Andrea Pirlo works hard at making football look easy. Whether picking out a teammate with a 40-yard assist or converting a high-pressure penalty in a European Championship quarterfinal, his default expression is one of studied nonchalance.
So after marking his 100th international
cap with a goal on Sunday, he made sure that his words matched his demeanour.
Italy's Confederations Cup opener against Mexico was scoreless until midway through the first half, when the Juventus midfielder swept home a sumptuous free-kick from 25 yards. It was the first goal the Azzurri had ever scored at Rio de Janeiro's iconic Estádio do Maracanã, and yet Pirlo made it sound like business as usual. "I just tried to hit the ball as well as I could," he said. "I succeeded."
The 73,000 fans in attendance seemed rather more impressed with his efforts. For several minutes after his goal, Pirlo's name rang out around the stadium. "That was a beautiful moment," the player would say. "It made me very happy."
Pirlo has not always enjoyed such appreciative audiences. Some of the most poignant passages in his recently released autobiography, Penso Quindi Gioco (I Think Therefore I Play) relate to a period when he was a boy coming up through the youth system at Brescia. According to Pirlo, his superiority over certain teammates was such that their parents became jealous. They began to heckle him during games, shouting at him to take his talents elsewhere.
At one stage, those same teammates stopped passing to Pirlo altogether, leading him to break down in tears in the middle of a match. In the end he came out stronger. Pirlo's childhood tormentors could not prevent him from becoming one of the greatest players of his generation. Two decades later, he has four Serie A titles, two Champions Leagues and a World Cup winner's medal to his name.
Even Pirlo's most vocal supporters, however, might have struggled to envisage the player that he would become. He was a fixture of the national youth set-up from an early age, winning 37 caps for the U-21 team and leading them to European Championship triumph in 2000.
It was only in 2002, a year after Pirlo had joined the Rossoneri, that the club's manager, Carlo Ancelotti, moved him permanently into the role of deep-lying playmaker. Already 23 by this stage, Pirlo finally made his first appearance for the national senior team a short while afterwards, but many observers remained sceptical of his conversion.
Though he hasn’t scored as many goals as he would have liked, Pirlo has come a long way since, and is now the fifth Italian player to earn 100 caps.