It’s difficult for me to write an article about Fabio Cannavaro without filling the opening paragraph with superlatives. This is one of the all-time greats we’re talking about here: a great captain for club and country, my favourite defender and, more importantly, a Parma legend.
Joining from Napoli in 1995, Cannavaro made 289 appearances in 7 seasons with the Gialloblu, scoring 6 goals in the process. Cannavaro built his reputation as one of the world’s best central defenders during his time with Parma and the steps taken at the Stadio Tardini helped him accrue an enviable list of honours.
Fabio won two Serie A titles, two La Liga titles, the 2006 World Cup, the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award after leaving Parma in 2002, but I’m more concerned with his achievements at Parma (what with the title of this series being “Gialloblu Giants”). Cannavaro made 40+ appearances in 5 out of his 7 Parma seasons and never made less than thirty. He was an ever-present, an icon of consistency, a colossus…
Cannavaro slotted straight into Parma’s XI and was immediately at home in Nevio Scala’s 5-3-2 formation. Leaving his hometown club Napoli was a huge wrench for Fabio, but the move paid-off big-time. The Gialloblu were already renowned for their sturdy defence and Cannavaro’s arrival further solidified their backline. This coupled with Scala’s sound defensive philosophies created the perfect environment for Fabio to grow into one of the all-time great centre-halves.
1995-96 wasn’t a great season for Parma. Cannavaro made 36 appearances in all competitions as the Gialloblu laboured to a 6th-place finish after finishing 3rd the season before. Things improved in 96-97 for both Parma and Cannavaro. Disappointing runs in the UEFA Cup and Coppa Italia saw Parma exit in the 3rd and 2nd rounds of those competitions, but they managed a 2nd-place Serie A position after drawing with Juventus on the closing day.
More significantly, January 1997 marked the start of a long and hugely successful international career. Cannavaro made his Azzurri bow in a friendly with Northern Ireland, and would go on to earn another 11 caps before the year’s end. A particularly notable performance came in a World Cup ’98 qualifier against England at Wembley. Cannavaro dominated Alan Shearer, then considered one of the best strikers in the world, for 90 minutes as Italy eeked-out a 1-0 win.
The next season was mostly fruitless for Parma as new coach Carlo Ancelotti could only guide them to another 6th-place finished. 98-99, however, was huge. The Gialloblu finished 4th in Serie A but won both the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup, beating Marseille 3-0 in the final. Parma’s record was hugely impressive in 98-99, but I’m going to hold the details for now as I plan on taking a look at their UEFA Cup winning sides later this week.
Doping allegations would sadly may Cannavaro’s 98-99 triumphs when Shady footage of the Parma captain receiving injections before the UEFA Cup final surfaced on the internet a few years later. The substance was later found to be Neoton (Phosphocreatine), a chemical commonly used to produce muscular energy. Neoton was not on the banned substance list and no action was taken, but the taint remains. Personally I see nothing wrong with an athlete using perfectly legal substances to enhance their performance before a big game, but c’est la vie.
Parma struggled to mount a serious title challenge after the highs of 98-99 and finished 5th the following season. They captured the Supercoppa in 99-00 and finished 4th in 2000-01 (reaching the Coppa Italia final along the way), before winning the Coppa Italia the following seasons despite a dismal finish of 10th in Serie A.
Sadly 2001-02 would be Cannavaro’s last at the Stadio Tardini as Fabio, now recognised as one of the world’s best defenders, left for Inter in a €23-million deal. Fabio pulled the curtain down on an illustrious career this summer after spells with Juventus (twice), Real Madrid and Al-Ahli Dubai. His international career continued until 2010, with his crowning glory being Italy’s 2006 World Cup win. Cannavaro put in a series of legacy-defining performances for the triumphant Azzurri, earning himself the nickname of “Wall of Berlin” after a particularly impressive showing in the final (held in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, hence the nickname).
Not only did the 2006 World Cup secure Cannavaro’s place in Azzurri history but his world-class performances helped him capture the 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or (European Footballer of the Year) awards. Impressively, Cannavaro was the first defender to win the latter since Lothar Matthaus in 1990, while he and the German sweeper remain the only to defensive players to ever be named World Player of the Year.
Writing a laundry list of Fabio Cannavaro’s accomplishments is all very well but it only tells half the story. I’ve spent plenty of time going over Fabio Cannavaro’s legacy, but what about Fabio Cannavaro the player? Everybody he was a great defender, but what made him one of the most celebrated centre-backs in history?
Some believe that crunching tackles, determination and desperate lunges are the prerequisite components of a great defender. I disagree completely. Of course defenders need to be determined and strong in the tackle, but there’s more to defending than that. I believe that composure, intelligence and elegance are just as important in defence as in attack, and Cannavaro was the perfect personification of all three.
I’ve never seen another defender who can read the game like Cannavaro. Just as Barcelona’s tiki-taka wizards can see passes that are just invisible to other players, Cannavaro could telegraph attacking moves before they’d even happened. He was a master of nipping attacks in the bud by cutting them off at the supply with blocks, interceptions and straightforward tackles.
Cannavaro’s career isn’t littered with frantic, last-gap challenges because he simply didn’t need to make them. His vision was so good that he was able to kill attacks before they became serious threats by exercising one of the sharpest defensive minds in the game. Cannavaro was strong, but he didn’t use his brawn to carry him through games: he, like most other great defenders of the modern era, used his brain.
Watching Fabio Cannavaro in his prime was always a pleasure, especially at the 2006 World Cup. Rarely eye-catching but always effective, Cannavaro was always in the right place and not by chance. He turned defending, football’s most destructive element, into a genuine thing of beauty, and for that he should be commended.
That is why I’ve always loved Cannavaro. Studying his style completely changed my perception of how a defender should play, and his success shows that you don’t have to be the biggest (Fabio was only 5’9”) or the toughest to be a top centre-back. I salute you, Il Capitano, and hope we soon see your like again.
… and hey, how many other defenders have had such a “charming” song written about them?