There’s a quote from Mark Twain which reads:
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
If Twain was around today, I’m sure he would apply the same quote to watching our second ‘Icon in Italy’ captain Italy to the 2006 World Cup. At 5ft 9, a little defender, Fabio Cannavaro, went from humble beginnings to conquering the world and everything in between, including a Ballon D’Or.
Staying true to the Twain quote, Cannavaro was thrust into the dogfight from the start, growing up in the streets of 1970’s Naples. Born on 13 September 1973, young Fabio’s first footballing love was for his hometown club, and said playing on the streets with his friends as well as in Napoli’s youth team helped his football career:
“On the street you play in a small space with few players and it changes your approach with no rules and little space you become clever and more flexible. We risk losing that nowadays.”
“What are you doing, that’s ‘El Diego’!?”
His younger days may have helped him develop skills which would help him become a reader of the game and an incredible man-marker, but Cannavaro initially started his career on the right-wing as an expansive midfielder. It was only in the semi-final of an U17’s tournament that he was given the job of marking the opposition’s star-striker, a defining moment which would be the start of Cannavaro’s incredible career as a central defender.
Another famous story from his youth was when he was given the job to mark Diego Maradona in a training session, and did so by completely cleaning the great man out with a slide tackle. The coaches were furious, but Maradona himself calmed them down and praised Cannavaro for a job well done, even gifting the youngster his boots after the session.
His disregard for Maradona’s status sums up a strength of Cannavaro’s which would always see him well in the eyes of coaches; his focus.
Soon after he broke into the first team and instantly put in eye-catching performances, so much so he won Serie A defender of the year in 1995. Sadly for Napoli, they were forced to sell their rising star a cash-strapped, post-Maradona era.
He moved to Parma in the summer of 1995, where his reputation continued to grow at a rapid rate. Cannavaro was part of a legendary Parma team full of household names at the time, including, Antonio Benarrivo and Nestor Sensini.
However, it was the young defensive wall of Cannavaro, Lillian Thuram and Gianluigi Buffon which arguably, outshone the rest.
Party at Parma
As the seasons ticked on, Parma grew as a team and climbed up the table, finishing second in Serie A in the 1996-97 season and winning the Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup double in 1998-99.
This period of Parma’s history was to be their golden era, a team that will always be remembered as a great team, but only looking back at the squads do you realise the number of big names featured for them. Players such as Hernan Crespo, Philippo Inzaghi, Diego Fuser, Juan Sebastian Veron and so many more, ones that don’t immediately spring to mind but the kind of players that if they were to come up in a pub quiz, the automatic response would be “oh yeah remember him, he was decent”.
By now, Cannavaro was making a name for himself at a place where most of his career success would come; the national side. Having won two U21 European Championships he seamlessly moved into the Azzurri senior squad. However, in the 2002 World Cup Italy were eliminated by France, which France should have taken as a warning as at the next World Cup as Cannavaro and Italy came to settle the scores.
Back at club level, Cannavaro won one more Coppa Italia before moving to Inter in 2002. It was a big money move, around €23 million, but far from a successful one. He mainly spent his time injured or out of position and after two sub-par seasons, including finishing seventh, he had enough.
Juventus followed in 2004 and silverware followed. Back with his old pals Thuram and Buffon, Juventus won the Scudetto back to back in 2004-05 and ‘05-06, with Cannavaro still firmly in his prime.
2005 and 2006 were perhaps the best of his career, with Cannavaro known as one of the best defenders in the world. Small in stature, he still rose highest with his incredible jumping ability and tactical reading of the game which he still carried from the streets of Naples. One of the biggest compliments you can give to Cannavaro is that at 5ft 9, he was still considered a serious aerial threat.
The definition of a serious professional, his diet and training regime meant that he was still quick, agile and first to every ball well into his thirties.
With the national team, he captained Italy to their revenge over France in the 2006 World Cup Final, with a helping hand (and head) from Zinedine Zidane. His performances in the tournament, especially against Germany, were so good he was nicknamed ‘Il Muro di Berlino’, ‘The Berlin Wall’.
Cannavaro was recognised for his performances, receiving a host of awards in 2006 including: the Ballon D’or, FIFA World Player of the Year, Serie A Footballer of the Year and UEFA Team of the Year.
He now featured for Real Madrid and after a brilliant start, winning two La Liga titles, but soon after he began to decline. As he started to slow Madrid were weak on the counter-attack and conceded far too many goals.
In 2009 he returned to Juventus for a year before winding down his career at Al-Ahli. He also finished his national team career after the 2010 World Cup, breaking the appearance record with 136.
Despite being absolutely rinsed by Lionel Messi as he got older, we here in the Icons of Italy club, will always remember Cannavaro as that little defender who took on the biggest and best, and more often than not, won.