Italy is known to produce a variety of outstanding football talent. From legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to center back Franco Baresi and right-wing back Giuseppe Bergomi. The list of athletes who hail from the ‘Bel Paese’ is long and abundant. In 2021, the presence of elite Italian football players is no different. This article looks at a few unforgettable Italian football players who have made a significant impact within the football game, from past and present legends in the game.
Gianluigi Donnarumma deserves the top spot on this list for many reasons. First of all, the stopper has saved an impressive number of goals consistently in his career, allowing him to be known as one of the best goalkeepers in the books nowadays. Not to mention his positional awareness in the net, combined with his physical athleticism and stature, makes him an unstoppable force.
After a six-year stint with AC Milan, the goalkeeper recently signed a contract to play for Paris Saint-German for the next five years. Fans are looking forward to seeing how Donnarumma will fair under the leadership of a brand new franchise.
Next up is Mario Balotelli, a truly dominant striker. He has played for nearly a dozen different football clubs throughout his career, including qualifying for Italy’s national team. Nowadays, Balotelli plays for the new Turkish football club Adana Demirspor of the Süper Lig. However, Balotelli is perhaps most well-known for being one of the sport’s most eccentric personalities, performing a variety of off-pitch antics, which have made him a forever legend in the world of football.
He was named to Italy’s Euro 2012 squad, making him the first Black player to represent the Azzurri in a major international competition. Balotelli scored many goals for Italy, but none were more memorable than his brace against Germany in the Euro 2012 semifinals.
Balotelli’s main career highlights include his spell at top clubs such as Manchester City, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Liverpool, to name a few.
Aside from the many stories about him mentioned by the media, Balotelli also has a caring side. It’s reported that he has donated nearly half of his wages to kids in Africa.
Currently playing as a forward for the top Serie A team Napoli, Lorenzo Insigne is one of the most critical tacklers in the game, recording dozens throughout every season.
His sporting attributes include powerful long shots and direct-free kicks. The captain also has an impressive leadership style in which he can gain the respect of his teammates and help each other work towards their goals.
Insigne may have a smaller physical frame than some of the other players on this list, but his football knowledge and specific in-game techniques make him a severe threat to opponents on either side of the pitch.
Another player who has represented various professional franchises throughout his 15-year career, Leonardo Bonucci, is a current member of the Italian-based team Juventus. His strengths include passing and elite tactical knowledge that is second to none. The way he can move his body around the pitch while anticipating the opponent’s actions makes him one of the most forward-thinking players in the game.
In 2016, Bonucci was awarded the prestigious honour of Serie A footballer of the year, while at the same time also being a four-time recipient of the team award. Bonucci is also one of the highest-paid footballers in Serie A, with a €6.5 million annual deal that runs until 2024. He may not be making as much as superstar Lionel Messi, who has a net worth of approximately £800 million. However, his salary is still on the higher end for Italian players. Although he is 34 years old, Bonucci still may have a few more impactful seasons before retirement.
When it comes to records and contribution to Italian football, Buffon smashes it out of the park. He is the most capped Italian footballer for the national squad and also holds the most appearances of any player to play in the Seria A league.
For a nation that prides itself on its defensive flair and solidity, Buffon has been a prominent fixture in the Italian football scene for a long time. Now at the age of 43, he is still playing at the top level and still looks like he has a few more seasons left in him. He is now playing at Parma, going into his 26th season at Seria A.
In 2001, Buffon held the record for the most expensive goalkeeper when he signed to Juventus for a record fee of €52 million. Buffon has spent most of his career at Juventus, where he has gained a lot of success throughout the years. Below is a list of medals and achievements he has gained throughout his continued career:
List of Medals
- World Cup Winner (2006)
- Italian Footballer Of The Year 2017
- 10x Italian Champions (Juventus)
- 6x Italian Cup Winner
- 7x Italian Super Cup Winner
- French Champions (PSG 2018)
- French Super Cup Winner (PSG 2018)
- UEFA Cup Winner 1998 (AC Parma)
The fact Buffon has still been the first pick at clubs whilst playing in his late 30’s and early 40’s, makes him arguably the best goalkeeper of this generation. His legacy and stamp on the game will linger for decades to come.
Alessandro Del Piero
Del Piero’s name needs no introduction. The Juventus and Italy national team legend has had a prosperous footballing career, playing for Seria A giants Juventus for an impressive 19 years.
Despite playing most of his career in Italy, Del Piero is internationally known and respected for his performances at top-level competitions such as UEFA Euros, World Cup and UEFA Champions League.
Del Piero was a prolific goal-scorer and is currently the second-highest Italian all-time goal-scorer in all competitions, with a whopping 346 goals in his career. For Juventus, he is the most capped player and all-time top scorer for the club.
He boasts an impressive medal collection, winning Serie A six times, One Seria B, One Coppa Italia, Supercoppa Italiana four times, as well as one Champions League title and UEFA Super Cup title.
His football style was very dynamic; Del Piero could play along any of the top 3 forward positions and also the play-maker role just behind a given striker. Aside from goal poaching, he was also a free-kick specialist scoring many throughout his career.
In 2000, Del Piero was the highest-earning footballer from salary, bonuses and advertising revenue.
Below are some notable individual achievements:
- Most Valuable Player Intercontinental Cup (1996)
- UEFA Champions League Top scorer (One year)
- Seria A Italian Footballer Of The Year (Two times)
- Seria A Top Scorer (One Time)
- Italian Football Hall Of Fame (2017)
Despite a career heavily affected by injuries, Roberto Baggio is still considered an Italian footballing legend. His role was mainly as a second striker or attacking midfielder; however, Baggio could play several offensive positions. Baggio is regarded as an all-time great in Seria A and Italy’s national side because of his dribbling skills, ball control, and goal-scoring abilities.
Nicknamed ‘The Divine Ponytail’ for his famous haircut, Baggio had a signature style on and off the pitch. Like Del Piero, Baggio played most of his professional career in Italy, playing for top clubs such as Fiorentina, AC Milan, Juventus, Inter Milan, and finally retiring at Brescia club in 2004.
His national contribution with the Italian national team saw him the favourite striker, beating off stiff competition such as Roberto Mancini, Gianfranco Zola, and Bepe Signori, scoring 27 goals in 56 international appearances for Italy playing in three World Cups for Italy side and earning a runner up medal in World Cup 94′ and third-place World Cup 90′.
Roberto Baggio earned an extensive amount of trophies and achievements throughout his professional career, such as:
- Ballon d’Or world top player (1993)
- UEFA Cup top scorer (1990/1991)
- 2x Seria A Champions (AC Milan 95/96, Juventus 94/95)
- UEFA Cup winner (Juventus 92/93)
- Italian Cup winner (Juventus 94/95)
- Best FIFA men’s player (Juventus 1993)
- World Cup runner-up medal (Italy 1994)
There was no doubt Andrea Pirlo would make this list. Many say he is the best Italian player to ever play since the days of Roberto Baggio. Pirlo oozed style on and off the pitch. Like many Italian legends, Pirlo spent most of his career in Italy, playing for AC Milan and Juventus giants. At the end of his career, he moved to the states to play two seasons at New York City FC before retiring in 2017.
Pirlo was a creative midfielder with a great footballing brain and vision for the game and his surroundings. This knowledge and passion for the game have seen him continue to the coaching level, where he now manages Italian top club Juventus, earning them the Seria A title in his first season of management.
Out of all the players on this list, Pirlo has achieved the most in terms of trophies and contributions to both club and international levels. Below is a list of Pirlo’s achievements throughout his 22-year professional career:
- World Cup Winner (2006)
- 2x Champions League Winner (AC Milan, 2002 & 2006)
- 2x Champions League Runner-up (AC Milan 04, Juventus 14)
- FIFA Club World Cup Winner (AC Milan 2007)
- 2x Italian Cup Winner (AC Milan 92, Juventus 2014)
- 2x UEFA Super Cup Winner (AC Milan 03 & 07)
- 3x Italian Super Cup Winner (AC Milan 04, Juventus
- 6x Seria A Club Title
- 3x Italian Footballer Of The Year (2012,2013 & 2014)
Another top Italian legend of this generation is Fabio Cannavaro. People would go as far as to say Cannavaro is the greatest defender of his time. Despite his more diminutive stature, Cannavaro had un-human-like strength and academic ability to read the game. Mainly known for his success with Juventus and Spanish giants Real Madrid, his ability on the field never went unnoticed.
In 2006 Cannavaro won the Ballon d’Or, which is extremely rare to see a defensive player win the world player award. This confirms he was a master in his craft. 2006 was the most significant year of his career where he captained Italy to win the World Cup over France. That same year, he also won the best Italian player, European player, and previously mentioned world player of the year. Becoming the first defender in 16-year history to win the Ballon d’Or award.
For the International side, Cannavaro is the second most capped Italian national with an impressive 136 appearances for his country, behind Gianluigi Buffon.
Cannavaro was also inducted into the Italian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. In 2017, he was also named the Juventus Greatest 11 of All Time.
Despite his many accomplishments, Cannavaro did not win many club trophies during his career. In fact, his only two were La Liga titles with Real Madrid.
Since retiring in 2011, Cannavaro has entered into coaching level, becoming part of the coaching staff at Al-Ahli in Egypt, where he was to retire. Following that, Cannavaro became the head coach at Guangzhou Evergrande Chinese club, where he resides today.
Last but not least is Paolo Maldini, the famous Italian left-back, who had a long and successful professional career over 25 years. Known for his pace, fitness, and footballing brain, Maldini was always a featured player with a lot of history and experience at top-level football.
He was a real ambassador to the sport and AC Milan, where he spent his whole career at one club. Through his extensive career, Maldini holds several records and achievements.
Maldini retired in 2009, at the age of 41, whilst still playing at the top level—winning 25 trophies for Milan, amongst other personal achievements for the Italian national squad.
Maldini has the most extensive medal collection from all the players on this list. Below is a list of the more notable mentions from his club and national achievements:
List Of Medals
- World Cup Winner (2006)
- 3x Champions League Winner
- 2x Intercontinental Winner
- 1x FIFA Club World Cup Winner
- 1x Italian Cup Winner
- 5x Italian Super Cup Winner
- 7x Italian Champions Title
- Defender Of The Year (2003)
- 4x UEFA Super Cup Winner
- 2x Champions Clubs Cup Winner
Maldini played for the Italian national side for 14 years, where he earned 126 caps. The third highest caps for Italian national behind Cannavaro and Buffon. In Seria A, he is the second-highest player for record appearances in the Italian league with an astonishing 647 appearances, just short of Gianluigi Buffon’s record. Maldini also finished second to George Weah for FIFA World Player of the Year 1995, whilst in 1994 and 2003, he finished third in the Ballon d’Or.
In 2002, he was named to the FIFA World Cup Dream Team as a defender, and in 2004, Pelé named him to the FIFA 100 list of the world’s greatest living players. Furthermore, he was chosen for the Ballon d’Or Dream Team in 2020.
Maldini continues to smash records as he also holds the record for the most appearances in UEFA club competitions, with 174, until Iker Casillas surpassed him in 2017. Maldini is also one of only 30 players in the world ever to make over 1,000 career appearances at a sporting football level.
The Azzurri are widely considered as national greats, looking over their top players past and present is a true reminisce of Italy’s brilliance and talent they have produced throughout the years.
It seems they age like a fine wine and their players stand the test of time within their extensive careers.
Maybe it’s the slower pace of Seria A? We Will let you be the judge of that! Regardless, Italy has produced some raw talent throughout the years, and it will be interesting to see if they continue their Euro 2020 success.