This post was guest-blogged by Vittorio Pazzini. Follow him on Twitter (@vittoriopazzini)
You may have heard that the Ballon d’Or — the award for the best football player in the world for this calendar year — will be awarded on January 7. You may have seen the leaked pictures of the trophy with Lionel Messi’s name on it. And you may deduce from that evidence that Andrea Pirlo cannot win it.
For Juventini, this sad verdict probably falls somewhere between “unfortunate” and “unfair,” depending on mood, degree of bias (let’s call it “passion”) or more rational criteria.
So Andrea can’t win it; in that case, he should be among the three finalists, a (barely) just reward for serving with flair and distinction as the beating heart and brain of a team that went unbeaten in its path to the championship of a very competitive league, as well as leading a country with little-to-no expectations to the finals of the European Championships. Alas, FIFA and affiliated journalists have failed to include him therein.
That, my friends, is outrageous.
True, this was a year in which Lionel Messi scored a barely conceivable 91 goals, Cristiano Ronaldo led Real Madrid to a La Liga championship, and Andres Iniesta was a talismanic figure in Spain’s historic second-straight Euro Cup and third-straight major international victory, all while carrying out his crucial role in the thriving commune/platonic ideal that is Barcelona.
But if Messi is indeed the winner, his selection bucks the recent trend of awarding a player whose team or country won a major trophy during the year (Barcelona did win the Copa del Rey, but seriously, come on). World football media, with the tacit approval of FIFA itself, usually errs on the side of big victories. Not this year.
Because this calendar year, in terms of the mysterious combination of collective success and a player’s influence thereupon, Andrea Pirlo was the best soccer player on Earth.
The following is a simple appreciation, devoid of intensive tactical analysis or too many facts and figures. It is foolhardy at best to engage in a stat war with the three finalists (especially Messi). For all its many arguments, it’s mainly a reminder of what I saw this year, and what I wish to take from 365 days worth of brilliance.
Most comeback stories are just that — stories. A neat way to reduce a player’s experience to a single word. In Pirlo’s case, his return as champion of Serie A, leader of a resurgent Italy and official reentry into the conversation of best players in the world is more than a comeback; it’s a rebirth. The fact that he achieved all this at 33 — after a dispiriting season at Milan in which he was passed over in favor of a more athletic midfield, thought to be all but washed up, and given away for free — makes it all the more impressive. Still, this success, like Pirlo himself, is not likely to call attention to itself. And we follow a sport defined by peacocks.
Messi and Ronaldo influence matches in the most direct, quantifiable way: They score goals, in wholesale quantities. Many times, even their assists feel like goals. Somehow, Pirlo’s 86.9% pass completion just doesn’t sound sexy, which also goes some way in explaining why Iniesta is not a favorite, being the most similar of the three to Pirlo.
Moreover, Messi and Ronaldo score prolifically with the media, being two of the biggest providers of the journalist’s daily bread. With a 24-hour news cycle and up to a week between matches, their sound bites, injury reports, training sessions and off-the-field antics fill columns. There’s not much interest in a man who speaks mainly through his game.
Messi is obviously a genius, and Ronaldo must be very talented indeed to play so well, distracted as he is by his enduring, devoted love affair with himself. Iniesta is perhaps unfairly hampered by the subtlety of his greatness (again, see Pirlo), not to mention sharing the spotlight with Messi and so many other stars at both club and international level.
But Pirlo’s genius, more than that of any of the three finalists, is not readily quantifiable in terms of personal success. It needs to be seen, which is why we Juventini are in the best position to argue for his inclusion, and unfortunately the least likely to be believed.
We saw the world-leading 2,778 passes that opened up an opponent’s defense, some of which should be hanging in the Louvre, others that may have led to a goal only two or three plays later. We registered the elegance, the sense of occasion in a dribble, a feint, a through-ball. We felt the internal tempo he set each match and thus sensed Juve’s dominance well before the score finally ratified it.
And we saw the work he does in all phases of the game, everywhere on the pitch, unlike the three finalists. Pirlo alone exists between the boundaries of offense and defense, and for Juve is responsible for both, as are all of his teammates. Under Antonio Conte, Pirlo drastically improved in terms of both stamina and defensive performance. He defied not only his critics, but also the stereotype of the lazy fantasista/regista whose flashes of inspiration make up for his indolence on the pitch. He pressed, won the ball back, led breaks and finished them, as needed.
Remember, he’s playing deep, just above the back line; his increased defensive responsibilities, especially on counterattacks, allowed Marchisio and Vidal to play further up; to press and to risk making those runs that were so frequently decisive. And when they made runs, who protected Pirlo, a player dogged throughout his career by criticism that he is vulnerable when exposed, a liability on defense? No-one. And he did just fine.
The old notion that Pirlo needs a Gattuso to protect him has proved to be not only false, but laughably so. Pirlo is his own Gattuso now.
Call it less of a comeback or rebirth than a full (if late) bloom.
Messi’s Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, a competition of tertiary importance for their club, while ending the La Liga season nine points behind Ronaldo’s Real Madrid and making the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Iniesta, in addition to his role with Barcelona, also won the European Championships with Spain.
Ronaldo won La Liga and made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League. In the semi-final of the Euros, his insistence on taking the final penalty saw him lamely watch from midfield as Portugal lost to Spain with only four kicks necessary.
Pirlo won Serie A without losing and made it to the final of the European Championships.
When laid out this way, it seems plausible that Pirlo’s chances for the Ballon d’Or were mortally wounded by Juventus’ absence from the Champions League. That Pirlo was passed over for the shortlist perhaps says more about Juve’s current status as European giants in hiding, as well as their diminished prestige for the international media. But once again — beyond the 49-game unbeaten streak and Scudetto — the success of Pirlo’s teams this year cannot be quantified.
As fans of Juventus or the Nazionale, we were in the best position to qualify Pirlo’s success with both squads this year. We shared the relatively low expectations for Juve at the beginning of last season and were cautious even at the winter break, when the Scudetto became a distinct possibility. As Azzurri fans, we knew intimately the shame of the disastrous World Cup in South Africa and its subsequent effect on Italy’s international standing, as well as the anxiety and feared hopelessness of fielding several young players with little or no experience.
Whereas Real Madrid, Barcelona or the Spanish national team were expected to win in style, and their results ultimately measured against those expectations, Juventus and Italy, forever conjoined, were simply hoping to win, or in the worst case, to give a good account of themselves. That they exceeded those tasks by revolutionizing Italy’s tactical and stylistic image to help begin a new cycle for the balance of power in world football speaks volumes — but, unfortunately, only for those actually listening.
Juventus and Italy were remade in Pirlo’s image: subtly pervasive, tactically intelligent and quietly devastating. None of these traits makes for a good headline when it’s time to vote.
Catalyst and Focal Point
Here’s a relevant rhetorical question for you: Which one of Messi’s 91 goals this year actually won a major championship or team trophy?
And while Ronaldo’s scoring and playmaking snatched the La Liga title from Messi’s Barcelona, did he not play in a two-horse league with zero competitive (re: economic) parity? And did he not also play with world-class teammates referred to with straight faces the world over as Galacticos (admittedly much less galactic than in previous years)? Messi, of course, had his share of interstellar teammates as well, namely Xavi and Iniesta. And Iniesta, for that matter, played in Messi’s shadow at Barcelona, and although he was named Player of the Tournament at Euro 2012, will you remember Spain’s victory as a collective effort, as their publicity emphasizes, or as Iniesta’s achievement?
When you think of these players, do you immediately swoon over how they make their teammates better? Or are you too busy marveling at their highlight reels?
But now look at Pirlo: The catalyst and focal point of an unbeaten, championship-winning Juventus with limited funds and diminished prestige, the man who led a young, ragtag group of Italian internationals to the Final of the European Championships. And though Italy would ultimately lose, it’s impossible to deny that Spain’s collective talent and years of experience playing together made them superior from the outset.
Thanks in large part to Pirlo, both Juventus and Italy did much more with much less.
Domestically, Pirlo was the one objectively irreplaceable player on a club that went unbeaten in its run to the championship of a very competitive league. Many players were crucial, but if you took away Pirlo, even with Conte as coach — no Scudetto. Then, as now, he ran the entire offense, and we all saw the deleterious effects of the rare instances in which he was rested or suspended.
Also, in reference to my previous comment on Galacticos: Messi and Ronaldo play with almost uniformly world-class talent, bought by two very rich teams with seemingly infinite resources. At the beginning of this season, Pirlo didn’t have any Galaticos on his side, but match after match, he elevated the performances of his teammates to galactic levels; some of his teammates even seem to have reached permanent world-class status.
Look at Arturo Vidal: surely a great player to begin with, but one who is now mature and dominant beyond his years, highly coveted by the giants of world football.
Look at Stephan Lichtsteiner, whose almost telepathic understanding with Pirlo has made all the difference in his emergence as a player of international reputation. Acknowledging his tireless running and tactical understanding, it was Pirlo who literally put Lichtsteiner in the thick of things. He’s a star when Pirlo’s directing.
And for heaven’s sake, look at Claudio Marchisio! He’s gone from a frequently great but frustratingly inconsistent player to one of the best midfielders in the game. In the past, he’s either been an engine or a game-changer, rarely both at once. Pirlo’s influence on him has made him not only reliable, but transcendent. He’s even starting to be known solely by his last name—outside of Italy! We all knew he had it in him, but who brought it out of him?
As far as the National Team is concerned, Pirlo was once again the center of attention, and despite the alteration in tactics, he led a potentially very underwhelming team to perform much better than their modest collective talent warranted. Whether it was his play in general (calmly orchestrating the offense) or a specific instance (that penalty kick), he was crucial to inspiring Italy to go much further than almost everyone predicted.
Perhaps more importantly, Pirlo’s mastery and leadership, despite the constant two-pronged threat of tabloid insanity from Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, did more to improve Italian soccer’s image than anyone has at any time since the fallout from Calciopoli. The tactical emphasis on possession and ball movement, both of which focused on Pirlo, upended the tired catenaccio stereotype and made Italian soccer actually entertaining for the neutral, casual viewer.
That in itself warrants some kind of international award.
What Success Means
The Ballon d’Or is historically a measurement of success, both individual and collective.
Pirlo was indispensable to the wild success of both club and country, while Messi collected individual awards but won nothing with Barcelona or Argentina, and Ronaldo won a championship with a team rich in resources and players — world economy be damned. And despite his greatness, I think it can be argued that Iniesta was simply not as crucial to Barcelona as Pirlo was to Juventus.
Awarding Messi or Ronaldo — and more importantly, omitting Pirlo — is as close to a definitive statement as possible from world football. It offers a very specific collective opinion as to the very purpose of a soccer match, what success means, and thus what makes a player most valuable. Casual fans of soccer in general skew toward an individual, statistical and inevitably commercial bend. The players, coaches and journalists voting on the Ballon d’Or, their memories reinforced respectively by intense contests swayed by single moments, tactical nightmares in man-marking, or the blessings of a year’s worth of good copy, will ultimately support that predilection. In the end, this is an award designed to promote a sport.
I personally thought the purpose of a soccer match was to win, or (allowing for draws) to at least get the better of your opponent. It’s a struggle for dominance, whether qualitatively or quantitatively. This year, Pirlo had more success than Messi and was equally or more responsible for his team’s success against more difficult competition than was Ronaldo or Iniesta. Of course, it doesn’t always show up in the official record.
Antonio Conte stated that “even if Messi had scored thousands of goals, I would give the Ballon d’Or to Pirlo.”
Conte is biased, and so am I, but nevertheless it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s right. It’s also hard to shake the feeling that it doesn’t matter anyway. Pirlo will be Pirlo regardless, and his achievements will always be more impressive in our memories than they would have been in the record books.
And given how he’s conducted his career (and his teams), it’s easy to believe that he’s fine with that.