Maradona, Zanetti, and the 6 Most Influential Argentinians to Play in Serie A
Carlos Tevez scored his 14th league goal of the season for Juventus on Sunday. Gonzalo Higuain notched his 13th for Napoli a day later. The Argentinian pair only arrived in Serie A last summer but already sit joint-first and joint-second in the scoring charts.
But both men still have a way to go yet if they hope to make as big an impact on Italian football as some of their countrymen before them. Argentinian stars have been a feature of Serie A for almost as long as the league has existed, even if many of them—as descendants of the millions of immigrants who arrived in South America from the European nation around the turn of the 20th century—have also held Italian passports.
Here we take a look at a half-dozen of the most influential Argentinians ever to play their club football on the peninsula, and the legacies they have left.
6. Daniel Passarella
Daniel Passarella’s time in Italy is not always remembered for entirely positive reasons. The centre-back was playing for Inter in March 1987 when he infamously kicked a 16-year-old Sampdoria ball-boy whom he believed to be time-wasting. Handed a six-game ban, Passarella would subsequently drive to his victim’s house to offer a personal apology, but his reputation never fully recovered.
Yet during his previous four-year stint with Fiorentina, Passarella had proved himself to be not only a popular and inspirational leader, but also a prolific one. In his final season with the Viola—1985-86—he scored 11 goals, more than any defender had ever managed before in Serie A.
Marco Materazzi has since taken that record away, grabbing 12 for Perugia in 2000-01, but Passarella continues to be revered in Florence, even if the rest of the country is not always so sure.
5. Diego Simeone
The Atletico Madrid manager has won plaudits for the way in which his team has stood up to Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga, but anyone who followed Diego Simeone’s playing career should have known already that he is unafraid to challenge the established order.
Inter’s decision to sell the midfielder to Lazio in 1999 was reported to have been motivated at least in part by his complaints over the Nerazzurri’s preferential treatment of their Brazil striker Ronaldo.
A relentlessly hard-working midfielder, Simeone had helped Inter to lift the UEFA Cup a year earlier, but he would make an even greater impression in Rome—propelling Lazio to just their second-ever Serie A title at the end of the 1999-2000 season.
At times it seemed that he was carrying them across the line through sheer force of will, scoring in each of his team’s last four league games, having previously grabbed the only goal in an away win over the eventual runners-up Juventus at the start of April.
4. Gabriel Batistuta
Gabriel Batistuta did not actually have the smoothest of starts to life in Serie A. Signed by Fiorentina from Boca Juniors in the summer of 1991; the striker struggled at first to hold down a place in the team, unable to displace Marco Branca and Stefano Borgonovo. It was not until after his fourth goal for the club—scored in a 2-0 win over bitter rivals Juventus—that things truly began to change.
In the wake of that game, Gazzetta dello Sport invited its readers to send in a message to Batistuta. According to the newspaper’s deputy editor, Luca Calamai, they received 3,000 faxes in the space of two days. The player rewarded such affection by going on to score a remarkable 168 league goals in nine seasons with the club.
Despite it all, Batistuta never won anything more prestigious with Fiorentina than the Coppa Italia that the team lifted in 1996. It was not until he moved to Roma three years later that he would get his hands on more significant silverware, firing the Giallorossi to their third-ever Scudetto.
3. Omar Sivori
When Tevez arrived at Juventus last summer, comparisons were immediately drawn with Omar Sivori, the Argentinian forward who shone so brightly for the club between 1957 and 1965. A player of diminutive stature but outrageous natural talent, Sivori’s dribbling skills made him a huge crowd favourite.
But his enthusiasm for whisky and habit of showing up late for team-training sessions sometimes made him less popular with coaches.
But neither that, nor the many sendings off that Sivori received in his career, could stop him from scoring 135 goals in eight seasons for Juventus, or indeed from providing countless assists to team-mates such as John Charles.
Sivori would eventually claim three Serie A titles with Juventus, and yet even now some observers continue to ask what he might have achieved had he truly applied himself to his craft.
2. Javier Zanetti
At the far end of the spectrum from Sivori is Zanetti, a player who might just be the picture-book definition of professionalism. Still going at 40 years old, the midfielder suffered a torn Achilles tendon as recently as last April, but he refused to give in to a seemingly inevitable retirement, instead returning to full-time training within less than six months.
Zanetti has won everything that there is to win in Italy at a club level, captaining Inter to a treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League in 2010—as well as four more Scudetti before that. But his true legacy is less about trophies than simply showing what it takes to survive at the highest level of the game for the best part of two decades.
Shortly before his injury last year, Zanetti was granted an audience with Pope Francis, but he was so worried about skipping training in order to attend that he persuaded coaches to arrange an additional early-morning session just for him.
His 607 career appearances in Serie A are the second most of any player, and at this rate there might be time yet for him to surpass Paolo Maldini (647). All of this, of course, without a hair ever seeming to fall out of place.
1. Diego Maradona
Who else could occupy top spot but Diego Maradona, a man whose mere appearance in the stands during Napoli’s Coppa Italia second leg against Roma this month sparked greater excitement among the home support than the prospect of their team making it through to the final?
Still considered by many to be the greatest player of all time, El Pibe de Oro was undoubtedly the key factor in the Partenopei winning their first, and so far only, two Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990.
Attempting to quantify Maradona’s talent feels more than a little futile. Yes, he scored 81 goals in 188 league games for Napoli, but the more relevant statistic might just be the one cited by John Foot in his book Calcio: a history of Italian football. He points out that as many as 25 percent of children born in one central Naples parish at the height of Maradona’s powers were being christened with the name Diego.
It is hard to imagine how any footballer could be much more influential than that.