NEW YORK — The men and women trickled into Asphalt Green Stadium on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was an unseasonably cool evening, made colder by a bracing wind coming off the East River, but if they cared they certainly didn’t show it. All participants, in a recreational soccer league organized by ZogSports, put on their gear and prepared to play their usual Sunday game.
This night, however, had a surprise in store for them. They had no idea that they were about to become a part of the UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour presented by Heineken. For 12 years now, this tour has brought fans closer to the most iconic club trophy in world football and to some of their greatest heroes. As these New Yorkers readied themselves, they probably had no idea the tour was in town — or that they were about to be graced with the presence of a very special guest.
After being gathered together for what they thought were team photos, a representative gave them the news, and then introduced the night’s first big surprise: Andrea Pirlo.
Pirlo, of course, is a living legend. Winner of two Champions Leagues, six Serie A crowns, an Olympic bronze, the 2006 World Cup, and individual honors far too numerous to count here, he was the gold standard of playmaking midfielders for a generation. Arriving to a rousing ovation, Pirlo took the time to mingle with the players on the field, taking pictures and selfies before leading part of the group in a short warmup. Even two years removed from the end of his playing days, the ease and grace with which he can still make a ball do exactly what he wants was still evident as he kicked the ball around with the Sunday footballers.
After a brief passing circle, the goalkeeper of one of the four teams was called over and given what must have been the experience of a lifetime: the chance to face off against some of Pirlo’s trademark free kicks. Even he must have been surprised when he parried Pirlo’s first effort away. Amused, Pirlo then ramped up his placement and power, whizzing a series of shots into the net — the last of which bent around a newly placed wall. When the awestruck keeper was asked by the event’s host whether he had expected to keep any shots out, he blurted out “Of course not!” and retreated to his team’s field, laughing.
The four teams finally took their places and referees blew their whistles. The games began with Pirlo looking on, observing the action and occasionally barking out encouragement and pointing out a few moves. Even when he was at rest, an observer could see the man so often called L’Architetto in Italy breaking down the way play was unfolding in his head — a footballing supercomputer at work.
When the referees blew for halftime, Pirlo and Heineken had one more surprise in store for for their participants. Gathering together on one of the fields, Pirlo reached behind a strategically placed advertising board and revealed the cup itself, in all its glory. Standing around the trophy that either Ajax, Tottenham, Barcelona, or Liverpool will hoist to the sky on June 1, the teams took group photos and then took turns posing with Pirlo as he held the cup with the big ears.
When the games were finished, both the players and their surprise visitor repaired to a local bar to unwind. All lifted a bottle of beer in a toast of an unmissable night in New York, the city where at any given time you can experience something unforgettable — and thanks to this year’s trophy tour, for these Sunday players, they did.