Kicking off Football Italiano’s build-up to the World Cup next summer, Lessons in Calcio goes Azzurro for 2009/10. Throughout the season we will endeavor to bring you lessons on some of the greatest players to have played in Serie A and for the Italian national team. Kicking things off, we have current captain and legend, Fabio Cannavaro.
An English myth states that to be an excellent centre back, you need to be tall and that anyone less than 6’1” would usually either be shown the door or told to find another position. Carles Puyol and Fabio Cannavaro would have probably never been given the time of day to display their talent in England. Fortunately for football, Cannavaro is Italian. Dwarfed by most centre-backs around the world, he is the only defender to have won the FIFA World Player of the Year, back in 2006. What he lacks in height, he makes up with giant leaps. What he loses in the air, he makes up with astonishing pace and what ultimately makes him the greatest defender of modern day football, is his ability to read the game perfectly coupled with his instinctive timing.
“It’s more about timing than height. That’s the key to my game. Everything, but everything is about timing and that’s not something you learn – it’s innate,” he once mused. Too late in winning the ball, a defender may foul his opponent during a game, but not Cannavaro. During his near-perfect game against Germany in the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2006, Canna’s superb timing ensured he avoided giving away fouls on the German players and won the ball fairly.
The 2006 Ballon d’Or winner was originally a right midfielder but his ability to man mark turned him into the renowned centre-back we know and love today. But Canna is not merely a good defender – he doesn’t only throw himself on the line to protect his goal or tackles each and every opposing player in sight. What makes Cannavaro an exceptional footballer is his ability to protect the defence, steal the ball and begin the search for goals. He swipes the ball, contributes to the team’s attacking efforts and wins almost everything in the air to allow Gianluigi Buffon his time to have a break and grab a Kit Kat. Alessandro Del Piero broke German hearts when he scored the second goal in the last minute of added time in the World Cup 2006 semi-final. But what most people may have not realised was that it was Cannavaro who initiated that Azzurri counter-attack. Not a defender that scores too often himself, Canna halted the Germans own attack by cheekily stealing the ball on the edge of his own area before starting the Azzurri’s victorious march towards the opposing end to allow Del Piero to seal their win and a place in the World Cup final.
Dubbed the Berlin Wall, Canna was born on September 13, 1973 in a city that he confesses, is thought of by most Italians as “chaotic, dishonest and dirty,” a city with streets comparable to those of Rio de Janeiro, unlike those found in glamorous Milan and a city disregarded or rather rejected by most Italians. Scugnizzo, which translates as urchin, defines the kids of Napoli, rough and ready, running around the streets. One would have expected him to aspire to be a striker like his idol Maradona, especially as he likened Napoli to Brazil, full of samba-playing footballers. But Canna admits he possessed a certain discipline that allowed him to be a defender. Ultimately, he confessed to being the good boy who worked hard on his skills – contrary to the majority of undisciplined rascals on the streets of Naples – and he inherited his father’s genes when it came to jumping outrageously high (for his height) in the air.
The ‘urchin’ mastered his trade on the streets of Naples with little space and, in the absence of official rules, Cannavaro learnt to be clever and was forced to be flexible to cover different positions. This was of course, until his local and beloved team, Napoli, who at that time were enjoying a great period in their history, scouted him. Rising through the youth ranks of the Partenopei, he was present during the eventful time when the team possessed the illustrious yet infuriating Maradona and the stalwart defender, Ciro Ferrara. Relentless in his man marking, Canna once found himself given the opportunity to mark his Argentine hero in training. So eager to impress, the Neapolitan took to the challenge like a duck to water. Persistent and ruthless, he wouldn’t let Maradona out of his sight until a member of the coaching staff asked him to ease off the star player. Nobody idolised Maradona more than Cannavaro, yet not even the Argentine legend could intimidate the short centre back. Leaving the stadium, Maradona once noted that every time he came across this little starlet, he knew he had just witnessed a phenomenon.
Quick, energetic and almost telepathic, Napoli quickly promoted the young boy to the senior squad alongside the renowned stars. But after four seasons, and with club struggling financially in the post-Maradona era, Napoli was forced to sell their number one asset in exchange for a bundle of much-needed lira. Cannavaro arrived at Parma and quickly began to grow, playing with some of the world’s best and coached by Italy’s finest. With the young Gianluigi Buffon in goal and French international Lilian Thuram as his partner in the defence, Parma under Carlo Ancelotti’s guidance quickly became known for their unbreakable defence. The Gialloblu finished second only to Juventus in the league in 1997 with just a one-point difference between the two teams, thanks largely to their solid defence.
After seven long years in Parma, Cannavaro went in search of major trophies as he joined Internazionale. The search was fruitless with the Nerazzurri unable to compete on a level playing field with the likes of Milan and Juventus. And so, after two years in Milan, Cannavaro departed for Turin where he would go on to enjoy one of his most successful seasons with the Bianconeri. Reunited with team-mates and friends from yesteryear, Buffon and Thuram, Juve now had the most-envied defence. Cannavaro helped the black and white stripes to win two league titles and he picked up l’Oscar del Calcio along the way for his outstanding first season with Juventus. However, the joy proved somewhat short-lived as the Bianconeri were stripped of their consecutive Serie A titles in a scandal that rocked Calcio. “We believe that our league titles are rightfully ours. Inter were not the ones who won out on the pitch, they have been given those titles by the authorities. We won the league two years running because we were stronger than the others, we didn’t win because we had help,” Cannavaro stated angrily in an interview. With pride to restore and a point to prove, the scandal proved to be the much-needed incentive for Italy to win the World Cup in 2006. Images of Cannavaro holding the Cup will forever be etched in Italian minds as the team united in their determination to overcome controversy and succeed.
In a glittering international career, Cannavaro won two back-to-back Under-21 European Championships in 1994 and 1996. And in 1997, the defender was promoted to the senior squad earning his very first cap against Northern Ireland. Developing quickly and mentored by the likes of Paolo Maldini and Ferrara, Cannavaro became known as a symbol of the Italian defence. Alongside Alessandro Nesta, the defensive partners symbolised Italy’s renowned philosophy of football and even made it seem attractive. In 2002, after Italy were sent crashing out of the World Cup in a match that conspiracy theorists have relished ever since (Guus Hiddink, there’s a word called karma), Maldini retired from the national team and Canna was handed the Captain’s armband. Nobody deserved the role of skipper more than Fabio. His calming effect, his winning mentality and wide grin allowed the “sexiest man in football” to take over the task at hand.
“I would have married Fabio anyway, no matter what was his job or where. It doesn’t matter that he is a world known footballer. I love him because of his essence as a human being,” his traditional Italian mamma wife Daniela Arenoso once said of her husband. Nobody leaps in the air and applauds a goal like Cannavaro and nobody motivates the squad like the little Neapolitan. His charisma and ability to influence a game made him the legend and Captain he is today and ultimately helped make the Azzurri, Europe’s most successful national team. When Italy drew against USA, the only side not to have allowed Italy a win in the tournament, Cannavaro advised Marcello Lippi to go back to the Italian school of thought and focus on defence. Lippi took heed of Canna’s words and played the next game against the Czech Republic with an extra defender and one less striker. What happened? Italy dominated and won.
As for his teammates, they find it hard to not listen to their charismatic skipper. His Colgate-white smile and soothing words have aided teamwork and encouraged a winning mentality. During Italy’s semi-final game against Germany, Canna gestured to his fellow defender Marco Materazzi to play calmly after he had wasted possession of the ball again. Materazzi relaxed and Italy held on the ball long enough to dump the host nation out of the tournament in their march towards immortality. When lifting the World Cup trophy, Cannavaro not only restored pride to a nation still reeling from the Calciopoli scandal, but he managed to bridge the gap for a short time at least between Naples and the rest of the peninsula. Having united them in their dream of winning another World Cup, he allowed Napoli the thrill of knowing that one of their own was captaining the Azzurri and handed them the joy of ‘feeling Italian’ once again.
Fabio Cannavaro will long be remembered as the naughty street kid who used to pinch the ball from right under your nose, in elegant fashion, and then beam a big toothy smile as if he was just messing around. And you would always let him get away with it. Yes Cannavaro is a footballing legend, but his skills off the pitch are also what will make him unforgettable in years to come.
Past Lessons in Calcio
Alessandro Del Piero