With 54 minutes on the clock at Camp Nou last September, Lionel Messi picked up possession central to the goal, 10 yards outside the penalty area. Moving the ball forward away from his midfield marker during the group stage Champions League clash with Milan, the Argentine was a gap between Antonio Nocerino and Alessandro Nesta and with a drop of the shoulder, turned Nesta left as he moved to the defender’s right and into the space. His legs, 11 years younger than the Italian centre-back’s, saw him able to open up a good two yards of air to take a shot – it was a classic drop of the shoulder, turn of pace and close control from Messi that would go on to define another record-breaking season in front of goal.
However, on this occasion, just as the forward was about to pull the trigger, Nesta dropped back into frame with a perfectly executed slide tackle that barely touched the player, but completely removed the ball. Messi, who would go on to win the Ballon d’Or for a record-equalling third successive time a few months later, beat the floor in frustration, having just been taught a lesson from one of the game’s greats.
It is a moment that looked likely to belong to Messi, to be added to a catalogue of similar moments he has since had this season but instead, it is Nesta’s moment to add to his career-long catalogue of perfectly timed and gracefully executed interventions. As he prepares to leave the Italian game after almost two decades at the end of this season, it serves as one of his last examples for fans of exactly the type of controlled player that he has been.
In a period of the game – the 1990s and 2000s – where the explosive, pacey, extravagant and skilful attacking players have received the most attention, sold the most shirts, commanded the biggest transfer fees and dominated the Ballon d’Or awards, it can be argued that Nesta is one of the few defenders who can see out his twilight in America with similar acknowledgement as a world class footballer.
From his rapid ascent at Lazio to go from Serie A debutant in 1994 to club captain in just over three years, and his rise through the national ranks to begin a decade-long Azzurri partnership with Fabio Cannavaro in the heart of defence, Nesta’s career has been as spectacular as any world great and as far removed as possible from the unassuming and modest nature of his character that has helped him achieve it.
Nesta’s success to play out 19 seasons in the top flight, a decade with the Nazionale and to win 19 major honours has been based around an ability to analyse and simplify the tasks in front of him. As his pace deserted him when various injuries from the past eventually took their toll, Nesta still remained a defensive mainstay, because even with the vulnerability to be outpaced in open play by opponents, there were few opponents who could find play open to them when marked by the defender.
Milan’s faith in the player was set to stretch to another season – Nesta revealed when confirming his decision to leave the club that they had offered him another year-long contract. So whilst his choice is not one shared by his club, and fans will point to examples like that with Messi as proof to continue, it remains fairest to say that Nesta’s decision to call it a day in Serie A in 2012 is comparable to every intervention he made on the pitch – well thought out, well-timed and classy in its application.