RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — One goal. One hundredth appearance. One Andrea Pirlo.
Playing in the first competitive match at the newly renovated Maracana Stadium — one of the most iconic sites in world football — Pirlo scored Italy's opening goal against Mexico on Sunday in a 2-1 victory at the Confederations Cup.
"Andrea Pirlo is football for us," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said, heaping praise on a player who has become synonymous with excellence. "He's very down to earth, very normal, but he's always a fantastic player on the field."
Pirlo was his usual midfield-maestro self in Italy's first match at the World Cup warm-up tournament, controlling play and distributing the ball to his teammates.
But instead of providing the pivotal pass for the first goal, he scored it himself, curling a 27th-minute free kick over the opposing wall and into the top left corner.
"I was dreaming of a free-kick goal," said Pirlo, who scored all five of his goals for Juventus this season from similar set-pieces. "I couldn't dream of anything more than crowning my 100th appearance with a goal in a stadium like Maracana."
The Maracana was built ahead of the 1950 World Cup, a tournament that ended in "disaster" for the local fans when Uruguay beat Brazil 2-1 in the final match.
Since then, the venue has become world renowned as a haven for some of the best footballers in the world.
Pirlo fits into that category.
"100 appearances in the temple of Maracana. It couldn't have been more magical. Grandissimo Pirlo," former Italy great Roberto Baggio wrote on Twitter.
About 10 minutes before he scored, Pirlo nearly won a penalty when he had his feet taken out from under him inside the area. But the referee kept quiet, prompting the normally taciturn midfielder to react in disbelief.
In the end, however, it was all praise for the 34-year-old veteran who has said he will retire from the national team after next year's World Cup.
Maybe even after a final match at the magical Maracana.
"It's nice to be applauded in a legendary stadium like this," Pirlo said. "It couldn't have gone better than this."