The result made headlines around the world. Ten days out from their World Cup opener against England, Italy had been held to a 1-1 draw by minnows Luxembourg—a team who sit 119th in Fifa’s world rankings.
Gazzetta dello Sport’s front page borrowed a line from the Italian national anthem, demanding: "Dov'e la vittoria?” (“Where is the victory?”) Cesare Prandelli’s team have not won a game since September last year.
Italians, though, are used to seeing their team underperform in friendlies, and especially in the build-up to a major tournament. As TEAM Radio’s Mike Martignago pointed out on Twitter, the Azzurri have not won a World Cup warm-up game since 1998. Arrigo Sacchi’s Italy infamously lost to fourth-division Pontedera shortly before making their run to the final of USA 94. (Report in Italian.)
The team that faced Luxembourg on Wednesday was also an experimental one, Prandelli rotating through three different formations over the course of the game. For the first time, Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti started together in midfield. The question of whether they could work effectively in tandem has been the subject of much debate in Italy, and results on Wednesday were mixed.
Both players created goalscoring opportunities, but both also gave the ball away more often than they should. Whether they will get a chance to line up together again in Brazil remains to be seen. Even this close to the tournament, there are very few certainties regarding Prandelli’s starting XI.
Pirlo, however, is one of them. The Juventus player has been a fixture of the national team for more than a decade, winning 109 caps since he made his debut back in September 2002. Writing in the foreword of the player’s autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play, last year, Prandelli noted that: “I can’t think of a single reason why I’d leave Andrea out between now and the World Cup”.
There was a moment, last September, when the manager might have challenged that assumption. Pirlo had made an indifferent start to the season with Juventus, and he was substituted by Antonio Conte in consecutive league games against Inter and Verona. Critics began to wonder whether age was finally catching up to the player.
Pirlo responded by putting together yet another excellent season, helping Juventus to become the first team ever to break the 100-point barrier in Serie A. Besides pulling the strings in midfield for the Bianconeri, he also finished the campaign with six free-kick goals across all competitions (and he probably deserves credit for this one against Cagliari, too).
Italy would love a set-piece goal or two from Pirlo in Brazil, just like the one he served up at the Maracana during last summer’s Confederations Cup. But even without such contributions, they know that he will be integral to their cause.
To understand Pirlo’s importance to Italy, one need only look back on the international tournaments that he has participated in so far. He was a key figure in Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph, setting up Fabio Grosso’s 119th-minute opener against Germany in the semi-final, as well as Marco Materazzi’s equaliser against France five days later.
Likewise, he was a driving force in Italy’s run to the final of Euro 2012. Pirlo scored one and set up two of Italy’s four group-stage goals, and he calmed Italian nerves with a brilliant chipped penalty to begin the quarter-final shootout against England. He also created the only goal that Spain conceded all tournament, unpicking La Roja’s defence with a delicious through ball for Antonio Di Natale.
Conversely, when Pirlo has been absent, Italy have failed. He missed all but the last 35 minutes of Italy’s disastrous 2010 World Cup due to injury, entering too late to salvage his team from a tournament-ending defeat to Slovakia. Two years earlier, he had been suspended for the Azzurri’s loss to Spain in the quarter-finals of Euro 2008.
One could turn the clock back even further, pointing out that Pirlo was absent from the team that drew 0-0 with Denmark in Italy’s opening game of Euro 2004. He did feature in the subsequent matches against Sweden and Bulgaria, but manager Giovanni Trapattoni was still chastised for omitting the player from that first game after Italy were eliminated at the group stage.
Correlation is not causation, of course, and in all of these tournaments there were plenty of factors at play besides Pirlo. Nevertheless, it is striking to note how often his absences have lined up with Italian disappointments over the last 10 years.
The troubling thought for Italian supporters is that Pirlo cannot go on forever. He has already stated his intention to retire from international football after this summer’s tournament in Brazil, even though the thought pains him immensely. Pirlo wrote in his book that it would be like “hanging up my heart.”
It is up to Prandelli, then, to get the most out of the player while he still can. Even at 35 years old, Pirlo might still be Italy's most important player in Brazil this summer. The evidence of his career so far would suggest that simply having him there is enough to give the Azzurri a chance.