Andrea Pirlo boasts a twenty-plus-year period of conveying the game how he saw fit. His imagination, moulded on the canvas of Serie A, struck similarities with how an earlier compatriot would dress Florence and the Sistine Chapel. The Michelangelo of modern football, and Milan and Juventus’ most celebrated sculptor.
Andrea Pirlo, Italy’s World Cup-winning, artistic footballing treasure, left the Bianconeri in 2015 as elegance personified saught new audiences in the Empire State. New York City FC acquired a level of composed creativeness that America’s top-flight and soccer was yet to see. The curtain not quite closed on an illustrious career, Pirlo’s final act was a three-season-long introductory piece for a developing soccer-nation in its infancy.
PIRLO’S NEW AMERICAN CANVAS
After sharing his craft with two Italian powerhouses, the deep-lying maestro penned a contract that would reflect his capabilities in midfield and make him the highest-paid Italian footballer in the world. Now advancing into his later years, Pirlo famously once said: “football is played with your head, your feet are just the tools.” A reminder that age was just a number and his footballing brain had fuel in the tank.
Pirlo’s new sky blue uniform and the imports who donned it was the focal point for a soccer team in its inaugural season, having laid its foundations in 2013. Pirlo joined fellow World Cup victor, David Villa, and Chelsea legend, Frank Lampard, as one of the first players in the club’s history to pull on the jersey. With roughly 1.3 million Italians and Italian-Americans living in the greater New York metro area, the Pirlo signing, PR-wise, was the best of the bunch.
As crowned by fans in Turin,’ The professor’ was included in the 2015 Ballon d’Or shortlist during his debut Major League Soccer campaign. The inclusion followed a host of personal accolades, most notably; three Serie A footballer of the year awards.
However, five assists in thirteen appearances were not enough to initiate New York City FC into the MLS playoffs. Failure came as an oddity to a player with six Serie A league titles and two Champions League triumphs to his name. For most onlookers, this sense of failure would cast a shadow throughout Pirlo’s time in MLS, suggesting he didn’t reach the expectations that followed him from Serie A.
“It was a strange one, for sure. People were excited about him because NYCFC was starting from scratch in Yankee Stadium, and he was coming in alongside Frank Lampard and David Villa. He was also coming off playing in a Champions League final, so there was a lot of anticipation for him.
“He certainly sold a lot of tickets, but watching him in person was like going to a museum – you appreciate what you’re looking at, but you also realise quickly that you’re looking at something far past its highest point of usage.
“MLS is played like an NBA basketball game, and the midfield gets bypassed more often than not, which meant Pirlo found himself getting overrun in most games and unable to really leave much of a mark. He hit some cool passes and made some highlights now and again, but everyone who watched him in MLS once never felt inclined to go back and watch him again.”
Clearly not near the standard we saw in Italy, with players of a lesser calibre around him, but there was still the odd moment to cherish. In a home fixture against Philadelphia and one for the football/soccer purists, three legends of the sport would converge on the scoresheet.
The professor’s goal began with him and Villa standing over a free-kick like they have done a thousand times. Villa, looking at the ball located twenty-yards from goal and to the right of centre, began his run-up. Villa reached the ball but instead continued to move to the right of the wall, hoping the goalkeeper and defensive wall became slightly disjointed.
Pirlo took three strides towards the ball with aplomb, which subsequently flew over the wall and snuck past the post. The goalkeeper stood still – New York City FC victorious as Villa and Lampard also produce goals in the 3-2 win.
In his second season, America watched as Pirlo served up eleven assists alongside his solitary goal against Philadelphia. The midfield playmaker aided New York City’s progression into the playoffs. Albeit, Toronto’s dominance over the sky blues would transpire with the Canadian outfit recording a 7-0 aggregate, two-legged win, with Pirlo missing half the battle through injury.
The Pirlo-Lampard-Villa treble act was not enough to produce silverware. It got to a stage during Pirlo’s American tenure where it was difficult to forget the attached wage packet which brought him to New York City FC. A franchise’s Designated Player, as Pirlo was, stood as one of up to three players able to receive substantial wages without affecting the club’s salary cap. When a Designated Player is pulling up trees, running riot against rivals, and racking up goal involvements, it rarely poses a problem to fans.
Just ask Los Angeles FC supporters about 2018 signing, Carlos Vela. Closer to home, David Villa’s impressive form in front of goal not only ticked the PR box but also covered the playing needs of the side. Lampard fell into a similar category to Pirlo; two icons who couldn’t quite cut it at that stage in their career.
GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END
There would be no American dream ending in the architect’s third and final injury-hampered season—a curtain call not suited for a pioneer of the game. Pirlo finished with 18 assists and one goal in 60 appearances during his three seasons in the Big Apple.
But what legacy did the Italian leave? On the face of his achievements, a sense of unfulfillment shrouds his chapter in the USA. Perhaps that is too harsh for a player turning out for a brand new club, in front of a newly formed fanbase, in his mid-thirties. On the flip-side, New York City FC paid handsomely for his services, and along with other well-known imports at the time, the club would have expected some form of return before his contract in New York came to a close.
“Ahead of time, I think Pirlo’s signing moved the needle more for NYCFC than Frank Lampard’s had. The English midfielder’s continued delay sullied that excitement, but Pirlo was coming off of another vintage season with Juventus.
“However, the physicality of MLS proved to be too much for the then-36-year-old. He openly voiced his struggles to adjust to the travel needed in such a large geographic competition, to say nothing about the lack of mobility he possessed.
“For all of his passing from deep and ability on set pieces, the indelible image of his time in MLS came when he was supposed to be marking the post on a set-piece, didn’t jump to try heading a ball mere inches above him, and his team conceding as a result. It didn’t take long for Pirlo to be a millstone around NYCFC’s wage budget.
“The less said about his time in MLS, the better for his sake. It doesn’t take anything away from what he had achieved before that move.”
As the cultured Italian sauntered past the finish line of his playing career, a tinge of regret possibly lingered. For a man who had conquered the game, the inability to imprint his name on proceedings for a new audience will have irked him.
New York wouldn’t be the last crowd blessed with Pirlo’s showmanship.
Pirlo’s testimonial match coined La Notte del Maestro, the night of the master, was held at the San Siro. A footballing celebration of a man who put his rubber stamp on a sport.
An eye-watering amount of talent on one pitch saw Pirlo take to the stage for one last time. Alongside the maestro stood Rui Costa, Ronaldo, Cafu, Francesco Totti, and Ronaldinho. The list goes on. Filippo Inzaghi, Pirlo’s friend, and former AC Milan teammate scored a hattrick in a 7-7 thriller.
“PIRLO CAN MAKE HIS FEET DO WHATEVER HE WANTS. HE’S A GENIUS.”Johan Cruyff
Dropping deep and receiving the ball on the turn has never looked so good. Well, in Europe, anyway.
Grazie, Andrea Pirlo.
Written by @SamIngram_