Andrea Pirlo thinks of himself as a director—on the pitch and in life. He lists off a bunch of the movie kind in his book, I Think Therefore I Play, out now in English, and he reels off even more literary references. Woody Allen is his favourite of all-time, and Pirlo absolutely hates "Children of the Corn."
The book itself is a collection of scenes, and he casts all of his teammates and coaches, current and former, as the characters. Quite the director indeed. There is plenty about himself, and Pirlo has great comedic timing. But it is the encounters at the training grounds, on drunken nights, in the hotels and the bowels of the stadiums that offer the best stories.
Pirlo shares all his experiences, and we get the feeling that he relishes the opportunity to finally tell all. As he retells the stories, he seems to enjoy the scenes all over again—unless it’s Istanbul, “the capital of evil and forced cursing.”
Pirlo steers clear of the cliches and banalities of the sport that annoy him so much. He admits that he is careful with his words to the press; this book is a release. He recalls one time at Milan when Gennaro Gattuso was a little fork-happy. "Some of us ended up missing games because of Rino’s fork attacks," Pirlo writes, "even if the official explanation from the club was one of muscle fatigue.”
Here we get a glimpse of Pirlo through Gattuso. The smooth playmaker is all class on the field; he does not look like an instigator of any kind. Pirlo doesn’t wear a mischievous smile when he plays. But he would badger Gattuso and trade insults and rile him up.
Chiefly, it was Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi on duty with the national team. They once hid in the bedroom and jumped out to scare Gattuso. Another time they soaked him with a fire extinguisher. Pirlo is even a schemer off the field.
Other days, Pirlo would hole himself up in a room with Alessandro Nesta and play the Playstation for hours. They would both play with Barcelona. They were roommates while playing with Milan, and Pirlo told Nesta before anyone else that he was leaving to join Juventus. Nesta was “a man with whom I’d shared a thousand adventures," Pirlo writes, "and about as many snacks.”
Then there were the examples he admired: Paolo Maldini, the quiet professional, “the best defender going,” who played with passion and showed Pirlo how to behave; Alessandro Del Piero, the standard-bearer who trained hard and complained little, even as a marginal figure in his final season with Juvenus; and, of course, Silvio Berlusconi, the special orator who inspired his team the rare time he would fly to Milanello by helicopter.
Pirlo has some strong opinions, and he is not afraid to be critical. He lobbies for the universal use of goal-line technology—even for offsides—and he sympathizes with the officials. Other things worry him. More and more, the trips away from home in Italy feel dangerous. Before one particular game in Naples, someone threw a brick and shattered one of the windows on the team bus. “We’re way behind,” Pirlo writes.
He asks big questions, too. The subject of doping is something that irritates him. He can’t understand why anyone would take the risk. He thinks the team from Deportivo La Coruna “may have been on something.” They who overcame a three-goal deficit on aggregate in 2004 and beat Milan 4-0 at home in the second leg in the Champions League.
Things like the Ballon d’Or no longer interest Pirlo, realizing that the same players win, that strikers take most of the credit, and that an assist goes down as a footnote. He came seventh in voting in 2012, and he didn’t care that Lionel Messi won again. He’d rather play football with his son in the backyard.
It’s the simpler joys that Pirlo savours, memories of his happy place, squashing grapes in his father’s vineyard. He saves some great words for Antonio Conte and Andrea Agnelli, who believed in him when Milan did not (not that Pirlo lacked the suitors. Every day in that final season with Milan, his agent called him with news).
And he speaks with “we” as a firm part of the collective. He defends all the titles won by Juventus, and he sometimes verges on the sentimental: It’s as if he’s spent his whole career at the club, that he himself went down with them to Serie B.
Then he comes loaded with humour, and he comes off just as natural as one of his free-kicks. He is not funny for the sake of it: Pirlo loves making obscure references to old Italian singers, and he plays off puns often and well.
He makes fun of all close to him, even some of the crazy stuff happening in the locker room—Pippo Inzaghi, for one, stinking up the joint every time he went to the bathroom. It was a pre-game ritual: He went several times, and Pirlo and the rest had to smell the reek of Inzaghi’s superstitions.
Just as quickly, all turns serious, and he is writing about the scourge of racism and the things Mario Balotelli has to deal with. There is great balance within the book.
There is an even greater use of metaphor, his favourite mechanism. He hates the pre-game warmup, those 15 minutes of hell, and so he explains in terms we all understand. "If you've got Bar Refaeli lying naked in front of you, you just can't wink at her and say: 'Wait there, I'll be with you in 15 minutes.'"
Inside the mind of Andrea Pirlo, we see the emotions that he does not express. His face on the cover is perfectly still, showing no emotion. It’s his poker face, and it’s always on. But feelings bubble up within him. He says he was playing the Playstation before the World Cup final, but he was really thinking a million thoughts as he walked up to take the first penalty in Berlin.
But the greatest reflection comes from Cesare Prandelli. It is telling that the coach of the national team gives us such a glowing review of a wonderful career. Prandelli calls Pirlo “a player who belongs to everyone,” and it is true. He grew up a fan of Inter, but he is truly a fan of Italy. He loves playing for the Azzurri; he loves being Italian, and he feels it most in those dramatic moments on the field. And Pirlo is one of the few to play for AC Milan, Inter and Juventus, with each meaning something to him.
So does each and every chapter of the book. It stops short of 21 chapters, and there is a reason: Pirlo still wants to write that final phase. The number has personal meaning. His father was born on the 21st. It was the day he got married and the day he made his Serie A debut.
His career is so rich, and the book contains it all. Pirlo and Alessandro Alciato, the Sky journalist who helped with the writing, do not spare a detail. And the translation by Mark Palmer is clear and free of mistakes.
Everyone at some point over the past decade—from Pep Guardiola to the Sheikhs of Qatar—wanted a slice of Andrea Pirlo. Here we can read the thoughts of not only one of Italy’s greatest midfielders but one of the greatest philosophers in the game. The title suggests it all: He thinks therefore he plays.
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