than just football (though there is plenty he has to say there and it’s great stuff) – insights on the nature of the game and how it should be played, his loathing of pre-match warm-ups (he incorporates Bar Rafaeli in his reasoning for this – you’ll have to read the book to figure out how!), his thoughts on referees and the use of technology in football. Then there are his strong, maybe unpopular thoughts on the Calciopolio, the racism and violence among Italian fans, and the corruption in all levels of Italian football. But there are also plenty of amusing anecdotes, plenty of frank discussions and plenty of humour (there is even a chapter devoted to “Rino de Janeiro” Gattuso and the pranks his team-mates, Pirlo at the forefront, played on him) from his extensive experiences playing with Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus and winning the World Cup with the Italian national team.
Where the Dutchman and the Italian differ are their personalities – Bergkamp came across as a calm, cool, rather introverted person with a deep, intelligent love for the game, while Pirlo is a very passionate, equally intelligent but more expressive individual, openly emotional and not given to mincing words (he claims he needs his swearing since he’s not religious and doesn’t harbour superstitions like his fellow players). Though as he points out, he successfully hides all the mirth and mischief befitting his surname (both pirlo and pirla mean a rather rude thing in Italian) behind a serious exterior. There is an almost poetic nature to some of his remarks (“…bruised and battered slaves at the king’s banquet”), while others shine through with a wry, observant humour. One thing I did notice, and I’m not sure how much of this has to do with translation issues, was the tendency to use a lot of clichés and hyperbole, to wax eloquent (pun intended). It does saturate after a while, but with content as absorbing as this, I could ignore it.
What the two do share is a near obsession with the game. Just like a young Bergkamp practised against the brick wall near his house challenging himself to hit the ball at a certain part of the brick each time, Pirlo moved the sofa in front of his living room window as a child and practised hitting a sponge ball in the space between the sofa and window so as to become better at taking free-kicks. He carried his obsession with him even as a professional footballer when he spent hours trying to figure out just why his inspiration, Juninho Pernambucano, was able to control and hit dead balls the way he did.
“Scoring from a dead ball gives me massive satisfaction”
As a kid playing in the Brescia youth team, he talks about being shunned by team-mates and their parents alike for being a lot better than everyone else, and how he dealt with not being passed the ball on purpose (he actually broke down in one match) – “The only way I could defend myself was by doing things that would amaze. Precisely what they were accusing me of in the first place.” He decided that getting pissed off and playing his way was better than getting pissed off and not playing the game he loved beyond all. He knew that it wasn’t his need of being the superstar or acting like one, but a need to follow pure instinct and achieve the high standards he set for himself even as a child who outpaced his own self when it came to thinking. It ties in nicely with the main theme of the book and shows us an intelligent, rational mind at a very young age. Even then he knew that he was different than the others because of how he perceived the game.
“It was a question of viewpoints, a wide field of vision; the bigger picture…I knew how to do certain things with a football without even having tried them.”
Pirlo details how it felt to first sign for Inter Milan, the team he had idolised since he could remember, how it felt to later be sold to rivals, AC Milan, where he really blossomed under Carlo Ancelotti who first played him as a deep-lying playmaker, a position that would become synonymous with him, how he eventually signed for Juventus. He narrates an incident at the 2010 Copa Joan Gamper at Camp Nou where none other than Pep Guardiola (a manager both him and Nesta took very seriously during their PlayStation rivalry) took him aside and spoke of a desire to get him to Barcelona. It never materialised because the club categorically stated that Pirlo was not for sale, and this is one “not-to-be” that the Italian is rather wistful about; comparing Guardiola’s coaching vision with playing in a PlayStation dreamland.
But even the best have to suffer, and for the Italian that moment of horror took place in the summer of 2005. If you were a football fan in May 2005, it’s not likely that you’ll forget that night in Istanbul. That was the only time Pirlo claims that he ever thought about hanging up his studs because nothing made sense to him anymore. Though the wounds have since superficially closed, he has been unable to live up to the moral obligation in such dark moments to look inside and find a “glimmer of hope or pearl of wisdom”. All he can ever come up with is “For fuck’s sake”; hoping that he never has to go through that or something like that again because he wouldn’t be able to cope.
Andrea Pirlo’s passion for his national team and what it means for him to pull on that shirt for the Glia Azzurri is another recurring theme of the book. He takes us back to Italia 90 where, as a young boy, he first felt the stirrings of that passion. He reminds us of the theme song – An Italian Summer – by Edoardo Bennato and Gianna Nannini and calls it both a “hymn of joy and a battle-cry” that still resonates with most Italian players of his generation; so much so that many, him included, listened to it on their iPods during the Germany campaign for inspiration and motivation.
“Blue’s the colour of the sky, and the sky belongs to everyone. Even when it’s covered by clouds, you still know it’s there.” (On wearing the Italy colours)
On an occasion as momentous as winning a World Cup, there is naturally a tendency, especially in retrospect, to immortalise, to be philosophical and try to remember the moment in a context that reaches far beyond just that occasion. Pirlo knows this and warns us that we may not believe him when he says that the moment he went to take the opening penalty on July 9, 2006 at the Olympiastadion was the moment he gained a higher understanding of what it meant to be Italian.
As he analyses the slow, barely 50 metre walk from the centre circle to the penalty spot, he runs us through what went on in his mind, the options he considered then discarded and the actual moment his foot connected with the ball and flew into the back of the net. He recalls the moment before when, with a penalty shootout imminent, Marcello Lippi took him aside and simply said, “you’re first”. For Pirlo, that moment felt very much his own and he could either be a hero or villain.
“I lifted my eyes to the heavens and asked for help because if God exists, there’s no way he’s French.”
There is a very interesting insight that follows his description of that penalty. Pirlo says that he is far more the player who scored that first penalty against France in 2006 than the one who chipped Joe Hart in the quarterfinals of the Euros almost 6 years later. He insists, as during his childhood and teenage reminiscences, that he only thinks of “selecting the best option to minimise the risk of error” and that the chipped penalty was not pre-planned. There was no showboating involved, no misplaced idea of revenge. It was simply the “least dangerous thing to do at that precise instant. The safest and most productive option.” He even goes on to reference the famous Totti penalty back in the 2000 Euros against the Netherlands when the Italian informed his team-mates of his intention before he went over to the penalty spot.
“If you can plan something like that, you’re either Totti, clairvoyant or stupid.”
In a way, this acute self-awareness fits the kind of player Pirlo is. One that fights the lack of physical ability with technique and composure, intelligence and vision and the technical and creative ability to achieve that vision. His dribbling skills and control over the ball as well as his passing flair and accuracy make him a very special playmaker.
“He always had the great gift of being able to visualise and anticipate plays before everyone else. His vision, what he can do with the ball and what he’s able to create, make him a true superstar. Andrea has something which you don’t see very often”
– Roberto Baggio, 2007
“I’ll focus instead on the space between me and them (forwards) where I can work the ball through. It’s more a question of geometry than tactics. The space seems bigger to me.”
You don’t have to be a fan of Italian football to be a fan of Andrea Pirlo or enjoy this book. There’s a little in there for everyone, and plenty for a student of the game, a game this man has elevated with his sheer talent, hard work and passion. I’ll leave you with one last quote –
“(On being part of a team) A lot of the time, it’s better than sex: it lasts longer and if it all falls flat, it can’t just be your fault.”