Andrea Pirlo works hard at making football look easy. Whether picking out a team-mate with a 40-yard assist or converting a high-pressure penalty in a European Championship quarter-final, his default expression is one of studied nonchalance. So after marking his 100th international cap with a goal on Sunday, he made sure that his words matched his demeanour.
Italy's Confederations Cup opener against Mexico was scoreless until midway through the first half, when the Juventus midfielder swept home a sumptuous free-kick from 25 yards. It was the first goal the Azzurri had ever scored at Rio de Janeiro's iconic Estádio do Maracanã, and yet Pirlo made it sound like business as usual. "I just tried to hit the ball as well as I could," he said. "I succeeded."
The 73,000 fans in attendance seemed rather more impressed with his efforts. For several minutes after his goal, Pirlo's name rang out around the stadium. "That was a beautiful moment," the player would say. "It made me very happy."
Pirlo has not always enjoyed such appreciative audiences. Some of the most poignant passages in his recently released autobiography, Penso Quindi Gioco (I Think Therefore I Play) relate to a period when he was a boy coming up through the youth system at Brescia. According to Pirlo, his superiority over certain team-mates was such that their parents became jealous. They began to heckle him during games, shouting at him to take his talents elsewhere.
At one stage, those same team-mates stopped passing to Pirlo altogether, leading him to break down in tears in the middle of a match. In the end he came out stronger. Pirlo's childhood tormentors could not prevent him from becoming one of the greatest players of his generation. Two decades later, he has four Serie A titles, two Champions Leagues and a World Cup winner's medal to his name.
Even Pirlo's most vocal supporters, however, might have struggled to envisage the player that he would become. He was a fixture of the national youth set-up from an early age, winning 37 caps for the Under-21 team and leading them to European Championship triumph in 2000. But throughout that period he was used predominantly as a No10 – by club and country – even as he moved on from Brescia to Internazionale and then Milan.
It was only in 2002, a year after Pirlo had joined the Rossoneri, that the club's manager, Carlo Ancelotti, moved him permanently into the role of deep-lying playmaker. Already 23 by this stage, Pirlo finally made his first appearance for the national senior team a short while afterwards, but many observers remained sceptical of his conversion. "Why is it that every player with talent is made to play out of position?" grumbled Gianni Mura in La Repubblica two days after Pirlo's debut.
Such complaints quickly dried up as the player asserted his quality. Pirlo scored his first international goal – from a free-kick, of course – in a 4-0 friendly win over Tunisia shortly before Euro 2004. When Italy subsequently crashed out of that competition at the group stage, the manager Giovanni Trapattoni was roundly criticised for leaving Pirlo out of his team for their opening game of the tournament – a 0-0 draw with Denmark.
Two years later, Pirlo would be named as man of the match when Italy edged France out on penalties in the World Cup final in Berlin. There are those who would argue that his availability has been the single greatest factor in determining the Azzurri's likelihood of success at tournaments ever since. Pirlo was suspended for Italy's defeat to Spain in the 2008 European Championship quarter-finals and missed almost all of the disastrous 2010 World Cup finals campaign due to injury. He was, by contrast, fit and on form at Euro 2012, where Italy reached the final.
In tangible terms, he has scored 13 goals for Italy over his 100 caps – eight from free-kicks and a further three from penalties. Pirlo has finished on the winning side 53 times with Italy and suffered just 16 defeats.
He is just the fifth player to reach 100 caps for the Azzurri and has already said that he will retire from international football after next year's World Cup – meaning he will not have the chance to supplant Fabio Cannavaro at the top of the all-time list. But where others might be winding down at 34, Pirlo is determined to go out on a high note.
"I don't have that long left, so everything becomes important," he said on Sunday. "It's not as if I can tell myself that I'm working to win down the road."
That mindset was evident in the way he conducted himself at the Maracanã – chasing and harrying in a way that he has not always done in his career. Mexico equalised through a Javier Hernández penalty shortly before half-time, but when Mario Balotelli restored Italy's lead with another fine strike late in the second half, Pirlo did not rush to congratulate him. Instead, the midfielder chastised his team-mate for collecting a needless yellow card by taking off his shirt to celebrate.
Such graft will have served as a much-needed source of encouragement to Italy fans troubled by their team's lacklustre display in drawing 0-0 away to the Czech Republic in a World Cup qualifier just nine days earlier. Inspired in significant part by Pirlo, Cesare Prandelli's Italy dictated the play against Mexico and might have won more comfortably were it not for Andrea Barzagli's clumsy foul on Giovani Dos Santos to give away the penalty.
But while Pirlo's work ethic was admirable, it was not that which captured the imagination of those fans at the Maracanã. The true majesty of his 100th appearance for Italy was to be found instead in the little touches, the vision, the stunning blind pass with which he released Ignazio Abate at one point down the flank.
"[He is] a light, a beacon, the sun. [He is] Illuminating, magnificent, fabulous," wrote Ivan Palumbo in Gazzetta dello Sport. "Andrea Pirlo is an inspirer of metaphors and a catalyst for adjectives. But most of the time his quality comes out in the ability to leave us all speechless."