AC Milan legend Alessandro Nesta put an end to his playing days on the European soil. TheHardTackle revisits Nesta’s journey and pays a tribute to one of the greatest defenders ever.
Some individuals, with their unparalleled endowment, become bigger than the group they are part of over a considerable period of time. While this realization usually gets the better of the individual and he rather becomes the impediment in the group’s progressive path, there are a few whose consecration exceeds even further and they continue to diligently work towards taking the group to insurmountable heights.
The latter set of individuals can be so perfectly advertised by Alessandro Nesta. The Italian, in his early impressions comes across as someone slightly disinclined, bland and lacking that element of frenzy. But dare you confuse his serenity for the lack of his application because when on the field, few may mean business with as much uprightness as Nesta does.
The embodiment of class and honour is something pretty easily associative with a football practitioner of a good repute but those having followed Nesta’s career right from his unadulterated days to his rise to glory, can without an iota of tentativeness, script a testimony for the longevity he is leaving behind as he announces a culmination to his playing days at AC Milan. A ten year long association, his highest with a club at the senior level, has remained highly eventful.
It feels like he has been at the club since time immemorial. The silverware won during these years does not alone do justice to delineate his stay at the club – the trophies in fact, are nothing more than a by-product of the unyielding perseverance of doing things the right way demonstrated by him and his colleagues of the same generation.
Hailing from the capital city, Nesta learned his trade in the youth setup at Lazio. Despite an interest shown by AS Roma in the prodigy that he was, his father’s allegiance to the Biancocelesti was good enough for him to choose which half of the city of Rome he would represent. Turning into a profound defender, when he joined the senior squad in the year 1993, Lazio was one of the best teams in Italy under the tutelage of Dino Zoff with the names like Roberto Di Matteo, Alen Boksic, Giuseppe Signori and Paul Gascoigne reading on the team sheet.
Nesta won a host of silverware with Lazio and in his nine years at the club, played alongside the who’s who of Italian and European football such as Roberto Mancini, Pavel Nedved, Juan Sebastian Veron, Dejan Stankovic, Marco Di Vaio, Christian Vieri and Hernan Crespo. He earned a status iconic enough for the club to bestow the captaincy upon him at a tender age of 21 in 1997. The very next year, Lazio went on to win the Coppa Italia title, ironically beating Milan in the finals with Nesta himself scoring the winner.
Only two years after their triumph in the league during the summer of 2002, the financial woes at the club would compel Lazio to sell some of their best players and the list also included Nesta who had garnered interest from AC Milan. The club needed to salvage its financial condition and the hefty sum of money that Milan were willing to pay for the defender was just too good for a then sinking ship.
However, Nesta himself would never have preferred to leave his boyhood club had it not been for the compulsions at the club’s end and despite this being a largely known fact, he was portrayed a traitor in the capital city and the Lazio ultras, the fanatics that they are known to be, diverted a highly unwarranted reprimand towards the player. Yet in his Milan career, when the opportunity came to wear the armband in the year 2009 post Paolo Maldini’s retirement, Nesta did not show any interest considering the promise he had made to Lazio fans of not captaining another club ever in his life – talk of class.
Nesta’s highly successful and illustrious career at Milan has seen both the extremes of jubilation and disappointment. His presence in the starting lineup of all the three Champions League finals that Milan reached during his tenure says a lot about him having experienced both the ends of the spectrum. From the nerve wrecking penalty shootout against Juventus at Old Trafford where he slotted an all important kick past Buffon to being witness to the horrors of Istanbul and yet see his side claiming back the glory in Athens – all at an interval of two years – is no mean feat in a player’s career at such an ambitious club. Only Maldini, Pirlo, Seedorf and Gattuso were the other players to have started in all the three games.
Nesta’s years at Milan may broadly be categorised into the ones he played alongside Maldini and the post-Maldini era where he had been unequivocally identified as the leader figure in the defence, orchestrating and organising the defensive setup. Even while playing with Maldini – the club’s greatest ever to many – Nesta was never an understudy to the champion defender. He was pretty much the calming influence in the defence Milan were missing since Franco Baresi and Mauro Tassoti hung their boots. World class players kept coming and going but nobody could make their reassuring presence felt at the club that could appease the supporters quite perilously used to be cheering for title winning units.
Nesta’s emergence in the Milan colours meant Maldini could remain much more focused about looking after the organisation of defence and having a deputy of Nesta’s merit under him, Paolo himself began to take his own game to another level rolling back the years. While Costacurta was reaching a stage well past his prime, Nesta-Maldini duo was now considered to be the symbolic representation of everything the Milanese defence stood for. Tremendous composure inside the box, incredible positional sense off the ball and highly accurate anticipation of a striker’s movement inside the final third were some attributes that may very well be tagged to Nesta’s defensive prowess. The likes of Kaladze, Cafu, Oddo and Jankulovski occupying the defensive flanks those days meant Maldini pushed to centre to form a defensive partnership involving two names that will be written with highest reverence in the football memoirs.
Post Maldini’s departure in the year 2009, though the armband was handed over to Massimo Ambrosini, Nesta was undoubtedly the player everyone would look up to for being the most inspirational of the lot. Indeed, Nesta did not feel the need to put the armband on to be the leader to this side – no insignia could have anyway epitomized his credentials enough. Nesta was now leading a pack of defenders who were far from the preconceived Milan standards. Even the players naturally selecting themselves in the playing eleven did not boast of quality that was on offer by the ones only making the bench during the glory days. However, such are the times when the big men rise and greatness is redefined.
That from being nothing more than a promising Brazilian, Thiago Silva is today argued to be the best defender in the world has got a lot more to do with effective mentorship than what one may imagine. Ignazio Abate, another young talent from Italy, was initially slotted in as a defensive midfielder. Today he is one of the best in the right-back position in the league. Even the likes of Mario Yepes and Luca Antonini can be seen performing at a level far superior than what their merit would normally suggest, when a certain Alessandro Nesta is on the pitch to guide them. In the very first season under the current manager Massimiliano Allegri, when Nesta was deemed well past it to be a regular fixture for a side contesting for the title, he led the meanest defence in the league on their way to glory.
There is a reason some of Milan’s most difficult times during the last two seasons have coincided with Nesta being sidelined, nursing an injury. At 36, after a season that failed to produce a single piece of silverware, he finally finds this the right time to move on but it is needless to put in words, his boots are too big to be filled. It is only a matter of time before Filippo Inzaghi and Clarence Seedorf too formally announce their parting and there’s no certainty yet over the future of Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini.
This means an entire generation of players might well not be seen in the Rossoneri colours from next season as the proposals for an overhaul are getting louder with every passing day. While each of these players has earned a valiant status at the club, there’s little doubt Nesta shall be the one to be missed the most for even today, there is hardly any defender around the world who may excel to those levels. Nesta is likely to extend his playing career in America’s Major League Soccer which is a pensioner’s paradise for European footballers but with this, one may feel, a whole chapter in the art of defending has come to an end in Europe.
The most prudent element in Nesta’s game was his game reading abilities that are beyond a lesser man’s realm of comprehension. And more than anything else, it was the ravenous desire coupled with unrivalled adroitness that made him more than a nightmare for even the deadliest of strikers across Europe. Lionel Messi may have something to say here.
There has never been a scarcity of greatness in this sport and one may wish there shall never be. But some players go a step beyond and add a dimension to the word greatness, as we know it. Players like Nesta never quit football. They only leave it slightly less alluring.