After 13 years in the game, and less than a season after his brother Fabio called time on his golden career, Napoli captain Paolo Cannavaro is preparing to take centre stage himself. Eight years the junior of his esteemed sibling, Paolo will be making his UEFA Champions League debut on Wednesday evening, when he leads his beloved hometown club out for their Group A opener against Manchester City.
The two brothers started their careers with the southern Italian outfit, albeit six years apart. Unlike Fabio, however, Paolo later returned to where it all started, intent on becoming for Napoli what Francesco Totti is to Roma; a standard bearer.
The younger of the Cannavaro boys learned his trade in Napoli’s youth teams before turning professional at the age of 17 in 1998. The following season he joined his brother at Parma, making his Serie A debut when he came on for him in a 4-1 defeat of Lecce in May 2000.
It was then that the siblings’ paths diverged. Fabio’s would take him all the way to FIFA World Cup™ glory in 2006, the pinnacle of his 136-match international career, while Paolo found himself on the bench more often than not, spending a season on loan at Verona, where he scored his first top-flight goal, before returning to Parma.
His second spell with the club proved to be a frustrating one, with Cesare Prandelli, the current Italy coach, not deeming him good enough for a starting place. Paolo nevertheless chalked up 18 international appearances for the Under-21 national team in that time, and when Pietro Carmignani came in to replace Prandelli after two seasons, the sturdy central defender was finally able to show what he could do.
The biggest challenge of his career would begin when he made his return to Napoli in 2006, with the club marooned in Serie B, having been declared bankrupt in 2004 and demoted to Serie C1. It was a challenge he would rise to, forming a formidable backline with Maurizio Domizi and Paraguayan centre-half Ruben Maldonado, the best defensive unit in the league.
“The standard was very high because we were down in Serie B with Juventus and Genoa, who had just been relegated,” explained Paolo. “The atmosphere was fantastic all the same, and our supporters really got behind us.
“We made it back to the top flight, and when Walter Mazzarri came in we gradually became a more competitive team,” continued the Napoli stalwart. “Mazzarri made us believe in our ability and he never stopped motivating us."
Mazzarri it was who gave Cannavaro the captain’s armband in 2009. Unquestionably committed to the Napoli cause, the fiercely competitive skipper led from the front, earning the devotion of the San Paolo faithful in the process.
Having been reformed in their darkest hour by the flamboyant film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, Napoli last season completed their rise from the ashes by qualifying for Europe’s premier club competition. Blessed with a youthful and richly talented side, they nevertheless face a stiff task in one of the toughest groups in the competition, where they take on Bayern Munich, Villarreal and Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City.
Captain Cannavaro remains undaunted, however: “I’m happy with the group. Personally I prefer playing against the top teams. We finished third last season and we’re going to show that was no flash in the pan.”
Paolo’s desire to lock horns with the continent’s best is undimmed by the 5-0 mauling Napoli suffered in an early-season friendly against reigning European champions Barcelona.
“I think Barcelona could score four or five goals against any team,” he said. “I was struck by the determination all the Barça players showed in what was only a friendly tournament. That’s what we need to have, that desire to always want to beat the big teams.”
A good performance on Wednesday at the City of Manchester Stadium will take Napoli that bit closer to fulfilling their captain’s wish. Still only 30 and with many years of top-level football ahead of him, as brother Fabio showed in playing until the age of 37, Paolo Cannavaro could well be part of a bright future for I Azzurri.