There is a famous quote from Paolo Maldini: “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake”. So often this statement rings true, however, Fabio Cannavaro has proved the exception to the rule. In 2006, the World Cup-winning captain won the Ballon d’Or, one of only a handful of defenders to have earned this accolade. In a year of near perfection for the Italian, one moment, in particular, stands out. That moment contradicts the famous Maldini quote.
German hearts were broken. 119 minutes into their World Cup semi-final against Italy and the Azzurri had just taken the lead. The host nation had one minute and change to push for an equaliser, the majority of the fans packed into the Westfalenstadion urging the Germans on. A high ball fell towards Lukas Podolski, some 35 yards from goal. With so many bodies ahead of him a header towards the box could have caused enough chaos to spark a goal, an opportunity missed because of the heroic defending of one man. Fabio Cannavaro.
Podolski, only 21 at the time, misjudged the bounce, his touch skewing off wide. Cannavaro stormed out of position to chase down the ball. Had Podolski managed to control the ball, Cannavaro would have been out of position and may have cost his team a goal. It was a risk, a big risk, and it paid off massively. Italy did not concede a goal. He recovered the ball, offloaded it to a teammate who sprayed a pass through to Alberto Gilardino. Gilardino ran the length of the half, passing to Alessandro Del Piero who coolly doubled the Italian lead in additional time of extra time.
It took 12 seconds from Cannavaro making the all-important interception to Del Piero putting the ball in the back of the net. His style was different from Maldini. He read the game well, but he would search out tackles. He would break rank to make interceptions. He knew that if you give an elite attacker time on the ball then they could punish you. He made it his business to be as disruptive a player as he possibly could, relying on his defensive partners to hold the line while he stepped out to cause havoc in the opposition ranks.
This interception from Cannavaro was the highlight from his tournament, a powerful moment from a clutch player. Italy did not win the 2006 World Cup by chance. While losing finalists France stumbled their way through the tournament, Italy were a precision machine. Marcello Lippi took six forwards to the tournament with Del Piero, Totti, Toni, Gilardino, Inzaghi and Iaquinta all finding the net, yet it was the resolute defending that saw Italy win out.
Buffon in goal was an astonishingly good last line of defence. Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso played as full-backs, two talented attackers who provided a great wide outlet going forward, but who were both exceptional defenders in their own right. The tournament saw Cannavaro paired with Alessandro Nesta in the centre of defence. The fact that Italy won the tournament despite Nesta succumbing to a groin injury during his country’s third game was an incredible feat. This meant that Lippi had to rely on journeyman defender Marco Materazzi to step up to the plate.
Despite the upheaval in Cannavaro’s centre-back partner, Italy continued to thrive. Throughout the seven games, the Italians conceded only two goals. One was a penalty from Zinedine Zidane in the final, a chip that barely crossed the line by more than a millimetre. The other was an own goal by Cristian Zaccardo from a corner. Not one goal by an opposition player from open play. Every defender played their part in this, but the influence of Cannavaro marshalling his backline cannot be downplayed.
When the fulltime whistle blew on July 9th 2006 the immediate credit went to Fabio Grosso for converting the decisive penalty. The focus also turned to Zidane, who had seen red late in extra time for his infamous headbutt to the chest of Marco Materazzi. It wasn’t until Italy’s number 5 raised that iconic trophy aloft that the focus returned to the captain of the Azzurri. He may have been only 5’9″, but he stood taller than everyone in the world for a brief moment. He gained the nickname Il Muro di Berlino (the Berlin wall) following his efforts in Germany.
The 2006 World Cup was, of course, the clincher for Fabio Cannavaro in his Ballon d’Or win. The captain of one of the most defensively frugal national sides in international tournament history, of course, played its part. His award went beyond this, however. It was based on 2006 as a whole and this was very much a year of triumph for captain Cannavaro.
The 2005/06 season culminated in one of the muddiest sporting stories in recent memory. Italy was embroiled in the Calciopoli scandal, whereby several teams were found guilty of bribery, match-fixing and corruption. Points were docked, teams were barred from European football and crucially, a title was rescinded. The record books show that Inter won the title with 76 points. Prior to the announcement of this scandal, AC Milan finished second with 88 points (receiving a 30-point deduction), while Juventus won the league with 91 points (they were not docked points, but automatically relegated).
This was a real point of contention in Italy. Juventus had cheated and the club was punished. However, as several players at Juventus had pointed out, the cheating was done at the boardroom level. The players allegedly had zero idea of such cheating and as far as they were concerned, they went into each and every game as they always did.
They played to win and win they did. 27 wins in fact. And 10 draws. Only one league defeat in 38 matches played, a 3-1 away defeat in Milan in October 2005. Fabio Cannavaro played 48 games across all competitions in 2005-06 with Juventus conceding only 24 goals over the course of the year. While they may not have progressed beyond the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia and Champions League, they lost out to Roma and Arsenal, both of whom wound up as eventual runners up in each competition.
A title win in Italy and a World Cup win in Germany saw a near-flawless start to the year for the Italian defender. The Calciopoli scandal saw Juventus relegated to Serie B. While some players, such as Gianluigi Buffon, David Trezeguet and Pavel Nedvěd stayed loyal to I Bianconeri, Cannavaro joined the bulk of the squad in leaving. He was adored by the Juventus fans, but he was a Napoli boy and evidently did not have the same emotional attachment to the club as those who had chosen to remain. He was the best defender in the world at the time and deserved to be playing at the highest level. The next stop on his trophy-laden year was a stint with the Galácticos – Real Madrid.
Real Madrid played out an enthralling title battle with Barcelona in 2006-07, a battle which the Galácticos eventually won on head-to-head. Locked on 76 points each, Barcelona had a far superior goal difference to their arch-rivals (+45 to Real Madrid’s +26). Despite this, La Liga uses head-to-head to decide tie-breaker situations. On account of this, the two El Clasico matches played proved crucial.
A 3-3 draw drew the interest of many as an exciting game, however it was the first derby of the season which truly decided the title – though nobody knew it at the time. It was a 2-0 win for Real Madrid at the Bernabéu and proved to be the catalyst for their title win. Prior to the game, Real sat in fourth, with manager Fabio Capello being hounded by the fans for poor results and negative, defensive play.
Raúl opened the scoring after two minutes and, in doing so, put the onus on Cannavaro and the defence to stand resolute. Up against the might of Messi, Ronaldinho, Xavi and Iniesta, Barcelona spent the next 90 minutes knocking at the door. They knocked and knocked but Real would not let them in. A Ruud van Nistelrooy volley in the second half put Real Madrid 2-0 and the defensive unit held strong.
A season is won over 38 games, not one. It would be absurd to say that this one game in October won Read Madrid the league, as every other point they amassed contributed. However, in a head-to-head format, it cannot be denied how crucial this win was. A clean sheet in such a big game was crucial to Cannavaro’s Ballon d’Or campaign.
How exactly did Cannavaro win this award though? It is an award for the world’s best player, but it has long been accepted that world’s best player translates to world’s best attacker. In the history of the award, since its inception in 1956, only three defenders have won the award. Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer, as well as Mr Cannavaro himself.
There were 52 representatives, one from each European country, who were tasked with casting their vote. Their number one pick received five points, number two received four points, number three got three points, number four gets two points and number five gets one point. Cannavaro received 173 points, with 42 of the 52 voters giving their vote to the Italian, 20 of which were a first-place vote.
The top five were Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluigi Buffon, Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho and Zinedine Zidane. Only the top three received over 100 points and Buffon, in second place, was still nearly 50 points behind Cannavaro. Given that this award so often falls to an attack-minded player it was a remarkable feat to see two defensive players fill the top three places.
Fabio Cannavaro is not the greatest defender of all time. Very few would even state that he is the greatest Italian defender of all time. What can be said with absolute certainty is that in 2006 Fabio Cannavaro was the best player on the planet. He was pivotal in winning Juventus the title (prior to Calciopoli) and laying the foundations for Real Madrid’s title triumph in 2007. Add to this the fact that he led his nation to the World Cup final in spite of much public criticism in the build-up. He put in a string of heroic displays. Winning the Ballon d’Or may seem insignificant to the man who lifted the World Cup in July 2006, but it puts his name on a list of an elite group of players to be awarded the honour of the world’s best player.