Seven games that defined the retiring Andrea Pirlo
Andrea Pirlo’s announcement that he has played his last game of soccer as professional has been met as expected – with an outpouring of effusive praise. The Italian has passed his way into the hearts of his fellow professionals and fans worldwide over a 22-year career that has seen him win the World Cup, the Champions League twice and six Serie A titles.
Like the wine that he so loves – Pirlo owns a vineyard – he gave the impression of improving with age, winning four Serie A titles in a row with Juventus after being allowed to leave AC Milan on a free transfer in 2011. But from his first game as a 16-year-old at his hometown club Brescia to his final match last weekend at 38, where his New York City FC side’s playoff hopes ended with a loss to the Columbus Crew, the man of many glorious epithets has lit up the sport. Here are seven games of the 872 that Pirlo played which defined his career.
1. Italy Under-21 vs Czech Republic Under-21, UEFA European Under-21 Championship final – June 4, 2000
Tehelne Pole, Bratislava, Slovakia Pirlo may have gained a reputation for having improved with age but the truth is that he was always a first-rate player. He finished the tournament as top scorer and best player while also picking up a winner’s medal, thanks to his two goals in the final which Italy won 2-1.
2. AC Milan vs Liverpool, Champions League final – May 25, 2005
Ataturk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul, Turkey
Milan legend Pirlo was once unwanted midfielder Pirlo at Inter until a 2001 swap deal for Argentine winger Andres Guglielminpietrob saw Pirlo switch sides at the San Siro. He was reimagined as a deep-lying playmaker by Carlo Ancelotti and led the Rossoneri to Champions League triumphs in 2003 and 2007. It was the 2005 final he famously lost to Liverpool in Istanbul that lives longer in the memory. Liverpool came back from 3-0 down to take the game to penalties and Pirlo wrote in his autobiography I Think Therefore I Play that he “considered quitting” because “nothing made sense any more.”
3. Italy vs France, FIFA World Cup final – July 9, 2006
Olympic Stadium, Berlin, Germany
This was all set to be Zinedine Zidane’s final and it started off that way when the Frenchman put his side in front, caressing a glorious Panenka penalty in off Gigi Buffon’s bar, but it was another of the decade’s iconic midfielders who would triumph. Pirlo’s corner led to Marco Materazzi’s equalizer and then he scored the opening kick of the shootout. He was named man of the match – his third of the tournament – and finished with the most assists.
4. AC Milan vs Manchester United, Champions League second round – February 23, 2010
San Siro, Milan, Italy
In the first leg of their first knockout-round clash, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson employed his South Korean midfielder Park Ji-sung in a man-marking role on Pirlo, having identified the Italian as Milan’s key player. It worked – United won 3-2 – but was remembered by Pirlo in his autobiography. He referred to Ferguson as “a man without blemish, but he ruined that purity just for a moment when it came to me,” and he called Park the “first nuclear-powered South Korean in history.” Park saw his job as rooted in respect because Pirlo was “one of the best in the world.”
5. Italy vs England, UEFA European Championship quarterfinal – June 24, 2012
Olympic Stadium, Kiev, Ukraine Italy had dominated the game to such an extent that they had enjoyed two-thirds of the possession, much of that through Pirlo himself, and fashioned the clearer chances over 120 minutes but the match would be decided by penalties. Pirlo stepped up to take his side’s third penalty with the score tied at 2-2 and calmly chipped the ball straight down the middle of Joe Hart’s goal after waiting for the England keeper to dive. Italy won and went on to reach the final where they lost to Spain.
6. Real Madrid vs Juventus, Champions League group stage – October 23, 2013
Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain A game that finished 2-1 to the home side was made unforgettable by the rare sight of the Madrid fans applauding the Italian off when he was substituted on the hour mark. To cement Pirlo’s status as one of the game’s greats and the Madrid fans’ reputation for appreciating talented players whatever shirt they are wearing, he received an ovation when the sides met in the 2015 Champions League semifinals. Sadly, Barcelona’s players were not as accommodating and denied Pirlo a fairy-tale farewell in the final, his last game before leaving for the Major League Soccer.
7. Italy vs Mexico, FIFA Confederations Cup – June 16, 2013
Estadio Maracana, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
On his 100th appearance for the Azzuri, then only the fifth player to reach a centenary of caps for Italy, Pirlo demonstrated his trademark free-kick prowess to open the scoring in front of 73,000 fans in what is arguably the world’s most iconic soccer stadium, the Maracana. It was Italy’s first-ever goal at the ground and there was no more fitting player to score it. Pirlo would win 16 more caps including returning to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.
Andrea Pirlo passes the ball during New York City FC’s Major League Soccer match against Montreal Impact on March 18 in New York City.