By Jeff Capellini
It’s going to be something watching “The Maestro” play Yankee Stadium.
Some may say Andrea Pirlo’s time with New York City FC will be nothing more than a glorified farewell tour, but the truth is he still has the chops to be a headliner, at least for the time being.
The fact that Pirlo chose Major League Soccer over offers from several top international clubs rankles some because it is a league that is often labeled as second rate by the so-called intelligentsia, the people who consider themselves authorities when it comes to the world’s most popular sport.
However, if you wipe away all of the apparent stigmas associated with Italy’s favorite son now calling America’s most identifiable city home, it really boils down to what this man is still capable of on the pitch.
And that consensus seems to be quite a bit.
“I made this decision because I was looking for new stimulus and motivation,” Pirlo told NYCFC’s official website. “This is a club on the rise and shares my same hunger to achieve important results in the league.
“Yes, I have had several opportunities to play abroad, but I always preferred to play in Italy,” he added. “Since I was playing for the most important clubs in Italy I never had the temptation to change in the past. Although this time I think I made the right choice to take on this wonderful opportunity.”
Pirlo, who has 115 appearances for the Italian national team dating to 2002, made it clear he’s not coming to New York just to take it easy in the twilight of his career. His goal is to win a championship and remain relevant on the world’s biggest stages.
“(The fans) can expect full commitment, great hunger and determination. I hope I can deliver joy on the pitch,” Pirlo said.
“For me, nothing changes. I spoke with the (Italy) national team coach (Antonio Conte), who knows that the MLS is very competitive. I will try as hard as I can to play well and keep fit to be called for the European Championships in 2016,” he added.
And judging from his play this past season in Serie A — the Italian super league that is right up there with the best leagues in the world as far as quality of play is concerned — there’s no reason to believe Pirlo cannot continue to perform at a very high level. Juventus won’t easily replace his on-field elegance, but in the long run will likely benefit from getting younger in the midfield. Still, that doesn’t mean Pirlo’s contributions over the last four seasons — 164 appearances, 19 goals and 35 assists — will be easily replicated.
“Pirlo is a player — a man — who could never be summed up with mere statistics,” Juventus said in a statement. “Pirlo is silent charisma, the steadying hand in the middle of the park, the dummy that undoes the opposition defence. He’s that unexpected ball that splits the game wide open, the lofted pass that brings a team to its knees.”
While it’s typical of the self-proclaimed soccer aficionado to label MLS as second tier, a retirement home for some of the planet’s best players to collect one final paycheck and get some well-deserved rest and relaxation, there are plenty of reasons to take Pirlo at his word that he’s still playing for keeps.
You don’t just forget how to be a legend. Pirlo remains one of the game’s greatest deep-lying playmakers, and is still mostly in possession of the attributes that made him a generational player in the first place. He’s also one of the classiest individuals to ever grace athletic competition. People like that never cut corners or mail it in.
Pirlo may be 36, but to me he’s a young 36. What he lacks on the defensive side of the ball should not be mistaken for him being past his sell-by date. His style of play has always been about creating offense, not preventing it. And while he may not be a carbon copy of the player that led Italy to the 2006 World Cup championship, he is still a deadly free-kick specialist and executed at a high enough level this past season to lead Juventus to its fourth consecutive Serie A title and eventually a spot in the UEFA Champions League final.
The main reason for Pirlo’s durability has been his commitment to physical fitness. He remains one of the top conditioned athletes in the sport and will set an example in more ways than one when he suits up for NYCFC, a team that has played better of late and is about to receive an identity makeover of the highest order.
After a brutal start that featured just one win in its first 13 matches, the expansion club has won four of five and is knocking on the door of a playoff spot with half the season remaining. And that was all done with Spanish striker David Villa and American midfielder Mix Diskerud assuming an unfair amount of responsibility. However, very soon they will be surrounded by Pirlo, English midfielder Frank Lampard and Spanish defender Andoni Iraola.
There’s literally no telling what could happen.
Speaking from experience, Pirlo said there is every reason for optimism as the summer progresses.
“(At Juventus), we started from zero and created a winning group which led to unbelievable success, which I hope that can also be created here in New York. Starting from scratch and reaching victories,” he said.
What Pirlo will ultimately bring to NYCFC is unmatched passing, vision, organization and winning experience, the latter of which is of greatest importance to a team just beginning to find its way. An international star in his own right, Lampard is expected to make his debut with the club on Sunday afternoon against Toronto FC at Yankee Stadium. He said he’s keenly aware of what the addition of Pirlo could mean once he arrives on July 21.
“I’m very, very, very excited. Andrea is a player I’ve always admired a huge, great amount. He’s a great player. He’s won everything in world football, so it’s a fantastic signing for the club,” Lampard said. “I played against Andrea lots of times with Chelsea against Juventus, against Italy with England. Like I said, I have huge respect for the player. I never imagined I’d be playing with him. He’s the kind of player that’s a dream to play with because he has such a good awareness, so good on the ball.”
Ultimately, Pirlo said he picked New York because he loves New York and all the opportunities that come with it.
“First of all, I hope to win, which is always the most important thing for the club and myself,” Pirlo said. “Then, I think to play, have fun and leave a mark (on) the league and particularly (on) the fans who follow it.”
That shouldn’t take long.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet