Leaving aside ethical questions raised by the video of his (supposedly then legal) performance-enhancing drug use, does Fabio Cannavaro’s performance actually merit the Golden Ball award? And how do you measure the performance of a defensive back against that of goal-scoring forwards and goal-blocking goalies?
Defenders will always have a hard time defending their awards: their performance simply isn’t as exciting, or “measurable” as that of forwards (goals made, assists), midfielders (possessions, plays initiated, assists), and goalies (shots blocked, goals denied).
Even Michel Platini, though, will admit that by tradition, in a World Cup year, the Golden Ball award will go to a player from the winning team, and if you talk about the azzurri you’ve simply got to give credit to the their defense. And with Nesta injured for much of the Cup, the only choice was really between the cup-hoisting Italy skipper Cannavaro and the amazing Spiderman between the posts, Buffon.
Like any goalie worth his salt, Buffon can claim thousands of spectacular saves. But if you look closely at Cannavaro’s style of play, there’s nothing fancy about it. The only exciting part is that he’s all about anticipation: getting a foot on the ball before the attacker. Watching how he does that, over and over, against players who are bigger, taller and faster is the only way to truly appreciate Cannavaro’s game. Timing is everything.
Cruyff’s beef with Cannavaro is that he’s a pure “stopper” not a sweeping play-initiator a la Franz Beckenbauer. He may be right. And Gianni Rivera may be right in saying Buffon was more deserving. But I for one take heart in the fact that it’s still possible for the hardscrabble underdog to win awards: a small stopper (176 cm) in a world of towering superstar strikers, giraffe-like goalies, and gigantic defenders.