The Greatest Italian Defenders of All Time
Legendary Italian sweeper Gaetano Scirea.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Has anyone ever done a top 37 before? We doubt it. Why would you? Well, we have, and it's a top 37 of the greatest Italian defenders of all-time. Undountedly we'll make it into a top 40 when we realise three key players who we've missed out, but for now, here's the list...
No.37 Renato Zaccarelli
No.36 Marco Materazzi
No.35 Giuseppe Bruscolotti
An imposing figure at right-back for Napoli throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Bruscolotti's physical strength lead to his iconic nickname of Pal e Fierr (Iron Pole) from the Napoli fans. He was renowned for his aggressive tackling and no-nonsense style of play, which would lead to him becoming one of Serie A's most respected defenders and one of the league's best stoppers.
No.34 Giuseppe Favalli
No.33 Sergio Brio
The unsung hero of that tremendous Juventus defence of the 1980s, Brio (along with Claudio Gentile) provided the rugged grit, strength and physicality to perfectly compliment the more subtle qualities of Gaetano Scirea and Antonio Carbrini. His performances helped Juve claim four Serie A titles during his long spell at the club, and he is only one of six players to win all three European club trophies. Despite his reliability and consistency at club level he never won an international cap for the Azzurri.
No.32 Eraldo Monzeglio
One of only three Italian players to win two World Cups, Eraldo Monzeglio was an elegant right back who had successfully adapted to the WM formation that had become popular in the 1930s. He had started out with his local club Casale, progressing through the youth ranks to the first team, and was signed by Bologna in 1926. He would go on to spend 9 seasons with the club, winning a Serie A title in 1929 and two Mitropa Cups in the early 1930s. His form with Bologna would see him make his international debut for the Azzurri in 1930 and he would go on to help the Italian national team to World Cup glory in
No.31 Sandro Salvadore
A fine, technically gifted Italian defender of the 1960s, Sandro Salvadore made his name with Milan in the late 1950s having progressed through the Rossoneriâ€™s youth team. His composed, technical style made him an ideal candidate for the role of libero, yet it was this preference for the role that would ultimately lead to his surprise exit from the club. Having won two Serie A titles with Milan, in 1959 and 1962, Salvadore found himself in the middle of a battle for the libero position with the more experienced Cesare Maldini. Coach Gipo Viani edged towards Maldini for the role, and with two fine players vying for one position, decided to do a deal with Juventus to swap Salvadore with
No.30 Roberto Rosato
Much-loved central defender of the 1960s and 1970s, his nickname of Faccia d'Angelo (Angel Face) was incredibly deceptive, as his pretty-boy looks belied his incredibly steely, aggressive style. Indeed, his physicality would lead to another nickname after he made his international debut for the Azzurri away against West Germany - “Il Martello d'Amburgo” (the Hammer of Hamburg), such was the determination and tenacity in his play throughout the match.
It wasn’t just his physical attributes that made Rosato stand out though, he could play too, with a real composure and elegance about him whenever he had the ball at his feet. Rosato is fondly remembered in Italy for his performances at the 1970 World Cup, where he was widely regarded as one of the defenders of the tournament as Italy made their way through to the final, before eventually being overcome by that great Brazilian side. At club level he spent the majority of his career with Torino and then the great Milan side of the late 1960s, where he would form a renowned defensive line-up alongside the likes of Giovanni Trapattoni, Angelo Anquilletti and Karl-Heinz Schnellinger.
No.29 Riccardo Ferri
Another player in the long-line of great Inter defenders, Ricardo Ferri was a mainstay of the Nerazzurri backline throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, helping the club land a Serie A title in 1989 and two UEFA Cup winners medals in 1991 and 1994. Van Basten named him as the best defender heâ€™d played against, along with Pietro Vierchowod.
No.28 Antonio Benarrivo
No.27 Gianluca Pessotto
No.26 Andrea Barzagli
No.25 Leonardo Bonucci
No.24 Carlo Parola
No.23 Moreno Torricelli
Next up in our list of Italy's greatest defenders is the former Juventus and Fiorentina right-back Moreno Torricelli, a proper hard, tenacious player. Indeed, as an ex-carpenter Torricelli looked like he'd chiselled himself from wood. Yet he was undoubtedly the sort of defender that every fan loves to have at their club.
No.22 Christian Panucci
Panucci was a fantastic right-back who, despite his slick film-star looks, was renowned for his work-rate and stamina up and down the flank. Defensively, he was deceptively tenacious and strong in the tackle, and he also read the game extremely well. He also became renowned for his goalscoring, popping up at important times to become one of Serie Aâ€™s highest scoring defenders. Panucci started out with Genoa before becoming well travelled for the first half of his career, playing for a string of high-level clubs across Europe, including both Milan clubs, Real Madrid, Monaco and Chelsea. Eleven years after starting his professional career he eventually settled down at Roma, playing eight seasons in the capital before finishing his career with Parma.
No.21 Giovanni Trapattoni
Before going on to become one of Italy’s best known coaches, Giovanni Trapattoni, or "Il Trap", for which he became known, was a fine player for Milan in the 1960s. Whilst he could play as a defensive midfielder or a central defender, we’ve included him in our list of best defenders because of his expertise in man-marking. He became renowned for the role in big games against the biggest talents, most memorably the 1963 European Cup final triumph over Benfica, when he did a job on the great Eusebio, shadowing him in the second half to nullify the striker's threat as Milan claimed their first European Cup title.
No.20 Ciro Ferrara
Hard, but fair. That pretty much sums up Ciro Ferrara. Or, very hard, but fair. Ferrara had one of those very angular frames that players didn’t like to receive a clattering from, as they knew it would probably hurt. A lot. Born in Naples, he would go through the youth system of his hometown club before making his debut for the first team as a 17 year old in 1984. Ferrara was quite unique in the hardest footballers category, because as well as being renowned for his incredible strength and aggression as a central defender or right-back, Ferrara also had a reputation for his technical ability and composure on the ball. His tenacity and combative style also made him one of Serie A’s finest man-markers, a role he excelled in on numerous occasions against high-profile opponents. Indeed, Ryan Giggs would name-check him as the hardest opponent that he's played against. The combination of these factors were one of the reasons that Juventus would make a move for him in the 1990s.
No.19 Cesare Maldini
For any football fans who might have wondered where Paolo Maldini got his elegant, almost effortless style from, then they need look no further than his father, Cesare Maldini.
Captain of the Milan side that won the club’s first European Cup in 1963, Maldini senior was a wonderfully gifted defender whose timing and ability to read the game was clearly something that he managed to pass down to his son. Whilst Paolo would start out as a full-back but later to move to a central position, Cesare would play the majority of his career as a centre back or sweeper, although his all-round defensive excellence also saw him play at right back when required.
No.18 Armando Picchi
A defender who loved defending, Picchi earned fame across the footballing world as captain of the renowned Grande Inter side of the 1960s. Heâ€™d originally started out as a forward and midfielder before being successfully switched to right back. His fine performances in defence would lead to coach Helenio Herrera trying him out in the libero position. His tactical intelligence and leadership made him ideal in the position organising the rest of the players in front of him and he would stay there for years
No.17 Pietro Vierchowod
Pietro Vierchowod putting in a typically strong challenge against Real Madrid in 1996.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A cult hero for many Calcio fans in the 1980s, Pietro Vierchowod stood out not just for his name and his rugged “had a tough paper round” looks, but for his performances on the pitch for Sampdoria.
Yes, one look at him and you expected him to be as tough as old boots, and as strong as an ox, but no-one expected to see the pace with which he covered the pitch! It was this combination of power and lightening pace which made him one of the most feared defenders in world football throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and it’s no surprise that a succession of top quality attacking players, from Maradona, Van Basten, Batistuta and Lineker named him as the toughest player they’d come up against. One of Maradona’s quotes about Vierchowod was particularly descriptive; “He was an animal, he had muscles up to his eyelashes.”
No.16 Mauro Tassotti
An AC Milan legend who often gets overlooked in favour of the more prestigious team-mates who he shared the glory years with at the San Siro. So whilst the likes of Maldini, Baresi and Costacurta often took the plaudits, Tassotti quietly went about his business, delivering 17 years of consistent performances throughout the 1980s and 1990s, mostly at right-back. Tassotti was best known for his defensive attributes, his angular strength, marking, positional and tactical intelligence making him a favourite of Milanâ€™s renowned coaches of the era, Arrighio Sacchi and Fabio Capello.
No.15 Aristide Guarnieri
Probably the least celebrated of the quartet that provided the defensive rock from which Inter's European Cup dreams were realised twice in the mid 1960s. So, whilst captain Armando Picchi and full backs Facchetti and Burgnich became household names, Guarneri just continued to go about his game in his own quiet, efficient manner, a characteristic that would help earn him the nickname "lo stopper gentiluomo" (the gentleman stopper).
No.14 Giorgio Chiellini
No.13 Gianluca Zambrotta
Another fantastically versatile Italian player, Zambrotta spent a large part of his early career as a winger or wide midfielder, able to operate effectively on either flank.
It was only after the 2002 World Cup, where he'd played as a right-sided midfielder for Giovanni Trapattoni's Azzuri team, that he was moved to full-back at club level by Juventus manager Marcello Lippi. Lippi deployed Zambrotta as a left-back to start with, before switching him to right-back. His background as a winger obviously gave him fantastic attacking attributes in the role, and he soon started to become known as one of the world's finest attacking fullbacks. His reputation and a place in football history was sealed when he was part of that fantastic Italian defence that helped the Azzurri to World Cup glory in 2006.
As well as his obvious attacking talent, Zambrotta was also extremely strong defensively, with a tenacious style and a hard-working, determined character that made him a really tough opponent for anyone who faced him.
No.12 Fulvio Collovati
With his mass of curly hair and his elegant style, Fulvio Collovati cut an iconic image for Italy and both Milan clubs in the 1970s and 1980s. A fantastic all-round central defender, he was blessed with a bit of everything; strong and powerful but also mobile and dynamic, a great man-marker but also elegant, composed and excellent on the ball. Whilst, surprisingly, he would only win two major domestic trophies, a Scudetto and Coppa Italia with Milan, his finest moments came at the 1982 World Cup, where he was named in the team of the tournament as he helped the Azzurri lift the trophy for the third time.
No.11 Antonio Cabrini
All those of us who grew up in the early 1980s and were lucky enough to collect the Panini stickers for the 1982 World Cup album won’t be surprised to learn that the nickname of the player behind sticker number 43 was "Bell'Antonio" (beautiful Antonio). Yes, that was one good looking man. But, equally, the nickname could be applied to Antonio Cabrini’s style on the pitch as well as his smouldering looks, because he was a real Rolls-Royce of a defender. Forming part of two of the great defensive line-ups for both club and country, at Juventus he would play alongside the likes of Scirea, Gentile and Brio, whilst at international level they would be joined by the likes of Bergomi and Collovati.
Cabrini carried on where another legendary Azzurri left back had left off. So, whilst Facchetti had made a name for himself with his attacking forays in the 1960s and 1970s, Cabrini took over the mantel at the 1978 World Cup and became renowned for his elegant play down the left flank, with his passing and crossing ability, eye for goal, and a general all-round flair.
Not just a beautiful face, but a beautiful player too.
No.10 Alessandro Costacurta
What a player. Whilst for some world-class defenders you only need to look at their rugged features to know that their style is no-nonsense, hard-as-nails, “thou shalt not pass”, or for others you can tell in the first few seconds of watching them that they’ve got lightning pace to help get them out of any trouble. So, whilst Costacurta was neither exceptionally fast or physically imposing, what he did have was an incredible tactical awareness of the game, including positioning, timing, and an ability to read the game that was second to none. He was quick thinking too and always seemed in complete control of the situation, almost as if he was always one step ahead of the opposition.
At Milan for an incredible 21 years, he formed a ridiculously talented back line, arguably the greatest ever, alongside the likes of Maldini, Baresi and Tassotti
No.9 Tarcisio Burgnich
A proper old-school defender, Burgnich was tough, physical and a nightmare to play against. His strength and power led to his nickname of "La Roccia”, meaning the Rock, an appropriate nickname for someone who’s jawline looked like it had been formed in a Dolomites quarry.
Whilst Burgnich could comfortably play in a number of positions across the back line, including centre-back and sweeper, it was as a right-back that he was best known. A key part of Inter’s famous catenaccio system, Burgnich formed one of football’s great fullback partnerships with Facchetti. And whilst Facchetti was renowned for his attacking ability, Burgnich was more than happy to make his name for his defensive duties, as his reliability and consistency made him one of Italy’s finest defenders through the 1960s and 1970s.
No.8 Claudio Gentile
Whilst Claudio Gentile has become renowned as one of the toughest footballers in the gameâ€™s history, it should be pointed out that the player himself believed he played the game in a hard but fair manner, rather than as an out-of-control madman that some would have you believe. Yes, he was aggressive in his challenges, his marking was extremely tight, his tackles were hard, but he was clever too, he knew when and where to stop the opposition. And donâ€™t forget that Gentile could play a bit too. The fact that he formed a number of incredible defensive partnerships, won a hatful of domestic and international trophies, was trusted by a series of top managers, and only ever received one red card (and that for two yellow cards, one a handball) seems to back up Gentileâ€™s case. He was, quite simply, a great defender who most managers, players and fans would want in their line-up.
No.7 Fabio Cannavaro
The last defender to win the Ballon d'Or, way back in 2006. A fitting honour for a player who had shone at the World Cup at the heart of italy's defence as the Azzurri claimed their third world title.
Much is made of the fact that he was only five foot nine and inches tall, almost a no-go for coaches picking central defenders in the modern era, yet Cannavaro's game was about so much more than his physical size. He may have been smaller than the other defenders but for that tournament he stood head and shoulders above the rest.
No.6 Giuseppe Bergomi
An Inter legend, playing 20 years for the club from 1979 to 1999. Another Italian defender who could happily play in a number of positions across the back line, Bergomi was primarily a right back, his speed, strength and stamina making him one of the toughest opponents in football for wingers in the 1980s and 1990s.
Whilst many remember Gentile as the hard man of Italian football at the time, Bergomi was equally adept at the dark arts, and whilst Gentile was only sent off once in his career, Bergomi received a red card on 12 occasions.
Incredibly, despite playing in four World Cups, Bergomi failed to make one single appearance in the qualifying stages!
No.5 Alessandro Nesta
The ultimate attributes for a defender - he was strong, athletic and quick but also agile, elegant and a great passer. He read the game fantastically too and was renowned for the timing of his tackles. Had nineteen years playing in Serie A, nine of them at Lazio before ten years with Milan. Nesta's career suffered from the many injuries he encountered, which hindered him from playing in the knockout stages at each of the three World Cups at which he participated.
No.4 Franco Baresi
No.3 Giacinto Facchetti
A legend for both Inter and the Azzurri, Facchetti was a brilliant left back whoâ€™s attacking style became a template for other full backs in the late 1970s and 1980s. His tall, powerful physique, coupled with his blond hair, made him a distinctive figure in both teams, whilst his attacking forays from deep made him stand out, constantly joining the attacks down the left with his overlapping runs or his trademark move, cutting inside towards the centre of the pitch. It might not sound too special now, but back in the 1960s and 1970s, the sight of a fullback becoming an extra outlet in attacking positions was quite unusual.
No.2 Gaetano Scirea
Before Franco Baresi started receiving plaudits from across the footballing world for his cool, composed, performances at the rear of Italian defences, there was another supremely gifted defender who took the art of elegant defending to another level, Gaetano Scirea.
Having quickly made a name for himself as a youngster at Atalanta, Scirea was quickly snapped up by Juventus in 1974 and would remain there for the rest of his career, winning literally everything there was to win with the Turin giants as part of a phenomenal defensive line-up that would include the likes of Claudio Gentile, Antonio Carbrini and Sergio Brio protecting legendary keeper Dino Zoff. Scireaâ€™s technical ability, pace, composure and ability to read the game, made him the perfect sweeper, and complimented the more aggressive style of some of his defensive teammates. He would perform the same role for the national team equally well, culminating in the ultimate success as the Azzurri lifted the World Cup in 1982.
No.1 Paolo Maldini