It’s a long, winding drive from New York City’s East Village to the revamped Yankee Stadium at the heart of The Bronx. The city glistens in autumn/fall sunshine as we cruise past scenery that I recognise from films, but can’t place. The refreshing, ice-cold breeze wafting through my UBER driver’s window barely stifles my urge to be sick all over his leather headrest. I’m deeply hungover and, as promised on the back page of the last issue of Mundial, in a fit of ambitious frenzy. We’re off to see the maestro…
Having spent the previous evening regaling various slack-jawed, wide-eyed, and distinctly unimpressed hipsters with my plans for the coming week (whilst New York’s creative population has adopted almost all things Anglophile—the music, the sportswear, and the desire to drink until implosion—they’re still yet to embrace the beautiful game) I arrive at the imposing home of New York City FC still unsure when, if, and how, my meeting with the Italian legend will happen. The walk towards the stadium’s grand arches, the nervous navigation of a line of eager sniffer dogs, the idle chit-chat with a great, huge policeman who insists I must, MUST be Irish, is all somewhat soured by the fear in the pit of my stomach that this all may be a complete waste of time.
The previous three months, spent negotiating timings with the player, the club and his representatives in Italy, had been scuppered by NYC’s run of form. With a play-off campaign looming, and now placed second in the table, the boys in sky blue would need to beat Columbus Crew at home (or, far less likely, hope the hotly tipped Toronto FC lose to relatively dogshit Chicago Fire) to navigate safely through the first round. With a print deadline on the horizon, and generally being of quite selfish disposition, I had booked flights and a horrendous little Airbnb, and hoped for the best. Should New York lose, or draw, they’d be forced to play again within two days, and consequently my window to interview Andrea Pirlo would vanish into thin air.
Much has been made, not least in this magazine, about the mystifying culture surrounding the MLS and its fans, but the hour I spent in and around Yankee Stadium before kick-off was perfectly pleasant. There were idiots with drums and people in stupid hats, but if you’ve been to Crystal Palace, Wigan, or anywhere in Germany you’d be familiar with the sight. The pre-match build-up is overhyped, loud and geared towards getting you to really, really like Doritos, but despite the overwhelming fear that a Monster truck is going to tear out of the tunnel and begin to cut great chunks out of the centre circle, it’s absolutely fine.
In Yankee Stadium, and surrounded by a crowd made up of mainly schoolchildren, it makes sense. It’s Disneyland for people who want to experience football for the first time, and in a country that has tried and failed to take the sport under its wing so many times, it seems to sort of be working.
With a $7 beer, a $14 hot dog, and the worst headache of my entire adult life, I settled down to watch a game that would decide if an expensive gamble would pay off, or result in me returning to a bankrupt magazine and an editorial staff who hated me.
Andrea on the pitch, as he always has, looked magnificent. A metronome in a midfield of misfiring, hooky stopwatches, he played the game at his own pace. Unfortunately, for all but David Villa, it was a mystifying pace. A tempo that his teammates simply couldn’t sync with. New York City were by far the better team in the first thirty minutes, but Pirlo’s trademark lofted passes and deftly timed through balls, that were once latched onto with ease by Crespo, Pippo Inzaghi, and Carlos Tevez, were left to run out of play. Too far, too intelligent, and too well-timed for a team in a different time zone.
To the pulsating beat of a brass band, New York hustled and fought through a difficult first half that saw a physical Columbus side straining to stifle their stylish foreign imports. On the stroke of half-time Villa proved too much for the opposition, tying two defenders in knots and chipping a pass across the edge of the six yard box for Steven Mendoza to easily volley past the helpless Columbus keeper. As the whistle blew to signal the conclusion of the first half was it was announced that Toronto were 1–0 down in Chicago, all was looking bright. New York City, Andrea Pirlo, and me all headed into the break happy.
New York City start the second half well, stringing passes together, playing neat one-touch football and duly conceding a so-bad-it’s-almost-hilarious goal from a Columbus counterattack. Simultaneously, in Chicago, Toronto FC realise that they’re playing against a team genuinely called Chicago Fire and score two in quick succession.
59 minutes in. Everything is broken. I can’t even bring myself to drink out of my gigantic sky blue cup of Heineken. The brass band seems crass. Annoying. I hate Columbus Crew, I hate their stupid name, and I can’t believe they’re going to cost me everything. Don’t get me started on Chicago Fire.
Pirlo looked frustrated as his beautifully played, spiralling crossfield balls are miscontrolled, run out of play, or fumbled into the feet of the opposition by his team-mates. Ever the uncompromising stoic, he relentlessly trots back to the 5-metre square of turf where he is at his most lethal. For club, country, and as a fish out of water, he remains as he always has.
Minutes tick by. Columbus come into the game, forcing some excellent saves from NYCFC’s young ‘keeper. I retreat to purchase my second hot dog of the evening and to think about what I have done.
I get back to my seat just in time to see Andrea Pirlo, World Cup and two-time Champions League winner, being withdrawn from the action. Only to be replaced by the scourge of my childhood, and—if we’re being honest—the really quite svelte, Frank Lampard.
My hangover returns with a vengeance, and Frank Lampard sets about turning the game on its head. As he had done so successfully in the blue of Chelsea, and for NYCFC’s are-they-aren’t-they sister club, Manchester City, Lampard effortlessly drew the play towards him and created great holes in both the defence and midfield of the opposition.
Inside ten minutes New York were back in the lead.
The final twenty of the game passed in a blur, from despair sprang hope as New York rampaged forward, leaving massive holes in their own defence, and slamming home another two goals in the process. Like Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle and Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool before them, New York played with the passion, fervour and reckless abandon that is wonderful for the neutral but leaves the die-hard fans with a nagging suspicion that it’s all going to collapse eventually. For me, a neutral-turned-die-hard fan, for one night only, it was beautiful.
The full-time whistle pierced the cold Bronx night air, and it seemed as if everything was going to be OK again.
If Andrea Pirlo seems relaxed on a football pitch, he is practically lethargic when off duty.
We meet in the Chelsea neighbourhood that the Italian now calls home, and as he greets us outside the luxurious High Line Hotel, it becomes immediately clear that the city has become his home in the truest sense. Unaccompanied, Pirlo settles straight into a conversation about the first thing on his mind, and perhaps at this stage in his career, closest to his heart: New York City. Whilst pointing out recently closed restaurants, his favourite bookstores and coffee shops, the player sheds light on his choice to swap Juventus, and Turin, for New York City.
“The decision came after losing the Champions League Final” he explains through our translator, and between brief bouts of suspiciously good English, “I’d spent four years at Juventus, and after that match, I thought that maybe it was time to change. The only city outside Italy in which I’d be able to start a new life was New York. So I decided to come here to try a new experience.”
This new experience, away from the pitch, is perhaps the most intriguing element of Pirlo’s choice to leave behind his home nation and the Serie A. Whilst Lampard, Gerrard, and even Robbie Keane’s choice to leave home shores for America seemed to jar, and felt a little unnatural, seeing Andrea Pirlo idly strutting about New York somehow seems to make perfect sense. Well dressed, unassuming, and somehow impossibly more well-coiffured and handsome in real life, the man seems suited to the city in every sense.
“It’s beautiful—I love it here and my family is enjoying it” he offers later, back in the warmth of the High Line’s hotel bar. “We’re able to live a fairly quiet life, pretty normal. We can walk about New York and explore this huge city. It’s a lot calmer. People will stop you, but they’re more laid-back: they ask for a photo and then carry on with their day. So I’m able to live a more tranquil life here. We’re having a good time.”
Unaccompanied, and unhindered by the microscope under which his career was placed in Italy, Pirlo speaks unlike many footballers of his generation. Those who have read his recent autobiography will understand the player’s penchant for romantic language and his flair for poetic embellishment, but behind the face of such intrinsically Italian traits is the overwhelming feeling that, for Andrea, there is much more to life than simply kicking a ball around.
His career thus far, spanning 20 years and including time at Brescia, both Milan clubs, and Juventus, along with a period of unparalleled success in Azzurri blue, is spoken about as a series of emotional moments, rather than a checklist of achievements.
“The World Cup is the most beautiful thing that can happen to a footballer” he claims, pausing briefly before adding “I had the good fortune of managing to achieve that dream with Italy. It’s something I always carry with me in my heart but also something that will remain as part of the history of football and that of an entire nation. So it’s a huge source of pride to have been able to play for and win that trophy.”
He is similarly dewy-eyed about the great slew of football legends he has played alongside. “Maldini, Ronaldo, Nesta, Beckham, Ronaldinho. I got to play with arguably the best players of the last twenty years. I’ve been very fortunate.” When asked if there was anyone he would’ve liked to have played alongside, but never got the chance to, he pauses to think briefly, before answering confidently with a smirk, “No, I’m happy with the ones that played with me.”
Recent enough to not be sepia-wrapped, and told with such emotion to be engaging, Pirlo’s footballing memories are incredible to listen to. His admonishment of our Liverpool-supporting photographer with a deft roll of the eyes at the mere mention of the 2005 Champions League Final, the way his face lights up at the mention of Nesta, Kakā and Maldini’s vested interests in the MLS, and his visible interest in the form of fellow countryman and Juve teammate Giovinco at LA Galaxy, all show that he still adores the game but leave a wrangling feeling that we are nearing the end of our time witnessing Pirlo’s gifts on the pitch.
How long can a player live his career in the past tense? How long can a player who has seen, achieved, and been instrumental, in so much simply enjoy the game for the game’s sake, without another taste of glory?
Whilst the cultural charms of New York City drew Pirlo to the United States, it seems unclear if the football will be the reason keeping him there. “Yes, the desire to come to the United States came about from wanting to try a new experience abroad” he explains, “but it also seemed the best place to come as a footballer, since it’s a rapidly developing league in a country where football is really growing.
“The football is a bit different. I suppose it’s a different mentality. I had some trouble getting used to it at the start: in Italy, the football is so organized, here it was a little different. But over time I’ve adapted and now everything feels normal.
“There is tremendous potential and a desire to go even further. They have everything in place to become one of the most important leagues in the world. Already in the last few years, they’ve grown a lot but, obviously, there’s still room for improvement.”
This duality of Andrea Pirlo, the idea that he is separate entities as a player and person, is one that has followed him throughout his career.
Whether the owner of a vineyard and the man who panenka’d past Joe Hart are the same person is impossible to discern even in his presence. Caricatured as a handsome, bearded sophisticate, in recent years the private life of Pirlo has attracted as much attention as that of his achievements on the pitch, and it seems that whilst he may be aware of this (his recent Nike campaign for a claret red boot with cork insoles, featured the midfielder inspecting it in a wine cellar), the tranquillity that dictates his life allows him not to be bothered. To remain nonplussed, or at least to seem so to the naked eye.
He still wants to play football, however. This becomes immediately clear when the subject is broached.
“The ambition is always there” he smiles, “when you play football the will to win has to be there, otherwise I’d have already retired! Right now I want to win the MLS championship, which is a tough and important challenge. But we’re ready to fight to bring the title back to New York, which would be fantastic for us—the players and the club—but also for the city.
“Reaching the play-offs, just two years after the birth of the club, wasn’t easy. We managed to seal qualification with a few games to spare and were still fighting for the top spots until the end. So it’s something we, the club and the players, are all very proud of.”
Unfortunately for New York City, and for the maestro himself, this season was not to be the season. The club crashed out of the play-offs to an 8–0 aggregate thrashing by the altogether more prepared Toronto FC. In the ensuing weeks between meeting Pirlo and this article going to print, teammate Frank Lampard left NYCFC and was promptly followed home from America by the LA Galaxy’s Steven Gerrard. The American experiment a relative failure for both. Gerrard would retire shortly after.
Pirlo, at 37 years old, will remain in New York City for one more season at least. Whether it’s the coffee, brownstone townhouses and the tranquil life keeping Il Maestro in The Big Apple, or the yearning for one last flourish in his final stanza, remains to be seen. As with seemingly anything in Andrea’s life, professional or otherwise, he will decide. Calmly, carefully, but his decision will be definite.
If it means another 12 months of Andrea with the ball at his feet however, we should allow him to decide. In sky blue, bianconeri, or fabled Azzurri, we should cherish every moment, as we’ll miss him when he’s gone.