FIFA World Cup's Greatest Ever: Top 20 Italian Players of All-Time

Barney Corkhill@@BarneyCorkhillSenior Writer IJune 20, 2010

OITA - JUNE 13:  Portrait of Paolo Maldini of Italy before the FIFA World Cup Finals 2002 Group G match between Italy and Mexico played at the Oita Big Eye Stadium, in Oita, Japan on June 13, 2002. The match ended in a 1-1 draw. DIGITAL IMAGE. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
David Cannon/Getty Images

Welcome to the 29th installment of the Greatest Ever series!

In these articles I look at the greatest players to have participated in various sports. Following on from the "Top 15 French Players Ever" article, inspired by the FIFA World Cup, I bring you the top 20 Italian Players of all time!

Italy has a staunch reputation for being very solid defensively, as many of the choices in this list will show, and it is a tactic that seems to have worked well for them. With World Cup success in 1934, 1938, 1982, and 2006, only Brazil have won football's greatest prize more than the Azzurri.

Unsurprisingly then, it is a nation with a plethora of glorious players to choose from.


20. Marco Tardelli (1976-85, 76 caps, 7 goals)

The list of players who just missed out on this countdown is almost as impressive as the final line-up itself. Just pipping the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Bruno Conti, Antonio Cabrini and Valentino Mazzola to the post, however, is the combative midfielder Marco Tardelli.

Tardelli played for his country 76 times in nine years, with his greatest moment coming in the 1982 World Cup final. After helping the Azzurri to a 3-2 win over a formidable Brazilian team in one of the most famous World Cup matches ever, Tardelli continued his good form in the final.

He scored a memorable goal to help Italy on their way to a 3-1 win and their third World title, but was forever immortalised due to his magnificently passionate celebration, an image that has gone down in World Cup folklore.

19. Alessandro Nesta (1996-2006, 78 caps)

A colossus of the modern game, Alessandro Nesta stood solid at the heart of the Italian defence for a decade, another in the long line of Italy's defensive greats. He seemed to dispossess strikers with ease and had a natural calmness and reassurance to his play.

His tournament experience is impressive too, playing in the European Championships of 1996, 2000, and 2004, as well as the World Cups of 1998, 2002, and 2006.

All of his World Cups came to a premature end due to injury, but there was a happy ending to his international career as he picked up a World Cup winner's medal thanks to Italy's 2006 success.

18. Claudio Gentile (1975-84, 71 caps)

For a defender with such a hard reputation, it is remarkable that Claudio Gentile never received a red card for a tackle in his career. He was renowned as a very physical, sometimes even dirty, player but he did his job to great effect.

Few players in football history have been able to mark a player out of a game the way Gentile did. In the 1978 World Cup, Argentina's star player Mario Kempes was anonymous when the two met, and he was at it again four years later against Diego Maradona.

His defensive performances against the likes of Argentina, Brazil, and West Germany were crucial in Italy winning the '82 World Cup.

17. Giuseppe Bergomi (1982-98, 81 caps, 6 goals)

A long-serving, one-club man for Inter Milan, Giuseppe Bergomi was part of one of the greatest international defenses of all time.

Alongside Franco Baresi, Antonio Cabrini, Claudio Gentile and Gaetano Scirea, Bergomi flourished, winning the 1982 World Cup as well as participating in the 1986 and 1990 tournaments.

After being sent-off in a qualifier for Euro '92, Bergomi spend years in the international wilderness, but was surprisingly brought back for the 1998 World Cup to have one last swansong for the Azzurri.

Bergomi was named as the fifth best right-back ever in the "Top 10 Right-Backs of All Time" list.

16. Sandro Mazzola (1963-74, 70 caps, 22 goals)

Much like fellow Italian legend Paolo Maldini, Sandro Mazzola had a father who could stake a claim for a place on this list too. Sandro's dad, Valentino Mazzola, was a brilliant all-round player for the great Torino side of the '40s before being tragically killed in the Superga disaster.

Sandro Mazzola continued the family name with pride though, helping Italy to win the 1968 European Championships, and playing a vital part in their progression to the 1970 World Cup final, where only Pele's Brazilian dream team could stop them.

Mazzola was part of fierce debate in Italy throughout this World Cup as the manager thought he and fellow star Gianni Rivera couldn't play together. A system was created where Mazzola played the first-half and Rivera the second, preventing two great players from fully showcasing their abilities.

15. Francesco Totti (1998-2006, 58 caps, 9 goals)

The Golden Boy of Italian football is a rare example of unflinching loyalty in today's game. Spending his whole career at a Roma side struggling for trophies has earned him God-like status in the capital, and that love soon spread to the whole country thanks to his performances in the blue of Italy.

In 2000 he helped Italy to the European Championship final, only to be beaten by a Zinedine Zidane inspired French team. The two locked horns again in the 2006 World Cup final, but it was Totti smiling at the end of that match as he collected a winners medal on his way to being named in the tournament's All-Star team.

His tally of five Italian Player of the Year awards remains unequalled, and he is currently the sixth highest scorer in Serie A history.

14. Fabio Cannavaro (1997-2010, 136 caps, 2 goals)

The most capped Italian footballer of all time, Fabio Cannavaro has been a staple of the Azzurri defence for over a decade, and is still going strong, captaining Italy at the 2010 World Cup.

This summer's tournament is his fourth World Cup, having previously appeared in 1998, 2002, and 2006, famously lifting the trophy on the latter occasion. He has also appeared in two European Championships, helping Italy to second place in 2000 and also playing in 2004.

Cannavaro was rewarded for his brilliant displays in 2006 by picking up the FIFA World Player of the Year award, the only defender in history to achieve such a feat.

He was named as the eighth best centre-back ever in the "Top 10 Central Defenders of All Time" list.

13. Alessandro Del Piero (1995-2008, 91 caps, 27 goals)

Much like Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero is a golden boy of Italian football, and he is as celebrated in Turin as Totti is in Rome. With 27 goals in 91 caps, a tally that puts him fourth in the all-time goalscorers list, it is easy to see why he is so adored.

Del Piero has featured in seven major international tournaments, including the European Championships of 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008, and the World Cups in 1998, 2002, and 2006.

The 2006 campaign was particularly memorable for Del Piero, as he secured a passage into the final with Italy's second goal in the 2-0 semi-final win over Germany. Italy went on to win the tournament and be crowned World Champions for the fourth time.

12. Silvio Piola (1935-52, 34 caps, 30 goals)

Just ahead of Del Piero in the all-time Italian goalscoring lists is Silvio Piola, who scored his 30 goals in just 34 caps, showcasing his prolific finishing, and the way he scored many of those goals gave us a glimpse of his inventiveness.

For example, Piola is considered the first to have scored, or even attempted, a bicycle kick. It was this willingness to score at any cost that enabled him to net 274 times in Serie A, a record that stands to this day.

His international career could have been even greater had it not been interrupted by World War II, but with the a 1938 World Cup winner's medal in his trophy room, I'm sure you won't hear too many complaints about what he achieved.

11. Gianluigi Buffon (1997-Present, 143 caps)

Few goalkeepers in modern times have been able to come close to Gianluigi Buffon, and the fact that he misses out on the top ten in this list speaks volumes of the players above him.

Having gained tournament experience as a reserve in the 1998 World Cup, Buffon suffered heartbreak when a broken hand ruled him out of Euro 2000, a tournament Italy went on to finish runners-up in.

He made up for this in 2006 though, putting in some spectacular performances that led to the Azzurri winning the trophy and Buffon finishing second in the FIFA World Player of the Year poll.

Buffon has also won the World Goalkeeper of the Year award a record four times, and was named the eighth best keeper ever in the "Top 10 Goalkeepers of All Time" list.

10. Luigi Riva (1965-74, 42 caps, 35 goals)

Had Luigi Riva's career not been so blighted by injury, he would have surely added to his phenomenal strike-rate of 35 international goals in just 42 games. Despite, amongst other things, two broken legs during his playing days, however, Riva is still Italy's highest ever goalscorer.

He helped the Azzurri to success in the 1968 European Championships, and two years later scored a crucial goal against Franz Beckenbauer's West Germany to send Italy through to the World Cup final, where only Pele's Brazil were able to stop them.

His unflinching loyalty to club side Cagliari was acknowledged in 2005 when he became the only player in their history to have his shirt number retired, having scored 169 goals in 337 games for the Sardinian club.

9. Gaetano Scirea (1974-86, 78 caps, 2 goals)

The catenaccio system is one heavily associated with Italian football, and in Gaetano Scirea, the Azzurri had the perfect architect of it. A defender with tremendous skill, poise and, of course, ability, Scirea was a vital part of Italy's side for over a decade.

During this time, Scirea represented the Azzurri at three World Cups, as well as the 1980 European Championships. By far his stand-out moment of these tournaments was Italy's success in 1982, thanks in no small part to Scirea's performances against the likes of Brazil and West Germany.

For much of his career, Scirea excelled in the sweeper role made famous by Franz Beckenbauer, and is arguably the finest exponent of this position since "Der Kaiser."

Scirea was named the seventh best centre-back ever in the "Top 10 Central Defenders of All Time" list.

8. Gianni Rivera (1962-74, 60 caps, 14 goals)

In recent times, Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero may have been able to lay claim the the tag of the "Golden Boy" of Italian football, but throughout the 1960s and early '70s, it was Gianni Rivera who owned that moniker.

Rivera represented Italy at four World Cups, including an appearance in the final in 1970, and also helped them to victory at the 1968 European Championships. He played for AC Milan for 19 years, having signed for the club aged just 16 for Β£200,000 in 1960, a huge figure for someone so young.

Rivera went on to win the prestigious Ballon d'Or award in 1969, having finished as a runner-up to Lev Yashin for the same award in 1963.

7. Paolo Rossi (1977-86, 48 caps, 20 goals)

Few players have ever sparked such contrasting emotions as Paolo Rossi. His alleged part in the infamous Totonero betting scandal brought national disgrace upon the striker, as well as a two-year ban from football.

His return at the 1982 World Cup, however, turned that disgrace into delight as he bounced back to win the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot, helping Italy to their third World Cup title in the process. His six goal tally included a hat-trick against a great Brazil side in one of the best World Cup matches ever, two goals in the semi-final, and another in the final.

1982 was Rossi's year. After dominating the latter stages of the World Cup, he was awarded the Ballon d'Or and named World Player of the Year, solidifying his place in football history.

6. Giacinto Facchetti (1963-77, 94 caps, 3 goals)

Widely considered one of the first great attacking full-backs, Giacinto Facchetti played a crucial role in the development of the position. He also played a crucial role for Italy and Inter Milan for a decade-and-a-half.

His tally of 94 caps, 70 of which came as captain, was a record at the time of his retirement, and spanned three World Cups and Italy's victorious European Championships campaign in 1968.

He led the Azzurri to the 1970 World Cup final where they came up against an unstoppable Brazil side including the likes of Pele and Jairzinho and, at club level, was considered such an icon for Inter Milan that they retired his shirt number following his death.

Facchetti was ranked fourth in the "Top Ten Left-Backs of All Time" list.

5. Dino Zoff (1968-83, 112 caps)

Named the third greatest goalkeeper of the 20th century, Dino Zoff remains the oldest player to have ever won the World Cup, doing so in 1982, aged 40.

Rewind 14 years to 1968 and Zoff was picking up a winner's medal at the European Championships after just four caps for the Azzurri. He holds the record for the longest time without conceding an international goal (1142 minutes), a superb feat ended by the most unlikely sourceβ€”Haiti player Manno Sanon.

In 2003, the Italian Football Federation named him the greatest Italian player of the past 50 years, and more recently he was ranked fifth in the "Top 10 Goalkeepers of All Time" list.

4. Franco Baresi (1982-94, 82 caps, 1 goal)

Amazingly, for a player so revered in Italian football today, Franco Baresi's World Cup debut didn't arrive until 1990, largely due to the presence of Gaetano Scirea in Baresi's preferred position.

Baresi was part of the victorious 1982 squad, although he didn't play in the tournament, as well as the squads of 1990 and 1994, the latter of which reached the final, only to be beaten by Brazil on penalties.

With 628 appearances for Milan over a 20-year career at the club, Baresi has had even more success domestically than he has internationally. His place as a Milan legend was confirmed after they retired his shirt number.

Baresi was ranked third in the "Top 10 Central Defenders of All Time" list.

3. Roberto Baggio (1988-2004, 56 caps, 27 goals)

Roberto Baggio, aka the "Divine Ponytail," is a player known as much for a penalty miss as he is for his immense quality. That penalty miss was a significant one though, as it lost the 1994 World Cup final for Italy.

It puts a stain on an otherwise magnificent career, in which he scored over 300 career goals at club level, the first Italian to do so in over 50 years, 27 goals at international level, the fourth highest tally in Italian football history, and won the Ballon d'Or and World Footballer of the Year awards in 1993.

Baggio is also the only Italian to have scored at three World Cups (1990, '94 & '98) and has been included in Italy's, Juventus', and Brescia's All-Time XI teams.

2. Paolo Maldini (1988-2002, 126 caps, 7 goals)

The word "legend" barely seems to cover Paolo Maldini. For 25 years he was a stalwart at Milan, and for 14 years he carried that form to international level. His tally of 126 caps was a record when he retired, and his tally of 74 as captain remains a record to this day.

Maldini featured in four World Cups (1990, '94, '98 and 2002), as well as three European Championships (1988, '96 and 2000), the latter of which he led Italy to the final in, only to be beaten by Zinedine Zidane's France.

He has made more appearances in Serie A, the Champions League and for Milan than any other player in history, and has also had his number three shirt retired by the club he spent his entire career with.

Maldini was ranked as the best left-back ever in the "Top 10 Left-Backs of All Time" list.

1. Giuseppe Meazza (1930-39, 53 caps, 33 goals)

For a country so famous for their defensive football, some may be surprised that their greatest ever player is actually an attacking player, but Giuseppe Meazza is more than deserving of the accolade.

Such was his effect on Italian football, and in particular Inter Milan, that the stadium shared by Inter and AC Milan, better known as the San Siro, is officially called the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. Many in Italy have even compared him to Pele.

Meazza was the key member of Italy's 1934 and 1938 World Cup winning teams, becoming a member of a very exclusive club having won football's greatest prize twice. His tally of 33 international goals is the second highest in Italian football history.

Giuseppe Meazza - the greatest Italian player of all time!

To see other installments from the Greatest Ever series, click here .