Fabio Cannavaro forced his way into the Italy team towards the end of their 1994 UEFA European Under-21 Championship campaign, his consistency for SSC Napoli proving irresistible. He soon settled into a typically frugal back line, making his debut in a 3-0 victory against Czechoslovakia in the quarter-finals. Another clean sheet followed in the last four as the Azzurrini beat France on penalties to book a place in the final against Portugal.
With Luís Figo, Rui Costa and Sá Pinto in their ranks, the Portuguese boasted daunting firepower, but led by Cannavaro, Italy wore their opponents down before Pierluigi Orlandini broke to secure victory in extra time. Two years later Cannavaro was at Parma FC and though the 176cm-tall centre-back never did have the growth spurt many thought he needed to make it at the top level, he grew in stature. Cannavaro missed one game, Italy's semi-final win over France, en route to the 1996 final, but returned alongside Alessandro Nesta against Spain in Barcelona to earn a second U21 winners' medal.
Cannavaro made his full senior debut a few months later and did not miss a major tournament from the 1998 FIFA World Cup to the 2006 edition. In the latter he played every minute at the finals as he captained Italy to glory lifting the trophy on the night of his 100th cap. He was subsequently named FIFA World Player of the Year and European Footballer of the Year and only missed a sixth successive tournament after succumbing to injury just before UEFA EURO 2008™.
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