In a long line of esteemed Italian defenders, Fabio Cannavaro’s exploits at the 2006 World Cup firmly etched his name into the history books.
Despite being small in stature for a centre-back, at just 5ft 9in tall, Cannavaro’s reading of the game and tactical intelligence allowed him to develop into one of the most distinguished centre-backs of his generation.
A complete defender, Cannavaro’s athleticism and power for his size allowed him to compete with the most physically formidable forwards, with his technical prowess also enabling him to bring the ball out from defence effectively.
Cannavaro received his first cap for Italy in January 1997 in a friendly against Northern Ireland. Despite remaining inexperienced at international level, the Parma defender’s reputation in the game was rapidly growing after impressively keeping Alan Shearer quiet for 90 minutes as Italy defeated 1-0 in a qualifier for the 1998 World Cup at Wembley.
With Italy successfully qualifying for the France '98 Finals, Cannavaro was part of an impressive band of defenders in the squad alongside Giuseppe Bergomi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta. Coached by teammate Maldini’s father Cesare, Italy lined up in a 3-5-2 formation with Cannavaro an established starter in the side.
Cannavaro was able to perform well in his breakthrough World Cup, with Italy making it to the quarter-finals where they were knocked out by hosts and eventual winners . A key part of a tough and organised defence, Cannavaro helped Italy keep a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw with the French before losing on penalties.
The Italian defender would go into the 2002 World Cup Finals in South Korea and Japan on the back of another strong showing at Euro 2000, with Cannavaro named in the team of the tournament after The Azzurri agonisingly lost the final to France courtesy of an extra-time golden goal from David Trezeguet.
At the 2002 World Cup under manager Giovanni Trapattoni, Cannavaro was heralded for holding the Italian defence together after his trusted partner Alessandro Nesta suffered an injury in the second group match against .
After receiving two bookings in the group stages, Cannavaro would miss Italy’s round of 16 tie against co-hosts . With the Italians without both halves of their much-vaunted centre-back partnership of Cannavaro and Nesta, they again succumbed to a golden goal in controversial circumstances following some questionable refereeing decisions.
Four years later at the World Cup in Germany in 2006, Cannavaro was now a Juventus player and the captain of his country. After a series of near misses and disappointments in major tournaments, Italy looked well placed for an assault on the World Cup title with a talented and experienced squad assembled by their widely respected manager Marcelo Lippi.
The Germany Finals would prove the undoubted pinnacle of Cannavaro’s glittering career, skippering his country to their fourth World Cup title playing every minute of each match. Without defensive stalwart Nesta beside him due to injury, Cannavaro enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Inter defender Marco Materazzi.
The captain came to the fore in the semi-finals, turning in an inspirational display against hosts who the Italians overcame 2-0 after extra-time. In a memorable moment, Cannavaro outjumped the towering Per Mertesacker and dispossessed Lukas Podolski in the same passage of play to set the Italians up the field before Alessandro Del Piero fired home a vital second goal to seal Italy’s place in the World Cup final.
Cannavaro was again a cool presence in defence for Italy in the final, helping to keep France’s considerable wealth of quality in the final third largely quiet as the Azzurri prevailed on penalties following a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes.
The Italians conceded just two goals throughout the whole competition, an own-goal against the in the group stages and Zinedine Zidane’s Panenka penalty in the final, amassing a record five clean sheets.
Lifting the Jules Rimet trophy on his 100th cap for his country in the Olympiastadion, Cannavaro’s performance in the final against France saw him donned the “Wall of Berlin” in his homeland.
Cannavaro’s performances at the tournament saw him named in the team of the tournament and narrowly miss out on the Golden Ball to French counterpart Zidane. This snub would be levelled out by the end of the year, however, with Cannavaro awarded the Ballon d’Or.
It would be a considerable come down for Cannavaro and co at the subsequent tournament in 2010 in South Africa, with Italy becoming the latest World Cup holders to be eliminated in the group stages as part of a continuing trend.
At 37 years old, Cannavaro was part of an ageing Italy side who looked a shadow of the team who were crowned world champions just four years previously. After drab 1-1 draws against Paraguay and New Zealand, Italy crashed out of the tournament following a 3-2 defeat to Slovakia.
Cannavaro would retire from international football following this disappointment in South Africa as the second-most capped Italian international of all time behind Gianluigi Buffon, making a total of 136 appearances for his country.
His showing in Germany in 2006 will ensure he remains fondly remembered by all Italians, with the imperious defender the epitome of everything you would expect from a World Cup-winning captain – composure, guts and class.