“I’m Italian, but I’m also part-Brazilian. Pirlinho, if you like. When I take my free-kicks, I think in Portuguese and at most I’ll do the celebrating in my native tongue. I strike those dead balls alla Pirlo. Each shot bears my name and they’re all my children.” — Andrea Pirlo, I Think Therefore I Play.
The inspiration for the title of Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography was French philosopher Rene Descartes’ words: Cogito Ergo Sum, translated as “I think, therefore I am.” Similarily, Pirlo’s obsession with free-kicks was a deep, philosophical quest, not only a pursuit of sporting perfection but also of spiritual, soul-sating satisfaction.
It began in the living room of his family home in Fiero, when he would move the sofa in front of the living room window as a child and strike, nay stroke, a sponge ball in the space between the sofa and the window. Like the Brazilian genius Zico, who would hang a shirt in each top corner of a goal-post and challenge himself to take one of them down from 20 yards.
It was not Zico, but another Brazilian who marvelled and inspired Pirlo, who made him feel inadequate, the less-romanticised but more versatile Juninho Pernambucano, who could cajole the ball into doing whatever his mind conjured. Booming, swirling strikes with the instep; gentle, placed curlers; head-down blasters that shoot past a hapless goalkeeper before he can say Juninho Pernambucano; and, of course, the wobbling knuckleball. “During his time at Lyon, that man made the ball do some quite extraordinary things. He’d lay it on the ground, twist his body into a few strange shapes, take his run-up and score. He never got it wrong. Never. I checked out his stats and realised it couldn’t just be chance,” Pirlo writes.
It became an obsession, his waking thought, he spent several hours forensically dissecting his technique. He collected DVDs, old photographs of games he’d played, interview some of his old teammates and goalkeepers. And one night in Milan, he pieced together the magic of Juninho. “The magic formula was all about how the ball was struck, not where: only three of Juninho’s toes came into contact with the leather, not his whole foot as you might expect.”
Pirlo gives a more detailed explanation: “In essence, the ball needs to be struck from underneath using your first three toes. You have to keep your foot as straight as possible and then relax it in one fell swoop. That way, the ball doesn’t spin in the air, but does drop rapidly towards the goal. That’s when it starts to rotate.”
But what he theorised didn’t instantly materialise on the field. It required immense practice. Every day, Pirlo would borrow extra footballs from groundsmen and hang around practising the “Juninho” style. And often the ball went out of the training ground. And he would pretend he had done it intentionally. “I would often tell them, ‘Boys, I want to give you a present’. The misses went on for several days and by that time the bloke in charge of the kit store was getting somewhat peeved. For him, it was a case of too many lost balls becoming a ball ache as I persisted with my experiments. Days soon turned into weeks.”
Pirlo, though, was relentless. And he did eventually master most tricks one could perform with a football. Even some of the dark arts like the Paneka, and the Folha Seca (dry leaf). And it wasn’t just Juninho, he would rummage through footages of every half-worthy free-kick expert — from Zico and Didi to Sinisa Mihajlovic and Gheorghe Hagi. He wasn’t merely copying them, but filtering and embedding into his game only what he wanted. He worked a goalkeeper like a cameraman works a model. Leaving him frozen like a statue.
That said, free-kick isn’t really the right word; with Pirlo, it was more a free-pass. He would stroll up and, with his body leaning back, simply caress the ball. And it gave him the sweetest feeling. “For me, the best feeling in life is watching the ball fly into the net after it whizzes a couple of centimetres over the heads of the defenders. They can almost reach it, but not quite. They can read the maker’s name, but they can’t stop it going in. Sometimes a pinch of sadism is the ingredient that makes victory taste that little bit sweeter.” And each one bore his name. Each one was his child. And he thought, he played and therefore he was.
ONE-PARA REVIEW: I Think Therefore I am — Andre Pirlo
If books are portable magic, paragraphs teased out of a tome can in themselves be strands of sorcery. The Indian Express writers pick engaging sections from sports books and put them under the magnifying glass. This is a slow walk on the intriguing mid-path that lies between Twitter-sized tidbit trailers and intense cover-to-cover book reccos.