x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Setting could not be more different for Cannavaro

Having led his country to World Cup success and won titles in Spain and Italy, the Ahli captain travels to Al Dhafra tonight.

Fabio Cannavaro, training with the Al Ahli team at Rashid Stadium in Dubai, has seemingly settled into the system. He has, in a club official's words,
Fabio Cannavaro, training with the Al Ahli team at Rashid Stadium in Dubai, has seemingly settled into the system. He has, in a club official's words, "adapted very well to the reality of football here".

But the Al Ahli captain is a professional with a childlike enthusiasm for the game and will adjust to his new surroundings as he leads his team out in the Pro League opener today DUBAI // Fabio Cannavaro has been there, done that, got the T-shirt, and the winner's medal to go with it. In a career now entering its 19th year, he has captained his country to World Cup success, been named the best player on the planet, won titles in Spain and Italy, seen the club he captained be tarnished by match-fixing, and even been tested, tried and exonerated from doping charges.

It would be easy to think he has seen everything the game has to offer, but not so. This has been a month of firsts for the great Italian centre-back. His first experience of Ramadan in the Middle East, for a start. And, as a consequence, the first time he has regularly turned up to training for a 9.30pm start, with the temperature still hovering near 40°C. Tonight will mark his first club match outside of European football's biggest leagues, and the contrast could not possibly be more stark.

Al Ahli, his new team, are kicking off the season at the Pro League's most secluded club, Al Dhafra, which is nearer the border with Saudi Arabia than his new home in Dubai. The Stadio delle Alpi, the former home of Juventus, it is not. However, he is unlikely to be fazed. Despite all he has achieved in the sport, Cannavaro is famously grounded - or "no Big Time Charlie", as Malky Thomson, one of Ahli's coaches, puts it.

After being introduced to the game by his banking-clerk father, Cannavaro served as a ballboy for Napoli, his hometown club who later gave him his break. He will be 37 next month, but he retains his boyish enthusiasm for the game. "I started playing football in the streets," he said at the press conference to mark his arrival as Ahli's new captain. "For me, my passion is just to play the game, it doesn't matter if no one comes to the stadium to watch."

It is an attitude which might serve him well tonight. Ahli are stopping at nothing to right the wrongs of a miserable season last time out. The capture of Cannavaro was their biggest statement of intent, and the club are doing all they can to get their money's worth. Given his standing in the game, Ahli might have been forgiven for thinking Cannavaro was big enough to look after himself after landing in Dubai.

Clubs often do. Back in 1983, AC Milan, the Italian giants, signed Luther Blissett for £1 million (now around Dh5.6m) from Watford, a modest, community-centric English club. Blissett's dream move quickly soured. In one low moment, he mused: "No matter how much money you have, you can't seem to get Rice Krispies". Ahli have their own man to look after any Rice Krispie whims, or otherwise, that Cannavaro might have, in the form of Jehad Muntasser, a multilingual former Libya international.

Muntasser is nominally the assistant to Ahli's sporting director, but he has become the equivalent of the club's relocation consultant since arriving in the summer. It has been his task to find a suitable school for Cannavaro's three children, Christian, 11, Martina, eight, and Andrea, five, to make sure the sponsored BMW is purring, and to track down a home within the club's generous relocation budget.

"It is easy with him because he is a nice person," Muntasser, whose own playing career was largely spent in the Italian leagues, said. "He is adapting very well to the reality of football here." The reality is undoubtedly a lower standard of play than Cannavaro, who retired from international duty after this summer's World Cup, has experienced before. Yet he has been happy to muck in. "[Ahli's players] have been so used to players coming here, experienced pros, that it has just become another part of their system," said Roy Aitken, Ahli's assistant coach. pradley@thenational.ae

Today Al Dhafra v Al Ahli, 10pm Al Wasl v Al Wahda, 10pm Tomorrow Kalba v Sharjah, 10pm Al Jazira v Al Nasr, 10pm Saturday Al Ain v Dubai, 10pm Al Shabab v Baniyas, 10pm

Al Dhafra is an unlikely setting for the debut of a former Fifa World Player of the Year, but Fabio Cannavaro is not the only legend to find himself in less than salubrious climes. Pele - New York Cosmos The Cosmos had to petition Brazil's government before signing Pele, who was listed as a non-exportable national treasure - like the Mona Lisa in France or the Crown Jewels in England. His home debut against Dallas Tornado at the Downing Stadium on Randall's Island (or Vandal's Island to the locals) was less than becoming. Socrates - Garforth Town By the time Socrates, the chain-smoking former Brazil captain, above, made his bow for Garforth Town in the Northern Counties League clash against Tadcaster United in 2004, he had been retired for 14 years. Wrapped up in blankets and a woolly hat while waiting to go on, retirement seemed the right idea. Aged 50, he never played again. George Best - Dunstable Town According to the club's records, Best gave non-league Dunstable £25 (now Dh143) "from his own pocket" to buy new goal nets ahead of the 1974/75 season. Extending the spirit of generosity, he then agreed to play for them, at the request of his former Manchester United youth team colleague Barry Fry, the Dunstable manager.