From Ball Boy to Ballon d’Or

When people think of Italian football nowadays, they think of defense. Maybe kids dream of being Giorgio Chiellini or Leonardo Bonucci.

But let me tell you something….

I didn’t start out wanting to be a defender.

Who would want to be on the back line after having watched striker Paolo Rossi score six goals in the 1982 World Cup? I can still remember midfielder Marco Tardelli firing in a goal from the top of the box in the final. I remember his celebration, the look on his face after he scored, the way he ran with two fists in the air, screaming.

Like many other boys in Italy, I was sitting in front of our TV — I was just nine years old — when the final whistle blew, when Italy became world champions and Nando Martellini’s voice called out on the broadcast.

Campioni del mondoCampioni del mondoCampioni del mondo!”

I don’t think there was one kid in Italy after that who didn’t kick a ball against a wall and not hear Martellini’s voice cheering them on.

When I first arrived at Napoli, I was the ball boy, which meant that I got to watch practices as the legends trained. Then, once I joined the youth team as a young teenager, I was a midfielder just like Tardelli.

That is, I was until the day one of the directors at the youth academy came up to me and told me that I was going to change positions.

“Fabio, I prefer you to be a defender,” he said.

And that was it. No explanation, no reasons. I was shorter than most of the other guys on the pitch, so I didn’t look like a defender, and certainly not a center back. But from that moment on, that was my position. Lucky for me, I loved playing defense. And I was pretty good at it, too.

Looking back, I owe my career to two things.

First, I learned by watching the best. When I got to Napoli, I played alongside Ciro Ferrara —who played more than 500 games for Napoli and Juventus and is one of the greatest defenders in the history of Italian football. Ferrara, like many Italians, didn’t mince words. He would tell you where you needed to be, what you needed to do, and whether or not you had any chance against your opponent.

I got to know Ferrara in 1987, during my days as the ball boy at Napoli, when the team won its first Serie A title and I stood on the pitch with them.

It was a magical season. I learned so much from all the players, but one in particular.

The genius.

Diego Maradona.

Everyday, I watched the legend. And when I got called up to train with the first team, I said, “I’m finally going to train with Maradona.”

Ferrara just looked at me with a smile on his face.

“No, no, you don’t just go and train with Maradona,” he said. “You don’t just go and tackle Maradona. The ball never leaves his feet.”

And then he handed me a ball.

“Here, take this, because you will never take a ball from Maradona,” he said, smiling. “You can, however, take one from me.”

Eventually, I finally got to practice against Ferrara and the rest of the first-teamers, including Maradona, my idol. One day, Maradona started to come toward me, the ball tapping off his toes with each dribble. Without a thought, I made a move for the ball.

I tackled Maradona. The genius! The legend!

Suddenly I felt the eyes of my teammates and my trainers on me. Then, I heard Ferrara’s voice in my head.

You don’t just tackle Maradona.

The only person smiling was Maradona. And at the end of training, he walked up to me and handed me his boots. I had posters of Maradona on the walls of my bedroom — our Neapolitan deity. Now, in my hands, were his shoes, muddy from the day’s work.

And that was the second thing I learned: To become a great defender, you have to play against the greatest in the world.

And the one ingredient you need? It’s not height, or speed or even ball skills.

You must have confidence.

I’m not sure where I got that sense of confidence, but it was certainly there on the day I tackled Maradona. And I tried to build upon it for the rest of my career. At Napoli, at Parma, at Inter Milan, at Juventus.

Honestly, it wasn’t until July 9, 2006 that I truly felt confident as a defender … when I lifted up the World Cup and reporters yelled out to us:

Campioni del mondoCampioni del mondoCampioni del mondoCampioni del mondo!”

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As a defender, you can be many shapes and sizes. You can be short and fast. Or you can be tall and jump high. It doesn’t matter. The only necessity is that you are confident when you take the pitch — because every week there is a new challenge.

It’s only through those challenges that you will find your confidence. It started for me on that day against Maradona, and continued every day on the pitch after. Even today, standing on the side of the field, I work to strengthen my confidence as a manager.

So, rather than discuss my moments of success, I want to talk about the moments, the opponents and teammates who challenged me the most. It was because of them that I was able to build my confidence.

More than anyone I faced before him, and anyone I faced after him, Ronaldo was always, always, the one player who stirred fear in me.

He is the player of our generation. The phenomenon. The Ronaldo.

The first time I played against Ronaldo was in a Brazil-Italy friendly in France before the 1998 World Cup. Even just walking onto the same pitch as him terrified me.

We drew that match 3–3, and afterward I had a meeting with our coach, Cesare Maldini.

“Fabio, you know, a lot of people talk about how incredible Ronaldo is, how he is a very, very good player.”

I just nodded as he continued.

“And I can say, after watching him play against you, that yes, Ronaldo, is very, very good.”

Classic Maldini.

“Thanks, Coach.”

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Ronaldo was a player who you didn’t necessarily defend, but instead you hoped to limit and contain as much as you could. Because if Ronaldo wanted to score, he would score.

Of course, Brazil also had Romário, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldinho. But, Ronaldo? He was just … different.

He was fast. He was strong. He was unbelievable. And every time I played him there was always respect. A player like him didn’t need to trash talk, and there was no point in trying to get inside his head. He was already in yours before the whistle even blew.  

I don’t think that the fear I had of him ever went away. But out of that fear came respect. And the way you respect a player like Ronaldo is to train, every day, as hard as you can. When I showed up to the pitch, I knew I put all the time I could. Was I scared? Sure. But you respect the game and the player by not letting it show on the field.

Through Ronaldo, I learned how to handle fear on the pitch.

If Ronaldo had toughness on the pitch, then what Zidane had was elegance. He was the gentleman of the pitch.

I’m certain his feet had to touch the ground at some point, but the way he moved, it was almost as if he was floating through air. His turns and dodges weren’t just athletic —  they were more like ballet. There was this lightness to the way he’d weave between players.

It was beautiful to watch him play and it brings me happiness that I got to play against him.

I played Zidane throughout my career, and for many players you reach a point where you learn lessons on how to handle them. But from the first match I played against him to the last, Zidane would find different ways to beat me.

Like Ronaldo, you could only try to be prepared for Zidane. Like I said, I took my job very seriously. I trained hard so that when I did go up against Zidane, I gave myself as much of a chance of stopping him as possible.

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In 2006, we played France in the World Cup final and Zidane scored the first goal of the match. It was on a penalty, but our back line was a little on its heels afterwards. We were five minutes into the match and he just chipped it in. It just floated and I remember watching as it hit the top goal post. We all hoped it hadn’t gone in, but as Zidane turned back around, that was it. We were scared. And as captain, I knew I had to get us concentrating again. But that’s what Zidane could do. Even when he wasn’t necessarily getting past your defense, he could still leave you rattled. You just felt his presence on the field. The calmness and creativity seemed to extend from his body and into the ball.

That is, until he would lose his cool. And even Zidane had those moments.

But here is where I learned another lesson: Leadership on the pitch. I knew my job was just not only to stop the ball or set up our midfield and strikers, but it was also to keep us focused — even when trailing in the most important match of our lives.

“We can do this,” I said, looking around to my teammates. “This is ours.”

And luckily for us, a little more than ten minutes later, Marco Materazzi scored with a header. You could just feel us get a little more relaxed. We were right back in it.

Until we went to PKs, that is. My heart would stop and restart each time someone stepped up to the ball. When Fabio Grosso sealed our victory, I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t believe it.

Campioni del mondo.

I got more than just the trophy at the end of that match. For the first time, I thought I knew what I was doing back there. And that’s because of Italy’s defensive organization. Whether you play as an individual or as a team depends on who is alongside you on the pitch. And throughout that tournament, we really were a collective group. And, we were the best.

But not just on defense.

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Like I said, a lot of people only think about defense when they think of Italian football. And this is wrong in my mind. We have some of the greatest strikers to ever play the game. We have some of the greatest midfielders.

Yet a lot of people think we won the 2006 World Cup because of defense. We won that tournament because we beat everybody else. We can do our job on defense, but if we’re not scoring, we can’t win. A little obvious, maybe, but I don’t think our front line got enough credit for what they did.

Of course, I preferred when we were on the same team, but to play against my Italian teammates Andrea Pirlo and Francesco Totti in club football was a very “happy” challenge.

When I played against Totti, since he was a forward, we had the opportunity to talk more to each other on the field. If my goalkeeper was taking a kick, and we were standing around waiting for the action, we would joke about with one another. That was just normal for us. He’s a pretty funny guy. But Pirlo? He’s a got a different style. When the ball was with him, you had no idea what he was going to do. When he worked his way up the midfield, I was always locked in trying to anticipate his moves.

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It was respect out there. We all understood we weren’t going to make things easy for each other. I knew they’d take any opportunity to blow by me for a goal, and they knew I wouldn’t hesitate to tackle them to the ground.

The only friends you have on the field are the ten other guys wearing the same jersey as you. Other than that, all other friendships are left on the outside of the pitch. All the dinners we get before or after, they don’t matter. The trophies we’ve won together, they’ll still be there.

But on the field, I’m at work and my job is to stop my good friends from scoring goals.

Spain was, in a word, difficult. When I went to Real Madrid in 2006 it was the first time I had ever played outside of Italy. Moving to a new city was difficult, communicating with my teammates was difficult. It was probably one of the most challenging things I did in my career.

The week leading up to a match in Italy is a little different than it is in Spain. It’s very regimented — the training is nonstop, and coaches are relentless. Lucky for me, our manager, Fabio Capello brought a little Italian football to Madrid. Nobody was more regimented than him.

If practice started at 10 o’clock. He meant 10 o’clock. And not one minute afterwards.

He helped my adjustment to life in Spain, but I also had to learn how to play like an individual. I was on a major club because of what I could do, and I was expected to do big things. But I also had to learn how the style of play of my new teammates and our new back line.

I remember one of my first training sessions, when I gave a pass to Sergio Ramos.

“Why you make a mistake?” Sergio asked me.

“No mistake, I gave you the ball.”

Everything was new. In Italy, we tend to pass to the space, but in Spain, they expect the ball right at their feet.

“No, you need to give me a strong pass. And you need to give it at my feet.”

I had a lot to learn, but when I got to Madrid I wasn’t 21 years old anymore. I had just won a World Cup. I had my confidence. I don’t know if I could have made that move as a young man. But after what Italy accomplished in 2006, I knew my game. And at Real Madrid, we went on to win La Liga two years in a row.

And after you wear the Real Madrid shirt once, you are a part of that club forever.

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I’ve played plenty of matches where I thought I had left everything on the field. Given a game my all.

But what I’ve come to realize since I retired and began coaching — 90 minutes on the field do not compare to life as a manager.

I’ve worked to learn a whole new side of football.

As manager of Tianjin Quanjian — now in the Chinese Super League — every day, every week, I have to give our players everything I have. I have to know what family problems someone might be dealing with, who is shy or may not be very vocal, and who I can push.

Now try and do that with 25 different players through a Chinese translator.

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So when I can’t communicate with words, I join my players in training to show them what I know or how I want them to do something. I need to play with them to teach them sometimes.

It can be lonely as a manager out there. You’re on the field, yes, but you’re not really on the field with them. Yet I have to share with my players my experiences and my knowledge.

And some of that knowledge comes from the best managers in the world — Lippi, Trapattoni, Maldini, Capello. They all gave me something, which throughout my years as a player I kept in a small notebook.

Any mistake or success, I wrote it down. And in China this past year, I keep that notebook with me. I try not to make the same mistakes.

When I came to Tianjin Quanjian last summer, I wasn’t sure what to expect. This was second-tier Chinese football. They had been on seven-match losing streak. They were eighth in the table out of 16 clubs.

But I thought about who I was as a player, the confidence I got from the men I played against, from the men who coached me. The feeling of lifting a league cup, a World Cup.

Respecting the game.

And we got to work. By the end of the season, we were top of the table. We were promoted to play this season in the Chinese Super League.

The moment we secured promotion, I didn’t hear Martellini’s voice cheering me on. Promotion isn’t a trophy, it’s not a game-winning goal, or a game-changing tackle. But to bring success out of your team and players and to lead them to promotion? That truly makes you happy for the rest of your life.

I began searching for my confidence on the pitch as a young boy. I didn’t find it until I lifted our World Cup trophy and then a Ballon d’Or later that year.

And now, I’m searching for my confidence again. Not as a leader on the back line, but on the sidelines.