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Alessandro Nesta and the Art of Defending

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Italy has always had a fascinating history of art, from Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to Michelangelo’s scenes of Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. These beautiful pieces of art influenced Italian society centuries later and they have ultimately imprinted a vision into the world of Italian football.

Since the 1930’s Italy has been a dominant force in football and the foundations of each Azzurri victory has always been built on a strong defence. Throughout Italy’s history the greatest players to hail from The Boot of Europe tended to be the defenders. Every generation a new breed of defenders have emerged and implemented their style on Calcio. Each decade in Italian football one or two defenders would always manage to stand out as icons due to their ability to stop the opposition from scoring. The 1950’s and 60’s were defined by Milan’s immense Cesare Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni as the Rossoneri won the Scudetto five times in eleven years from 1951 to 1962 and won their first European Cup in 1963.

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Milan’s city cousins Inter also produced two of the finest defenders in the same time period as well, the marvellous Giacinto Facchetti and Tarcisio Burgnich. Facchetti was a one-club man his entire career with the Nerazzurri as he won four scudetti and two European Cups, his impact with the Azzurri was also noteworthy, as he triumphed at Euro 68. Burgnich was a sweeper for La Beneamata, but he is more well-known for his performances on the international stage. A crucial part of the team’s 1966-1974 World Cups, he was also part of the Italian victory at the 1968 European Championship.

During the 1980’s the likes of Gaetano Scirea, Claudio Gentile, Franco Baresi and Giuseppe Bergomi all made a name for themselves in the world of Calcio.

Scirea was a key member of Italy’s 1982 World Cup-winning side, playing as a libero. Domestically, Scirea spent his whole career at Juventus where he won seven scudetti, two Coppa Italia, one UEFA Cup, one Cup Winners’ Cup and a Champions League.

Gentile represented Juventus during most of his club career with 283 appearances but also had a respectable spell with Fiorentina. Gentile was capped 71 times by Italy and had plenty of domestic honours to go with the most coveted trophy in International football as he won six scudetti, two Coppa Italia, one UEFA Cup, one Cup Winners’ Cup and the Champions League.

Baresi was voted as Milan’s Player of the Century in 1999 and like Scirea he spent his whole career at one club. The sweeper made 719 appearances for Milan and featured 81 times over 12 years for the Azzurri. Baresi won everything including a World Cup with the Azzurri in 1982, three European Cups and six Scudetti.

Bergomi is an Inter legend and featured 756 times in his career with the Nerazzurri. Bergomi’s time at Inter coincided with one of the less successful eras in their history, as he only won one scudetto in 1989, but did manage to win three UEFA cups in 1991, 1994 and 1998. Bergomi played 81 times for the Azzurri and was part of the Italy squad that won the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

Serie A’s golden era of the 1990s produced one of the greatest player’s of all time in Paolo Maldini. Maldini spent his entire career in the red and black colours of Milan and appeared 902 times for Il Diavolo. Over the course of his career he won seven Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana, five Champions Leagues, the UEFA Super Cup on four occasions and three Intercontinental Cup’s. Unfortunately for Maldini his impressive international career never resulted in a trophy, despite appearing 126 times. Maldini was on the losing side with Italy at the 1994 World Cup Final as the Azzurri suffered a penalty shoot-out defeat to Brazil. At Euro 2000, he reached the final against France but Italy were defeated in extra-time.

Fabio Cannavaro was perhaps the most famous Italian defender of the 2000s as he was able to replicate his impressive domestic form with Juventus on the international stage as he captained Italy to a 2006 World Cup victory in Germany. Most impressively however is the fact that Cannavaro won a Ballon D’Or in 2006 ahead of Gianluigi Buffon and Thierry Henry.

Although these legends above have created their own legacy, one of the most atheistically pleasing and creative defenders from Italy stands out because of his ability to make defending an art form. A native of Rome, Alessandro Nesta grew up supporting his local team Lazio during the golden era of Serie A in the 1980s.

Nesta was first discovered by Francesco Rocca, a scout for Roma, but his father, a Lazio fan, turned down the offer as he wanted his son to represent his boyhood club and not their deadly city rivals. Nesta eventually signed for Lazio when he was nine years old in 1985. During his time with Lazio’s youth academy Nesta began as a striker but he truly excelled as a defender and his performances with the youth team attracted the attention of the Manager of the Biancocelesti, Dino Zoff, who awarded Nesta with his senior debut on 13 March 1994 against Udinese.

Zdeněk Zeman replaced Dino Zoff as Lazio Manager in 1994 and remained in the Italian capital for three seasons. The Czech Manager launched the career of Nesta, as he provided the youngster with a number of first team opportunities.

Zeman was fired as Lazio Manager in 1997 and his replacement Sven-Göran Eriksson appointed Nesta as the team Captain. Nesta’s technical and physical abilities and his acute capacity to read the game helped guide Lazio to a 1998 Coppa Italia victory against Milan, where he scored the winning goal. Nesta also guided Lazio to the 1998 Uefa Cup Final but the Biancocelesti lost 3-0 to Inter. Due to his fantastic season and his leadership at such a young age, Nesta was awarded the Serie A Young Footballer of the Year Award at the 1998 Italian footballing awards.

The following season Lazio finished second in Serie A, just one point behind winners Inter but The Eagles improved on this disappointment the following season. In the 1999-00 season he led Lazio to the Scudetto and Coppa Italia as the Biancocelesti won an illustrious domestic double in an all-star team that included the likes of Pavel Nedvěd and Diego Simeone.

Although Lazio were unable to win another Scudetto, Nesta’s individual performances earned him three consecutive Serie A Defender of the Year awards in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Winning the award three years in a row was significant for Nesta as he was able to defeat Paolo Maldini, Cafu and Gianluca Zambrotta for the prize and establish himself as arguably the best defender on the planet.

Despite Lazio winning a Scudetto in 2000, a number of financial problems for the Aquile President, Sergio Cragnotti, resulted in Nesta being sold to Serie A rivals Milan for €31 million in 2002. Although, Nesta had joined a hated-rival, Lazio fans admired his leadership qualities and his world-class defensive performances week in week out meant that he remained a beloved figure by the Aquile. 

Nesta’s transfer to Milan ensured that the Rossoneri would have one of the best defensive lines in the world as Nesta would partner either Alessandro Costacurta or Jaap Stam in the heart of the defence, whilst Paolo Maldini and Cafu would support them on the flanks. Under the guidance of Milan Manager Carlo Ancelotti, Nesta’s game developed beyond belief as his defensive intelligence excelled.

Nesta’s first season with the Rossoneri was extremely successful as he won the Champions League for the first time in his career as Milan defeated Juventus 3-2 on penalty kicks after the scores remained 0-0 after extra time. Nesta scored his penalty against Gianluigi Buffon during the shoot-out. In addition to European triumph Milan won the Coppa Italia.

A ten year spell with Milan was arguably where Nesta peaked during his career. After an impressive debut season, Nesta went on to win two Scudetti, two Supercoppa Italiana, two Uefa Super Cup, a Club World Cup and a coveted second Champions League in 2007 against Liverpool.

ROME, ITALY – OCTOBER 29: Alessandro Nesta of AC Milan (C) celebrates scoring his team’s second goal with team-mate Robinho during the Serie A match between AS Roma and AC Milan at Stadio Olimpico on October 29, 2011 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

Although being one of the best defenders to hail from Italy, Nesta’s career was plagued with injuries and this resulted in him losing a lot of his pace and stamina; however his excellent positional and tactical sense enabled him to anticipate and shut down opponents in one on one situations whilst also preventing attacking plays and this allowed him to maintain a consistently high level of performance even towards the end of his career.

In 2012, a number of Milan legends bid farewell to the San Siro and this included Nesta. The Lazio and Milan legend joined American Major League Soccer outfit Montreal Impact. Nesta spent 18 months with Montreal and appeared 34 times in all competitions. To finish off his playing career, Nesta played for Indian side Chennaiyin FC on three occasions alongside his former Italy teammate Marco Materazzi.

Nesta’s International career for Italy was highly successful. Despite losing in the final of Euro 2000 Nesta, along with his defensive partners Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro were elected to be a part of the team of the tournament. The most successful moment of Nesta’s international career was the famous 2006 World Cup victory in Germany. Nesta started the tournament with a clean sheet in a 2-0 victory over Ghana but an injury in the final group game against the Czech Republic resulted in him missing the remainder of the tournament as Italy went on to win the trophy after defeating France 5-3 in a penalty shoot-out in the Final.

Nesta stands out from other defenders in Italian history due to his ball-playing ability, skill, vision and passing, which allowed him to bring the ball out of the defence and start plays from the back. Nesta’s legacy and his style of play were ahead of its time as in today’s game defenders with a passing ability like Nesta’s are considered to be the best in the world.

Nesta’s influence on the game has impacted the way that the modern game is played as defender’s are encouraged to bring the ball out from the defence and start attacking moves. Leonardo Bonucci of Milan is perhaps the closest defender who possesses a similar skill set to the legendary Nesta. Bonucci is well renowned for being a ball playing centre-back and the current Manchester City Manager, Pep Guardiola, is a big admirer of the Milan Captain because of his technical qualities.

Bonucci has admitted that Nesta’s style of play influences him during matches with Milan and previously at Juventus, where Bonucci was a core member of the Bianconeri team that won six consecutive Serie A titles between 2012 and 2017.

“I admired Alessandro Nesta a lot because he set the mark of this new way of defending and playing the ball. He was always elegant, with perfect timing. It’s not easy to find Italian players of his calibre. On a technical level, human level and tactical level, he’s one of the few unforgettable players of Italian football. He reinvigorated the tradition of great central defenders at Milan”.

The Italian game and the world of football has modernised in recent years and the previous old-fashioned, rugged, hard-tackling defender has gone out of fashion as Manager’s will often prioritise a defenders ball playing ability. The days of Catenaccio are a distant memory in Italian football as the modern game has shifted its focus to a more open and attacking style of play.

Artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci inspired generations with their perfection and style of art and this is no different to Alessandro Nesta whose legacy in the world of football and his ability to make defending an art form has left its mark on this generation and the world of football.

Italian football expert providing the latest Serie A and Azzurri news | News Editor for Italian Football Daily | London based | Twitter: @FinallyAquino

@ItalianFD

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