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Then, it was Mircea Lucescu, who tended to favour the older guys, Luciano Castellini thought I was OK, while Roy Hodgson mispronounced my name.
He called me Pirla (a term used in Milan dialect roughly translated as ****head), perhaps understanding my true nature more than the other managers. We went through four coaches that year (1999). I’d wake up in the morning and not remember who my coach was.
Foreign affair: Roy Hodgson managed Inter Milan in two spells, here in 1999, when he had Pirlo in the squad
Istanbul loss made me want to retire
I thought about quitting because, after Istanbul, nothing made sense any more. The 2005 Champions League final simply suffocated me.
To most people’s minds, the reason we lost on penalties was Jerzy Dudek – that jackass of a dancer who took the mickey out of us by swaying about on his line and then rubbed salt into the wound by saving our spot kicks.
But in time the truly painful sentence was realising that we were entirely to blame.
How it happened I don’t know, but the fact remains that when the impossible becomes reality, somebody’s f***ed up – in this case, the entire team. A mass suicide where we all joined hands and jumped off the Bosphorus Bridge.
Devestated: Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek saved Pirlo’s penalty in the 2005 Champions League final
When that torture of a game was finished, we sat like a bunch of half-wits in the dressing room there at the Atatürk Stadium.
We couldn’t speak. We couldn’t move. They’d mentally destroyed us. The damage was already evident even in those early moments, and it only got more stark and serious as the hours went on.
Insomnia, rage, depression, a sense of nothingness. We’d invented a new disease with multiple symptoms: Istanbul syndrome.
I no longer felt like a player, and that was devastating enough. But even worse, I no longer felt like a man. All of a sudden, football had become the least important thing, precisely because it was the most important: a very painful contradiction.
I didn’t dare look in the mirror in case my reflection spat back at me. The only possible solution I could think of was to retire. And what a dishonourable retirement it would have been.
I glimpsed the end of the line: the journey was over. The story was finished and so was I. I walked with my head bowed even in the places I hold most dear. It wasn’t to avoid sympathetic glances, just that when you don’t know where you’re going, looking ahead makes you tired and worried.
So close: Pirlo trudges past the trophy, bedecked in Liverpool’s red ribbons
People talk about performance anxiety. Well, ‘non-performance’ anxiety is the perfect description for those of us who simply vanished from the pitch sometime during that final.
The match in Istanbul was on May 25 and the Italian championship had yet to finish. We had to go back to Milanello to carry our cross for four more days, right up until Sunday, May 29, when we played our last Serie A match against Udinese.
That parade of shame was the toughest punishment. A cavalcade of disgrace with us placed front and centre.
It was a brief, intense, s****y period. You couldn’t escape or pull the plug on a world that had turned upside down, and you were forever surrounded by the other guilty parties in this theft of our own dignity.
We always ended up talking about it. We asked each other questions, but nobody had any answers.
I could hardly sleep and even when I did drop off, I awoke to a grim thought: I’m disgusting. I can’t play any more. I went to bed with Dudek and all his Liverpool team-mates.
The game against Udinese ended 0-0, goals a perfect stranger. A nightmare is a nightmare because you know it’ll start when you close your eyes but won’t stop when you reopen them, and so the torment went on.
Incredible: Liverpool came back from 3-0 down to win one of the most memorable finals of all time
Painfully slowly, things started to improve during the holidays, even if the wounds didn’t heal completely.
I’ll never fully shake that sense of absolute impotence when destiny is at work. The feeling will cling to my feet forever, trying to pull me down. Even now if I mess up a pass, that malign force could be to blame. For that reason, I steer well clear of the DVD from the Liverpool game.
It’s an enemy that I can’t allow to wound me a second time. It’s already done enough damage: most of it hidden far from the surface.
I’ll never watch that match again. I’ve already played it once in person and many other times in my head, searching for an explanation that perhaps doesn’t even exist.
It was suggested we hang a black funeral pall as a permanent reminder on the walls of Milanello, right next to the images of triumph. A message to future generations that feeling invincible is the first step on the path to the point of no return.
Personally, I’d add that horrendous result to the club’s honours board. I’d write it slap bang in the middle of the list of leagues and cups they’ve won, in a different coloured ink and perhaps a special font, just to underline its jarring presence.
It would be embarrassing but, at the same time, it would enhance the worth of the successes alongside.
There are always lessons to be found in the darkest moments. It’s a moral obligation to dig deep and find that little glimmer of hope or pearl of wisdom.
You might hit upon an elegant phrase that stays with you and makes the journey that little less bitter. I’ve tried with Istanbul and haven’t managed to get beyond these words: for f***’s sake. Ferguson set his guard dog on me
Even Sir Alex Ferguson, the purple-nosed manager who turned Manchester United into a fearsome battleship, couldn’t resist the temptation. He’s a man without blemish, but he ruined that purity just for a moment when it came to me. A fleeting shabbiness came over the legend that night.
At Milan, he unleashed Park Ji-sung to shadow me. He rushed about at the speed of an electron. He’d fling himself at me, his hands all over my back, trying to intimidate me. He’d look at the ball and not know what it was for.
They’d programmed him to stop me. His devotion to the task was almost touching. Even though he was a famous player, he consented to being used as a guard dog.
Right on him: Pirlo (right) said Park Ji-Sung man-marked him while playing Manchester United
Icon: Pirlo brands Ferguson the ‘purple-nosed’ manager who turned United into a battleship
Berlusconi blew my Chelsea move
It was August 2009 and I’d reached agreement with Chelsea, the club where Ancelotti had just come in as manager.
Carlo was like a father and a teacher for me, a kind, friendly man who knew how to make things fun.
I’d spent the best years of my career with him. If you’re a player who wants to get on and give everything, you won’t find anyone better than him.
Carlo Ancelotti was my motivation for agreeing to head to London. But, in the meantime, Berlusconi had pulled out a second piece of paper.
This time there were loads of names with ticks next to them, and one that had been circled. ‘Stay. We’ve signed Huntelaar’. Huntelaar…
What could have been: Here’s our mocked0up image of Pirlo lifting the FA Cup with John Terry in 2010
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is an excellent player. He knows how to score goals, loads of goals and, at that point in time, he was playing for Real Madrid. But he’s not the type of guy who’s going to win the Ballon d’Or.
‘We could have brought in other guys, people like Claudio Pizarro, but we chose him.’ Huntelaar…
‘Listen, Andrea, you just can’t do this, damn it. You’re the symbol of Milan, a standard bearer for this team, and we’ve already sold Kaká. You can’t jump ship as well. It’d be a terrible blow, to our image as much as anything. We can’t have everyone leaving.’
Ancelotti and I spoke a fair bit on the phone. He wanted to bring me to London at all costs, and cost was indeed the last hurdle still to be overcome. Insurmountable, as it transpired.
Milan wanted too much cash, and they were also pushing for Branislav Ivanovic to be included in the deal. Chelsea hadn’t the slightest intention of letting the defender go.
‘Mr President, I really like all this talk of being a standard bearer. But my contract here is about to run out, and those guys are offering me four years.’
Silverware: Prilo was on the brink of signing for Carlo Ancelotti, who went on to win the double at Chelsea
At five million euros a season. It wasn’t money that had convinced me, more the length of the deal. That’s always very important.
‘Where’s the problem, Andrea? You can sort all that out with Galliani, can’t you? Take it as read.’
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he shot out of the room to tell the media: ‘Andrea Pirlo is not for sale. He’s staying with Milan and he’ll finish his career right here.’
As it turned out, I moved to Juventus. That’s Berlusconi all over, though. He’s theatrical and knows exactly what he wants. It’s what makes him such a fantastic president and lover of pure, beautiful football. Mario combats racist poison
Mario Balotelli is a special kind of medicine, an antidote to the potentially lethal poison of the racists you find in Italian grounds.
They’re an horrendous bunch, a herd of frustrated individuals who’ve taken the worst of history and made it their own. And they’re more than just a minority, despite what certain mealy-mouthed spin doctors would have you believe.
Whenever I see Mario, I’ll give him a big smile. It’s my way of letting him know that I’m right behind him and he mustn’t give up. A gesture that means ‘Thank you’.
A special kind of medicine: Pirlo says he’s right behind Mario Balotelli in the fight against racism in Italy
Fury: Pirlo spoke about the legendary temper of Gennaro Gattuso, here squaring up to Joe Jordan
Gennaro Gattuso and the red mist
You could see the red mist coming down and he just wasn’t able to hide it. We could tell what was coming and so we’d commandeer all the knives. Gattuso would grab a fork and try to stick it in us.
Some of us ended up missing games because of one of Rino’s fork attacks, even if the official explanation from the club was one of muscle fatigue.
After the wheel, the PlayStation is the best invention of all time. And ever since it’s existed, I’ve been Barcelona , apart from a brief spell way back at the start when I’d go Milan http://www.theguardian.com/football/barcelona . http://www.theguardian.com/football/acmilan
Our head-to-heads were pure adrenaline. I’d go Barcelona and so would Sandro. Barça v Barça. The first player I’d pick was the quickest one, Samuel Eto’o, but I’d still end up losing a lot of the time. I’d get pissed off and hurl away my controller before asking Sandro for a rematch. And then I’d lose again.
It’s not like I could use the excuse that his coach was better than mine: it was Pep Guardiola http://www.theguardian.com/football/pep-guardiola for him and Pep Guardiola for me. At least in terms of our manager we set out on a level footing.
One day we thought about kidnapping him. The flesh and bones, real-life version that is. It was August 25, 2010, and we were with Milan at the Nou Camp for the Gamper pre-season tournament. We thought better of our hostage-taking in the end. To avoid constantly falling out, we’d have needed to saw him in two when we got back to Italy, and that wouldn’t have been a good idea. How the poor thing would have suffered.
As it transpired, the notion of abduction had crossed Guardiola’s mind before ours. That very night at the Nou Camp, he whisked me away from my nearest and dearest. Looking back, perhaps those people weren’t actually as close to me as I thought but, anyway, on with the story.
At the end of the game, everyone was on the trail of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a ticking timebomb of a madman who had been wound up by his agent (the legendary Mino Raiola). The Swede was set on a collision course with Barcelona and on the verge of signing for Milan. A few of my team-mates sought him out to try to encourage him to make the switch, while some of his friends from Barcelona were also on his case, armed with the opposite recommendation. And then there were the journalists, looking to force a few words from him, which didn’t exactly take them long.
“I’d love to play at San Siro in the same team as Ronaldinho,” he said. “The coach here doesn’t even talk to me. In the last six months, he’s spoken to me twice.”
There was no mystery in that – Guardiola was saving his words for me. Taking advantage of the spotlight being momentarily trained not on him but Ibrahimovic, he invited me into his office.As I came out of the dressing room, I’d noticed one of his childhood friends and trusted lieutenants waiting there for me. His task that night had turned him into a flip-flop wearing secret agent, but Manel Estiarte in a previous life had been the best water polo player of all time. Only the second man in history capable of walking on water.
“Andrea, come with me. The coach wants to meet you.”
I struggled to recognise him without his swimming cap but then I looked at him again and got a whiff of chlorine.
“OK then, vamos.”
I didn’t need to be asked twice. In I went. The room was furnished in sober fashion and there was some red wine on the table. “Always a good start,” I muttered to myself. Thankfully the most envied coach in the word didn’t hear me. His way of speaking is very similar to mine – not really tenor style, let’s say. “Make yourself comfortable, Andrea,” he began, his Italian absolutely perfect.
I wasn’t really bothered about much else in that room besides the person who had summoned me. Guardiola was sitting in an armchair. He began to tell me about Barcelona, saying that it’s a world apart, a perfect machine that pretty much invented itself. He wore a white shirt and a pair of dark trousers whose colour matched that of his tie. He was elegant in the extreme, much like his conversation.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet me.”
“Thank you for inviting me.”
“We need you here, Andrea.”
You could tell he wasn’t a man to beat about the bush. After a couple of minutes, he’d cut straight to the chase. As a player, his job had been to conduct the play and as a manager he’d learned to attack, always with impeccable style.
“We’re already very strong, I really couldn’t ask for better, but you’d be the icing on the cake. We’re looking for a midfielder to alternate with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, and that midfielder is you. You’ve got all the attributes to play for Barcelona, and one in particular – you’re world class.”
During that half hour I largely kept quiet and let him speak. I listened and, at most, nodded my head. I was so taken aback by the summons that my reflexes had slowed. I was more dazed than excited: shaken by the situation, but in a really positive way.
“You know what, Andrea: we’ve made this approach because that’s how we do things round here. We don’t waste time. We want to buy you right now, and we’ve already spoken to Milan. They’ve said ‘no’, but we’ll not give up: we’re Barcelona. We’re used to hearing certain answers but, in the end, things pretty much always change. We’ll try again with Milan. In the meantime, start making a few moves with them as well.”
Nobody had said a thing to me until then. Without even knowing, I was the object of some remarkable negotiations in the football luxury goods market.
“If you come here, you’ll find yourself in a unique place. La Masia, our youth academy, is our pride and joy – there’s nothing like it at any other club. It runs like clockwork; it’s a philharmonic orchestra where bum notes aren’t permitted. Every year, players arrive from there ready to wear our shirt.
Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography, published by BackPage Press, is out today. Photograph: BackPage Press
“Our champions are home-made; apart from you, that is. What we do is all very wonderful, but all very demanding, too. Sometimes winning can be draining.”
I would never have expected it. Perhaps I’d spent so much time on the PlayStation that I’d ended up inside it, sucked into a parallel universe by my favourite hobby and now at the mercy of a puppeteer with some kind of enchanted hand.
“You’ve got to come here, Andrea. I’ve always liked you as a player. I want to coach you.”
I immediately thought of Sandro – he’d die of jealousy when I told him. I was taking away the 50% of Guardiola that belonged to him.
“Even though Milan have said ‘no’ for the moment, we’re not giving up. Let’s see what happens.”
As with Real Madrid (in fact, even more so than with Real Madrid), I’d have crawled to Barcelona on all fours. At that time, they were the best team in the world – what more needs to be said? Their brand of football hadn’t been seen in a long time; all little first-time passes and an almost insane ability to maintain possession.
Theirs was a basic philosophy – “the ball’s ours, and we’re going to keep it” – mixed with intuitive understanding and movement so impressive that it seemed orchestrated by God himself. A Rolex with Swatch batteries. Utterly refined, extremely long lasting.
“Let’s talk again soon,” said Guardiola. “Have a safe journey back to Milan and let’s hope you’re not there for long.”
“Thanks again. It’s been a very interesting chat.”
I left his office in a daze. I was just about last on to the Milan team bus, but nobody took any notice. With their noses pressed up against the windows, lots of players were peering at the scene unfolding outside. Both curious and impressed, they watched Ibrahimovic walking his tightrope. At one end, Barcelona, and a fire that was dying out. At the other, Milan, and a spark turning into a flame.
We were heading in different directions, Ibrahimovic and I. The world knew all about his situation, but nothing about mine. If these initial advances became a full-blown love affair, I’d wind up part of a truly great club and be thrown into a new challenge. I’d have liked that, a lot.
The discussions went on for a while and, ultimately, Milan didn’t give in. I suppose it was always going to go like that. Back then, they still thought I had all my faculties and so they kept me, without ever getting involved in full-on negotiations. There were words, brief chats, a little bit of back and forth, but nothing more substantial.
I’d have considered myself fortunate to be coached by Guardiola, because he really puts his stamp on teams. He builds them, moulds them, guides them, berates them, nurtures them. He makes them great. He takes them to a higher level; a place beyond mere football. Ibrahimovic thought he was insulting him when he called him “The Philosopher”, but when you think about it, that’s actually a nice compliment.
Being a philosopher is to think, seek wisdom and have principles that guide and influence what you do. It’s to give meaning to things, find your way in the world, believe that in the end, in every instance, good will overcome evil even if there’s a bit of suffering along the way.
Guardiola has taken all that and applied it to football, an imperfect science. He racked his brains and dispersed the fog, more through hard work than mere thought. What he’s achieved hasn’t been about miracles, rather a gentle programming of his players. His style is crèma catalana – easily digestible. It’s virtual reality mixed with real life; a swim between the shores of fantasy and reality with Estiarte by his side.
In other words, we’re talking PlayStation. On warm-ups
One part of my job I’ll never learn to love is the pre-match warm-up. I hate it with every fibre of my being. It actually disgusts me. It’s nothing but masturbation for conditioning coaches. No Coaching for me. I’ll get a life
I wouldn’t bet a cent on me becoming a manager. There are too many worries and the lifestyle is far too close to that of a player. In the future, I’d like to get back a semblance of a private life.
I Think Therefore I Play by Andrea Pirlo is out today in paperback and ebook, published by BackPage Press
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