I waded through the darkness in an effort to reach the switchboard. I had set an alarm for 11:25 pm, giving me a good five minutes to freshen up and station myself in front of the television. Mid-summer nights in Delhi are hardly joyous and worth staying up late for, but this was the night of the Champions’ League final. Juventus were playing A.C. Milan, and the familiar, calming voice of John Dykes greeted me from the television speakers.
I had taken a liking to Juventus. Buffon could dive like Superman and Del Piero had just put a backheel flick into Casillas’ net in the semi-finals. What could go wrong? I was 12, and my favorite things included a bar of toblerone, bubble wrap and Denilson’s seal dribbles. Imagine watching a hundred and twenty minutes of stodgy 0-0 in a European final as a pre-teen.
Too young to understand the impact, importance and context of defensive solidity in Italian football, I went back to bed pondering the festive night full of fireworks that must’ve ensued had my favorite team, Manchester United, made it to the finals; after all, it was held at Old Trafford.
If football came with parental warnings, it would’ve been difficult to support United as a kid. Alongside the optical illusion of a mazy Giggs run, the precision and craft of Beckham and Scholes, standing strong in the midfield, with the armband no less, was Roy Keane, a painter who often filled the green canvas with vivid images of shin pads flying and knees breaking.
The legibility and aesthetic implications of his tackles did cross the mind often, but it wasn’t until much later that I was told he was merely adhering to the British style of football, a masculine form of the game where athletes left no stone unturned and no sleeve untorn in getting their team the desired results. It fit the vicarious wishes of a prepubescent kid like glove to hand. Things were rarely more fun than curling, swerving free-kicks from 30 yards out, and hand-on-throat scuffles on primetime television.
As much as I wish I could gloat about my ideological distance from other kids of my age and generation, I failed. I wasn’t yet wearing black t-shirts and headbanging to heavy-metal, but my mind was easily-distracted by loud guitarists and the white strand of hair on Cris Ronaldo’s head. I wasn’t ready for opera music just yet.
In many ways, the age of 16 marks the beginning of a boy’s metamorphosis into a man. With high-school and adulthood looming large on the horizon like a summer sun, you train your body and mind to look ahead, not just sideways. A few months before my 16th birthday, Italy were playing Germany in the the semi-final of the World Cup. Another 11:30 alarm, another Buffon masterclass, another 0-0 at the end of the extra-time, or so it seemed with a couple of minutes to go.
And then I had my first rendezvous with the pianist in the midst of a rock concert. Moving rightwards for his team-mate near the corner flag, Pirlo let out a slight feint of the hip, a drop of the shoulder, and a glide of the right foot all in one motion. Two German defenders had just been sold the dream they’d never have the agility to retreat and intercept. The ball rolled into Fabio Grosso’s left-foot arc with surgical precision. Ludovico Einaudi would’ve called it Legato on Grass. It was the shortest of passages, just a turn of movement, but it gave more joy than most other things that happened at the World Cup, least of all the image of football’s most famous bald skull meeting some hard, Italian, chest-bone. Pirlo’s pass told me I was growing up.
Puffed-cheeks and a face fresh as morning-dew had changed into contours of visibly sharp jawlines, when Pirlo strode out with the Milan team at Athens next year. Four years prior, they had seen Liverpool snatch the Champions League from right under their noses, in a fashion that defied description. He was now part of a midfield you could write many fairytales about. On the cusp of adulthood, there is an urge to stand out at whatever you pursue. That evening, I saw Pirlo play the role of an enabler, completely secure in his own self even if the spotlight fell elsewhere. In Milan’s fairytale, Pirlo tasked himself with weaving the narrative, not even beginning to bother about starlight and glitter. It was a lesson I wish I fully understood then.
I was trembling with fear when Milan walked into Old Trafford in 2010 for the Round of 16. It wasn’t as staggering a lineup anymore, but Pirlo now had Ronaldinho to his left, and Beckham to his right. It wasn’t going to be pretty. Then there was light, Ferguson, and Park Ji Sung. It was a difficult feeling to describe, seeing a player you have started admiring so much getting completely neutralised by the team you support. For once, Professor Pirlo had mistakenly entered a lecture by the great one. Powerless, he could only watch it unfold.
Pirlo’s move to Juventus marked a monumental change in the role he was given as a player. As if on cue, it coincided with a life-changing phase for me. I was finally stepping outside my sheltered surroundings into the real world, earning a living. I saw his face change from Gillette advert-esque clean to a bearded, rugged, scowl, and pondered if there has ever been a better time to grow a stubble. Reaching an age where I was beginning to fully understand the masterclass he was so frequently dishing out, I saw him suddenly surrounded by younger, faster, more skilled players. It was uncharted territory for someone who had always been among the more talented members of a team.
He wasn’t quite the gazelle Baggio was, neither a broad-chested lion like Totti. Pirlo, instead, was the exquisite Royal Bengal Tiger; rare in number, difficult to spot, even more difficult to catch. And when he went to prey, it was a sight many men from faraway lands paid hefty sums to watch.
And then, there was the one final, mega-lesson left in him. An exhibition of craftsmanship and leadership, of tuning your game to match the role, and leveraging the high talent in your vicinity to make the team go forward. He rarely wore the armband at Juve, did Pirlo, but by the plica vocalis of Pavarotti, he was the undisputed leader of the team alongside Buffon. About a decade back he had bequeathed his rightful moment in the sun to Kaka’s youthful elegance; this time he was working with his far more able teammates in breathtaking synergy. I saw him arrive at a club placed 7th on the table and far, far away from the glorious sunshine they had been Italy’s representatives for. By the time he tucked in a stamped boarding pass for New York, they had won four Scudettos on the trot and were Champions’ League runners up.
Over this week and the next few, many a writer will weave garlands of words in memoriam of Andrea Pirlo’s career as a footballer. The glass of champagne that he was, he’d deserve every single token of that adulation. But Pirlo meant so much more than writing an article to me. This piece too will go out into the interweb, shared by some as a tribute to the Italian, but it hardly is. This is an acknowledgement of him guiding me into my mid-twenties, teaching me the importance of patience, poise and poetry. Watching Pirlo was a life-lesson, given in the greenest classrooms with the widest vistas.
Life, like a midfielder of a Premier League side, will come at you fast. When you watch Andrea Pirlo, you see an exhibition on how to stop the ball underneath the feet and take a moment’s pause, breathe deep, drink the frenzy in, all without breaking the slightest sweat.
The panenka against Joe Hart was merely a manifestation of how he looked at life. That he mentioned playing PlayStation on the afternoon before his only World Cup final came as no surprise. If someone told me he wrote the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “Vienna”, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
Ciao, Andrea. May that right foot and stubble never lose their swagger.