Descartes of the Dugout
Three World Cup teams were carrying a little piece of my heart: Algeria, France, Italy. When one by one they fell away, a large part of my own tournamental passion waned. As compensation, I picked up the recently published autobiography of my favourite Italian player, Andrea Pirlo, which glories in the frankly irresistible title I Think Therefore I Play. (Personally, I think a comma after ‘Think’ would have improved things no end, but I quibble.)
Now, even a self-confessed biography junkie like me tends to steer clear of sports memoirs in general and football ones in particular. Every now and then something like Alex Ferguson’s My Autobiography or Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s I Am Zlatan will come along – something with a bit of fizz or gristle, something a bit contrary you can at least argue the coin toss with. But past runs-ins have generally been neither happy nor rewarding.
And, it has to be said, I Think Therefore I Play never really comes close to living up to its marvellously dotty title. What we get is mostly the Italian equivalent of relaxed, matey, hair-down-after-the-game wine-bar chat. A peg or two above the usual ‘sick as a parrot’ level of so many such books, but only just. Pirlo does seem like a genuinely nice guy. He loves his kids (and his PlayStation). He thinks Balotelli is good for the game, and racism is bad. He thinks Italy’s Ultras (quasi-military right-wing hooligans) get away with murder and Something Should Be Done. A slight eyebrow raise here, a minor frown there. Nothing on the real murk behind the Italian game. He seems to admire Berlusconi (did I detect the faintest hint of gritted teeth there or was it but the echo of my own?). Nothing controversial – and really, very little you couldn’t have accurately forecast and scribbled down yourself before opening the book. Apart from naming Woody Allen as his favourite director, there’s zero sense of his life away from the game. Does the Descartes of the dug-out like to read, for example – and if so, what? No clues.
You could see this as a fitting textual equivalent of the precise, ghostly, almost aloof on-pitch Pirlo. Perhaps this is simply who (and all) he is. Not a flashy narcissist or ‘controversial’ quasi-psychopath – the playing style cool, restrained, as close to what might still be credibly called ‘cerebral’ as football gets these days. It’s Pirlo’s defining paradox: very much a team player, he stands out in today’s game by virtue of his creative unselfishness, his happy reliability, his fluid grace under pressure.
There are a few nice turns of phrase. When a team mate was unhappy to be nicknamed the Philosopher, Pirlo instead happily claims the compliment for himself: ‘Being a philosopher is to think, to seek wisdom and have principles that guide and influence what you do. It’s to give meaning to things.’ OK, it’s not Heidegger, but it’s still difficult to imagine similar words issuing from a solid British midfielder to their ‘as told to’ tabloid ghost.
Other passages made me worry about the translation. Pirlo speaks in awed terms of an outrageous verbal roasting that coach Antonio Conte handed out to his Juventus players. Duly warned, we read on to hear the expletive-undeleted worst: ‘It’s time we stopped being crap.’ (Not even an exclamation mark?) Do angry Italian managers really talk like Neil from The Young Ones? Or has something crucially idiomatic been mislaid here? Conte’s temper flares, builds, explodes: ‘Turning round this ship is not a polite request; it’s an order, a moral obligation.’ (Not even an exclamation mark!) Conte now sounds like a 1950s Home Counties scout master leading his boys through a rainy outward bound trip. But such infelicities (if such these are) can prove fatal: you start to wonder how accurate a transcription of the Pirlo voice the whole thing really is.
Maybe the basic problem is that bonkers title, which promises so much, and in the end seems a bit of a swizz. ‘I Play Therefore I Am’ would make far more sense and better capture the soul of the man, as sketched in this brief, breezy text. Someone who doesn’t have tantrums, who forgets about most major ups or downs an hour after they’ve occurred, who never rocks the boat. In a way this is precisely what distinguishes Pirlo, what draws some of us old-timey fans to him – the absence of narcissistic fuss, his calm, quietly controlling way. (Sigh.)
The only time anything like high colour rises to tint his placid complexion is during a shivery recollection of the 2006 World Cup final against France. For a moment, back inside the white-knuckle psycho-drama of a penalty showdown (‘a sadistic group ritual that leads you to your fate... a sacrificial procession that beckons you to jump on board’) he sounds like a back-four Bataille: ‘My thoughts were all over the place, drunken ideas at the wheel of fairground dodgems.’ It’s the one moment at which individual player, team game and national identity convincingly fuse on the page. ‘I saw the inner workings of a motor car that was imperfect, full of defects, badly driven, old and worn, and yet still utterly unique. Italy’s a country you love precisely because it’s like that.’