On Sunday 5th November, New York City FC said farewell to their Italian, midfield maestro. Andrea Pirlo had made the announcement that he would hang up his boots and retire from football. Now, being of Italian descent, I felt obliged and honoured to write about a man I have admired for so many years. To write about Pirlo’s time in New York, I wouldn’t be doing the great man any justice. Because to put it simply, it kind of sucked. So, I want to wax lyrical about the player who has wowed fans and players alike during his glittering, 20+ year career.
“Pirlo is a silent leader. He speaks with his feet”.
— Marcello Lippi
The Modern Day Midfielder
The Modern Day Midfielder; Tall & strong, skilful, a loud leader with the ability to burst past players in a heartbeat. Andrea Pirlo was never any of these. But Andrea Pirlo is arguably one of the greatest midfielders of our time. Dictating the entire game from the centre of the midfield, oozing with class and brilliance. If anything was happening in the game, it would be when Pirlo decided he wanted it to. Able to build up play with his range of distribution and intelligent thinking. It’s no wonder many called him l’architetto (“The Architect”). Pirlo seemed to never break his stride. He didn’t need pace to beat you, he’d already beat you with his mind. His ability to read the game always put him one step ahead of his fellow opponents, that’s why so many called him il professore (“The Professor”). Pirlo is admired by so many, especially in his native Italy. Not many players can play for 3 rival clubs in Serie A or any league for that matter and still be loved and adored by all their fans. Capped 116 times by Italy, 570 club appearances, a league winner, a Champions League winner, a World Cup winner. Pirlo has done it all and at times he made it look easy.
“Pirlo spots a pass in a split-second that lesser players could spend a whole lifetime waiting to see”.
— Carlo Ancelotti
Pirlo arrived in New York in 2015 as the clubs 3rd Designated Player. Moving from Italy where he’d spent his entire career, it was always going to be difficult. The Italian League, Series A, has a reputation of being slow. Players are afforded more time on the ball and the pace and intensity of each game are far lower than in Europe’s other top leagues. For Pirlo, this worked in his favour. He was able to use that pace to run the game. But moving to a league where the game is played at 100mph and now in his mid 30’s, this was always going to be tall order for the Italian. Combine this with Pirlo lining up in the same team as 2 more Champions League winners in David Villa and Frank Lampard, the pressure was instantly on for New York City to succeed. Pirlo’s first game came in a 5-3 against Orlando City at the famous Yankees Stadium. An eventful game for Pirlo, coming on as a 56th minute substitute, he played a part in 2 goals and received a booking. The season would end with Pirlo making 13 appearances and making 5 assists. New York City would end the season trophyless, not even making the Playoffs and Pirlo would be criticised for poor defensive work-rate. This was unfamiliar territory for a man who had just become the first MLS player in history to be nominated for the FIFPro World XI.
A second season in the MLS and Pirlo was linking up with David Villa like you’d expect. Notching up a team seasonal best of eleven assists in 32 appearances and even grabbing his first MLS goal, doing so in true Pirlo fashion from a free kick in the 50th minute of a 3–2 home victory over Philadelphia. New York City would finish 2nd that season sending them to the Playoffs for the first time ever. There they would meet Toronto FC in Eastern Conference semi-final. Pirlo would miss the first leg through injury, unfortunately for him, he’d make the second leg, only to see his side fall to a humiliating 5-0 defeat. It would be another disappointing end for New York City and the heavy weight of expectation falling onto the shoulders of Pirlo and Villa would be too much.
In his third year in the MLS Pirlo was struggling physically. Still showing glimpses of his unrivalled quality, but never been one to cover every inch of the pitch, he was being overrun by the more energetic opponents. Limited to just 15 appearances, Pirlo made the announcement of his impending retirement. This would be his last season as professional footballer could he end it on a high with some silverware? Sadly not. New York City where once again knocked out of the Playoffs, this time by Columbus Crew. Playing 62 times, with 18 assists and scoring just the one goal, Pirlo’s time in the Big Apple would see him leaving empty-handed.
“Pirlo is a genius. Together with Baggio, I think he’s the greatest talent that Italian football has produced in the last 25 years”.
— Gianluigi Buffon
After his retirement, many players, pundits and managers from Pirlo’s past posted messages on social media of their admiration for him. Pirlo’s time in the MLS may not have been what many would have expected. Considering his hefty wage bill and his medal haul, many fans in America may have been expecting Pirlo to turn up, tear it up and leave. But by the time he arrived his best days were long behind him. Sure he still had the ability, but he never had pace and the MLS is full of athletes, running endlessly from start to finish. In truth maybe he should have ended his career in his native Italy. But imagine the prospect of linking up with David Villa, Frank Lampard and being managed by another midfield legend, Patrick Viera. It was huge prospects and huge opportunities to play in a fantastic city like New York, so I can never fault Pirlo for making the move. an $8 million salary isn’t too shabby either. But I want to look back at the player that was, the man who could pinpoint a pass from 40yards, the player who is the epitome of calm, the free kick expert, the Man of the Match in the 2006 World Cup Final, the player who made it look so effortless. Andrea Pirlo, The Maestro.