One extract from Andrea Pirlo’s new autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play, offers a compelling insight into the world of high-end transfer dealings. Football is an industry existing in the persistent glare of a unsated media spotlight, its comings and goings subjected to agonising, mostly uninformed scrutiny. Yet, the exact nature of its internal mechanics remain a mystery to all but a few. Pirlo’s account, therefore, of his courting by Barcelona — related, via a ghostwriter, with the refinement expected of its subject — is especially fascinating given the rarefied status of both its setting and central characters.
These things begin, apparently, rather humbly. Following a pre-season match at the Camp Nou in August 2010, and in the shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s tempestuous move from Spain to Italy, Pirlo was summoned to the office of Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola.
There he was wooed by the man now occupying Bayern Munich’s technical area with a fairly simple statement. “You’ve got all the attributes to play for Barcelona, and one in particular – you’re world class.” Guardiola was not incorrect but it appears a somewhat restrained manner in which to commence an incredibly expensive financial transaction.
Unfortunately, the deal never came to fruition. Milan, perhaps understandably, did not budge on their asking price for Serie A’s premier playmaker. The manner of Guardiola’s approach, however, was typical of the man. As a player in the great Barcelona team of the Nineties, his style was simple and expedient.
Those sensibilities extended to his tenure on the sidelines. The Catalans’ 21st century dominance has been formed from the same principles: the beauty of simplicity and the dominance of the game’s most basic tenets.
Tactical wrinkles aside, the coach’s intention was to partner Pirlo with the existing midfield collective of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, a group positively hewn from the brown stone of La Masia’s quaint facade. That he could be not slotted into Guardiola’s framework must surely come as a disappointment to all but the supporters of Milan and Real Madrid. For neutrals the prospect of his interaction with that trio is an intoxicating one.
Xavi has shone, throughout the last decade and above even Pirlo himself, as the most consistently brilliant midfielder in European competition. The metronomic heart of FC Barcelona, his role has long been one of patient creator and the purest exponent of the tiki-taka juggernaut. At his side Iniesta, a gliding, gossamer-shoed talent of almost unheralded genius, and Busquets — towering, immovable, controlled — constitute a base upon which the club’s recent successes are built. It is difficult to see how much higher they could have climbed but Pirlo’s place in the unit would have been no impediment.
As the winner of four domestic championships, a World Cup and two Champions League titles, his pedigree is the equal of anybody in Guardiola’s gilded engine room. So often the topic of awed, frustrated conversations in English circles, Pirlo’s ability, too, is as elite as anything found in Catalonia.
During those successful years in Milan, he perfected the regista position: deep-lying but creative; too far back to be picked up by the opposition’s defensive midfielders; too far from his own defenders to warrant disciplined attention from the opposing forwards.
Now 34, unburdened as he is by the residue of niggling injuries and diminished speed, Pirlo’s beautiful technique and masterful positioning mark him still as one of Europe’s purest footballers.
His range of passing, also, remains as incisive as ever, a weapon of unrivalled potency in the space he conjures so effortlessly. While the Italian’s career is closer to the end than the beginning, Juventus are now grateful beneficiaries of this continuing class.
He is as vital to his country as he is to his employers. The performance against England in Kiev, to use an easy example, where he sauntered elegantly between the lines of Roy Hodgson’s stunted charges, dispatching them with startlingly arrogant nonchalance, represented a bracing reminder of English football’s inherent deficiencies. Indeed, the memory of that night’s individual showing will have haunted the suits at FA headquarters for longer than many care to admit.
The title of the instant publication is apt considering the intelligence with which Pirlo has always performed. It is pointless, of course, to become wistful about potential events long after they failed to occur but now that he has mentioned it, one cannot help feeling sorry for that which could have been.
Pirlo’s stately presence would seem a perfect fit for the Camp Nou, where, recent scandals notwithstanding, grace goes hand in hand with the Blaugrana’s grand ‘Més que un club’ image. As his thinking and playing have become increasingly intertwined so too has he proved himself worthy of a place amongst the very best.