Four years ago, Fabio Cannavaro was at the pinnacle of his career. As captain, he raised the trophy after Italy's World Cup victory and his flawless performance in Germany earned him the Golden Ball and FIFA world player of the year awards.
Now 36, Cannavaro is heading to his fourth World Cup surrounded by uncertainty.
Cannavaro already announced that he will retire from international play after the tournament in South Africa, and Juventus recently decided not to exercise an extension on his contract —a move that could also end his club career.
"I'm a captain without a contract," Cannavaro said Monday at Italy's training camp in the Italian Alps, flashing his trademark grin despite the possible consequences that lie ahead.
"At my age I'm able to handle these things. Anyhow, usually players don't get to decide when they retire. I would like to keep playing, but after the World Cup I'll be nearly 37. If I get a chance to play for a club, great, if not we'll see."
For now, Cannavaro has other worries. He is doing his best to maintain team spirit amid speculation coach Marcello Lippi will leave immediately after the World Cup. Former Juventus midfielder Cesare Prandelli is expected to be named Lippi's successor, perhaps as soon as the end of this week.
"We're all intelligent enough to handle that," he said. "We're going to play at the World Cup and that's all we should be thinking about, not anything else," Cannavaro said. "It won't have [any] effect on the World Cup."
While he probably will not get the chance to play under Prandelli, Cannavaro gave his blessing for the Fiorentina coach to be hired.
"I like him a lot. I worked with him for a month at Parma before I went to Inter [in 2002]," Cannavaro said. "He's a coach who works really hard and I think his qualities will also shine through with Italy."
Don't discount Italy: Cannavaro
Although Prandelli is likely to overhaul the team if he takes charge, Lippi is clinging to the same core of players from four years ago: Cannavaro, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, defender Gianluca Zambrotta, and midfielders Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo, all of whom are in their 30s.
Consequently, Italy has been labelled as too old and with little chance of repeating the heroics of 2006. Lippi has already lashed out at the media for having such low expectations.
"I've been on the national team for 13 years and I don't ever recall departing for a major competition calmly," said Cannavaro, who broke Paolo Maldini's record of 126 appearances with the Azzurri last year and now has 132 caps.
"Although, this time we're going to South Africa as the World Cup holders and it seems like we came in last place."
Cannavaro warned observers not to discount Italy's experience and spirit.
"We're obligated to believe we can win," he said. "We have to go down there and use our strengths. We can't play like Barcelona or Spain; every team has its own characteristics and we've got to take advantage of ours."