Italian football is famous for its defenders, and until recently, has been the foundation of how teams, both national and domestic, played their game. Players, such as Milan greats Franco Baresi and Paulo Maldini, Juventus masters Claudio Gentile and Gaetano Scirea, and Inter legends Giuseppe Bergoni and Tarciso Burgnich, are names so honoured in Italy that fans around the country have profound respect for these players, no matter what club they support.

Alessandro Nesta won all that there is as a player, and he did it with class. He came from a breed of defenders that made defending an art, executing slide tackles with the utmost timing and grace. The list of accomplishments is long: a World Cup champion, two-time Champions League winner and three-time Serie A winner. He is a member of the FIFA 100, but most importantly he is remembered as one of the greatest defenders of all time. Many have struggled to fully express their thoughts on ‘Sandro’ Nesta, and understandably so.

The year was 1990, a 13 year old boy was found looking up and down a list in Lazio’s Fomello training ground in Rome. The U-17’s coach made a sharp call and the boy returned back to the centre of the training ground for tactical drills, his head bent down in disappointment. As Nesta later revealed, he had been looking at a list of assigned ball-boys for the World Cup match between Italy and the Republic of Ireland, and his name was not there, despite his application to it several times. But, most of the onlooking spectators would not realise that, that was one of the last times, that Alessandro Nesta would ever be overlooked for a match again. 

Skip forward to 1994. Nesta first made the headlines for Lazio when he was 16, albeit for the worst reason possible. A challenge of great force while training, had ensured that local cult hero Paul Gascoigne’s tibia and fibula had been fractured, that left him in bed for 9 months. The Lazio fans were fuming and wanted to kill Nesta. But Dino Zoff (then Lazio manager), was sure that he had unearthed a gem of a player. 

He may be best known as an AC Milan player, but the blue half of Rome was Nesta’s first home and first love. A graduate of the Lazio academy, Nesta would spend 17 years with his home-town club; wearing the captains armband faithfully for six of those years. It didn’t take long for Nesta’s potential to be realised, even among the golden generation of defenders in Serie A at the time. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro, Nesta’s influence on the Lazio team of the 90’s was gradual, but assertive. 

Nesta’s bravery and anticipation was complemented by his tidiness in possession, as the imposing Italian was a perfect comrade to most of his defensive partners. His methods of tackling depended more on his gallantry than just neatly taking the ball, and because of that, he had to make a lot of physical sacrifices, which led to an injury-stricken career. His ability to take the ball out of possession rather than clearing his lines, is still used as footage for younger defenders to improve their ball-playing abilities. 

He only improved by the day, as unlike most Italian teams choose to, he was given the armband in 1997, by Sven-Goran Eriksson, when he was just 21. He led by example in a successful season, in which Lazio managed to win the Coppa Italia against a rampant Milan, a final in which he capped a defensive masterclass with the winner of the two-legged tie, thereby ensuring that his boyhood club had won their first trophy after 25 years. The next season, he managed to contribute to the team’s unexpected Scudetto and cup double. It didn’t take long for Nesta’s potential to be realised, even among the golden generation of defenders in Serie A at the time. 

The blue vein among the red arteries

Due to Lazio’s financial struggles, Nesta (unwillingly) moved to Milan, earning his former club a then bumper 30 million euros just before the start of the 2002-03 season. He slotted in alongside Maldini, Kaladze and Costacurta, for 2 vastly successful seasons, as together, they formed an impenetrable barrier, while capable of supplying some beautiful long passes to Shevchenko and Pippo Inzaghi upfront. His fantastic displays earned him praise from former AC Milan stalwart Franco Baresi, described as “heads and shoulders above Rio Ferdinand”, often described as the classiest defender of all time. For a modern day Milan side, the figure seems ridiculous, but Silvio Berlusconi could afford such luxuries for his footballing empire, and there was no question Nesta was worth the investment.

Since it was the golden era for the red side of Milan, most of the stars in the team were enchanted with the dominance that they enjoyed, and often publicly stated their happiness. But, Nesta was different. He remained loyal to his former side, Lazio and reiterated his need to return to it, even though he had, by then, formed a fruitful partnership with Stam and Maldini at the back. It was all too much for the Milan Ultras, as they were frustrated with his public outbursts, testing their short temper and their patience.

For all his off-the-pitch antics, on the pitch, he was an absolute leader. He was animated and talked more in the space of 90 minutes then he would in a day’s worth of training. As he entered into his late 20s, Nesta began to assert himself as a leader in the dressing room while still maintaining a quiet, stoic demeanour. 

In his final three years of Serie A, he witnessed the passing of modern footballing greats: Paolo Maldini ended his on-and-off partnership with Nesta by hanging up his boots and the likes of Kakha Kaladze and Massimo Oddo left shortly afterwards. He also spent his time developing one of the world’s top centre-backs, Thiago Silva, who remains indebted to the Italian for making him his protégé at Milan.

The Brazilian is one of few to glean an understanding with Nesta on the field. He recalled his first friendly with Milan where the veteran defender would not stop talking, giving him advice and instructions until Silva complained comically about having a headache. Despite the fact Nesta played much less football than Silva, it was the most appearances he’d made prior to his season-ending back injury. The partnership worked brilliantly in it’s brief existence: Nesta was the dominant defender who used his guile and experience to halt attackers, while Silva swept up in the footsteps of his mentor.

Together, the duo would go on to become the best defense of the 2010-11 season, conceding only 24 goals in 38 appearances, becoming an invaluable partnership as the Rossoneri lifted their 18th Scudetto.

Despite his majestic displays at club level, Nesta never really shone for Italy, with his lowest moment undoubtedly the injury he sustained during his nation’s World Cup winning campaign.In these final years of his career, Nesta would defy belief with some truly awe-inspiring tackles. In his long and eventful career, Sandro Nesta would be remembered for those “Hollywood” tackles that he made, and the countless games that he saved.In the final years of his career, Nesta would defy belief with some truly awe-inspiring tackles. Milan fans will remember vividly the image of Lionel Messi pounding the ground in frustration after a perfectly executed challenge from a player over a decade older than himself.

 

If reading the facts allows you to draw your own conclusion, then watching the elegant juggernaut that is Alessandro Nesta adds colour to the statistics. The Milan number 13 has it all – pace, strength, tackling, positional sense, tactical awareness, vision and technical ability unbecoming of a central defender – to name but a few of his qualities. He is a centre forward’s worst nightmare – a defender with no weaknesses to exploit, an irresistible force, an uncompromising machine that will, no matter the occasion, no matter the situation, remain focused on his sole mission: to stop the other team from scoring.

Often unappreciated, with the likes of Fabio Cannavaro and Maldini gaining the widespread acclaim at national level, Nesta’s assurance and positional sense for club and country were something of legend. He followed in a great line of amazing Italian centre-halves and typified the attributes of his predecessors; strength, an unparalleled reading of the game and complete doggedness.Time is unforgiving, as it denies us of legendary players over the years as age takes its toll.

Happy birthday Alessandro Nesta