The overriding image of Fabio Cannavaro is of him standing high on a make-shift pedestal in Berlin’s Olympiastadion, holding the World Cup trophy aloft. There is a gold medal around his neck and a captain’s armband around his bicep. Surrounding him is confetti, and the adulation of his teammates and the football world. As Azzurri heroes go, Cannavaro leads the route in so many ways.
Cannavaro made his full International debut over a decade ago against Northern Ireland in a 2-0 victory in January 1997, and 132 caps later, he will again lead his country in their quest for World Cup glory. A victory in South Africa will see Italy complete back-to-back World Cup victories for the second time, having done so in the 1930s. This is a feat in which the Azzurri captain has a certain precedent. He was part of Cesare Maldini’s Under-21 side that won consecutive European Championships in 1994 and 1996 in France and Spain respectively.
The Neapolitan is the most capped Italian footballer of all time, on a list that includes legends such as Paolo Maldini (126), Dino Zoff (112) and current stars Gianluigi Buffon and Gianluca Zambrotta who have 100 and 92 caps respectively. His first International tournament was the first of Cannavaro’s three World Cups, taking his place in the squad for the 1998 tournament. The Azzurri were knocked out by the hosts and eventual champions France in the quarter-finals and Cannavaro played every minute of Italy’s campaign. In fact the first World Cup finals game he would miss was the controversial defeat to South Korea in the last 16 of the 2002 Championships, finding himself suspended having picked up cautions in the group games against Ecuador and Mexico.
If indiscipline and disappointment marked Italy and Cannavaro’s 2002 tournament, the 2006 finals in Germany made up for it immeasurably. The Azzurri number five was by now the team captain and he was an inspiration. Again he played every minute of Italy’s campaign and was not booked once in the seven games. He was awarded the Silver Ball as the second best player in the tournament, controversially and marginally behind Zinedine Zidane who ended his career with a rash head-butt on Cannavaro’s centre-half partner Marco Materazzi.
Throughout the tournament Cannavaro was colossal, highlighted in a split second of the final against France where he rose his 5 foot 9 inch frame to win a header and leave Zidane stricken on the floor due to the physical and mental impact he made on the Frenchman. Italy conceded only two goals in Germany, the first an own-goal against the United States in the group stage and the other a Zidane penalty in the final which sneaked in off the underside of the crossbar.
On 9 July 2006, the evening of his 100th cap, Cannavaro led his Azzurri side to World Cup glory, and although a free agent in terms of his club, our World Cup hero will aim to do so again in South Africa this summer.