Italy all-time greatest playing XI and manager: an interesting mix of old and new

Italy have produced many a legendary footballer, both in the present and the past. But who would make an all-time playing XI of Italian legends?

Fabio Cannavaro led Italy to their last FIFA World Cup triumph in 2006. (Twitter: @Azzurri_En)
By Shayne Dias | Nov 21, 2021 | 10 Min Read follow icon Follow Us

Welcome back to this SportsLumo special, where we chronicle the best of the best in international football. This is a 20-part series, so do stay tuned for content as and when we post it. We have previously covered EnglandArgentinaBrazilFranceGermany, Portugal and Spain in this series. Today’s nation of focus is Italy.

Italy’s status as powerhouses in world of football has never been in doubt, even during their slump from 2016-18. However, their Euro 2020 victory served to remind the world of football of their status once again. No longer are the Italians on the come-up after the lows of not qualifying for the World Cup. They are, once again, the team to beat in Europe – and with good reason too. A quick glance at their historical achievements shows their importance to the sport at large. But of all the players to have represented the Azzurri, who would most likely feature in their all-time best XI?

It is a question that isn’t easy to answer. After all, Italy has seen a number of great players pull on the famous blue jersey. But we are going to try and answer it anyway.

Here is a look at what we think is the all-time best Italian XI – and also the best-ever manager.

Formation: 4-3-1-2

Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Buffon – (Active from 1995-present, Italy caps: 176, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: played over 1100 games and won multiple trophies, Notable clubs: Parma, Juventus)

There’s a case to be made for Dino Zoff to take up the goalkeeper role; after all, he captained Italy to the 1982 World Cup. But Buffon beats him to the punch on sheer longevity. There’s also the fact that Buffon is considered a generational talent, a legendary figure who redefined greatness as a goalkeeper.

He won plaudits at both domestic and international level. He was a key figure for Juventus and also played a big part in their 2006 World Cup win. Buffon is also the most capped player for his country; despite being retired from international football, is still going strong in the game.

He will play for boyhood club Parma in the 2021/22 season, a considerable step down from the highs of Juventus. But the fact he’s still hungry to play says a lot about how much he knows he can offer on the field.

Right-back: Claudio Gentile – (Active from 1971-88, Italy caps: 71, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: won 10 trophies with Juventus, Notable clubs: Juventus, Fiorentina)

Italian football has always lionised defenders and a strong defence has always been the focal point for their sides. Thus, it should come as little surprise that the country has produced many great defenders.

That the ironically-named Gentile is considered among the best of their lot, though, speaks volumes to his greatness. Gentile was no-nonsense, took no prisoners and was an excellent man-marker. And while his physical approach took precedence, he was an underrated ball player too. His rough and tumble approach wouldn’t fly in today’s game. But he thrived in an era where referees did little to protect attackers.

He famously marked Diego Maradona out of a game in the 1982 World Cup, a tournament Italy eventually won. Maradona would later claim Gentile kicked him out of the game. Nevertheless, he formed an important part of both the Italian and Juventus defence during his playing career.

Centre-back: Franco Baresi – (Active from 1977-97, Italy caps: 81, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: regarded one of the best defenders of all-time, Notable clubs: AC Milan)

When discussing Italian defenders, it is impossible to not mention Baresi. The AC Milan defender formed part of an impenetrable defence at both national and club level. In days when defenders were largely expected to block and tackle, Baresi stood out because he could do it all.

He could block, tackle, read the game, intercept passes, anticipate danger. He was also adept at carrying the ball out and playing passes with pinpoint accuracy. Baresi was also effective in the air, despite not being the tallest player around. Baresi was also a born leader, at one point captaining both Milan and Italy in the same stage of his career.

He excelled most as a sweeper, his proficiency in the role earning him the nickname “Kaiser Franz” in reference to Franz Beckenbauer, the legendary German sweeper. Yet Baresi’s longevity and consistency means he is seen now as the benchmark for defenders around the world.

Centre-back: Fabio Cannavaro – (Active from 1991-2011, Italy caps: 136, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: only defender to win FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or in same year, Notable clubs: Napoli, Inter Milan, Juventus, Real Madrid)

A name contemporary fans would be familiar with, Cannavaro was another defender who could seemingly do it all. Like Baresi, he was short in stature for a defender standing at just 5’9”. But he more than made up for that in ability, reading of the game and leadership.

Able to play anywhere in defence despite being a centre-back, he led Italy to their last World Cup win in 2006. That win came in the backdrop of the Calciopoli scandal in Italy, making the win even more impressive. He is also a legend at club level, having won honours with Parma and Real Madrid as well as Juventus.

Arguably his biggest strength as a player was anticipation. It is why he was a first-choice for club and country; he read the game like few others could. He was also a strong leader and led his troops both by example and by telling them what to do at any given time.

Left-back: Paolo Maldini – (Active from 1984-2009, Italy caps: 126, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: won 25 trophies in 25 seasons at AC Milan, Notable clubs: AC Milan)

The son of AC Milan legend Cesare Maldini, Paolo surpassed his father’s legendary status to the point Milan retired his number 3 jersey. But Maldini junior was something of an anomaly. He spent the majority of his career at left-back, despite being right-footed.

He was also an underrated crosser of the ball from the flanks and even often found himself in goal-scoring positions. Yet it was Maldini’s composure, reading of the game and the sheer calm he exuded that made him an all-time great. It is telling that he only ever got three red cards in his career. Maldini preferred finesse over brawn, famously shunning tackles because to him that was a last-ditch option only.

Despite being good going forward, he rarely let attackers get the better of him while defending. As his speed waned, he shifted to the centre of defence where he again excelled. He was unlucky to never win anything with Italy but he is deserving of his status as an all-time great.

Central midfielder: Andrea Pirlo – (Active from 1995-2017, Italy caps: 116, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: won multiple trophies with both AC Milan and Juventus, Notable clubs: AC Milan, Juventus)

The legendary Italian midfielder was as classy as he was calm. His ability to pick a pass from anywhere in the field made him an ideal attacking midfielder. However, his best work came in a deeper role. It was there that he was best able to dictate the play and also shield the defence.

Aside from his passing and ability to read the game, he had an underrated shot on him and was always a threat from set pieces. Pirlo was successful both at club and international level; he was part of the 2006 World Cup winning side.

He was also part of a dominant Milan side that boasted a number of attacking players. Then, as if to show that class is indeed permanent, he shone in his late career during a spell at Juventus. As a player, Pirlo exuded class and authority and is a benchmark for midfielders the world over.

Central midfielder: Alessandro Mazzola – (Active from 1960-77, Italy caps: 70, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: Won 8 trophies with Inter Milan, Notable clubs: Inter Milan)

A goalscoring midfielder before that was even a thing, Mazzola is widely recognised as one of Italy’s greatest midfielders ever. He could play in a variety of positions, but found most success as a play-maker. His range of passing, work rate and understanding of the tactical side of the game made him stand out.

He was also a born leader and had the ability to influence his peers. It helped that he often led by example; his athleticism and work-rate complimented his technical and creative play with the ball. He was key to the national team in the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as to Inter Milan, where he spent his entire career. His creativity was a key reason why Italy were crowned European champions for the first time in 1968.

However, they would miss out on a World Cup win two years later. Mazzola was, shockingly, not played for most of the final against Brazil, which they won 4-1. Many believe if he did play, Italy might have stood a better chance.

Central midfielder: Giovanni Rivera – (Active from 1959-79, Italy caps: 60, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: won 12 trophies with AC Milan, Notable clubs: AC Milan)

The legacy of Rivera as one of Italy’s greatest was solidified in 2015, when Italian newspaper Gazetta dello Sport named him Italy’s greatest player ever. The man who spent nearly 20 years with the red and black side of Milan is still seen by many as the benchmark for greatness in the country.

His ability to dribble, create, find passes no one else could and score on occasion made him an all-round player. It is worth noting he lacked defensive work rate, and was not the most athletic. But what he lacked in physicality he more than made up for with his genius.

He was also a vocal leader; it was him who captained Italy in the 1970 World Cup final against Brazil. But besides that, he was seen by many as a gentleman on the field – although his vocal nature saw him clash with referees, managers and even the media! Still, his greatness is without doubt.

Central attacking midfielder: Roberto Baggio – (Active from 1982-2004, Italy caps: 56, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: considered Italy’s greatest-ever playmaker, Notable clubs: Fiorentina, Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan)

Harshly remembered by some for missing the decisive penalty in the 1994 World Cup final that cost Italy, Baggio deserves to be recognised instead for who he is – one of the greatest players from the nation. Indeed, it is worth recalling that Baggio’s genius actually dragged Italy to the final that year to begin with.

Baggio was, in some ways, a true successor to Rivera. His game revolved around creativity, precision, vision and an eye for goal. He shunned the defensive side of the game, often coming under criticism for doing so. He famously refused to even work on the physical fitness aspects of his game, something that haunted him later in his career. But when he was on, few could mesmerise fans the way he could.

He dribbled, he chipped goalkeepers, he hit shots that weren’t powerful but were precise to the extreme – you name it, he could do it all. It’s little wonder he’s cited as an influence by any playmaker coming from Italy.

Striker: Luigi Riva – (Active from 1962-76, International caps: 42, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: Italy’s all-time highest national goal-scorer, Notable clubs: Cagliari)

The man who is still Italy’s all-time highest national goal-scorer, Riva was a complete centre-forward. He had an eye for goal and scored 35 times in 42 games, an insane ratio for those times. Besides that, his all-round play was also extremely effective.

His game was not limited to scoring from close range; he looked to drop deep, take part in the build-up play, make runs and beat defenders too. He was also tall and strong, meaning he was able to score plenty with his head too. That his career was blighted by injuries – he played his last game aged only 31 – takes nothing away from his greatness.

What’s even more amazing is he spent his domestic career almost exclusively at Cagliari. He was nicknamed Rombo di Tuon (Roar of Thunder) for his powerful and accurate left-foot shot and was a key part of the 1968 side that won the Euros.

Striker: Giuseppe Meazza – (Active from 1927-47, International caps: 53, World Cup wins: 2, Major career achievements: one of three two-time World Cup winners, Notable clubs: Inter Milan, AC Milan)

The man after whom the San Siro stadium was renamed, Meazza was a key part of the World Cup-winning Italy sides in 1934 and 1938. Indeed, he was the captain of the team in the second of those tournaments. But he was also so much more.

For many, Meazza was the man who put Italian football on the map. In an era where Italy were not necessarily known for having creative players, Meazza stood out. His ability on the ball and ability to score on the regular made him a tough player to contain. He was also a larger-than-life personality, famed for loving the good life off the pitch as much as he was for his genius on it.

Indeed, his signature goal was more complicated than most – he would pick up the ball, dribble to the penalty area, draw the ‘keeper out and fake a shot before rounding him to score. Few, if any, could play the game the way he did.

Manager – Vittorio Pozzo

Pozzo was the man who coached Italy to World Cup wins in 1934 and 1938. However, hindsight has not been kind to the man. Besides being accused of being pro-fascist and doing nothing to speak out against the Mussolini regime during the time, there’s also accusations that the 1934 World Cup win happened partially due to referee intimidation from the fascist leader.

Still, he did lead Italy to another World Cup win away from the shores of home. And there’s no denying the man’s genius. At the time, most teams played a 2-3-5 formation. Pozzo innovated the 2-3-2-3, seen by many as a precursor to the modern-day 4-3-3 formation.

His system caught many off guard and he was a pioneer of coaching in other ways too, including training camps prior to the tournament. Pozzo as a coach was ahead of his time and deserves to be recognised as such.

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