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Picking Italy's All-Time Greatest World Cup XI

Adam DigbyFeatured ColumnistJune 6, 2014

Picking Italy's All-Time Greatest World Cup XI

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    Billy Stickland/Getty Images

    Only Brazil can claim to have enjoyed more World Cup success than Italy, the four stars on their famous blue shirts representing triumphs in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006. The Azzurri have been involved in some of the tournament’s most memorable matches and delivered some of the most iconic moments in the history of the competition.

    From the screaming, incredulous celebrations of Fabio Grosso and Marco Tardelli to the slaloming runs of Roberto Baggio, Italian performances have always caught the eye at football’s showpiece event. As such, choosing the greatest XI players ever to line up for the Azzurri is an arduous task, with some choices proving extremely difficult.

    Over the following pages is an attempt to do just that, with the team set out in a 4-3-1-2 formation. Some truly great players have been left out, please leave a comment on who would make up your own all-time Italy starting line-up.

GK: Gigi Buffon

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    Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

    Winner of the 2006 World Cup, Gigi Buffon stands alone as Italy’s most capped player of all time, his 139 appearances more than anyone who has ever pulled on the Azzurri jersey. The Juventus stopper first represented his country back in 1997, and he will be featuring in his 10th international tournament this summer.

    Undoubtedly his greatest rival for the goalkeeping slot is the triumphant captain from Italy’s 1982 campaign Dino Zoff, but by now the 36-year-old has surely surpassed his illustrious predecessor.

RB: Beppe Bergomi

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    LUCA BRUNO/Associated Press

    It was somewhat tempting to shoehorn another central defender into this position, perhaps creating room for a Fabio Cannavaro or Claudio Gentile, both of whom are extremely unfortunate to miss out. Instead it falls to a man who was the revelation of the 1982 World Cup, a player whose remarkable story was overshadowed by the goalscoring exploits of Paolo Rossi.

    Having made his debut on the eve of the tournament aged just 18 years and three months, Bergomi first came to global attention for the way he marked Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in the final. Captain at Italia ’90, he would still be representing his country eight years later in France.

CB: Franco Baresi

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    David Cannon/Getty Images

    An unused substitute in 1982, Franco Baresi was still organising the Azzurri backline at USA ’94, testament to the many years he was such an important player. Unfortunate to never again taste success, the Milan man was incredible for both club and country.

CB: Gaetano Scirea

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    Associated Press

    Scirea debuted with the Italian national team in 1975, and he would continue to represent the Azzurri until they were eliminated from the 1986 World Cup in the second round. In between, the Juventus captain had become an irreplaceable pillar of Enzo Bearzot’s team for three consecutive competitions.

    His calm, classy displays were at the heart of Italy’s triumph in 1982 and a fourth-place finish in 1978, the unflappable defender guided his team and ensured their notoriously efficient back line was properly organised.

LB: Paolo Maldini

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    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Arguably the greatest defender never to win an international competition, Paolo Maldini spent years as the finest stopper on the planet. Always exuding complete confidence, the Milan captain retired as Italy’s most capped player, although that record has since been surpassed by Gigi Buffon and Fabio Cannavaro.

CM: Marco Tardelli

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    Steve Powell/Getty Images

    He may have netted just six international goals, but one of Marco Tardelli’s strikes for Italy has become one of the most iconic moments in World Cup history. A member of the Azzurri squad in 1978, the Juve midfielder netted against Argentina in 1982 to help steer them into the final.

    In that showpiece match, Tardelli would score the goal which would clinch the trophy, and his celebration would become one of the competition's most memorable. Running away, arms raised and fists clenched, his joyful screaming will never be forgotten.

CM: Andrea Pirlo

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    Alex Livesey/Getty Images

    Pirlo was perhaps Italy’s best player at the 2006 World Cup, assuring they began the tournament with a win thanks to his goal in the opening game against Ghana. His assist to Fabio Grosso in the semi-final was superb, as was his assist for Marco Materazzi's equalising header 10 minutes into the final against France.

    Netting a penalty in that incredible shootout victory, he is surely the most influential midfielder Italy has ever produced, and he proved it on the grandest stage of all.

CM: Gianni Rivera

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    Raoul Fornezza/Associated Press

    Hugely influential at the 1970 World Cup once coach Ferruccio Valcareggi believed in him, Gianni Rivera was instrumental in Azzurri victories over Mexico and West Germany. The latter of those two matches was the semi-final, and even today it is regarded as one of the most entertaining games in the history of the sport.

    With 63 caps and 15 goals for Italy, Milan’s “Golden Boy” regularly carried his excellent club form into the international arena.

AM: Roberto Baggio

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    LUCA BRUNO/Associated Press

    Baggio totalled 27 goals in 56 caps for his country, the fourth-highest haul in Azzurri history, and he is the only Italian player ever to score in three different tournaments. With a total of nine career World Cup goals, he is the nation’s joint leading scorer at the showpiece event.

    While his talent was never rewarded with victory in an international competition, Baggio did more than most in his attempts to deliver glory to the peninsula. Having shot to prominence during Italia ’90, he would carry Italy to the final four years later almost single-handed, turning in a string of performances that were simply sensational.

F: Giuseppe Meazza

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Meazza played for Italy in the 1934 and 1938 World Cups, both of which Italy won, becoming captain of the first team to win the trophy for a nation other than the host. Even today, members of that team remain the only Europeans to have won consecutive tournaments.

    Playing in every game of the first of those two triumphs, Meazza was named the player of the tournament. Four years later he would net in the semi-final, lifting his side to victory once again and he retired having scored 33 goals in 53 appearances for the Azzurri.

F: Paolo Rossi

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    Associated Press

    First let’s get the technicality out of the way: I was asked to name Italy’s all-time greatest World Cup XI. Had it not included those two words, there is no way I would have made this selection, instead opting for Valentino Mazzola or Gigi Riva with Paolo Rossi never among the names considered.

    But when it comes to World Cups, there is perhaps no striker who has exerted greater influence on the Azzurri, with one of those four stars which adorn the famous blue shirt undoubtedly his. “Pablito” was the story of Italy’s 1982 triumph, coming alive to ensure passage from a pool containing Brazil and Argentina.

    He then netted both goals in the semi-final win over Poland and opened the scoring in the final to deliver the trophy to a jubilant nation.

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