50 Greatest Players in World Cup History: #36 Fabio Cannavaro
A Scugnizzo. A Neapolitan branded audacious in his efforts to fit in the industrial world of North Italy, a Neapolitan nonetheless. Ah, Naples. A city that survives on football. It's the slang of the streets. It's the voice of the commoner. It's the sanctum of the worthy.
So then it fits that Fabio Cannavaro, hailing from Naples, a central defender who was all of 5 foot and 9 inches, too short for someone who has to make a living out of rising above giant strikers, proved his worth and rose above all others to go home with the grandest prize in world football with the captain's armband embracing his biceps.
Cannavaro was baptized by the hardened game out in the streets and he learnt from the greatest in the game at Naples. That's right. He's stopped Diego(d) Maradona in training and the Argentine legend gifted him the dirty ol' boots that he wore that day. Champions collect trophies, warriors collect keepsakes. And Cannavaro did both because he was a champion warrior.
Cannavaro got his first taste of the big stage when he was asked to play his first international competitive game in a crunch FIFA World Cup qualifier against England in '97. The Italians looked at each other and wondered how in the blue hell was this little kid going to stop a peaking Alan Shearer?
Cesare Maldini, the great Paolo's father, might have felt like he put his neck on the line for a kid who could very well slip, let go of the rope and make the guillotine drop. And to top it off, the match was to be held at Wembley and Fabio Cannavaro would start the game at its most hostile end.
Well, if you're born in the fire, you won't die in the sun, right?
Cannavaro followed the Shearer's heels like the LAPD did OJ's White Bronco and eventually made him raise the white flag. Shearer did not get one kick away in that game. Italy won. Cannavaro was the man of the match.
But the world would only truly honour him a decade later. For being the 'Berlin Wall' in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.
What Cannavaro accomplished at the back for the Italians in a span of 4 weeks is the stuff of legends. For 7 games, he battled and rattled the cages of every attacker who dared to venture into the final third and bullied them and drove 'em up a wall. Get out of my house, was the message. And when the Mafioso speaks, you kiss his hand and you oblige.
It was the greatest 4 weeks of defending a backliner could dream about. The Italian defence conceded 2 goals in the entire tournament. An own-goal and a contentious penalty. And it was not for lack of trying from the attacker's part.
Even Thierry Henry tried and failed and so did Zinedine Zidane. They just didn't know how to slalom past this roadblock of a man.
I was just entering my teens when the 2006 World Cup happened and if you asked me to describe Cannavaro in one word at the time, I'd say 'aggressive'. Of course, there was more there than that but you tend to trust in the simplicity of life when you're 12, right?
But that's not to say that aggressive is in anyway a wrong word to use to describe Cannavaro. In fact, it's pretty much spot on. He was aggressive in trying to get on the ball. He was aggressive in going into the tackle. He was aggressive in clearing the ball out of danger.
Cannavaro's greatest World Cup performance came in that epic semi-final against Germany that lives in all our memories thanks to that late, late screamer from Fabio Grosso. But that was just the icing on the cake. Cannavaro and Materazzi, along with Buffon, buried so many German attacks that day that only a team of their unmatched pedigree would keep trying.
Fabio had formed some of the most formidable defensive partnerships of all time. Cannavaro made sure Paolo Maldini wasn't missed after his retirement as he went on to form one of the most formidable defensive partnerships in Italian football history with Alessandro Nesta.
They were runners-up at Euro 2000 and made it to the quarters in the 2002 World Cup where they were eliminated by hosts South Korea in extremely controversial circumstances. Bah, that's all gravy anyway.
Cannavaro had a full course meal in Germany and the image of the bald-headed hero hoisting the World Cup upon his peers' shoulders will live in the minds of all football fans who caught a glimpse.
For helping us remind ourselves that the world's greatest football players don't just play on one side of the pitch and for inspiring a generation of kids to become the guardians of the goal, Fabio Cannavaro is one of our 50 Greatest World Cup Players.