Special Report: World Cup Preview
Andrea Pirlo comes as close as it gets to being a quarterback on the soccer field.
He lurks deep in Italy’s midfield, just in front of the defense. In the blink of an eye, he can spin out a long, forward pass and land the ball on the broad chest of the striker Mario Balotelli.
The Italians refer to Pirlo as l’architetto or il professore — or simply Mozart.
His compositions may now be more important than ever.
In Brazil, particularly in the stifling heat and humidity of Manaus, where Italy will play England in their first World Cup match on Saturday, the maestro’s strokes of economy may be priceless. When a player makes the ball move swifter than men can think, he spares their legs and their lungs from expending energy.
In the heat and high humidity, the less a team has to run can be the difference between winning and losing. And not simply in one match, but in the following games, which arrive with barely enough time to recover from dehydration and weight loss and the psychological scars left by running out of juice.
“In extra time, I was wrecked,” the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini said last year after the Azzurri and Spain had played to a standstill in Fortaleza, Brazil, in a Confederations Cup semifinal. “The heat was incredible, we were struggling to breathe.”
After 90 scoreless minutes of regulation time and 30 more in extra time, Spain won in a penalty shootout. Three days later, in Rio de Janeiro, the Spaniards lost the final to Brazil.
But at least the Spaniards and the Italians, the previous two world champions, have experienced first hand some of the conditions that lie ahead at this World Cup. They have an idea what works and what doesn’t in such extreme tropical conditions.
What didn’t work too well was having just three days after such a contest to travel south and meet a pumped up (and rested) Brazil in Rio. Spain was just too weary to cope with Neymar and company in the legendary Maracanã Stadium.
Even if Fortaleza does not have quite the jungle heat of Manaus, one lesson above all else was learned by Spain and Italy: It is the team that takes care of the ball and doesn’t have to chase it so much that stands the greater chance of managing such matches.
Spain’s tiki-taka style, based on passing and keeping possession, makes opponents run. Pirlo’s near perfect pitch — his ability to deliver the ball with such probing and precise passes — was masterful when Italy won the 2006 World Cup. And it was equally majestic when the Italians reached the Euro 2012 final in Warsaw, only to lose to Spain in that encounter.
Barcelona’s Andrés Iniesta, who is also marvelously skilled at shielding and using the ball, might have edged Pirlo on that occasion simply because the Spaniard had more and better accomplices on his side.
So if Italy has any chance of going far in this World Cup, Pirlo will have to be at the top of his game. Italy must try to use him sparingly. He is 35, with a long career behind him, loaded with 108 caps and a stash of trophies including a World Cup and Serie A and Champions League titles, won first with A.C. Milan and more recently with Juventus.
Few observers are backing Italy to win this World Cup, but when the doubts are loudest is sometimes when Italy stirs. Gigi Buffon, the team’s goalkeeper and captain, put it succinctly after the draw was made late last year, stacking Italy, England and Uruguay, three former world champions, in the same group. (Costa Rica is the fourth team drawn in that difficult Group D.)
“We are competition animals,” Buffon said at the time, referring to the Italian team. “However we play between tournaments, we always come good in the tournaments themselves.” (This was not the case in the 2010 World Cup, however, when Italy went home after the group stage without having won a game.)
But Pirlo can be more expansive still with words. His autobiography, “I Think Therefore I Play,” was recently published in an English translation, as well as in Portuguese. Although the title is adapted from the French philosopher Descartes, the text is pure Pirlo.
“I’m Italian,” he writes, “but I’m also a little Brazilian, Pirlonho if you like.”
He describes how he taught himself to strike the ball by studying the free-kick technique of a mercurial Brazilian, Juninho Pernambucano.
“Each free kick,” Pirlo states, “carries my name, and all are my children. And they have South American roots.”
He writes of being mesmerized by Juninho when the Brazilian played for many years for Olympique Lyon in France, from 2001 to 2009. Pirlo collected DVDs of the Brazilian’s play. He tried over and over again to induce the swerve that Juninho mysteriously imparted to the ball.
Finally, suggests Pirlo, there came a eureka moment. He writes that he was in the bathroom when he suddenly realized that Juninho had an unusual way of making contact with the ball, using only the first three toes of his foot.
The next day, still wearing his street shoes, Pirlo struck a ball at A.C. Milan’s Milanello training site. Seven times he applied the Juninho technique, he recalled, and each time the ball curled into the top corner of the net.
Juninho, barely four years Pirlo’s senior, may not even have known the inspiration he provided. The Brazilian, who is among the greatest of free-kick specialists, just retired from playing in February. At 39 and back at the club in Brazil that had formed him, Vasco da Gama, Juninho came to the sad and emotional conclusion that his body was no longer capable of doing the training necessary to maintain all those fantastic free kicks and other parts of his game that appeared to the untutored eye to be “natural” gifts.
Pirlo, meanwhile, is still working on them, which is why he is at this World Cup, his fourth. One last shot at the world title is beckoning him.
Pirlo’s story is that of a metal trader’s son whose sport brought him riches that enabled him to buy a vineyard and bottle his own wine.
But, ever the soccer player, he has a harsh tongue, too. In his book, he excoriates the Italian striker Antonio Cassano.
“He says he’s slept with 700 women,” Pirlo writes. “But he doesn’t get picked for Italy any more. Deep down, can he really be happy? I certainly wouldn’t be.”
The criticism is dated. Cassano is back in the fold, having been selected once more to play for Italy after two years away from the team. No doubt when the moment comes, Pirlo will pick him out in a scoring position and let bygones be bygones.
Cassano, however, will have to earn the right even to step into the Azzurri lineup. Coach Cesare Prandelli has nurtured Balotelli with a devotion resembling that of a school master toward a gifted, wayward pupil.
Balotelli can be big and boorish, and yet he showed during the Euro 2012 tournament that he, more than any other Italian player, can instinctively make himself available for Pirlo’s raking passes.
Prandelli preaches a high code of discipline, yet at the same time he indulges Balotelli and he recalls Cassano to the team. Why? Perhaps because he knows that Pirlo can plot the openings, but it still requires quick minds and deft feet up ahead of him to convert them.
Pirlo’s work, like that of a quarterback, does not become art without the talent on the receiving end. Where, for example, would the legendary Joe Montana have been without his San Francisco 49ers partner, the great wide receiver Jerry Rice?
Soccer, like American football, is a team game elevated by individuals.