Euro 2012: When Pirlo's Panenka forced the world to jump on the bandwagon

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Pirlo Panenka

Andrea Pirlo was more than he seemed and his career trajectory is something quite unique.

Worldwide acclaim was something that was only bestowed upon him in his latter years after so long in the shadows of under-appreciation, and yet there are thousands of people who will remember the Italian as one of the greatest midfielders to ever grace the game.

Nobody wants to admit jumping on a bandwagon, but Pirlo’s career proves that thousands will do it completely without shame or awareness. By the time recognition finally arrived, he was in his 30s, hurtling towards retirement but with a lot more to give.

On June 24, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine, the perception of Pirlo changed forever. He went from footballer to cultural icon, a poster-boy for the hipster age where everybody is so desperate to be different they end up looking the same; the man every edgy teenager became desperate to emulate.

Having just controlled another game of football, something he’d done throughout his career without any real fuss, Pirlo made his mark. He was the difference-maker across 90 minutes and extra time as Italy faced England in a Euro 2012 quarter-final, but despite standing out for his effortless pulling of the strings, he couldn’t inspire the Azzurri to victory and it was goalless at full time; penalties were called for.

Italy were trailing in the shootout at the time Pirlo stepped up; Mario Balotelli had scored their first, but Riccardo Montolivo put his wide while Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney were successful for England. The context of the kick is something that has been long forgotten, but if he missed, it would have been a long way back.

If the pressure was palpable, Pirlo wouldn’t know because he never feels it. On the day before helping Italy to the 2006 World Cup, one of many successes in his career before his trailblazing status afforded him true recognition, he spent time sleeping and playing on his PlayStation.

Joe Hart England

It was only Joe Hart’s behaviour on the goal-line in a bid to put the midfielder off, which made up his mind; they say the first golden rule of penalty taking is to make your mind up early and never deviate, and the second is to hit it as hard as you can.

Deciding at the very last second, Pirlo broke both of them, but the deft chip down the middle of the goal both humiliated Hart and changed the momentum in the shoot-out. Italy went on to win, but nobody really remembers who scored the rest.

It would be easy to assume Pirlo did that for the adulation he had so badly been starved of until that point, or he aimed to make Hart look stupid. But to say either is to misunderstand the mindset of a man who plays football and enjoys life at his own pace, no matter what anybody else thinks.

Knowing the likelihood that Hart would dive either side, and having the nerve and intelligence to act on that, was the reason Pirlo’s first act as a newly-crowned cult hero was so memorable. Everything that followed was circumstantial, even if he did begin to play up to the crowd a bit.

The beard was his next stage; another trend that cemented his legacy in a different sense. Then came his vineyard. On the pitch, by then with Juventus after enjoying a trophy-laden decade at AC Milan, he aged like a fine wine. First, he proved wrong the man who allowed him to leave for free in the summer of 2011, Max Allegri by becoming the architect (his nickname in Italian in L’architecto) of Juve’s latest dynasty, before continuing that work alongside him.

Pirlo

Now, of course, he has just been replaced by his former boss as the club’s coach; after being handed an incredibly difficult task of overseeing what is by now an ageing, poorly balanced squad’s ninth successive Serie A title defence, despite no prior experience other than a week in charge of the reserves, he was sacked after only managing to scrape a place in the Champions League on the final day of the season and win the Coppa Italia. Allegri will now undertake a second spell.

He never showed it, but even Pirlo was shaken at times during the season. He didn’t get the chance to learn on the job. It was easy to assume he would thrive in the role because of his temperament and tactical understanding, not to mention the fact that he looks cool in a sharp Armani suit.

The streets will never forget Pirlo’s penalty against England, or indeed a performance which set off the Three Lions’ long search for a midfielder who could control a match like him. That search is only now bearing fruit. He is, without doubt, one of the most cultured players and people ever to play the game; it was that moment that really signalled a change in the way he was viewed.

But Pirlo is so much more than a Panenka and a beard and a vineyard. He is a serial winner and somebody who delivered on the big stage time and time again, whether he got the credit for it or not.

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