Francesco Totti and the 10 Most Iconic Serie A Players of the Last 20 Years
Silvio Piola played all over Italy, from the 1920s until the '50s. He scored 274 league goals in a club career that included stints at Pro Vercelli, Lazio and Juventus. But nowadays, he's most famous for being the only man standing in the way of Francesco Totti becoming Serie A's all-time goalscorer.
That Roma's Totti has overhauled all but one player in the history of Serie A says more than this article ever could. The No.10 spent most of his career in midfield, and all of it at the one club which has seen its share of highs and lows.
Throughout it all, the Rome-born fantasista has been a rock in the Roma squad. And having spent a career scoring goals like this one, has earned the admiration and affection of football fans around the peninsula. There will probably never be another like him, but over the last 20 years Serie A has had more than its fair share of special players.
Here's a look at some of the most memorable. This isn't a ranking—it's a celebration of Serie A's biggest stars.
Marco Van Basten
David Cannon/Getty Images
More often than not, when Marco van Basten stepped onto the pitch for AC Milan, he put the ball in the back of the opponent's net. Ninety goals in 148 appearances for the Rossoneri mean that despite having his career cut cruelly short by injury, the Dutchman is remembered even now, almost two decades since he last played, as one of the finest strikers of all time.
Few strikers have even shown the intelligence, control and grace on the ball that characterised Van Basten's game, and he was always a joy to watch, from his early days at Ajax to the days of AC Milan dominance, when Silvio Berlusconi built a team around a core of incredible Dutch talent.
Marco's iconic bicycle kick against IFK Goteborg—one of four he scored that day—is considered one of the great Champions League scores of all time, but his career was littered with magical moments.
While at AC Milan, he won four Scudetti and three European Cups, to add to the three league titles and one European Cup he'd won at Ajax. He was part of the Netherlands side that one the Uefa European Championships in 1988—he scored the second against the Soviet Union in the final, and was the tournament's top scorer—and is one of only three players to win the Ballon d'Or three times.
Had his playing days not been ended at just 28, he might have achieved even more. But even as it stands, Van Basten did enough to be considered one of the all time greats.
New Press/Getty Images
Gianfranco Zola's career took him around Italy and then to England, where he became a Chelsea legend.
He played with Diego Maradona at Napoli and took Parma to dizzying European heights under Nevio Scala. In London, he was so popular they made him Officer of the Order of the British Empire. And to cap it all off, before he retired he returned home to Sardinia, where he helped Cagliari secure promotion to Serie A.
As careers go, they don't get a whole lot more fulfilling. And though for both club and country, Zola played with some of the biggest names in the game, his talent was such that he was able to shine regardless. Good from the first to the last, a 39-year-old Zola signed off in Serie A with a memorable goal against Juventus. What better way to say farewell?
Stu Forster/Getty Images
He stepped out as a 17-year-old for Parma—and saved a penalty against AC Milan. Right from the beginning, it was clear that Gianluigi Buffon was special.
Just how special, however, few could have known. Not only is he regarded as one of football's greatest ever keepers, Buffon is a player that universally admired in Italy, known for conducting himself in a refined, respectable manner on and off the pitch and for being a powerful influence on his fellow players.
He has a host of winner's medals to his name from his time at Parma, Juventus and with the Italian national team, and as the current captain for Cesare Prandelli and Antonio Conte, has his sights set on more silverware still.
One could point to any number of career-defining moments to illustrate Buffon's greatness, but for this observer it has to be his reaction to the Calciopoli betting scandal in 2006. For their part in it all, Juventus were relegated. And what did the world's best goalkeeper do, just after winning the World Cup? Why, he went down to Serie B with them, of course.
Buffon wasn't the only high-profile player to remain in Turin, but as the coach Fabio Capello and stars like Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all headed for the door, few would have blamed the keeper for doing likewise. That he didn't is a testament to his character, and one of the chief reasons he's a Juve legend.
Getty Images/Getty Images
Two league titles and a UEFA Cup doesn't seem like a just reward for a talent like Roberto Baggio's, but like Totti, the Divine Ponytail's ability was such it didn't need to be backed up by medals.
Baggio's popularity in Italy transcends club loyalties in a way that few players on the peninsula ever have, and he is rightly regarded as one of the country's finest ever players. After spending a career scoring goals like this, how could he be thought of otherwise?
Getty Images/Getty Images
Franco Baresi was voted AC Milan's best player of the 20th century. What more can you say?
A one-club legend from Brescia, Baresi was one of the great sweepers, and in a career that spanned three decades he marshalled the Milan defence with rare guile and grace.
Baresi's is a reputation that can't be summed up by his medal haul, though he has three Champions League titles and six Scudetti to his same, and in an era when Italian football was known for producing the world's best defenders, he was the cream of the crop.
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Gabriel Batistuta, or Batigoal as he's known to the fans, was one of the most explosive and prolific strikers in recent Serie A history.
The Argentinian electrified fans at both Fiorentina and Roma, where he won a memorable Scudetto with Totti and current Viola boss Vincenzo Montella in what is surely one of the greatest Italian front lines of all time.
Batistuta's arrival in Rome was seen as the finishing touch to Franco Sensi's great side, and though he was by that stage in his 30s, he delivered in spades, scoring 20 goals in 28 games as the Giallorossi battled to their first league title since 1983.
In all, he netted 168 times in the league for Fiorentina in 269 appearances, and scored 30 for Roma in just 63 Serie A games. It's still common to see a replica Batigol shirt in the stands at Roma games, and in Florence they even erected a bronze statue in his honour. He was a true fan favourite.
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Paolo Maldini might not have been adored by the Milan ultras in the same way Baresi was, but to the majority of Italian football fans, he's an icon.
The son of a former Milan captain, Paolo played almost 650 league games (900 in total) for the Rossoneri, winning seven Scudetti and five Champions League titles. For the national side, he appeared in four World Cups and made an incredible 126 appearances.
As hard-working as he was talented, Maldini enjoyed the longest-ever "one club" career, and was the embodiment of a complete defender for a generation of tifosi. Del Piero put it best when he described his Italy teammate as: "Quite simply the best there is."
Alessandro Del Piero
Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images
Sydney FC's Alessandro Del Piero is one of Juventus' greatest ever players. Known in Italy for being modest and polite, Del Piero joined the Old Lady from Padova in 1993, and over the next 19 years would write club history in Turin.
The World Cup-winner is Juve's most capped player and their all-time leading scorer, with 290 goals to his name in total; 186 of them came from open play, often in his own unique style, from the "Del Piero Zone".
Del Piero served as Juventus captain for 11 years, and along with Buffon elected to remain with the Bianconeri when they were relegated after Calciopoli. He featured in four Champions League finals, winning one, and lifted the Scudetto six times, and though the Turin giants are sure to have many more great players, this is one that will never be forgotten.
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images
Inter have seen many incredible players over the last 20 years, from the unforgettable Ronaldo to the inimitable Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But no player great or small jumps to mind quicker when one thinks of the Nerazzurri quicker than Javier Zanetti.
The veteran Argentine is still a commanding figure on the pitch for Inter, despite the fact that when he first came to Milan, his current team mate Mateo Kovacic was just a year old.
Both as a full-back and as a midfielder, Zanetti has had an incredible influence on Inter's fortunes, and it was fitting that on the occasion of his 700th appearance in the shirt, he lifted the Champions League trophy and completed an epoch-defining league-cup-European treble.
In almost 20 years on the peninsula, Zanetti has rarely been injured or off-form, and when the time comes to call it a day the 39-year-old is going to leave some very big boots to fill at the San Siro.
Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
Serie A is a league best known for its defenders and its No.10s, but in Andrea Pirlo, it has also been home to one of the greatest midfielders not just of his generation, but of all time.
As a player who's won almost everything there is to win at club and international level, it's incredible to think that Inter deemed him surplus to requirements. After being loaned out and failing to make an impact on the first-team Nerazzurri squad, Pirlo was sold to AC Milan in 2001 in what is surely one of the best deals Silvio Berlusconi ever made.
As cultured and as nuanced as a player can get, Pirlo's amazing range of passing, vision and ability to dictate the pace and direction of play have all been central to league and European triumphs at Milan, a World Cup win with Italy in 2006 and much of Juventus' current dominance.
The Bianconeri are one of the strongest teams in European football right now, and they look a shadow of themselves when the 33-year-old's not in the middle of the park. He's far from finished yet, but he's already one of Serie A's most iconic players.