Alessandro Nesta has been right up there with the world’s best defenders for many years. The 30-year-old Italian talks to FIFA Magazine about the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, his hat-trick of final defeats, his life out of the limelight and his admiration for Ronaldinho, Ibrahimovic, Drogba and Eto’o.
FIFA Magazine: The great Pele recently said: “To be sure of winning, the Brazilian team only needs one player: Alessandro Nesta.” How do you react to that?
Alessandro Nesta: I’m grateful to Pele for his kind words. It is one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever been given. Brazil have better individual talents and more of them than any other country. Just look at Ronaldinho, Adriano, Ronaldo and Kaka – they can all control and win a game single-handedly. Yet football is a team sport. In two recent major tournaments, the 2002 World Cup and EURO 2004, the Republic of Korea, Turkey, Greece and the Czech Republic all showed that team spirit can be more important than simply having outstanding individual players. Nevertheless, Brazil definitely figure among the favourites to win this year’s World Cup in Germany.
Which other teams have a good chance of winning the title?
England. I know Sven-Goran Eriksson well because I played under him at Lazio. He has a lot of experience and knows how to combine the skills of individual players to build a successful team. He’s also the consummate professional. He prepares for every match in minute detail. On top of that, with players of the quality of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney, England can draw on more talent than they have been able to for many years.
How do you rate Italy’s chances?
Along with Germany, Argentina and France, we are currently at a slightly lower level, but we can get better. We improved constantly throughout the World Cup qualifiers, especially in terms of team spirit. And that is a key factor in an intense tournament like the World Cup. A lot of our players played in the 2002 World Cup and in EURO 2004 when our overall performance did not live up to expectations. We’re professionals, we want to avenge those disappointments, particularly as this could be the last World Cup some of us play in. Playing in Germany will take on a special significance for me personally as injuries meant that I missed the crucial World Cup matches against France in 1998 and the Republic of Korea in 2002.
How do you feel about Italy’s group opponents in Germany – the Czech Republic, the USA and Ghana?
We’ve been drawn in a very hard group, maybe the toughest of the lot. Although we were seeded for the Final Draw in Leipzig in December, two of our opponents – the Czech Republic and the USA – have since overtaken us in the FIFA World Ranking, and Ghana is the most rapidly improving team in Africa. We certainly won’t be falling into the trap of underestimating our opponents. Only a few of their players are with top European clubs, so they will go into the World Cup less tired and highly motivated. The 2002 World Cup and EURO 2004 undoubtedly showed that the traditional powers at national team level – be that Italy, Germany, England, France or Spain – were often hindered because their top players were physically and psychologically drained after a long, arduous season with their clubs. That’s why I’m delighted that FIFA have decided to end the league season a week earlier than planned so that players have a full week’s rest.
With Lazio, Milan and Italy, you have played in the final of every major international competition apart from the FIFA World Cup™. Some of those showpiece games ended in defeat even though you had seemed on the verge of victory...
That’s happened three times: the final of EURO 2000 (Italy were leading when France's Sylvain Wiltord equalised in the dying seconds, David Trezeguet subsequently scored the decisive golden goal in extra time), the 2003 Toyota Cup (Milan lost to Boca Juniors on penalties) and last year’s Champions League final (after leading 3-0 at half-time, Milan conceded three times in the second half and Liverpool ultimately won on penalties). To be honest, I think I’m due a bit of good luck. I’m still a little cut up about those three games. But I’ve also noticed how much more determined I’ve become to renew my efforts to get out there and win. However, I don’t view those finals simply as bad experiences; I remind myself that you have to reach the final to be able to lose it. In today’s game, there’s a very fine line between victory and defeat, luck often has more of an influence than any difference in skill.
You very rarely give interviews and very few footballers are as protective as you are of their private lives. What is the reason for that?
In Italy especially, football is constantly in the public eye and the central figures of the game are often, perhaps too often, to the fore. That creates enormous pressure, particularly at the leading clubs, and you have to protect yourself to withstand that. The best place to do that is at home, inside your own four walls. I’m lucky to have had a very happy home life for many years with a woman that I love. With that in mind, I find avoiding the media spotlight very natural and a simple matter. It is an attitude and an ideal that I have had since I was a child. On top of that, my home is the best place to do my favourite things: watch films, listen to music and read good books.
Coming from Rome and as the figurehead of Lazio, you were for many years held up as the antithesis of fellow Roman Francesco Totti, who many view as the embodiment of AS Roma. How do the two of you get on?
When I was playing in Rome, there was a fierce rivalry, not so much between us personally as between our fans and those around us. We captained two teams that were contesting the league title, so it wasn’t easy to build a good friendship. However, since I joined Milan, our relationship has become much closer, especially when we meet up to play for Italy. We have our Roman roots in common and an affection for a city that I still love because it was such a big part of my childhood. My best friends still live in the part of Rome where I was born, the place where I developed as a person, thanks to the game of football.
Arrigo Sacchi, Cesare Maldini, Dino Zoff, Giovanni Trapattoni and Marcello Lippi: Italy’s most recent coaches have always employed you as the central pillar of their defence.
I have learnt a great deal from all of them. Although they have their differences in tactical terms, they have one important thing in common: they were all defenders during their playing careers. I have received some invaluable advice from them during my ten years in the national team set-up and they have been instrumental in inspiring the passion that I have when playing for Italy. You can’t be one of the greats in world football without playing a key role in the European Championship or a World Cup. Club football serves as a basis, but a player can only truly win a place in people’s hearts – and that includes the hearts of opposing fans – when he represents his country.
Has there ever been another defender who you have considered a role model?
During my time with Lazio, Milan and the national team, I’ve been lucky enough to play alongside the best: Sinisa Mihajlovic, Fernando Couto, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, Jaap Stam, Ciro Ferrara, Fabio Cannavaro. I’ve learnt lots from them all, things that have helped me grow as a player and as a person. However, I have extremely special memories of Argentinian defender Antonio Chamot, whom I played with at the start of my career with Lazio, probably because he passed on all the secrets of our position to me. Today, I have a lot of respect for John Terry of Chelsea and England. He is a strong defender, not just in his own half but also in the opponent’s half of the pitch. He scores lots of goals – I’m really envious.
Going back to the FIFA World Cup, which opposing strikers do you fear the most?
I have great respect for all of them, but I’ve been most impressed with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Didier Drogba. They are the game’s most complete strikers at the moment with great skill, athleticism, strength, power and pace. They can score goals in so many different ways and from any situation. Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o won’t be taking part in the World Cup, but I’m a great admirer of his, too.
Who will be the star of Germany 2006?
Ronaldinho. He epitomises what football should be about – creativity and exhilaration. He always manages to pull off the unexpected as if it’s the most natural thing in the world and he can turn the most difficult situations into simple openings. It wouldn’t surprise me if two of my Milan team mates, Kaka and Andriy Shevchenko, also shine during the World Cup. As for up-and-coming players, I think we could see Lionel Messi of Argentina make the breakthrough in Germany.