Ageless Pirlo continues to produce
During a penalty shootout in cavernous Olympic Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, Joe Hart was doing all he could to throw the Italian penalty takers off their game. The cocky, young English goalkeeper waved his arms and leaped up and down on the goal line like a first-grader desperately in need of a bathroom.
Veteran Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo was unperturbed. Focusing only on the ball, he licked his lips and took six measured steps backward and to the left. The run-up of a man poised to pummel the ball with power. As the kicker charged toward the ball, Hart read his intent and unleashed an athletic dive to catch the bullet he expected to hurtle toward the right-hand corner of his goal.
The bullet never came.
The English goalkeeper landed on his backside in a confused heap to see the ball in the back of his net. The wily Pirlo had checked his backswing and impudently chipped his kick into the very space Hart had just vacated. A rare, brave and visually dramatic style of kick known as a "Panenka," or in Italy as a "cucchiaio" (spoon), is football's equivalent of being "Punk'd," live, in front of a global viewing audience of millions.
"I don't practice it, it just comes to you in the moment," Pirlo would later say about his poetic kick. "I saw that Hart was very sure of himself; I thought that he had to come down off his high horse."
In the crucible of a penalty shootout, surrounded by thousands of flashbulbs and with millions of Italians' hopes hanging on his every move, the 33-year-old Italian was able to blot everything out and become simply a man intent on restoring the moral order of the world by proving that wisdom trumps youth and the debonair always eclipses the déclassé.
England was unable to score again, and Italy was on its way to a semifinal clash with legendary rival Germany. Pirlo's cheeky kick was the crowning moment on an imperious evening, as the Italian ran the game from the rear of Italy's midfield diamond. The 117 successful passes he struck outnumbered the total mustered by England's entire midfield quartet. To the English eye, his comfort and creativity on the ball made him appear as exotic as an alchemist.
In an era in which soccer is overrun by attention-seeking Mohawks, tattoo sleeves and fluorescent boots, Pirlo often appears to be the only man who knows what is truly suave: the authentic originality of shaggy, feathered layers. Mick Jagger could not trot around a football field with a greater degree of cool.
That the midfielder is undeniably past his best is what makes his Euro 2012 performance so thrilling. Watching him attempt to enforce his will on the game is akin to catching one of Barbra Streisand's farewell tours. You are never quite sure if you will hear "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" live in concert again.
Pirlo is nearing the end of a long and noble career in which he has won 87 caps and tasted glory in the World Cup (2006) and the Champions League. Unusually for a footballer, he emerged from an upper-middle-class background to break through as a 16-year-old attacking midfielder with his hometown club, Brescia, in 1995. Inter Milan soon swooped in, but the giants lost patience quickly, believing the player lacked the pace he would need to thrive.
Farmed out on loan, a career of mediocrity beckoned until Pirlo was shuffled back into a deeper midfield role, sitting just ahead of his defenders as "il regista," the playmaker or quarterback. With more time and space, Pirlo discovered he had the vision and intelligence to dictate the rhythm of play and dominate games.
AC Milan recognized his potential and snatched him from its rival for a reported 35 billion lire in 2001. It was rewarded with a golden decade, as Pirlo, protected by the sharp-toothed Gennaro Gattuso, developed a lethal partnership with Ukrainian striker Andriy Shevchenko. The Lombard became a legend, slinging passes around the famed San Siro stadium with such mesmerizing effect that he was affectionately known as "Il Metronomo," the metronome.
At the end of last season, AC Milan ended an era. Sensing its midfield was in decline, Pirlo was allowed to decamp for Juventus. His opponents proceeded to underestimate the midfielder as badly as his former club. Pirlo nonchalantly bossed game after game to lead his new team through an undefeated season and the Serie A title, proving he still had the ability to be the focal point and a champion.
The playmaker made his international debut in 2002. It was his set-piece delivery and Man of the Match performance that propelled Italy to triumph against Zidane's France in the World Cup 2006.
Four years later its title defense ended in humiliation. Pirlo suffered a calf injury on the eve of the tournament. Shorn of its midfield creator, Italy struggled through two uninspired draws with Paraguay and New Zealand. Though clearly injured, Pirlo managed to stumble on for the last 30 minutes of a 3-2 loss to Slovakia, but Italy's tournament was over.
Pirlo called the ignominy of Italy's failure to emerge from the group stage for the first time since 1974, "the biggest disappointment of my career." At 33 years old and with a lead role in the 2014 World Cup unlikely, he seemingly knows Euro 2012 represents his last chance to experience victory on the international stage.
During the opening 1-1 draw against Spain, the veteran demonstrated why he is an ageless master. In the 60th minute, he jogged toward a routine ball in a seemingly harmless position around the halfway line. With just five touches, the playmaker made the innocuous fraught with danger. A concussive change of pace took him past Sergio Busquets. As a suddenly exposed Spanish defense scrambled to cover, Pirlo was a step ahead. Looking up, he anticipated Antonio Di Natale's run between defenders and rolled a ball so perfectly weighted that all Di Natale had to do was supply the finish.
But in Italy's next two games, Pirlo failed to convince. Against Croatia, his finely executed free kick gave Italy the lead in a first half it dominated. But after the break, he was starved of the space within which to operate. The longer the game went on, the more Croatia, and its playmaker, Luka Modric, had the upper hand.
In a must-win game against a dismal Ireland, an off-form Pirlo was uncharacteristically caught in possession. Critics, quick to note his fatigue, dared to suggest he was past his prime. Irrespective of their barbs, Italy won 2-0, and Pirlo was involved in three of the four goals a low-scoring Italy managed to amass.
A game against England is always good to cure what ails you. Pirlo's virtuoso performance gifted his team with Thursday's semifinal against the potent and heavily favored Germans. Few give the Italians a chance.
That has not deterred Pirlo from goading his opponents.
"[The Germans] are afraid of us," Pirlo boasted. "They know that we can create some problems. There is the same desire as 2006. We are at the level of Spain."
Italy will draw a modicum of confidence from the fact it has never lost to Germany at a major tournament (3-0-4), but Pirlo will not be able to win the game alone. While England's footballing vocabulary extended little beyond tackling and turnovers, this German side is ambitious in possession. As in the Croatia game, Pirlo will see a lot less of the ball against a team that has aggressive intent of its own.
It is not only their opponents who will cause the Italians problems. Masked by the giddy joy of a penalty shootout victory was a night of hazardously shoddy Italian shooting. Antonio Cassano appeared oddly lumpen and disinterested. Mario Balotelli, while powerful and present, was wildly profligate. Italy has fired off a tournament-leading 87 shots, 50 of which have been on target, yet has only scored four times, a 4.6 percent conversion rate that ranks dead-last of the four teams still alive. Pirlo, at his best, enhances and enables his strikers' capacity to score. As of yet, he has not found out a way to pass to himself.
In football terms, Pirlo is an old man with aging legs that have a tendency to tire. But as he trots onto the field at Warsaw's National Stadium, he will well remember the last time he faced the Germans in a semifinal at the 2006 World Cup.
Then as now, Italian football had been stained by a widespread match-fixing scandal, and few favored the Italian challenge. But after 119 minutes of absorbing football, the ball fell to Pirlo on the edge of the German area. Four Germans charged out to shut him down. Most players would have fired off a snapshot. Not Pirlo. Counterintuitively, he elected to creep sideways away from the goal, luring the defenders out of position before threading a no-look pass into the open space behind them. The unmarked Fabio Grosso latched onto the ball and lashed it home.
Cue scenes of delirious goal-scoring celebrations that can only truly be achieved by the Italians in victory.