Andrea Pirlo was just about to break away from the journalists crowded round him after Italy’s defeat of Mexico when one last question was fired his way: “You’ve played your 100th game at the Maracana, but where’s the 200th going to be?”
Usually a man of few words and stern of face, Pirlo allowed himself a smile at the jocular question, aware that he could hardly have produced a better performance on Italy’s FIFA Confederations Cup debut. His slightly more effusive team-mates certainly saw it that way.
“We’ve spent the whole week talking about what it means to play at the Maracana. It’s a childhood dream come true for us,” Italy centre-half Giorgio Chiellini told FIFA.com on emerging from the dressing room after Italy’s 2-1 win.
“Every single one of us feels that way,” he added. “And it’s fantastic to see this dream become something so special for Pirlo. As a defender and a team-mate of Andrea’s in the national side and at Juventus, I couldn’t ask for anything more in this life. To look up and see a player like him in front of you is all you can ask for as a defender. You know when you give him the ball that he’s going to get the team moving forward. He’s like the oil in our engine.”
When you see Pirlo in action it’s hard not to sit back and enjoy it. I know how that feels because I’ve been watching him for years.
The fans who flocked to the Maracana on Sunday, most of them Brazilians, would no doubt agree with Chiellini. You did not have to be an Italy fan to appreciate the genius of the 34-year-old on his 100th appearance for his country. Turning in a sensational display, he orchestrated the midfield with his usual aplomb and opened the scoring with a delightful, curling free-kick. Accustomed to watching Pirlo on TV, the crowd were thrilled to see the midfield magician in the flesh and have the opportunity to applaud his wizardry.
That much was clear in the moments leading up to his sumptuous goal. When, after 27 minutes, the referee awarded Italy a free-kick 30 metres out from Jose Corona’s goal, the crowd began to chant “Pirlo! Pirlo!”, such was their desire to see him stroke the ball home just for them. And when he obliged with a perfectly weighted strike into the top right-hand corner, the supporters responded with a huge roar, many of them deciding there and then to give their allegiance to the Italians for the rest of the game.
“It was great for us to see how the Brazilian fans – the fans of a team who have always been rivals of ours – got behind us,” Gianluigi Buffon, another of Pirlo’s Juve team-mates, told FIFA.com. “Their loyalties were divided but I don’t think it took us long to win them over. And as far as we’re concerned, winning over the Maracana is not something that happens every day.
“Obviously there was a very good reason for that. When you see Pirlo in action it’s hard not to sit back and enjoy it. I know how that feels because I’ve been watching him for years. To cap it all, he topped it off with a pearl of a free-kick and when you put it all together, it’s only natural to end up getting the crowd’s support.”
It was only natural as well to see Pirlo walk off with the Budweiser Man of the Match award at the end of the game, far from the first time he has earned such an accolade. The aristocratic Italian took it all in his stride, however. His Maracana masterclass might have had the crowd on its feet, but for this most elegant of playmakers it was just another night’s work.