Of course, there’s always hope when Pirlo’s on the ball – even if he’s in my penalty area.
Those were the words of Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon after facing Genoa last month, which perhaps best sums up the feeling every team-mate of Andrea Pirlo has ever had whenever he presided over any dead-ball situation.
Buffon’s belief in his playmaker was never misplaced; having struck 24 league free-kicks during a sterling career, Pirlo had already cemented himself into second place in the all-time Serie A free-kick goalscorers list – usurping its previous occupant and former Juve fantasista, Alessandro Del Piero (22).
One swipe of his mercurial right foot later and Pirlo had scored his 25th. The strike, which produced so much vicious top-spin it wouldn’t have looked out of place coming from the tennis racquet of Rafa Nadal, put Pirlo just 3 goals behind the league’s record free-kick goalscorer, Sinisa Mihajlovic.
It wasn’t one of my best goals – I’ve scored a lot.
Pirlo told reporters afterwards, speaking as nonchalantly as he plays the game.
Indeed, his extraordinary free-kick goal tally extends far beyond Serie A. More recently his precision from 18-plus yards has fired Juventus into the semi-finals of the Europa League – firstly, dispatching Italian rivals Fiorentina in a tight affair, before repeating the trick against Lyon in the quarter-finals. Counting all competitions for club and country, Pirlo has now hit the target on 43 occasions via his trademark.
Such is his prowess, even Brazil’s fans – who know a thing or two about set-piece takers – turned out in anticipation to see the man dubbed ‘Pirlinho’ in action during the 2012 Confederations Cup. The Lombardy native’s reputation has been well earned over the years; far from just relying on an unearthly talent, Pirlo not only practices relentlessly, but studied all the masters of the dead-ball art to truly perfect it.
I’d like to see young players understand how important set-pieces can be, because they can often decide the outcome of a game. All it takes is a little practice every day and you can improve your touch and accuracy no end.
Since I was a child I watched tapes of Baggio, Zico and Maradona, and then I tried to replicate them just playing on my own against the wall. Certainly it’s talent but you have to cultivate that talent.
Pirlo dedicates a whole chapter to the art of free-kicks in his excellent autobiography (released in English on April 15 by BackPage Press), and even told the Gazzetta dello Sport the extraordinary lengths he would go to chase perfection; revealing that in the days when each Serie A team would use their own specific ball for home matches, he would request the exact replica to practice with in the week before the away game.
It’s this kind of dedication which enabled Pirlo to expand his arsenal by fine-tuning not just one, but a whole variety of free-kick methods – from the classically aesthetic curler, up/over, or around the wall, to the maledetta – the damned or cursed shot – an arrowing missile with an unpredictable trajectory that befuddles goalkeepers.
With such an array at his disposal, Pirlo recently confirmed he also checks the defensive wall before striking.
How do I decide which way to take free kicks? I make my decision at the last moment. I looked at the wall and decided.
Juve’s number 21 attributes a big step-up in his free-kick development to training alongside the great Roberto Baggio whilst both were at Brescia. Back then, Pirlo played understudy to his idol and at the time was still seen as a bona fide number 10, rather than the deeper-laying regista role he famously occupies.
Another player Pirlo became infatuated with was Juninho Pernambucano, the Brazil and Lyon playmaker who famously scored 44 free-kicks in just 100 attempts between 2001 and 2009 – making a mockery of other so-called free-kick experts who played at the time. What was Juninho’s secret?
Juninho didn’t hit it with all his foot, but with only three toes.
Pirlo reveals even more about other number 10 idols in his autobiography and the impact they had on his career, but now his quest is to become the undisputed number 1 of free-kicks in Serie A. The man with the Chuck Norris beard is undoubtedly getting better with age. After scoring just 8 in 10 years with Milan, he’s now hit 12 in just 3 years with Juve – thus closing in on Mihajlovic’s record of 28.
The former Serbian defender is the only player in the list of top eight free-kick goalscorers who wasn’t a fantasista, and once claimed he would never even have played football if free-kicks didn’t exist. Recently, he gave his view on the Italian Prince’s threat to his record, telling the Gazzetta:
Sportingly I hope he doesn’t manage to overtake me. He’s very good, but if we count the ones I scored in Yugoslavia too, Andrea would have to be born again to catch me.
The retired Mihajlovic remains in bullish mood then, even going to the extent of challenging his contemporary to a dead-ball showdown now.
I’m up for it. Ten free-kicks each. We’ll see who scores the most. Like gunslingers. I’ll let him choose the ball and the goalkeeper.
Whilst there’s been no response yet from the 34-year old Pirlo, he remains the only realistic threat to the Serbs crown, with 37-year old Francesco Totti the only other currently active player near the top end of the record list.
Time may no longer be on his side, but with Pirlinho sounding ominous, who would bet against him becoming Serie A’s dead-ball King?
It’s only natural some people say I’m getting old, but I still have fun with my football.
Top 8 Serie A free-kick goalscorers:
1: Mihajlovic – 28
2: Pirlo – 25
3: Del Piero – 22
4: Baggio – 20
5: Zola – 20
6: Maradona – 14
7: Totti – 14
8: Platini – 13