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Oct 23, 2013

Time to give retiring Nesta the credit he deserves

Alessandro Nesta was 13 years old when Italia '90 came around. A member of the Lazio academy, six of whose youngsters were to be selected as ball boys during the tournament; he desperately hoped to be one of them. Imagine the disappointment he felt, then, on seeing the list printed and tacked to the notice board at Lazio's Formello training ground and finding that his name wasn't on it.

"I had to get away from Rome and went to Cesenatico [on the coast]," Nesta recalled, "only to realise that I hated the sea. I envied [Marco] Di Vaio and [Alessandro] Iannuzzi, the privileged teammates of mine in the academy, who were allowed to admire Azeglio Vicini's national team on the sidelines; it was a dream."

That would be one of the few times Nesta was overlooked in his long and esteemed playing career, the end of which is now approaching. To a certain extent, the 37-year-old centre-back has come full circle. That might sound odd considering that he is playing in MLS with the Montreal Impact. But as he hobbled out of the Stade Saputo nursing a calf injury after a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union, with Marco Di Vaio (his "brother") by his side, he reflected: "I started my career with Marco when I was 8 and I finish it [with him]. Maybe today, I don't know. Maybe next month."

Report: Nesta to retire at season's end

Romans, the pair of them. What a year 1976 was in the capital. Not only were Nesta and Di Vaio born then, but Francesco Totti too. They'd come across each other as boys. Had Nesta's father and brother not been loyal Lazio fans and brought him up to be one too, then perhaps he would have played with Totti at Roma. How come?

Nesta's boys' club, U.S. Cinecitta -- based in the quarter of Rome where its film industry has its studios and Federico Fellini produced his masterpieces -- was affiliated with Roma. One of their scouts, the former player Francesco Rocca -- nicknamed "Kawasaki" -- whose career had been cut short by injury, offered him a place at Trigoria. But just as Totti refused Lazio, Nesta turned down Roma too.

Soon they'd both get to play for and captain the clubs they supported as kids. Nesta was a member of the Lazio Under-12s side that played their Lodigiani peers, among whom there was a blond-haired kid he'd later exchange pennants with in many a Derby del Cupolone, the future No. 10 of Roma. Seek it out on YouTube. It's well worth a watch. Nesta was handed a Serie A debut by Dino Zoff on March 13, 1994, against Udinese. It came a fortnight after Totti's for Roma. They both made headlines. Nesta would do so in England not a month later when he'd gone to hoof a clearance during a training match. Just as he was about to kick the ball, Paul Gascoigne slid in with an ill-advised tackle and came off worse. His right leg was broken in two places.

"I was shaking like a leaf," Nesta recalled. “[Zoff] exonerated me of any blame. He saw that Paul's tackle from behind was a risky one. But I'd destroyed our club's idol and was in shock for a few days."

Nesta would soon get over it. In fact, he'd quickly replace Gazza as Lazio's idol. Scorer of the winning goal against Milan in the 1998 Coppa Italia final, he secured the club its first piece of silverware in nearly quarter of a century. A cruciate ligament injury suffered at the World Cup in France ruled Nesta out for the first half of the following season but on his return he was presented with the captain's armband, a proud moment for him and his family.

He wore it as he raised the Cup Winners Cup trophy aloft at the end of the competition's last-ever final against Mallorca at Villa Park. At the beginning of the next season, arguably the greatest in Lazio's history, he lifted another after Sven-Goran Eriksson's team, inspired by new signing Juan Sebastian Veron, overcame Manchester United in the European Super Cup.

That team, with Sinisa Mihajlovic at the back, Diego Simeone in the middle, Pavel Nedved out wide and Roberto Mancini and Marcelo Salas up front, would win Lazio their first Scudetto since 1974 -- with, it must be said, a little help from a sudden downpour in Perugia -- and another Coppa Italia.

Just reflect on that for a moment. Whenever people think of a kid growing up in Rome and living out his boyhood dream of leading his hometown club to the league title, they automatically think of Totti, don't they? Should more not be made of Nesta doing the same? After all, at that stage of their respective careers he'd won a lot more. Lazio's wait for a league title had been longer than Roma's too, who would go on to clinch their first championship since 1983 a year later.

So why isn't it? Perhaps the answer lies in the perception of Lazio as "antipatico," a club that's hard for a neutral to like, given, for instance, the politics of some of its fans. Then there's the sense that they bought success with owner Sergio Cragnotti throwing billions of lire at the team. Mind you, Franco Sensi also had to break the bank -- take the Batistuta signing for instance -- for Roma to win the Scudetto.

In looking back on that period between 1999 and 2001, what's remarkable is that Rome, arguably for the first time in the history of Serie A, was not just the capital of Italy, but of Italian football too. There had been a shift in the game's power base. That a couple of Romans in Totti and Nesta were at the centre of Roma and Lazio's success was quite something. They were the kings of Rome. It was unsustainable, of course. Both clubs soon found themselves in severe financial difficulty. But whereas Roma made every possible effort to keep Totti even if it meant coming under more strain, Lazio sacrificed Nesta in the final hours of the 2002 summer transfer window. He and his teammates were finishing training with a torello -- piggy in the middle to you and me -- when the call came through that he was to catch a private jet to Milan. He'd been sold for 30.2 million euros.

Nesta couldn't believe it. Watch his presentation and he doesn't smile at all. "That day was terrible for me," he said. "They put me on a balcony to wave to the fans with a shirt in my hands. I found myself in a reality that didn't belong to me. In the press conference with Adriano Galliani I had a face you tend to see at a funeral, because that was how I felt."

What hurt him the most was that Lazio didn't want to admit they were in serious trouble, so they put it out that Nesta had wanted to leave. He'd abandoned the club, they said. It couldn't have been any further from the truth. Unveiled at a friendly with Inter at San Siro, Nesta recalls: "I saw [my Lazio teammate Hernan] Crespo and asked: 'What are you doing here?' He said they'd sold him to Inter. The only thing I asked him after that was: 'Is there anybody left at Formello?'"

After the failures of Roberto Ayala, Andre Cruz and a raw Fabricio Coloccini, Milan finally had a successor to Franco Baresi. The great man said so himself. "Milan have made a great signing," Baresi insisted, "because no one is better than Nesta in Italy right now. He's a player of international class. He’s young [26] and experienced. The Rossoneri can rest assured because that role is covered for a long time." Within a year, Nesta had won the Champions League. He was Milan's penultimate penalty taker in their shootout victory over Juventus at Old Trafford, scoring after Paolo Montero's miss to pile on the pressure and, to borrow a phrase from tennis, give Andriy Shevchenko a match point that he wasn't about to pass up.

Another Scudetto -- Nesta's second -- followed. A cycle was starting under Carlo Ancelotti. Looking back at that team, you forget how strong it was from front to back. There was Paolo Maldini or Billy Costacurta partnering Nesta with Cafu to their right and Giuseppe Pancaro to their left, with Pirlo pulling the strings just ahead of them protected by Rino Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf then Kaka, the revelation, behind Sheva and Super Pippo. Istanbul looked to be their zenith; instead it was the most painful defeat of Nesta's career, one that was rivalled only by Italy's agonising loss to France in extra time of the final of Euro 2000.

Yet redemption arrived soon enough. Nesta was a member of the Italy squad that claimed the World Cup in 2006, though a series of injuries meant he was, for the most part, a spectator. Milan vanquished the ghosts of Istanbul in Athens in 2007, avenging the defeat they’d suffered to Liverpool a couple of years earlier.

Thereafter back problems would jeopardise Nesta's career, the overcoming of which made his comeback and part in the 2011 Scudetto an immense satisfaction. Who can forget that performance against Barcelona and Lionel Messi too, a last hurrah at the highest level. Playing at that standard week in, week out was, he felt, too much for his body. Galliani had requested he stay another year, but after a decade at San Siro he went to join Di Vaio at Montreal with the heartfelt thanks of the Curva Sud. Reacting to reports of his plans to retire, Il Sole 24 Ore summed up what many people were thinking: "Nesta leaves football but today's Milan still has need of him." Don't they just? With Thiago Silva sold shortly after he walked away, their defence has never been the same since.

Mancini once described Nesta as the "Ronaldo of defenders." His speed, anticipation, the timing he showed in the tackle distinguished him as arguably the finest centre-back of his generation. Nicknamed "The Minister of Defence," security was never as tight as when Nesta was at the back of a team (except, Roma fans like to remind him, in that 5-1 win of theirs over Lazio in the derby in 2002).

Once he hangs up his boots, the plan is to go into coaching. Italy could certainly do with producing more defenders like Nesta again. Maybe that's where il grande Sandrino can lend a hand.