Among the many entertaining anecdotes in Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play, one of the most colourful relates to his mastery of free-kicks. The Italy midfielder devotes an entire chapter to the subject, explaining how he became obsessed with Lyon’s Juninho Pernambucano—considered by many to be the best set-piece taker of all time.
Pirlo began to hoard DVDs and even still-photographs of the Brazilian, observing every aspect of his body shape and motion. But for the longest time he just could not work out the secret.
Playing for Milan at the time, Pirlo admits that he used to drive the team's equipment man to distraction with his attempts to impersonate Juninho. All too often, his free-kicks would sail away over the fences that surround the Rossoneri's Milanello training ground.
Finally, inspiration struck in a rather improbable setting—as Pirlo explains in the book:
The best ideas come about in moments of total concentration … My own Eureka moment arrived when I was sat on the toilet. Hardly romantic, but there you go.
The search for Juninho’s secret had become an obsession for me, to the extent that it occupied my every waking thought. It was at the point of maximum exertion that the dam burst, in every sense of the term.
In that moment, Pirlo understood that he had been looking for answers in all the wrong places. Rather than focusing on where Juninho’s boot struck the ball, he should have been looking at how it did so. The Brazilian was not using his whole foot but, instead, just three toes, in Pirlo’s estimation, to actually make contact with the ball.
Rushing to Milanello the next morning to test out his thesis, Pirlo could not even wait to change into his training gear. Instead he went straight out to the practice pitch wearing his loafers and demanded a ball from the reluctant kit man.
He found the top corner of the net on the first attempt, and then repeated that feat six more times to be sure. Thus Pirlo’s signature free-kick, the one that he calls his "Maledetta"—"the cursed one"—was born.
Struck correctly, the ball should spin only gently as it rises up over the wall, but then it should start to rotate much more quickly as it falls sharply into the net. In just the last month, Pirlo has served up two glorious examples—one against Juninho’s former team, Lyon, in the Europa League, and the other to seal a last-minute victory over Genoa in Serie A.
He scored another free-kick in-between, against Fiorentina in the Europa League, but this was a different animal. Rather than varying the pace and trajectory of the ball as he does with the Maledetta, Pirlo simply whipped it around the edge of the wall at speed.
There are, after all, many different ways to coax a ball into a net. Asked by reporters last month for the secret to his success, Pirlo replied that one of the most important skills for any free-kick taker to have was simply the ability to assess the distances and angles between himself and the goal and then select the best type of shot for the situation (quotes in Italian).
As he has demonstrated before, sometimes that might even mean going under the wall instead of over it.
At 34 years old, Pirlo’s physical gifts might have begun to decline, but his set-piece delivery remains as sharp as ever. His six free-kick goals this season are the most of any player in Europe’s top leagues, per Gazzetta dello Sport.
In total he has scored 43 in his career, and 25 of those were in Serie A. Only Sinisa Mihajlovic, with 28, has ever managed more in the Italian top flight. The Serbian, now in charge of Sampdoria, knows that his record is likely to fall sooner or later, but he has volunteered to take on Pirlo in a one-on-one competition to determine who is best in the meantime.
Pirlo, though, has bigger things to worry about this summer. He has indicated that he will retire from international football after the World Cup (quotes in Italian), but winning that tournament for a second time would be quite the way to bow out. There could be no more fitting stage for a player who also declares himself in his autobiography to be unofficially “part-Brazilian”.
He fulfilled a childhood dream by scoring a free-kick at the Maracana last summer, during Italy’s Confederations Cup win over Mexico (in what was his 100th appearance for the national side, no less). That stadium will also be the setting for this summer’s final. Italy are not favourites to reach that stage, but they enter the tournament as a realistic dark horse.
One or two well-timed Maledette would improve their prospects no end.