Claudio Pizarro: The Bundesliga's bionic man
If Stanley Matthews was still scoring at 50 and Kazuyoshi Miura is showing no signs of slowing down at 51, why should Claudio Pizarro even think about hanging up his boots now that he has turned 41?
Pizarro has rewritten the evergreen-white striker’s rulebook in a prolific 20-season stint in the Bundesliga, totalling 197 goals in 478 appearances for Bayern Munich, Cologne and current club Werder Bremen.
The 2018/19 campaign could have been his last hurrah, but - after signing one last deal - will instead be the next instalment in a storied career that is still going strong some 23 years after Piza delivered his first senior goal in darkest Peru…
Watch: Pizarro - 21 years, 21 goals
Unlike Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, Pizarro didn’t arrive in Europe as a stowaway. The Callao native caught the eye after scoring 37 goals in 85 appearances over the course of his first three years as a professional with Deportivo Pesquero and Allianza Lima. He collected his first of 85 senior international caps in his final year in his homeland, before shipping out to Bremen. The Bundesliga has been partying like it’s 1999 ever since.
In the first of Pizarro's four career spells with Bremen, the Peruvian scored 29 Bundesliga goals in 56 matches. His potency in the opposition penalty box put the likes of Barcelona, Inter Milan and Real Madrid on high alert, but it was Bayern who succeeded in luring him away from the banks of the Weser river.
Pizarro spent six seasons in Munich, where he netted a further 71 goals and won Bundesliga-DFB Cup doubles in 2003, 2005 and 2006. Despite earning the nickname the 'Andenbomber', in a nod to Bayern legend Gerd 'Der Bomber' Müller, his contract wasn’t renewed and in 2007 he joined Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.
Pizarro found the net just twice in four starts in the 2007/08 English Premier League, but if his London excursion was something of a footnote, the rest of his career was anything but. Returning to Bremen after one season with Chelsea, Peru’s finest marksman plundered 60 Bundesliga goals between 2008 and 2012, taking him above former Bayern teammate Giovane Elber as the German top flight’s all-time leading foreign scorer.
It is a record Pizarro would hold for almost nine years. He crossed paths with his eventual successor, Robert Lewandowski, during the final season of another three-year stretch at Bayern, where he helped himself to 16 Bundesliga goals and won a raft of domestic trophies as well as the UEFA Champions League. Needless to say he made a real impression on the club’s latter-day No.9.
"[Pizarro] was strong, he was always calm, his technique was incredible too," Lewandowski recalled after usurping Pizarro in the history books on 9 March 2019. "He always knew exactly what he wanted to do with the ball and that's what I learned from him. He knew what I had to do with the ball, I have no problem saying that a lot of what I know, I learned by looking at him.”
Aged 37 - a whole decade Lewandowski’s senior - Pizarro began the 2015/16 campaign without a club, until Bremen picked up the phone for the THIRD time. Piza answered the call in spectacular fashion, reeling off 14 goals as the Green-Whites narrowly avoided relegation to the second tier. It was the 12th single-season double-digit haul of his career, and included a record-breaking hat-trick against Bayer Leverkusen - but the oldest player in Bundesliga history to score three goals in one game was not done yet.
Following a pair of relative lean spells with Werder (2016/17) and relegated Cologne (2017/18), Pizarro returned to Bremen just a few months short of his 40th birthday, and a hardy 19 years after he first arrived. Although he was not expected to play regularly, the idea that he had only been brought in as a dressing-room motivator and mentor was suppressed faster than you can say, 'Pizarro is the most underrated striker the game has ever seen'.
Bremen’s favourite adopted son registered two assists in his first five outings of the season, before becoming the Bundesliga's second-oldest goalscorer with his Matchday 9 effort against Leverkusen, a record which he extended against Mainz one week later, and claimed outright with a 96th-minute free-kick in Berlin on Matchday 22. He was 40 years, four months and 13 days old.
"I couldn’t imagine a more worthy successor than Claudio," said previous record-holder Mirko Votava, himself a former Bremen midfielder. "He’s a great guy and a sporting phenomenon. I’m delighted for him, and he knows that, too."
Watch: Claudio Pizarro's Bundesliga Mixtape
Pizarro’s landmark strike also saw him become the first and only player to score in 21 successive calendar years in the Bundesliga. On Matchday 32, the Werder No.4 stepped off the bench to bring up his fourth Bundesliga goal of the season, a 2–2 equaliser at home to second-placed Borussia Dortmund, before netting the winner against RB Leipzig a fortnight later, raising the age record to 40 years, four months and 18 days. It's one best-mark that is plausibly beyond even Lewandowski’s reach.
"I'm feeling good," Pizarro told bundesliga.com on Matchday 34 of 2018/19. "The coach wanted me to stay, I wanted to stay. I think I have a good connection with this stadium, with these people. I love it!"
And so the story continues. Pizarro’s enduring body and spirit are as synonymous with the player as his procession of goals. He is a true legend, who has stood the test of time in an era when teenage debutants are very much the norm. And the best part? Born on 3 October 1978, he has no legal obligation to consider retirement until he turns 65…
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