In this edition of The Talking Game, AC Milan legend Alessandro Nesta talks with us about his childhood, the much talked about transfer from Lazio and Rossoneri’s current problems.
Alessandro Nesta is widely considered to be among the greatest defenders to play this game. In a long and distinguished career spanning over 20 years, the former Italian international has won nearly everything there is to win in football. Defending for Nesta was an art and having faced some of the most fearsome strikers in their primes, very few can claim to have got the better of him, at least with any consistency. He was part of the last famous Italian defensive line-up, which won the 2006 World Cup, although he did miss a major part of the tournament due to an injury. But even for the relatively young football fans, the sight of Nesta making a world class tackle on Lionel Messi on a Champions League night, will always remain an endearing image. We caught up with the legendary defender, as he talked about his childhood, his much talked about transfer from Lazio and the present problems of AC Milan.
Q: Tell us something about your childhood and how you fell in love with the game. How big an influence was your father in your decision to join Lazio?
Nesta: I’ve spent my entire childhood only thinking about football; once done with school I’d rush in the courtyard until darkness playing football. Then, when I was 7, my dad signed me up in my neighborhood’s team, Cinecittà, which was connected to AS Roma; after a few months AS Roma scouts noticed me and asked my father whether I’d play for them, but dad, a major SS Lazio supporter, denied and after some more months I ended up playing for SS Lazio, making him the happiest ever.
Q: When you were still a Lazio player, you were part of the incident which saw Paul Gascoigne, Lazio’s star signing back then, suffer a terrible injury. Did that have any psychological impact on you?
Nesta: When I caused Paul Gascoigne’s injury I was a 14 year old boy, beginning his training sessions with main team. Gascoigne had been the most expensive purchase in SS Lazio’s history and that day we were training in a reduced pitch. He mad a couple of nasty fouls on me but I, being a young boy, of course, didn’t dare say a word and kept playing. At some point I saw him rushing through and this time I was harsh with my tackle too but I ended up breaking both his shinbone and fibula. There was a huge chaos, there were supporters and reporters but no one blamed me and the first one to cheer me up, seeing me most frightened, was Coach Dino Zoff. Once Paul got back from leg surgery he cheered me up saying it wasn’t my fault and he gave me five pairs of shoes and a fishing kit. I have no idea why, but that was just like him.
Q: There are stories of the Lazio board intimating you at the very last minute of your sale to Milan. How did you react to this and how long did it take you to come to terms with the move?
Nesta: My transfer to AC Milan was very weird; it was the very last day of the transfer window and I had been attending morning training in Formello (SS Lazio Headquarters); at some point Massimo Cragnotti (SS Lazio’s president at that time) called me up. I got off the pitch and he told me I had been moved to AC Milan. I could not refuse for everybody knew about the club’s problems and by that very same evening I found myself in San Siro stadium facing 60,000 supporters. It was traumatic for I did not even have time to realize what was going on.
Q: Most of the Lazio fans didn’t take that transfer kindly and you were often portrayed as a traitor when you moved to Milan. Does that still bother you? If not for Lazio’s finances would you have liked to stay there for longer?
Nesta: Since a couple of years Mr. president, Cragnotti, meant to give me up. The club was piling up many debts and our salaries was not been paid for 6 months. I knew sooner or later I should have left, for, arriving from the juveniles, and being very expensive, I was the player out of whom they might have made the most among the whole team. That’s why I don’t consider myself a traitor at the least. [Sic]
Q: Of Billy Costacurta, Paolo Maldini and Thiago Silva, who did you enjoy playing the most with?
Nesta: I cannot pick just one because it was a pleasure to play with all of them, each for their own unique qualities.
Q: The last generation of Milan Senatores departed collectively but almost everyone continued to pursue professional football elsewhere. Do you think you had a year or two more in you to continue playing at Milan, especially given the way the club’s defence has gone haywire since you left?
Nesta: In the last years of my AC Milan career the team had changed much, both in terms of people and mostly mentality. I honestly did not feel comfortable anymore and when one feels that way, a change is just.
Q: What do you think about the current squad? According to you what changes must they do in order to climb the elite European tree again?
Nesta: I think at this moment AC Milan cannot spend as much money as they have done before, thus if you cannot spend you can’t be part of Europe’s top three. It is as easy as that.
Q: The injuries at Milanello have grown considerably in the recent years. Was it something to do with Allegri’s training methods, tactical changes or just pure luck?
Nesta: I don’t think the issue with injuries was coach Allegri, those many injuries happened in the past too, maybe it’s just chance or maybe not, who knows?
Q: Being a Rome localite, do you think Lazio and Roma can rise back to their powers like in the 99-01 period? Could Rome be the capital of Italian football in the near future?
Nesta: AS Roma had a great start, SS Lazio not as much. I think in the next few years Juventus will rule the Serie A: in my opinion Roman teams are still a bit behind.
Q: What is your opinion about De Sciglio? Since your departure, we are yet to see any young Italian defender making a similar impact. Can De Sciglio be that heir or is it too soon to comment?
Nesta: I played with De Sciglio during my last year in AC Milan and I believe he’s a wonderful fullback: he’s one of the few who never gets passed in one-on-one situations. I think he can still grow and follow in the footsteps of traditional great Italian defenders.
Q: Lifting the 2006 world Cup was among the most memorable moments of your long and distinguished career. But how big a disappointment was it to miss the better part of the tournament due to injury?
Nesta: I was really happy when Italy won the World Cup, but not playing in the final games was a huge regret for me.
Q: Can Italy go all the way in Brazil next year? If you compare the current national team squad to the one that won the World Cup in 2006, what according you is the biggest difference?
Nesta: I think going to Brazil to win the World Cup will be tough for Italy, as I see Brazil as a major favourite. There are many differences between the 2006 national team and the current side, but the biggest one, to me, is that the 2006 group was a team playing together since a long time and that is crucial.
Q: Which was the more painful defeat among these two – the loss against France in final of Euro 2000 or the defeat against Liverpool in the final of the 2005 Champions League?
Nesta: Perhaps the loss against France in Euro 2000 for I hadn’t won anything yet at that point of my career.
Q: Who is the best forward you’ve faced in your career?
Nesta: For sure Brazilian Ronaldo: a true prodigy and the best of them all.
Q: A lot of experts and purists believe that the general standard of defending has gone down in the past few years and that defending is gradually becoming a lost art – do you agree with this notion?
Nesta: I think in this age they prefer to teach defenders how to play the ball rather than to be a true defender. On one hand this is good but on the other you mustn’t forget to teach something as basic as how to mark a man.