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MILAN (Reuters) - Italy's World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro gained individual recognition for his performances in this year's tournament in Germany when he was named European Footballer of the Year on Monday.
The Naples-born central defender moved from Juventus to Real Madrid following the Azzurri's success in July and he finds himself in the unusual position of winning the 'golden ball' in a year when his club side was relegated.
Cannavaro helped Juventus to a second straight Serie A title last season but the Turin club were stripped of those honours and demoted to Serie B by a sports tribunal which investigated claims of match-fixing.
Italy's success was achieved against the backdrop of that investigation and Cannavaro went into the tournament facing particular criticism after he defended former Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi, who was at the centre of the allegations.
It was unusual for Cannavaro to find himself under fire from the media and public opinion. Throughout his career his positive demeanour, Mediterranean good-looks and engaging smile have ensured he became one of Serie A's most popular players.
There have been moments where his clean-cut image has been threatened though -- a television documentary showing him using a drip on the eve of the 1999 UEFA Cup final, when Parma played Olympique Marseille, revealed nothing illegal but was hardly ideal behaviour for a role-model.
In his position as captain of Italy at the World Cup, Cannavaro's behaviour was exemplary. He was firm in the dressing room, intensely loyal to coach Marcello Lippi and not afraid to speak frankly in public about the team's approach.
"We have to start to be the cynical Italians. The secret to going a long way in the tournament is to rediscover some of the typical defensive approach found in Italian football culture," he said midway through the World Cup.
His style and quality on the field earned him the status of Serie A's top stopper, the latest in a long line of top-class Italian defenders.
AC Milan sweeper Franco Baresi and Milan captain Paolo Maldini both enjoyed reputations as the 'best defender in the world' but neither were able to win Europe's top individual award, which is usually reserved for creative or attacking players.
The award reflects Cannavaro's huge influence on Italy's success at the World Cup -- he was rock solid in the final against France, won on penalties, but his best display was in the semi-final victory over Germany.
In those 120 minutes in Dortmund the former Parma defender, who has 105 caps for his country, showed the very best of his qualities in positioning, timing and reading of the game.
There was no 'highlight moment' of that master class in central defending and there rarely is a memorable spectacular, last-ditch, sliding tackle from Cannavaro because he hardly ever finds himself needing to take desperate measures.
Cannavaro made his Serie A debut in 1993 for Napoli in a 4-3 defeat by Juventus and after three seasons with his hometown club he moved to Parma in 1995.
While he was unable to win an Italian title during his seven seasons with Parma, he played European football in every campaign and was also part of two European championship-winning Italy Under-21 teams.
After debuting for the full Italy side in 1997 he became a fixture in the line-up, with his major breakthrough coming in the 1998 World Cup when his performances caught the eye of a global audience and it seemed only a matter of time before he left Parma for a bigger club.
It took another four years before he got that chance. Having been linked to Juventus, AC Milan and Real Madrid among others, he moved to Inter Milan.
As with so many Inter signings of that time, Cannavaro struggled for form at the San Siro but a move to Juventus led him to regain his consistency and finally get his hands on a "scudetto" -- albeit one which was later revoked.
After an outstanding World Cup his form for Real has been less impressive and there have been some who have questioned whether he deserved his prize purely because of his performances in the tournament.
Although 33, Cannavaro remains supremely fit and looks set to remain a top-class player for another four to five seasons. During the World Cup the father of three said he followed a simple regime to keep in shape.
"Eating well, getting plenty of sleep and having sex -- these are all important things," he said.
Proud of his Neapolitan roots, many in Italy expect that when Cannavaro leaves Real he will end his career alongside his brother Paolo in the centre of the Napoli defence.