Martin Luther King once remarked: “The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important.” The worthy sentiment certainly contains a degree of truth but it doesn’t quite explain Andrea Pirlo. The Italian is now in his 36th year and it seems that only relatively recently has his undoubted talent been widely recognised beyond the footballing cognoscenti. The magisterial midfielder disguised as Captain Caveman has entered the consciousness of fans in this country not so much for his quality but for the longevity of his quality. The fact that an English language version of his autobiography I Think Therefore I Play appeared earlier this year is testament to this recognition.
And we should all be glad that the translation has appeared because the book is a real gem, and a welcome departure from the standard, formulaic (auto)biographies of most footballers. Instead of the regular A to B narrative I Think Therefore I Play, beautifully ghosted by Alessandro Alciato, offers a series of vignettes which adhere only loosely to a chronological order. Pirlo jumps from an opening rumination on the pen he used to sign his contract with Juventus to the pain he felt as a child so much more talented than his peers. Avoiding sentimentality and arrogance he then weaves us through the 2006 World Cup final, his love of Inter, a pen picture of Silvio Berlusconi, the best ways in which to wind up Rene Gattuso and how he and Alessandro Nesta have spent way too many hours playing FIFA.
One passage in particular captures the style of Pirlo’s book. In his recollections of the 2005 Champions League Final against Liverpool in Istanbul – a game in which Pirlo’s AC Milan side threw away a 3-0 half-time lead, eventually losing the game on penalties – there is scant detail, no mention of the goals scored or conceded, and only once does he recall any of the opposition players (a passing reference to “Jerzy Dudek – that jackass of a dancer”). Instead there is a description of the dressing room atmosphere and the intensity of collective emotion. Nearly ten years on from the match you can still feel Pirlo’s confusion in those hours following the final whistle:
“We couldn’t speak. We couldn’t move. They’d mentally destroyed us. The damage was already evident even in those early moments, and it only got more stark and serious as the hours went on. Insomnia, rage, depression, a sense of nothingness. We’d invented a new disease with multiple symptoms: Istanbul syndrome. I no longer felt like a player, and that was devastating enough. But even worse, I no longer felt like a man. All of a sudden, football had become the least important thing, precisely because it was the most important: a very painful contradiction.”
The result is that the entire book carries this lightness of touch, an Impressionistic quality that provides a fitting literary form for a player whose artistry, control and vision is all but unrivalled. It allows Pirlo to tease out small details that seem to define the people around him, to ponder the geometry of his passes, to insist it is “high-time that football’s ruling class stopped dozing in their armchairs”, to explain the calming effect of imagining crushing grapes between his toes.
But one subject above all others caught my eye. In 2008 a newspaper in Italy erroneously outed Pirlo as being from a Roma – in particular Sinti – background. As Pirlo himself explains:
“At first I let it go, simply smiling at the headlines, but before long the media onslaught became unbearable. Some really serious untruths were said and written about my family, and they started spying on everything we did. They wrote stories about our daily habits, the places we went, the people we met. It was an annoying and dangerous invasion of our privacy and that of those we hold dear.”
The more intrusive the media became the greater the temptation grew for Pirlo to deny that he had Sinti heritage. At the time travellers in Italy were facing a renewed and concerted attack from the Italian government who were keen to make political capital from solving the specially constructed moral panic around the “nomad problem”. From 2007 the Italian authorities had adopted a number of ‘security measures’ which disproportionately affected the Roma and Sinti communities. This was in addition to a decade of forced evictions. As this report from Amnesty International states:
“Throughout 2008, the stigmatization of Roma and Sinti [in Italy] contributed to a climate in which attacks on groups and individuals reached record proportions. Roma people have been victims of mob violence by members of the public, in which individuals were physically and verbally attacked and settlements were set on fire.”
In these circumstances it would have been easy for Pirlo to simply dismiss the suggestions that he was Sinti. Instead he chose to keep his own counsel. He explains:
“If I’d issued a strongly worded correction, a categorical denial, I’d have run the risk of causing offence. It would have looked like I was trying to distance myself from the Sinti community and position myself against them. My desire to state the truth could have been wrongly interpreted as an act of racism, and that’s a risk I wasn’t willing to take, for the simple reason that I find racists disgusting.”
Some may suggest that the truly principled position for Pirlo to take would be to have come out and sided unequivocally with the Sinti; others will suggest that Pirlo is being wise after the fact, giving his silence an undeserved air of moral authority. The first suggestion is certainly true but misses the fact that sports stars rarely take political stands in the absence of mass movements. The second is plausible if cynical. The reason I reject it is because Pirlo speaks a lot of truth in his discussion of Mario Balotelli.
Pirlo’s admiration and support for Super Mario is beyond question. “We also need Mario Balotelli. I’m not sure he really appreciates it yet,” writes Pirlo “but he’s a special kind of medicine, an antidote to the potentially lethal poison of the racists you find in Italian grounds.” With sadness Pirlo notes that racists are to be found at stadiums across the country, each having targeted Balotelli with chants and monkey noises. Pirlo’s response is to always greet his Azzurri teammate: “Whenever I see Mario at an Italy training camp, I’ll give him a big smile. It’s my way of letting him know that I’m right behind him and that he mustn’t give up. A gesture that means ‘thank you’.”
More interesting is his discussion on how he would react to his black teammates being racially abused. On the one hand he thinks that to walk off the pitch – as Kevin-Prince Boateng has done in the past – is “more a surrender than a reaction”. But at the same time he explains, “That said, if one of my team-mates was a victim of intolerance and refused to carry on playing, I’d go along with his wishes and those of the rest of the team.” Pirlo’s position is that he is willing to argue how best to confront racism but once black players give a lead he will offer his unwavering support and solidarity. People on the left in the UK could learn a lesson here.