Why I'm a Disciple To The Poetic Cult Of Andrea Pirlo

Andrea Pirlo is a lot more popular than his 191,000 Twitter followers would suggest.

In that sentence, of course, is the essence of his appeal, and part of the reason millions will be fawning over Italy's understated genius at the World Cup. Pirlo is every bit the marketable star these days, but his humble craftsman image still has us as connoisseurs for recognising his talents.

Lovers of Pirlo - 'Pirlophiles' as Guardian writer Amy Lawrence dubbed us this week - aren't watching his timeline on social media. We're watching his flowing locks drift around a midfield somewhere, leaving a waft of artisan hair product in the air, as Pirlo paints another perfect pass with a swish of boot. We're desperately hoping for a free-kick to be awarded. We're breathing in his brilliance.

If he's not playing at the time, we're watching 'Pirlo: The Architect' on YouTube. And swooning.

Pirlo is the footballer every man in his mid-30s wishes he still was - a magisterial presence, still good enough to own the hungry young dogs who bite at his heels. They won't lay their teeth on him. They never do. Pirlo's poetry continues to float high above anything their averageness could reach. 

It wasn't always this way, not for all us anyway. When Milan won their two Champions League titles in 2003 and 2007, Pirlo was a well-appreciated part of the story and his technical efficiency rightly lauded along the way. But he wasn't the show. 

Two Milan players made the UEFA team of the year in 2003 (Paolo Maldini and Alessandra Nesta), but there was no place for Pirlo. In 2007, three of Pirlo's Milan team-mates made the XI (Nesta, Kaka and Clarence Seedorf), but still no place. It wasn't until 2012 that Pirlo finally made the cut.

On the international stage, Pirlo's ascent to where we find him today began at the 2006 World Cup. There were more celebrated names in the Italy squad that triumphed - the likes of Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero and Fabio Cannavaro - but Pirlo's defining moment in the semi-final against Germany put his passing on its highest pedestal yet.

If you need reminding...

"Deep into the second half of extra-time, and with penalties looming, Pirlo's creative brain was still whirring. With two minutes left, he cut inside from the right and unleashed a left-foot scorcher. Jens Lehmann saved to concede a corner, Germany cleared and once again Pirlo had the ball at his feet. This time he darted and weaved with intent, before playing a no-look pass onto the toe of full-back Fabio Grosso. Grosso scored, receiving the ball so perfectly he struck it first time into the far corner. Italy were going to the World Cup final."

Pirlo's pass was an instant World Cup classic, and his all-round contribution saw him named the third-best player at the tournament, behind Zinedine Zidane and Cannavaro. Here was a player who traded on being an unselfish force of creativity - a highly intelligent reader of the game, whose motivations were as pure as his passing. In Pirlo's mind, the game was, and still is, breathtakingly simple.

"I look for space so I can get the ball and then start to conduct the play," said Pirlo of his overarching philosophy, in a recent interview with the Financial Times

And so life continued at Milan under Carlo Ancelotti, the manager Pirlo credits with deploying him in the 'regista' role he's made his own. But the deep-lying playmaker Pirlo was eventually - some would say inexplicably - deemed expendable at the San Siro and made the surprise move to Juventus for the 2011-12 season. 

Three straight Serie A titles followed, with Pirlo the defining influence in Juve's return to the top - racking up assists and scoring free-kicks to frame at every turn, as he accessed an even higher level of Pirlo football consciousness. Praise has flowed like wine. Pirlophiles have swarmed the internet, hailing their veteran virtuoso as the bearded genius he clearly is. Pirlo has gone from being a critically acclaimed arena singer to a sell-out stadium act.

By the time Italy arrived at Euro 2012, he was the show. Not even Mario Balotelli could overshadow his free-kick goal in the group stage, or the shimmy and pass that split Spain in two. And then there was the panenka penalty that made a fool of Joe Hart.

Pirlo was at his peak. He's still there now, though at 35 we are surely about to watch the great man in his last World Cup. England, Uruguay and Costa Rica await in Brazil, and all three teams will have stopping Pirlo, not Balotelli, as their number one concern. All three know that if Pirlo takes control, they will most likely be beaten. 

Roy Hodgson says he has a plan, as all managers do for Pirlo. The problem is not many of them seem to work.

Bet on England vs Italy now.