The Unlucky Man
Alessandro Nesta was highly respected and hugely successful but his was a career dogged by misfortune
Man of the match: A Nesta.
Six simple words in a short newspaper summary of the Euro 2000 Final. The story was not about Nesta, not really anyway. It was about France and their remarkable victory.
With only 30 seconds of stoppage time remaining and Italy leading through Marco Delvecchio’s goal, Sylvain Wiltord had equalised for the world champions. David Trezeguet sealed the title with a golden goal in extra time. France danced. Italy, who had been the better team, were broken, their expressions dark and haunted.
But few would remember their work at De Kuip in Rotterdam that night. Not even the performance of the man of the match.
It seems absurd to call Alessandro Nesta an unlucky footballer.
A world champion in 2006, the Roman won 78 caps for Italy and excelled for Lazio – the club of his heart – and Milan. He won two Champions Leagues, three Serie A titles, a European Cup Winners’ Cup and the Coppa Italia three times. Four times Nesta was named Serie A defender of the year. Four times he was included in the Uefa Team of the Year.
Indeed he was.
Suffering injury in one major international tournament would be unfortunate enough. Nesta suffered in three, during the World Cups of 1998, 2002 and 2006. When he was unaffected by physical pain, Nesta did more than most to help Italy reach the final of Euro 2000. And we know how that ended.
Without those injuries, how might Nesta now be remembered? Not just as a fine defender, but perhaps the finest of them all. His regular central defensive partner for Italy, Fabio Cannavaro, celebrated his 100th international appearance by lifting the World Cup. Nesta, of course, was injured.
Paul Gascoigne was still at Lazio when Nesta made his first-team debut. It was March 1994 and Nesta, six days before his 18th birthday, was brought on as a substitute for Pierluigi Casiraghi in a 2-2 draw at Udinese. Nesta was elevated to the first-team squad by Dino Zoff – Italy’s coach at Euro 2000 – and was a regular under Zdeněk Zeman.
The Czech coach is not known for paying excessive attention to defending but he knows a good ’un when he sees one. “Nesta was the best defender in the world for many years,” Zeman said. “He could take them all on, playing on his own if necessary.”
Nesta’s career advanced quickly in the 1990s. He played for the highly-successful Italian Under-21 side of the era, becoming a European champion in 1996.
Italian football is usually cautious with its young players. Clubs prefer players in their late teens and early twenties to spend seasons on loan in the provinces before bringing them home and deciding whether to give them an opportunity in Serie A.
Yet the best cannot be held back. At 20, Nesta was included in Italy’s squad for Euro 96, although he did not play under Arrigo Sacchi in that tournament. His bittersweet decade of service in the senior national team had begun.
The Stade de France, Paris, 23 June 1998. Italy v Austria. In the opening minutes of the Group B game, a tall, athletic defender in a blue shirt glides into the Austrian half and towards the penalty area. Losing control of the ball, he stretches out his left foot to retrieve it – and it happens. The unnatural motion causes a rupture to Nesta’s cruciate knee ligament. He will miss the rest of the World Cup and a good chunk of the following season.
I remember watching in the stadium as Nesta fell and noticing his arm immediately shoot skywards in distress, signalling for help. There were no doubts that he was severely hurt. After he had been lifted on to the stretcher, Nesta covered his face with an arm. Was he thinking that if he couldn’t see what was happening, maybe it wasn’t really true? He departed, to be replaced by Giuseppe Bergomi. Nesta made a relatively rapid recovery but did not play again until December.
He and Fabio Cannavaro had been criticised in Italy for their performance in the opening group game, a 2-2 draw against Chile in Bordeaux in which the strong, speedy Marcelo Salas had scored twice. Italy had needed Roberto Baggio to bail them out with a late penalty. Italian observers were alarmed at the way Salas and Iván Zamorano had dominated their markers in the air.
Yet in the following game against Cameroon, a 3-0 victory, the pair looked composed. Nesta’s misfortune cost the tournament one of its most interesting young players, though another – Cannavaro – would have a fine World Cup. The future captain produced a particularly accomplished performance against the hosts in the quarter-finals, when Italy were beaten on penalties. For Nesta, there could be only intense regret. Would his chance come again?
Christian Vieri was a few yards from Nesta when the curse struck for the first time, in that meeting with Austria in Paris. Vieri was one of the breakthrough stars of the tournament, scoring five goals in Italy’s run to the last eight. The following season, Vieri and Nesta were teammates at Lazio. Vieri scored against Mallorca at Villa Park in a 2-1 victory that gave Lazio the last European Cup Winners’ Cup. Nesta lifted the trophy.
Vieri spent only one season in Rome. One of football’s most high-profile itinerant millionaires, he joined Inter in the summer of 1999, his fifth club in as many seasons. Three years later, however, Vieri had put down roots – in a manner of speaking – and was still with them. He knew whom he wanted alongside him – and what he was prepared to do to make it happen.
In his autobiography, Call Me Bomber, Vieri wrote, “In the summer of 2002 I convinced Ronaldo and Álvaro Recoba. We would take a pay cut to ensure the club could afford to sign Nesta. Alessandro agreed.
“One morning I was at a racecourse and I took a call from Angelomario Moratti, the son of president Massimo Moratti. ‘Bobo, I know that you’re pissed off, but Nesta really was too expensive,’ he said. ‘But some of us were ready to take a pay cut,’ I replied. ‘Anyway, we’ve signed a top-class player: Carlos Gamarra,’ he told me.
“I said nothing, but threw my phone as hard as I could in the direction of the race track. I had nothing against Gamarra, who was a good defender. But at the time, Nesta was the best.”
Later that summer, Nesta did move to Milan – not to Inter, but to their great rivals, where he would win his two Champions League titles. One can only imagine Vieri’s reaction.
Vieri and Nesta were pillars of an Italy side that should probably have achieved more than it did between 1998 and 2006. Strong at the back, competent in midfield, potent in attack. The players were often undermined by their coaches, who were reluctant to permit adventurous football or simply trust their outstanding defenders to do their jobs.
Vieri missed Euro 2000 through injury, which gave his great friend, Filippo Inzaghi, the chance to lead Italy’s attack. Inzaghi scored twice in the tournament but his role in the semi-final against the Netherlands was minimal. It was his colleagues at the other end of the pitch who did the spadework, in what would become one of the greatest defensive performances in the history of the tournament.
The co-hosts had beaten Yugoslavia 6-0 in the last eight. After only 33 minutes against Italy, they were playing against ten men. Gianluca Zambrotta was sent off for two bookings, the second an impulsive foul on Boudewijn Zenden. “That man should never play for his country again,” said my mum at the time. Zambrotta won 98 caps and lifted the World Cup six years later. On reflection, it is probably a good thing my mother did not hold an influential position within the Italian federation.
Neither Zambrotta nor my mum need have worried, because Nesta could do the work of two men. The penalty he conceded, for a foul on Patrick Kluivert, was harsh: if every centre-back were punished for such manoeuvres, there would be dozens of penalties per game. Either punish them all or use common sense.
Francesco Toldo saved the kick from Frank de Boer and Kluivert hit the post with another in the second half. Kluivert had been one of the tournament’s best players but he could not crack the Nesta code and nor could his teammates.
Whenever they thought they had found a chink, Nesta denied them. Whenever a door edged open, Nesta closed it. The BBC team could not hide their distaste for Italy’s cautious football (should they have played expansively, with 10 men, against such dangerous attackers?) and willed the Netherlands to victory. Nesta’s work did not receive the praise it deserved.
At full-time, Nesta tumbled over the goal line after stopping yet another raid. Somehow, after 120 minutes, Nesta, Toldo, Cannavaro and Paolo Maldini had kept Italy in it. Picking himself up, the defender removed his boots as his team mates prepared for penalties
Nesta’s efforts were rewarded. Italy took the shoot-out 3-1. It was time for the duel with France in Rotterdam.
“It was destiny, it had been written somewhere. Something like this, you can’t forget it again in your life. It’s the kind of opportunity everyone wants to have. To see it disappear into thin air with 30 seconds left…”
Nesta is recalling the moment when Wiltord’s shot, a relatively weak one, eluded him, sneaked past Toldo’s dive and into the corner of the Italian net. There is disbelief on his face. He cannot understand what has happened or why.
“I still haven’t seen it again but a wide player mishit a shot and it went under the hand of the goalkeeper. We were a bit tired at the end, but these individual moments decide games. That is what had to happen this evening.”
“Had to happen”. “Destiny”. “Written”. There is fatalism about Nesta’s words that can look, at first glance, as though he is abnegating responsibility. More likely, it is the most effective way to deal with disappointment. Tell yourself that it was written in the stars and you can move on with your career. Torture yourself about what you might have done better and progress is more difficult.
That does not mean abandoning self-analysis. In elite sport, competitors cannot lose the thirst for learning and improvement. Yet when it’s not your day, it really isn’t your day. For Nesta, sadly, Euro 2000 would not be the only such occasion.
With Italy wobbling, Nesta and company tackled the final group game of the 2002 World Cup against Mexico in Oita, Japan. A draw was required to reach the second round and, after a haphazard, breathless performance, the substitute Alessandro Del Piero’s header in the 85th minute secured it. 1-1, and Italy would face the co-hosts, South Korea, in the round of 16.
Nesta had had his hands full with the darting, nimble Mexican attackers – but he probably should not have played. A foot injury in the second game against Croatia – a 2-1 defeat in Ibaraki – had limited his involvement to 23 minutes.
Knowing Italy needed him, he was there alongside Cannavaro to joust with Mexico. Against South Korea, however, both were missing, Cannavaro through suspension and Nesta because the injury had flared up again.
Watching on, Nesta must have felt he had read the script before. Injury in 1998, golden-goal defeat in 2000, injury and golden-goal defeat in 2002. In Daejeon, South Korea won 2-1 in extra-time. Fourteen years later, the performance of Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno is still discussed darkly in Italy, but only one detail mattered: the Azzurri were out. Luck had deserted Nesta again.
Euro 2004, at which Italy had a superb squad, was a farce: Giovanni Trapattoni’s selection and tactics, Francesco Totti’s ban for spitting at Denmark’s Christian Poulsen, Zlatan Ibrahimović’s improbable donkey kick that earned Sweden a 1-1 draw in the second game.
Italy won their final game against Bulgaria, knowing only a 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark would send them home. A 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark sent them home. Time for Nesta to take comfort in destiny once more.
Running to intercept a through-ball launched in the direction of the Czech Republic forward Milan Baroš, Nesta gets there first but soon has the familiar feeling of pain, dread and déjà vu. This time, a groin injury has betrayed him. The game is only 17 minutes old.
Nesta wears the same expression he did when giving the interview to Italian state television after the Euro 2000 final. How has this happened? Why?
His replacement, Marco Materazzi – a strong character but vastly inferior footballer – scores the opening goal. Italy beat the Czechs 2-0 in Hamburg and march all the way to the final where France – yet again – await them.
Materazzi scores again. He scores in the penalty shoot-out, which Italy win 5-3. He is head-butted by Zinedine Zidane during extra-time, playing his part in one of football’s most famous moments. Zidane is sent off. Italy become world champions.
Cannavaro wins the Ballon d’Or that year. Nesta, his ally for eight years, has a thousand memories to accompany his winner’s medal. However happy he might have been, it could not compare with what Materazzi and Cannavaro were feeling. Winning is not quite the same without taking part.
Nesta would play only once more for his country, in a 3-1 victory over Georgia in Tbilisi in a Euro 2008 qualifier. It was hardly an appropriate stage on which to conclude such a distinguished international career. He was only 30.
The formal announcement happened the following August, with a pithy statement. “I am not going to play for the national team anymore. My adventure with the Azzurri finishes here,” it read.
Marcello Lippi, the coach in 2006, tried to tempt back Nesta and Totti in 2010 to recreate the spirit of four years earlier. Neither man was for turning.
Did Nesta make his call too early? It seems so, but perhaps he felt cursed. Perhaps he felt there had been too much heartache with Italy or that his run of bad luck in the blue shirt would extend indefinitely.
Perhaps it really was time to think only of club football and what he could achieve with Milan. Indeed, less than a year after the final in Berlin, there was real joy for Nesta.
He was there for the heist of Istanbul in 2005, when Liverpool claimed the Champions League and Milan were left with their jaws on the floor. In Athens, two years later, they had the chance to right that wrong – and right it they did. For once, Nesta’s body was true to him. This time, destiny was on his side.
AC Milan 2 Liverpool 1. Man of the match: A Nesta.