Antisthenes once remarked, “When brothers agree, no fortress is so strong as their common life.” Though the ascetic philosopher himself hailed from Greece, a short boat ride across the Ionian Sea, his teachings in this particular regard seemed destined to apply to a pair of Italian brothers that hailed from the bustling port city of Naples.
Rising through the primavera ranks at their hometown club, Napoli, brothers Fabio and Paolo Cannavaro were both strict adherents to the ancient Italian discipline of defending. Born in the city to Gelsomina and Pasquale, a maid and a bank clerk, football was an ever-present factor for both of the Cannavaro children, despite their difference in age.
Fabio, eight years Paolo’s senior, would join Napoli in his youth where he established himself as a particularly prodigious prospect having dispossessed the legendary Diego Maradona during a training ground game. Such was the great Argentine’s admiration for the young defender, he bequeathed him a pair of his own boots, and in the eyes of the club, Cannavaro had been anointed a star for the future.
However, Paolo was only 14 and following in the footsteps of his older brother through the club’s youth ranks when Fabio departed their hometown. Sold by Napoli to Parma in order to alleviate their financial woes, Fabio would go on to establish himself as one of his country’s finest defenders over the next several years in Emilia-Romagna.
The shorter of the brothers by some margin, Fabio could not intimidate his opponents using brawn alone. Though by no means scrawny, it was his reading of the game that set him apart from his peers. With a turn of pace, too, and a fearsome desire to keep the ball as far as possible from compatriot Gianluigi Buffon’s net, Cannavaro senior’s reputation burgeoned. Finishing runners-up in Serie A and capturing both the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup with Parma, he was later joined in the north by younger brother Paolo for the 1999/2000 season.
Whereas Fabio had been plucked from Napoli at the age of 22 and was already established as a first-team player in his own right, Paolo made the move north before he’d even reached 18. Having only played a single game for Napoli during their plight in Serie B, there was an air of portent about his signature, as if the directors at Parma were hoping that lightning would strike twice. After all, Paolo shared the same genes as Fabio and played in the same position.
Renowned for their defensive superiority throughout the 1990s, Parma boasted a stalwart triumvirate at the back of Buffon, Cannavaro and Lilian Thuram. Paolo, it was hoped, would become another brick in this impenetrable blue-and-yellow wall.
His first appearance for the club occurred on the final day of the 1999/00 season when he replaced his older brother for the remaining seven minutes of a routine 4-1 thrashing of Lecce, but it was his maiden start alongside his brother a little under a year later where it appeared as though Parma had managed to strike gold.
A 5-0 drubbing of Perugia saw the Cannavaros partnered at the heart of the defence in a game in which they turned the Ennio Tardini into a virtual fortress. Far from mirror images, Fabio and Paolo complemented rather than resembled each other. Fabio – short, stocky and possessed of surprising pace – was the antithesis of Paolo, who was taller, cumbersome and unremittingly physical. Together, for one glorious afternoon, they reigned as prince and prince regent in the court of Parma’s impregnable defence.
It was a fortress though, which was commanded only fleetingly by this pair of resolute brothers, who played together on only three more occasions. Rather than forge a career together at Parma, Fabio, who was by now 26-years-old and very much in the prime of his playing days, was coveted by the titans of Europe.
With his obvious talent unable to be contained anymore by Parma, Fabio left behind his brother once more in 2002 and sought pastures new with Internazionale, while Paolo was loaned to a Verona side that would flirt with relegation all season. It was to set a precedent for the differing routes the careers of both brothers would take.
Fabio hopped from Inter to Juventus to Real Madrid, picking up two league titles (a further two were stripped during the Calciopoli scandal) and a World Cup winners medal along the way, consolidating his legacy as one of the finest defenders of his generation. On the other hand, Paolo, after years of early promise, developed into something of a dependable if unspectacular counterpoint to his older brother. Not possessed of the wanderlust of Fabio, Paolo enjoyed enduring stints with Parma and then Napoli, earning himself a Coppa Italia winners’ medal with the latter, before ending up at Sassuolo.
The time for comparison had long passed. Fabio, ever the more renowned of the two brothers, would ensure the name Cannavaro would, in time, become spoken of in the same breath as Baresi, Maldini and Nesta. Paolo, though, ensured the surname would find purchase closer to heart and home when he returned to Napoli and was appointed captain.
Though they would never again play together professionally, there remained an innate footballing bond between the pair. Both became highly valued in their capacities as leaders, with Fabio marshalling Italy to the 2006 World Cup and Paolo steering Napoli to their first silverware in 22 years. And, when Fabio retired from football to pursue a career in management, it wasn’t long before Paolo was, yet again, following the same path his older brother had trodden.
As of 2020, Fabio Cannavaro is enjoying a successful stint as manager of Chinese Super League club Guangzhou Evergrande, having guided them to the CSL title and a Chinese FA Cup in 2018 and 2019. These two feats were made all the more manageable by his able assistant, one Paolo Cannavaro.
Though their careers on the pitch seldom saw them cross paths, their careers off the turf have been bountiful. Across the far side of the world, they are making Guangzhou Evergrande a fortress of their own. At last, the Cannavaros are together.
By Josh Butler @joshitbutler90