Soccer may be a young man’s game, but what’s an Englishman to do against an ageless wonder like Andrea Pirlo.
Pirlo led Italy to a 2-1 victory over England in the teams’ opening game in Group D of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on Saturday. Claudio Marchisio and Mario Balotelli scored Italy’s goals, but Pirlo was the most influential player on the field.
The Italy captain simply controlled the game, and if ever there was a contest that required such a figure, this was it. The highly anticipated clash between European foes took place in the South American jungle. Literally.
The Arena Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, was the site of England-Italy. Manaus is a city of 2 million residents located in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, and the temperature was 87 degrees Fahrenheit (31 degrees Celsius) with over 70 percent humidity at kickoff … in the evening.
Many feared that the weather conditions and shoddy stadium turf would make it difficult for players who are used to playing in dissimilar climates and facilities. They were right. This setting put a premium on game management, as it was bound to be a war of attrition.
Players began falling before kickoff when it was announced that Italy’s legendary goalkeeper Gigi Buffon would miss the game because of an ankle injury. Salvatore Sirigu admirably filled the void Buffon’s injury created.
The teams started quickly, but the pace slowed after 10 minutes. An all-action, end-to-end contest morphed into a tactical duel. This played into the hands of Pirlo and the Italians.
With defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi behind him and Marco Veratti and Claudio Marchisio beside him, the slightly advanced (in age and position) Pirlo roamed the center of the field, controlling the tempo and spraying passes wherever he wanted.
The advantage in possession and territory Italy enjoyed for the first half hour laid the groundwork for victory. Normally, this wouldn’t be the case, but the amount of chasing England’s players did in the jungle heat in those early stages took its toll later on.
But first, there was magic from Pirlo. In the 35th minute, Veratti cut a pass back to Pirlo, who was stationed near the top of the England penalty area. Instead of controlling the ball as he had done and would continue to do, Pirlo dummied it, allowing it to continue rolling to Marchisio, who struck a furious low shot into the England goal from distance.
England responded quickly, and Daniel Sturridge tied the game two minutes later, setting up an action-packed end to the first half.
Then Balotelli scored five minutes into the second half, and Italy was on its way.
As the clock ticked in the direction of the 90th minute, the Italians defended progressively deeper in their own half, and England had more and more of the possession.
But England’s primary goal threats — the 19-year-old dynamo Raheem Sterling, the 24-year-old goal scorer Sturridge, the 28-year-old would-be superstar Wayne Rooney and the 33-year-old captain Steven Gerrard — began to cramp, limp, misplace passes, shank corner kicks and shoot high and wide of Sirigu’s goal with increasing frequency. Even England’s trainer was stretchered off before halftime.
Throughout all this, Pirlo was playing at his singular pace — one that would allow him to enjoy a glass of wine and a cigar if he so chose — receiving the ball, finding a teammate and easing the pressure as if he was immune to the stage and setting.
Then, in the final seconds, Pirlo hit the crossbar with a stunning free kick; as if to remind us all what he’s capable of doing anytime, any place, any game.