ROME, June 5 (Reuters) - AC Milan decided last year they could do without him, but Andrea Pirlo re-invented himself at Juventus and, at 33, remains a commanding influence for Italy.
Never the happiest-looking of characters with his long, droopy face, Pirlo’s eloquent, thoughtful style can readily raise a smile with the purists.
His favoured role as a deep-lying playmaker also makes him something of a rarity in modern football.
Many coaches see withdrawn midfielders as defenders, whose job is to rough up and stifle the opposition’s creative forces, in the mould of Dutchman Mark van Bommel.
Pirlo’s influence in his first season at Juventus is unquestioned, inspiring them to the Serie A title - a far cry from their seventh-place finishes in the previous two seasons.
Described by former coach Marcello Lippi as a “silent leader”, he retains his ability to spray 40-metre passes over, and through, opposing defences and he is still dangerous at set pieces, even if critics feel he is too lightweight.
Italy sorely missed his influence at the 2010 World Cup, where a calf injury forced him out of the opening group games. Cesare Prandelli was glad to welcome him back.
Raised at Brescia, Pirlo was signed by Inter Milan as a teenager but, unable to break into the team, was farmed out on loan to Reggina and then back to Brescia.
Initially an attacking midfielder, he developed a liking for the deeper role at Brescia where Roberto Baggio was the main creative force in attack.
After joining Milan, in 2001, he settled into a deep-seated playmaker role under coach Carlo Ancelotti.
He then developed into a world-class player, winning two Champions League titles, three Serie A titles and being nominated for the World Player of the Year award in 2007, losing out to team-mate Kaka.
He was also a key player in Italy’s World Cup-winning team in 2006.
His total of only nine goals in 82 appearances still makes him a regular scorer in Italy’s goal-shy side.
Off the field, he keeps himself to himself and interviews are as rare as smiles.
“I restrict myself to the dressing room, and to the pitch, those are my boundaries,” he said. (Reporting By Brian Homewood, Editing by Mark Meadows)