Officially, whenever Andrea Pirlo has watched soccer over the course of the last year or so, it has been for work, rather than merely for pleasure. It might be almost a year since his first foray into management was ended, abruptly and unceremoniously, by Juventus, but being a manager is less a job and more a lifestyle choice, like being a monk, or a double agent. It cannot be switched off.
He does not watch passively, losing himself in the thrill of the game. Instead, he tries to distill from what he is seeing some idea, some concept, some notion that might come in useful somewhere down the line. His appetite for coaching remains undimmed by his experience in Turin; he will, he knows, return at some point. Everything is research, revision, for that moment. “Anything that might help me do my job,” he said.
But while Pirlo is now a manager by trade, he remains every inch an aesthete by inclination. That does not come with an off button, either. And so, he admits, he finds it intensely difficult, if not impossible, to watch a game if it does not bring him pleasure. “I want to see teams doing something positive,” he said. “They can do it well, or not so well, but I want them to try. But if there is not something interesting to see, I find a new game to watch.”
For more than a decade, Pirlo served as elite European soccer’s version of Petronius, the sport’s appointed arbiter of good taste. He came to embody élan and panache and easy, timeless style. He made the deep-lying playmaker the game’s must-have accessory, for a while, at least. He single-handedly popularized the Panenka. He wrote a soccer autobiography that should not have immediately been pulped.
It is intriguing, then, to know quite what, in Pirlo’s mind, qualifies as “interesting.” It is, after all, only five years since he retired — and only seven since he left Europe, where soccer’s searchlight shines brightest, for Major League Soccer — but, in that time, the game he left behind has changed considerably.
The best measure of that, perhaps, is that Pirlo already feels as if he belongs to another era, another time, despite the fact that he has played in the Champions League final as recently as Lionel Messi. The last time either one graced that stage, the grandest that club soccer has to offer, was in Berlin in 2015, when Messi and Neymar and Luis Suárez swept Barcelona past Pirlo’s Juventus.
That is not simply because soccer has a tendency toward instant amnesia. It is not just because, in the years in between his retirement as a player and his short-lived managerial tenure at Juventus he faded, just a little, from view. Nor can it be attributed, entirely, to the fact that many of the moments with which he is most indelibly associated are from what might politely be referred to as “some time ago.”
Pirlo at Euro 2012. Credit…Maurizio Brambatti/European Pressphoto Agency
Pirlo has spent the last few months designing and curating an NFT collection, like almost everyone else with a little time on their hands; it has taken as its theme his most treasured, most iconic memories. His first Champions League final, in 2003, when Babe Ruth’s curse still held. Winning the World Cup in 2006, something that occurred before the invention of the iPhone. His effortless, unfazed Panenka against England at Euro 2012, when Lance Armstrong was still a hero. These are all moments from a past so distant, both in a sporting and a cultural context, that it may as well be frozen in amber.
And yet it is not that, or at least not only that, which makes Pirlo feel like an emissary from a different age. It is that players like him do not exist any more, not really. It is no surprise that, when asked which individuals he most likes to watch now, he picks out Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Marco Verratti, Jorginho.
They all contain trace elements of Pirlo, in different ways — position or technique or role or poise — but none are quite cut from his cloth. De Jong is too industrious, Busquets too defensive, Verratti too chaotic, Jorginho too busy. Pirlo was the last of his line. Modern soccer does not produce, does not tolerate, players as languid as him, not in his position; nor, increasingly, does it have room for the sort of unhurried imagination that was always Pirlo’s hallmark.
It has become, instead, a game of “automatisms,” as another of Pirlo’s peers, Cesc Fàbregas, put it earlier this year. “The manager basically tells you where you have to pass the ball in every moment,” Fàbregas said. “The player has to be positioned in their exact place. It’s becoming a robotic game. I’ve had various managers and it’s not just happened with one or two. It’s happened with four or five. This thing is here to stay.”
It has drifted, in other words, from being a game defined by players to one designed by managers. Pirlo has noted the same shift. “Before, there were maybe not as many coaches who were so prepared, so obsessed with their work, so dedicated to finding the smallest detail so that they could improve,” he said. “It was simpler, in that way, but it was also more difficult: There was less data, fewer ways to study.”
The game has changed. Pirlo says he has not.Credit…Alessandro Di Marco/EPA, via Shutterstock
Where, then, would that have left him? Would Pirlo, had he been born a decade or two later, have been forced to adapt to a different role? Would he have been molded into an unwilling defensive midfield linchpin? Would he have been asked to press relentlessly from the front, devoting his energies to restricting space, rather than expanding it? Would he, perhaps, have been disregarded completely, rather than enjoying one of the most decorated careers of his generation?
He has an answer for that. No. “Maybe I would have done even better,” he said, with a smile. His logic is based on more than unflappable self-confidence. “It was a little more technical when I was playing,” he said. “Now maybe it is more physical. But there were a lot of players in my generation, a lot of teams with technical players of the highest level.
“Maybe now there are not quite so many, so a bit of quality goes a long way. It would be just as valuable in this sort of soccer, maybe more so. Those kinds of players, the ones who are a little smarter, or a little more technical, are harder to find now. In all that speed, all that haste, there are certain situations where the most important thing is a little intelligence, a little technique.”
Besides, Pirlo is adamant that certain truths about soccer hold, regardless of how the game’s fashions, its tastes, ebb and flow. He might watch it now with a manager’s eye, scouring what he sees for some strategic insight, some tactical maneuver, but he remains a player at heart. “You have to work within systems now more than you did,” he said. “But it always comes down to the players.” A coach, he knows from personal experience, is never in complete control of events. Even the finest strategies, the most complex schemes, hinge on the humans tasked with implementing them.
“Everything can change,” he said. “It can be quicker or slower, it can have one style or another, but it is always the players that make things happen on the field.”
In that, to Pirlo, it always remains the same, familiar, recognizable, as appealing as it has always been. “You can ask if it was more beautiful before, or more beautiful now,” he said. “But it is always beautiful.”
A Straight Sprint
Manchester City and Liverpool are separated by a point in the league, but by little else.Credit…Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The question this weekend is the same as it is every weekend. Will this be the moment the Premier League title race takes its twist? Will Liverpool’s exertions on four fronts, its pursuit of the impossible, finally catch up with its players? Or will Manchester City, so smooth and so relentless, stumble and fall, offering Jürgen Klopp’s team a gap, a glimmer, an edge?
The answer, thus far, has been just as consistent: No. A deafening, resounding no. There is a curious lack of drama to what should, by rights, be the most compelling denouement imaginable to the English season. City and Liverpool, two modern greats, are separated by a single point. Neither has the slightest room for error. Neither would grant its rival any mercy for even a single slip.
And yet it all feels just a little bloodless. Liverpool wins. City wins. City wins. Liverpool wins. It is a straight road, with no blind corners or switchbacks or chicanes. Not just in terms of results, but in the nature of the games. City has not trailed in a Premier League game since February 19. Liverpool was behind for 17 minutes, in total, against City when the teams met in early April; other than that, Klopp’s team has not had a game to chase since conceding first against Norwich the same February day. Other than in their encounters with one another, there has been a distinct lack of this column’s favorite quality: jeopardy.
Perhaps this is the weekend that changes. Tottenham, certainly, presents the most formidable opposition Liverpool has met since its visit to the Etihad. City must overcome the exhaustion, physical and spiritual, that comes from prolonged exposure to the madness of Real Madrid. Maybe this is when the twist comes, when Liverpool falls away, or when City stutters. Experience suggests it is not. All we can do is hope.
Timing Is Everything
Immortality, Garth Lagerwey called it, in those heady, breathless minutes after the Seattle Sounders team he has spent years shaping into a true Major League Soccer dynasty had become the first American team to break Mexico’s stranglehold on the Concacaf Champions League.
Whether this proves to be a watershed or not will only become clear in time, for both the league and for Seattle itself. Lagerwey has expressed his hope that the Sounders might now become a “global” team, the first real international breakout brand M.L.S. has produced, and he may be right. He will worry, though, that the timing has hardly been ideal.
Alex Roldan and the Sounders are the first U.S. team to qualify for FIFA’s Club World Cup.Credit…Steph Chambers/Getty Images
It is, frankly, baffling that the Champions League final was scheduled on the same night as a (European) Champions League semifinal. Seattle’s achievement might have resonated a little more outside North America had it not been overshadowed by events in Madrid. The time difference mitigates against attracting a considerable television audience, but that is not the only route to exposure. There are, though, other ways to attract attention in our fractured media age.
More unfortunately, it is not yet clear when Seattle may get its chance to — as Lagerwey put it — face “Real Madrid or Liverpool” for a trophy (a claim the champions of South America and Africa might suggest is premature).
This was supposed to be the year that FIFA’s much-vaunted Club World Cup expansion took place. That has been postponed, seemingly indefinitely. There is no word, as yet, on when or where the more traditional competition — the one featuring the six regional champions and a nominee from the host nation — will take place. That is a rather more complex issue than normal, of course, because there is a great big World Cup slap-bang in the middle of next season.
FIFA will, doubtless, find a fix — most likely a late, unsatisfactory one — at some point. Seattle, certainly, has earned its moment on the international stage, to claim another first, becoming the first American team to have the chance to become world champion.
The great thing about this newsletter is that it serves as an education to me, too. “I was confused by your expression ‘dopamine-soaked reverie,’” wrote Jim Goldman. “I’m a practicing endocrinologist — and a Tottenham fan — and this phrase didn’t make sense to me.”
Now, I cannot claim to be an endocrinologist, not even a lapsed one, so I will bow to Jim’s wisdom on this. I was under the impression that dopamine was the chemical released during pleasurable situations, such as a reverie or when you encounter a really good sandwich. Further research suggests the reality may be a little more complex. I stand (partly) corrected.
Line of the week, meanwhile, goes to Brian Marx. Or, more accurately, his daughter, Natalie. “She wondered why there is so much noise about finding a new owner for Chelsea, when it is clear the club is owned by Karim Benzema,” Bob wrote, doing the decent thing and not claiming the punchline as his own.
Well played, Natalie.Credit…Juan Medina/Reuters
Javier Cortés, on the other hand, forces me to issue a clarification that the views expressed in this section do not necessarily reflect my own; a mention is not, by any means, an endorsement. “I agree with your definition of fandom in Europe and Latin America,” he wrote. “It is part of a person’s cultural background.” In the United States, Javier — not me — believes, “most fans are just followers of commercial brands. That explains why, if people move from one city to another, they change teams.”
He does, it should be pointed out, make an exception for baseball, where the existence of teams with more than a century of history possess “a real fandom.”
There are, I will admit, elements to American sporting culture that are oblique to me, in particular the ability to disregard a team after a lifetime of support, even to disavow it completely, should it pack up and leave. (I understand why fans would take that measure; I just do not understand how.)
My instinct, though, is not to decry those differences as evidence of inauthenticity, but rather to chalk them up to a different cultural reality. That is the authentic experience of supporting a team in the United States. It may not follow the same patterns and mores as fandom in Europe, but that does not make it any less sincere, any less genuine, or any less real.
That’s all for this week. All thoughts, as ever, are welcome at [email protected]; we take note of and appreciate them all. Well, most of them. Certainly more than 50 percent. You can find my thoughts on the gnawing tension of the Premier League title race on Twitter, too, if you’re that way inclined.
Have a great weekend,