Cannavaro battles to avert Italy crisis
LIKE some venerable Neapolitan monument, Fabio Cannavaro is still standing, still radiating an aura, but Italy finds it painful, sad and not a little alarming to see that the edifice is crumbling.
Four years ago, with a dazzling smile he lifted the world player of the year award, the Golden Ball and the World Cup, the 'thou shalt not pass' epitome of Italian defensive mastery in Berlin, a superstar at the peak of his game.
Today he is unrecognisable, standing increasingly as a symbol of the champions' descent into the mediocre bunch which, to a nation's disgust, cannot even seem to beat a little rugby nation on the other side of the world.
Il muro di Berlino -- Captain Berlin Wall -- is still admired for the leadership qualities which will be required today as Italy seek to despatch Slovakia and book their customary place in the knock-out stages. Yet, as a player, the brutal truth is that he has lost his pace and athleticism and, with it, his impeccable positioning.
Having made mistakes in each game which have led to the goals that leave Italy nervous and more than a little vulnerable at Ellis Park today, the 37- year-old has resembled the spent force which Real Madrid quickly recognised and Juventus fans also grew to understand last season.
"We are a team, it's not right and we don't want to look for who was at fault," Cannavaro insisted, seeming more sharp than his usual charming self when asked about his failings.
"I've learned to live with the criticism," he added. "When I play well you say I'm a maestro. When I play a bad game you say I am finished. It's not a problem for me."
But while team-mates have been jumping to his defence, his compatriots worry about Cannavaro. A 'Gazzetta dello Sport' poll had 69pc of readers suggesting he should be dropped -- seeing him as an old hero who should not be in South Africa at all when he is going off to collect his pension in the Middle East next month, where he will play in the Dubai desert for Al-Ahli.
Yet Marcello Lippi would just snort: "Let them worry." Have a go at the captain and it is as if you are personally assaulting the coach. Lippi must see the deterioration of Cannavaro the defender but points out his other benefits -- "leadership, enthusiasm, experience, charisma, wisdom". In any case, Lippi has no patience with the doomsayers among the Italian media who have been muttering the dreaded 'c' word.
"There's no crisis right here, there's no crisis in the team and there's no need for a crisis," Lippi snapped, after being spotted at their Southlands College training base in Centurion after the New Zealand game apparently giving the team a rare old dressing down.
"I talk about problems with the team, not with you. We are struggling to create goal-scoring chances, these are the problems." He had a point. Yes, Cannavaro did blunder twice, failing to get off the ground as Antolin Alcaraz leapt all over him to score for Paraguay and then making a mess of dealing with the free-kick from which Shane Smeltz put New Zealand ahead, but probably the bigger concern for Lippi is that his forwards just are not delivering.
In their last seven matches, only one forward, Fabio Quagliarella, who cannot even get in to the team, has scored from open play. Lippi hopes the return of Andrea Pirlo, their most creative force, to pick holes in opponents who, unlike New Zealand and Paraguay, are forced to attack will make all the difference.
If it makes him feel any better, Lippi is evidently not the only coach under the cosh. Under hostile questioning on Tuesday, Slovakia's Vladimir Weiss ended up so stressed that he made a threat to one reporter "to smack you one in the mouth".
Cannavaro probably shares the sentiment. (© Daily Telegraph, London)