A lesson in greatness from Andrea Pirlo

There are none more graceful and suave that Andrea Pirlo. His looks, persona and seeming nonchalance makes him a very special and unique footballer. Yet under his cool exterior there is a winner, a man obsessed with success.

He is one of the greatest football has seen, a true great of the game. Of course some mistake his languid nature to a relaxed approach, yet this is simply who Pirlo is. As we begin to reach the end of his career the appreciation of his talent has only increased.

This article we look at the lessons from his adolescence which shaped the player we see today, and highlight some key lessons which helped him (and could others) to achieving greatness and success as a footballer.

“They’d all got it so wrong, I didn’t have the slightest intention of behaving like a superstar. The truth is a lot simpler, that’s just how I was made. I was acting on pure instinct, not riding a flight of fancy. I’d outpace even myself, especially when it came to thinking.”

In his book I think therefore I play Andrea Pirlo, Juventus and Italy’s most important player, a world class talent of which we are lucky to see play admits a secret. He admits that “I perceive the game in a different way. It’s a question of viewpoints, of having a wide field of vision. Being able to see the bigger picture. Your classic midfielder looks downfield and sees the forwards. I’ll focus instead on the space between me and them and I can work the ball through. It’s more a question of geometry than tactics. The space seems bigger to me.”

Geometry? Defined as ‘a branch of mathematics concerned with questions of shape, size, relative position of figures, and the properties of space.’ When you listen to the best, the elite, in any sport, there is this common appreciation, almost love, for geometry. Why? I believe it is the fine, minute detail of their sport, the intricacies of their game which they appreciate and in turn makes them masters of it. Simply put, they master space. And if there was one thing Pirlo does, it is master space.

Create don’t replicate, be the best you

The Italian playmaker is a special breed of a player, he admits he is different and his book is more than just a collection of football memories but his thoughts on life and the future. He is deep thinker, a philosopher almost. He is fascinating individual. And it this sense of individualism which is what characterises him most. The special player we today is no surprise, as he says, “I’ve never looked at another player, past or present, and thought they were similar to me. I supposed there’s always time, but I’m not on the lookout for clones; it’s not something that interests me.” A true individual, embracing who he is and getting the best from it. He doesn’t want to be anyone but Andrea Pirlo.

If you ask a young player who he wants to be he’ll most likely answer Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta. Young kids want to be their idols, want to replicate them. Yet everyone is different, everyone has their own style, genetic makeup, personality. Pirlo’s belief is not a common one, many spend their time in adulation of their stars, but this is a great lesson to young players…be yourself. Be the best you, you can be.

But do our environments allow this kind of freedom of expression? This blog has touched before on the restrictive nature of youth coaching environments, of coaches who destroy the skill and creativity from players, who produce functional ‘robots’. Pirlo was never constrained as a young player, he was a free spirit, a player who expressed himself, who was skilful, creative and very, very good.

Unfortunately being a good player was not a great experience for Pirlo. His story is that of when he was with Brescia’ U14’s, he experienced a time of jealously and bullying, from both his teammates and their parents.

Now we all know Pirlo as a world class regista as the past decade he has excelled in this deep lying playmaker role. Yet before he was moved deeper he was a trequartista, a classic 10. He was a dribbler, a playmaker, he was the ‘star’. In that Brescia side he and his teammates knew he was the best, and as he says,

“From an early age, I knew I was a better player than the others, and for that very reason tongues were soon wagging. Everyone talked about me; too much in fact, and not always in a good way. On more than one occasion, my dad, Luigi, had to leave the stand where he was watching and flee to the other side of the pitch, to avoid hearing the nasty comments made by other parents.”

The bitterness and isolation

Ah the jealousy of the star player who puts their own son in the shadows. They think to themselves, they whisper to each other, they comment to their son when gets in the car, ‘How dare this boy steal my son’s spotlight!’ This hatred of a player becomes an infestation in the side, a cancer which spreads across the cliques of parents and ultimately to the players. We have all seen it, a bitterness and mumbling of discontent that the best player is taking away their son’s chance.

Pirlo’s dad would hear the parents in the stand saying things like…“Who does he think he is? Maradona?” As he says, “Spurred on by their jealousy, they’d say it deliberately loudly, trying provoke a reaction.” And these are parents in his own team!

Yet this is not an uncommon issue. It’s often the case, the parents, the ones who see the lights of professional football, the riches, the prestige, they become blinded by this dream and ultimately take it out on one of their own, blame them for their own son’s lack of talent. Their jealously overcomes them.

The lesson from this story is the key message, the lesson which is needed to be told. “They didn’t seem to realise they were actually paying me the biggest compliment. Maradona, for fuck’s sake! It’s like calling a basketball player Michael Jordan.”

He framed the ‘insults’ as a compliment, if they called him Maradona then that meant he was doing what a great of the game could do. Their derision inspired him, he took that criticism and made it a motivator. It is incredible to think that this happened, however we all know it happens, we’ve seen it, heard it. The one who stands out is not praised but lambasted. “Too selfish” “attention seeker”. Such a shame to witness and hear.

Most players are destroyed by this experience, they just want to play, score goals and express themselves but they are told off, bullied and often ostracised for it, for what? Enjoying the game of football, being creative, being a success? Adults picking on a 14 year old? Incredible. Yet it was Pirlo’s belief and confidence in himself allowed him to excel beyond the haters.

“The only way I could defend myself was by doing things that would amaze. Precisely what they were accusing me of in the first place. I bore the mark of a non-existent sin, but was protected by an invisible suit of armour”. Pirlo sought to do what he did even more, even better. He embraced this label of ‘Maradona’ and took his game to a new level. Overcoming this adversity certainly enhanced him as a player.

However the worst example, the hardest moment came in one particular game where he experienced the isolation in its totality. He was fazed out.

 “Guys pass me the ball”

Still nothing. A silence so deafening that I could hear my words echoing around.

“Is there something going on here?”

Nobody would pass me the ball. My team-mates were playing amongst themselves, leaving me out completely. I was there but they couldn’t see me. Or better, they could see me, but chose to pretend I wasn’t there. They were treating me like some kind of leper, just because I was better than them at football. I flitted about like a ghost, dying on the inside. There was a mutiny taking place against me. They wouldn’t even talk to me, wouldn’t even look in my direction. Absolutely nothing.

Imagine it? Being ignored, rejected by your own teammates at 14? The player who could change games, score and create goals was now being completely ignored by his team. Can you believe it? Yet we’ve seen it happen, sometimes it’s with the ‘weakest’ player, where players refuse to give them the ball because they don’t trust them. However it is common for a group of players to team up on a stronger player, to make them look poor by giving them poor passes or as Pirlo experienced simply being ignored.

This vicious world of jealousy which will seek to pull down those above in order for others to believe they can move above. So what did Pirlo do? Did he quit? Did he give in to them and appease their wishes to be a cog in the team they desired? Of course he struggled to comprehend it, found it very hard. At first he cried, right there on the pitch, as he says,

“I was completely dejected and depressed. Most of all, I was an adolescent. And that sort of thing shouldn’t happen to someone so young. At that age you should be scoring goals and celebrating. But the fact I scored so many upset a lot of people. It was in that precise moment that my career, still in its formative stages, took a turn down the right path.”

The choice – greatness or mediocrity?

That precise moment he had a choice. Quit the game, let the haters win and force him away from football, or use that emotion, use their hate to fuel his passion to be a professional. He chose to keep playing, “Playing my way.” He wasn’t going to change, he was going to continue doing what he loved to do, what he was great at. He knew he was the best player and wouldn’t let these jealous parents and players deny him his wish to be who he wanted to be. This moment of adversity, this distinct moment, gave Pirlo a choice, quit and be mediocre or continue and be great? As he says, “The second option struck me as more intelligent, and something I could work on straight away.”

This was the moment where the boy became a man. He made a choice and chose the harder road. He chose the road of greatness. He accepted he would be hated by his teammates and their parents. He chose the path of difficulty and isolation.

Think of how many young players have experienced this type of adversity? Parents belittling them, making snide remarks, feeding the flames of hate in their own son? Just so their son can thrive. It is sickening isn’t it? Unfortunately too many young players choose the simple path, the one of mediocrity. They become sheep, following the crowd, fearful of appearing different, of being afraid of the eyes of hate on them. When you are the star it can be a cruel environment, one with seemingly few friends. It takes a strong character, strong belief in yourself and your talent to rise above that and move to a new level. Greatness can only truly be achieved through moments of adversity.

“Off I went and gathered the ball. Once, twice, a hundred times. Me against the rest of the world. I was like some kind of noble crusader. Nobody wanted to play with me? Fine then, I’d be my own team. It wasn’t like I didn’t have the weaponry. Ten of them wold struggle to score, but I’d manage it all on my own. Venting my emotions out on the pitch all those years ago was like releasing a coiled spring.”

That moment in that game was a defining moment in his career. It was here he chose to take the difficult path, to leave the haters behind and excel to a new level. It’s not easy for a 14 year old to deal with this kind of abuse as well as having the mental fortitude to overcome it. Mindset is the key. And the following monologue epitomises who Pirlo was then and explains the man we know today.

“I conducted a long and silent discussion with my inner self. Looking back it bordered on madness.

‘Andrea, a gift like yours shouldn’t be a millstone. It’s true, you’re better than the others, and you should be proud of that fact. Mother Nature was kind to you, she was on good form the day you were born. She gave you the magic touch – now go take advantage of it. You want to be a footballer? That’s the dream that’s attached itself to you? Well then, go and pick up that ball. Give it a stroke; it belongs to you. The jealous folks don’t deserve it. They’re trying to steal that special part of you. Smile. Be happy. Make this moment brilliant and then make many more just like it. Go on, take that leap and if you can, take your father with you. The people giving chase will soon fall behind. It’s written in the stars. Go, Andrea, GO!”’

Perhaps this was romanticised by Pirlo when writing his book, or the editor decided to give some extra oomph to the tale and myth of the man, yet what a beautiful message to give oneself. Reading this paragraph shows strength, bravery and belief. Three aspects which talented young footballers can often lack in the key moments.

To become a professional, yet alone a world class player, these attributes will be called upon. It will most often happen in moments of adversity, when someone is truly tested. Pirlo passed the test, he believed in himself was brave enough to overcome the hate. That is not an easy feat.

Riding on the coattails

And here’s the next lesson, the one which those players and parents forget so much. The one I hope those who are reading this, whether a coach, parent or even young player, grasps and embraces. That talented player, the one you are ignoring, bullying, hating on…well he is the key to your dreams. Why? Because he will help you become better. Trust him, embrace him and you will have the potential to rise with him. By seeking to take him down you only harm yourself. Why? Like Pirlo overcame the haters, you must overcome the hate and instead embrace the genius you play with. Use him to help you.

As he says, “They weren’t bad kids, the ones I played with in the Brescia youths. But they did have a very serious problem, one that always got the better of them. They were running scared of their own dreams. Dreams that weighed them down and eventually crushed them. They thought of me as the Bogey Man, someone trying to kill their future. I held out my hand to drag them up, but instead they turned their back on me. They fell behind then pulled out of the race to become professional players. For me, it’s always better to keep chasing down the guy in front and maybe finish second, rather than stopping altogether. It’s a shame they never understood that.”

What a lesson. Read this again, take note of the key messages; the lesson about being overcome by ambition and leading to hate and anger, the idea that the talented player is there to help and support those around him, not destroy them and ultimately that the pursuit of greatness means striving to be better, to never quit. Pirlo’s lesson is a truly great one.

We appear to suffer, and by ‘we’ I mean a culture in English football, from achievement. There appears a genuine dislike for people who exceed their levels, of rising above the rest. When they do they are often mocked and ridiculed. We take pleasure in bringing them down, almost wishing to destroy them. Why is this?

The word ‘elite’ is seen as a bad word, it brings connotations of ‘arrogance’ and ‘selfishness’. Do we really prefer mediocrity over greatness? Compare this to our American counterparts who are almost over-zealous in their pursuit of greatness. It is a mindset. And Pirlo had it. Those moments of adversity fuelled the greatness within. Others may have suffered, quit and decided that this wasn’t worth it, yet he persisted. And won.

High standards

“Even in those early days I was someone who always had to deliver, always had to maintain high standards. For everyone else, it was okay to have an average game. If I did, it was a failure.”

I wish more players had this mentality, perhaps they do, and we as coaches and parents profess that “It’s okay, you did really well”, when in truth they didn’t. We seemingly can’t tell youngsters now they have failed, that they have fell below the standards expected.

A “well done” is easier to say yet a good coach and parent needs to be honest. If standards weren’t of the level expected, a player should be told, in the right way of course. Are we not doing a disservice to them, to their development? Whether they become a professional footballer, a university graduate or whatever, they have been taught the appreciation of high standards, of hard work and honesty.

Why should we reduce the levels and standards in our players? Is this going to bring greatness? I don’t believe so. High demand, high support is a method I believe in. Expect a lot of your players, demand high standards, and give them the honesty and support required to achieve this. Develop the right mentality to overcome adversity, to keep improving.

A need to be stretched (and saved)

Pirlo’s journey would see him move to ever greater levels after his ‘choice’. He had continued to play his way, continued to dominate games, to be the star. No-one was going to change that. And his performances earned him a move to Brescia’s first team, where the coach Mircea Lucescu saw a special talent in Pirlo. He wouldn’t have seen this had Pirlo given in to the haters. At just 15 years old Pirlo was now playing with professional men, ‘twice as old, twice as nasty’.

Yet after overcoming the adversity from the parents and players in the youth side, Pirlo now had to face the adversity of senior football. He was being stretched once more, never being allowed to rest or settle. He had the backing of his coach Lucescu who whispered to him, “Andrea, keep playing like you did in the youth team”. And he obeyed. Yet it was harder for him, physically and mentally. He showed what he could do however the players weren’t happy though.

This 15 year old seemingly attempting to embarrass these older players. At first training was not fun, “My first real triumph was when my team-mates kicked me less than they passed to me. On my first day at training the ratio was 10:1 (ten attempted murders to one pass reaching me, almost always by mistake). Over time things improved, eventually where there were consistently more passes than fouls.”

Bullied once more? Some will say being taught the world of senior football. What it was another test of his mindset, of his belief and strength. It was not easy, yet his coach said “Don’t worry everything’s fine. And make sure to try that again, please”. In one training session Lucescu turned to the rest of the team and said “Give the ball to Pirlo; he knows how to look after it”. He had the backing and trust of his coach, a man who appreciated his value and worth.

He had overcome the haters before, had persisted with his talent. He hadn’t allowed anyone to stop him being who he wanted to be, of achieving what he wanted. And those hateful parents and players, well “the jealous folks were right where we’d left them, back at the youth team pitches”.

Pirlo’s book is a true delight of a read, a great insight into his career, of his approach to the game and his beliefs to life. It has been great to have read both Pirlo’s and Bergkamp’s books this year, I have learnt so much from these true greats of the game, they have taught me about greatness and what the word elite really means. Their stories of their youth careers are fascinating and I hope you take these lessons on board.

What we do with our young footballers defines who they will become, some in football, all in life. How we treat them, how we regard them and ultimately how we teach them are key lessons for young people. We want to make sure every player improves, learns and excels. We must strive for higher standards, increase the demand yet never lose the support and guidance we can offer as parents and coaches.

By The Whitehouse Address (@The_W_Address)