This feature is part of Duology
The Italians prize their art. It is something that has become a part of their culture, a part of their history for centuries and it still so highly respected. From Michelangelo Buonarroti’s ‘Creation of Adam’ to Giotto di Bondone’s ‘Kiss of Judas’, Caravaggio’s illustration of ‘The beheading of Saint John the Baptist’ to Leonardo da Vinci’s evergreen, everlasting portrait of the illuminating ‘Mona Lisa’, art has an enduringly unique place in Italy’s heart.
But, it must be said, that appreciation for famous works is found more often in eras past. For the new generations have found a similar technique, skill and graft in another form, something that is like art, or perhaps more of an art than art itself: defending.
For almost the whole of the last century, Italians have honed some of the world’s finest defenders and have set a benchmark for the skill. While art has slowly lost interest amongst modern Italy, in the driver’s seat has come this incredibly gritty ability and, over the course of time, we’ve seen some of the sport’s greatest defenders hail from this region.
Perhaps only a few were greater for their respective domestic sides and together with the national team than Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta – two boys who grew together, faced the toughest opposition, became men, and brought home football’s greatest prize at its greatest time of need.
The pair never played together at club level, despite being contemporaries for almost two decades. From their homes in Italy, they travelled across shores to play in Spain, Canada, China, India and the United Arab Emirates, winning the best prizes at both club and personal level, but the sport’s loyal faithful never had the opportunity to see them defend the goal of one club simultaneously. Instead, it was the supporters of the national team who were truly blessed with their presence, while the pairing were still on the cusp of adulthood.
The first glimpse of the defensive duo came in Spain, where they proved the preferred choice of coach Cesare Maldini at the U21 European Championships of 1996. There, they were rock solid at the back. While Cannavaro had already played at the competition two years prior, this was a new experience for Nesta and he grabbed the chance with both hands, showing his cohesion with the rest of the team along with his obvious quality in protecting his goalkeeper. Across four games, they were only breached twice, once in the first match and once in the final, as the star-studded team went on to win the competition for the second successive time, defeating Spain on penalties.
From there on, the two became mainstays for their respective club sides, Nesta with Lazio and Cannavaro with Parma, while it also heralded a new dawn for the Italian national team. Nesta went to England for the Euros that year, but never featured, while Cannavaro made his debut some seven months later, with one of his earliest shows of quality coming against England at Wembley Stadium, where, during their World Cup qualifier, he kept Alan Shearer quiet, despite his being one of the world’s elite forwards of the time. This memorable phase, early in their careers, ensured that the pair would be on the plane to France for the World Cup in 1998, and the stoic trend would continue there as they were crucial to their country’s hopes.
At the finals itself, once again under the tutelage of the great Cesare Maldini, the two were frequent in the starting team, albeit not in the heart of defence. That was interrupted by Alessandro Costacurta, as he played alongside Cannavaro, with Cesare’s son, Paolo, occupying the left-back slot and Nesta playing on the opposite flank. Following a tough start against Chile, which ended in a 2-2 draw, the back-four was resolute in their two wins against Cameroon and Austria, 3-0 and 2-1, respectively, to complete their Group B duties as winners.
They would progress to the next round, to face Norway, however, Nesta wouldn’t feature in the round of 16 due to an injury he picked up. This meant Giuseppe Bergomi came into the side and, although he did the job against the Scandinavians, the hosts overcame them on penalties in the last eight as Italy bowed out of the World Cup. It was a sour end to a rather impressive World Cup debut for both Cannavaro and Nesta; the former played to his strengths, keeping out his more experienced team-mates and cementing his place for the future in the heart of defence, while the latter adapted, showing his versatility to accommodate a more natural leader in the centre to the benefit of his country.
Their status would only continue to grow as they began to solidify themselves amongst calcio folklore. In the north of Italy, Cannavaro was spearheading Parma to new heights as they challenged the pinnacle of Serie A, while also making history on the European front by winning the UEFA Cup. Meanwhile, in the capital, Nesta was given the Lazio armband and the captain took off, first finishing as a Serie A runner-up in 1999 before going on to win the league a year later, triumphing at the end of one of the most dramatic title races of all time. Furthermore, he added a UEFA Super Cup and a Cup Winners’ Cup to his by then glistening CV.
After two years away, barring the occasional qualifier here and there, the now-established centre-halves reunited once again for Euro 2000, a tournament jointly hosted by the Netherlands and Belgium. Now, under the management of another Italian legend in Dino Zoff, the two played together where they could be at their very best.
Zoff established the 5-2-1-2 for this new Italy side, with Nesta and Cannavaro playing alongside Mark Iuliano to forge a stern back-line. In their classic Azzurri kits, that would become one of the sights of the tournament, the Italian display throughout the competition was just as strict and disciplined as it was exciting.
Italy were faced a tricky group, containing an improving Turkey, hosts Belgium, as well as Sweden. They finished it impeccably, however, winning all three games to qualify as group winners and conceding just twice. It would be the only goals they conceded as the strong defence and flawless organization of Zoff’s team was well-rewarded. They overcame Romania in the quarter-finals, by two goals to nil – a match where Nesta was given UEFA’s Man of the Match award – and beat hosts Netherlands on penalties after a 0-0 draw to reach the final. There they would meet the world champions, France, who beat them en-route to the World Cup just 24 months prior.
In the final in Rotterdam, the back-line was breached as many times as they were prior to it. The Italians took the lead early in the second half, through Marco Delvecchio, but were pegged back late in stoppage-time through Sylvain Wiltord, before David Trezeguet’s Golden Goal in extra-time settled the tie in France’s favour, completing a historic World Cup and European Championships double. Italy, meanwhile, were forced to lick their wounds, having lost at a second-successive tournament to France and in similar heart-wrenching circumstances.
Back at club level, the two took their club to new heights, albeit temporarily. Nesta went onto enjoy further success wearing the famous sky blue of Lazio, following their Serie A win from the previous season, while, over at Parma, Cannavaro was the undisputed leader at the back. Although they couldn’t add further trophies to their hauls, they were progressing as footballers, as individuals and, more importantly, as leaders. All three disciplines would be required for what would be demanded of them after the World Cup in 2002.
The campaign in South Korea and Japan was difficult for the both of them, individually, and that gradually affected their team. Now under Giovanni Trapattoni, the pair were ever-present in qualifying, conceding just thrice in eight games, but, at the finals, injury hindered Nesta’s participation, as he featured only in the group stages, missing the knockout rounds as Italy controversially crashed out following a defeat to hosts South Korea. Back at club level, they had problems to deal with once again.
Coincidentally, both Lazio and Parma endured significant financial trouble, forcing them to sell their star players. As a result, Nesta and Cannavaro would be reunited in the same city, although wearing different colours.
In the same summer of 2002, Nesta moved to AC Milan, while Cannavaro opted for the blue of Internazionale, meaning that along with the likes of Maldini and Costacurta, Milan was now the capital of the best defenders in Italy, and likely the world. In Lombardy, further success was achieved, but that only came the way of AC Milan as they would add a Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia within two years of Nesta’s arrival. Cannavaro remained trophyless.
In qualifying for Euro 2004, Italy were unbeatable again. After a tough start, their defence, with Cannavaro and Nesta at the heart of it, were hard to breach, as they qualified by conceding just four goals, two of which came in a surprise defeat to Wales. Their record in qualifying ever since the two burst onto the scene was immense but, once again, it was the struggle on the main stage that often held them back and continued their run of bad luck.
At Euro 2004 in Portugal, the two managed to stay fit but Italy’s run of disappointing campaigns under Trapattoni continued as they were knocked out in the group stages. They featured predominantly but paid the price for starting the tournament with two-successive draws as they bowed out of the tournament on goal difference. Sweden and Denmark had a positive goal difference of five and two respectively, and had Italy scored a goal more perhaps their fate in the competition would’ve been different. Having participated together in four major international tournaments, it was now an incredibly frustrating record for Nesta and Cannavaro that was forming.
And after the dissatisfaction in Iberia, Cannavaro was on the move again, this time going to the pinnacle of domestic football in Italy: Juventus. There he would be in for another roller-coaster experience. Soon came a period where both Cannavaro and Nesta’s clubs would be united in disgrace.
The Calciopoli scandal rocked Italian football in 2006, with Cannavaro’s Juventus being stripped of the two successive Serie A titles they had won. Going into the World Cup in Germany that year, Italy and Italian football was at its lowest point in living memory – or so the world was meant to believe.
Having once again strolled through the qualifiers, the Calciopoli scandal rocked Italy. Juventus were the most affected, being forced down a division, while fines and bans were handed out to some of the other major powers on the Italian football scene; Nesta’s AC Milan included.
There was little hope for Marcello Lippi’s Italy side, perhaps making it through to at least the quarter-finals would’ve constituted a major success. The talent was there, but it could be said at the time that the psychological impact may have been too much for some of the players to handle, no matter how good or how experienced they were. At Italian football’s time of need, now was the chance to step up.
Nesta and Cannavaro started the tournament together and started strongly, with a 2-0 win over Ghana, scarcely affording the Africans a chance. They would carry that good form throughout the rest of the group stage, drawing 1-1 with the USA, before winning the group with a 2-0 win over an extremely talented but underperforming Czech Republic side. Hope was now raised as they navigated their way beyond a complex group with relative ease and were to face Australia in the second round. Heartbreakingly for Nesta, it was injury that came in his way. That game against the Czech Republic was the last he would play in as a thigh injury put his participation in doubt.
Italy, led by captain Cannavaro, made tough work of Australia, winning through a late Francesco Totti penalty but, in the quarter-final against debutants Ukraine, Italy were back to their sparkling best, brushing them aside 3-0. With Marco Materazzi deputizing for the injured Nesta at the back, Italy were now two games away from glory. In the semi-final they faced Germany, who were the fourth host nation Italy had faced at a major tournament since 1998. They lacked the Germans’ home advantage but they had the confidence. They’d lost just once to the hosts in recent years; the outrageous defeat against South Korea four years prior.
In a tense affair, Cannavaro’s role was huge as he started the move which led to the second and sealing goal in extra-time to send Italy through to the final with a 2-0 win. In Berlin’s Olympiastadion for the final, history was made. They had the early scare with Zinedine Zidane’s penalty, but Materazzi equalized soon after. Later in the game, both players were involved in a moment of madness, but it didn’t affect the Azzurri as they went on to win their fourth World Cup on penalties. Nesta had his misfortune but had already more than played his part to get Italy through the first round, and it was Cannavaro, the man with the rough start to life, from the streets of Naples, who lifted football’s most coveted prize high up to the heavens.
If defending is truly an artform then these two together painted the prettiest of pictures. Following the World Cup success, they went their own ways; Cannavaro to Real Madrid, where he won two LaLiga titles and then back to Turin, before his twilight in the UAE and China, while Nesta sampled Canada, India and back to Italy where he works as a coach today.
Two men of the highest skill helped Italy when they and their football needed it most. Nesta’s injury record didn’t tarnish his reputation as one of Italy’s finest, while the World Cup success established Cannavaro as one of the greatest ever, going on to win the Ballon d’Or later that year; a bonafide rarity for a centre-half. The two were great on their own, proving their mettle at club and international level but, when paired together, they were unbreakable, unstoppable and immovable, adding a unique glitz to the glamour that is defending.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp