Andrea Pirlo has made a career out of being unfailingly cool. We take a brief glimpse at the New York life of football’s original hipster
Andrea Pirlo is standing on a rooftop in Tribeca holding a shoe. The purest aesthete in the modern era of football, the beating heart of some of the most successful teams of the last 15 years, is clad head to toe in black, the spire of the World Trade Center jutting past his impeccable mane of hair as cameras click and flash before him. It’s dusk, and his facial expression hasn’t changed for an hour.
“I don’t think his heart rate ever changes,” says an onlooker. “It’s like when he’s playing.”
The look of control certainly never wavers, even as rumors of a loan to Europe crescendo following a dispiriting 17th-place finish to his first season with New York City FC. Will Pirlo stay in New York? Could he be contemplating a return to Italy, perhaps to boost his chances of playing in one last European Championship? Might City Football Group be engaged in some transatlantic player-laundering?
For now Pirlo has tried to suffocate the whispers with hashtags, tweeting out photos at NYCFC training sessions earlier in November with the caption: “Finally back to work #nycfc #BackHome #ny #StopRumors #PirloStyle.”
“I feel lucky that I got the chance to move here and do this,” Pirlo tells me through an interpreter of the move to New York. “It was my own decision at the end of last season—so let’s see how it goes.”
Pirlo is the rare maestro who can combine the functionality of a midfield architect with the sensibility of an artist on the ball. He is the footballing Caravaggio, at once derisive and divine, all tenebrism: as much about imperious buildup in dark spaces as sublime climactic flashes, every luminous burst circumscribed by quiet chiaroscuro webs of passing and movement. Add to that a magnificent latter-day beard and an almost too aptly named memoir (I Think Therefore I Play), and Pirlo’s destiny to become this era’s foremost football hipster was assured.
Those epiphanies of his can erupt from the game’s shadows as Baroque moments of radiant clarity: a perfect pass from anywhere on the pitch. Or they can be as deliberate as rituals at an altar: a dead ball, brought to glorious life by the singular alchemy at his feet.
Two dead ball moments encapsulate Pirlo’s aristocratic, almost contemptuous, mastery. Both involve the humiliation of poor, earnest Joe Hart. First, in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals, he dispatched England’s No. 1 with a perfect Panenka during the penalty shootout, leaving viewers with the memorable image of Hart’s head turning to watch the ball hang in the air as his own body went sailing away from it (with his posture and facial expression, he resembled a Caravaggio masterpiece himself).
Then, in the Amazonian humidity of Manaus at the 2014 World Cup, Pirlo’s weaving, knuckling free kick left Hart flat-footed and shell-shocked again, resigned to watching the ball glide past him as if in slow motion. When it clanged into the crossbar, Pirlo’s reaction was one of patrician disdain. After a longer-than-usual glance back at goal, he walked away.
But Pirlo has not played for his country since a narrow 1-0 victory over Monaco in September, unceremoniously benched for Italy’s next match against Bulgaria and left out of the squad entirely for the November friendlies. Italy manager Antonio Conte has made it clear that Pirlo, who will be 37 next summer, risks being left out of the national squad for Euro 2016 in favor of the new generation of talented Italian midfielders unless he gets back into action at European standards.
“If Pirlo returns to Italy I would be very pleased,” Conte told the media in early November. “He could train properly and would still make an impact. My fear is that by staying away he could lose all that.”
“I’ve always loved New York,” Pirlo tells me, gazing out over Lower Manhattan. “It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. I used to come here a lot for vacations.”
Like in July 2014, about a week after Italy exited its second straight World Cup in the group stage, when Pirlo was spotted al fresco at a city park. “Un saluto da NY!”—“Greetings from NY!” he posted to Facebook with a photo of himself smiling, flashing a peace sign. A player on holiday after a disappointing World Cup—a blip on the radar.
Almost exactly one year later, Pirlo signed for New York City FC on a free transfer, bringing the coolest footballer in the world to the coolest city in the world. It was a marketer’s dream. Would it be a fan’s?
Though the club generated plenty of early hype, drawing in genuine (albeit aging) stars like David Villa and Frank Lampard, the season got off to a rocky start: NYCFC had seven losses and only one win almost three months into their calendar. When Pirlo completed his mid-season transfer on July 6, exactly one month after his last match for Juventus, his arrival could not prevent NYCFC from finishing in the depths of the table.
He ended his first MLS season with five assists in 12 appearances and came under some criticism for his lack of mobility on the pitch and a few episodes of indifferent defending.
In short, his performance in MLS has probably not helped Pirlo’s case for a national team recall. Conte will make his team decisions in the spring, and if the Italy coach’s warning to Pirlo of returning to European soccer is a serious one, il Professore must be whirring away in contemplation of what steps would make the most sense for the final stages of his career.
Or not. When asked about a recall to the Italian team, he deflected, preferring to dwell on his new life in New York. On Thanksgiving, he posted a striking photo to Facebook, posing next to his dog surrounded by loaded bookshelves, with a biography of Nelson Mandela on his coffee table in front of a simulation fireplace (and what looks suspiciously like a pack of cigarettes nearby). “Happy Thanksgiving day from us! #myworld #Pirlostyle #familytime #pablostyle”
If Conte’s threat is weighing on Pirlo’s mind, he certainly isn’t letting it show. Pirlo has, after all, made a career and a reputation out of being unfailingly cool and self-possessed. In his memoir, he wrote: “I don’t feel pressure. I don’t give a toss about it. I spent the afternoon of Sunday, July 9, 2006 in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup.”
He doesn’t spend as much time on the PlayStation anymore. “Sometimes when I have time I’ll play it with my kid, but I’ve got different hobbies now,” he tells me. “And then of course I just moved to New York, which is such a big city. There’s a lot of new things to discover, new things to do.”
All photos by Nate Congleton for Eight by Eight.
Follow the writer, Mustafa Hameed, on Twitter.