Legends of International Football- Fabio Cannavaro
“Cannavaro has that unmistakable presence as a leader and in my impression, is exactly like that tough and cool-headed defense he shows on the pitch.“- Iker Casillas, Cannavaro’s teammate at Real Madrid.
What makes a legend? For me a legend is someone who is talented, determined, successful and honest to the game he plays. In football, this term can be applied to few men. Being a club legend is a great achievement unto itself, but there are some who go one step higher.
They become the pride of a nation, they lead their team to success and give them international glory. Men like Romario in 1994, Zidane in 1998 and Ronaldo in 2002 led their respective teams to World Cup glory. But for me, the one who stood out amongst them is the next man on the list, Fabio Cannavaro.
The Italian who belonged to the city of Naples is perhaps the most famous Italian defender to date. In a country known for Scirea, Maldini, Baresi and Nesta, that is no mean praise. Cannavaro at his prime was a name that terrified opposing forwards.
In many ways he was the modern defender. He was not your ordinary, clear at first-touch defender. He was good with the ball at his feet and often started off moves. Adept at both zonal marking and man marking, Cannavaro brought a fluidity to the Italian defense that was a treat to watch.
From early on in his career, the Naples man was a man marked out for greatness. He shone at two Under-21 World Cups and won the tournament both in 1994 and 1996.
He made his international debut in 1997. But he really came into focus when in a friendly against England, he kept Alan Shearer on a leash and marked him out of the game. At the time, many predicted that Cannavaro would have a brilliant career ahead, they were right on all fronts except for the fact that they misjudged the scale of his success.
Cannavaro rapidly became a part of the national set up and his first major tournament was the 1998 World Cup. Italy were looking strong until they were knocked out by the eventual champions France in the quarter finals. But young Cannavaro was surrounded by men like Bergomi, Maldini and Costacurta. He was learning from the best.
It was the 2000 Euros though where Cannavaro really matured into a world class defender. He was exceptional throughout the tournament and showed his ability by playing at all positions with equal expertise in a three-man defense. He was almost impregnable and the way he organized his defense was a sight to behold.
Always being chided for being too short for a defender, Cannavaro was exceptional in the air. He had a strong head, excellent positional sense and was quick to make key interceptions. He was rabid in his tackling and had a reputation of being a tough man to get past.
Cannavaro was the only man to emerge with any credit from the 2002 World Cup. Injuries to Nesta and others destroyed the Italian campaign and after Nesta’s retirement, Cannavaro took on the captain’s armband.
The 2004 Euro was another bad tournament for the Azzurri and with Cannavaro sitting out the last group game due to suspension, the calls for his removal became stronger. He was after all a 30-year-old man now and most believed he was past his prime. How wrong would they turn out.
The 2006 World Cup came, and Italy were nowhere in the list of contenders. A group of players consisting of Pirlo, Materazzi, De Rossi, Toni, Totti and Buffon were being led by Cannavaro.
But suddenly, Italy were making waves. They were water-tight in defense and were grinding out wins convincingly. They conceded only two goals all through the tournament. One was an own goal while the other was a penalty by Zinedine Zidane in the finals.
Cannavaro played every minute of the tournament and was like a general marshalling his troops at all times. Cannavaro undoubtedly was the man who led Italy to success. He inspired his team throughout games and was the player with most impact after France’s Zidane. He finished second only to the enigmatic Frenchman in the race for the Golden Ball.
But he prevailed over the Frenchman to become the FIFA Player of the Year in 2002. Having watched the World Cup, I can easily say that while the World Player of the Year would have pleased him, his expression after he lifted the World Cup trophy was that of pure pleasure.
‘The Berlin Wall’ as he was named after his performance in the finals could not play a part in the 2008 Euros due to injury. The 2010 World Cup brought pain again for Cannavaro as Italy were knocked out in the group stages.
The man with the highest number of international caps for Italy was the only defender after Beckenbauer and Sammer to win the World Player of the Year award. And unlike the above mentioned ’liberos’, he was a pure defender.
One of the few players in the game who played his best career in the twilight of his career, Cannavaro was the only player to win the World Player of the Year award after 30 years of age. His influence extended beyond his game. He was a leader who led both through example and directions. He was a man who redefined commitment and having seen him play on his most famous night, that of the 2006 World Cup finals, I can easily say he is the best defender of this era.