Silent but deadly: Italian midfield maestro's skills do talking for him

Sat, Jun 23, 2012, 01:00

Italy’s progress is no surprise to some, especially with a player of Andrea Pirlo’s calibre at its disposal, writes PADDY AGNEWIn Krakow

“Pirlo is a silent leader on the pitch. His feet do the talking for him”.

The speaker is Marcello Lippi, the coach who led Italy to success in the 2006 World Cup. Lippi, of course, was referring to Italian playmaker Andrea Pirlo’s legendary lack of enthusiasm for interviews, media hype and for much of the razzmatazz that surrounds modern football.

Lippi has a point. When 33-year-old Pirlo is off the field, he is off the radar – no late nights, drugs or betting scandals, no high-profile marriage break-up, no controversial TV interviews, no involvement in politics . . . just football for Pirlo. Yet, when it comes to football, as indicated by his majestic performances so far at these finals, the quality of his play speaks loud and clear. Against England in tomorrow’s quarter final tie in Kiev, Pirlo might well just become very eloquent again.

Arguably the single most important player in Cesare Prandelli’s squad, Pirlo is the living embodiment of that curious Italia expression, la classe non è acqua or, literally, “class is not water”. What the saying really means is that if a player has real quality, real substance, then in the end, it will show through.

And that class has shown through this season. Not just at Euro 2012 but also at Juventus where Pirlo was a key factor in the “Old Lady” of Turin winning yet another Italian league title. That win, like these championships, represented something of a vindication for Pirlo, who 12 months ago was surprisingly offloaded on a free transfer by AC Milan where in 10 seasons he had won two Champions League trophies and two Serie A titles. Within weeks of his move to Turin, however, his new team mate, Italian captain Gigi Buffon was laughing: “A player of his level and ability . . . he was the signing of the century. Watching him play today, I thought God exists because it is simply embarrassing how good he is.”

Watching him play at these championships, many might echo Buffon’s words.

Pirlo’s deadly accurate distribution, his ability to hold on to possession in all sorts of tight situations, his willingness to get on the ball and immediately direct the Italian traffic make him one of the great playmakers in the modern game. Marcello Lippi describes him as a player who makes his team mates feel comfortable because “they know that they have a reference point in midfield, someone they can give the ball to, certain that he will do something good with it even if he has got three guys on top of him”. Curiously, Pirlo’s best football has always been played in a deep lying midfield role in which he tend to serve as a vital stopper.

As a defender, he is not your average big hulking brute (he is 5ft 9in tall) but this does not make him any less effective, as he explained in a rare interview with La Stampa last summer: “To be useful in defence, to win back the ball, you don’t always have to go sliding into the tackle. It’s also about your positioning, sometimes all you have to do is take a step back.”

Many would argue that few players are as capable of dictating the tempo of a game as Pirlo. He puts it simply: “The secret for someone in my position is to keep it simple. Keep possession and keep the ball moving quickly so that you tire out your opponents, that’s my method.”

In essence, Pirlo is one of the that small band of players who could easily step into the current Spain or Barcelona teams. For those who are not convinced, just look at his pass to Antonio Di Natale to set up the Udinese striker for his goal against Spain, or look at his brilliantly struck free-kick goal against Croatia.

That strike did not exactly surprise Italian critics. It was when Pirlo scored two such free-kick goals in a March 2005 World Cup qualifier win over Scotland in Milan, that Lippi began to envisage an Italian side built around him for the following year’s World Cup finals in Germany.

The rest, of course, is history. If, until then, not all football fans worldwide had registered the low-profile Pirlo, he was sort of hard to ignore in Germany. He was Man Of The Match in Italy’s opening win against Ghana. In their semi-final against Germany and in the victorious final against France, Pirlo was clearly one of the key elements in that World Cup triumph.

Many would argue that one of the major reasons for Italy’s miserable failure at the South African World Cup was his absence due to injury. In the end, he played only 45 minutes in South Africa, coming on as a substitute for the second half of Italy’s final first round game, that infamous defeat by Slovakia.

As the world’s media heap praise on Pirlo at Euro 2012, you might think he would be tempted to start screaming a very loud: “I told you so” or worse.

That, however, would be to misunderstand him: “I restrict myself to the dressing room and to the pitch, those are my boundaries . . . I don’t like going on TV programmes. I do not have a Facebook page and I do not chat on Twitter, I don’t have a web site even if there are people who have opened one in my name, complete with my photo.”

Looking forward to tomorrow’s game, Spurs midfielder Scott Parker this week paid Pirlo a handsome compliment.

“When you play football you want to meet the best, I’ve seen him play many times on TV. He’s a fantastic player and that’s one reason why I’m looking forward to this game” That, indeed, is one reason why we are looking forward to this game.

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