by Somto Mbah
Xavi, Pirlo, Lampard, and Gerrard were born twenty-three months apart, into football families. Xavi’s father, Joaquim Hernandez played for Sabadell in La Liga, Pirlo’s brother Ivan plays for a Serie C2 club in Brescia, Frank Lampard Sr. played for West Ham United and was capped twice by England, and Gerrard’s cousin Anthony plays for Huddersfield Town. Without a shadow of a doubt, these four shared a supernatural ability to make the ball do what they intended to devastating effect.
To say that these legends were top of their class alone is an understatement, because the records show that they have been involved in 8 of the last 11 UCL finals- not just as role players but as key components and mainstays in their various sides. In simple terms, they have defined and dominated European football together for the last decade. The respect they garnered from their peers is also unprecedented, as at least one of them had been voted by their colleagues into the FifPro Team of the Year every year since 2005.
Wherever each of them stepped foot, they left a lasting footprint on that club, as is ascertained by all of them (bar Pirlo) being at the top of their club’s appearance records. On the international scene, Xavi and Pirlo won the World Cup in consecutive finals, both making the Dream Teams respectively.
“To pass the ball to Andrea Pirlo is like to hide it in a safe.” – Zbigniew Boniek
L’ Architetto (The Architect) as he is fondly called in Italy, was always the lead in orchestrating the play of his teams, gliding effortlessly across pitches, also shining the brightest in the biggest games.
Pirlo was an artist in an era of football where athletes dominated. Such was his greatness that the rule changes, medical advancements, synthetic footballs, and tactical evolution pushed most of the players of Pirlo’s ilk out of the sport. He was the exception to the rule.
“I don’t feel pressure… I don’t give a toss about it. I spent the afternoon of Sunday, 9th July 2006 in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup.” – Andrea Pirlo, in his autobiography “I Think, Therefore I Play”
With a wine vineyard in Italy that produces around 2,000 bottles annually, and the best beard in world football ever, he is the Agent 007 of football. Add that to the fact that he dinked a penalty (Panenka) in the knockout stages of a major tournament-simply because the goalkeeper was making funny movements- The world for once had a player whose attitude was justified by his ability.
Pirlo oozed class all through his career, leading teams with his deceptive playmaking, pauses in play, and precise passes; weapons considered obsolete in today’s run and gun football. He was the brains and beating heart of AC Milan and Juventus when they were European heavyweights, he and Gattuso were the good cop, bad cop combo for the Azzurri leading Italy to their first World Cup in 24 years. As Pirlo departs the European scene in which he played a starring role all through, albeit in a lowkey manner, I acknowledge Europe’s last pure artist.
“I don’t think Xavi has ever given the ball away in his life.” – Sir Alex Ferguson, prior to the 2009 UEFA Champions League final
One would have thought that to replace the great Pep Guardiola would have been a heavy burden on the small shoulders of Xavi, but 15 years and more than 30 trophies later, Xavi has put to bed that claim. He now stands alone as the greatest midfielder of his generation. Known for his complete command of the fundamentals of midfield play, Xavi could thread a ball through the non-existent legs of a mermaid. He was the embodiment of Barcelona’s ethos and playing style which translated to success for both club and country. His mastery of the ball breathed energy into his teams, while killing the physicality myth. He ensured the world understood the importance of small, technical players. A lot of players win things but very few have laid down concepts and ideas that everyone bought into as Xavi did. The metronome did all this while keeping it simple- sophistication of the highest level. The love and respect he commanded from football fans around the globe showed you the impact he mad eon the game. Put all these together, and even if he didn’t win, how could he possibly lose?
“He, for me, is Liverpool.” – Thierry Henry on Steven Gerrard
Without doubt, Stevie G might be the best all-round midfielder the game has ever seen. His pinpoint crosses were reminiscent of David Beckham, his ability to arrive late in the box to score decisive goals was Lampard-esque, with Sat-Nav vision only Paul Scholes could better; he truly was a phenomenon who wore his heart on his sleeves.
Steven Gerrard’s love affair with Liverpool cannot be replicated ever. For one, he was born within 30 miles of Anfield, and he lost a cousin in the Hillsborough tragedy. He is a Scouser through and through. Playing for Liverpool was for him, playing for his family. Gerrard remains the only player in history to score in a Champions League final, FA Cup final, League Cup final and a UEFA Cup final. The Olympiakos game, the night at Istanbul, the FA Cup final against West Ham are games that have entered the Kop’s folklore, games that cemented Gerrard’s legendary status as a champion who got up when his team could not.
The greatest compliment one can pay him is that at certain points, the side(s) he played in were called one man teams and he bore the greatest influence on them. No player since Maradona has carried such a mediocre cast to great heights. Like Xavi, Gerrard’s career is a love poem to his own. Each pass was a stroke of beauty, each goal a tug on the heart strings.
“’I’m telling you now, and I didn’t want to say this in front of him, but he will go right to the very top.”- Harry Redknapp on Frank Lampard in 1996
Super Frankie worked his socks off for everything he got in the game. It didn’t matter that his dad was an assistant coach at West Ham United where he started his career. It also didn’t matter that his uncle was manager of West Ham United during that same period, he was put through the paces the same as everyone else. The same can be said of his school days, he was not the most intelligent, but was so studious he eventually got an A* in Latin in his GCSE’s. During his first press conference with his uncle Harry Redknapp as manager, one of fans insensitively made it clear that he felt he was being given preferential treatment. Harry Redknapp quickly put an end to that belief, proclaiming that Lampard would end up a star.
Fast forward two decades, Lampard has won every single accolade in his club career, breaking numerous records along the way. He is the Premier League’s all-time highest goal-scoring midfielder (5th all-time), and Chelsea’s highest goals scorer ever. ‘Arry can be crafty with his words but he was right on this one.
We may never be blessed again with such a talented group of midfielders, who strutted their stuff and took the role of a midfielder to a new dimension, all while winning at it. As they depart the European stage, I doff my hats to them. They played their roles magnificently.
The silhouettes of Xavi and Pirlo in the featured image were gotten off Feel Desain.