Serie A's 15 Greatest Pass Masters

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistOctober 8, 2013

Serie A's 15 Greatest Pass Masters

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    Andrea Pirlo surveys the field as he plays for Milan against Juventus in 2010.
    Andrea Pirlo surveys the field as he plays for Milan against Juventus in 2010.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

    Italy has always been a fertile ground for master passers.  Some of the finest playmakers of all time have graced Serie A's stadiums in the league's long history.

    As the game has evolved worldwide, the Italian peninsula has become one of the last bastions of the traditional, deep-lying regista.  Some of the greatest passers in history have occupied this position for Italian teams.  The more advanced trequartista role has also seen some of the game's greatest occupy its slot on the team sheet.

    So who have been the best?  Let's take a look through the record books at some of the greatest passers Serie A has ever seen.

Antonio Cassano

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    Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

    Antonio Cassano may be a surprising addition to this list given his position as a seconda punta rather than a midfielder.  Still, Cassano's skills distributing up front shouldn't be discounted.

    Cassano is at his best when given the freedom to roam the attacking third from sideline to sideline to collect the ball and then distribute to his teammates.  This was best on display at the Euro 2012 semifinal against Germany.  On 20 minutes he collected a pass at the left-hand edge of the penalty area, dribbled around his defender, and sent a picture perfect cross for Mario Balotelli to bury for Italy's first goal.

    Cassano has made similar plays throughout his entire career.  

    He's had three double-digit assist seasons in his career.  His career high came in in 2008-09 with Sampdoria, where his productive partnership with Giampaolo Pazzini allowed him to hang 15 helpers on opposing defenses.

    Indeed, during his entire time with Sampdoria he had almost as many assists (33) as goals (35).

    A playmaking forward if there ever was one, Cassano already has three assists for Parma this season, including two in the Crusaders' 3-1 rout of Sassuolo this past weekend.  What his career could have been had he not had so many off-field problems is left only to our imaginations.

Sandro Mazzola

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    The only legacy on this list, Sandro Mazzola is the son of the great Valentino Mazzola, who we will see later on in this countdown.

    Just as his father anchored Torino through the greatest stretch of its history, Mazzola helped shepherd Inter through its most successful stretch up to that point.

    The group known as La Grande Inter revolved around Luis Suarez's deep playmaking, but Mazzola's expert passing at the head of midfield put the finishing touches on the team's counterattacks.  If Suarez provided the first ball, Mazzola's vision and passing accuracy enabled him to provide the final one.

    Mazzola collected winners medals for four Serie A titles, two Intercontinental Cups and two European Cups.  Inter made the European final three times in that stretch, and Mazzola scored three times in those games, including a brace against Real Madrid in Inter's 3-1 victory in 1964.

    A one-club man who spent 17 years at the San Siro, Mazzola had the genes all along, and he proved that his father left him more than just his memory.

Luis Suarez

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    Luis Suarez in uniform for the Spanish national team.
    Luis Suarez in uniform for the Spanish national team.

    No, not that Luis Suarez.

    The Luis Suarez we are referring to is Luis Suarez Miramontes, the deep-lying Spanish midfielder who was the anchor of the great Inter teams of the 1960s.

    Suarez moved from Barcelona to Inter in 1961, a year after his former Barca manager and mentor Helenio Herrera.  The move made him the world's most expensive player at the time, and under his auspices the nerazzurri rode their coach's innovative catenaccio tactics to three scudetti and two European Cups.

    Suarez scored 55 times for Inter and was the hinge for countless other goals in the period that history today knows as La Grande Inter.  

    His passing abilities were the key to unleashing catenaccio's potent counterattacks and launching the most prosperous era of one of the most storied clubs in the world.

Rui Costa

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    Phil Cole/Getty Images

    Capable of playing both regista and trequartista positions, the spearhead of Portugal's Golden Generation played for seven years at Fiorentina before that club's bankruptcy forced his sale to AC Milan.

    Costa followed Fiorentina coach Fatih Terim to the San Siro, in the process becoming the most expensive player in history to that point.  In his five seasons with the team he added a Coppa Italia, a Champions League and his lone scudetto to the two Coppa victories he claimed with la viola.

    At Fiorentina, Costa was the main creator in the offense, using his advanced position to clear space for—and supply—striker Gabriele Batistuta.  At Milan, Costa was the perfect link between Andrea Pirlo's deep passes and Milan's striking corps.

    In 2004, Costa was named in the FIFA 100 as one of the 125 greatest living players and is considered by many one of the greatest midfielders of all time.

Valentino Mazzola

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    Valentino Mazzola was one of the first true complete midfielders in the history of the game.  

    He could defend, create and score in equal measure.  As captain of the team known as Il Grande Torino he led the granata to the most storied stretch of their history, garnering five scudetti between 1942-43 and 1948-49.

    In 2010, MSN Sports ranked him as one of the eight greatest players never to play in a World Cup—the tournament was suspended during his playing days during the duration and aftermath of World War II—and quoted his teammate Mario Rigamonti as saying "He alone is half the squad.  The other half is made by the rest of us together."

    Tragically, Mazzola was taken from the world far too soon.  As his club was returning from playing in a testimonial match against Benfica in Lisbon on May 4, 1949, the team plane crashed on Turin's Superga Hill, killing all aboard.

    Torino played the last four games of the season with their youth team.  Out of respect, their opponents played their own primavera squads, and Torino won all three matches to take home the scudetto.  The team wouldn't win the league again until 1976.

    The loss of Mazzola and and the rest of his Torino teammates—who at times made up 10 of 11 starters for the Italian national team—severely weakened the Azzurri as they entered the World Cup the next year.  

    Deprived of their services—and physically exhausted after electing to travel to Brazil by boat rather than plane—the team failed to make it out of the first round.

    Mazzola is not nearly as well known as some of the players of his time because he never played in a showcase like the World Cup.  Had he and his teammates lived, he could have been talked about alongside Pele and Maradona as the world's absolute best.  

    He does leave a legacy of great play for those who remember or dig deep enough to look—as well as that of his son, Sandro—a legend in his own right for the great Inter teams 20 years after his father's death.

Kaka

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    Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

    Ricky Kaka was a fixture at Milan for six years.  

    Back in the fold after four tough seasons at Real Madrid, the Brazilian playmaker is currently on the shelf with injury.  When he was in his heyday, however, he was at his best; He was one of the best midfielders in the world.

    Equally adept at scoring and providing, Kaka was most known for his highlight-reel finishes in his first stint at Milan.  There were 95 of them in all competitions, including 10 in the 2006-07 Champions League title campaign.  

    But equally as impressive were his 46 assists.  He had a career-high 10 helpers in the league in 2008 to go along with his 15 goals.

    His excellent vision and dribbling ability opened up spaces for both himself and his teammates, and he led Milan to the 2003-04 scudetto and brought the team out of the shadow of the calciopoli scandal to win the Champions League in 2006-07.

Juan Schiaffino

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    Juan Schiaffino puts his arm around Gianni Rivera, the man who would replace him at AC Milan.
    Juan Schiaffino puts his arm around Gianni Rivera, the man who would replace him at AC Milan.

    Widely regarded as the best player ever to come out of Uruguay, Juan Alberto Schiaffino played six years for Milan and two for Roma following his eleven years at Uruguayan giants Penarol.

    Renowned for his passing abilities, he was the direct predecessor of another man on this list, Gianni Rivera.  He played in 149 games for the rossoneri, scoring 49 times, but he distinguished himself in his passing.

    He had a great group of teammates to get the ball to.  He dropped into Milan just as the Gre-No-Li pairing was reaching its heyday.  Having a player like Nordahl, the most efficient striker in the history of the Serie A, to aim at is a dream for any provider, especially one of Schiaffino's quality.

    Schiaffino won three scudetti with the team and reached the European Cup final, losing to Real Madrid.  

    He did, however, achieve the pinnacle of the soccer world in 1950.  He scored the equalizer in the deciding game of the World Cup's final group stage at the Maracana, and 13 minutes later Alcides Ghigga scored the goal that broke a country's spirit in two and gave Uruguay their second World Cup victory.

Diego Maradona

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    Diego Maradona is one of the two best players ever.  Whether you have him or Pele ranked No. 1, there is no doubting his superlative skills.  But for all his goalscoring credits, the Argentine legend was also a superlative passer.

    With his dribbling and goalscoring ability, Maradona could pry open the rest of the field for his teammates, as defenders tended to cluster around him.

    With Maradona's goalscoring and passing abilities at the front leading the team, Napoli won their only two scudetti and their only European title, the 1989 UEFA Cup.

Gianni Rivera

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    Gianni Rivera was the second-youngest player ever to make a Serie A appearance when he appeared on June 2, 1959 for Alessandria at the tender age of 15.

    Two years later, AC Milan bought him up from the Piemontese outfit and won his first scudetto in 1962 aged 18.  The next year he helped Milan to their first European Cup and came in second in the Ballon 'Or voting to Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin.

    He finally won the award in 1969—the year he led Milan to their second European Cup.

    Rivera captained Milan for a combined 12 seasons over two stints.

    Equally adept at playing deep and in a free-roaming role farther forward, Rivera turned himself into one of the greats in Milan's history and is known as one of the greatest passers in the history of the league.

Nils Liedholm

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    One-third of the famous Gre-No-Li trio at AC Milan in the 1950s, Liedholm is one of the greatest Swedish players in history.  He combined with Gunnar Gren and Gunnar Nordahl to guide Milan through its earliest period of success.  Together, the three Swedes won four titles and came in second in the European Cup in the decade.

    Liedholm was the master passer of the three.  He set up a great number of Nordahl's club-record 225 league goals.

    Legend has it that it took Liedholm two years to finally misplace a pass at the San Siro.  So rare was such a miss that the fans gave him a five minute ovation.

    One of the first players to realize the connection between physical fitness and training to on-field performance.  He put himself through a much tougher regimen than most other players of his era, and ended up playing until he was nearly 40 years old.

Francesco Totti

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    Claudio Villa/Getty Images

    One of the greatest players in the history of Italian soccer—and the world—Totti is sometimes more thought of for his prolific goalscoring.  But the second-leading scorer in Serie A history is an equally dangerous distributor of the ball.

    This was particularly on display during Luciano Spalletti's reign with the team.  In Spalletti's system, Totti played more as a false-nine, dropping deeper and picking the ball up earlier in the build-up.  This led to more goalscoring and more assist numbers for Roma's iconic No. 10.

    He notched 10 assists in each of his first two seasons under Spalletti.

    Overall, he's averaged 8.125 assists per season over the last 16 seasons and has six double-digit assist seasons—including a career-high 12 last year at age 36.

    Totti doesn't seem like stopping now.  Through seven games this year, WhoScored.com clocks him at 6 assists—half as many as his career-high total a year ago.

    With Totti himself in excellent goalscoring form—three so far this year—and excellent young attacking talent like Adem Ljajic and Alessandro Florenzi around him, Totti could see his superlative passing skills put up even bigger numbers in his age-37 season.

Zinedine Zidane

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    Grazia Neri/Getty Images

    One of the greatest players ever to play the game, Zidane's time in the Serie A was relatively short—five years—but his impact on the league was immense.

    Creating an iconic link with strikers like Filippo Inzaghi, Christian Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero, Zidane helped lead the team to two Champions League finals, two scudetti and two second place finishes.

    If you want to see an example of his amazing passing ability, check out this video, also featured in my compilation of Alessandro Del Piero's 20 greatest goals.  

    Playing in the Champions League against Dinamo Kiev, Zidane side-foots a volleyed pass from the edge of the center circle on a dime to a hard-charging Del Piero, who finishes with the class he's famous for.

    His passes terrorized the defenders of Serie A for half a decade, and he laid the foundation for the great Juve teams of the early and mid 2000s.

Demetrio Albertini

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    Grazia Neri/Getty Images

    Demetrio Albertini was often crowded out of the spotlight by teammates like Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, and Frank Rijkaard.  Make no mistake, though, he was no less important than any of the Dutch trio to the Milan sides that ran roughshod over the European game in the 1990s.

    Albertini was with Milan for for 14 years, not including a year on loan with Padova.  In that time, he used his unsurpassed vision and passing ability to slice through defenses and put his teammates in perfect positions to score.  

    Of particular renown was his ability to place long passes on a dime.  Equally appreciated were his cannon long-range shots and deft touches at set-pieces.  

    Working deep behind the likes of the aforementioned Dutch attackers as well as George Weah and Andriy Shevchenko, Albertini helped lead the rossoneri to five league titles.  While the team won the European Cup/Champions League three times during his tenure with the team, he was only significantly involved in the third, in 1993-94.

    He guided the team to two other finals which sandwiched that 1994 crown, but lost each one by 1-0 scores.  Indeed, Albertini seemed destined to be the bridesmaid more often than the bride.  Apart from those Champions League disappointments, he met with failure at every major international tournament he played in.

    The two World Cup teams he played on both bowed out of the tournament on penalties—in the 1994 final against Brazil and the 1998 quarterfinal against France.  He fared no better in the European Championship.  The Italians crashed out of the 1996 edition in the group stage and blew a last-second lead in the final against France in 2000 before losing on a golden goal.

    Despite some disappointment in his career, Albertini is one of the most beloved players in Milan history and one of the most skilled passers in league history.

     His style of play can be seen as a direct ancestor of Andrea Pirlo after him.

Michel Platini

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    Michel Platini battles against Genoa for Juventus.
    Michel Platini battles against Genoa for Juventus.

    Michel Platini arrived at Juventus at the tail end of his career, but his powers were by no means diminished.

    After a rude introduction to the Italian game—he nearly left Juve after only half a season—Platini settled and led Juventus through a very successful period in the early and mid 1980s.

    Platini was one of the best passers in the game, and that was on full display in his five years with the team.  Combining with the likes of forward Paolo Rossi, he drove the bianconeri to a pair of league titles and a pair of European Cup finals.

    The second of those finals, in 1985, should have been the crowning moment of his career.  

    Juventus won their first European crown 1-0 on the strength of the Frenchman's 56th minute penalty kick, but the game itself was overshadowed by the tragic Heysel Disaster that resulted in the deaths of 39 Juve fans and injuries to 600 more.

    Platini's passing was probably made better by the fact that he was such a lethal finisher in his own right.  Defenses would often collapse on him, leaving open lanes for his teammates to exploit.  It was icing on the cake for a man who would've been able to carve up defenses without it.

Andrea Pirlo

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    Dino Panato/Getty Images

    One of the greatest players of his—or any—generation is still going strong for both club and country.

    Andrea Pirlo began his career as a trequartista until his time under coach Carlo Mazzone on loan at Brescia in 2001.  It seemed like a strange place for him to go, seeing as how he wasn't breaking into the attacking midfield at parent club Inter and Brescia boasted a supreme trequartista in Roberto Baggio.  

    Mazzone solved this logjam by moving Pirlo into a deep-lying position with Baggio at the head of the midfield.  The move paid dividends immediately.  The biggest sign came when Pirlo turned supplier to one of Baggio's most iconic moments.

    Brescia trailed Baggio's former club Juventus in the dying moments at the Stadio delle Alpi when Pirlo received the ball at the halfway line and lofted a perfect ball over the defense.  Baggio's part in the goal will always be what's really remembered—he controlled the ball, rounded keeper Edwin van der Sar and scored all in two touches—but few other players would have had the genius to make the pass or the skill to stick it.

    His breakthrough in the position was noticed, and crosstown rivals Milan purchased him from Inter that summer.  His next two coaches, Fatih Terim and Carlo Ancelotti, developed him there, and he became an absolute fixture in Milan's lineup for the next decade.

    The results of those 10 years—and the three spent since at Juventus—have turned Pirlo into one of the game's ultimate players.  His vision, inventiveness at the back of midfield, and pinpoint accuracy have guided his teams to one Serie B title, four scudetti, a Coppa Italia, two Champions League wins and the crowning achievement of the all—a World Cup title in 2006.

    Pirlo was named Man of the Match three times at Germany 2006, including in both the semifinal and final.  He won the Bronze Ball as the tournament's third-best player and made the all-star team of both that tournament, Euro 2012 and the 2013 Confederations Cup.

    As he comes to the end of his career, Andrea Pirlo deserves to be honored as the greatest passer in the history of the Italian game.