Cannavaro's performances during the 2006 World Cup in Germany were, without question, the greatest series of performances by a defender in an individual World Cup during the history of the competition. For seven games and 690 minutes, he was perfection personified, marshalling and leading a virtually impenetrable back line that conceded just twice the whole tournament -- one of those a freak own-goal and the other a contentious penalty. This earned him the nickname 'Il muro di Berlino' (The Berlin Wall).
The Italy captain produced the best display of his 136-record breaking Italy appearances during the dramatic semifinal against hosts Germany. Cannavaro's Herculean efforts in the final along with Marco Materazzi and Gianluigi Buffon will stand the test of time just as much. As will, of course, the moment five days later when -- on the occasion of his 100th cap -- he raised the World Cup trophy high into the air after Italy's penalty-shootout triumph over France at the Olympiastadion.
Cannavaro's star had been born some nine years earlier, during a crucial 1998 World Cup qualifier against England at Wembley in February 1997. Injuries elsewhere had pushed the then-23-year-old into the starting XI for his competitive international debut.
It could not have been a potentially tougher baptism of fire. A young Cannavaro was thrown into the deep end in one of the most intense pressure-cooker arenas. The Neapolitan came out as the man-of-the-match, and Italy recorded an impressive 1-0 victory thanks to Gianfranco Zola's near-post strike.
Cannavaro was an indispensable player for Italy for the next 13 years, and captain after Maldini's retirement in 2002. He forged one of football's best-ever centre-back partnerships with Alessandro Nesta -- the pair had a telepathic understanding of one another and were seconds away from European Championship glory in 2000 until France's Sylvain Wiltord equalised four minutes into injury time -- forcing extra-time where Les Bleus triumphed via David Trezeguet's Golden Goal.
The backs-to-the-wall semifinal win over Holland was this combination's finest hour as they somehow shut out the hosts for almost 90 minutes with 10 men, after Gianluca Zambrotta's early red card, paving the way for a Francesco Toldo-inspired penalty shootout triumph. The duo were still together in 2006, but a groin injury ended Nesta's World Cup in the third group game against the Czech Republic -- with Cannavaro in such brilliant form he was hardly missed when Materazzi stepped in.
Having missed Euro 2008 through injury, the defender struggled along with all his teammates during Italy's humiliating group stage exit at the 2010 World Cup when returning coach Marcello Lippi stubbornly and suicidally placed his trust in the ageing 2006 World Cup heroes. Cannavaro wound down his career in the United Arab Emirates with Al-Ahly at the age of 37.
In the last 15 years, only Nesta and Thuram -- as well as possibly a Paolo Maldini whose best days arrived a touch earlier -- can challenge the Neapolitan as the greatest defender of his generation. Internationally, Cannavaro has no equals.h