When David Pizarro was a toddler, he was given one of those plastic racetracks on which children are supposed to race toy cars. Within a few days he had put it on his side, realising that the oval made for an excellent goal frame. He was soon slamming the ball against his racetrack-come-goal. Racing? Cars? Not for him. For Pizarro there has always been just one thing: the ball. It was the classic tale of the child who walked around with a football at his feet, spending every waking hour in close contact, foot on leather. That, no doubt, helped him develop the sensitive, feathery touch which would later define his career.
But his other quality is, most likely, innate: the ability to be in the right place at the right time, the effortless way in which he not only found teammates, but they find him. Or, as the legendary manager Nils Liedholm put it after watching a young Pizarro: "Some players run after the ball. With Pizarro, the ball runs after him." Those skills soon got him noticed and, in the summer of 1999, at the age of 19, he made the big jump: leaving Santiago Wanderers in his homeland for Serie A with Udinese. The club from the far north-east of Italy had developed a reputation not just for spotting talent, but for securing it quickly, before the big sides could wade in. Pizarro arrived with much fanfare but was immediately confronted by a huge culture shock.
"I was a kid and adapting to the weather, particularly the fog in Udine during winter, was not easy," he recalls. "I found the football difficult as well. It was faster and more physical than I was used to. In Chile you had time to think, you didn't have an opponent pressing you all the time, the game unfolded slowly. Serie A was a different world." Udinese's coaching staff had a dilemma. They knew Pizarro was a special talent, but they also knew he was not producing.
Some feared he might never make the grade at all. Halfway through his second season they just about threw in the towel, sending him back home, where he joined Universidad de Chile on loan. The idea was to get him some playing time and some confidence. He was injured after a handful of appearances and returned to Udine for treatment. It was during his rehab that the new coach, Roy Hodgson, felt he was worth one more shot. He was too good to send home.
This time, Pizarro made the grade with flying colours, immediately establishing himself as a regular. "All of a sudden, everything seemed to click," he says. "I was asked to play a deeper position and the team was built around me, which certainly helped. But it was as if my eyes were opened." Hodgson and his successor, Luciano Spalletti, moved him from his classic No 10 position into a deep-lying playmaker role.
Like a point guard in basketball or a scrum-half in rugby, everything went through him. Over the next four years Udinese soared, going so far as to qualify for the Champions League in 2004/05, his final season at the club. By that point, he was a hot commodity and Inter Milan bought him for ?12 million (Dh62.2m), plus the rights to Goran Pandev, in a deal worth an estimated ?17m. But the San Siro simply wasn't right for him. He lacked the physicality to thrive in Roberto Mancini's system and, at the end of the year, he moved on to Roma, where he was reunited with Spalletti. Serendipity followed. Spalletti built his revolutionary strikerless system around Pizarro.
The idea was simple: four defenders, a holding midfielder (Daniele De Rossi), Pizarro as orchestra director, and then four attacking midfielders, freely roaming the pitch. At least, it looked that way to the opposition. In fact, the front four had fairly defined roles, it's just that their movement was constant. And there was just one man on the pitch who fully understood it and had the technical gifts to deliver the all-important killer ball: Pizarro.
The little Chilean's playmaking abilities thrive to this day, even now that Claudio Ranieri has replaced Spalletti at the helm of Roma. There is just one thing missing. Pizarro retired from the national team in 2006, blaming a lack of work ethic among some of his younger teammates. Recently, he has said he regrets the decision. With South Africa 2010 around the corner, there is talk of a return.
"I'm not going to apologise for what I said at the time because I believed it was right," he says. "The players qualified for this World Cup without me and I don't want to take anybody's place. If the manager feels I can contribute, I'd love to return. We've all grown up since then. It's the only thing missing from my life." firstname.lastname@example.org