Former Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro finally has something to smile about in Dubai.
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The 36-year-old defender, who signed with the Dubai-based Al Ahli football team in June, helped the club to its first victory in its home debut, a 4-1 win over cross-town rivals Al Wasl. After coming under fire for his sluggish play in the club’s 2-0, season-opening loss last month, he assisted on one goal and played solid defense in the team’s first win.
"I’m really glad we won tonight. It was a great achievement," Cannavaro said through a translator. "But I can’t do it alone. It really took the entire team."
The 36-year-old defender, who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title but retired from international duty after the team’s dismal performance in the 2010 tournament in South Africa, is Al Ahli’s biggest signing. The club signed Cannavaro to a two-year deal for an undisclosed price.
He has been tasked with reviving the fortunes of the club which finished in the bottom half of the pro-league in 2009 after winning the league title in 2008.
And if Wednesday match was any indication, the club appears headed in the right direction. Ahmed Kamis scored in the first minute to give Al Ahli an early lead and then Cannavaro slotted a nifty pass into the area to Ahmed Khalil who made it 2-0. The team scored on a rebound off a missed penalty to make it 3-0 before halftime on the way to the 4-1 win.
Despite the victory, the transition to the UAE league has completely free of controversy for Cannavaro.
He opened his campaign in a desert town near the border with Saudi Arabia in front of only a few thousand fans – a far cry from his days at Juventus where tens of thousands would be on hand to cheer him on. He also has struggled to adjust to the balmy conditions in the United Arab Emirates, where temperatures typical remain above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) well into the evening. Matches start at 10 p.m. local time to accommodate players who are fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
Expectations are high for Cannavaro, who fans and owners hope will give the league the same exposure that David Beckham’s move to the Los Angles Galaxy gave Major League Soccer. It’s also a second chance for the Italian, who left international football with the Azzurri in a state of disgrace after the defending champion’s unexpected first-round exit from the World Cup.
Cannavaro often appeared a step too slow in the World Cup tournament, and was responsible in part for the two goals Italy allowed against Paraguay and New Zealand. His disappointing performance followed on the heels of a final season in Juventus where he often appeared past his prime.
In his home debut, the fans couldn’t get enough of the good-looking Italian. Shouts of "Cannavaro" could be head over the cheers, drums and snake charmers horns. Most of the fans interviewed said they liked what they saw and felt he was a good signing.
"Mr. Cannavaro is very nice, very nice," said Marwan Tahri, an Al Ahli fan who works for the city transport agency. "He really directs the players and has great experience."
Even fans of the losing side Al Wasl came away impressed especially by the fact he played for Italy and Juventus.
"He’s an international player and will be very valuable for the league," said Abdul Salam Fairooz, who runs a sports marketing firm in Dubai. "You know, an international brand brings spectators and will give more international recognition to the league."
Cannavaro, who played in his fourth World Cup and has a record 136 caps for Italy, has also played for Real Madrid and Inter Milan during his storied career. He signed for Al Ahli after Juventus said it would not exercise an extension on his contract.