Cannavaro leading by example
The setting could not be more fitting. Italy's inspirational captain Fabio Cannavaro is set to lead his side out in the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final on his 100th appearance in the famous blue shirt.
View Fabio Cannavaro's player profile
The Neapolitan central defender, who has experienced the full gamut of emotions during his long and varied international career, appears to have reached his physical and mental peak at Germany 2006. Leading from the back with skill and determination, Marcello Lippi's entire Italy squad appears to have been infused with his boundless energy and will to win.
In the shadow of Vesuvius
Cannavaro was born in Naples on 13 September 1973. His talent was quickly spotted by scouts from local club Napoli, who were enjoying the most successful period of their history. The Napoli of Diego Maradona and Ciro Ferrara had just been crowned champions of Italy and the young Cannavaro, a ball boy at the Stadio San Paolo, was delighted to be sharing a club with such genuine legends of the modern game. Such was his progress that it was not long before he was learning the tricks of the trade alongside his idols as part of the Napoli first team.
Cannavaro's Serie A debut came on 7 March 1993. Fate decreed that it should take place at Turin's Stadio Delle Alpi against Italian superpowers Juventus, his current club. Unfortunately, post-Maradona Napoli were in desperate need of funds and were soon forced to sell their precociously talented young star.
From Parma to Turin via Milan
It would be an ambitious Parma side that won the race for Cannavaro's services and the defender went on to form one of the finest rearguards in the world alongside Lilian Thuram and Gianluigi Buffon. Between 1995 and 2002, Cannavaro and his Parma team-mates won the Italian Cup, the UEFA Cup, the Italian Super Cup, and came within a whisker of the league title.
After a brief and unspectacular period at Inter Milan, 2004 saw Cannavaro enticed northwards by Juventus. It would turn out to be a match made in heaven. The world-class defender finally added the Scudetto to his medal collection, winning back-to-back league titles in the colours of the Bianconeri.
Cannavaro's superlative performances for the Nazionale have seen his reputation soar around the globe. His first taste of international success came over a decade ago under coach Cesare Maldini with Italy's U-21 side, winning consecutive UEFA European U-21 Championship titles in 1994 and 1996.
After his senior debut against Northern Ireland on 22 January 1997, Cannavaro's first taste of a major international tournament came at France 98 under his mentor Maldini. With Cannavaro and Co at the back, Italy boasted one of the meanest defences in the competition, only going out to eventual champions France after a penalty shoot-out.
Fast forward to UEFA EURO 2000 and it was Les Bleus who once again shattered Italy's dreams in the cruellest possible fashion. Another superb tournament by defensive stalwart Cannavaro had helped the Azzurri reach the Final, where they led the then world champions 1-0 going into injury time. Suddenly, with only seconds remaining, up popped Sylvain Wiltord to level the scores, the French taking the trophy thanks to an extra-time golden goal from David Trezeguet.
The powerful defender also endured Italy's ill-fated expeditions to Korea/Japan 2002 and EURO 2004 in Portugal. In the wake of Paolo Maldini's retirement from the international game, Cannavaro was the man chosen to help lead the three-time world champions out of one of the lowest points in their history. His vast experience made him the ideal choice, allied to the class and charisma that have pervaded his every appearance in an Italy shirt.
Azzurri do it their way
Critical acclaim has been widespread after the Nazionale's six games on German soil. Former Juventus coach Lippi has forged an unbreakable team spirit within his squad, which is packed with top-class players. And head and shoulders above them all has been one man set to cement his status as an all-time footballing great: Cannavaro.
Italy fans will be hoping that the man born in Fuorigrotta can pull off the crowning achievement of his glittering career on Sunday in Berlin. At 8pm, the Azzurri's proud captain will stride on to the pitch to represent his country for the 100th time in the biggest game in world football. The battle-hardened stopper is determined to make the most of the opportunity: "I knew that this could my last World Cup, so I asked my team-mates to help me go all the way."
A model professional, the day after his side's dramatic semi-final victory over host nation Germany, Cannavaro was already focused on Sunday's opponents. "When I think of France it brings back terrible nightmares of the penalty shoot-out in Paris during France 98 and the EURO 2000 final in Rotterdam. We're going to have to sweat, scrap and suffer, but we cannot even contemplate defeat." Spoken like a true captain.