Pirlo: We're starting from scratch
© AFP

During Italy’s triumphant campaign at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, Andrea Pirlo earned the FIFA Technical Study Group’s vote as the best player in the team’s opener against Ghana, the semi-final against Germany and the Final against France. As a result of these accolades the AC Milan midfielder picked up the tournament’s adidas Bronze Ball award, behind France’s Zinedine Zidane and Azzurri team-mate Fabio Cannavaro. Four years on and just weeks before the start of South Africa 2010, FIFA.com sat down for an exclusive interview with the 31-year-old playmaker, to find out how it feels to be a reigning champion preparing to defend the most sought-after trophy in world football.

FIFA.com: Andrea, four years ago your eldest son was very young but perhaps now he is ready to experience his first World Cup as a fan. What are the expectations for this great event as seen through the eyes of a child?
Andrea Pirlo: Niccolo will be seven years old in a few days and for now he is avidly following the Italian championship and the UEFA Champions League. He doesn’t yet fully understand the concept of the FIFA World Cup and the importance of this event, but I’m certain that between June and July he will discover the magic of this tournament and will fall in love with it forever.

What are your own memories of the FIFA World Cup as a child?
I can only remember vague flashes of Mexico 1986, when the La Nazionale were knocked out quite early on, whereas I can vividly recall the magical moments of Italia ‘90. It was a tremendous atmosphere and I fondly remember the summer afternoons and evenings that I spent watching the matches. It was a very carefree experience and I was eager to celebrate just like everyone else my age, but unfortunately Italy didn’t manage to reach the Final and it was Germany that won.

Sixteen years after that bitter disappointment, the children and teenagers of that era – a generation born between 1970 (second-choice goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi) and 1983 (midfielder Daniele De Rossi) – made amends in the most spectacular fashion, winning the title on German soil of all places, after having overcome the hosts in the semi-final.
It’s an emotion I will never forget for the rest of my life, because I think there’s nothing better than winning in the last minute of extra time in a stadium packed with passionate German supporters. Another key moment on the road to victory in Berlin was the penalty that Totti scored against Australia in the Round of 16, which also came right at the end of the game. We had been playing with ten men and winning like that made us realise that the signs were promising. In Germany there was a fantastic atmosphere, even outside the stadiums. I hope this year will be no different!

What do you expect from the first edition to be played on the African continent?
I only got to know South Africa last year during the Confederations Cup and it’s a country which fascinates me. I hope that this World Cup will be a driving force and also that it draws large crowds. It might be a good thing to be playing in winter, because it won’t be very hot. As for the altitude problem we’ll try to overcome it with specific training in Sestriere, at high elevation. We’ll have to get ourselves in top condition in terms of our respiratory fitness. The trajectories change a bit because the speed of the ball increases and above all because it tends to lose height. I’ll have to train to get confident playing in those conditions, particularly with regard to set pieces.

Before a World Cup even the aches and pains of a long season all go away, because it’s such a wonderful tournament to experience and play in that every ounce of tiredness goes away.
Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo

Which countries are favourites to go all the way and who do you think might be the outstanding players of the 2010 edition?
I would say that England, Brazil and above all Spain are a cut above the rest as we head into the tournament. As for players, I think that Spain’s midfielder Xavi, who has been making his mark at the highest level for a number of years now, and England’s Wayne Rooney, who is still young but already so strong, have what it takes to put their teams in contention.

How about Italy and the Italian players?
The qualifying campaign went quite well. We didn’t set the competition on fire but our performances were more or less in keeping with predictions and the tradition of our national team. We stamped our ticket for South Africa with one match to spare just as we did four years ago, whereas last summer we did poorly in the Confederations Cup, perhaps because we approached it without the right level of concentration. Now going back to play in the World Cup as champions is great, but we have to start over from scratch and, from what I’ve heard, we’re not among the favourites. I have to say it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, because I prefer to start out without too much fanfare. The training sessions will be tailored to getting us in tip-top condition for the start of the tournament and our technical staff will certainly draw inspiration from the way we prepared in 2006 – even if this time around we’ll begin our build-up programme with high-altitude training, as I said. Before a World Cup even the aches and pains of a long season all go away, because it’s such a wonderful tournament to experience and play in that every ounce of tiredness goes away.

If you could take one player along with you to South Africa at all costs, who would it be?
I have tried everything to convince Alessandro Nesta to come out of international retirement and I’ll keep on trying to the last, but unfortunately his recent injuries haven’t helped and now I don’t think it’s going to happen. Decisions like these are very personal and difficult to make, which is why they must be respected and not commented on. As for myself, fingers crossed, I hope to play for La Nazionale for as long as possible. At this moment, I can’t see myself retiring for a long time yet.