Fabio Cannavaro: More Than Just a Ballon d'Or & World Cup Winner

Ross Kennerley
Oct 2, 2020, 5:15 PM GMT+1
Cannavaro would become one of the best ever
Cannavaro would become one of the best ever | Tal Gilad/Minute Media
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The name Fabio Cannavaro, for those not overly familiar with Italian football, tends to be affiliated with that 2006 World Cup performance and resulting Ballon d'Or award.

Rightly so. The Italian remains the last defender to win the coveted France Football gong, etching his name into history for both club and country, and as one of the all-time great defenders of his era.

An iconic image.
An iconic image. | PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

But even before the turn of the century, Cannavaro had began cementing his place as a defensive stalwart. His legacy in his home country was already well underway long before he turned out for European heavyweights Inter, Juventus and Real Madrid.

Cannavaro also isn't really associated with having hair. For the younger generation, all they will remember is a surprisingly short, clean-shaven central defender who somehow plied his trade in a position his height would normally deem beyond his reach (yes, that was intended).

But the centre-half didn't conform to football's genetic determinism. First featuring his hometown club, Napoli, he was in fact fielded in midfield. That didn't last long, and there was a natural progression into central defence by his coaches, a move that, while unassuming, would be the starting point for one of world football's greatest ever centre-backs.

A magnificent tackler, it was his trait of dispossession that stood out from the norm. Able to crunch his opponents, but all the while retrieve the ball, he was a bully in every sense, yet did so with grace.

Fabulous locks.
Fabulous locks. | Grazia Neri/Getty Images

Two full seasons with Napoli soon came to a close with his reputation sky-high, and Parma saw fit to bring him to the club in the summer of 1995. Immediately settling into the starting lineup, he forged a part of a five-man wall alongside Gianluigi Buffon and Lilian Thuram.

His height (again) naturally raised a few eyebrows, but his quick pace off the mark and salmon-esque leaping ability more than made up for any deficiencies in that department. Coupled with the leadership qualities he inherited from Ciro Ferrara during his time at Napoli, his status as an obscenely talented defender grew even further, to the point of continent-wide recognition.

A key component of a formidable back five, Parma were forming one of Europe's toughest defences. His standing as one the best in Serie A soon culminated in a maiden Italy call-up. This came in 1997, just two seasons into his Parma career, against Northern Ireland.

Making a more than adequate account of himself, injury saw Cannavaro thrust into further starting lineups for crucial World Cup qualifying encounters, and eventually, each of Gli Azzurri's five World Cup '98 matches. Disappointment in the quarter-finals were soon made up for with club success, as Cannavaro led Parma to 1999 UEFA Cup glory.

Cannavaro won the 1999 UEFA Cup with Parma
Cannavaro won the 1999 UEFA Cup with Parma | Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

That season, he would also claim a Coppa Italia title and Supercoppa Italiana crown, the just rewards for his individual magnificence.

Playing in a nation that prides itself of organisation, resolute tactical authority and rugged professionalism, there is no player who could embody those traits quite like Cannavaro. If Michelangelo had sculpted The Working Man, he wouldn't have differed too greatly in appearance from the central defender.

While his success in the following century would define his worldwide legacy, his path before that legendary night in Berlin had already begun many moons before. Cannavaro is not only one of the greatest of his era, but indeed of all time. A centre-back who encapsulated all of the traits we know to associate with Italian football, but all with his own unique approach.

One of the very best - well, sixth, to be precise - he will always be remembered for an unwavering dedication to his craft, one he damn well mastered.

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