The first time I saw Andrea Pirlo was on a cold and fog-shrouded November evening in Monza in 2000, when he was a member of the Italy Under-21 team sent out to confront Howard Wilkinson's England selection. Only 11 minutes had been played when the referee abandoned the match but since that night Pirlo's quality has illuminated every ground on which he has played, and none more so than Juventus's new stadium, where he and his team-mates celebrated the Serie A championship on Sunday.
A byword for graceful creativity, Pirlo has been the most influential midfield player in Europe this season, bar none. Last summer he left Milan, his home for 10 glittering years in which, mostly under Carlo Ancelotti, he won two European Cups, two Uefa Super Cups, one Fifa Club World Cup and two Italian league titles, and where he had intended to finish his career. But Massimiliano Allegri, Ancelotti's latest successor, wanted to install a different sort of influence in the position Pirlo had made his own, at the base of midfield: someone more physical, more aggressive, such as Mark van Bommel or Massimo Ambrosini.
A one-year extension was the best Milan could offer when Pirlo's contract expired. The player reckoned that, at 32, three more years would be about right. Milan declined his suggestion and probably no greater misjudgment has been made since Real Madrid sold Claude Makélélé to make room for David Beckham. Once it became known that Pirlo was on the market, Juventus snapped him up. Their new coach, Antonio Conte, himself a former international midfield player of great distinction, saw Pirlo as the foundation of the side he was building to go with the club's new home.
Last September the stadium was inaugurated with a stylish gala. Following the speeches and the presentation of great figures associated with the club's history, from Giampiero Boniperti to Edgar Davids, a game took place between Conte's new team and Notts County, the current representatives of the club who, back in 1903, sent Juventus a set of the black and white striped shirts in which they have played ever since.
When you think of all the famous clubs who would have happily accepted such an invitation, the Barcelonas and Manchester Uniteds and Bayern Munichs, this was a gesture of great historical sensitivity on the part of Andrea Agnelli, Juve's 36-year-old president, the fourth member of his family to hold the post. It came in response to a tentative call from Jim Rodwell, Notts's chief executive, wanting to ask Juventus to help mark this year's 150th anniversary of the world's oldest professional football club. Certainly, Agnelli responded, but why don't you join our celebrations first?
And so it came to pass that the players and officials of a club in the third tier of the English game found themselves on a private jet and in a five-star hotel, all at the expense of hosts for whom their ancestors had done a small favour more than a century earlier. For that, as much as for anything else, I reckon Juventus fully deserve their success in recapturing the Serie A title, the reward for a deed of outstanding dignity and generosity.
Others will conclude that Juve's success in remaining unbeaten throughout the entire league season was more to do with the quality of Pirlo's passing. As he did for year after year in Milan's colours, the newcomer made himself constantly available to his team-mates, always there to receive the ball and move it on in the most relevant direction. He was compass and metronome rolled into one, and he did not get injured or suspended.
As the very promising Conte showed the extent of his tactical imagination by shuffling his team's formation from an initial 4-2-4 to 4-1-4-1, then to 4-2-3-1, and finally to an alternation between 4-3-3 and 3-5-2, Pirlo remained the keystone, utterly reliable and seemingly ageless. Only the colour of the stripes had changed.
Pirlo began his career as a classic No10, an attacking midfielder in the mould of Gianni Rivera or the young Roberto Baggio. The role did not quite suit him and it was while he was on loan from Internazionale, his first big club, back to Brescia, where he had started out, that the veteran coach Carlo Mazzone identified a new, deeper position from which he could direct the play. He became what Italians call a regista. Not having a word for it, we borrow a term from American football: the quarterback. Xabi Alonso and Paul Scholes are pretty good exponents but no one in recent times has come close to Pirlo's calm mastery and next month he will be a key figure in Cesare Prandelli's Italy at the Euro 2012 finals.
And so on Wednesday, four days before their team conclude a highly successful season with an appearance in the Coppa Italia final against Napoli, Agnelli and his fellow directors will open their new club museum, located in the Juventus Stadium (which really deserves a more resonant name). Among their guests will be Ray Trew, Notts County's owner, who rescued the club from their latest flirtation with oblivion two years ago, and Jim Rodwell. With their own anniversary functions already under way, the pair will be hoping to bring back news of a return fixture with the new champions of Italy before the start of next season. Imagine it: Andrea Pirlo at Meadow Lane. Just as long as the Trentside fog holds off …