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Gianluigi Buffon is lifted off the field by his teammates. (Photo by ImagePhoto/Imago/Icon Sportswire)
December 19th, 2023
Few nations are as in love with a sport as Italians are with soccer. "Calcio" is an essential part of Italian life, and a simple mention of legendary players can evoke memories and stories that go on for ages.
Here are the 10 greatest soccer players of all time from the "Bel Paese".
Totti spent his entire career with AS Roma, scoring 307 goals and 185 assists in 785 appearances. The "Golden Boy" led the club to a Serie A title in 2001, along with two Coppa Italia victories and a pair of Italian Supercups. He won five Italian player of the year awards in his 25 seasons with the capitol club, and his 250 league goals are second-most in Serie A history.
On this day in 2006 Francesco Totti scored a 95th minute penalty as Italy defeated Australia 1-0 in the round of 16! pic.twitter.com/c0S80XLGbU— BI_1897 (@BI_1897) June 26, 2020
On this day in 2006 Francesco Totti scored a 95th minute penalty as Italy defeated Australia 1-0 in the round of 16! pic.twitter.com/c0S80XLGbU
Totti was also a part of Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning squad. He assisted four goals during the tournament and scored the winner against Australia. He is the fifth most-capped forward in Azzurri history, and his 316 career goals for club and country are sixth-most of any Italian.
One of the most renowned keepers of all time, Zoff bookended his career with international successes. His fourth ever cap came as he helped Italy win the 1968 European Championship final, and later he became the oldest player ever to win the World Cup when he captained the Azzurri to victory in the 1982 competition. In-between, Zoff set the international record for longest clean-sheet streak, still standing at 1,142 minutes without conceding.
Voted the third-best keeper of the 20th century, Zoff finished second in the 1973 Ballon d’Or race. He played for Udinese, Mantova, Napoli, and Juventus at the club level, winning six Scudettos, two Coppa Italias, and a UEFA Cup with the Old Lady.
Del Piero was a fixture at Juventus, scoring 260 goals in 705 matches for the Old Lady over 19 seasons. He also won a Champions League title, six Scudettos, and a UEFA Super Cup with the club. His 346 career goals in all competitions are the second-most for any Italian player behind Silvio Piola. He is still the club’s all-time appearance leader and goal-scorer, despite being a deeper-lying forward than most.
Del Piero represented Italy in seven international tournament, including three World Cups, and scored 27 goals in 91 matches for the national team. He was Italy’s "super sub" in the 2006 competition, and scored their second goal in the semi-final win over Germany before making his shootout attempt in the final against France.
Cannavaro is only the third defender to ever win the Ballon d’Or, doing so in 2006 after captaining Italy to a World Cup victory. Cannavaro played every minute of the tournament, as the Azzurri allowed just two goals in seven matches—one of which was an own goal. He also became the only defender to win FIFA’s World Player of the Year.
Cannavaro was capped by Italy 136 times, playing in four World Cups for the Azzurri. Despite his 5'9" frame, he was able to beat bigger attackers with his incredible leaping ability and his stellar tactical prowess. His greatest success came with Gianluigi Buffon, with the two pairing to win a pair of Seria A titles at Parma along with the World Cup.
Cannavaro had a solid club career as well. He played for Parma, Napoli, Juventus, and Real Madrid, where he won two La Liga titles with the Spanish giants.
Few players have displayed the style or grace possessed by this midfield maestro. Pirlo was known for his brilliant "cut pass", a technique where he would see a teammate making a run and then deceive the defense by making a no-look 90-degree pass. It was famously on display in the 2006 World Cup, where his no-look pass in the final minute of extra time set up Italy’s winning goal to beat Germany in the semi-final.
Fabio Grosso in the 2006 World Cup Semi-Final🔥 Pirlo's no-look passpic.twitter.com/oJA2ZJYAWJ— Vintage Football Shirts (@VFshirts) October 1, 2021
Fabio Grosso in the 2006 World Cup Semi-Final🔥 Pirlo's no-look passpic.twitter.com/oJA2ZJYAWJ
Pirlo was masterful in seeing the pitch from deep-lying areas, and despite lacking pace was able to dribble out of tight spaces and put passes on a dime from 50 yards away. He was also a set piece assassin, and could score from as far as 40 yards out.
Pirlo was a key cog not just for Italy in their 2006 World Cup win, but also in Italy’s 2012 European Championship final run. Additionally, he won two Serie A titles and two Champions League trophies with AC Milan, and was the metronome for four consecutive league crowns for Juventus from 2012 to 2015.
There is no debate who Italy’s best keeper is—even Zoff has said it is Buffon. Still going strong at age 43, he is plying his trade with Parma in Serie B. He began his career with Parma, leading them to a UEFA Cup title before joining Juventus for a world-record fee for a keeper in 2001. He is one of the only players ever to make more than 1,100 official appearances.
Buffon won 10 Serie A titles, including seven straight Scudettos with Juventus from 2011 to 2018. He also has four Coppa Italia wins, but lost all three Champions League finals in which he appeared. He holds the league record with 12 consecutive clean sheets, and his 299 Serie A clean sheets are also a record. Buffon’s 176 caps for Italy are the most ever, 40 more than Cannavaro, and he was a star in the 2006 World Cup run with multiple key saves.
One of two career "one club players" at AC Milan on the list, Baresi became a regular starter at just age 18 and is considered one of the best defenders ever. He appeared in 628 matches for the club, and was named captain at age 22 due to his stellar leadership. "Piscinin" twice led the club back to Serie A after being relegated for match-fixing, and won three Champions League titles, six Serie A crowns, and four Italian Supercups. Baresi was voted Milan’s player of the century in 1999, and his number six shirt has been retired by the club.
Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini played 196 matches as a central defensive partnership, they conceded just 23 goals. 🐐 🐐 pic.twitter.com/VgNrZ3MQcK— Kevin A (@kca0027) January 9, 2022
Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini played 196 matches as a central defensive partnership, they conceded just 23 goals. 🐐 🐐 pic.twitter.com/VgNrZ3MQcK
Despite his excellence, Baresi did not become a mainstay for the national team until the mid-80s due to other players being preferred. However, he did win the 1982 World Cup, and was Italy’s captain in the 1994 World Cup, missing his penalty to open the shootout in the final against Brazil.
Known for his instantly recognizable hairstyle, the "Divine Ponytail" helped restore the Italian national team to glory in the 1990s. Baggio is the only Italian player to score in three World Cups, as his playmaking ability was on display in the 1990, 1994, and 1998 tournaments. Sadly for Baggio, his shootout miss in the 1994 final against Brazil was the defining moment of the competition.
Baggio’s slithering runs and silky dribbling helped him become the first Italian in more than a half-century to score more than 300 goals at the club level, in addition to the 27 he scored for the Azzurri. That, plus his creativity and passing, were the reason Juventus signed him from Fiorentina in 1990 for a world record fee.
On this day in 1990, Roberto Baggio with this incredible solo run and finish against Czechoslovakia during the World Cup! pic.twitter.com/mWiw3eabKE— Voicing Football ⚽️🌐 (@VoicingFootball) June 19, 2019
On this day in 1990, Roberto Baggio with this incredible solo run and finish against Czechoslovakia during the World Cup! pic.twitter.com/mWiw3eabKE
Baggio won a Serie A title, Coppa Italia, and UEFA Cup with the Old Lady before winning another league crown with AC Milan. He also won the 1993 Ballon d’Or and World Footballer of the Year, and in 1999 was voted the fourth-best player in FIFA’s Player of the Century poll.
Scoring a pair of goals in his debut at age 17, Meazza is the greatest Italian attacking player ever. He scored 31 goals in his first season, more than any other Serie A debutant ever, and only one player has more than his 33 goals for the Italian national team.
Meazza spent the majority of his career with Inter Milan, where he won three Serie A titles and scored 242 goals in 13 seasons. He then played two seasons as well for AC Milan, and single seasons for Juventus, Varese, and Atalanta, but his career sputtered during that time.
His best work came with the Azzurri, where he led Italy’s attack as they won their first two World Cups in 1934 and 1938. "Il Genio" was immortalized following his death, when AC Milan and Inter Milan’s joint stadium, the San Siro, was officially renamed the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in 1980.
Maldini is considered by most to be the greatest defender of all time. Another "one club man", he spent his entire 25-year senior career at AC Milan, following in the footsteps of his legendary father, Cesare, as club captain.
Maldini was part of "The Immortals" of Arrigo Sacchi and "The Invincibles" under Fabio Capello, partnering with Baresi for the strongest defensive partnership of all time. He also was the rock of Carlo Ancelotti’s side that reached three Champions League finals in five years. A two-footed player whose pace and tackling ability made him nearly impossible to beat, he received just three red cards in over 1,000 matches for club and country.
Maldini’s eight Champions League finals appearances are a record, claiming victory five times. He won seven Serie A titles, two European Champion Cups, a Coppa Italia, and five Italian Super Cups. He holds Milan’s appearance record with 902 matches, and had his number three retired as well—only to be used again if his son, currently at the club, chooses to do so.
📅 21 August 1985: Paolo Maldini makes first Coppa Italia start, vs. Genoa.📅 13 January 2022: Daniel Maldini makes first Coppa Italia start, vs. Genoa.😳 Watch this without getting goosebumps ❤️️🖤📹 @DidoIoIpic.twitter.com/e6isHgZNwj— SempreMilan (@SempreMilanCom) January 13, 2022
📅 21 August 1985: Paolo Maldini makes first Coppa Italia start, vs. Genoa.📅 13 January 2022: Daniel Maldini makes first Coppa Italia start, vs. Genoa.😳 Watch this without getting goosebumps ❤️️🖤📹 @DidoIoIpic.twitter.com/e6isHgZNwj
Maldini never won a trophy with the Azzurri, but he did help them to both the 1994 World Cup final and the 2000 European Championship final. He also holds the international record for most minutes played in World Cup matches.
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