At nearly 1 a.m. Monday morning at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, after 120 minutes of play, the referee's familiar three-blast whistle blew, signaling the end of play of the Euro 2012 quarterfinal between Italy and England. The scoreboard remained unchanged at 0-0, and the game would go to penalties. The fact that Italy probably deserved the victory was rendered immediately irrelevant.
The Italians would shoot first. England goalkeeper Joe Hart took to the net from center field, engaging a confidently advancing Mario Balotelli in a stare-down. The two took their spots, and the Italian dispatched his penalty past the outstretched arm of his Manchester City club mate.
The Italians next sent Riccardo Montolivo to the spot. Perhaps a result of Hart's goal-line intimidation tactics—waving his arms and making menacing faces at each shooter—or not, the Italian sliced his shot wide of the left post. England had a golden opportunity to go ahead.
They did just that, as Wayne Rooney sent an absolute thunderbolt into the net, putting his team ahead. The goal mirrored the English style of football—powerful, fast and direct. Rooney's penalty gave his teammates the confidence they lacked during the match.
With three penalties left apiece, it was England's match to lose. The momentum Italy had built throughout had completely reversed—it looked bleak for the Italians.
Enter Andrea Pirlo.
Soft-spoken and humble, Pirlo is not your stereotypical leader—that role is reserved by Gianluigi Buffon, who wears the captain's armband and is Italy's natural leader. However, Pirlo's influence on his teammates is immeasurable; he is Italy's most important player on and off the pitch. His teammates rely on him at all times. No one to pass to? Out of ideas? Give the ball to Pirlo.
Pirlo knew his team was crushed after Rooney's go-ahead penalty. He knew England's spirits were lifted with their lead. But he could only shoot once—his passing, vision, creativity and leadership were irrelevant at this point.
Or were they?
The referee blew his whistle, Joe Hart flapped his arms and bared his teeth like a mad scientist, and Andrea Pirlo began his run-up.
Five seconds later, a bewildered Joe Hart scrambled to find his feet next to the left post, Pirlo calmly trotted back to center circle, and the ball trickled slowly out of the middle of the net.
Pirlo, unfazed by the pressure of the situation, audaciously chipped (sometimes called a panenka) the ball straight to the exact spot Joe Hart stood just moments before. This type of shot takes an incredible amount of skill, deception, and courage to pull off—especially when your team is losing. When they fail, the penalty taker looks unbelievably foolish.
Pirlo knew it would be a serious gamble, but he knew that it would pay off in huge amounts. High risk, high reward.
The shot, which daintily floated over the middle of the goal line and bounced gently off the back netting, was stunning in itself. But it was what the shot did to the minds of the players on the pitch that was so awe-inspiring. Pirlo knew that a simple penalty wouldn't be enough in this situation. He turned a relatively straightforward situation into a morale swap.
The shot altered the emotions of players of both teams as well as everyone who watched it. It gave Italy reason to believe again after Montolivo's spirit-deflating miss. It seemed to kill England's confidence that Rooney's penalty had given them moments before. It even gave the fans the strange sense that Italy had regained the upper hand.
Ashley Young, next up for England, placed his ball on the penalty spot. There was no denying that Pirlo's bit of magic had seriously upped the pressure on England's players. Young's boyish face appeared subdued and nervous, like a child that had just been scolded. Following Rooney's lead, he chose power over finesse, but it backfired—his shot ricocheted off the crossbar. No goal.
Knowing England had just lost its numerical shot advantage, a confident Antonio Nocerino stepped up and powered his shot to the lower left corner. Italy led again.
The pressure was now all on the shoulders of Ashley Cole. He cracked, as his penalty lacked any sign of power, finesse or even deliberation—Buffon saved the low shot easily.
In what would be the final penalty, Alessandro Diamanti sent Hart the wrong way, sealing Italy's victory. The elated Italians swarmed their goalkeeper in the corner of the pitch to celebrate their progression to the semifinals.
Forget the 4-2 scoreline at the end of the shootout. This was not won by numbers—Italy won this thanks to a gutsy but brilliant penalty that ultimately crushed England and lifted Italy.
Moments like this are very rare, which makes them so special when they happen. Players like Pirlo are even rarer.
Long live the magic and genius of Andrea Pirlo.