Adam Digby on Italy's forgotten generation.
June 11th 1998 versus Chile, June 11th 2000 versus Turkey, June 3rd 2002 versus Ecuador, June 14th 2004 versus Denmark, June 12th 2006 versus Ghana.
The opening matches of five International tournaments for the Italian National team, spread over a period of eight years. Three World Cups, two European Championships, one constant factor - the unbroken defensive partnership of Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro.
Paolo Maldini was present in the first three fixtures, Gianluca Zambrotta made the same number of appearances - and also replaced Cristian Zaccardo after the first game of 2006 - leaving very little room for a whole generation of players to enter the Azzurri set up, despite the fact that this period saw four different coaches in the job. Indeed, were it not for the early retirements from La Nazionale of first Maldini and then an injury-hit Nesta the trend may perhaps have become even more pronounced.
Cesare Prandelli took over the reigns as Commissario tecnico this past summer and his first and undoubtedly most difficult task was to rebuild a defence that had relied upon Cannavaro (born in 1973), Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso (both '77). That only Giorgio Chiellini ('84) had managed to secure a place among this oldest of old guards was serious cause for concern, a problem magnified by the fact the alternatives to replace the retiring Cannavaro were Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Ranocchia - '87 and '88 respectively - who had very little top flight experience having played less than sixty Serie A matches between them.
While there is no disputing the class and ability of the men they would replace it is worth remembering that on that summer evening in Bordeaux thirteen years ago Nesta and Cannavaro themselves were just 22 and 24 years of age, meaning their continued presence in the famous blue shirt denied a whole generation of players the chance to represent their country on the biggest of stages.
Among the names to be part of the squads in those five tournaments are some of the most decorated defenders ever to grace the peninsula; Ciro Ferrara, Mark Iuliano, Marco Materazzi, Christian Panucci and Giuseppe Favalli have won twenty-two league titles and five European Cups between them but collected forty caps less than the Nesta-Cannavaro partnership.
Not only did this duopoly deny these other champions space which other countries would have readily offered defenders of such distinction there are also other names, less well known, less revered who simply never made the transition from promising youngster to international regular.
Italy has one of the most successful Under-21 teams, winning the UEFA tournament on an unprecedented five occasions - Spain is next with just two wins - and the Azzurrini enjoyed its most dominant spell at the same time as the full squad was being shaped by Cannavaro and Nesta, both of whom were graduates from the 1996 championship-winning side.
Following in their footsteps were Matteo Ferrari, Bruno Cirillo, Claudio Rivalta, Daniele Bonera, Alessandro Gamberini, Cesare Bovo and Andrea Barzagli – all of whom won either the U-21 tournament or were part of the 2004 Olympic Bronze medal winning side. These men have just 53 caps between them, with three yet to receive a call up and it is easy to argue that without the injury-ravaged career of Nesta that figure would be far less - to reinforce that point Cannavaro actually won 58 caps more than his long-term sidekick.
It is all too simplistic to write off these players as not good enough, and while each has their faults their ability is perhaps only now beginning to be recognised. Gamberini is as vital to Fiorentina as Bovo is to Palermo, whilst Andrea Barzagli appears to have provided Gigi Delneri with the missing piece of his defensive jigsaw, a piece that Juventus had sorely lacked prior to his January arrival from Wolfsburg.
This is not to say that the ability of all these players had no effect: their continued presence forced the incumbent pair to always be at their best, providing an under-appreciated Joe Frazier to their all-conquering Muhammed Ali.
So while they were indeed the two most talented defenders of their generation, forming one of the most respected and technically gifted partnerships the game has ever seen it must be remembered that - like all truly great players - behind the careers of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta lies a trail of men who were forced to live in their shadow.
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Adam Digby on Italy's forgotten generation.