I admit it. As much as I admired the man and his accomplishments, when the rumours began circulating that Il Maestro had been sighted in Manhattan, I was not amused. For what NYCFC needed in that first summer of its discontent – as it and much of MLS has always needed – was a strong defender. Someone to solidify the back line. And for everything you can praise Andrea Pirlo for, defense was never one of them.
But of course, he wasn’t really signed to solidify the team. He was signed to draw fans. He was signed to draw fans because Frank Lampard was still in England or injured. Because Mix Diskerud wasn’t panning out. Because David Villa, no matter how hard he worked, couldn’t do it all by himself.
Let us Now Praise Famous Men: Farewell to Andrea Pirlo
And it worked. The fans poured in. The press – traditional, alternative and whatever-the-hell-it-is-I-do – were full of commentary, speculation, argument and invective surrounding the man who had won World Cups, Champions Leagues, and Serie A titles. The man The Guardian called the eighth best footballer in the world a scant three years earlier. A man who Michael Cox called “the most important footballer of his generation”. A man who has his own vineyard. Who is literally a knight in his native Italy. New York went all in.
And it worked on the pitch too. Who was with me on that hot July day in the Bronx when Andrea Pirlo subbed on for Mehdi Ballouchy in the 56th minute. Did you notice how everyone backed away? It was like his reputation was some kind of FIFA forcefield around him. All the players on Orlando City stepped back as if they were shocked that they were actually on the pitch with him. As if they were worried about what he would do. And players on NYCFC backed off too, actually. You could see it in their faces: “what in the name of God am I doing with the ball when this guy is on the pitch?”
Which leads me to this: if you never saw Andrea Pirlo live, you never really saw Pirlo. I know, I know, but it’s true. Because you had to see the whole pitch – the pitch beyond the frame of the television – to see his genius at work. To see him put the ball right on the foot of a player you only saw dimly out of the edge of your peripheral vision. To see him see the whole god-damned stadium, and every player in it, and their direction and their speed and the inclinations and everything. At its best, it was like watching someone play four-dimensional chess.
And if you never saw Pirlo live, then you never got to see that he never really kicked the ball. He just sort of pushed it. As if he were in conversation with it, and he was encouraging it, convincing it, advising it to move from one very specific place on the pitch to another very specific place on the pitch. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen anyone do as consistently and effortlessly as he did.
Yes, there were bumpy patches. NYCFC’s defense that first year was still a challenge and Pirlo – never known for his defensive skills – didn’t fix that. And then there came to be an over-reliance on Pirlo to run the offense. Which meant it wasn’t long before other teams realized that every single attack was going through the Maestro – so they just focused on shutting him down, and NYCFC’s first season promise began to fold.
And then there was this comment last year: “It’s very physical, there’s a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play.” “Too much running”? That sounded like code for “they run because they don’t have skill.” “Too little play”? That sounded like a polite way of saying “They don’t really understand the game.” Put together, it sounded like another old man getting rich off of American enthusiasm for the game while biting the hand that was feeding him.
But then I thought about it, and you know what?, he was right. Compared to the Serie A, MLS is in fact too much running and too little play. It takes its cues more from the English Premier League – and frankly, I could hear Pirlo saying the same thing about THAT league had he spent any time there. In other words, he wasn’t complaining about MLS, he was just explaining that he plays a different kind of soccer – one predicated less on speed and force and more on precision and patience.
And when I realized that, I began to realize the real import of his impact. Because you can’t swing a dead cat in MLS without people asking you whether a particular DP was worth it. Was Kaka worth it to Orlando City? Was Thierry Henry worth it to the New York Red Bulls? Who was ultimately a more important DP for the Los Angeles Galaxy – David Beckham or Robbie Keane? And Pirlo would be no different. Especially since he didn’t accumulate the hardware that David Villa has. And the team didn’t win the Cup. And he played so little in 2017.
But if you look there, then you’re looking in the wrong places.
Look for it in the development of Jack Harrison. Look for it in the passing skills of Tommy McNamara. Look for it in the game management of Yangel Herrera. In the field vision of Alexander Ring. In the timing of Jonathan Lewis. Look for it in every young player who trained with Andrea Pirlo, and look for it over the course of the rest of their career. For when you see them doing something that other players aren’t doing, when you see them making an impossible pass, seeing an impossible opening, finding an impossible opportunity – you will be seeing the impact of Andrea Pirlo.
And one more thing. When you see these young players engaging with the press, the public, and the pressure of this world sport not as selfish, greedy, ignorant children but as intelligent, articulate and considerate gentlemen of honour, you will also see the impact of Andrea Pirlo.
And that may be the most important legacy to leave of all.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – April 12: Andrea Pirlo #21 of New York City FC in action during the New York City FC Vs San Jose Earthquakes regular season MLS game at Yankee Stadium on April 1, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)