With a successful playing career spanning two decades and replete with silverware and memorable moments, there were reasons aplenty for Fabio Cannavaro to be chosen as one of Final Draw assistants for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Topping the list, however, was his inspirational performance as captain of the Italy side that claimed the coveted Trophy at Germany 2006, which also led to the centre-back winning the FIFA World Player of the Year award.
FIFA.com caught up with the 40-year-old Italian on Brazilian soil and, in addition to touching on the past, present and future of this iconic former defender and aspiring coach, sought out his unique insights on the countries which had the biggest impact during his stellar career.
FIFA.com: What comes to mind when you think about football in Brazil?
Fabio Cannavaro: When you talk about Brazil, you talk about football. We’re talking about one of those countries where football is different: it’s seen as a spectacle, a reason for living. I’m proud to be Italian, but there are different ways of seeing the game. I’m also proud because I know that, of the five world titles Brazil have won, two of them came against us [in 1970 and 1994]. That makes me proud. Brazil is football.
What do you think ranks as Italy's greatest strength when the national team crosses the white line onto the pitch?
We’ve got a lot of technical ability but, more than anything else, we show a lot of heart, sacrifice and a willingness to win at all costs. We’re willing to play ugly if necessary. For us, winning is everything: that’s our secret. We’ve got the willpower to overcome difficulties and obstacles – that’s something Italy’s always had and it’s something to be proud of.
There’s been a lot of talk about how the Italian national team has changed and become more adventurous since Cesar Prandelli took over. Do you agree?
Italian football has changed a lot, but not just through Prandelli. If you look at the past 20 years of European competition, some of the best football’s been played by AC Milan. The national team too, the one I played in that won the 2006 World Cup, for example. We finished some games with four forwards, two midfielders – one of whom was [Andrea] Pirlo, who was attack-minded – and two attacking full-backs in [Gianluca] Zambrotta and [Fabio] Grosso. But people always remember the Italy side of the 1930s, when catenaccio was the prevailing trend. Nowadays we still know how to defend, but we can attack too. We have more of the ball.
As one of their contemporaries, are you surprised to see the likes of Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon still playing an important role as international level?
I’m not surprised, no, as for us Italian players working hard and making sacrifices is part of who we are. We train really hard. We’re professional off the pitch too, 24 hours a day. And that’s the result: seeing players like Pirlo and Buffon still involved at 35 or 36. That’s normal in Italy.
Some of the biggest points of your international career came against France, what are your overriding memories of those games?
My generation had a major footballing rivalry with France, because we always seemed to meet them at the most decisive moments. Sometimes I came off second-best, but the last – and the most important [the Final of Germany 2006] – couldn’t have gone any better. That said, I still can’t stomach what happened to us in the final [of UEFA EURO 2000] in Rotterdam, because we weren’t Italian enough. We should have been… well not dirty, but certainly more cunning, nastier even. We threw away that final in the last 30 seconds [Editor’s note: France equalised in second-half injury time, before winning in extra time through a David Trezeguet golden goal]. Even so, it was always genuinely enjoyable to play against them, because they had an extraordinary generation of players, such as [Zinedine] Zidane, [Lilian] Thuram, [Didier] Deschamps, [Thierry] Henry, Trezeguet... Every time we met them it was tough, but exciting too.
The current World Champions, Spain, have developed a lot during your career, what do you think is behind that?
I had the pleasure of living in Spain and so I was able to enjoy the way they live football over there: the laid-back way they prepare for games, without so much stress, without so much pressure… Of course winning still matters, but it’s also about having fun – it’s different. The Spanish have been lucky because, as well as having a generation of phenomenal players, they were able to unearth a mean streak too. Spain have always had top-quality, talented national teams but they were never able to take that next small step up and be real winners. However, over the last six or eight years they’ve won nearly everything and it’ll certainly be difficult to get the better of them this year too.
When you moved to Spain in 2006, could you already see that this generation had what it took to become so successful?
Yes, you could see that incredible players were coming through and that there were years of work behind that change [to a more ruthless mentality]. Later I’d joke around with Iker Casillas and say “you guys might have won the EURO , but one day you’ll see how much being a world champion changes your life”. And that’s how, by becoming tougher, meaner, they won the World Cup and became an almost unbeatable team. And the problem is that the generation coming through is as strong as the current one, so the other countries will have it tough.
Are Spain your favourites to win Brazil 2014?
They’re definitely one of the favourites: they’re the team to beat. They’re a battle-hardened side, while they’ve got youngsters in the mix too.
This La Roja squad suffered arguably their most resounding defeat against Brazil, in the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup 2013. What’s your insight on that reverse?
These things happen, nobody’s invincible. Once you start thinking that you are, that’s when you get caught out. The Spanish players need to be aware that they’ve got huge individual quality and a great coach but that, if they lose their thirst for victory, things could go badly wrong. And that [thirst] is not that easy to hold onto, though I believe that anyone who’s tasted victory – who’s been in the centre of the field with his team-mates, having brought joy to his whole country – would want to do it all over again, would be willing to suffer and find their motivation. On top of that though, they’ll know that the more you win, the more people want to beat you.
How do you look back on the last edition of the World Cup in South Africa?
In footballing terms, 2010 was a strange year in Italy’s history. We went into the tournament with a group of young players and a sprinkling of veterans from [Germany] 2006. But then [Gennaro] Gattuso hurt his knee, Buffon had a back problem, Pirlo was injured… We played our biggest games without that nucleus and suffered for it [Editor’s note: Italy finished bottom of Group F]. That’s because you need strong characters at a World Cup. I subsequently went back for the Final, to take the Trophy back for the first time, as the captain of the winners of the previous tournament. That was a beautiful moment, beautiful but sad, having to say goodbye to the Trophy after four years… It was a nice moment.
For you personally, how much does it mean to become a world champion?
I always say that once someone wins a Champions League, a UEFA Cup or an international competition then he can consider himself a good player, even a top one. But once you win a World Cup, you become a legend. That sums up just how much a player’s life changes once he’s a world champion.
After South Africa 2010 you moved to the United Arab Emirates. How was that experience?
I went to the Emirates [to join Al Ahli in 2010] to try a new footballing experience. After a year there I had a knee problem and, after sitting down with the club president, we decided my role should change. I signed a three-year contract, with the first two to allow me to get settled and pick up my [UEFA] coaching licenses – the ‘B’, ‘A’ and ‘Pro’. Last year, when the new coach [the Romanian Cosmin Olaroiu] arrived, I agreed to work with him as an assistant. That [coaching] is where my future lies, or at least I hope so. I want to be a coach because I think it’s the closest thing to what I’ve been doing my whole life. I hope to be able to use the experience I’ve gained over so many years to help bring on young players. I dream of one day becoming a good coach, good enough to take charge of a national team and, who knows, win a trophy or two.
During your playing days, you gained a lot of respect through your leadership skills. Are those skills applicable once you’re part of a coaching staff?
A coach’s role is different. A football player has to be more selfish in terms of how he prepares for a game, without needing to worry too much about those around him, but a coach needs to know how to motivate everyone and perceive certain situations. It’s a role that I really enjoy. I’m studying a lot, I’ve got my own ideas about the game, and the fact that I played club football in Spain really helped me broaden my sporting knowledge. My contract as an assistant coach runs out in June 2014 and after that I want to be a head coach. I’d particularly like a role abroad, as I enjoy meeting new people and experiencing different cultures.
Which coaches had the biggest influence on you as a player?
Marcello Lippi and Fabio Capello: it was no accident that I was very successful under them. They’re both guys who taught me a lot, while I also worked with the likes of Arrigo Sacchi, Giovanni Trapattoni... I hope to able to draw on the best of them all so I can share it with my future players. When you’re lucky enough to coach top-level players, you need to know how to handle them, how to get the best out of each one at any given time. I was fortunate enough to have coaches who were particularly good at that, but the most important thing is being both honest and coherent.
Does the fact you were a successful player help or hinder you?
At first it’s going to help me, because people remember what you’ve achieved. But if, when the time comes to talk to your players, you can’t get your message across, you’ll lose them in two minutes – that’s what players are like. I hope to be up to the task. I’m passionate, I’m working really hard – I’ve spent the last two years studying – and I enjoy preparing training sessions, ironing out mistakes and getting in amongst the players. It’s a new page [in my footballing life]. As a player I didn’t have the ability to be a classy No10: I was someone who needed my team-mates and always had to give my all. When I’m a coach, I hope to be able to instil that will to win in my players.