The inventory of Andrea Pirlo's trophy cabinet reads like a grocery list of soccer's most prestigious competitions. However, there remains one glaring omission from the pass-master's list of accomplishments: a UEFA European Championship.
"Understated" is an understatement when applied to the man dubbed "l'Architetto" and "Il Metronomo" ("The Architect" and "The Metronome" for those who don't appreciate Italian cognates). Solely prioritizing team success on the field and notoriously shy off it, the Italian has won almost every team honor available while constantly deflecting personal recognition. Reciting Pirlo's achievements at club level would require even Ace Ventura to take a breath: three Scudettos, two UEFA Champions League titles, two UEFA Super Cups, one FIFA Club World Cup, one Italian Cup, and one Italian Super Cup. On the international stage, the Milan legend lay at the heart of Italy's triumphant 2006 FIFA World Cup campaign — highlighted by his "Man of the Match" performance in the final against France.
Italians have considered themselves unlucky in the two most previous European Championships. In 2004, Sweden and Denmark played to a convenient 2-2 tie — a result that allowed both teams to advance from the group stage at Italy's expense. While claims of match-fixing serve as a tenuous excuse for 2004, poor luck can be legitimately attributed to Italy's failure in the 2008 edition. Then, the Italians were unfortunate to draw Spain in the first knockout round. Although it was the only team that held the eventual Euro 2008 champion scoreless, Italy was still eliminated by way of penalty shootout. It is this unresolved failure that keeps "Il Metronomo" from surpassing Spain's Xavi as the best midfielder of his generation.
Xavi has become revered as the symbolic leader of Barcelona's, and in turn Spain's, "tiki-taka" playing philosophy, but the truth is that Pirlo is the better player. A simple comparison of their passing statistics reveals that while Xavi has mastered the short exchanges that define tiki-taka, Pirlo's long-range passing ability has no rival. Add in the Italian's defensive contribution (his tactically perfect positioning is invaluable in shielding the defense) and the fact that he's been Europe's reigning free-kick specialist for a decade, and there cannot be a real debate as to who is the more talented midfielder. Yet, this comparison is of players who define themselves largely on the basis of team success. Xavi's 2008 medal puts him a step above his Italian counterpart.
Though he won't care, Italy's success or failure this summer will be a defining moment in Pirlo's individual legacy. At 33-years-old, this is most certainly his last chance to harpoon his white whale and it seems like he knows it. Italy scored four goals to advance from Group C and Pirlo set up three of them. Against Spain, he played arguably the best ball of the tournament with an inch-perfect through pass to tee up Antonio di Natale for Italy's only goal. In Italy's 1-1 draw against Croatia, he showcased his dead-ball ability by burying a free-kick from just outside the area. Finally, in the crucial group-finale against Ireland, he whipped in a corner for Antonio Cassano's headed opener, sending Italy towards the quarterfinals.
Where Italy goes from here is yet to be decided, but the hopes of Italians everywhere rest at the feet of their soft-spoken playmaker. Only England stands in the way of the Azzurri heading to the semi-finals. With the Three Lions failing to close down the midfield — as Roy Hodgson teams are wont to do — Pirlo could paint yet another masterpiece. He'll have to, his legacy depends on it.