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The Last of His Kind: How Fabio Cannavaro Defied Conventional Wisdom in his Journey to Immortality

The Ballon D’Or seems so straightforward. At its core, it is a token of honor for the best player in Europe. However, it seems to carry biases of its own, as it prefers flair to fundamentals and scoring goals as opposed to preventing them. Voters would see it so treacherous to honor men known for tackling, colliding with, and doing anything short of killing other men right on the pitch in order to stop the ball from going into the net.

In its illustrious history, the Ballon D’or has been awarded to three different defenders. Franz Beckenbauer, the German pioneer of soccer’s modern “sweeper” role, won it on two occasions on his way to becoming Bayern Munich’s greatest product. Mathias Sammer, a man who comprehended and executed the nuances of Beckenbauer’s role perfectly for Dortmund during the 1990’s, was also given recognition in 1996 as he played an integral part in a Germany side that was victorious in that year’s European Football Championship (Euro 1996). 

However, the sweeper is not the traditional iron stalwart of the backline. His feet are more fluid as he makes plays up the field by charging the box often with the intention of scoring goals (Beckenbauer scored 60 across 427 appearances for Bayern and Sammer scored 21 in 115 appearances for Dortmund). Both of these men, one could argue, were perhaps defenders masquerading in a different role fulfilling the need for panache and control to win the award.

Thus, the plight of the true out-and-out center half to win Europe’s most prestigious individual prize seemed grim until the summer of 2006, when one man’s conquest of world soccer resulted in a war of attrition waged upon his most steadfast unit, a battle fought so beautifully that many of soccer’s writers and authoritative figures had no choice but to cast their votes in this unlikely hero’s favor. That man was a Neapolitan native by the name of Fabio Cannavaro.

Cannavaro, like many others who tend to fight common law and win, was exceptionally different by nature. His 5-foot-9  stature was unlike of his positional counterparts. Such an obstacle may seem damning at first glance, as it would take away from a defenders ability to impose. It never seemed to bother Cannavaro, as his confidence refused to waver.

Cannavaro always believed that confidence was the key to mastering the art of defense, because no defender could ever truly anticipate every challenge that would occur from game to game (Players Tribune). The great ones, in Cannavaro’s eyes, had faith in their own ability to adapt in the face of whatever adversity they find, which was a tenet that he followed from the time he was a 16 year old at his hometown club Napoli.

Before he knew it, his bold play in the back four had earned him a first team spot and the respect of a pretty talented teammate who remarked on the young boy’s incredible aptitude to defend following a vicious tackle in practice. He even gave him a pair of his own boots as a souvenir. That teammate’s name? Diego Maradona.

The next two decades provided a veritable war chest of achievements for Fabio Cannavaro to potentially pick from as the defining moment of an illustrious career. He became one of the defining players of Parma F.C.’s golden age during the late 1990s’, as the club regularly placed in the Top 5 of Serie A in addition to playing Champions League soccer.

Himself, rising French international Lillian Thuram, and a young Gianluigi Buffon formed a stout and nearly impenetrable triangle in defense for the club, as well as a close lifelong friendship that the three have maintained to this day. The apex of Cannavaro’s Parma years occurred at the conclusion of their 1998-99 European campaign, as Parma was victorious in that year’s respective UEFA cup (now known as the UEFA Europa League) against Marseille. 

However, as financial problems began to cripple Parma into its eventual administrative downfall and insolvency, Cannavaro was sold to Inter Milan. With a Brazilian Ronaldo size hole to fill at the striker position following the international supernova’s sale to Real Madrid, the stars simply never aligned for any meaningful or lasting achievements during Cannavaro’s time in Milan. Furthermore, he was starting to experience frequent injuries and tactical misusage that was negatively impacting his performance on the pitch.

With his career needing a second wind, Cannavaro’s move to Juventus would prove to be inarguably the most pivotal of his career. Chemistry within the starting 11 was no issue for Cannavaro with Thuram and Buffon both playing alongside him in Turin. Juventus would go on to win the league twice in 2004 and 2005, and Cannavaro looked reborn with a significantly stronger side around him.

He would collect a litany of awards and within his surprisingly late, but nonetheless brilliant, prime years, including 2005 and 2006 Defender of the Year, 2006 Italian Player of the Year and 2006 Player of the Year awards all from the Italian Footballers’ Association (He would later receive a lifetime achievement award from the group in 2011).

For all the success that Cannavaro had seen with his respective clubs, a sense of urgency was beginning to develop on a larger stage. He dreamed of bringing his people of his glory-starved country the right to proclaim themselves “Campioni del mondo”, the champions of the world, which is fitting for a country that lives and breathes soccer.

Although he had seen his opportunities, being the owner of the 2nd most senior caps for the Italian national team behind his beloved Buffon, triumph never seemed to accompany them. Several heartbreakers included an extra time goal from David Trezeguet of France in Euro 2000 in extra time of the final, as well as a devastating injury to Cannvaro’s center half partner Alessandro Nesta in the 2002 World Cup that forced Cannavaro to put the defense on his shoulders.

His efforts were valiant, but two yellow cards for Cannavaro in the group stage essentially sealed Italy’s fate, as the team was faced with starting two back-up center backs in their Round of 16 fixture against South Korea. They would eventually lose, in highly controversial fashion, on golden goal. Paolo Maldini’s decision to retire from the international team following the 2002 World Cup meant that Cannavaro was now Italy’s captain by default, which was a daunting task to replace arguably Italy’s most talented player ever.

However, Cannavaro’s leadership by example, discipline, and willingness to leave it all on the field won his squad over. Unfortunately, Italy found themselves behind the eight ball again in Euro 2004, as Cannvaro’s aggression picked him up another two yellow cards within the group stages leaving Italy without him for their final group match. Italy won, but failed to advance on goal differential.

With so much talent but so little success in seemingly the most unfortunate of scenarios, one would not be so ludicrous to think that victory simply was not in the cards for Italy. However, that was not how Cannavaro thought. As somebody who had never shied away from a challenge, the time was starting to become now-or-never.

If one were to make a list of every error Italy made in their 2006 World Cup campaign, it would be an own goal by Cristian Zaccardo in the group stages against the United States and a goal on a penalty given up to Zinedine Zidane in the final. That’s it. Seven fixtures and five clean sheets. Even if Italy were not immaculate in their pursuit of glory, they had gotten about as close as anybody in the history of the tournament.

Cannavaro was an artist, and every potent offense in world soccer was his tapestry. His magnum opus was the semi-final match against Germany, which was a battle of attrition behind enemy lines (this game was held in Dortmund). Against a 6-foot-3 Miroslav Klose, one of the most successful strikers in World Cup history (the all-time World Cup leading goal scorer with 16), he won nearly every aerial and positioning battle to be had.

His tackles were bold and crisp, but clean enough to warrant off any charged offense from the referee. He was perfect when his country needed him to be, as Italy did not score until the 118th minute of the game on a goal from Fabio Grosso. Anything less, and all certainty goes out the window. Italy would go on to win the final against France, and Cannavaro recalled the post-game euphoria being the culmination of his confidence, his defining moment. 

On November 27th, 2006, Fabio Cannavaro nervously waited alongside Arsenal icon Thierry Henry and his lifelong friend, Gianlugi Buffon, minutes away from being associated with an award that many soccer players could only dream of winning in a lifetime. The culmination of 20 years in football was exhilarating as he heard his name announced, but he could not help but feel that for an award he so firmly believed he deserved, that his teammate and friend had not received his due diligence.

He told France Football afterwards, “I would give two Ballon d’Or prizes…One to me and one to Buffon. There is a great respect and friendship between Gigi and I.” After all, that’s who Cannavaro is. He is a role model, a leader, and a man who marches to the beat of his own drum.

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