EXCLUSIVE: Peerless Pirlo! Juventus maestro opens up as he eyes another scalp
00:00 GMT, 19 November 2012
Man on a mission: Andrea Pirlo
Andrea Pirlo breaks into a wry smile as the interpreter translates a question he must have known was coming.
So how close was he to joining his old manager Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea three years ago, before AC Milan declared that the man now regarded as the best playmaker in the history of Italian football was not for sale
The answer, once the smile fades and Pirlo decides to speak about it for the first time, is very close indeed.
Not only were the two clubs in negotiation, Pirlo himself was sufficiently certain of following Ancelotti to Stamford Bridge that he had opened talks with Chelsea over personal terms.
Despite later expressing his delight at the ‘mutual’ decision to keep him in Milan, the truth was rather different.
‘Actually, Milan wouldn’t let me go,’ he now reveals. ‘I have a very strong connection with Ancelotti so I was in touch with him when he went to Chelsea and I’m still in touch with him now he’s at Paris Saint-Germain.
‘I had already started negotiating with the people at Chelsea but then finally Milan didn’t let me go. That’s why I stayed.
‘Certainly it would have been a different experience that I’d have liked, especially when I was 30 years old. So why not But unfortunately it didn’t happen.’
Now 33 and playing for Juventus, Pirlo almost seems to get better with age. Has the opportunity to play in England gone, or could he still come to the Premier League
‘Maybe, who knows’ There’s that smile again. ‘I don’t know what might happen. You never know. I still have two years left with Juventus, this season and next.
‘I like English football a lot. There are plenty of very good teams. They are very aggressive so it’s always entertaining to watch.
‘It wouldn’t be a problem for me fitting into that particular style because I’ve played with different players with different characteristics throughout my career.’
Be by your side: Pirlo has enjoyed a strong relationship with Carlo Ancelotti throughout his career
In Turin on Tuesday night, Pirlo faces the club he so nearly joined knowing that, realistically, Juve must beat Chelsea to progress in the Champions League.
They trail the European champions by one point and are away to Shakhtar Donetsk in their last game while Chelsea face Nordsjaelland at Stamford Bridge.
‘Absolutely,’ he says. ‘We have to fight hard because it wouldn’t be great going into the final match still one point behind. This is a vital game for us and them. There are great expectations.’
Kiev. June 24, 2012. As England chase shadows around the Olympic Stadium, a 33-year-old who looks like he’s 43 and plays like he’s 23 puts on another masterclass. The vision, the movement, the passing; Pirlo is simply on another level.
Roy Hodgson’s side are lucky to take a Euro 2012 quarter-final to extra time and a shootout.
As if to underline his total superiority, Pirlo dinks an outrageous penalty over Joe Hart. It’s known as il cucchiaio in Italian football. The spoon. Pirlo has been practising it since he was a kid at Brescia.
‘It’s a duel,’ he says. ‘The keeper has an idea and you have an idea, so you have to come up with the right reaction. It depends on the situation.
Running rings: Pirlo was the orchestrator of England's downfall at Euro 2012
ANDREA PIRLO ON…
His favourite English player: Wayne Rooney. He’s the complete footballer.
His favourite English team: It used to be Manchester United and then Chelsea when Ancelotti was there. Now it’s Manchester City because they have an Italian coach in Roberto Mancini.
Mario Balotelli: He has a particular personality, but if you handle him the right way he’s definitely a good boy.
The wonder goal by his old AC Milan team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic against England: He scored four amazing goals but the last one was absolutely incredible. He’s a great champion and sometimes he can do things like that. It doesn’t surprise me because he’s such an instinctive player.
The best English players he’s faced
His top team-mates
‘I made the decision right at the last
moment. I was running up to kick the ball and saw the goalkeeper was
moving back and forth so I decided to do the cucchiaio.’
It was a bold move considering that Pirlo’s lowest point in football was losing the 2005 Champions League final to Liverpool on a shootout after Milan had led 3-0 at half-time.
People remember Jerzy Dudek’s decisive penalty save from Andriy Shevchenko but tend to forget that he had already denied Pirlo as well.
‘It was hard to go on after that,’ he says. ‘It was definitely the strangest game I’ve ever been involved in. From that point of view it’s unforgettable.’
If Liverpool’s comeback was cavalier, Chelsea’s Champions League triumph last season was rather less entertaining. So too was England’s negative approach to the quarter-final in Kiev.
It is safe to say that this is not now how one of the greatest exponents of football as an art form likes to see the game played.
‘Obviously Chelsea were successful and able to win the Champions League with their own tactics and style, but yes it’s true this is not the type of football I like,’ says Pirlo.
‘Then England played the whole match against us on defence so we had an opportunity to control the game.’
Cheeky: Pirlo was hailed the world over for his cool, calm and collected penalty in the shootout
But how did he make England look so ordinary
‘It’s a pleasure to hear that. It’s normal to me but if you think that it’s amazing then all the better. I didn’t expect it to be so easy. I certainly expected England to be much more aggressive.’
So why does the man who helped inspire Italy to win the 2006 World Cup and reach the final of Euro 2012 think England always disappoint at big tournaments
‘Unfortunately these things happen,’ says Pirlo. ‘It happened to Argentina, it happened to England.
‘Maybe some teams can play well in qualifying but when it gets down to the nitty gritty, so to speak, they find it harder. Or maybe some of the players lack character to be able to handle those situations.’
The autumn sun disappears behind the Alps. Darkness descends and floodlights illuminate the two first-team pitches at Juve’s training ground in Vinovo, 20 minutes south-west of Turin.
The smart but unspectacular complex was built six years ago. The new Juventus Stadium opened last year, replacing the Stadio delle Alpi, so it’s fair to say the Old Lady has had a bit of a makeover.
Outside, youth team coach Fabrizio Ravanelli locks a little black Fiat and gets to work. Former Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba, dropped for turning up late for training recently, heads off in a white BMW 6 Series.
Inside, Pirlo has granted Sportsmail a rare interview. He is a notoriously private individual. No dramas, no scandal, just football and life at home with his wife Deborah Roversi and their two children.
He oozes charisma. Not many people could get away with wearing a camouflage blazer, with a pair of designer sunglasses hanging from an unbuttoned denim shirt.
Old Lady luck: Juventus have enjoyed a brilliant upturn in fortunes since Pirlo's arrival
Words are offered thoughtfully but sparingly in a gruff low voice. And yet we’re told the real Pirlo is the dressing-room joker.
‘That’s right,’ he says. ‘People who don’t know me think I’m so serious. I’m a prankster, I like to have fun with the people who know me better.’
Milan let Pirlo go in the summer of 2011. Coach Massimiliano Allegri preferred Dutch stopper Mark van Bommel to play in front of his back four and the younger legs of former Portsmouth midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng and Liverpool flop Alberto Aquilani.
Unforgivably, the man who had won the World Cup, two Champions Leagues and two Italian titles during a decade at the San Siro was allowed to join Juve on a free transfer and signed a three-year deal worth 9.5million.
It’s no coincidence that Juve duly took the Serie A title off Milan and are top again this season (Pirlo’s old club are 17 points behind in 10th).
With the man they call L’Architetto (The Architect) pulling the strings — or Il Metronomo (The Metronome) because of how he dictates the tempo of a game — Juve have lost only two games in more than a year; one in the league to Inter Milan a fortnight ago and last season’s Italian Cup final to Napoli.
‘I came here very motivated to prove I was still in good shape and able to play well,’ says Pirlo, who finished the season with the most assists in Serie A.
Not for the first time in his career, he refused to be written off.
Legend has it that Pirlo is descended from the gypsy people of Sinti. When his grandfather arrived from eastern Europe with little grasp of Italian and tried to register as a citizen, a cruel town hall official mockingly gave him the name Pirla.
‘It means jackass,’ says one Italian football observer. ‘So Pirlo sounds very funny to Italian people. When Andrea made his debut for Brescia at the age of 16 years and two days, all the journalists laughed. They’re not laughing now.’
Like any kid, Andrea grew up playing football in his backyard and with his cousins at their grandmother’s house in the countryside.
He modelled his fabled free-kick technique on his heroes, just as his team-mates at Milan used to line up and watch him in training.
‘Since I was a child I watched tapes of Baggio, Zico and Maradona, and then I tried to replicate them just playing on my own against the wall,’ he says. ‘Certainly it’s talent but you have to cultivate that talent.’
It was back at Brescia on loan at the age of 22 that Pirlo first played in the deep-lying role he was soon to master because there was little chance of replacing the legendary Roberto Baggio at No 10.
Pedigree: Pirlo showed promise as a No 10 early on before shifting to his now famed deep-lying role
Example: Growing up, Pirlo had wanted to be like his idols, Diego Maradona and Roberto Baggio
Milan boss Ancelotti spotted the potential and signed him from rivals Inter where he was in danger of becoming a wasted talent. Hence his bond with the former Chelsea manager, and Ancelotti’s determination to take him to England.
‘I will thank him forever,’ says Pirlo. ‘From that point my new career started.’
He has developed into one of the finest playmakers in the world.
Italy’s World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi called Pirlo his ‘silent leader’. Another former Chelsea boss, Luiz Felipe Scolari, described him as ‘an authentic Brazilian’ because his cool demeanour on the pitch is so un-Italian.
‘It’s true,’ says Pirlo. ‘I’m always very calm in every situation whenever I play. I’m happy to take on responsibility and I’m never stressed for this reason. I just like to be at the centre of the play.
‘I don’t know what my secret is. I’ve always had great fun playing football since I was a child and that’s what I try to do every time I go on the pitch.
‘I hope to play for as long as possible but I don’t just want to be tolerated in the team.
‘When I realise it’s over, it will be over.’