After glittering spells with Napoli, Parma, Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid, the veteran defender decided to write the final chapter of his playing career in the Emirates, where he brings all his experience to bear when leading the backline at Al Ahli.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Cannavaro spoke about his new life in Dubai, the 2010 FIFA World Cup, his 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year award and Monday’s FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala.
FIFA.com: Fabio, after a successful career in Europe, how do you spend your time in Dubai?
Fabio Cannavaro: I’m really enjoying it here. It’s a beautiful city that has many attractions. I live on Al Nakhla Island and my kids like it there. It’s a great experience for me and my family after 20 years in professional football.
How do you see football in the Emirates and in the region in general?
Football is growing fast in the UAE. There are many excellent young players, and club management is much better than before.
What is the difference between playing in Europe and in the Gulf? Can you see major developments coming to football in the region?
The difference between European football and that in the Gulf is that in Europe you have to play more games each week, which makes it more demanding physically. You have to be at peak fitness if you want to stay on the pitch all year long. It’s not the same here, where games are not so frequent and football seems to be a pressure-free activity. That said, we should see the game develop in the coming years providing the correct steps are followed.
2010 was not a successful year for the Italian national team. How do you feel now when you look back at what happened in South Africa?
Well, we didn’t have really enough time to gel, with all the new players joining the team. I think a lot of the guys were under great pressure while many first choice players like Pirlo, for example, were forced out with injury.
Do you think Italy can bounce back? What do you expect in the future with new coach Cesare Prandelli?
Our generation of players was the best. Italy now have to introduce fresh young talent if we want to win the World Cup. This will take some time, but Prandelli is a good coach who has been doing great work with young players.
You put an end to your international career in 2010; do you miss the national set-up?
Yes, I miss playing for Italy. I played for the national team my entire career and am the most capped Azzurri player of all time. But the time had come for me to quit.
In 2006, you lifted the trophy after leading Italy to FIFA World Cup glory. Four years later, in Johannesburg, you held the trophy again, but for a different reason. How did you feel?
I felt proud to be asked to hand over the trophy because it reminded me of that brilliant night in Berlin. Those moments back in 2006 are something that I will never forget.
Do you keep up with what is going on in Italian football?
I still follow the game in Italy and Spain with a passion. But after all those years of pressure and trips, I’m happy with my new experience here in Dubai.
Italian football did enjoy success at the FIFA Club World Cup this year with Inter Milan. Do you think Italian clubs can repeat that success this year?
It is always hard for sides to stay on top after a whole year, but Italian clubs are always among the favourites.
You won the FIFA World Player of the Year award back in 2006. What do you remember about that event, when you became the first and only defender to capture the prestigious prize?
It was a great honour to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award, especially for me as a defender. It marked a positive shift in my life, but it also meant that people expected me to stop opponents from scoring in every match, which is impossible for one defender to achieve alone.
The FIFA Ballon d’Or is to be awarded today; who’s your favourite out of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi?
Personally, I would give it to both Xavi and Iniesta, who were the perfect leaders for Barcelona. I cannot put either of them in front of the other as they both are wonderful players.
In December, Russia was selected to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and Qatar was selected for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. What’s your opinion on those choices? And how can this help football in these two countries?
I think it’s a positive thing to stage the World Cup in as many different countries as possible. New experiences are always good for development, and football will develop there as a result. Qatar and Russia will be up to the challenge.
You recently launched a charity with Ciro Ferrara; the Cannavaro Ferrara Foundation. Could you please tell us about it and why did you establish it?
The Cannavaro Ferrara Foundation was set up to provide more support to Napoli, the city where I was born. We felt that we have to help people in our city and give a hand to those in need.
What are your objectives with Al Ahli? And what are you looking forward to in 2011?
My aim with Al Ahli is to be an example to the local players. They must learn that professionalism is the path to success. I keep training during the holidays at the age of 37 in order to draw the young players’ attention to the importance of practice and training. Al Ahli is an ambitious club and they are going in the correct direction, and I hope I can be useful for the club in 2011, both on and off the pitch.