Holding genius

ANDREA PIRLO... DEADLY MARKSMAN FROM FREEKICKS.-AP

Andrea Pirlo, the Italian and AC Milan holding midfielder, is rated as one of the best of his type in the world and he was outstanding as Italy won the World Cup in Germany, writes Andy Hampson.

Andrea Pirlo, Italy's and AC Milan's holding midfielder, is rated as one of the best of his type in the world. He was outstanding as Italy won the World Cup in Germany this summer. Pirlo began his career with Brescia and has also played for Inter Milan and Reggina, but it is since joining AC Milan in 2002 that his career has taken off.

Playing as a deep-lying midfielder, Pirlo dictates the pace of matches, allying outstanding passing ability with great vision. He is also a deadly marksman from free-kicks — a skill he attributes to his hero Roberto Baggio, who helped him as a junior at Brescia.

Pirlo was born in Flero, Brescia, and taken on by his hometown club as a youngster. He was one of their hottest talents as a boy and made his first-team debut just two days after his 16th birthday.

He caught the eye as Brescia won promotion to Serie `A' and in 1998 he was snapped up by Inter Milan. His first spell in the city proved disappointing, however. Despite establishing himself in the Italy Under-21 team he found it hard to break into the Inter side and made only 18 appearances before being loaned out to Reggina.

Pirlo found his feet again there but another loan move, back to Brescia, followed in 2000-01. His Inter career was destined to never take off but he did enough to catch the eye of AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti, who wanted him for his team. Ancelotti made some minor tweaks to Pirlo's game, mainly dropping him deeper but giving him the confidence to forge forward by teaming him up with the likes of Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf.

That accentuated his playmaking ability and full international recognition followed.

Pirlo enjoyed a glorious first season with Milan, the club winning the Champions League and Coppa Italia in 2003. He played a key role in that success, as he did in the 2004 Serie `A' win.

Pirlo went to Euro 2004 after that and started two matches after Francesco Totti had been suspended but Italy did not make progress. The 2004-05 season was an injury-hit campaign for Pirlo and Milan dropped off the pace in the league, but he recovered to help his side to the Champions League final. Milan reached the semifinals in 2006 with Pirlo again a central figure.

The domestic season ended in scandal with Milan deducted points amid a match-fixing controversy that also saw Juventus stripped of two league titles. Winning the World Cup was considerable consolation. Milan's current malaise following the verdict on the Italian match-fixing scandal, however, led to reports that Pirlo is again unsettled. But with the club allowed to compete in Europe this season following appeal, Pirlo may end up staying on in San Siro though Real Madrid figures prominently among the clubs he has been linked with.

Pirlo married his wife Deborah in 2001. They have a son together, Niccolo. Pirlo also has an elder brother, Ivan, who plays for his former club Brescia. He also has a younger sister called Silvia.

With Milan sponsored by Opel, Pirlo has had his pick of that manufacturer's cars to drive including the high-powered Speedster, which is noted for its similarity to the Lotus Elise. Away from cars Pirlo has appeared in an advertisement for designers Dolce ad Gabanna, wearing his briefs in a shower room with the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Gennaro Gattuso and Gianluca Zambrotta.

FACTFILE Position: Midfielder Club: AC Milan DOB: 19/05/1979 Italy Caps: 31 Italy Goals: 5 Italy debut: v Azerbaijan, September 2002 Moment to remember:

As a Champions League and Serie `A' winner, Pirlo already had plenty of career highlights before this summer's World Cup. Glory in Germany, of course, tops the lot though. Italy were subdued in the group stage but Pirlo impressed from the start, scoring a superb goal against Ghana. He went on to be voted third best player of the tournament. He made a telling contribution in the compelling semifinal against Germany when he set up Fabio Grosso for the decisive 119th-minute goal with a brilliant pass.

Moment to forget:

Italy memorably won the World Cup on penalties but Pirlo has not always enjoyed success in shoot-outs. In 2005 he was part of the Milan side beaten by Liverpool on spot-kicks after the team had thrown away a 3-0 lead.

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