Fabio Cannavaro

It's not every day you climb into the back of a taxi and get a conversation on anything other than traffic chaos, crooked politicians and illegal immigrants. It's not every day you climb into the back of a taxi and get a conversation about football from someone who actually knows what he's talking about. And it's certainly not every day that you climb into the back of a taxi and get a conversation about Maradona, match fixing, and winning the World Cup with a man who was there. Then again, it's not every day you climb into the back of a taxi with Fabio Cannavaro.

But that's exactly what FourFourTwo has done today. Having caught up with Italy's World Cup-winning captain at a photo shoot for the new compression-fit Nike Pro range, we spend the rest of the day racing round Madrid with him in the back of a taxi with the city's characteristic red stripe on the side, a Mercedes Benz decked out in a Peru kit.

As we travel, we talk – and Cannavaro can talk. It is his first interview since joining Real Madrid and he is engaging, intelligent and disarmingly honest as we drive from the photographer's studio to a crowded television set out on a dusty industrial estate, where half the staff have invented an excuse to drop in and catch a glimpse of the world's finest defender; from there to the north of the Spanish capital and Cannavaro's hotel, the temporary home shared with Ruud van Nistelrooy, Emerson, Fabio Capello and all his coaching team; and, in convey with Van Nistelrooy's 4x4, from there to Valdebebas, Real Madrid's state-of-the-art HQ alongside Barajas airport where Cannavaro will train with Beckham, Ronaldo and Raul – and finally collect his club car.

As we roll past the security guard and into the car park, Cannavaro could hardly be more laid back. Relaxed and smiling the brilliant white smile of a toothpaste commercial, it's a different, more natural, image than the one he projected four hours earlier in the photographer's studio. Voted Italy's sexiest footballer, not to mention their toughest defender and captain, he had stood muscles bulging, jaw firm, stare fixed. He could have been a gladiator plucked straight from the Coliseum in Rome, the classic Italian icon.

Except that he is from Naples. Born on September 13 1973, Cannavaro's football career began in the mean streets of one Italy's toughest cities – a city which, he admits, many Italians reject as "chaotic, dishonest and dirty", that much of the country, especially the north, doesn’t even consider part of Italy. A dangerous city that drew many of his childhood contemporaries into drugs and crime, the home of the Camorra, Italy's other Cosa Nostra, but a city with a profound sense of community and a unique identity – on the pitch as well as off it.

“Naples is different to the rest of Italy," he says, "it has more in common with Rio de Janeiro than Milan. There are so many problems in Naples, it's a poor city with a lot of crime but it's a proud city, a happy, lively, humble city where people live with a smile on their faces. And it's a city that lives on the street. For example, there is a word that's used for kids in Naples but doesn't get used anywhere else in Italy: scugnizzi. Everywhere else they are just kids, bambini; in Naples they are scugnizzi.

Roughly, a scugnizzo is an urchin. "It's like street kid," Cannavaro explains, pausing to add: "but that's not necessarily a negative thing, it doesn’t mean they're delinquents. It's just that kids in Naples are never indoors. They go to the beach or hang around the streets, playing football, worrying their parents; it's another way of life."

Cannavaro was no different. Even after joining the Napoli youth team, he remained a street footballer in the working-class neighbourhood of Fuorigrotta. "In the early years after training with the team, I'd go and play on the streets with my mates, using rubbish sacks as goalposts," he recalls. "I didn’t want to miss that. It's a way of playing without rules – much more fun." And more productive.

Indeed, Cannavaro bemoans the loss of spontaneity in young footballers. "On the street, you play in a small space with a few players and that changes your approach," he explains. "With no rules and little space, you become cleverer, more flexible, and we risk losing that. Some of those players coming through at professional clubs now have grown up with a specific playing scheme and have difficulties swapping between positions and formations because they have a mind-set that simply doesn't allow any flexibility. Football has become too rigid."

Football in Naples when Cannavaro was a boy was anything but rigid. The city's character wouldn't allow it: scugnizzi just want to have fun. Unlike kids from the rich, preening, image-obsessed north. "I have memories of playing in the Napoli youth team against AC Milan, Inter, Juventus and you could see the different approaches. We wanted to enjoy ourselves, they were more interested in their image, the rules… " he says, grinning as he adds: "They were all dressed in suit and tie – we'd never do that.

That personality is reflected in the football. "It is a cliché," Cannavaro concedes, "but you could say Naples is the Brazil of Italy: it's more Rio than Milan in its football too – there's that happiness, that joy, in the play. The desire to entertain, to do tricks, to have a good time … " OK, but if Naples is the Brazil of Italy, then what was the young Fabio doing becoming a defender?

There's a flash of recognition, a grin, and Cannavaro starts laughing. "Well," he says, "there have been good defenders in Naples too, you know. In fact, there was a Neapolitan school, a tradition, with Ferrera and Bruscolotti. You could also say it's the focused kids who get forced to play defensively," he adds, almost cringing at the accidental admission that he was a bit of a goody-goody. "And maybe I had the discipline that other kids didn’t." Not that Cannavaro's hero was a defender. Or a man famed for his discipline. But then how could it be, when Diego Maradona played for Napoli?

Cannavaro's bedroom wall had posters of Maradona – or at least it did before he was kicked out his room and relocated to the sitting room to make space for his growing family. Little has changed: these days a photograph hangs on the wall at his home back in Italy. In it, the Napoli players are celebrating their second league title success at the club's Sao Paulo stadium. The stands are packed and partying, flags unfurled, as the players perform a lap of honour in various stages of sweaty undress, photographers frantically chasing them round the track as Diego Maradona basks in the glory. In the background, a small kid, a scugnizzo, is wearing a smile the size of the city, jumping up and down in a Napoli tracksuit, his arms thrust in the air.

That kid is Fabio Cannavaro, a ball-boy that glorious day. "Maradona is a God to the people of Naples," Cannavaro says. In the week leading up to Napoli's first title success, shop windows carried a prayer to this particular deity: "Our Maradona / who takes the field / hallowed be thy name / thy kingdom, Napoli / lead us not unto disappointment / but deliver unto us the title / amen."

The prayer, of course, was answered. "Maradona changed history. In 80 years, we had always suffered, fighting against relegation, yet in seven seasons with him we won two leagues, a UEFA Cup, two Italian Cups," says Cannavaro. "I'm a fan too and to live those years with Maradona was incredible. Being on the pitch when they won the Scudetto was amazing." He then leans forward and says in a hushed, almost conspiratorial tone: "And, you know, that night there was a big party for all the players and all the ball-boys were invited too … I was 12." You're 12 years old, a Napoli fan, and you get invited to a party with Diego Maradona?! A huge smile, gleaming white, creeps across Cannavaro's face and his eyes light up. "Perfetto, huh?"Well, yes, you could say that – and life would get even better for Cannavaro the footballer, if not Cannavaro the party-goer.

The son of a talented local footballer and brother to current Napoli defender Paolo Cannavaro, with whom he played at Parma, Fabio Cannavaro soon stuck out, not least for his physical ability. At 5ft 7in he is frankly a bit small for a centre-back and yet he is rarely beaten in the air – where he seems capable of hanging around at will. How does he do that? Was his a childhood of a million squat thrusts?

"No, no, no," he insists, laughing. "My father was a very good player locally and he had that same quality. It's in my genes. Everyone tells me he could really jump; I inherited that from him. In the beginning people were sceptical about my height, but my jumping and pace compensated. I was originally a right-midfielder, anyway. I was playing in the semi-final of a national U-17 competition, they had a great forward and the coach asked me to follow him everywhere – that's how I started as a defender. I learnt man-to-man and developed anticipation and my jumping."

"Besides," he adds, "it's more about timing than height. That's the key to my game. Everything, but everything, is about timing and that's not something you learn – it's innate."

The young Fabio was also not afraid to mix it – whoever he came up against. One story has become legend. Called to the first-team squad as an 18-year-old, Cannavaro's first job was to mark Maradona in training. He took to the task with gusto. Maybe a little too much gusto, one member of the coaching staff asking him to ease off on Diego. Maradona, though, disagreed, telling Cannavaro: "You keep it up."

At the end of the session, he handed Cannavaro his boots. Later he would recall his young assailant with fondness: "The kids used to panic when they trained with us – and all the more so when they saw me. But one kid was different, a little lad who seemed huge somehow. Every time I saw him I left with the feeling that I had witnessed a phenomenon."

The phenomenon has barely looked back, making his debut against David Platt's Juventus in March 1993 (a 4-3 loss) and becoming a regular the following year. Seven years at Parma followed, then two at Internazionale and two at Juventus before joining Real Madrid. This summer's World Cup final was his 100th game for Italy, as he lead a defence that conceded just one goal from open play in seven matches. Only one outfield player has played more times for the Azzurri – Paulo Maldini on 126. And Maldini has never won the World Cup.

"It's a strange sensation," Cannavaro muses as he recalls the final whistle on July 9, the moment he won his dream final – the France-Italy he publicly pleaded for before the 2002 World Cup, four years earlier. "You're so happy but you don't really know how to react. You're not conscious of the repercussion of what you have done, of the greatness of it. Only later by watching it on video and reading the papers do you realise what it means."

That Cannavaro is a Neapolitan in a country divided made captaining Italy to the World Cup even more special, giving success an extra dimension. Many Neapolitans, rejected by the rest of the country, do not feel Italian at all yet hundreds of thousands of them spilled onto the streets to celebrate the triumph. But while having one of their own lift the trophy in Berlin made the people of Napoli proud, it did not necessarily make them more Italian, he insists. "It was," he says, "a kind of revenge for the city."

That conclusion recalls the other time Cannavaro acted as ball-boy for a game featuring Maradona: the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup in Naples. Before the game Maradona tried to win support for Argentina as only he could. "For 364 days a year the rest of Italy treats you like shit. Today, they want you to be Italians and support their team," he told the people of the city. "No way. I am Napoli 365 days a year: I am one of you. Support Argentina!"

There is no reproach from Cannavaro. Instead, there is admiration. "Diego was brave to do that," he says. "He presented himself as a Neapolitan and he was smart in using that to get the fans on side. Most of them were rooting for Argentina more than Italy." But what about Fabio? "Italia, because I'm Italian," he responds. "But I was going to win whatever happened. If we had to lose, I wanted to lose to him. For Napoli fans it was less of a failure because our Diego was in the final."

With Cannavaro there is no such dilemma in the city; their hero is Italy's hero too. "After wining the World Cup there were more than 100,000 people in Naples to greet me," he says. "Whichever club I joined, people saw me as a representative of Naples. That has been used in a discriminatory way sometimes but has always served as an incentive for me. And maybe Neapolitans' love for their player helped them identify better with Italy as a nation. Maybe."

Maybe, yet it did little to make the rest of the world identify with Italy in the midst of an image crisis for calcio. And while Cannavaro rejects suggestions that Italy are the world champions no one loves, there is irritation at the way the country has been portrayed and treated – from the snipes about corruption and the fall-out from Moggi-gate, to Zidane's headbutt on Marco Materazzi, it's as if no one noticed or wanted to recognise Italy's triumph.

"At the World Cup, many of the Juventus players felt like they had to prove that their success was won on the field not off it," he says. "We believe that our league titles are rightfully ours. Inter [who have been handed the titles] were not the ones who won out on the pitch, they have been given those titles by the authorities. We won the league two years running because we were stronger than the others, we didn't win because we had help.

"In fact," he adds, "rather than aiding us, what was done, supposedly in our name, created a backlash and ended up counting against us. It was about someone in power abusing that power, not about buying games, and we have lost medals that we deserve."

And Cannavaro has little time for the claim that Moggi-gate provided the togetherness and desire to make world champions of Italy; he clearly feels it is a claim that seeks to undermine Italy's success by portraying them as somehow aided by the match fixing scandal. "That's a cliché," he insists. "Although the scandal might have provided that last bit of glue to bond us, it's not as if it suddenly propelled a team that wasn't performing. We'd been playing well for two years. We had beaten Holland and Germany, we'd won qualification very comfortably. We had good players and we already had unity, discipline and spirit. If I had to highlight one thing, that would be it."

Everyone else, of course, was highlighting Zinedine Zidane's headbutt on Marco Materazzi. Cannavaro insists he didn't see the headbutt – "but," he adds, "I did hear it". What he didn’t hear was the insult from Materazzi and nor doesn't want to linger on the issue as the world has done. For, while lip-readers were drafted in and debates raged, somewhere people forgot that Italy had won the World Cup.

"It's not a nice feeling when the media goes on more about Zidane than the fact we'd won the World Cup," he says, pausing to add, evenly, unwaveringly, unprompted: "And for the president of FIFA not to present you with the trophy is very strong. You're only going to win the World Cup once in your lifetime, and for him not to be there is poor, very poor."

FIFA have never given an explanation for Sepp Blatter's failure to present the trophy to Cannavaro. Rumours suggest that a special presentation had been planned for France, motivated by the retirement of Zidane, and that Blatter was simply too upset at the result to bother showing, that he had been determined not to see Italy win for reasons ranging from the scandal to FIFA's links to its commercial partners. Cannavaro says he doesn't know why Blatter failed to show but, he says, "it's the World Cup - you want the maximum authority from FIFA there. They didn’t project the right image to the world."

And there is a defiance when he adds: "That made us even prouder of what we'd done; it was a sign that we had to fight against absolutely everyone."

Even if Cannavaro insists that Moggi-gate had little impact on the World Cup, he admits it changed the course of his club career. With Juventus relegated to Serie B, the exodus began. Europe's biggest clubs took advantage of the Old Lady's fire sale. Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta left for Barcelona, Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Inter and coach Fabio Capello departed for Real Madrid, the vote-winner in Ramon Calderon's electoral manifesto. Cannavaro followed him, along with team-mate Emerson for a combined €23m.

Asked if he would have left Juventus but for the scandal, Cannavaro is remarkably candid: "No, no. And not just me either: all our players would still be there. We had a strong squad, we were happy and playing well. No one would have moved."

But if that explains why he left, it does not explain why he chose Madrid. After all, they'd gone three years without winning anything, becoming something of a joke, and Cannavaro had other offers. "I spoke to Chelsea who were a serious option but I chose against it," he reveals.

Why? "No Capello". As simple as that? "Yes." We're now at the luxury Mirasierra Suites Hotel, Capello's No.2 is within earshot and the new coach himself strolls through waving a quick Buona Sera on his way to this evening's training session, but you believe Cannavaro. This is not about crawling to the boss – even if he is sneakily listening in. "Capello rates me and knows me. That helps you settle, it facilitates the adjustment process and gives you one less thing to worry about," he says.

There is, though, something else: a sense that Chelsea didn't make enough of an effort. "Both Madrid and Chelsea were good options: good cities, good clubs," he says. "England would have interested me. I like English football, the way players always give their all, the way the fans are up for it. I'm sure it would have been an excellent experience and, with my style, I could see myself playing there. But Chelsea's interest was not so great as Madrid's and in the end that was the key – that and Capello.

"It doesn’t matter that Madrid had gone three years without a trophy," he adds, "That's a challenge and Real Madrid will always be an important club, probably the most famous in the world. I saw potential in terms of players, facilities, and the coach, and I was satisfied that Madrid saw qualities in me that will fit in Spain."

Besides, with a little Italian know-how, Cannavaro insists that Madrid will soon be back on track. "We might," he says, "see a more Italian Real Madrid." The meaning is clear: "Italy is more tactically and physically focused, more result-oriented. In the last two or three years Madrid haven't won anything and that's the most important thing right now," he says. "In the beginning it will be less spectacular but with results comes confidence and performances will follow. A little less attractive, maybe, but more effective. Anyway, what is good football? Winning. If you have 80 percent of possession and you don’t score what's the point?"

Capello, he says, will bring a new mentality, new methods. "He has very straightforward ideas. He is pragmatic, he isn't keen on certain attitudes and some things have changed. When you see the boss he's almost frightening. He's demanding. Take his insistence on punctuality: if we train at 11 o'clock that means at 11 o'clock everyone is out on the pitch ready. If you arrive at five past, that's a lack of respect."

When it comes to the football, Italy – even Napoli – is certainly more serious than Spain. Cannavaro has only been here a short while, but already the change is clear. "In Italy we spend all week thinking about the game. Here we are a little more… " There is a pause. Relaxed? "I wouldn’t say relaxed, but the build-up is different. There are much more people hanging about for a start, things are very open.

"The coach is used to taking sessions in private and he is establishing that habit here. There's no rule that guarantees success, so you don't know that changing things will necessarily mean that we will win, but as his approach has given him results for years, he will follow that same path. I expect to see more changes yet."

Of course, the biggest change would be getting Madrid winning again. And if Cannavaro can rise to that particular challenge, if he does win the league, the Champions League or the European Footballer of the Year award to go with his World Cup winner's medal, there will be little left for him to prove at 33. So, what next? He leans back in his chair and smiles that smile again. "Retire," he laughs, grabbing his bag for training – and one last ride in the taxi.

CANNAVARO TRIVIA Born September 13 1973 Clubs Napoli, Parma, Inter, Juventus, Real Madrid 1) Cannavaro is married to Daniela who he met when he was 18 – he used to scrawl love letters on the wall to her. They have two sons, Christian (7) and Andrea (2), and a daughter, Martina (4). 2) He has five tattoos: the names of his wife and his two sons, plus a warrior on the outside of his right arm and a sun on his right leg. 3) He played 21 times for Italy Under-21s, and also represented Italy at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta before making his full international debut in January 1997 against Northern Ireland in Palermo. They won 2-0. 4) Together with his Ciro Ferrara, he has set up The Foundation Cannavaro Ferrara, to provide cancer research and equipment in native Naples. 5) If he wasn’t a footballer, he’d be a pizza maker – he has his own speciality, Pizza alla Cannavaro. “It’s all in the mozzarella,” he says, “You need to use the best. My friends and parents bring it from Naples.”