The Italian job

CEO Middle East talks to football legend Fabio Cannavaro from his luxury Palm villa about the Qatar World Cup, the Real Madrid resort and his journey to become one of the greatest defenders of all time
By Elizabeth Broomhall
Sun 10 Jun 2012 11:49 AM

Dressed in a smart grey suit and crisp white shirt, Fabio Cannavaro looks just the part. As he stands for photos, the former World Cup captain poses effortlessly. He is clearly used to having his picture taken.

Visiting the luxury Palm Jumeirah villa for the second time, I scan the room for football memorabilia, but can see only pictures of Cannavaro’s three children. Just last month, I played football with them in Cannavaro’s back garden, curious to see if any of them would follow in their father’s footsteps. Looking at the pictures, I am reminded of how happy they seemed running around their Dubai mansion.

Cannavaro sits down on the sofa, and instantly you can tell he is not your typical celebrity sportsman. Shy and humble, the 38 year-old speaks quietly as he talks me through the highlights of his career, and modestly recounts a string of great achievements.

“I started playing football professionally when I was seventeen years old,” he says. “My mother always wanted me to study, but it was something I didn’t want to do. I only knew I was going to play football. That was all I knew. I was a normal guy, but with one big dream, which was to play for my city team Napoli [Naples].”

Napoli was a very strong team at the time, he says, their most famous player being Argentina’s Diego Maradona. Though Maradona left shortly after Cannavaro’s signing, the move proved a great opportunity for him to observe his childhood idols at close quarters.

“When I joined, Maradona left, but it was okay because the team was still in high spirits. At that time Napoli had won two Serie A league title and the UEFA Cup. In Italy, we were the top team.”

Cannavaro spent three years with Napoli, during which time he rose up the ranks to the first team, proving his worth and gaining a reputation as a budding star. He recalls how being at the top meant some big life alterations, starting with his eating and exercising routine.

“When I became a professional player my life started to change. If you want to do the sport, you need to live a totally different life. You need to sleep well and eat properly, and you need to have the right mentality. The most important part for me was off the pitch.”

Cannavaro also noticed some changes in his private life; that being part of the package when you play for the second most successful club in Southern Italy and the fourth most supported in the country. Thrown into the public eye, he quickly became an icon in his home town and beyond, whilst instantly charming Napoli fans.

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“Your personal life is totally different,” he explains. “People start to see you in the street and say: ‘Oh my god you’re Fabio Cannavaro, you play for Napoli’. In my city I became famous very quickly, because in Napoli football is the most important sport. If you’re a football player, you’re like a Hollywood star.”

Cannavaro’s time at Napoli came to an end in 1996, when the club was forced to sell him to Parma FC in a bid to alleviate ongoing financial problems. During his seven year-stint at Parma, the team won the UEFA Cup once and the Coppa Italia three times, with Cannavaro himself growing increasingly stronger as a player. Unfortunately the club was brought to its knees in 2002 by the Parmalat scandal — the major fraud investigation into Parma’s holding company, which saw the firm and all its subsidiaries go bankrupt. Prior to Parmalat’s troubles, Cannavaro had been called up to play for the national team’s senior squad on several occasions, and was consistently ranked among the best defenders in the Italian league. In 1997, after earning his first senior cap, he was made captain of the Italian national team.

“When I moved to Parma the team was very strong,” he says. “I played for them for seven years. But after the financial problems the team was no longer the same, so I decided to go to Inter Milan.”

Unfortunately, his career at Internazionale didn’t turn out quite as well as the Italian star had hoped, and even today, he looks back at it with frustration. Despite joining for a fee of around ¤23m ($28.52m), and being dubbed one of the future stars of the new-look team coached by Héctor Cúper, a bad fracture in Cannavaro’s right leg meant he was unable to play well and was eventually forced to take some time off.

“There I had a very bad time,” he says. “I was really down, because I couldn’t play properly. If you can imagine, I had been the captain of the national team, I was an important player, and so when I came to this team there were a lot of expectations, but I couldn’t play very well. So when I finished the league I had three months when I did nothing. I just did the bike and exercises to strengthen my leg, which
was 40 percent weaker than my other one. I lost all my power. It was from playing too many games.”

His move to Italy’s Juventus in 2004 proved much better, he says, with the team winning two Italian championships during the two-year period he was there. Indeed, it was then that Cannavaro firmly secured himself a place in football history, forming not only one of the best defence forces with Juventus teammates Lilian Thuram and Gianluigi Buffon, but also leading Italy into victory in the 2006 World Cup. It was during this period that he was also given the award for Serie A Defender of the Year for two years running.

“The coach of Juventus then was Fabio Capello, who wanted me to join because he thought I could improve the team,” he says. “In that era, while playing for Juventus, it was the best time in my career.”

He went on to be equally successful at Real Madrid, following Capello to the club in 2006 amid corruption allegations against Juventus shortly after the World Cup win. By the time he left Real Madrid in 2009, the club had won two league championships and one Copa del Rey.

“The highlight of my career was actually all of that period from 2004 until 2008, because in those years I won four league championships and in between there was the World Cup victory,” Cannvaro says. “And all that came after I was 30 years old, so it was an even bigger achievement.”

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Thinking about his World Cup success today, he says at the time that he didn’t understand just how important it was. “I didn’t realise what an achievement it was because of the excitement and the adrenaline, but today when I go back and see the pictures of those moments I get more emotional about it. In those years, Italy was going through some difficult moments because of allegations of corruption in the league, and the World Cup win gave Italians a lift; it created a new image for Italy. They had some amazing players like [Andrea] Pirlo, [Gianluigi] Buffon and [Alessandro] Del Piero, so they had an amazing team, full of talent.”

With Cannavaro being one of those talented players, he was soon considered one of the greatest defenders of his generation and given the name “Muro di Berlino,” or “The Berlin Wall,” by Italian fans. Asked what he thinks it takes to be a great defender, he says the key is absolute concentration.

“A defender has to be focused during the game. Whilst an attacker can afford to make a mistake, a defender cannot because it will cost them a goal. He has to have those qualities.”

Things began to die down for Cannavaro after 2009 when he moved back to Juventus. The team, which was then full of new players, did not feel like the team he had played for some years ago, and despite a having good start, the club ultimately experienced a difficult season, ending with its worst Serie A finish for a decade. In June the following year, Cannavaro signed a two-year deal with UAE team Al Ahli on a free transfer, with a view to joining the side in 2010. For Cannavaro, it was the right decision at the time.

“I moved back to Italy for a year between 2009 and 2010, but it wasn’t a good season that year. There were too many new players [at Juventus] and it wasn’t the same team I had played for in 2006.

“I came to Dubai because I had never been before, and I still wanted to go abroad. I wanted to have a new experience, to learn about a different culture and most importantly to learn how to speak English. Also, I wanted to play in a league which didn’t have the stress that European Leagues have. When I told people I was coming to Dubai their first reaction was ‘why are you going there?’ People said there were no fans, and I wasn’t going to have any motivation, but after a year a lot of players started calling me saying they wanted to come and play here. David Trezeguet and Luca Toni both called me and said they wanted to come. In fact later on both of them did come.”

Unfortunately his injury got the better of Cannavaro again after the move, and in 2011 doctors told him he could no longer play football due to a serious knee problem. After announcing his retirement from the sport in 2011, he has since remained in the UAE as an ambassador and technical consultant for the club, and will follow them on tour to Asia in the summer. He is also hoping to go with the club’s president to follow the national team to the Olympics, and will soon have his football coaching licence which will allow him to coach if he so decides. In terms of other business ventures, he is currently working as brand ambassador for Sharjah-based United Arab Bank (UAB) whilst running his recently-established tour group business for Italian and European visitors to Dubai.

“Just recently I opened up a company with some friends of mine here in Dubai for tourism,” he says. “Dubai is becoming more and more attractive to tourists, so we have set up a company called Five Star Tours — five is the number on my shirt. We are going to assist tourists coming from Italy and other countries and help them around Dubai, because a lot of them come here and they don’t know where to go and what to do.”

Other business ventures are also on the cards, he says, but as yet nothing is set in stone. “Yes [I would like to do more], I love doing these sorts of things. I have been brand ambassador for Nike, Coke, Pepsi, Gillette — all these brands. This is the first time I have worked with a bank but I love the experience. I love to promote brands. I am promoting my own image but I also like the fact that I’m promoting the brand and improving their business.”

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The Qatar World Cup will present a lot of opportunities, he adds, but he doubts there is any rush to get on board just yet. “There is still a lot of time for the World Cup, to do many things,” he says. “Because I live here, I am at a big advantage because I’m in the Arab region. There are a lot of people that come and ask me advice and questions.”

One of his biggest suggestions so far has been for Qatar to overcome the sizzling summer heat, which will ensure the tournament is a success. In Cannavaro’s opinion, neither fans nor players will enjoy 50 degree temperatures.

“The heat will be the most difficult aspect not only for the players but organisation-wise. They have 32 teams — that means 32 sets of fans. So the heat is definitely going to make things difficult both football wise and for the fans in the stands. I have played in this heat so I know what it feels like. It will be hot for everyone, even if you’re used to it.”

The UAE could still qualify for the 2022 World Cup, he adds, when asked what chances the country had. However, he believes the UAE and indeed the region still has some way to go in terms of bolstering the level of play generally.

“They have already made one step forward with the Olympics. Hopefully they will qualify for the World Cup, because the local people love football and are really passionate about it.

“The most important thing the UAE needs to do [to develop its football industry] is to invest in its youth system. They don’t need to bring in coaches but actual football teachers who teach these children the basics and so when they get to the right age, they have the necessary skills. Also, they watch games but they watch them at home, they need to go to the games more.”

His comments beg the question as to whether the Ras Al Khaimah Real Madrid project could help provide the much-needed boost. According to the developers, the planned $1bn resort will include a youth training academy as well as a 10,000 seat stadium, which many expect to help more young Arabs get their dream jobs.

“It won’t help so much to develop football but tourist-wise it will help the area a lot. I think it is a beautiful project, and Real Madrid is an incredible brand, so it is a very good investment, although it is going to take some time to get a return on investment, because it is a big investment.

“There is no interest from Italian teams, because at the moment a lot of them are having problems and they need to invest their money in Italy in their own stadiums and develop their brand before being able to go abroad.”

And Cannavaro himself? Certainly for now, he plans to stay put. He likes Dubai too much.

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