Some players are born to dribble past opponents and score goals. Others, like the recently crowned European player of the year Fabio Cannavaro, were put on this earth to stop them. The young Fabio grew up in the bustling Neapolitan suburb of Fuorigrotta, a stone's throw from San Paolo Stadium, and learnt his trade marshalling defences in the fiercely contested street games that were an everyday part of his childhood. Not surprisingly for someone with 394 Serie A appearances under his belt, Cannavaro has gone on to become an imposing defensive general with an instinctive ability to anticipate play and time tackles to perfection.
A product of the land of catenaccio, he is quite simply one of the world's finest exponents of the defensive arts and the latest in a long line of gifted Italian defenders. Should he claim the coveted prize, he will owe a small debt of gratitude to illustrious predecessors such as the elegant Giacinto Facchetti, who sadly died recently, the incombustible Franco Baresi and the evergreen Paolo Maldini.
Born on 13 September 1973, Cannavaro began his career in Napoli's youth teams at the same time as his hometown club rose to domestic and European prominence. Like his fellow ball boys at the San Paolo, he marvelled at the exploits of Diego Maradona in his pomp. But it was also the ever-dependable Ciro Ferrara, seven years his senior, who Cannavaro looked up to, and before long they would become team-mates and mentor and protege.
Debut for Napoli
Cannavaro made his Serie A bow on 7 March 1993 at the Stade delle Alpi against Juventus, whose famous colours he would one day wear. A 4-3 defeat proved a painful introduction to top-flight football and with Napoli in gradual decline, the fledgling defender had every opportunity to hone his famed mental toughness. With the trophy-laden Maradona era at an end, the southern upstarts were eventually forced to sell their crop of talented youngsters to survive, Cannavaro among them.
And so in 1995 the 22-year-old headed north to join Parma, where he quickly cemented his place in the first team, forming a formidable defensive partnership with fellow new arrival Lilian Thuram.
In a highly successful seven-year sojourn in Emilia-Romagna, the commanding centre-half was an integral part of the side that lifted the Italian Cup, the UEFA Cup and the Italian Super Cup and went so close to claiming the Scudetto. Club success was soon rewarded with international recognition, and he made his Italy debut on 22 January 1997.
He was an ever-present for the Azzurri at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™ and the 2000 UEFA European Championship, with eventual champions France ending Italian hopes on both occasions. After Italy's unfortunate campaign at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, he left the fading Parma for Inter Milan, where, in a creditable first season, he helped the Nerazzurri to second place in Serie A and the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. His increasingly impressive career was put on hold in 2003-04, however, when he fractured his tibia, and it was while recovering from that injury that he decided to join Juventus. He spent two successful seasons with the Turin giants before packing his bags again in the summer of 2006 and heading for Real Madrid, where he followed in the footsteps of the newly retired Zinedine Zidane by slipping on the fabled No5 jersey.
Cannavaro's performance at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ was nothing short of spectacular. With the seemingly indestructible Paolo Maldini having retired from international football, he was handed the captain's armband. Few were surprised by the choice. As well as being the oldest player in the side, coach Marcelo Lippi knew full well that Cannavaro had the charisma and force of personality to inspire his team-mates.
He certainly needed to draw on those qualities in Germany when news of the Calcio scandal broke. At the height of the storm the captain stood tall, handling the criticism with aplomb while also reassuring his troops. The players responded by closing ranks around their skipper and the rest, as they say, is history.
Italy's triumphant campaign saw Cannavaro perform at the peak of his physical and mental powers. An example of his character and confidence came in the wake of the disappointing 1-1 draw with the USA, when he urged Lippi to revert to the traditional Italian defensive approach. The coach heeded his captain's advice, sacrificing one of his forwards for an extra defender against the Czech Republic.
The switch paid off. Italy advanced inexorably to the Final with a record goal difference, scoring a 11 goals and conceding just one en route, and even that was an own goal - Cristian Zaccardo's scuffed clearance against the USA. A stylish performer throughout, Cannavaro completed a century of caps in the Final against France, a feat he celebrated in the best possible style. "I knew it could be my last World Cup," recalls the smiling champion, "so I asked my team-mates to give me one last present."