DUBAI // With the World Cup building to a crescendo, Fabio Cannavaro of Italy could be forgiven for wishing he were somewhere other than Dubai yesterday morning. At 36 years of age, he has come to the UAE to wind down a glorious career which has seen him represent with distinction some of the biggest clubs in the world, as well as become the first - and so far only - defender to win the Fifa official World Player of the Year title.
For one more week, the celebrated defender can say he was the last captain to lift the World Cup, which he did four years ago in Berlin. His Italian side never threatened to repeat the feat this time around in South Africa, finishing last in their group. However, judging by his demeanour during his presentation as the new captain of Al Ahli at the Mina A'Salaam hotel on the shore of the Gulf, Cannavaro is perfectly content with his lot.
Since his signing was announced last month, the former Juventus captain has been effusive about his love for Dubai. Even though he arrived here a fortnight sooner than he hoped, he is already starting to settle in. On the way to yesterday's introductory press conference, his convoy had to make a brief stop when a showroom with high-specification sports cars on display caught his eye. "It was a clear choice, a very easy choice, and I would like to end my career here," said Cannavaro, who has signed a two-year contract with Ahli, the 2009 Pro League winners.
"I'm bringing my experiences to Dubai. I would like to help the younger players achieve and hope they can gain from my experience. Possibly this will help them win something important in the future." Cannavaro's eagerness to impart his wisdom to his new Emirati colleagues will come as good news for his new coach, David O'Leary, whose appointment was announced yesterday, as well as the rest of the club's success-hungry hierarchy.
He is not the first World Player of the Year to end up in the region with a remit to grow the profile of the game while showing his new colleagues some old tricks. The results were mixed for luminaries such as Romario and George Weah. Ronald de Boer, the former Holland international who was part of a constellation of stars who saw out their career in Qatar, deemed the region a "graveyard" for former greats during his stint in the Middle East.
"Here you get well-paid and you do what you like, no stress," de Boer was once quoted as saying. "Of course it's a graveyard of European footballers at the end of their careers." Cannavaro accepts that the decreased stress-level here is attractive, but says his passion for the game is not about to be dulled because the stakes are supposedly lower. "Here, there is no pressure, or at least not as much as there is in the leagues that I am used to," said Cannavaro, who vowed he will be able to converse at least partly with the Arabic media by the end of his first season.
"I have played for 20 years between Serie A and La Liga, so I thought this would be a good change and a new experience for me. "I started playing football in the streets. My passion is just to play. It doesn't matter if no one comes to the stadiums, for me the pleasure is just in playing the game." Mark Bell, Ahli's sporting director, said the club were most attracted by their new signing's ability to inspire.
"While we always try to bring attractive players to the region, Fabio would be at the pinnacle of players we have managed to bring here," said Bell. "He is a world-class performer and a world-class person, and the latter had a lot to do with our decision. "He is a great leader and inspiration who has won trophies wherever he has played. "We hope he can now bring success to our club and also show the great young talent we have how to be the best professionals they can possibly be."