Best Italian Players in History: Italy has earned a reputation for its strong defensive play, which is evident from the presence of several defensive players in this list. This tactical approach has proven to be successful for the country. However, Italy has also produced exceptional goal scorers and attacking players like Totti and Rivera, showcasing their versatility on the field.
Italy has a strong connection to the history of football, with a playing style known for its defensive prowess and determination. Over the years, many talented players have represented the Italian national team, leaving a lasting impact on the sport.
These players not only made their mark while playing for Italy but also achieved great success at the club level. To create this ranking, we considered factors such as their influence, historical significance, achievements, leadership qualities, international appearances, goals, and individual accolades. By exploring this list, you can gain insights into the achievements of Italian football through its most prominent players who have worn the “Azzurri” jersey.
As the second most successful team in World Cup history, Italy holds a prominent position among the football giants. They clinched the prestigious World Cup title twice in a row, in 1934 and 1938, and most recently in 2006.
These ranking players are from different eras, ranging from Meazza, who made his international debut in 1930, to the currently active player Gianluigi Buffon. It also includes renowned names such as Baggio and Maldini, who have left a lasting impact on Italian football.
Best Italian Players in History
In this article, we have compiled a list of the top 12 Italian players who have excelled in more than a century of the national team’s history.
12. Fabio Cannavaro
Fabio Cannavaro is a legendary figure in Italian football and is recognized as one of the greatest defenders in the history of the sport. He began his career with a determined mindset, displaying innate defensive abilities and a strong determination to win every contested ball.
Fabio Cannavaro’s excellence extended beyond his defensive abilities, as he possessed remarkable leadership qualities. He served as a true inspiration for aspiring young players who admired him. Despite his relatively small stature, Cannavaro compensated with his exceptional ball control and his ability to outsmart opponents. His invaluable contributions played a significant role in Italy’s triumph at the 2006 World Cup. As a testament to his outstanding performances, Cannavaro was honored with titles such as World and European Player of the Season, and he was also awarded the prestigious Golden Ball in the same year. Undoubtedly, he stands out as one of the finest Italian players of his generation.
His rise to prominence came gradually as he established himself in Serie A. After making his debut for Napoli in 1992, Cannavaro went on to represent the club until 1995. In 1995, he made a crucial career move by joining Parma, where he flourished and enjoyed immense success.
During his seven seasons at Parma, Cannavaro won three titles and participated in over 200 official matches for the club. In 2002, he made a switch to Inter Milan, one of the most prestigious clubs in Italy. However, his time at Inter Milan was short-lived as he attracted the interest of Juventus.
It was during his tenure at Juventus that Cannavaro accomplished something remarkable: he won the Ballon d’Or, an award typically dominated by attacking players, as a defender. This achievement came in 2006, a year in which he had a stellar season with Juventus and played a vital role in Italy’s World Cup triumph. Following his success, he received an offer from Real Madrid, where he joined the star-studded lineup of “Galácticos” alongside players like Zidane, Beckham, and Figo.
Cannavaro holds the record for the second-highest number of appearances for the Italian national team and is regarded as one of the finest defenders of our time in the history of football.
11. Francesco Totti
Francesco Totti is not just an ordinary football player; he is an idol for an entire city, a country, and a generation. He epitomizes the perfect example of a player who deeply loves his club and is willing to sacrifice everything for its success. Some consider him an extraordinary talent who could have excelled at any club worldwide and continued scoring goals.
In 2000, Totti played a pivotal role in Italy’s journey to the final of the European Championship, where they were ultimately defeated by a French team inspired by Zinedine Zidane. However, his moment of glory arrived in 2006 when he triumphed with Italy, winning the World Cup, once again against France. At his beloved club, Roma, he secured a Serie A title and two Italian Cups. Totti stands as the second-highest scorer of all time in Serie A, with an impressive tally of 250 goals in 619 matches.
Undoubtedly, Totti has left an indelible mark in the history books. His contributions to the Italian national team and his significant impact on the history of AS Roma are remarkable. He will always be remembered for his selflessness in choosing to remain loyal to a modest club that was too small for his immense talent.
However, Totti’s deep love for Roma convinced him to stay with the club for an uninterrupted 25 seasons. During this time, he became the club’s all-time leading goal scorer and an integral part of the Italian national team.
Totti’s versatility allowed him to excel in various attacking positions, including the iconic number 10 role. He was renowned for his exceptional ball control, vision, passing range, and lethal finishing ability. When deployed in midfield, he showcased his ability to dictate play with immense skill. Without a doubt, Totti is rightfully considered one of the greatest Italian players in the history of the sport.
10. Dino Zoff
Dino Zoff’s football career has been incredibly long and filled with achievements. He was part of the Italian national team that won the European Cup in 1968 and reached the World Cup final in 1970. However, his most notable accomplishment came in 1982 when, at the age of 40, he became the oldest player to win a World Cup.
Zoff was a traditional goalkeeper known for his efficiency, experience, and reliability. He prioritized effectiveness and caution in his play, although he was also capable of making impressive diving saves. His exceptional positioning on the field earned him great admiration. Moreover, his concentration, consistency, calmness, and composure were highly appreciated traits.
At the club level, Zoff played for Napoli, but his most significant achievements came during his time at Juventus in Turin. He won the Serie A title six times, the Italian Cup twice, and a UEFA Cup with the club. Additionally, he was named the European Goalkeeper of the Year four times, showcasing his exceptional skills and reputation.
9. Gianni Rivera
Gianni Rivera was an incredibly skilled and intelligent attacking midfielder. He had remarkable ball control, and excellent technique, and was known for his agility and ability to change direction quickly, making it easy for him to dribble past opponents.
Rivera represented Italy in four World Cups, including reaching the final in 1970. He played a key role in helping Italy win the European Championships in 1968. Additionally, he spent an impressive 19 years playing for AC Milan, joining the club when he was just 16 years old. During his time with the Rossoneri, he won numerous trophies, including the Champions League twice.
In 1969, Rivera received the prestigious Ballon d’Or award, which is given to the best football player in the world. He had previously finished as the runner-up for the same award in 1963, narrowly losing to Lev Yashin. This recognition solidified his status as one of the greatest Italian players of the 1960s. Rivera also holds a place in our ranking of the best-attacking midfielders in the history of the game.
8. Roberto Baggio
Roberto Baggio is a former Italian football player who played as a striker. He was born in 1967 in Caldogno, Italy. Known for his talent and scoring abilities, he earned the nickname “Il Divino” from a young age. Baggio had a long career in Italian professional football, starting in 1982 and retiring in 2004. He played for several prominent clubs in Italy, including Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, and Fiorentina.
Roberto Baggio is undoubtedly one of the greatest Italian strikers in history. During the era of Italian football dominance in the 1980s and 1990s, Baggio stood out with his unparalleled vision, creativity, passing ability, and finishing skills.
While playing for Juventus in Turin for five seasons, Baggio truly established himself as one of the best players in the world. Although he only won one Serie A title during his time there and never claimed victory in the World Cup (with Italy finishing as runners-up in 1994 and third place in 1990), Baggio inspired an entire generation of Italians with his distinctive style of play. His impact went beyond trophies, leaving a lasting impression on the hearts of Italian football enthusiasts.
Baggio is remembered for both positive and negative contributions to the history of Italian football. On the negative side, he is famously known for missing a penalty kick in the final of the 1994 FIFA World Cup against Brazil. However, he also holds the record for scoring the most goals in important tournaments for the Italian national team and is the fifth-highest goal scorer in the team’s history. In 1993, Baggio was honored with the prestigious Ballon d’Or award, recognizing him as one of the best players in the world.
7. Gianluigi Buffon
Gianluigi Buffon is widely regarded as one of the greatest goalkeepers in the history of Serie A and football as a whole. Many consider him to be the best goalkeeper ever to grace the game, thanks to his remarkable longevity, consistently high level of performance, charisma, and natural talent.
At the age of 40, Gianluigi Buffon is considered a true legend and an inspiration for his remarkable longevity in professional football. He began his career with Parma, where he achieved success by winning the UEFA Cup and the Italian Cup in 1999.
In 2001, Buffon made a significant move to Juventus, where he became a legendary figure in the club’s history. He stayed with Juventus for nearly 17 years, during which he won an impressive 9 Serie A titles and 4 Italian Cups. Despite reaching the final three times, he unfortunately, missed out on winning the UEFA Champions League with Juventus in 2003, 2015, and 2017.
He played for Juventus continuously until 2018, except for a brief stint in France. In 2019, Buffon decided to return to Juventus and has been playing for the club since then.
With the Italian national team, Buffon holds the record for the most appearances by a European player in international competitions. However, this record is currently at risk of being tied by Sergio Ramos. Buffon holds the record for the most appearances for the Italian national team, having played 176 games. He represented Italy in 4 European Championships and 5 World Cups, including the memorable victory in 2006 against France. His remarkable achievements and performances have rightfully earned him a place among the best goalkeepers in the history of football.
6. Franco Baresi
Franco Baresi is widely regarded as one of the greatest center-backs in the history of football. He spent the majority of his career leading AC Milan, forming a formidable defensive partnership with Paolo Maldini.
Baresi’s journey to success was not without challenges. He tragically lost both his parents when he was just 16 years old. However, his passion and love for the game propelled him to become a professional footballer for AC Milan. Throughout his entire career, Baresi remained loyal to the club and never entertained the thought of leaving the team that held a special place in his heart.
During his career, Baresi played 719 games for AC Milan, scoring 33 goals and winning a total of 18 titles. He was a crucial part of one of the greatest teams in history, led by coach Arrigo Sacchi. Baresi’s physical abilities and dedication made him an exceptional center-back.
Baresi also represented the Italian national team for over 12 years. He played 81 games for the Azzurri, scoring one goal and achieving the remarkable feat of winning the World Cup in Spain in 1982.
Baresi’s impact on AC Milan and the Italian national team is considered historic and unique. He is still celebrated today as one of the greatest defenders ever. AC Milan even retired his jersey number, 6, as a tribute to his years of dedication and love for the club.
In recognition of his outstanding contributions to AC Milan, the club made the decision to retire the number 6 jersey, which Baresi wore for nearly two decades. This gesture serves as a tribute to his phenomenal career at the San Siro. Baresi’s impact on the game and his unwavering loyalty make him undeniably one of the greatest Italian players of all time.
5. Andrea Pirlo
If a player has earned the respect of supporters from AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Juventus, it’s clear that he must be an extraordinary player. Andrea Pirlo is one such player who is highly regarded by all three fan groups.
Pirlo is known for his exceptional precision and game vision, and he predominantly played as a playmaker throughout his career. He represented Italy with pride, earning 116 caps and establishing himself as their top midfielder for a decade. His remarkable performances even helped Italy win the 2006 World Cup, where he was named the man of the match in the final.
In 2001, Pirlo joined AC Milan and remained with the Rossoneri for an impressive 10 seasons. During this period, he played a crucial role in securing two Champions League titles and two Serie A championships for his team. Later on, he made a move to Juventus, where he continued to excel. He went on to win an additional four consecutive Scudetto titles before concluding his career in New York.
Pirlo’s achievements and impact on the game have earned him the admiration and respect of fans across different clubs, making him truly special in the eyes of football enthusiasts.
4. Luigi Riva
Luigi Riva, a legendary striker, holds the fourth position in this ranking not necessarily due to his extensive list of titles or significant contributions to Italian football history. Instead, it is the story and legacy behind him that elevates his ranking. Riva hailed from humble origins and never played for one of the top Italian clubs.
However, his exceptional goal-scoring ability allowed him to break records and stand out from a young age in Serie A. He achieved several individual honors, including multiple Capocannoniere titles for being the league’s top scorer. Additionally, Riva holds the record for the most goals scored for the Italian national team, with 35 goals in 42 appearances. He played a vital role in leading the team to a World Cup runner-up finish and a Eurocup campaign.
Luigi Riva’s goal-scoring prowess and his contributions to the Italian national team’s success have earned him his esteemed place among the greatest Italian players, despite not having an extensive list of titles to his name.
3. Paolo Maldini
Paolo Maldini, a former player, was born in Milan in 1968. He always aspired to wear the AC Milan shirt, following in his father’s footsteps. At a young age, he worked hard to make his debut with the first team in 1985 and continued playing for Milan until his retirement in 2009.
Throughout his career, Maldini showed immense love for the club. He experienced both the lowest and highest moments in Milan’s history. He played a crucial role in the team’s five UEFA Champions League victories during those years, and he also contributed to numerous domestic titles, further solidifying his legendary status.
Unlike other top defenders, Maldini is recognized by many as an icon. He was twice nominated for the Ballon d’Or and won several individual awards. In 25 years of career, he received only three red cards, which testifies to his calm and his personality, which are the pillars of his success.
Maldini holds the record for the most appearances in the history of AC Milan and ranks third for the most appearances in the history of the national team. However, despite his greatness at the club level, his lack of titles with the Italian national team affects his ranking. Nevertheless, many consider him one of the greatest defenders in history, with only Franz Beckenbauer surpassing him in this regard.
When considering individual performance, Maldini is regarded as one of the best players in history, particularly among central defenders. Gifted with good positional sense and game vision, Maldini could play in his usual position as a center-back, but also as a makeshift left-back. He is therefore naturally in our Top 12 of the best central defenders, but also of the best full-backs. For many, he is the greatest defender in football history.
2. Silvio Piola
Silvio Piola, born over 100 years ago, is a player whose records still hold true today. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of Italian football, ranking second in that esteemed list.
Piola’s footballing talent continues to be highly praised despite the passage of time. He holds the distinction of being the fourth-highest scorer for the Italian national team. He played a significant role in Italy’s triumph in the World Cup, making his mark in the final against Hungary.
Furthermore, Piola’s goal-scoring prowess is truly remarkable. He is the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Italian league, with an astonishing 290 goals to his name. His achievements in terms of scoring goals are still unparalleled.
Silvio Piola’s impact on the game and his incredible goal-scoring records solidify his place among the greatest players in Italian football history.
1. Giuseppe Meazza
Giuseppe Meazza, born in 1910 in Milan, was an exceptional football player. At the young age of 17, his talent and goal-scoring ability earned him a debut in 1927. He played for several prominent clubs in Italy, including Juventus, Milan, Inter, and Atalanta.
Meazza may not be well-known to many modern football fans, but he holds a significant place in Italian football history. He played a major role in Italy’s first two World Cup victories in 1934 and 1938, which is widely recognized by Italians.
Meazza was a versatile striker who could excel in any attacking position. He was known for his exceptional passing, shooting, dribbling, and heading abilities. In the Italian national team, he is the second-highest scorer, having scored 33 goals in 53 appearances.
Having emerged from Inter Milan’s youth academy, Meazza achieved remarkable success with the club. He won three championships with Inter and became the top scorer in Serie A three times.
His influence on Italian football, especially on Inter Milan, is so significant that the shared stadium of Inter and AC Milan, commonly known as San Siro, is officially named the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium. Many in Italy have even drawn comparisons between Meazza and Pelé. Therefore, Meazza is rightfully considered the greatest Italian player of all time in our ranking.