Exclusive: Messi or Maradona? Italian legend Cannavaro has the answer

The 2006 Italian World Cup winner was a ball boy when Maradona played for Napoli. He also played against Lionel Messi in La Liga


Rituraj Borkakoty

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Lionel Messi (left) emulated countryman Diego Maradona (right) by winning the World Cup in Qatar. Fabio Cannavaro (centre). — X
Lionel Messi (left) emulated countryman Diego Maradona (right) by winning the World Cup in Qatar. Fabio Cannavaro (centre). — X

Published: Thu 11 Jan 2024, 12:33 AM

Like many other famous footballers, Fabio Cannavaro also won the World Cup, the biggest trophy a footballer can win in his life.

But what makes Cannavaro truly unique is that he is the only defender in history to have won the Fifa World Player of the Year award.

Cannavaro won that prestigious award as well as the Ballon d’Or after helping Italy bounce back from a match-fixing scandal in its domestic league to win the 2006 Fifa World Cup.

Towards the end of his career, the former Italian defender was at Real Madrid when he faced a young Lionel Messi in the ‘Clasico’.

Remarkably, Cannavaro was at the start of his own journey as a footballer when he shared the dressing room at Napoli with Diego Maradona.

A few years before being promoted to Napoli’s first team, Cannavaro also served as a ball boy in the southern Italian club’s home games where he was often mesmerized by Maradona’s skills in pre-match warm-ups.

Maradona lifted the modest Italian club to mythic heights as he helped them win two Serie A titles in five years.


It was his Napoli heroics and the 1986 World Cup magic with Argentina that cemented Maradona’s place as the greatest player since Brazil icon Pele.

But the Qatar 2022 triumph for Messi, who had a storied career at Barcelona, has compelled fans and many pundits to hail him as the greatest of all time.

Cannavaro, though, is convinced which Argentinian is the better footballer.

“They are different players. Of course, Messi is one of the best players in the history of world football, but Maradona was better. He is the best,” Cannavaro told the Khaleej Times on Wednesday.

Cannavaro, who is in Sharjah alongside a host of famous footballers to promote ‘The Week of Stars’, also revealed what makes the UAE special as a country.

Fabio Cannavaro during an event in Sharjah. — Photo by Rituraj Borkakoty
Fabio Cannavaro during an event in Sharjah. — Photo by Rituraj Borkakoty

“I have lived in this country for a long time, so I know the culture, the people. They are very nice. You can really enjoy everything here,” he said.

“It’s very safe for the family, it’s very nice to move around, the weather is good, the food is delicious, so everyone now knows Dubai.”

The former Juventus star, who has been awarded the Golden Visa, also played one season for UAE club Al Ahli.

“It was a great experience. It was my last year as a professional footballer. I played for Al Ahli and I was also the Sports Director. I was also the sports adviser. It was an amazing experience.”

Finally, Cannavaro said he was not surprised by Saudi Arabia’s mega investment in football which has brought some of the biggest names like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Sadio Mane to this region.

Saudi has also earned the right to host the 2034 Fifa World Cup as it prepares to become the second Gulf country to stage the mega event after Qatar famously did that in 2022.

“It’s normal, now Fifa wants to go around the world, to promote the game of football everywhere,” Cannavaro said.

“Of course, people love football in this part of the world. So it’s very normal to see the developments here in this region.”

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