The biggest year in the professional career of Real Madrid star Fabio Cannavaro is nearly at an end. The 33-year-old Italian defender, whose passion for the game has remained undiminished since a childhood spent kicking a ball about the streets of Naples, has come a long way since his early days at hometown club Napoli. There Cannavaro was soon showing the drive and determination that would eventually see him reach the top of the world game. The youngster refused to be overawed even by the giant presence of his idol Diego Maradona at the club, famously putting in a number of tasty tackles on El Pelusa in training.
The former Juventus and Parma legend has ample reason to look back with enormous satisfaction on a year which has seen his performances held up as a masterclass in the defender's art. His face lit up with a wide grin, bright blue eyes twinkling with inner fire, Cannavaro sat down with FIFA.com to analyse the events of the last year and reveal his goals for 2007.
In 2006 you have won the Scudetto with Juventus, held the FIFA World Cup™ Trophy aloft in Germany, been awarded the Ballon d'Or and now the FIFA World Player of the Year award . How does it feel?
It's been an incredible year! I've won so much this past 12 months that it's going to be a very hard act to follow. I think that it's been the most important year of my career so far. Without a doubt, winning the World Cup was the high point, that's the pinnacle for any player.
After so much success, what is your next goal? Is there anything left for you to win?
The Champions League. Before hanging up my boots I hope to win that fantastic competition and get my hands on the trophy.
Do you think that this could be your season?
We've got a very strong team at Real Madrid this term and on our day we can beat anybody. I'm very confident that we're going to win things this year.
You performed very well for Juventus last season, and were majestic throughout the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Nevertheless, you have not enjoyed the best of starts for Real Madrid. How have you received the criticism that has come your way?
I think that I'm playing well. Once people have seen you playing out of your skin for an extended period of time, you only need to have a couple of bad games for the knives to come out. People start saying that you're not fully fit, that you're off form etc. But that's football. We've put in some very good performances already this campaign and I prefer to focus on those games where we've shown what we're capable of.
You give the impression of being an optimistic person, and you always have a smile on your face.
As I mentioned before, I always prefer to think positive. I don't let criticism from coaches, journalists, or fans get me down. There are other more important things in life, things that you really do need to worry about.
Looking back at the FIFA World Cup, what images from Germany 2006 really stick in your mind?
Absolutely everything! Of course the most vivid memory is the moment I lifted the trophy, with all my team-mates cheering me on. I've been extremely fortunate and all I can do is to give them my warmest thanks, as I couldn't have done it without them.
At what point did you realise that Italy were capable of winning the FIFA World Cup?
I was totally convinced that we were going to win. When I looked into my team-mates' eyes, I could see they had an extra edge, something different to previous tournaments. During qualifying we felt we had a strong side, but on this occasion it was more than that, there was a determination there I'd never seen before.
After such a hectic summer, you made the decision to leave Juventus and join Real Madrid. Was it a difficult decision to leave?
Yes, it was a tough decision because I was very happy in Turin. I liked the city, the fans adored me and they'd given me their unconditional support. But I also felt that at the age of 33 there were a number of things that I still wanted to achieve in football. It would have been great to play for Juve in Serie B, but I wanted to finish my career at a certain level. I also felt ready for a new challenge.
Have you noticed much difference between Italian and Spanish football?
Yes, although at the end of the day football's the same the world over. (laughs) Spanish football is a much faster game, the pitches are always slicker and the ball moves around a lot more. There is one thing that I don't like: the card-happy referees. I'd prefer the refs to be more like English officials, because over here you get booked for even the slightest foul.
Do you think it is fair that people still associate Italian football with catenaccio?
No way! We don't use catenaccio anymore. Italian teams like Inter, AC Milan, or Juve play attractive football and win games by playing well. But, the fact that people still associate Italy with spaghetti, pizza and catenaccio is not going to change, even though it went out of fashion many years ago.
Individual awards very rarely go to defenders. Do you think that the recognition you have been given is due to football being more defensive? Or is it that people have finally realised the importance of good defensive play?
I don't think that football's more defensive nowadays. In a way I think I've been lucky with these awards this year, because the best strikers haven't had their shooting boots on. (laughs) In years gone by there have been defenders on the final shortlist but the forwards have been very strong and decisive, and have scored very important goals. It might be the case that this year the strikers haven't really caught the eye and that's why they've given the awards to me.
These awards have underlined just how important defending is in football, even though fans often do not appreciate it.
And it's not as if it (good defending) is not nice to watch. We defenders often make vital interventions over the course of a match and can often have as decisive an influence on the final result as the strikers. At the end of the day, we know how to play football too.
As far as you are concerned, what qualities make a good defender?
Humility and a cool head. Sometimes people think that a defender ought to be able to do outlandish things when in possession… but the fact is once you've taken the ball off your opponent and fed it to one of your midfielders then the most important part of your job is over. I don't think that a defender should do extravagant tricks, or take people on all the time. Simplicity wins the day for me.
Let us talk for a moment about the Azzurri. Would you agree that the team is suffering from something of a hangover after the win in Berlin?
The period immediately following a World Cup win is never easy. We're still a good side, but that tournament was a huge mental strain on us, and it's not easy to recharge your batteries. Also the change of coach and the changes in the federation have made things that much more difficult for us. Nevertheless, I think that things are getting back to normal and, after the defeat to France, we've got back on the right track.
Has much changed in the Italy camp since Roberto Donadoni took over from Marcello Lippi?
Both are fanatical about football but see the game in very different ways. That said, they both follow similar coaching methods.
One last question. Who do you think could be the next great Italian defender, following in the footsteps of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, and yourself?
I'm a big fan of Andrea Barzagli, who's playing really well for Palermo at the moment.