Andrea Pirlo was officially presented as a New York City Football Club player at a press conference in Lower Manhattan on Thursday afternoon, and despite all the talk of MLS being a “retirement league” or Pirlo being at the end of his career, the legendary playmaker strongly asserted his determination to continue performing at an elite level and take his role here as seriously as any other. Our New York correspondent was present in the press room.
Pirlo cut an elegant figure in his first official New York press conference, finely dressed and with a calm and dignified demeanor. He spoke quietly, in a thoughtful, measured Italian quickly rendered into cheerful American English by his interpreter. His intelligent dark eyes occasionally flickered around the room, glancing from one face to another, but otherwise his expression revealed none of his inner thoughts.
The reputation of the MLS seemed to be the main thing on the minds of most of the journalists in attendance. Conventional wisdom holds that the United States is merely a “retirement league”, a sort of circus in which aging European superstars ply what’s left of their trade as shadows of their former selves for large paychecks and extravagant lifestyles. Many of the initial questions from journalists hinted at that reputation, with one asking Pirlo directly if the fact that his salary would be lower than original reports indicated showed a “true desire to play for New York City FC.” Pirlo replied with equal directness, “Money has never been the point for me, what matters is the game. I’ve always been able to play for love of the game and not for the salary.”
“I’m not the kind of guy who likes to end up on magazine covers,” continued Pirlo when asked if gaining fame on a new continent was part of the reason for his move. “I didn’t come to America as a tourist or to be part of an advertising campaign, I came here to play football. This is what I do, this is what I enjoy doing and this is what I do well. Of course I’d like to help MLS grow and become better known, but my responsibility is to play football as well as I can.”
“Whenever anyone writes about you, your age inevitably comes up,” asked another journalist. “How do you respond to that, as far as how much your age will affect how you will do?”
“Well, unfortunately I can’t turn back time, my age is what it is,” replied Pirlo dryly. “I’m not that old, and my desire to play is as strong as it’s always been, my desire to give my best to the team. Besides, I don’t think some of the other players are all that much younger than me, so if people want to keep talking about my age, let’s just let them talk.”
Pirlo’s message was clear: For him, this is not a retirement tour, and he is not here to cash in. Unlike other European stars of years past – David Beckham being an oft-cited example – Pirlo currently has no intention of assuming the role of publicity figure, business partner or “ambassador to MLS”. Like Giorgio Chinaglia before him – or, perhaps, Sebastian Giovinco in the present day – Pirlo considers this move not as a step down, but just another step forward in his life as a footballer, a new adventure and a new team, to be taken every bit as seriously as any other.
Following the press conference, the avowedly young at heart Pirlo visited some kindred spirits, making a surprise appearance at a training session of the Downtown United youth soccer academy. The club is affiliated with NYCFC, and all the children had been given commemorative jersey t-shirts with “Pirlo 21” emblazoned on the back, but none of them had been told that a special visitor was arriving.
Pirlo strolled calmly onto the pitch, kicked a few lazy passes back and forth with one of the coaches, then suddenly one little boy’s voice rang out: “Oh my God, you guys, Pirlo is really here!”
“Pirlo!” “Look, it’s really Pirlo!” “He really came!” The excitement quickly reached levels only achievable by large groups of kids and Pirlo’s stoic poker face from the press conference vanished, replaced by a delighted smile as he lobbed a few of his famous free-kicks at a lanky preteen goalkeeper and enjoyed a few rounds of monkey-in-the-middle with the youngest players. The afternoon ended with a group photo staged with Pirlo in the midst of all the youngsters, some of the bravest of whom went in for hugs and high-fives. Pirlo by that point looked like a kid again himself, as if he were at the very beginning of his career, full of the excitement and pride of a new adventure and the joy of a life spent chasing one’s dreams.