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Andrea Pirlo's “I Think, Therefore I Play” and the state of Italian football

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Claudio Villa

There has been a lot of much-warranted hype surrounding the release of Andrea Pirlo's autobiography "I Think Therefore I Play." Quotes from the book were the leading news on most sports pages when it was initially released in Italian and then once again when it was just recently translated and released in English by Back Page Press. This article will not attempt to review the book as there are already countless pieces that do so, with writers far more qualified than I. Both Michael Cox and Steve Amoia offer great reviews of the book and have included some of the now famous quotes that have gone viral online.

What I am hoping is that this piece will serve as a kick-off to a discussion about the current state of football in Italy, highlighted with excerpts from the man himself —Pirlo, not me — ™£on the subject.

It should go without saying that Pirlo is in a class of his own. He is sure to go down as one of the greatest players — not just Italian players — of all time. There are fans around the world that may despise the Azzurri, Juventus, Inter, and/or Milan, but love Andrea Pirlo. His book is refreshing — easy to read, entertaining, and filled with behind-the-scenes practical jokes. Pirlo is very candid in how he feels about teammates, opposition players, and club management. Andrea goes into great detail about how he nearly signed for Real Madrid and Chelsea, as well as the attempts of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona and Qatari club Al-Sadd to try and lure him from Milan for his signature.

What is most refreshing (albeit surprising as well) is his take on the problems that face Italian football as well as "The Beautiful Game" as a whole.

Italian Stadia & The Ultra Culture

You do not need a degree to become a footballer. There are likely a lot of footballers around the world that are not all that intelligent (shocking, right?). You definitely come away from Pirlo's book safe in the knowledge that he is not one of the uneducated or immature. He has experienced all of the highs and lows that the game can bring. His take on the need to improve stadiums and security measures in Italy seem obvious to most, but change in Italy is notoriously slow. Pirlo highlights the plight facing Italian fans and how this obstacle can be overcome in order to prevent Calcio from falling even further behind other top European leagues.

"In other countries, when the team buses arrive it's a truly joyous spectacle. You walk into the ground with a throng of fans on either side; the kids are all happy and so are we. Only very rarely do we need blacked-out windows to travel to the stadium.

In Italy, by contrast, away games are a nightmare. The journey between the team hotel and the ground is like an assault course. I'm sick of needing a police escort, of having cop cars in front and being with their lights flashing and sirens blaring. The police should be dealing with more important things than worry about us."

Years of playing for top clubs since leaving Brescia have clearly taken their toll. Recent incidents between Napoli & Juventus Ultras go to show that it is not just a problem of the past, but is something that still plagues the country today. It is safe to say that Napoli fans are perhaps a little more intense than others, but this is not just an issue with one club. It is reflective of a small group of hardcore fans from all clubs across the country, as Pirlo points out.

"People need to know about this rotten stuff on the out edges of our world. And it's the same story in the north of Italy as it is in the centre or the south. Anyone who tries to make a geographical distinction is getting it badly wrong."

A culture shift is most definitely needed within Italy. Many have argued that the decrepit state of most Italian football venues is the most logical way of helping bring about positive change. There is not enough space in this article to highlight the woes of many clubs pocketbooks or to discuss the bureaucratic roadblocks that are impeding clubs from progressing. What is clear is that there can be a lot more control over radical elements within a stadium if it is owned and operated by the club. Very few clubs in Italy own their own grounds, but recent purchases and announcements of future developments show that many clubs are on the right path.

"We lack the sporting culture you tend to see elsewhere. We can work on that, slowly, and we players can do our bit by not going overboard with what we say. But there's also an obvious lack of legal powers and, above all, a shortage of grounds that are actually owned by the clubs who play there."

Perhaps he is a little biased in praising his current home, Juventus Stadium, but Pirlo's explanation could hold for any future club-owned grounds as well.

"It's worth at least 10 points a year to us, thanks to the positive atmosphere it helps create. The authorities know the name of the fan sitting in every seat and there are stewards and CCTV as well. In an environment like that, if you do something you shouldn't, it'll be spotted in real time. They see you, and then they come to find you...It's a start, if nothing else."

Mario Balotelli & Racism in Football

While a shiny stadium, filled with CCTV is a start, Andrea is intelligent enough to know that what ails the Italian game goes beyond infrastructure. He highlights the plight of Balotelli in explaining the issues surrounding the game and racism.

"Whenever I see Mario at an Italy training camp, I'll give him a big smile. It's my way of letting him know that I'm right behind him and that he mustn't give up. A gesture that means ‘thank you'. He's often targeted and insulted by opposition fans. Let's say that the way he goes about his business perhaps doesn't help him get much love, but I'm still convinced that if he was white, people would leave him in peace."

Andrea only briefly discusses racism. He also makes mention of Kevin-Prince Boateng walking off the pitch during Milan's friendly vs. Pro Patria. While he gives us some insight into his thoughts on the subject, he leaves little in terms of potential solutions. Perhaps he is trying to address the issue with as little controversy as possible or perhaps saying that you don't know the solution is the more mature and intelligent approach.

"I think you'd have to actually experience something like that to know how you'd react. It's too delicate a subject to plan your response in advance."

The Use of Technology in "The Beautiful Game"

Unless you are Sepp Blatter, you probably realize that technology could be integrated into world football seamlessly, taking up minimal time, and without jeopardizing the play on the field. Andrea Pirlo is only human — although that is up for debate — and sympathizes with the hell that most referees have to endure if a call is botched or even if the call is correct and the fans aren't happy about it.

"Referees cop a lot of flak because those in charge are welded to traditions that are more stupid than they are old. Certain individuals don't want to go down the road of in-game replays, something that would solve at least 50% of the current problems, kill all the controversy stone dead and make our (professional) lives a lot less eventful."

I've long been a fan of in-game replay. Maybe growing up in North America and being surrounded by replay in the NHL makes me appreciate it for what it really is more than some others. I don't have any facts to back it up, but surely it must take less time for the 4th official to glance at a TV monitor along the sidelines to deliver the correct call to the referee than it does for both teams/fans/coaches to protest and for the ref to have to calm everyone down afterward. All it would take is 30 seconds after a major incident to know how to rule. Most grounds replay major events immediately anyway (part of why many get so upset). It seems like nonsense to tell the officiating team not to watch what actually happened in helping them to make their decision.

"Saying ‘no' to technology is like something of a sporting Third World. All you'd need is a small screen where the fourth official stands. They'd be able to settle all the most difficult questions pretty much in real time...In all of five seconds, some real dilemmas would be reduced to absolute certainty. The ref would still take care of all the more subjective stuff, like judging whether a tackle is a foul, because TV pictures can't give you a definitive verdict there."

Seems pretty simple. It would cost almost no money for any league that is broadcast on television to implement and would reap incalculable rewards. Pirlo can't help buy bring up Sulley Muntari's ghost goal as proof of how effective this technology would be. He doesn't name specific people, but you know exactly who he is talking about when he says, "Perhaps they could finally let it go and delete the photos from their phones."

Aside from it helping officials to reach the correct call, integrating technology into the game is only fair to those referees. Those who follow Serie A need no explanation on just how vilified an official can become if a call is missed or if they are seen as having any (usually non-existent) bias. Pirlo feels bad for them too as he explains that football's power base should jump into the 21st century.

"Their antiquated way of thinking causes huge harm to referees. It leaves them utterly on their own and in the snipers' crosshairs. Things they don't notice in a split-second, millions of people see on TV. The folks watching on think ‘He's fucked that one up: what a total idiot.' What they should really be thinking is: ‘Poor soul: he's being forced to operate in a bygone era.'"

Pirlo pulls no punches. He doesn't mince words. It's been a breath of fresh air to see that this notoriously quiet and reclusive player is actually a practical joker behind the scenes and actually has a lot to say on the modern game. Perhaps we've just been too afraid to ask him. If you're on this page because you are a fan of Juventus, then you need no convincing when I say that you need to read this book. If you are here because someone recommended that you read this page, well firstly I must thank them for their kindness, and then tell you that you need to get yourself a copy. I'm not sure if Amazon.co.uk will ship worldwide, but the book is available electronically either in the Kindle version or in the illicit version of your choice.

I can't recommend this book enough. I could not put it down and read the entire thing (it's not very long to begin with) in a 24 hour span. Now all that's left for you to do is to get comfortable, pour yourself a drink of your choice, and enjoy "il Maestro's" work as much as I did. I'm sure you won't regret it.

*Please comment below on what you think of the issues Pirlo addresses, his take on these issues, and/or the book itself (if you have read it). Remember that this is not my day-job, nor is it really even an all-encompassing hobby as this is only the second time I've ever written for such an audience. Leave the hate mail unsent. Constructive criticism is always welcomed though.*