It’s 2001. The 17th minute of a mid-season game. Werder Bremen against Schalke. Claudio Pizarro is 22 years old. A Bremen defender launches the ball over the defense. Pizarro deftly cradles the ball in mid-air, gives it the perfect flick, six inches straight up into the air, and, in one swift motion, chips it easily it over an out-of-position goalkeeper. The young Pizarro races in front of the stands, tugging at his early 2000’s oversized jersey, pumping his fist to his sides to welcome his teammates.
It’s a finish that can only be executed by a 22-year-old, with the right mix of giddiness, daring and boldness, alongside his confidence in the complete mastery of his own physics. It’s one of the first goals of Pizarro’s Bundesliga career and it is beautiful.
Now it’s March 2016. Werder Bremen, who is clinging to staying above the drop zone, leads Hannover 1-0 in the 26th minute. Claudio Pizarro is 37 years old. Levin Öztunali, who was 3 years old when Pizarro scored that first goal, launches the ball into the middle of the box, and Pizarro, as if he’s done it hundreds of times before, deftly brings the ball down, then pops it back up, over the Hannover defense for a clear shot, and a crisp, powerful, point-blank finish for a goal. He pumps his arms and is then mobbed by his teammates before waving to the crowd.
It’s a finish that can only be executed by a true veteran, with the right mix of precision, experience, swagger and confidence. It’s the 187th goal of Pizarro’s career, and it’s beautiful.
Both goals, without context, are remarkable. But it’s the journey in between those two moments that make Pizarro one of the best stories in recent Bundesliga memory, and one of the best players the league has ever seen.
There is no player like Claudio Pizarro.
After an early career in Peru in the mid-90s, Pizarro jumped from Alianza Lima to Bremen in 1999. In two seasons with Bremen he scored 29 goals in 56 appearances, good enough to earn him a move to the big team. He spent six seasons at Bayern Munich, which was, on paper, enough time to banish him from the memory of Bremen’s fans. He then spent two unsuccessful years at Chelsea where he made just 21 appearances and scored two goals.
After his disaster at Chelsea, Pizarro was loaned back to Bremen for the 2008-2009 season. Seven years after he left, the fans still welcomed him back.
Pizarro played four seasons back at Bremen, during that time scoring his 134th goal in the Bundesliga, making him the highest scoring foreign-born player in Bundesliga history.
But then he left. For Bayern. Again.
He spent three more seasons with the Bavarian club, making scant appearances, mostly in cup games.
But last fall, Pizarro finally came home. In September of 2015, Bremen announced it had signed the Peruvian striker to a one-year deal.
Including his loan spell, it was the fourth time he’d been revealed as Bremen’s new striker. Just like the last three times, the fans welcomed him with open arms, with hundreds of them mobbing the airport upon his arrival. And just like the last three times, he delivered on the field.
Pizarro provided a much-needed spark to a listless Bremen side, scoring seven game-winning or game-tying goals across all competitions. He finished the season not only as Bremen’s leading scorer for 2015-16, but the club’s all-time leading scorer.
On the last day of the season, Bremen squeaked by Eintracht Frankfurt 1-0 to avoid the relegation playoff. Now both the club, and Pizarro himself, have a new lease on life in the Bundesliga.
Because we get so caught up in excellence and quality, and achievements and absolutes, we often forget the last-minute escapes. But perfection can be boring. I’d rather see a 37-year-old striker, who’s left and came back…and left…and came back again, do what he does best, in a way that makes him feel the most like himself. Because that’s the secret with Pizarro’s success at Bremen, right? He can play well at Bayern or decent at Chelsea. But he can’t hit the level that he hits when he’s come back home, when he’s returned to Bremen.
Loyalty is muddy in today’s game. Unless you’re Francesco Totti, there’s always a reason to leave. The trickier part is coming back. And not just in a “twilight of your career,” trot out for the last couple of games type of “back”, but in a way that roars. Coming back in a way that proves, despite the myriad of reasons that a club like Werder Bremen struggles or succeeds, sometimes a little magic from an aging striker who truly feels home is all that you need to be okay.