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Muntari walks off after racist abuse

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By ESPN Staff

Pirlo graduates to central role for Azzurri

DUISBURG, Germany, June 14 (Reuters) - Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo, the bright hope who looked unable to live up to his youthful promise, now finds himself at the heart of the Azzurri's World Cup challenge.

A superbly-struck goal and a man of the match performance in the 2-0 Group E win over Ghana on Monday was a reminder of how central the unassuming Pirlo is to coach Marcello Lippi's plans. Such a role was envisaged for Pirlo when he made his Serie A debut for Brescia as a 16-year-old and was rated the most promising 'number 10' in Italy. But his progress stalled.

'Maybe things started too soon for me at 16 when people were talking about me as the next phenomenon, it was too much always being described as the next big thing,' Pirlo said as Italy prepared for the game with U.S. in Kaiserslautern on Saturday.

After shining with hometown club Brescia, Pirlo moved to Inter Milan in 1998 where he was tipped to be the creative force providing the ammunition for Brazilian Ronaldo.

Then, following a season largely spent on the bench, he was loaned out by Inter, back to Brescia twice with a spell at Reggina in between.

Although he was featuring regularly for Italy's under-21s, he made only 22 appearances for Inter before moving to AC Milan in 2001.

At first his lack of starting chances seemed to move across the city with him, Portugal's Rui Costa signing a few days after Pirlo had put pen to paper on his contract and he played second fiddle throughout his debut season.

In an inspired move, Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti converted him to a deep-lying playmaker, almost a sweeper in front of the defence, and his career took off with his first Italy cap coming in September 2002.

'I've grown up and I am more calm now and I have realised my dream to be part of a World Cup,' said the 27-year-old.

His place in Lippi's squad of 23 was never in doubt although he had a below-par campaign for Milan last season.

'I believe in my ability but I think it is normal you sometimes have some loss of form especially in a 50-match season,' said Pirlo.

'I've had time to train, to recover and to recharge my batteries.'