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Joy to the World: Cannavaro Wins Balon D'Or
Italians - and soccer fans everywhere - celebrate their national teams captain's prestigious award
DECEMBER 3, 2006 - Italian national soccer team Captain Fabio Cannavaro says he had a "golden year," which is appropriate for this year's Balon d'Or or Golden Ball winner. One of soccer's highest honors, the Balon d'Or is determined by a poll of national team coaches and captains conducted by the French media. Some say that Cannavaro, who is having a bumpy transition from relegated Juventus to Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid in Spain, did not deserve the honor. Others say that an Italian should not have won this year in light of the betting and game fixing scandal that rocked the country's Serie A league in late spring. But we Italian fans know that no one deserved the Golden Ball this year more than our Fabio, dubbed the Berlin Wall during the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany. And the coaches and captains of the world agreed with us by giving Cannavaro 173 votes, which beat Italian Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon's 124 and French star Thierry Henry's 121.
Cannavaro says he is the first pure defender to win the Golden Ball because the other two defenders to have won were also midfield playmakers. Famous for the catenaccio or defensive style of play, Italy was not at all surprised to have a defender and a goalkeeper among the finalists. But Cannavaro was the leader of the Italian national team that beat France in a penalty kick shootout that had the world breathless with anticipation and captured Italy's fourth World Cup title. The game, made most famous by French legend Zinedine Zidane thumping Italy's Marco Matterazzi in the chest with his head and getting sent off the field moments before his team's defeat, was magical and seemed like a dream. Instead of lifting the cup over his head for his country, Zidane watched from the locker room as Cannavaro celebrated with his teammates.
The first Neapolitan to win the award and the first Italian to take the Golden Ball since Roberto Baggio in 1993, Cannavaro broke through many barriers to become a champion. Coming from humble beginnings, he was a 16-year-old ball boy for the Italian national team when it fell to Argentina in the 1990 World Cup in Italy. "I want to be a football player and win the World Cup," Cannavaro reportedly said after the heartbreaking loss. So the dream began. After stints with Napoli, alongside best buddy Ciro Ferrara, and Parma, Cannavaro hit the big time when he moved to Inter. But after a disappointing tenure there, he moved to Juventus, where the stars started to align for him. In the last year, he shined as the lead defender for the squad. Even though his last season with la Juve, also known as La Vecchia Signora, brought with it a roller coaster of emotions - from the sadness of the team's part in the game fixing scandal that would send it to Serie B to its controversial scudetto win - the Italian players, especially Cannavaro, were determined to redeem the sport in the World Cup. With Cannavaro as their leader, they did it.
Fans of soccer have a hard time taking their eyes off him. Aside from the fact that Cannavaro has a body that Michelangelo would have surely sculpted, the world's great defenders, including Zidane, can not get by him. I first started to notice his playing skills (and his looks) in the 1998 World Cup. He was an up-and-coming kid with a Napolitano accent and a dream. He had a fire in him that could not be squelched. By the 2002 World Cup, I had hung up photos of Cannavaro wearing nothing but a strategically placed soccer ball - and I prayed for him to perform miracles for Italy. It didn't happen then; Italy was humiliated by underdog South Korea in only the second round of the tournament in a controversial match that still stings. But it was that terrible loss that helped motivate players like Gennaro Gattuso, Buffon and, of course, Cannavaro this time around. It was their turn to take it all in 2006.
Female fans of Cannavaro notoriously hang signs, "Grazie Mamma Cannavaro", thanking Cannavaro's mother for producing such a fine specimen of a son. But today, I want to say, "Grazie Mamma Cannavaro," for producing such a fine athlete - and one with whom we can relate and celebrate.
All of Italy is shouting with glee this holiday season because an Italian is finally taking home the grand prize and not just for his individual greatness - but also, in a way, for his team's success. Cannavaro said his win of the Balon d'Or was doubly meaningful because he is a defender and the award usually goes to the more glamorous strikers. But in true Napolitano fashion, Cannavaro is a work horse, who made few mistakes during the Juventus season at the start of the year and virtually none during the World Cup finals. His dedication has finally paid off - no matter what anyone else says. With his pride in speaking the Napolitano dialect and his ever-growing family, he is one with the people. He is a hometown boy who's done good. And nobody can argue with that. A win for Fabio is a win for all of us.
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