MANGARATIBA, Brazil (AP) - Brazilian fans like to consider Italy’s midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo as one of their own.
For a generation now, Pirlo has displayed the kind of creativity, vision and passing skills normally associated with players on the Selecao.
Perhaps it’s no wonder then that Pirlo’s inspiration for one of his best skills - free kicks - comes from a Brazilian.
When the talented midfielder Juninho played for French club Lyon from 2001-09, Pirlo used to study his dead ball kicks down to the most minimal details. And Pirlo dedicated an entire chapter in his recently published autobiography “Penso quindi gioco” - “I think therefore I play” - to his study of Juninho.
So it couldn’t have been better timing then when Juninho paid a visit to Pirlo at Italy’s training base Wednesday - three days before the Azzurri face England.
“It was really neat. He talked about my book and came to thank me,” Pirlo said. “I think he was just as excited to meet me as I was to meet him.”
Pirlo has scored from 25 free kicks in his Serie A career, two short of the record held by former Sampdoria and Lazio fullback Sinisa Mihajlovic. Pirlo should have no problem breaking the record, considering that Juventus announced Wednesday that it had extended his contract for another two years, meaning Pirlo will play until he’s 37.
“I’ve got two or three years to go so hopefully I’ll pass him,” Pirlo said of Mihajlovic.
But Juninho scored a French-record 44 free-kick goals with Lyon.
So who is better?
“I think on shorter kicks Pirlo is better. But maybe from greater distances I was,” Juninho said after exchanging shirts with Pirlo. “But Pirlo has won everything his career, and his results tell everything. He’s one of the most complete midfielders of his generation.”
Pirlo was one the architects of Italy’s 2006 World Cup title, helped AC Milan to two Champions League trophies and has won the last three Serie A championships with Juventus.
At last year’s Confederations Cup, Pirlo was a fan favorite, earning a standing ovation when he exited at Rio de Janeiro’s famed Maracana stadium.
“It was very emotional, the first time I come to Brazil, to play in Maracana and receive an ovation like that was really special and something I’ll never forget,” he said Wednesday.
“I’m also a bit Brazilian, (call me) Pirlinho,” Pirlo wrote in his book. “When I attempt free kicks I think in Portuguese. Then I celebrate in Italian. … I studied (Juninho). I gathered CDs, DVDs, and even old photos from his matches and eventually I understood. It wasn’t an immediate discovery. It took patience and constant dedication.”
Pirlo recounted how he would train for days on end at Milanello - AC Milan’s training complex - trying to imitate Juninho. His first attempts sailed two meters (yards) above the target.
But after weeks of practice, Pirlo began to understand Juninho’s technique.
“Juninho didn’t kick the ball with his entire foot but rather just three toes,” Pirlo said, adding how once he made that realization he ran onto the pitch in moccasins to test his theory.
“The equipment manager was preparing to gather the ball in the forest as usual but instead it went in right between the post and the crossbar,” Pirlo wrote. “It was perfect geometry.”
Pirlo then repeated the same exact execution five times.
“The ball needed to be kicked from underneath, using the first three toes, keeping the foot as straight as possible and in that manner the ball remained still in the air but then at a certain point dipped down rapidly into the goal,” Pirlo wrote. “When I execute it exactly like I want to there’s no wall that can stop it.”
With his long, flowing hair and bushy beard, Pirlo looks more like a philosopher than a footballer. But he’s a perfectionist on the pitch.
Placing his free kicks into the top corner isn’t enough to satisfy him. He prefers it when the ball skims just over the heads of defenders in a wall - to annoy the opponents all the more.
“A goal scored like that gives me the most satisfaction,” he wrote. “When I was a kid I practiced with a sponge ball in our living room and nine times out of 10 the ball ended up between the window and the wall - exactly where I wanted it.”
This will likely be the last time Pirlo’s free kicks can be admired on an international stage, as he’s planning to leave the national team after the World Cup.
“I’m starting to get old. It would be useless to continue,” Pirlo said Wednesday. “Of course I’ll always be ready if they call me back but if I’m on the national team and I don’t play that would really bother me. So it’s better to stay at home.”
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