Italy has a football pedigree that few nations can rival. Only Brazil has lifted the World Cup more, and the Azzurri set a new record at the 2020 European Championships when they won all of their games on the way to their second tournament win. Hundreds of incredible players have put on Italy’s famous blue shirt over the years, and some of them went on to become legends for both club and country. Here are our picks for the 10 best players to ever take the field for Italy.
Like many of the players on this list, Franco Baresi spent his entire career at one Serie A club. In Baresi’s case, that club was AC Milan. Baresi had become a regular starter for Milan at the age of 18, and he was the anchor of a defence that helped the club to win six Scudettos and three European Cups. Baresi stepped away from the game at the end of the 1996-97 Serie A season, and Milan honoured his years of loyal service and recognized his on-the-field achievements by retiring his shirt number.
When Dino Zoff lifted the World Cup trophy in 1982, he became the oldest player to ever win the competition. The Italy captain was also named the best goalkeeper of the tournament and is considered to be one of the greatest to ever play the position. Zoff spent most of his career with Juventus, where he won six Scudettos, three Coppa Italias and a EUEFA Cup. When EUEFA asked European football associations to name their best player of the last 50 years as part of their jubilee celebration, the Italian Football Federation chose Dino Zoff.
Italy has produced some of the finest centre-backs to ever play the game of football, and many pundits think Fabio Cannavaro was as good as any of them. Cannavaro was capped 136 times by Italy, but he never won a Serie A title despite spending more than 10 years with Napoli, Parma, Inter and Juventus. That may be why Cannavaro is known best for his accomplishments while on international duty. After helping the Azzurri to consecutive UEFA Under-21 Championship wins in 1994 and 1996, Cannavaro went on to captain the Blues to victory in the 2006 World Cup. After watching him put some of the best strikers in the world in his pocket during the tournament, fans dubbed Cannavaro “Muro di Berlino,” which means the Berlin Wall.
A versatile forward who could line up anywhere across the front three, Alessandro Del Piero is best known as a deep-lying striker and free-kick specialist. Del Piero played for Juventus for 19 seasons and captained the team in 11 campaigns, and he had won six Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia and a Champions League when he hung up his boots. He holds the appearance and scoring records for Juventus, and his 27 goals for Italy place him fourth all-time among Azzurri goalscorers. Perhaps the most famous and important of these goals came in the dying minutes of the 2006 World Cup semi-final match with Germany. Del Piero calmly slotted home Gilardino’s through ball to put the game beyond reach and book Italy’s place in the final.
Not many players are idolised by Milan, Inter and Juventus fans, but Andrea Pirlo was no ordinary player. After becoming the youngest player to ever take the field in a Serie A game, Pirlo went on to win two Serie A titles and two Champions League titles with Milan. He won another four Scudettos with Juventus after leaving Milan on a free transfer in 2011. Pirlo was known as much for his calmness and composure as he was for his vision and passing accuracy, and many experts think he is the greatest playmaker to ever kick a football.
In the 80s and 90s, few players instilled more fear in defenders than Roberto Baggio. Juventus paid a world record fee and offered Michel Platini’s number 10 shirt to lure Baggio to Turin, and the attacking midfielder paid them back by becoming one of the best players in the world. Baggio’s sublime play earned him both the FIFA World Player of the Year Award and the Ballon d’Or in 1993, but he is most remembered for missing the penalty that won Brazil the World Cup in 1994. That is a shame because that one misstep has overshadowed a career that featured more than 300 goals from midfield and almost too many awards to count.
When Francesco Totti walked away from football in 2017, he left football after scoring 250 Serie A goals and winning a World Cup winner’s medal. He also spent his entire 26-year career with a Roma side that struggled to win silverware. That loyalty has made Totti a near-mythical figure in Rome, but he is remembered best in the rest of Italy for the goals he created out of nothing for the Azzurri. A versatile forward who could pass as well as he could shoot, Totti has won the Italian Football Association’s Oscar Del Calico award 11 times, and the organisation has also honoured the tenacious forward with a career achievement award.
Most Italian football fans know that both of the Milan teams share a stadium commonly called the San Siro, but few of them know that the venue’s official title is the Stadio Guiseppe Meazza. Lots of football players have statues, but not many have iconic stadiums named after them. Meazza earned the honour by leading Italy to victory in the 1934 and 38 World Cups before going on to manage the national team. Meazza netted 537 times in an era when scoring was rare, and many pundits consider him to be Italy’s best-ever player.
Paolo Maldini is the third one-club player on this list. When he retired in 2009, the resolute defender’s 647 appearances set a new Serie A record, and all of those appearances were made for Milan. Maldini’s accomplishments span four decades and include five Scudettos, five Champions League wins and 126 caps for Italy. A complete defender who was as comfortable at left back as he was in the middle, Maldini was known for his vision and technique. When asked about the importance of tackling, he famously said: “If I have to make a tackle, then I have already made a mistake.”
The only active player on this list, Gianluigi Buffon is seen by almost all experts as one of the greatest goalkeepers ever. Buffon first enthralled crowds as an uncannily agile teenager with Parma in the mid-1990s, but it was his time in Turin that made him a household name. Buffon was the rock in Juventus sides that won 10 Scudettos in 20 years, and he also won just about every individual honour there was to win. These personal honours include 13 Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year awards and five IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper awards.
Italy has been a football powerhouse for more than 100 years, and their victory at the European Championships showed that the Azzurri are far from done. Although they did not qualify for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, the Italian team holds a promising future with its potential to create amazing players.