Monday, June 14, 2010

winding the clock back up

"I do not want a single Italian soldier to be hurt," said General Mustafa Tlass to his Lebanese guerillas in 1980s Beirut, "because I do not want a single tear to fall from the eyes of Gina Lollobrigida."

Whatever my differences with General Tlass, I must similarly warn Italy's football team with regards to the eyes of Andrea Pirlo. He may not start today. Injury may have prevented him from making it out to Soweto to accomplish the small matter of the symbolic handover of the World Cup to FIFA [irony forever, as all the gods are witness!]. He may be dormant in the memories of football fans everywhere -- in fact, pictures of Andrea Pirlo on field may offer strong evidence that he is dormant -- as in, asleep -- period.

But for one glorious tournament, everyone recognised that Andrea Pirlo was worthy of godlike praise. In Germany, the hand may have been the hand of Juventus -- never more evident than during the farcical final against David Trezeguet -- but the voice was the voice of Milan. Pirlo's performance in 2006 came towards the end of a remarkable run of success for the Milan midfield, culminating in their Champions' League victory in Athens, and unsustained since. The inconsistency of Italy's organisation in the years since then, too, have mirrored this atrophy -- particularly since Roberto Donadoni, coach for those two underwhelming years between victory in Berlin and failure in Vienna, refused to think himself out of the Milan pattern of an overreliance on the pyramid shape, creative paralysis on the wings, and the sine qua non of dugout politics, a sharply-creased pair of D&G trousers. Che delusione.

He may seem now like a reciprocating engine in an age of internal combustion, but remember what it felt like to watch him think? In 2007, Brian Phillips at the Run of Play wrote:

To capture him, really to capture the way he plays, the camera would have to follow him without the ball, with the ball not even in the frame. It would have to show the way he drifts and watches, judges and glides, the way he moves as if movement were thinking. [...] And then, perhaps, as he backed into a defender and slipped free, the ball could roll into the picture, and he could pause over it, hover for a beat, and make the astonishing pass while all eyes in the stadium were turned toward the run of the striker.

If you don't remember it clear as the light of day, see what that means during this moment, this distillation of everything that was brilliant about Italy's World Cup campaign in 2006. The ball zings very briefly around the box; falls to Pirlo's feet; he stops time; flicks to Grosso; Grosso scores. Grosso runs around in a trance. Replay. Replay. Replay.

How did he do it? Not just that; everything. He had help, both in Italy and at Milan, of course. The Pirlo vision was challenged before he ever assumed it, in the last days -- I have heard -- of Pep Guardiola's playing career. But he had exceptional defenders behind him all along. In midfield at Milan, he had for a while the uncanny propulsive vision of Kaka [something we should look forward to in a Brazil team at least ten times saner than Real Madrid, say what you like]. He had the balance of Clarence Seedorf. On both teams, he had the distracting protective fury of Gennaro Gattuso. Both men will be among tomorrow's celebrity managers -- that's if Seedorf doesn't go on to become president of his own republic of truth, justice and a permanent state of war against all Oranje coaches -- but they are all too aware of their increasing limitations on field. And so should Pirlo be. In the Marchisio-Montolivo-de Rossi midfield Italy have, not a replacement or a makeshift, but an alternative. They need that.

Time has to start again.

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