Ballon d'Or: Andrea Pirlo's genius deserves more than awards alone
By Bradley King
"Pirlo is unique," said Spain's Sergio Ramos prior to the European Championships final against Italy in the summer, "With a single pass he can open you up and leave a man one on one. Pirlo is their reference point. He dominates the game and controls the match."
High praise indeed from a man who can count Andres Iniesta and Xavi among his esteemed international team mates - the premier puppet masters. Both of those players made FIFPro's team of the year this week. Andrea Pirlo did not.
Yet the summer of 2012 was the season of a mass Pirlo love-in. Unquestionably heterosexual males were left weak at the knees in the midst of the deep-lying playmaker's abilities; such infatuation, in this country at least, had been absent ever since every straight man's heart throb, David Beckham, curled a trademark free-kick past Demis Nikolopolidis to send England to the World Cup finals in 2001.
Pirlo's mastery reached its peak in the penalty shootout win over England themselves in Euro 2012. The Juventus midfielder's outrageous, Panenka-style chip, which seemed to take an age to succumb to gravity and nestle in the net, helped send the Three Lions home. But where there would normally be fury at their inevitable exit, English fans were subdued - perhaps privileged to have witnessed one of the best players of this era at his scintillating best.
But FIFPro have exercised their veto in this worldwide Pirlo adoration. Instead, Real Madrid's Xabi Alonso takes pride of place in their ceremonial team of 2012.
Undoubtedly, Alonso enjoyed a flourishing year, helping Real Madrid overhaul the seemingly unassailable Barcelona side before taking on a key role in Spain's European Championships win. He fully deserves the recognition.
But are his achievements really greater than those of Pirlo, for club or country? Italy were tipped to struggle at Euro 2012 and went into the tournament on the back of desperately disappointing consecutive defeats to the United States and Russia. However, inspired by Pirlo's artistic brilliance, the Azzurri showed resilience to go within 90 minutes of an unlikely trophy.
And we haven't even considered Pirlo's influence at his club yet. When he signed for the Old Lady from Milan in 2011, Juventus had finished seventh in consecutive Serie A seasons - the club's rich tradition of success was long gone and the fear which it's name struck into others had waned.
One year on, Juve had secured their first title since 2003, remaining unbeaten in the process. Andrea Pirlo was absolutely indispensable to the team; a welcome contrast to and calming influence on the exuberant youthfulness of Arturo Vidal, Kwadwo Asamoah and others. As the heartbeat of a team which has regained its fear factor, the inconsistent Rossoneri certainly stood up and took notice as they were beaten into second place in Serie A.
The only criticism that can be laid at the feet of the great man is that he is a victim of his era. It's a case of, "Spain and La Liga rules, OK?" in world football at the moment - a mantra summed up by the three shortlisted Ballon d'Or players all being registered to clubs in La Liga, as well as the entirety of the questionable FIFPro team and the three managers up for Coach of the Year.
Rightly so, of course, to some extent. Nobody can rival the form of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and it remains to be seen whether anyone ever will again. But, in his finest year, some kind of recognition for Pirlo would have acted as acknowledgment of non-Spanish honed talent.
At 33, his last chance for top individual honours may have gone. But for all the lack of personal accolades, Pirlo can eventually retire knowing he has the highest praise of all - for football followers worldwide, it has been a privilege to experience his game. Even Spain's much-acclaimed stars would agree with that.