Andrea Pirlo is the lynchpin of the Italian national team, and has been for more than a decade. Playing at a dying position as a deep-lying playmaker—the traditional Italian regista—he's been carving up opposing defenses with his metronomic passes and pinpoint deliveries since he earned his first cap in 2002.
Despite a blip on the radar in 2010-11, Pirlo has maintained peak performance far longer than many international-level midfielders. But he will be 34 years old by the end of this season and 35 by the beginning of the World Cup next year in Brazil. No one has announced it, but it's generally accepted that the World Cup will almost certainly be his final tournament on the international stage.
With that in mind, it's time to start looking back on Pirlo's career and putting it into perspective amongst the greats of Italian soccer. In a country known for its defense and its crafty forwards, Italian midfielders are not known throughout the annals of the game's history as much as those of Spain, Brazil or Germany. Make no mistakes, however. As the curtain falls on his career, l'architetto is probably the greatest of them all.
From the overly simplistic point of view of total international caps, Pirlo is head and shoulders above the rest. The closest midfielder to Pirlo that isn't currently in the mix for the national team is former Juventus great Marco Tardelli with 81. Pirlo is 16 caps ahead of him. Barring injuries, by the end of the group stage of the Confederations Cup in June he'll be the first Italian who isn't a goalkeeper or defender to become a centurion.
A quick look at the other individual accolades on Pirlo's résumé is equally impressive. At the junior level, Pirlo was the Golden Player and top scorer of the 2000 U-21 European Championships.
He won the Bronze Ball at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where he was also on the tournament all-star team, led the tournament in assists and won three Man of the Match awards, including one for the Final against France. Two years later he racked up a Man of the Match award at Euro 2008, along with three more at Euro 2012 to make the team of the tournament.
He's been in the top 10 of the Ballon d'Or voting three times (and once in the FIFA World Player of the Year voting when the two awards were separate). He was named to the FIFPro World XI in 2006 and the UEFA Team of the Year for 2012.
Beyond all the awards and accolades, looking at his on-field play sets him apart in more ways than one. Many of the best-known Italian midfielders like Tardelli, Antonio Conte and Pirlo's contemporaries like Gennaro Gattuso and Daniele De Rossi are known as hard men more known for stamina and bone-crunching tackles than for their creative abilities.
In some cases—especially that of De Rossi—it isn't really fair to think of these men as mere enforcers. They definitely had their creative bents. But Pirlo is in a completely separate level.
The vision that Pirlo has for his passes is absolutely unsurpassed. He has unquestionably the best long-ball ability in the game today, and his pinpoint passes will lull defenses to sleep—until he makes the killer pass that no one else sees to send his teammates through on goal.
Equally as impressive is his ability in dead-ball situations. Long the taker of free kicks and corners for club and country alike, he can put a ball into the exact spot he wants to nine times out of 10. His ability to create chances for his team is unmatched even amongst the more attack-minded Italian midfielders in history like Roberto Donadoni.
Further evidence of just how good he is comes from how important he is to his team—and how the media has for the last five or six years been searching for his replacement.
Facing down Spain in the Euro 2008 quarterfinal, the Italians were without their midfield general after he was suspended due to yellow card accumulation in the group stage. The Italians were able to hold the Spaniards scoreless—the only team in the tournament to do so—but were unable to come up with an offensive threat of their own and ended up losing in a penalty shootout.
Two years later after Pirlo suffered a leg injury in a friendly days before the World Cup was to begin in 2010, the Italians looked absolutely lost on the field. In a pair of 1-1 draws against Paraguay and New Zealand the Italians outshot both of their opponents and yet were only able to score via set pieces.
When they found themselves down 2-0 to Slovakia and facing elimination, Pirlo came on for the final half-hour-plus of the match—and Italy put the ball into the net three times (once controversially disallowed for offside) and nearly pulled off the comeback that would have kept them in the tournament.
It's been instances like this that have caused the Italian media to jump all over any central midfielder that has shown any spark. For a long time that player was Riccardo Montolivo. The Milan man is an excellent player and has turned in impressive performances for his club since the early part of the year, but he's not in Pirlo's class.
The newest darling, 20-year-old Marco Verratti, is young and has acquitted himself well in limited international action, but he'll have a daunting task in replacing the man who he's modeled his game around.
Verratti's time will come. In time he may even be mentioned in the same breath as his idol. But at the moment, Pirlo has the pedestal all to himself. Never before have Italian fans seen someone so dominant in the middle of the park, nor have they ever had a player who was so truly irreplaceable as the man called l'architetto. He is truly the best midfielder in Italian history.