MANAUS, Brazil -- In the historic center of Manaus, there is an unlikely cathedral to opera. Its construction began in 1884, during the height of the rubber boom that made building it and the rest of this city make sense, even in the heart of the Amazon. The Teatro Amazonas took 12 years to complete, because building beautiful things is hard, and it's especially hard in a place like this. It is hard to make something that can outlast the jungle.
An Italian architect named Celestial Sacardim oversaw its construction. Perhaps not surprisingly, he brought a lot of Italy over the ocean with him. A fellow Italian painted the elaborate ceiling panels. The floors are made of Italian marble. Nearly 200 chandeliers hang in the house and its hallways and boxes. Sacardim made sure that every last one of them was created and packed and shipped up the Amazon from Italy. A man named Celestial had to believe that when you bring the light to a place, you own a piece of it forever.
Across town on Saturday night, in a far newer, more controversial cathedral -- the Arena Amazonia, yet another product of hubris but built in the name of soccer rather than opera -- a different Italian architect did some of his most lasting work. Andrea Pirlo, L'architetto to his teammates, did not score Italy's opening goal against England. But like Sacardim and his beautiful teatro, he oversaw its construction.
In some ways, Pirlo managed a more difficult trick: He did his building by putting down his tools. On a relay from a short corner, he charged for the ball and then let it pass between his legs untouched, drawing Daniel Sturridge toward a play that never happened. Now the ball carried on to Claudio Marchisio, left alone a few yards from the top of the box. Marchisio drove a long shot between two English defenders and past Joe Hart's hands. It was a memorable goal, and yet Pirlo's essential part in it will show up on no score sheet. He was less an architect in that moment than an engineer. He was that goal's invisible structure.
It's easy to make too much of a small play, of course, to want to see more in it than there is, especially on a stage like this. On some level, Pirlo just let the ball run. He did something that children are taught to do, even though they can't conceive of a time in their lives when they wouldn't kick a ball that was waiting at their feet. Pirlo could have touched the ball or not touched it, and he chose not to touch it, and everything else that came after worked out. Mario Balotelli scored a more spectacular goal later, and a more skillful goal, and also the winning goal. Maybe he's the one we should remember from Manaus.
But what I'll remember of this city is its opera house, and what I'll remember of this game is Pirlo's Dummy, and I will remember it like that, with capital letters, as though it is a name on a map, a place I might visit. It's hard to say why. I probably liked that play so much because, like the 35-year-old Pirlo, I am closer to old than young, and old men need to deceive themselves, looking in the mirror and at other old men and their weaknesses and seeing advantages instead.
Andrea Pirlo is not very fast, and he is not very strong, and he walked off the pitch after the game looking drawn, close to spent. In a purely physical sense, he is neither the man nor the player he used to be. And yet in other ways, he is better than he ever was. He is wise more than anything else, which is a nice way of saying, among other things, that he knows every old man's excuse for inaction. There's a reason old men preach the virtue of things like economy, and conservation, and thrift. Old men admire restraint because restraint is a happier way of saying we can't do what Mario Balotelli does anymore. We need to believe instead that not every monument requires hubris. Some require humility, even the knowledge that in the end there is no outlasting the jungle. All we can do is bring a little light to it.