Well, they do call it the beautiful game. There are exceptions, obviously: Maradona, for instance, an incubus conjured from the jungle night by the final delirium of some fevered Victorian explorer. But it can hardly be a coincidence that so many football icons should happen to command as much aesthetic satisfaction with their cheekbones as their feet.
Those of us captivated by the paragons of Serie A, in particular, should man up and acknowledge the latent eroticism in our veneration. For which Renaissance painter ever had a model for the Passion of Christ to compare with Batistuta? Or a St John like Maldini? Would Baggio have had quite the same hold on our imagination, had he looked like Paul Scholes?
Of course, ignorance can compound our bliss. The physically aristocratic Totti, for instance, is lampooned in Italy as the equivalent of a Cockney bimbo. In the case of Andrea Pirlo, however, an insouciant football genius simply cannot fail to be gratifyingly consistent with his broader nature. After all, here is a man who entitled his autobiography Penso Quindi Gioco, I Think Therefore I Play. Not least since growing that beard, however, he does not so much resemble the subject of an oil painting as the maestro on the other side of the canvas.
Pirlo has now entered that bittersweet portal to nostalgia where the undiminished, vernal fertility of his invention contains poignant undertones of autumn. We admire him in some binocular refraction: one eye in the present, the other from the future. As such, there was a nearly ceremonial quality to the way he gilded his 100th cap last weekend – in the suitably halcyon setting of the Maracana stadium – with a free-kick from 25 yards against Mexico. A year after that orgiastic penalty against England, the air of the football summer is again saturated with a heady, perennial bloom.
But Pirlo is 34 now, and has already said that he will wear azzurro for the final time when returning to Brazil next year. The demands of tournament football have already enabled a dynamic Japan midfield, since the Mexico game, to make him look rather more sedentary than sedate – and a muscle strain means coach Cesare Prandelli must do without him against Brazil tomorrow.
So while time can stand still when Pirlo is on the ball, at least against opposition as obtuse as England in Kiev, there is an increasingly precious, valedictory quality to his present pomp. He incarnates that apparent oxymoron, the living legend: every game, every pass, a living legacy.
For his bequest, as one of Italy’s greatest midfielders, is to all football. As coaches absorb the contrasting lessons of Barcelona and Bayern, Pirlo has made an enduring stand for the regista – the deep-lying playmaker, his elegance typically preserved by some fierce bodyguard in the ilk of Gennaro Gattuso or Daniele De Rossi.
Pirlo actually started out up the field, as trequartista. It was Carletto Mazzone who converted him to regista, in order to accommodate Roberto Baggio at No 10 for Brescia. Pirlo’s career has duly been book-ended by renascence, written off as he was at Milan before his arrival at Juventus a couple of years ago.
He came as a free agent, much like Paul Pogba since and now Fernando Llorente. Just think what Juventus might do, if only they could get Joe Kinnear on the case. As it is, Pirlo has now added third and fourth Scudetti to a CV already containing two wins in the Champions League and one in the World Cup – named man of the match in both final and semi-final in 2006. Italy have lost only 16 of the 101 games Pirlo has played, and their most mortifying failures of recent years have almost invariably coincided with his absence through injury.
Serie A’s cerebral tempo has allowed some in its pantheon to obtain a literally timeless quality. Javier Zanetti, last seen rupturing an Achilles tendon in his 847th game for Inter, has just signed a one-year contract extension to take him past his 40th birthday – something not even Paolo Maldini managed. Zanetti prohibits even his wife from touching his hair, has yet to produce a single grey strand, and professes a pathological terror of going bald.
But if Pirlo is unlikely to match Zanetti for longevity, at least the hirsute look he has adopted for the evening of his career implies due virility. It gives L’Architetto a flexibly Bacchic aspect, in fact, one that might equally befit a professor or a goatherd. And if he is not quite so much a film star as some of the rest, he would make one hell of a director.