He is a World Cup champion, two-time Champions League winner and four-time Serie A Defender of the Year.
The $33 million transfer fee A.C. Milan paid to get him from Lazio is one of the highest-ever for a defender. His perfectly timed slide tackles, pace and grit were on full display in a 2011 Champions League match when he repeatedly thwarted Barcelona star Lionel Messi’s goal-bound efforts in the box, one of them a clean-as-a-whistle tackle that went viral on YouTube.
He is widely considered the finest center back of his generation and was named to the FIFA 100 list of best players of all time.
And yet, Italian legend Alessandro Nesta goes largely unrecognized on the streets of Miami Beach, where he bought a condo in 2003 and now lives full-time with his wife and three children. Most South Florida sports fans don’t realize that “Sandro” is the coach of Miami FC, an NASL team that plays its games at FIU and practices at St. Thomas University.
Nesta, 41, made his coaching debut last year in Miami FC’s inaugural season. This year, he has led the team on a nine-game unbeaten streak that has Miami sitting atop the league standings and preparing for a fourth-round U.S. Open Cup road game Wednesday against Orlando City of Major League Soccer.
His players, to a man, admit they sometimes find themselves in disbelief that Nesta is their coach.
“Most people in this world call him ‘Legend.’ but I get to call him ‘Coach,’ ’’ said Miami FC midfielder Michael Lahoud, who is playing for the Sierra Leone national team this week in African Cup of Nations qualifiers.
“Playing for Alessandro Nesta is something I never thought possible when I first took the field as a professional footballer back in 2009. However, it is an experience that I’m proud and honored to share with my teammates at Miami FC. Like most legends of the game, [soccer] comes so naturally and easy to him. He eats, sleeps and breathes the game in a way that is different from how it’s experienced in this country. We get to witness his passion and appetite for the game on a daily basis, especially on game days. He is relentless to say the least.”
Nesta was born in Rome and as a child played for U.S. Cinecitta, a youth club affiliated with AS Roma. But when a Roma scout approached him about joining the club’s higher-level team, his father, Giuseppe, would not hear of it.
Giuseppe, a train conductor and door-to-door water salesman, was a lifelong Lazio fan. There was no way he was going to let his son wear a Roma jersey. So, he took young Alessandro to the Lazio tryouts.
“When we got there, we saw so many kids there, and we thought, ‘This is going to be impossible,’ ” Nesta recalled. “But after the first tryout, a coach came over and offered me a spot. For my father, this was a dream come true. He was too busy working to support my mother, me and my two brothers, so he never got to play soccer himself.”
A week before his 18th birthday, he got his first call-up to the senior team, where he got to play alongside his idol, Argentina’s Jose Chamot.
“I was an 18-year-old kid, and he was already a man, so for me, he was my idol,” Nesta said. “Every game, he was a warrior, always with the same intensity. I tried very hard to be like him.”
He spent the next 20 years in the Italian league, from 1993-2002 with Lazio and 2002-2012 with Milan. Nesta also was a regular with the Italian national team, played in the 1996 Olympics and three World Cups — including the 2006 championship team.
After the 2012 season, he decided he was “a little bit too old” to keep up with Italian and European soccer, so he signed with the Montreal Impact of MLS, where he reunited with childhood best friend Marco DiVaio.
“Milan offered me one more year on my contract, but my legs couldn’t run the way they did before,” Nesta said. “I am competitive and did not want to sit on the bench. I had 11 surgeries on my knees, arms, nose. So, I decided to have an experience in another country and finish my career with Marco.”
He retired after the 2013 season and moved to Miami with aspirations of becoming a coach.
“I told my wife, ‘Let’s spend six or seven months in Miami and see if we can live there,’ ” Nesta said. “That became one year, and then two years, and we are still here. We love it.”
His third child, daughter Angelica, was born in Miami. His 9-year-old son, Tommasso, plays soccer for the local Juventus Academy, and 10-year-old daughter Sofia likes to dance.
Miami FC owners Riccardo Silva and Paolo Maldini, Nesta’s former teammate, approached him about coaching the new team last year and he accepted the challenge. It was a difficult transition from player to coach. He took lessons from two of his favorite coaches — Carlo Ancelotti and Zdenek Zeman.
“Maybe my experience in the locker room as a soccer player helps, but it is completely different being a coach and a player,” he said. “For me, playing was natural, came easy. As a coach, you have to study every day, every practice, every game, make strategies, keep the players relaxed.”
He has learned not to compare his players with those he played with in Italy. “You have to forget the past,” he said. “If you compare players here to ones from your past, you have problems.”
There were times last season when Nesta was “very frustrated,” but this year he has a much better understanding of the league, and it shows in Miami FC’s results.
“In the last year, I have seen Nesta transform from humbled new coach to teacher of the game,” Lahoud said. “I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from him each week about this thing we call the beautiful game. Now if I could just get hair as famous as his.”