It's hard enough trying to compare footballers who played in the same position, but to try and do it over different eras as well is nigh on impossible, So, with this in mind, we've just decided to list our greatest Italian footballers, but not necessarily in any specific order...
Where else to start but the great man himself. A career spanning 22 years, 15 of them with the national team, culminating in World Cup glory in 1982 as the 40 year-old Azzurri captain.
Zoff broke goalkeeping records galore. He still holds the record for the longest playing time in international tournaments without conceding a goal (1142 minutes between 1972 and 1974), whilst at the time of his retirement he'd set a whole host of other records; most Serie A appearances (570), most consecutive Serie A appearances (332), longest consecutive run without conceding a goal in Serie A (903 mins), most consecutive clean sheets in Serie A (9) and the eldest Serie A player (41 years old).
Dino Zoff's Clubs: Udinese, Matova, Napoli, and of course, Juventus.
Whilst many will dwell on the image of him missing the decisive penalty at USA 94, we’re far too upbeat for that nonsense. Roberto Baggio was a beautiful, joyous player. A genius, an enigma, a player who recovered from serious knee injuries and played through constant pain, yet still delivered countless moments of footballing beauty.
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!
A one-club-man for Inter. Mazzola was a strong and fast attacking midfielder who had a great goalscoring rate, sometimes leading to him occasionally playing up front. Mazzola helped Italy win the 1968 European Championships, on home soil, and then two years later reached the World Cup final, only to come across a Brazilian side that was verging on unbeatable. In that tournament coach Valcareggi introduced a controversial means for playing both Mazzola and Rivera (Milan’s golden boy). He decided both couldn’t be on the pitch at the same time, so each would have a half, Mazzola starting and then Rivera replacing him at half-time.
Unlike many traditional centre forwards, Paolo Rossi lacked a physical presence and had a very slight build, but he was quick off the mark, agile and had razor-sharp reactions. And as with all great poachers, Rossi had an eye for goal and a natural ability to read the game and to anticipate where best to position himself for goal scoring opportunities.
Unlike many goal poachers, Rossi actually started out as a winger, at Lanerossi Vicenza in the mid 1970s. It was down to a team-mate's injury that he got moved into a central position but it soon turned into something of a master-stroke - Rossi suddenly finding himself topping the scoring charts for Serie B in 1977, before doing exactly the same in Serie A the following year, 1977-78, and winning the Capocannoniere award. This domestic form saw Rossi named in the Italian squad for the Argentina '78 World Cup, an opportunity which he grabbed fully, scoring three goals and being named as the tournament’s second best player, behind Mario Kempes. Four years later at Espana '82 he would go one better than this, not only being named the player of the tournament but also claiming the Golden Boot as the tournament's top scorer with six goals, three of them in that epic encounter with Brazil.
In between these two World Cup tournaments, Rossi had to actually sit out the Europa '80 European Championships, on home soil, as he’d been banned for two years as part of the Totonero match-fixing scandal. Yet despite this controversy, it's his goalscoring exploits leading the Azzurri to World Cup glory in 1982 for which he's best remembered.
Paolo Rossi's Clubs: Juventus, Como, Vicenza, Perugia, Milan, Hellas Verona.
A fantastic striker who is still Italy’s highest ever goal scorer with 35, despite playing only 42 times for the Azzurri, an astonishing scoring rate. Only a number of serious injuries prevented Riva from playing more games and scoring even more goals. At club level he is a legend of Cagliari, playing there from 1963 until he retired in 1976, turning down the advances of the real heavyweights of Italian football to stay on Sardinia.
A fantastic all-round midfielder who had a bit of everything about his game. Defensively he was rock-solid, a hard-tackling player who had a great combination of aggression and stamina. But Tardelli could certainly play a bit as well. Technically excellent and with an eye for a pass, he made Italy tick at the 1972 World Cup and earned fame around the football world for his iconic, passionate celebration as he scored the Azzurri’s second goal in the final against West Germany.
At club level he’s best known for his ten years at Juventus, from 1975-1985, where he won five Serie A titles, the European Cup, UEFA Cup and Cup Winners Cup.
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.
A fantastic left back, his early footballing years as a winger no doubt contributing to his attacking prowess down the left flank. Canrini is one of the few players to have won all of the UEFA club competitions, an achievement he managed with Juventus.
Whilst fellow defender Claudio Gentile was mastering the dark arts of defending, Scirea was earning a reputation as one of football’s most elegant defenders. A graceful libero, he would sweep up play with aplomb for Juventus and Italy, before starting attacks with a fantastic range of passing. And to back up this elegant image, you'll be pleased to hear that Scirea never earned a red card in his career.
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.
Renowned throughout football as one of the hardest defenders of all-time, Gentile was a master of the dark arts of defending yet was only sent off once in his career, and that was actually for handball.
Gentile was capable of playing full-back or centre back and was renowned for his man-marking ability, he played centre-back alongside Fulvio Collovati in the Italian team that won the 1982 World Cup, with Scirea behind them as sweeper.
Gentile played the majority of his career with Juventus, from 1973-84, although he did also have a three year spell with Fiorentina.
A beautiful footballer who would become a Fiorentina legend in the 1970s and 80s, his style on the ball almost as elegant as that Fiorentina shirt. Antognoni was a creative midfielder who was happy operating as a deep-lying playmaker or as an attacking midfielder.
Another great Italian player who showed loyalty to a single club, in Totti’s case Roma, playing an incredible 25 years for the Giallorossi. His 250 goals in Serie A makes him the second highest of all-time, impressive stats for someone who played much of his career as an attacking midfielder. Totti was named in the tournament all-star team as Italy reached the final of the 2000 European Championships, but went one step better at the 2006 World Cup as he helped the Azzurri lift the trophy against France. An interesting little fact to finish on, Totti is also the highest scorer of penalties in Serie A history.
Del Piero took over the number 10 shirt from Roberto Baggio at Juventus in 1995 and became the team’s fantasista. The young Del Piero was in great form in those early years, justifying the hype that had been heaped on him, but unfortunately suffered a bad knee injury at the end of 1998 which took a number of years to recover from.
Del Piero’s dribbling, skill, vision and link-up play meant he could play in almost any attacking position, but it was as a support striker that he seemed happiest and at his most effective. He was tenacious and hardworking too, a real handful for and defender to be up against. He was pretty decent at set pieces too - Del Piero is the third highest scorer of free-kicks in Serie A history and also the third highest scorer of penalties.
Probably not as well known to mainstream general football fans as many on this list but Piola was an Italian goalscoring phenomenon throughout the 1930s and 1940s and is the top-scorer in the history of Serie A.
We started with Zoff. We finish with Buffon.
The archetypal modern keeper - athletic, agile, acrobatic, powerful, great positional sense and fantastic with the ball at his feet, Buffon was also a leader. Yes, he had just about everything, but it’s also his consistency that puts him head and shoulders above many of his rivals. He literally seems to have been around forever, playing at a great standard from his early days with Parma in 1995 through to his 17 year spell with Juventus and subsequent year at PSG (adding the Ligue 1 winners title to his list of honours) and then Juventus again.
He’s been a curse for Italian keepers since the late 90s, completely dominating the number 1 shirt of the Azzurri in a 21 year career spell that resulted in an incredible 176 caps and reached its pinnacle with the World Cup triumph in 2006.
Italy has produced some fantastic goalkeepers over the years but for us, Gianluigi Buffon reigns supreme.