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Apr 14, 2014

Andrea Pirlo: I Think Therefore I Play

Pirlo's book is a refreshing change from the usual autobiography.
Pirlo's book is a refreshing change from the usual autobiography.

Rating:

Footballers' autobiographies are rarely interesting, especially when they involve current players. In general, they appear unable to articulate themselves lucidly, even with the assistance of a ghostwriter, or to arrive at original opinions about past events despite the benefit of first-hand experience.

It's true that footballers are often useful for anecdotes, but these are generally the "we cut up his clothes while he was in the shower" type of thing, with the real stories omitted in order to spare friends' blushes.

The autobiography of Andrea Pirlo, then, is extremely refreshing and a genuinely fantastic read. The very fact that "I Think Therefore I Play" has been translated into English tells you that -- this is, after all, a book written by a player who has never played outside of his home country and theoretically offers little of interest for those who don't follow Serie A. Much of the book discusses stories specific to Italy, and therefore the translation features footnotes to explain, for example, precisely who Gianni Rivera is.

It's difficult to imagine this book would have been translated three years ago, for example, but outside of Italy Pirlo has suddenly become very popular in his autumn years, partly for his superb performances in guiding his country to the Euro 2012 final.

A relatively short book (40,000 words) is split into 20 chapters, which are unnamed and therefore somewhat unpredictable. Although the story follows a vague chronological order, Pirlo's tendency to go off on unnecessary but thoroughly enjoyable tangents makes it amusing in its erratic approach. One chapter initially seems to be dedicated to Pirlo's free-kick technique, which he admits to borrowing from Juninho Pernambucano, before ending somewhat incongruously with a bizarre rant about pre-match warm-ups.

"One part of my job I'll never learn to love is the pre-match warm-up," he begins. "I hate it with every fibre of my being. It actually disgusts me. It's nothing but masturbation for conditioning coaches, their way of enjoying themselves at the players' expense."

Pirlo's penchant for slightly risqué humour is obvious throughout. He drops the F-bomb no fewer than 18 times and throws in the phrase "Monica Lewinsky under Bill Clinton's desk" where you least expect it. "Swearing's my release," he says. "It's the one weapon I have to defend myself against destiny when it elects to strike without pity."

Like much of the book, you only vaguely understand what Pirlo's talking about, although he does come out with some hilarious lines. On scoring the penalty in the World Cup final shoot-out in 2006, Pirlo says: "I lifted my eyes to the heavens and asked for help because if God exists, there's no way he's French."

Perhaps the oddest piece of the book is Chapter 10, in which Milan president Silvio Berlusconi is trying to convince Pirlo to stay at the club. One of Berlusconi's trump cards, at least in the former Italian prime minister's view, is the revelation that Milan are close to signing Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

Pirlo neglects to criticise the Dutch striker outright but simply breaks up various parts of the chapter, explaining why he was so disappointed with the situation at Milan, with the standalone line "Huntelaar ..." every so often -- you can imagine Pirlo shaking his head as he remembers playing alongside the current Schalke forward.

Of course, there's nothing particularly wrong with Huntelaar -- who is currently enjoying a great spell in the Bundesliga -- but to a man who played in the same side as forwards like Roberto Baggio, Francesco Totti, Andrei Shevchenko, Ronaldo and Pippo Inzaghi, Pirlo seems almost insulted that Berlusconi presented Huntelaar as something of a coup.

Pirlo's prose also contains a touch of bitterness about ex-clubs and the odd bit of arrogance shown throughout. He takes snubs from managers and directors incredibly personally, treating the news that Massimiliano Allegri wanted to shift him to the left of a midfield trio as being told "You can't be Pirlo any more." He rues the fact he'll never win the Ballon d'Or, overlooked in favour of goal scorers. That said, Pirlo shows an amazing deference to figures he respects -- not simply players, but coaches, directors and even agents.

Overall, however, the book depicts a thoughtful, intelligent and slightly bonkers character, someone with a defined idea on how football should be played on the field, and what steps the sport -- particularly in Italy -- must take to improve its off-pitch image too.

The only disappointing revelation is the fact Pirlo doesn't intend to become a coach. Whereas Pep Guardiola -- a man who crops up throughout the book as Pirlo's idol, and the man who "kidnapped" him after a Barcelona-versus-Milan friendly to try to sign him for Barca -- seems a comparable personality in terms of playing style and character, Pirlo seems content to retreat to his vineyard instead. Yet it's easy to imagine him taking up some kind of backroom role at a club, probably Juventus, in future. He retains a passion for the game and rightly remains a huge authority within Italian football.

It's sad to say but football autobiographies like Pirlo's -- where the subject comes across in a surprising manner -- will soon become even rarer. In the social media age, players' personalities are bluntly showcased around the clock across the world, and rarely are they particularly interesting.

Even genuine characters appear tiresome on Twitter because they're too desperate to come across as wacky, as the king of the dressing room banter. The desperately overstated recent campaign from Zlatan Ibrahimovic's social media team, for example, probably has nothing to do with the Swede but still detracts from the genuine intrigue and mystery about the temperamental striker himself.

"The really extraordinary thing about Pirlo is that he's a silent leader, something that is not easy to find in football," says Italy coach Cesare Prandelli in the book's introduction. "On the rare occasions when these silent leaders choose to say something, the rest of the dressing room shuts up and listens."

The same concept applies to Pirlo's book.