Andrea Pirlo was just 15 when Brescia’s coach decided to promote him into the senior squad. His name was Mircea Lucescu, and the former midfield maestro is forever grateful to the Romanian for a decision that helped him develop much faster than expected.

In his autobiography, the playmaker recalls dealing with vicious tackles from his team-mates on a daily basis, but the coach was always on his side.

“Give the ball to Pirlo. He knows what to do with it,” Lucescu used to say. Brescia tried to get permission to use Pirlo in Serie A fixtures but were refused – and the youngster had to wait until his 16th birthday to make his debut in May 1995.

By that time, the team were rock bottom of the league – their relegation certain long before the season ended. Lucescu had left in February when there was still slim hope. Without him, Brescia lost every single game until the end of the season.

Thus, the mentor wasn’t there to witness his protege taking the field at Reggiana with 10 minutes remaining on the clock. Marco Schenardi, the player who entered history books as the one replaced by the future superstar, later said: “Pirlo was very lucky to have a coach like Lucescu – he had the intuition that Andrea was a great player.”

Lucescu could use Pirlo in friendly matches while in charge, and intriguingly that led to both of them eventually moving to Inter.

“Brescia once organised a match against Inter’s reserves,” Lucescu recalled. “It ended goalless, but Pirlo stood out. Massimo Moratti fell in love with him and decided to sign him. It was the first time I met the Inter president in person.”

It took time, though. Pirlo arrived at San Siro in the summer of 1998, not before helping Brescia to return to Serie A and impressing in his first full season in the top flight. In the meantime, Lucescu had short spells at Reggiana and Rapid Bucharest – arch rivals of his beloved Dinamo Bucharest.

Moratti brought him to Inter in December 1998, replacing the popular Gigi Simoni and reconnecting with the 19-year-old Pirlo who waited for him with open arms. It should have been a match made in heaven but it didn’t work out that way.

“The press wasn’t on my side, and then it was announced that Marcello Lippi would arrive for next season,” Lucescu remembered about his unhappy spell with Nerazzurri that only lasted 14 league matches.

Pirlo was underused during those weeks, only making a few substitute appearances, but his situation was still better under Lucescu, a coach who rated him higher than those who replaced him.

Eventually, Inter simply didn’t believe in the young genius Moratti so dearly wanted. He was loaned out to Reggina and Brescia and then sold to city rivals AC Milan in the summer of 2001, in what turned out to be one of the gravest transfer mistakes in history.

In Carlo Ancelotti, Pirlo found a coach who understood him. Together they worked out his best position on the field and that enabled him to fulfil his enormous potential. He became a world champion and Champions League winner, a Serie A winner with Milan and Juventus and, most importantly, an icon and a legend in a playing career that had it all.

As for Lucescu, he found great success in Turkey, enjoying championship triumphs with Galatasaray and Besiktas, and then in Ukraine, building an empire at Shakhtar Donetsk and leading them to eight league titles and the UEFA Cup in 2009.

Time has passed but the mutual appreciation hadn’t diminished. Pirlo names Lucescu as one of the most important coaches of his career at every opportunity. On the other hand, Lucescu claimed that the Italian was one of the most important players of his generation.

According to Lucescu, Pirlo should have won the Ballon d’Or in 2012. A year later, he made a serious effort to bring the midfielder to Shakhtar. “I know it would be difficult, but we must try,” he said.

They will never work together again, but now fate enables them to close the circle in a rather unique fashion. Thanks to Lucescu, Pirlo became one of the youngest Serie A players ever.

Now, more than 25 years later, in his first European fixture as a coach, Pirlo faces the 75-year-old Lucescu, who sensationally took over at Shakhtar’s rivals Dynamo Kiev in the summer, and is about to become the oldest-ever coach in the Champions League.

Pirlo to coach Juventus? Lucescu to manage Kiev? Those options looked surreal just three months ago. Their clash is the first game of the new Champions League season, and such an amazing scenario makes it a worthy opener.

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