Watch Italy play in this month’s World Cup. Look between the flamboyant, electric Mario Balotelli and the turgid, miserly defensive front—manned by Gigi Buffon, the Billy Walsh-lookalike captain of Gli Azzurri. Somewhere amongst the nebulous midfield, in the swaths spanning from box to box, you’ll spy a bearded, objectively beautiful man puttering around, pushing the boundaries of just how little he can move his legs in first gear without stalling out. Opponents will dribble by this man with aplomb, the only hint of concern on his part being the subsequent hurried realignment of his Versace mane.
Yes, Andrea Pirlo plays piss-poor defense, occasionally exposed as a snail in the horsepower arms race that is modern football. And no one cares in the slightest, because Pirlo is the closest thing soccer has to an offensive savant—Roger Federer, Pete Maravich, and Johnny Manziel seamlessly sewed into one—blessed with so little physical ability and such infinite mental capacities that he seems to be a one-man argument against the belief of intelligent design.
You see, Pirlo is the Italianest Italian that ever sported the blue and white. He’s a walking paradox, a juxtaposition of the beautiful and impractical, with his egregiously blatant flaws being far outweighed by the transcendent joy he brings others. He’s lazy and brilliant, gorgeous and ancient—a Rorschach test that nevertheless leaves all shaking their heads in amazement.
With the developing metrication of the free-flowing game of football, a deep-lying midfielder—forever the unseen puppeteer of a successful attack—can finally receive his due, via approximations of his distance traveled, his challenge rate, and most importantly, his passes completed. But those stats fail to tell the whole picture: I imagine someone like the USA’s methodical Michael Bradley may test out roughly as well as Pirlo according to these imperfect proxies. Pirlo plays with an unmatched flair, however, that separates his game from his peers’. His joy, which one could argue should come solely from setting up goals and preventing opportunities for the opposition, appears to be derived from Houdini escapades in the defensive half, sucking attackers closer and closer until all options have been eliminated, then embarrassing them with a pass that only his neurons could conceive of.
Pirlo can certainly dice up a defense and play one-touch with the best of ’em, and if you see highlights, that’s what will receive air time (save the occasional knuckle-puck free kick he’ll whip off the cross bar, or the Oscar-worthy dummy he’ll deliver to provide a clear look at goal for a teammate). But his playful dickishness—when contrasted with his austere, humorless façade—is his most endearing quality. Against England Saturday, his most ridiculous play was when he let the opposition prowl and steadily leak into his flank in the midfield, ostensibly severing the connection between him and midfield mate Claudio Marchisio. At great risk of a turnover, Pirlo—with a serial killer’s detachment—wedged a five-yard pass to his teammate, an absolute flop shot that ascended and fell instantaneously at Marchisio’s feet. The English attacker stopped and turned, astounded that he had sweated so much in the humid Manaus air for such a fruitless outcome. Never before has such a short pass carried a message of such disdain.
As Marchisio found the outlet on the right and the Azzurri began threatening on the wing, Pirlo set off at a leisurely jog, ready to be called into action once again. That is, at least, as soon as he got there.