Alessandro Nesta – Arguably the best defender in the world

nestaFootball FanCast guest columnist William Shand calls upon Alessandro Nesta to return to the International fold.

To many Azzurri fans, failure to retain the World Cup a mere 8 months from now will be due to the absence of one man, and the stubbornness of another. Despite public outcry, newspaper campaigns and insipid, uninspiring performances, coach Marcelo Lippi still refuses to recall perhaps the most naturally gifted Italian trequartista of his generation, Antonio Cassano.

With it looking increasingly likely that Cassano’s summer will be spent wondering what could have (and undoubtedly should have) been, the Italian public’s knives have collectively sharpened for Lippi. To many, he is no longer their beloved, battle-worn sage of 2006, but instead a dithering, antiquated fool devoid of inspiration, standing by his favoured players, regardless of form, with a fervent loyalty that would be admirable if it were not so potentially damaging.

For all his undoubted talent, however, Antonio Cassano is not the man who can springboard Italy to consecutive World Cup successes. That honour – that responsibility, lays squarely at the feet of Alessandro Nesta.

Approaching 34 years of age, retired from international football since 2006, and having recently missed close to a year of action with a series of career-threatening back injuries are just some of the many reasons why Nesta should not be asked to once more don the famous blue shirt, but for all the veracity that these points hold, their truth stands in the shadow of one irrepressible fact: Alessandro Nesta is the best defender in the world.

Born in Rome in 1976, Nesta was raised in a fiercely pro-Lazio household. Indeed, so strong was his father’s affinity to Lazio that he turned down an offer for his son to join arch-rivals Roma, instead hoping that his son would one day pull on the jersey he so-coveted.  When Nesta joined the Lazio youth academy in 1985, aged just 9 years old, it seemed his father’s wish was destined, one day, to come to pass.

Even as a youngster, Nesta made waves, breaking Paul Gascoigne’s leg in a 1994 training ground mishap. In the years that immediately followed this accident he would instead gain fame, rather than infamy, for his composed, mature performances at the heart of the Lazio defence – performances that won the hearts of the ever-demanding Lazio support and belied his tender years. Indeed, at the age of just 21, Alessandro Nesta was named club captain while, across the bitter divide of the Eternal City, a 20 year old Francesco Totti was handed the armband of AS Roma. The entire city stood at the feet of these two young emperors, both blessed with incredible, natural talent – the football pitch their battlefield, and Rome their domain.

Inspired by the defensive mastery of Nesta, Lazio enjoyed their most successful era in their 109 year history, winning a Scudetto, two Coppa Italias, two Supercopa Italias, an UEFA Cup Winners Cup and an UEFA Super Cup, while Nesta himself was named as Serie A’s 1998 Young Footballer of the Year and Serie A Defender of the Year in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Lazio, however, were living outside their means and, when their financial excesses finally caught up with them, their punishment was the loss of their star players, including their beloved Nesta. Swapping the sky blue of Lazio for the red and black of Milan prior to the 2002/03 season in \ deal worth 30m euros, Nesta quickly set about cementing his reputation as one of the finest centre-backs of all time, most notably winning 3 Champions Leagues amongst a plethora of other team and individual honours.

At international level, Nesta gained 78 caps for the Azzurri in a career spanning  from 1996 until 2006, and most notably formed one of the great centre back partnerships of all-time with Fabio Cannavaro, and holds in his possession a 2006 World Cup Winners medal.

For all the accolades and acclaim Nesta has deservedly collected throughout his career, in recent years it seemed that it would be tragically curtailed by injury, with the assortment of delibating back injuries he endured leaving his fans both in Milan and around the world fearing that they would never again see one of the most naturally gifted defenders of all time take to the field once more.

Happily, though, these fears were allayed when, in May 2009, Nesta made his first team return as a second-half substitute against Fiorentina and, in one of football’s beautiful ironies, for just over 13 minutes he once more partnered his old colleague Paolo Maldini, himself playing the last game of his illustrious career, at the heart of the Rossoneri defence.

From the ashes of Maldini’s departure, Nesta has, like a phoenix, risen from the flames. This season, he has played nearly every game at the heart of Milan’s defence, and his form has been imperious, with fans, pundits and players running out of superlatives to describe his performances. Prior to the season‘s commencement, there were soft whisperings around Milan that the great Nesta would never again be the player he was, and that his career would never recover, ravaged by terrors of injury and old age. With trademark effortlessness, Nesta has well and truly swept all such fears aside, holding together a creaking Milan backline. This is not merely the observations of a football romantic, but rather an assertion drawn on facts. In the case of Alessandro Nesta, the facts are clear: in the 11 Serie A games he has played the full 90 minutes, Milan have conceded a meagre 10 league goals and, in the approximately 263 minutes of league football that Milan have played without him (he was withdrawn 7 minutes into the 2-2 draw with Napoli, and missed 2 games thereafter), they have conceded 5 goals, an average of a goal every 50.2 mins, almost double their record of one goal conceded in every 99 minutes with Nesta is present. Indeed, if we were to ignore the freak 4-0 loss to Inter which took place in Round 2 of Serie A, Milan have only seen six goals hit the back of their net in the 10 games Nesta has played.

If reading the facts allows you to draw your own conclusion, then watching the elegant juggernaut that is Alessandro Nesta adds colour to the statistics. The Milan number 13 has it all – pace, strength, tackling, positional sense, tactical awareness, vision and technical ability unbecoming of a central defender – to name but a few of his qualities. He is a centre forward’s worst nightmare – a defender with no weaknesses to exploit, an irresistible force, an uncompromising machine that will, no matter the occasion, no matter the situation, remain focused on his sole mission: to stop the other team from scoring.

And it is this dogged unflappability that Italy need if they are to once more raise the 14 and a half inch tall, 18 carat gold trophy that has become synonymous with the paragons of footballing brilliance. To speak bluntly, the Italian national side is well-below the level expected of a side harbouring serious ambitions to win the World Cup. With an ageing squad, little tenacity and bite in the midfield (the brilliant Daniele De Rossi aside), a distinct absence of anything resembling pace, a squad bereft of creativity in the final third of the pitch and lacking in world class attackers who can turn a match on their own volition, Italy have much to fear when they take to the field this coming summer.

For all the negativity, however, there is still hope and, true to form, for the Italians it lies in the familiar solace of defending. Often castigated by the purists for their defensive, unadventurous style, Italy have enjoyed their greatest success when their team was built on the foundations of a solid defence. Consider the 2006 World Cup, where Italy conceded only 2 goals in their 7 matches – a Cristian Zaccardo own goal and a Zinedine Zidane penalty, en route to their eventual triumph. The format of the World Cup benefits Italy greatly. It is not a league decided over 38 weeks, where the best team undoubtedly wins and there is no place to hide, a team’s weaknesses ruthlessly exploited for all the world to see. Rather, it is an explosion of football, over nearly as soon as it begun. Form goes out the window, past matches count for nothing – all that matters is the present. The group stages are seeded, making for a slightly easier path to the knockout stages, and then it becomes a cup competition, a lottery. As with all knockout competitions, the key rule is to keep a clean sheet. If you don’t concede, you don’t go out – there is no hidden complexities to the task that faces Italy, and there is no team throughout history more adept at defending than the Italians. It is built into their footballing DNA, an intrinsic part of their footballing history and culture. Italians are proud of their ability to defend; they revel in it. To an Italian stopper, defending is not merely a job, but an art form waiting to be mastered and perfected.

In Gianluigi Buffon, Italy have the best goalkeeper in the world (and, perhaps, of all time) and Giorgio Chiellini is fast becoming one of the most dominating centre backs in world football who, along with the evergreen Fabio Cannavaro, will provide a stern test for any opposition seeking to penetrate the Italian backline. If, though, either of these two were to sustain an injury prior to or during the competition, much like Fabio Cannavaro suffered in the weeks leading up to EURO 2008, the Azzurri’s centre back cover is wafer-thin, with the likes of Nicola Legrottaglie lacking in sufficient class to deal with the top teams that Italy will need to vanquish in order to retain their coveted crown as world champions.

More practically, Fabio Cannavaro is closer to 40 than he is 30, and the challenge of playing 7 games in such a short period of time is a major ask for any footballer, particularly one in the twilight of his admittedly impeccable career and, despite his considerable qualities and ever improving defensive savvy, Giorgio Chiellini has not yet (nor, in this writer’s opinion, will he ever) reached the astronomical benchmark set by Nesta. There is no shame in this failing – Chiellini is a fine player who is more than worthy of his inclusion in the Italian squad and he will, one day, marshal Italy’s backline at a major tournament, but it should not be in South Africa. Not when there is so much at stake.

Italian football stands on the edge of a precipice. No longer able to compete with the financial clout of La Liga and, in particular, the Premier League, Serie A has seen many of its leading lights depart in the past few years and, for the most part, has been unable to convince the top talents of the football world that the Apennine Peninsula is a desirable place to ply their trade. Attendance has slumped, as has success in European competitions, and the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal has left a dark stain upon the soul of Italian football which will take many years to fully scrub clean. The stigmas of “dullness” and “defensive” that have long been attached to Italian football have only exacerbated the problem, with neutrals from across the world having little good will towards Italy and their resentment, so long kept in check due to Italian dominance, finally free to be unleashed upon the bloodied, battered carcass that was once the all-powerful figure of Calcio. Proponents of Serie A, and indeed those who watch it, will fume at such a characterisation, seeking to point out that they possess one of the most competitive leagues in the world, with any team realistically being able to beat another,  and that the standard of football is high and, contrary to the stereotype, tremendously engrossing. This group of people (of whom I am one), though, are shouting into the wind. The tide – both financial and in terms of popular opinion, is against them.

Throughout the strife of the last few years, Italians have always had the World Cup to hold onto. Their most prized possession, the most prized possession in all of world football. The legendary glory of that summer in Germany helps dull the painful realities of each Sunday in Italy and, after giving a farcical account of themselves at EURO 2008, if Italy do not substantially improve upon their last tournament effort then the prestige that their domestic game has lost is in serious danger of blighting the national team – a poor World Cup confirming suspicions of a true decline, rather than being seen as a case of surprising underachievement.

And so we return to Nesta, approaching 34 years of age, and still the best defender in the world. Retired from international football since 2006, and still the best defender in the world. Recently missing close to a year  of action with a series of career-threatening back injuries,  yet still, somehow, the best defender in the world. With Nesta at their heart, Italy have the chance to achieve something wonderful – a victory even more improbable than their 2006 triumph. To many Azzurri fans, managing to retain the World Cup a mere 8 months from now will be due to the wisdom of one man, and the willingness of another to answer his coach’s, his team’s and his country’s calling. Step forward, Alessandro Nesta – the best defender in the world.