Soccer-World-Ageless Pirlo still pulling the strings for Italy

ROME, April 29 (Reuters) - Andrea Pirlo was given the rarest of honours during the Confederations Cup last year when the Italy playmaker received a rapturous reception at the Maracana. The Maracana crowd is notoriously difficult to please, with fans believing that no foreigner could possibly match the long line of Brazilian greats who have graced the hallowed turf, yet Pirlo, a World Cup winner, was granted an exception. His name was chanted before and during the game against Mexico, which turned out to be his 100th international appearance, and he brought the house down when he scored with a majestic 30-metre free kick. At 35, Pirlo is still one of the most influential figures in Italian football and continues to pull the strings for the national team. Current Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, writing a heartfelt introduction to Pirlo's autobiography, "I Think Therefore I Play", wrote: "Andrea Pirlo is a player who belongs to everyone. Guys like him should be a protected species ... fans look at him and see a universal champion. "Pirlo brings people together because he IS football ... he's the esessence of the game. He's recognised as a global talent. The message is that sometimes even normal guys can be truly exceptional." The book reveals all manner of things about the player who had a novel way of preparing for the World Cup final in 2006. "I don't feel pressure," he says. "I don't give a toss about it. I spent the afternoon of Sunday July 9, 2006 in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup." CHUCK NORRIS Never the happiest-looking of characters with his long, droopy face, Pirlo now sports a beard that gives him a striking resemblance to action-film actor Chuck Norris in his younger days. There is nothing muscular or physical about Pirlo's game, however. His elegant, unhurried and thoughtful style can put a smile on the face of the purists and his favoured role as a deep-lying playmaker makes him something of a rarity in modern football. Pirlo retains the ability to spray 40-metre passes over and through the opposing defence even if there have been recent occasions when he has been harried out of his stride, such as last season's Champions League quarter-final for Juventus against Bayern Munich. Described by former coach Marcello Lippi as a "silent leader", Italy sorely missed his influence at the 2010 finals, when a calf injury forced him out of the opening group two group games. He returned for Euro 2012, however, and led Italy to the final, scoring a trademark free kick against Croatia and producing a nonchalant "Panenka"-style chipped penalty in the quarter-final shootout against England that might have demoralised his opponents. Raised at Brescia, Pirlo was signed by Inter Milan as a teenager but, unable to break into the team, was farmed out on loan to Reggina and then Brescia. He was initially an attacking midfielder but developed his liking for the deeper role during his loan at Brescia, where Roberto Baggio was the main creative force in attack. After joining AC Milan in 2001, he settled into a deep playmaker role under coach Carlo Ancelotti. He developed into a world-class player, winning two Champions League titles, two Serie A titles and being nominated for the World Player of the Year award in 2007, losing out to team mate Kaka. He was also a key player in Italy's World Cup-winning team in 2006. Milan offloaded him in 2011 after an unimpressive season, clearly thinking he was past his best, yet Pirlo instead found a second wind and has inspired Juventus to successive Serie A titles and domestic dominance. Off the field, he keeps himself to himself and avoids television appearances, so his new book offers a first real glimpse of what makes him tick. His Facebook page has nothing more than a photograph, and he has mustered 36 tweets, most of them re-tweets, since opening his Twitter account in March last year. But he saves his talking for the pitch, as his Italy and Juventus team mate Giorgio Chiellini explains. "As a defender and a team mate of Andrea's in the national side and at Juventus, I couldn't ask for anything more in this life," says Chiellini. "To look up and see a player like him in front of you is all you can ask for as a defender. You know when you give him the ball that he's going to get the team moving forward. "He's like the oil in our engine." There seems to be plenty more miles in the engine yet. (Reporting By Brian Homewood; editing by Justin Palmer and Mike Collett)