Serie A is one of the most storied leagues in world soccer. Think of some of the most storied clubs in the world and names like Juventus, AC Milan, Inter, and Roma come to mind.
The league, especially in its heyday, has had its share of incredible players. To parse the list of legends that have trod on Italian fields to a list of 25 is a thankless task, but it's one that I've tasked myself with the last few days.
The men on this list have left an indelible mark on the history of the beautiful game in Italy. Some are prolific scorers, others are bone-crunching defenders or the most creative of midfielders.
So who are the best men ever to play in Serie A? Let's take a look at the many golden names on the list.
Daniele De Rossi has been around for so long that it's amazing to realize that he's still on the right side of 30. He has been a fixture in Roma's lineup for 12 years, and he's been integral to Roma's success in the middle of the 2000s.
With Juventus and Milan depleted due to calciopoli, Roma rose to challenge the Inter juggernaut that filled the power vacuum, finishing as runners up to the nerazzurri four times and winning the Coppa Italia twice. De Rossi was an integral part of that team, and his commitment to the team has made him the certain successor to Francesco Totti once the Roma legend finally hangs up his boots.
De Rossi is one of the most versatile players in the world: A box-to-box midfielder who can play an advanced role to support the strikers or in the rear as a holding midfielder. He has even played in defense in both four-man and three-man varieties, using his physicality and tackling ability to fill in holes on the back line in a pinch.
He is almost certain to be the second midfielder to reach the century mark for the Italian national team, possibly by the end of the next World Cup, and at his age could very well wind up the most capped player in history—if Gigi Buffon doesn't set the mark too high.
For De Rossi to be such an important figure in league history already is a testament to how early he broke into the first team and how well he has played. He still has a long way to go in his career and could very well rise up this list.
Udinese captain Di Natale doesn't look at first glance like a player who belongs on this list, but his prolific scoring sets him in a class apart from others.
After spending the formative years of his career in lower divisions both with his parent club and on loan, Empoli finally broke into the top flight in 2002, and Di Natale has stayed ever since thanks to a move to Udinese in 2004.
In only 11 top-flight seasons, Di Natale has scored 171 goals, an average of 15.5 per season. He was capocannoniere in 2009-10 and '10-11, and his play inspired a less talented Udinese team to rise to the qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League each of the last two seasons.
At age 35 he's showing no signs of slowing down, having netted 18 times in Serie A this year. After having toyed with retirement after the death of teammate Piermario Morosini last year, it looks like he will be playing at a high level for the next few years.
Michel Platini's career in Serie A was brief when compared to the rest of his illustrious playing days, but the midfielder, known for his prolific scoring, was an integral part of the Juventus teams that reached a pair of European Cup finals, winning one in 1985. Platini scored the only goal of the match, which was played in the shadow of the Heysel disaster. He also won a pair of league titles and one Coppa Italia in his time with Italy's most storied club.
He won three consecutive ballons d'or during his time with Juve, and despite playing in the midfield rather than as a true striker, Platini became one of only two men to claim the title of capocannoniere for three years running.
Platini gave Juve the final piece it needed for their run of success in the mid-80s, and despite his brief stay, definitely stamped a deep mark on Italian soccer.
Atalanta 1995-1996, 2006-2007, 2008-2009
AC Milan 2005-2006
For such a talented player, Christian Vieri bounced around quite a bit, as you can see from the lengthy list above. You can fill in the gaps in the timeline with 3 years in Serie B between his time with Torino and Atalanta and with stints at Atletico Madrid and Monaco in the middle of his career.
Vieri is tied for 27th with 142 Serie A goals, the most of which came in his six years with Inter, where he formed excellent partnerships with Ronaldo and Hernan Crespo after setting the transfer fee record.
In 2002-03 he was capocannoniere, scoring 24 times in 23 games despite missing much of the latter part of the season after suffering an injury in the Champions League quarterfinal against Valencia.
He was never much the same after that injury, which deprived the soccer world of seeing what he could have been at his true potential. He was also overshadowed by the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti in his prime. Still he's one of the most talented strikers to grace the Serie A
Milan 1986-1996, 1997-1999
An attacking midfielder with great pace and technique, Donadoni was a key cog in the Milan team of the 80s and 90s that won five league titles, three European titles, three UEFA Supercups and two Intercontinental Cups. After a stint as one of the pioneers of MLS in the United States, he returned to his old club and won a sixth scudetto before retiring.
A facilitator rather than a scorer, Donadoni only scored 18 times for Milan and five times in 63 games for the national team. Still, his blistering pace down the right-hand side pulled defenses apart and set up for the team's strike force to finish off the chances he created.
Gigi Riva is the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Italian national team. He scored 35 times in a blue shirt, and pegged 169 goals in the red and blue of Cagliari, 156 of them in the top flight.
He was capocannoniere three times in his career, dueling with Pierino Prati and Roberto Boninsenga for the top slots in the scoring chart.
Loyal to the Sardinian team his entire career, he turned down a move to Juventus in his prime in order to stay with the team, with which he won a scudetto in 1969-70 after finishing as runners up the previous year.
Riva had a powerful left foot and a soft touch. This combined with his pace allowed him to run rampant behind defenses, and he added to his goal tally with his impressive ability to score free kicks. He is another that one must wonder how much more he could have been if he had not been ravaged by injuries.
Pro Vercelli 1929-1934
Silvio Piola is the greatest scorer in Serie A history. He retired in 1954 with a total of 274 goals. Only two players have even come within 50 of that mark. He is the only player in history to be the all-time Serie A top scorer for three different teams (Vercelli, Lazio, and Novara).
Piola was capocannoniere twice, but he is the rare player on this list never to have won a title. He came close, finishing as runner up in 1936-37 with Lazio and in both of his seasons with Juventus.
It's impossible to tell what Piola's career would have been like if it had not been for the disruption of World War II, especially on the international stage. But both his longevity (25 years of high-level play) and his preposterous scoring numbers rank him amongst some of the best players Italy has ever produced.
Another transcendent Frenchman, Zidane sparkled in his five seasons with Juventus, reaching the Champions League final twice (both losses), winning a pair of league titles, an Intercontinental Cup, two Serie A Foreign Player of the Year awards and a Serie A Player of the Year award.
Zidane's wizardry in the midfield was deadly when combined with the striking capability of the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet.
Like Platini, Zidane's stay in Serie A was brief, but for those five seasons it could certainly be said that one of the world's best was playing in Italy.
One of the true legends of Inter Milan, Facchetti changed the nature of the full-back position, becoming the first true attacking full-back in the history of the game.
Bought from the youth system of Trevigliese by Helenio Herrera, Facchetti was one of the driving forces behind the team now known as la grande Inter. During his 18 years with the club he won four scudetti, one Coppa Italia, two European Cups, and two Intercontinental Cups.
He scored 75 times in 634 goals in all competitions, even cracking double digits in 1965-66, an unheard-of feat for a defender at that time in history. Combined with his excellent defensive work and discipline—he was only ever sent off once, for insulting a referee—he was one of the most complete full-backs to ever play the game, and ushered in a new era of offensive responsibility for the position.
After retiring, Facchetti held numerous front-office positions with the club, and was the team's president upon his death in 2006 from pancreatic cancer.
AC Milan 1949-1956
One of the best players in Swedish history, Gunnar Nordahl played for 10 years in his native land before arriving at Milan, where he would play for seven-and-a-half years and score a ridiculous 210 goals in that span. Added to the 15 he scored for Roma at the end of his career, Nordahl's tally of 225 in 291 appearances is still good for third all-time in league history and the leader for foreign players.
During his time at Milan he won a record five capocannoniere titles as the league's top scorer, including consecutive years of 35 and 34 goals in 1949-50 and '50-51. He also holds the distinction as the most efficient scorer in league history, scoring at a .77 goals per game clip over his ten years in the country.
His 35-goal year in '49-50 is the second highest total of all time, missing the record by a single strike. It remains the highest total ever in the post-war years, and only three men have scored thirty in a season since last he achieved the feat.
One of the most tragic figures in Italian soccer, Valentino Mazzola was a true trailblazer.
He is considered to be the first modern all-around midfielder in history, a superb blend of attacking and defensive ability, combined with leadership qualities that spurred his Torino side to the heights that made them known to history as il Grande Torino.
After two mid-table seasons at Venezia, he keyed a move up to third in the league and a Coppa Italia victory in 1941-42. The move got the attention of Torino, who swooped in to undercut local rivals Juventus to sign the player.
With Mazzola leading their midfield, Torino won the last Serie A title before the arrival of World War II on the Italian mainland interrupted league play, and won the first four titles when normal play resumed after the war in 1946.
Over his 10 seasons in the Italian top flight, he scored 109 goals and won five titles with Torino.
Tragically, the world would never know the true scope of what Mazzola's career could have been. He was killed along with 30 other players, administrators, journalists and crew when a plane carrying the team home from a testimonial in Portugal crashed into the Superga hill near Turin on May 4, 1949.
An integral part of the Italian and Juve teams of the 80s, Tardelli won every European title available to him at the time in his 10 years with the team. Add to that six scudetti and three Coppa Italia titles, he is one of the most decorated players in the history of the team.
Tardelli was known worldwide for his tenacious playing style. He could run forever, was mentally unshakable and was bone-crunching in the tackle. If you ever wanted to see the predecessor to players like Gennaro Gattuso, call up archival footage of Tardelli.
Not primarily an attacking player, Tardelli scored 51 goals in 376 games in all competitions for the bianconeri, but he had a knack for coming up with important ones. His strike in the first leg of the UEFA Cup final against Athletic Bilbao in 1977 was decisive and led to Juve's first ever continental title.
He was just as timely internationally, scoring a pair of important goals in the 1982 World Cup, including the second in the final against West Germany. His exuberant celebration has become iconic through history.
It's impossible to exclude from this countdown one of the two most talented men to ever play the game.
Maradona only played in Europe for 10 years out of a career that spanned 20, but the majority of that time was spent with Napoli.
He moved there at his absolute prime, for a record transfer fee of $10.48 million. While there, his wizardry led the partenopei to two league titles, a Coppa Italia, a UEFA Cup, and a Supercoppa.
He scored 81 goals in his seven years at the San Paolo, and despite some controversy surrounding him off the field, he was so influential to the side that they took the unusual step of retiring his No. 10 shirt when his career was done.
In 20 years at the San Siro, Beppe Bergomi played in 519 matches in the Serie A and made his name as one of the greatest defenders in Italy's history.
His career coincided with an extended run of dominance from Juventus and Milan, and so he was only ever able to celebrate one league title. He supplemented that with a Coppa Italia and three UEFA Cups, an impressive trophy haul for any player.
Bergomi has only recently been surpassed as the most capped player in Inter's history by Javier Zanetti, and he captained the team for years. He was named to the FIFA 100 in 2004 as one of the 125 greatest living soccer players, a reputation well deserved through his great defensive play.
AC Milan 1995-1997
You don't expect a player as legendary as Baggio to be such a journeyman, especially not in the era in which he played, but Il Divin' Codino (seriously, how awesome is it when your nickname is the Divine Ponytail?) played for six clubs in the top flight over the course of his 19-year career.
Baggio was the first real "nine-and-a-half," a playmaking forward player who scored his share of goals. His career paralleled the rise of the trequartista in Italian soccer—indeed, the emergence of the position is probably directly linked with his style of play. He was a set-piece specialist known for pace, technique and uncanny vision that allowed him to set up his teammates for goals as well as finish on his own.
And finish he did. He is only one of six men to score 200 times in Serie A (205 to be exact), scoring at a clip of .45 goals per game. He cracked the 20 goal mark twice—once with Juve and once with Bologna—and notched double-digit assists four times. He has the best record from the penalty spot in league history, converting 76 times in 91 opportunities. In 1994 he was recognized as the FIFA World Player of the Year.
Despite his impressive numbers, Baggio can be looked on as the Mickey Mantle of Italian soccer. He was a transcendent player, but if it were not for a few serious injuries over the course of his career he could have accomplished even more.
Inter 1927-1940, 1946-1947
AC Milan 1940-1942
Giuseppe Meazza was the ultimate goalscorer of his time. Well known for his carousing as well as his finishing, Meazza is still fourth all-time on the Serie A scoring chart with 216.
In his first, long stint with Inter he put up goals at an absurd clip. In 1928-29, his second year with the team, he had more goals (33) than games played (29). He nearly equalled the feat the next year, scoring 31 in 33.
As mentioned, Meazza was known for showing up late for pregame activities after nights on the town, only to avoid most disciplinary action when he would put on a show and lead his team to victory. One story goes that a pair of trainers went looking for him an hour before an important match in 1937 against Juventus. They discovered him asleep in his bed and drove him to the stadium at once, all while being regaled with tales of Meazza's evening. The striker was handed his shirt without fuss and scored both Inter goals in a 2-1 victory. Inter won the title that year—by two points over Juve.
Meazza retired as the all-time leading goal scorer in Serie A—since passed by Gunnar Nordhal, Francesco Totti, and Silvio Piola. He also held the national team scoring record with 33, passed only by Luigi Riva.
AC Milan 2002-2012
Currently playing in MLS for the Montreal Impact, Nesta is widely considered one of the best center-backs to ever play. His list of accolades is impressive: he was a four-time Serie A Defender of the Year, a four-time member of the UEFA Team of the Year, two-time pick for the FIFPro XI, and was selected to the FIFA 100 in 2004.
His clubs benefited from his talents just as well. He won three scudetti, three Coppa Italia titles, four Supercoppas, a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, and two Champions League titles between the two of them.
Nesta's combination of technical skill and bruising physicality was invaluable to his teams year-in and year-out. He captained Lazio for his last five years there before financial problems forced the club to sell him to Milan for nearly €31 million. His last years with the rossoneri saw one of the most imposing defensive partnerships in history form between Nesta and Thiago Silva.
Unfortunately, injuries played a huge part in his career. He went to three World Cups in his career but ended up getting hurt in every single one of them. After retiring from international duty a severe back injury robbed him of the 2008-09 season and made many assume that his career was over. That he came back and played three more successful seasons speaks to his extraordinary ability.
Mantova 1963-1965, 1966-1967
A legend between the sticks, Dino Zoff bounced up and down between Serie A and Serie B for the first six years of his career with Udinese and Mantova. In 1967 he moved to Napoli and stayed in the top flight for the rest of his career.
After five years at the San Paolo, Zoff moved to Juventus, where he spent the final 10 seasons of his career. Juve had rejected him at a tryout as a 14-year-old for being too short (he would later grow a foot), but he bore them no ill will and delivered the bianconeri six championships, a Coppa Italia, and a UEFA Cup.
Internationally, Zoff garnered 112 caps—the most ever for an Italian player up to that point. Between 1972 and 1974 Zoff maintained a scoreless streak in international play of 1,142 minutes, the longest in history. He also holds the second-longest such streak in Serie A with a 903-minute stretch.
He still holds the record for oldest World Cup winner after leading the Azzurri to their third title in 1982. He is one of only three goalkeepers to captain a team to a world title, and held the records for oldest player to play in Serie A and most Serie A caps (he's still fourth) until both records fell in the 2005-06 season. He was durable to the end—he never played fewer than 30 games in any of his 10 seasons at Juve.
Longevity and steel in defense has been the hallmark of Javier Zanetti since he joined Inter as Massimo Moratti's first purchase as president of the club. Moratti has since misfired on plenty of transfer deals over the years, but his first has undoubtedly been his best.
Zanetti ranked first on my own list of the 20 greatest Inter players of all time, and it's easy to see why. He overtook club legend Beppe Bergomi as the team's most-capped player in 2011 and has stretched his lead to 78 games.
Zanetti's most remarkable attribute after his longevity is his versatility. After starting his career as a right-back, he moved forward into the midfield to accommodate the arrival of Brazilian right-back Maicon to the team in 2006. His play has been just as rock-solid further up the field, and he even started scoring a few goals, ending a four-year goal drought in 2006. His defense is marked by his discipline—between 1999 and 2011 he went 12 years without being sent off in a match.
He was the skipper for all five of Inter's five straight titles in the late 2000s, and is the only man to captain an Italian team to a treble. He's also helmed four Coppa Italia winners, a UEFA Cup winner and a Club World Cup champion.
Many believe the legendary Argentinian's career is over after suffering an Achilles tendon injury this past weekend against Palermo, but Zanetti has sworn to come back stronger than ever. If there's anyone who can play another season at age 40 after that type of injury, it's certainly Zanetti.
Juventus 2004-2006, 2009-2010
One of the greatest defenders in history, Fabio Cannavaro is one of only two defenders in history to have won the FIFA World Player of the Year award.
Cannavaro spent all but four years of his illustrious career in the Serie A, and he remains one of the best defenders to have ever set foot on one of the league's fields, despite the fact that there is no official scudetto on his resume (the only two he ever won were stripped from Juventus after calciopoli).
He did claim glory in the Coppa Italia twice with Parma, and was the anchor of the defense of the team that won the UEFA Cup in 1998-99. He also won a pair of titles away from home at Real Madrid.
Internationally, he is the most-capped player in the history of the Azzurri, and captained the team from 2002 to 2010. He led the defense that allowed only two goals (one own goal and one penalty) in the 2006 World Cup as the Italians lifted the trophy a fourth time. He was awarded the Silver Ball in that tournament in one of the closest votes in tournament history.
Juventus 2001-2006, 2007-Present
The best goalkeeper Italy has ever produced and quite possibly the best the world has ever seen, Gigi Buffon's positioning, agility and reflexes have made him one of the games most celebrated shot-stoppers.
Buffon debuted for Parma on November 19 1995, keeping a clean sheet against eventual champions AC Milan as a 17-year-old. He was a regular starter by 1996-97, his second full season with the first team, and eventually made over 200 appearances in a Parma shirt, winning a Coppa Italia and a UEFA Cup as he went.
In the summer 2001 transfer window, Juventus paid the astronomical sum of 100 billion lire (€52 million today) for Buffon's services, far and away the most ever paid for a goalkeeper. He rewarded his new club by anchoring the best defense in Serie A in 2001-02 and winning his first-ever scudetto.
Buffon won another title the next year and two more in the middle of the decade that have since been wiped away in the wake of calicopoli. He was one of several Juve stars who stayed with the team after they were forcibly relegated in the wake of the scandal, playing so well in '06-07 that he was elected the goalkeeper of that year's FIFPro XI despite not playing top-flight soccer.
He kept five clean sheets in seven matches in Italy's World Cup title run in 2006, including a 453-minute scoreless streak. Four years later, however, he only played 45 minutes of the World Cup due to a back injury and spent the first half of the club season recovering. He was visibly diminished when he did return and many wondered if the superkeeper was done. A resurgence in the last two years has cemented his continuing place as one of, if not the best goalkeeper in the world today.
Chief amongst Buffon's numerous gifts is his ability to marshal a defense He showed this talent in spades last season after Juve switched tactics to a three-man defensive system the likes of which he had never played behind, but still allowed only 20 goals in 38 league matches: the best defensive record in Europe.
Overall he has won three official championships, a Coppa Italia, four Supercoppas, a UEFA Cup, has reached the final of the Champions League, and has won a record nine Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year awards, as well as numerous international awards for keepers. He currently holds the captain's armband for both Juve and Italy.
Brescia 1994-1995, 1997-1998, 2001 (loan)
Inter 1998-1999, 2001-2002
Reggina 1999-2000 (loan)
AC Milan 2002-2011
Andrea Pirlo is, quite simply, the best midfielder Italy has ever seen.
No midfielder has been more important to his teams on the field. Once he came into his own in 2002 he was the engine that made Milan go, and it was his play and his leadership that turned a Juventus team that had finished seventh the year before his arrival into an unbeaten champion. With him, unfancied Italian teams won the 2006 World Cup and were runners up at Euro 2012. Without him, Italy's title defense ended in dismal fashion in the group stage in 2010.
Pirlo has it all: incredible vision, fantastic passing, the ability to drop a long ball on a dime, pinpoint accuracy in delivering set pieces and one of the best free kick strokes in the game.
His trophy case reflects the impact he's had on his teams. He's won the scudetto three times (with a fourth on the way), the Supercoppa twice, and the Champions League twice. Last year he was named Serie A Player of the Year and was the only man not playing in Spain to be named to the UEFA Team of the Year.
On the international level, he led the team to the '06 World Cup, garnering three Man of the Match awards—including in the final—and making the tournament all-star team. He was on the team of the tournament again this past summer at Euro 2012. Barring any late-season injury, he will become the first Italian who doesn't play goalkeeper or defense to become a centurion by Italy's second match of the Confederations Cup group stage against Japan.
Such an achievement just adds to the pile of evidence that no Italian has ever matched Pirlo in the middle of the field.
Juventus 1993-2006, 2007-2012
One of the best players Italy has ever produced, il fenomeno vero is the very best player in the history Italy's most storied club.
Del Piero played for the bianconeri for 19 seasons, 11 of them as captain—both records. He is the team's record holder in goals scored (290), appearances (705), minutes played (48,363) and trophies won. He claimed six official scudetti—a further two were revoked after the calciopoli match-fixing scandal—one Serie B title, four Italian Supercups, one Champions League crown, one UEFA Supercup, one Intertoto cup, an Intercontinental Cup and two junior level titles.
Paolo Maldini is the only Italian-born player who has played more games in European competition than Del Piero, and only Filippo Inzaghi has scored more goals on the continent. He has scored the eighth-most goals in Serie A and is tied for 17th-most games played.
The true measure of Del Piero, however, is in his commitment to his club. After Juventus was forcibly relegated to Serie B in the wake of calciopoli, Del Piero immediately insisted that he would stay with the team and see them through their difficult time. He led the second flight in scoring in 2006-07, and gained his only capocannoniere title for Serie A the next year.
Despite the team's struggles in the years following their promotion back to the top flight, he continued to fight for the club until his final year with the club, when he helped Antonio Conte's team to an unbeaten season and his final Serie A title, the culmination of the rebuilding process he had vowed to see through.
The ultimate symbol of AS Roma, Francesco Totti played his first game in 1993 and scored his first goal against Foggia the next year.
Twenty years later, the 36-year-old Totti is the league's active scoring leader and second-leading scorer all-time with 227 (and counting).
Totti led the team to a solitary scudetto in 2000-01 and consecutive Coppa Italia titles in '06-07 and '07-08. He had the misfortune of playing his prime in the 2000s, when Juventus dominated the early part of the decade and Inter notched five straight championships after calciopoli. His luck is reflected in the six runner-up finishes that Roma has racked up over his career.
He has appeared in more games than any Roma player and has been captain since 1998, when he was 21 years old.
Totti has run into criticism by media who saw him as more committed to his club than to the national team—an absurd notion considering how hard he worked to come back from a grisly ankle injury in time for the 2006 World Cup, where he made the tournament all-star team as Italy ground out its fourth world title.
Totti is playing at a high level this year, and he may yet have an outside chance at Silvio Piola's Serie A goal record of 274. Whether or not he gets there, he has already burned his name into the fabric of the league's history.
The ultimate one-club man, Paolo Maldini owns a bevy of records for both club and country.
Maldini appeared in a record 902 games for Milan in all competitions, including 647 in Serie A. He has been in the starting XI since he was a 17-year-old in the 1985-86 season, partnering with Franco Baresi, and after him Alessandro Nesta, for 24 years, captaining them for the last 10.
Maldini competed in a record eight Champions League finals, lifting the cup in five of them. He is the oldest player ever to score in a final, and is the owner of the fastest goal in European final history—an effort 51 seconds in the 2005 final against Liverpool.
Maldini was one of the best ever when it came to defensive positioning. He was so good at positioning himself that he barely ever had to make a tackle—he averaged one every two games for his entire career. It was that positioning that allowed him to compensate for his age and play so long.
He retired as the winner of seven scudetti, five Champions League titles, a Coppa Italia, five Supercoppas, five UEFA Supercups and three Intercontinental/Club World Cup championships, as well as one of the best players Italy has ever produced.