Why Andrea Pirlo Was My Favorite Player of 2012

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Why Andrea Pirlo Was My Favorite Player of 2012
Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

"I thought God exists because it's truly embarrassing how good he is," said Gianluigi Buffon of his Juventus teammate Andrea Pirlo in 2011. (FIFA)

Pirlo arrived at Juve on a free transfer. He was 31 and a decade at AC Milan had ended with a Serie A title, but with Pirlo cast as a fading force and his place in their starting lineup no longer assured. Milan's faith extended to just a one-year deal and with that, Pirlo, fired by a sense of betrayal, plotted his exit.

Where Milan saw a bit-part player, Juventus coach Antonio Conte saw a man to build a team around. Pirlo was handed the conductor's baton in their midfield for the start of the 2011-12 season and would lead the Old Lady of Turin through an unbeaten league campaign and to the Serie A title.

The tone was set 17 minutes into Pirlo's league debut against Parma in September 2011 at the new Juventus Stadium. Collecting a pass from Stephan Lichtsteiner, Pirlo instinctively flicked a delightful return ball into the box and Lichsteiner put Juve on their way to a 4-1 win.

It was a sign of things to come. Pirlo would go on to deliver 13 assists in 36 Serie A appearances, operating as Juve's resplendent regista. He was the most influential midfielder in Italy and a footballer reborn under Conte

His mastery was mesmerising. Opposition midfielders pressed and harried, but Pirlo could not be denied the space he thrived in. When they did get close he dipped a shoulder and left them behind. And when he saw a pass he played it with such deft weight his teammate received it in stride.

Euro 2012 arrived with Italian football embroiled in its latest match-fixing scandal, but Pirlo's majestic performances at the hub of Cesare Prandelli's Azzurri midfield would soon put that story to the back of our minds.

For their first test in the group stage, Italy would face the might of Spain and a midfield boasting the talents of Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso. But it was Pirlo who stole the show, ghosting past Busquets to play in Antonio Di Natale for their opener and controlling the rhythm of the game.

Spain knew what they were up against. Xavi had talked of Pirlo being Italy's "genius with the ball" before the two teams came together, but there was nothing the world champions could do to stop him in Gdansk, Poland, that afternoon. The game finished 1-1, but it was Italy who edged the midfield battle.

Pirlo's influence grew stronger still against Croatia. He was at his imperious best during the first half and capped his masterclass with a curled free-kick into the top corner to put Italy ahead. Pirlo finished with man-of-the-match honors, but Croatia fought back for a 1-1 draw.

It was the Republic of Ireland next and Pirlo was once again to the fore. His corner led to Antonio Cassano's opener and Italy's 2-0 win saw them safely through to the quarterfinals, where they would face England.

What followed was one of the most one-sided 0-0 draws you're ever likely to see. Despite England having had three Euro 2012 group games and an entire Serie A to draw on, Roy Hodgson's team found themselves completely dictated to by Pirlo. They could find no answer to his influence and might very well have been beaten out of sight on his command.

They clung on. But as if Pirlo's superiority hadn't been obvious enough during those 120 minutes, he proceeded to put a paneka past Joe Hart in the penalty shootout to leave the England goalkeeper sprawling on the ground as the ball floated elegantly down the middle of the goal.

Italy advanced and faced Germany in the semifinals, where the battle of contrasting styles would unfold in midfield. Writing for the Indepedent, Miguel Delaney described it as, "the abrasiveness of Bastian Schweinsteiger against the velvet control of Andrea Pirlo."

Pirlo's velvet touch once again won out. Italy took the match 2-1 thanks to two Mario Balotelli goals and had negotiated their way to the final.

The fitting end Pirlo deserved was denied by a rampant Spain, who came out firing and took down Italy 4-0. It was Andres Iniesta who was crowned UEFA player of the tournament, but Euro 2012 will be remembered as the tournament that very nearly belonged to Pirlo.

The 33-year-old had won over a new audience with his elegant brand of play-making and gone about his romantic quest with a dignity that footballers everywhere should aspire to.

We end 2012 with a now bearded Pirlo's Juve eights points clear at the top of Serie A and with the vision of his latest free-kick masterpiece—against Atalanta—to remind us of his enduring, seemingly effortless brilliance.

He won't win the Ballon d'Or, but Pirlo won many, many hearts in 2012—mine included.

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