Ranked! The best Italian players ever

Andrea Pirlo, Best Italian players ever
(Image credit: Getty)

It's not easy to make a list of the best Italian players ever.

When you think of Italy, you think of the wine, the sunshine, the pizza... and the football. 

The 'Bel Paese' is as renowned for its national sport as anything else, and for good reason - it has produced many of the best players of all time.

That made the job of whittling them down to a list of 10 remarkably difficult, but we gave it our best shot...

Best Italian players ever: 10. Alessandro Del Piero

Alessandro Del Piero

(Image credit: Getty)

Legendary inter-war striker Silvio Piola is the only Italian to have scored more goals than Del Piero’s 346, while the striker is the Juventus (opens in new tab)record holder for goals (290) and appearances (705).

But forget the numbers. It was Del Piero’s remarkable technical gifts, his eye for spectacular goals and his free-kick prowess that established him as one of his country’s greatest-ever attackers, not just his outstanding rate of return.

Del Piero was instrumental to Juve’s last Champions League win in 1996, scoring six goals on that run, and he also helped the Old Lady claim six league titles. 

But perhaps the climax of his career came when he scored in Italy's second in a 2-0 semi-final win over Germany in the 2006 World Cup (above), before converting a spot-kick in the final shoot-out against France.

9. Dino Zoff

Dino Zoff

(Image credit: Getty)

Like a fine wine, Zoff’s achievements got better with age. The Italian goalkeeping great won his first and only World Cup aged 40 in 1982, the oldest player ever to do so, earning the goalkeeper of the tournament award in the process.

It was his second major international honour of a remarkable career, after clinching the 1968 European Championship, and Zoff was no less successful at club level, winning six Scudetti, two Coppa Italias and the UEFA Cup at Juventus.

One of the finest keepers ever to pull on a pair of gloves, Zoff was only ranked behind Lev Yashin and Gordon Banks when the International Federation of Football History & Statistics named their greatest goalkeepers of the 21st century, while he was elected as Italy’s outstanding player of the past 50 years for UEFA’s Jubilee Awards in 2004.

8. Andrea Pirlo

Andrea Pirlo Juventus

(Image credit: PA)

One of the best proponents of the deep-lying midfielder role that the game has ever seen. Pirlo oozed class and possessed a staggering coolness and composure in possession, not to mention the vision and technique to unlock defences or send dipping free-kicks over walls.

Pirlo started off as an attacking midfielder, playing alongside the great Roberto Baggio at Brescia in his younger years, but it was his spell at AC Milan (opens in new tab) that propelled him into Europe’s elite. 

Two Champions League and two Serie A titles came at San Siro, and another four league crowns later at Juventus, as well as a 2006 World Cup winner’s medal.

The midfield maestro’s ability on the ball was perhaps best put by Juve great Zbigniew Boniek: “To pass the ball to Pirlo is like hiding it in a safe”, he said.

7. Franco Baresi

Franco Baresi

(Image credit: PA)

Baresi made his Milan debut aged 17 and would stay at the club for the remainder of his 20-year long career, winning every major honour on offer.

The centre-back was an irreplaceable part of Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello's great sides of the 1990s, forming one of the greatest defences of all time alongside Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti.

Baresi was runner up for the Ballon d’Or in 1989, behind team-mate Marco van Basten, after captaining the Rossoneri to back-to-back European Cup successes, and he went on to win three straight Serie A crowns between 1991 and 1994 out of a career total six, with Milan's rock at the back helping them concede just 15 goals in 1993/94.

Although he failed to win any international honours, coming closest when he missed a spot kick in the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil, the Italian is remembered as one of the greatest centre-backs ever due to his combination of physical, technical and mental attributes, as well as his leadership and intelligence.

6. Francesco Totti

Francesco Totti

(Image credit: Getty)

The Roma (opens in new tab)legend never earned the silverware that his talent deserved, but Totti’s decision to remain a one-club man made him a legend in the Eternal City.

Totti could do things with the ball that others wouldn’t even dream of, and his ability to create and score goals was unmatched in his heyday; the Roman ended his career in 2017 as the second-top scorer in Serie A history with 250 goals.

He was also crucial to Italy’s 2006 World Cup success, playing every match despite pre-tournament fitness concerns and scoring a crucial penalty to beat Australia in the last 16, before eventually finishing as the tournament’s joint-top assist provider on four, level with Argentina’s Juan Roman Riquelme.

5. Giuseppe Meazza

Giuseppe Meazza

(Image credit: Getty)

Meazza was so good, they named Italy’s most iconic stadium after him. It might be better known as San Siro, after the surrounding area, but the ground’s official moniker pays homage to a double World Cup-winning superstar who represented both of Milan’s big clubs.

That said, Meazza certainly achieved far more in the blue and black of Inter (opens in new tab) (opens in new tab). Milan famously rejected Meazza when he was a child due to his slight frame, and it turned out to be a costly error. 

The Nerazzurri snapped him up, and the boy who grew up playing with a rag ball on the Lombard city’s streets became one of the most prolific strikers in Serie A history, winning three titles and three capocannoniere crowns.

However, it was Meazza’s feat in Azzurri blue that earned him true legend status. The striker is one of just three players, along with Giovanni Ferrari and Eraldo Monzeglio, to win two World Cups, winning the Golden Ball at the 1934 victory on home turf and captaining his country to a successful defence four years later.

4. Gianni Rivera

Gianni Rivera

(Image credit: Getty)

Nicknamed the ‘Golden Boy’, Rivera’s stardom started young. The playmaker’s first goal for Milan was a winner in a 4-3 victory over Juventus aged just 17, and the fleet-footed fantasista never looked back, becoming one of the most iconic players to ever pull on a number 10 shirt. 

The outstanding natural ability of the attacking midfielder soon made him a key player at San Siro, as he led the Rossoneri to three Serie A titles and two European Cups, forming a close bond with coach Nereo Rocco, who described him as a “genius”, and winning the Ballon d’Or in 1969 after inspiring Milan to European glory with a virtuoso display in a 4-1 final victory over Johan Cruyff’s Ajax.

Rivera’s passing and vision are the stuff of calcio folklore, largely thanks to his success with the national team too. 

He made his senior Azzurri debut aged 17 and went to four World Cups, scoring the winner in the famous 1970 epic semi-final against Germany, as well as winning the 1968 European Championship – although he heartbreakingly missed the final against Yugoslavia after picking up an injury in the semis.

3. Gianluigi Buffon

Gianluigi Buffon

(Image credit: Getty)

Buffon’s name will always come up in debates about who is the best goalkeeper of all time – and for good reason.

Since making a stunning breakthrough for Parma as an eye-bogglingly agile teenager in 1995, he won almost every major honour imaginable – with the notable exception of the Champions League.

Juventus made Buffon the most expensive goalkeeper ever by paying €52m for him in 2001, but that proved to be outstanding value; he won a record 12 Serie A goalkeeper of the year awards and 10 league crowns in Turin, and holds the league appearance record.

Buffon won the Golden Glove after keeping a record five clean sheets as Italy were crowned world champions in 2006, and his remarkable longevity – he’s now at Parma in Serie B – has been largely down to his ability to adapt his game, relying less on the explosive agility that used to mark him out, and more on world-class positioning and reading of the game.

2. Paolo Maldini

Paolo Maldini

(Image credit: PA)

One of the greatest defenders of all time, Maldini is synonymous with a glorious era of success for AC Milan, where he spent his entire 25-year-long playing career.

A roaming, technically gifted left-back who later evolved into an intelligent and composed centre-back, the elegant Italian helped the Rossoneri win 25 trophies including five European Cup/Champions Leagues and seven Serie A crowns.

He also had remarkable longevity, playing until the age of 41, while he played at four World Cups – although he retired before the Azzurri’s 2006 triumph and never won a major honour with his country.

Maldini remains the outfield player with the most appearances in Serie A on 647, and his reliance on timing and reading of the game rather than aggression and physicality made him stand out. 

As he famously once quipped: “If I have to make a tackle, then I’ve already made a mistake”.

1. Roberto Baggio

Roberto Baggio

(Image credit: Getty)

One of the most talented footballers of all time, Baggio’s creativity, vision, unpredictability, and technical skills made him the archetypal trequartista and arguably Italy’s most beloved player ever.

The ability of the Buddhist star nicknamed the ‘Divine Ponytail’ was such that there were riots in the streets of Florence following his move from Fiorentina to Juventus in 1990, but he went on to win the Ballon d’Or – as well as Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup titles – while in Turin.

Baggio’s list of honours doesn’t do credit to the quality of the player. He finished his career with just two Serie A titles to his name, while his international career is unfairly blemished in the memories of many by the decisive penalty he missed in the 1994 World Cup final – a game the Azzurri would never have made it to in the first place, were it not for Baggio's creative genius.

Still, Baggio remains Italy’s joint-fourth top scorer of all time and the Italian FA left no doubt about the regard he’s held in by making him the very first inductee to the Italian Hall of Fame in 2011.

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Alasdair Mackenzie is a freelance journalist based in Rome, and a FourFourTwo contributor since 2015. When not pulling on the FFT shirt, he can be found at Reuters, The Times and the i. An Italophile since growing up on a diet of Football Italia on Channel 4, he now counts himself among thousands of fans sharing a passion for Ross County and Lazio.