Ranking Italy's 10 Greatest World Cup Central Defenders
Italy has long been home to some of the finest defenders on the planet, a renowned source of gritty stoppers and classy sweepers.
While the recent selection of the all-time greatest World Cup XI in Azzurri history provided much food for thought, the depth at the back deserved closer attention.
Over the following pages, the 10 finest central defenders ever to represent Italy at football’s greatest event are ranked in order.
10. Alessandro Nesta
Unfortunately blighted by injury, Alessandro Nesta’s tally of 78 caps would be undoubtedly higher had he been able to sustain his fitness.
His absence was perhaps most keenly felt when Italy lost to South Korea in 2002. His calm presence could have helped in difficult circumstances.
9. Pietro Vierchowod
An unused member of the victorious side in 1982, Pietro Vierchowod helped Italy to third place eight years later.
Having played in three World Cups, he retired from international football in 1993 with 45 caps to his name.
8. Paolo Maldini
Though he began his career at left-back, Paolo Maldini was moved to a central role for Italy much sooner than he was at AC Milan.
His performances over such a long career were a model of consistency, and he is perhaps one of the greatest players never to lift the World Cup.
7. Marco Materazzi
While it may be surprising to see Marco Materazzi so high on this list, it highlights just how important the Inter defender was to Italy’s 2006 success.
With Alessandro Nesta injured, he stepped in alongside Fabio Cannavaro to help defeat Germany before arguably being the most influential figure in the final.
It was his header which drew Italy level at 1-1, before his infamous altercation with Zinedine Zidane resulted in the Frenchman’s red card.
Materazzi would then net a penalty in the shootout to further increase the role he played in delivering the trophy.
6. Tarcisio Burgnich
Tarcisio Burgnich was a pillar of the Italian national team for more than a decade following his 1963 debut, helping them to their only European Championship five years later.
The Inter stalwart represented the Azzurri at three World Cups, playing an important role in their march to the final in 1970.
5. Eraldo Monzeglio
One of only four Italians to be part of both the 1934 and 1938 World Cup wins, Eraldo Monzeglio won 35 caps for his country over a 16-year career.
He began as a full-back, but he developed into one of Italy’s greatest pre-war defenders along with Virginio Rosetta and Umberto Caligaris.
4. Claudio Gentile
For both Juventus and Italy, Claudio Gentile provided the perfect foil for the classy Gaetano Scirea. His robust tackling and attentive man-marking was essential to the success of both teams.
His display against Diego Maradona has entered into football folklore as one of the greatest ever defensive performances.
3. Fabio Cannavaro
That Fabio Cannavaro comes close to breaking into the top two is testament to just how great he was at the 2006 World Cup.
Having impressed in the two previous tournaments, he raised his game immeasurably in Germany, eventually winning the Ballon d’Or later that year in recognition of his contribution.
He retired following Italy’s embarrassing exit from the 2010 edition as the nation’s leading appearance maker, although Gigi Buffon has since surpassed his tally of 136 caps.
2. Franco Baresi
Having been an unused substitute in 1982, Franco Baresi was still a mainstay for the Azzurri at USA ’94.
The Milan captain was incredible for both club and country, unfortunate never to taste international glory with Italy.
1. Gaetano Scirea
His calm, classy displays were at the heart of Italy’s triumph in 1982 and followed a fourth-place finish in 1978, making the unflappable Gaetano Scirea undoubtedly Italy’s finest ever defender.
Debuting with the national team in 1975, he would continue to represent the Azzurri for over a decade, calling time on his career after they were eliminated from the 1986 World Cup.
During that decade, the Juventus captain had also become irreplaceable for Enzo Bearzot, organising the notoriously efficient back line and helping to deliver the ultimate prize.
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