11 – Fabio Cannavaro
Even as the greatest duo of central defenders in Italian history must remain that of Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, the most impenetrable all-round defensive pair is probably that of Gianluigi Buffon and Fabio Cannavaro. Their partnership began in the ranks of Juventus and was faithfully transplanted into the national side, allowing for the set-up of some among the toughest teams to beat in recent football history.
Square and stocky, Cannavaro has some physical streaks of the rugby player, possessing speed, elasticity and a jumping power which is quite unexpected in a man of his stature. Coupled with the finesse of his technique, these qualities made him – at his peak – one of the finest of all Italian defenders, an atypical combination of roughness and precision which made him something like a tuxedo with a bulldog in it.
Cannavaro’s finest hour was no doubt the Germany 2006 World Cup, a tournament so fraught with drama and palaver – from the backdrop of Calciopoli to the near-suicide of Gianluca Pessotto – that his role as captain is all but magnified in its importance. In charge of a team bombarded with criticism and spite, Cannavaro took the Azzurri by the hand and led them to the final with performances of such utter brilliance that they rightfully earned him the Ballon D’Or. With his fundamental defensive comrade Alessandro Nesta falling away after two matches, with Andrea Pirlo hugging him to draw comfort during the taking of the penalties and iconic captains Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti singing Solo un capitano to him when he held the cup in his hands, this man can truly claim the fourth World Cup his own. Hail to thee, Muro di Berlino – and thank you.
Top 20 Azzurri players of all time