To play for the national team is beautiful: Italy defender Cristian Zaccardo
October 9, 2018 | 6:40 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan

On the Ball: When one thinks of the great Italian team that wrote itself into the history books when they won the World Cup in 2006, Cristian Zaccardo is not a name that immediately springs to mind.

However, the now 36-year-old was an integral part of that Azzurri squad that lifted the nation’s fourth World Cup, and in an exclusive interview with Times of Oman, Zaccardo shared his thoughts on what football has meant to him.

Currently winding down his career with Maltese outfit Hamrun Spartans, the defender began his 17-year career at boyhood club Bologna, where he spent nine years in their developmental ranks before spending four seasons in the club’s senior team.

“I first became passionate about football because I wanted to spend more time with my school friends,” Zaccardo recalled. “Seeing that they had enrolled in this sport, I also decided to join them so that I could stay in their company. I left home quite early because it is a fact that you changing teams often is, after all, a part of a footballer’s life.

“To all the young footballers who want to play the sport professionally, I would advise you not to get your head and your ego filled too early, and I would ask you to copy all the positive things of the more experienced and better players,” he added.

Zaccardo would leave Bologna to join Palermo on the island of Sicily, before a year overseas with German club Wolfsburg. He would later return to Italy to join Parma. However, what sticks out most for Zaccardo are the players with whom he put on the blue shirt of his national side.

“The players who always left me with something more as a player would have to be in the national team of the 2006 FIFA World Cup,” the defender recalled. He wore the number 2 jersey at that tournament. “That was a team of great champions and great men throughout their careers, although there were many other players during my career who also left me with things I learnt from them.”

Zaccardo had been a mainstay for his national side all the way from the Under-16 ranks to senior level, and took part in his first international tournament at the age of just 15, when he featured for his country in the 1998 UEFA Europe an Under-16 Championship held in Scotland, where he scored the match-winning goal in the semi-finals, only to lose to the Republic of Ireland in the final game of that tournament.

Missing out on that final would play its own part in him yearning to lift a title with the national team. Few feats, after all, compared to the honour of playing for your nation. At the World Cup, Zaccardo made three appearances in the final tournament. After keeping a clean sheet against the Italian’s opening 2-0 win against Ghana, Zaccardo was unfortunate to concede an own goal when his clearance against the United States wound up in the back of goalkeeper Giangluigi Buffon’s net.

Zaccardo would make one more appearance in the group stages, coming off the bench in his nation’s 3-0 win over Ukraine, before playing back-up to the team’s other right-back Gianluca Zambrotta, during the tournament.

“To play for the national team is just beautiful,” Zaccardo said. “It is a unique emotion that is very hard to describe, especially when you sing your country’s anthem before the match. When you play for Italy, you are representing 50 or 60 million inhabitants and your entire country, but when you play for your club, you are only representing the fans of that club and that is a far fewer number.”

Winning the World Cup gave Italy some much-needed respite as well — the country’s footballing culture had come under the shadow of the 2006 Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, and it was one that hung over the team in Germany as well.

“Before the World Cup, there was a really bad mood in the country, but the team was very, very good so I was all the more happy to join the team,” Zaccardo said. “My World Cup debut against Ghana in Germany 2006 has to be one of the best games of my career, and as far as the Italian domestic league is concerned, I will always remember my Serie A debut with Bologna against Lecce on November 18, 2001, in addition to all the matches where I scored. The game against Ghana may not have been my best game in terms of performance, but it was my first World Cup game and so is very important to me.”

In addition, Zaccardo also played for Italian giants AC Milan, where he spent three seasons, before moving on to teams like Carpi and Vicenza, after which he moved to Malta in 2017. However, he learnt to balance his career with his family. Zaccardo currently has two children.

“Before having children, I slept a lot in the morning, then I would have lunch in the afternoon, and dinner in the evenings normally at a restaurant and sometimes, I would want to go to the cinema or play bingo or watch memorable games, but then when my children were born I began getting up early in the morning and I gave up my leisure time to spend more time with them,” he admitted.

“In the beginning, my parents and relatives always supported me, but because of the support of my own family, that decreased.”

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