By CATHAL KELLY
Monday, November 13, 2017
TORONTO -- Few athletes in any sport have ever seemed to expend less effort in order to be great than Andrea Pirlo.
Over the course of a two-decade career that ended in retirement this week, he redefined the role of soccer's deep-lying field marshal, quietly directing his troops toward the cutting thrust. Other people did the work. Pirlo made it possible, which is the harder part.
In his autobiography, the 38-yearold identified the part of the game he most disliked - the wasted energy of the prematch warm-up.
"I hate it with every fibre of my being. It actually disgusts me," the Italian wrote. "It's nothing but masturbation for conditioning coaches."
That was Pirlo in a nutshell. He resented taking even one unnecessary step. He wanted only to do things that mattered.
In some cultures, that might be mistaken for laziness, but not in Italy, where no finer thing may be said of an artist than that he has sprezzatura - a careless elegance. Pirlo emblemized the type. Italy's sports tabloids variously called him the Architect, the Professor and, after especially imperious performances, Mozart.
Italians have a tortured relationship with their soccer heroes. Many eventually fall into disrepute. Pirlo's former teammate, Roberto Baggio, went from the most admired player in the country to a human punchline after one penalty miss. Twentyodd years later, Baggio's reputation still hasn't recovered.
Pirlo was above that ruthless national calculus. He didn't make mistakes. When he came close - such as the risky choice to abandon AC Milan for its Turinese rivals, Juventus - they weren't recorded as such. He was the sort of person who, even as he stumbled, managed to do so gracefully.
A lot of this was down to presentation. Other players look bedraggled 60 minutes into a match. Not Pirlo.
He seemed to be perpetually throwing off a smock and leaping from a barber's chair.
The beard (adopted before such a thing was fashionable again - in fact, it may be Pirlo more than any other man who brought it back), the hair, the Roman nose, the look of ... well, it wasn't disdain. It was a mild.
ly bemused otherworldliness. On the field, he registered a single emotion - the complete lack of one.
"I don't feel pressure," Pirlo said.
"I spent the afternoon of Sunday, July 9, 2006, in Berlin sleeping and playing PlayStation. In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup."
Despite the slight remove from the workaday worries of his peers, Pirlo was not haughty. He didn't celebrate with anything more than a slight raise of his fist, or push teammates out of the way (they knew to move).
He didn't rub his ability in other people's faces, or react when they tried to do that to him. That was the secret.
Pirlo was an everyman, only better.
Eventually, he became the secondfavourite player of all fans (after whomever starred for your team) and an avatar of sophistication for those who don't follow the sport.
Here he was in his off-hours sitting in a vineyard dangling a glass of red, or lounging poolside, or swanning into training wearing a T-shirt reading, "No Pirlo, No Party."
He rarely spoke in public, and never in anything above a bored mumble.
In an era when we know every biographic detail about every athlete, and perhaps too many of their opinions, Pirlo's reticence felt revolutionary. The only part of himself he was willing to share was the little bit that happened on a pitch.
As a result, you could project anything you liked onto him. Most chose to imagine him as his best self, hungry for excellence but not thirsty for applause. There were (a very few) better players in the world, but none anywhere close to as cultured.
He won nearly every important trophy, but approached soccer as just one of many pastimes. His real talent was living well.
For a player who rarely roused himself above a jog, he was able to amass an impressive number of personal highlights. The most representative may be his penalty against England at Euro 2012.
While goalkeeper Joe Hart did hysterical jumping jacks in the net, Pirlo walked up to the ball and tapped it straight down the middle. Had Hart stood still, the ball would have hit him gently in the chest. Instead, he'd leaped uselessly out of its way.
It was Pirlo's professional creed in action - less vigour, more strategy.
The sound from the crowd as the ball floated in was not quite like anything I've ever heard in a stadium. It was a roar of neither celebration nor disappointment. It was instead a trill of pure delight, as though everyone had just seen an especially amusing magic trick and could not help but marvel at it.
While Hart flopped around on the ground in anguish - he already knew he'd never live this one down - the Italian turned and shuffled back up the field without celebrating.
A couple of years later, Pirlo released his memoir and added a new layer of fascination to his mystique. Apparently, he'd absorbed all of it, recorded every absurd detail of the footballer's life and occasionally seethed at its ridiculousness. At the end, Pirlo revealed a deep emotionalism he'd spent his professional life obscuring.
That was the right moment to leave, so he soon did. He took a bigmoney deal in the United States, but made little impact on Major League Soccer. His signal virtue had always been making those around him better, but what can you do when they aren't that great to begin with?
Last week, Pirlo slipped his retirement quietly into the middle of a longer message posted to social media. Once again, he chose not to say much.
Genetics and repetition made Andrea Pirlo a great soccer player, but that restraint is what made him the coolest athlete in the world.
Putting into past tense last week what he'd famously said years before, iconic Italy manager Marcello Lippi summed Pirlo up this way: "He spoke with his feet."
Andrea Pirlo's professional creed seemed to be less vigour and more strategy.
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