Italy's Greatest FIFA World Cup XI
Winning the World Cup on four occassions probably gives every logical fan the idea of what Italy’s stature is in the World Cup. They are the second most successful side in the grandest tournament in the world – second only to 5-time winners Brazil. When the World Cup commenced in 1930, the Azzurris became the second nation to lift the trophy and the first to win it consecutively. Since the early years, they transformed themselves into a powerhouse of the competition.
And on every edition of the ultimate sporting event, they have always arrived with a determined bunch of footballers who were ready to sacrifice everything in order to compete on the highest level. From 1934 all the way to 2010, the Italians have produced a set of talented players through every generation. And among those invaluable elites, we have shortlisted the greatest 11 who have represented their nation at the World Cup.
Based on a 3-4-1-2 formation, here is how the team would look.
Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Buffon
Gianluigi Buffon is considered to be one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time. The 36-year-old has been a part of the Italian squad for two decades now. He will be playing his fifth tournament in a row for his nation at the World Cup in Brazil. The 2006 World Cup winning squad owes a lot to Buffon as his unstoppable form during the tournament saw Italy concede only two goals. It is a World Cup record that Buffon holds till date.
Apart from being a stunning shot-stopper, Buffon is a charismatic leader on the pitch. He is always vocally active in organising his defence and a key dressing room figure who is responsible for maintaining a strong spirit within the team. The Juventus skipper made a match saving block when he denied Thierry Henry in the last minutes of the Italy-France 2006 final game. Opting him ahead of the legendary 1982 World Cup winning goalkeeper, Dino Zoff, was a difficult choice. But Buffon, on the basis of his consistency and long term contributions, gets to start as the goalkeeper of Italy's greatest XI.
Defenders: Fabio Cannavaro – Gaetano Scirea – Paolo Madlini
Fabio Cannavaro was the captain of the 2006 World Cup winning team. He became the first defender ever to receive the Ballon d'Or award in 2006 for his exceptional performances in Germany. After Maldini's retirement and Alessandro Nesta's injury, Cannavaro took on the responsibilities of Italy's defence on his shoulders and marshaled the back line.
Cannavaro's displayed his defensive mastery against Germany in the 2006 World Cup semi-final which became the highlighting moment of his international career. The Italians conceded only 2 goals in the entire competition. Against France, Italy conceded a penalty but their defence could not be breached in open play. Cannavaro and his men went on to win the penalty shootout and claim their fourth World Cup title. He was nicknamed as the "Wall of Berlin" by the fans after his performance at the World Cup.
Gaetano Scirea was an invaluable presence in defence during his time with the Italian national team. Having played for over a decade, the Bianconeri legend is considered as one of the greatest defenders of all times. Besides Franz Beckenbauer, Scirea majorly contributed in developing the role of a sweeper. He lead the defensive line in 1982 where Italy lifted the trophy for the third time. Even after an average start in the group stages, Italy won all of their knockout fixtures to set up a final against West Germany.
And it was in the final that Scirea earned a lasting place in World Cup history. He set up Tardelli's goal in the final and Italy won 3-1 against Germany. With tactical awareness and skillful defending, Scirea was an irreplaceable figure at the back who could help out in build-up plays and attacks at times. In contrast to the typical sturdy and rough Italian defenders, Scirea was an example of timely tackles and fairplay. The 1986 team couldn't replicate their previous feat under Scirea's captaincy, who then retired from the game. His immense contribution for the country convincingly gives him the sweeper's role in Italy’s greatest XI.
Although Paolo Maldini ended trophyless on the international circuit, there is no doubt about his selection among the Azzurri legends. The Milan defender is considered to be one of the greatest technically gifted defenders of all time and was selected in FIFA's World Cup Dream Team. His ability to read the game and impenetrable presence at the back made him one of the most respected players in the eyes of many opposition. He was nicknamed as Il Capitano'for being a leader amongst leaders for his fellow footballers on the pitch.
Maldini played in four tournaments from 1990 to 2002. In his first World Cup in 1990, Italy went out in the semi-final stage against Aregntina. The next tournament in 1994 was Maldini's best campaign as he deputized the defence in several matches in the absence of Franco Baresi. Italy reached the final but lost to Brazil in a dramatic penalty shootout. Maldini took on the captaincy role in the 1998 World Cup where his side could not get past hosts France in the quarter-final. After a shocking round-of-16 exit against hosts South Korea, Maldini hung his international boots.
Midfielders: Gianluca Zambrotta – Andrea Pirlo – Roberto Baggio – Marco Tardelli – Antonio Cabrini
Gianluca Zambrotta was assigned to the left-back position after the retirement of Paolo Maldini. He was applauded for his performance in Euro 2004 although Italy were disappointing as a team. In the 2006 World Cup, Zambrotta missed the first match through an injury, but he returned for the second game and made his debut in the tournament against USA. It was at this time that Marcelo Lippi shifted him to the right-back position.
The change proved to be a positive move as Zambrotta linked up well with Francesco Totti to score the opening goal against Ukraine. Italy won that match 3-0 and Zambrotta was outstanding both offensively and in defence as he saved his team by making a goal-line clearence in the 58th minute. His ability to adjust at any role was the reason behind Italy's flexibility at the tournament. Although Giuseppe Bergomi was a part of the 1982 World Cup winning squad, Zambrotta edges him due to his versatility to play anywhere behind the centre line.
Since 2006, Andrea Pirlo became the undoubted 'Mr. Dependable' for his nation. For about 8 years running, the team's structure and style of play was built around the play maker. He is the heartbeat of this side and the whole team is directed by his passing and movement. He was the most important reason behind his country's fourth triumph in Germany. Pirlo earned three man of the match awards and went on to win the Bronze ball of the tournament. He also finished as the top assists provider.
In the 2010 World Cup, he was sorely missed as Italy crashed out of the group stages. He carried his team successfully to the Euro 2012 final where they lost the final to Spain. This tournament will surely mark the end of a great Italian's career who simply is irreplaceable for his nation. As the best player ever in a blue jersey to have played in his position, Pirlo takes his place at the centre of the midfield amongst Italy's greatest.
Marco Tardelli was one of the finest midfielders of the early 1980's. With a combination of stamina and skill, Tardelli was a tireless box-to-box midfielder who was responsible for developing the midfield role. He was an important figure of the 1982 World Cup winning squad where he scored two crucial goals for his team. Against Argentina in the group stage, he scored the opener in the 57th minute and Italy went on to win the match 2-1.
But he reserved his biggest moment for the final against West Germany where he scored the second goal of the match and celebrated in the most inspirational manner which came to be known as the 'Tardelli cry.' Italy dominated the scoreline as they convincingly won 3-1 to lift their third title after 44 years. Tardelli's selfless contribution and vital role behind Italy's success is unquestionable and he features in the midfield alongside Andrea Pirlo.
Antonio Cabrini was one of the defensive gems alongside Scirea and Claudio Gentile for the legendary 1982 World Cup winning Italian team. He took on the left-back role for his nation and featured in three editions from 1978 to 1986. Spending most of his playing career with Juventus, Cabrini earned 18 caps overall in the World Cup for his national team.
His biggest success came in 1982 when Italy lifted the World Cup. Although Cabrini missed a penalty in the shootout, his attacking support down the left flank and immense contribution while his defending was very significant in their triumph. As one of the greatest left-backs in the game, Cabrini features in the starting XI among other Italian legends.
Nicknamed as Il Divin’ Codino, Roberto Baggio was one of the best attacking players who graced the field for the Italians. With 27 goals, the 1993 Ballon D’or winner is the fourth highest goal scorer for the national team. He was capped in 56 matches and played for the Azzuris in 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups respectively. Italy finished third at the 1990 World Cup and he emerged as one of the stars in the tournament.
He was hugely responsible for carrying Italy to the 1994 finals, scoring 5 goals in the competition. But his infamous penalty miss in the final against Brazil turned him into a national villain and Italy fell short of achieving their dreams. Baggio was chosen as a member of the FIFA World Cup Dream Team and he starts as the attacking midfielder in our list of Italian legends.
Forwards: Paolo Rossi – Giuseppe Meazza
Paolo Rossi was the man who spearheaded Italy to their 1982 World Cup victory. The Juventus striker scored 6 goals in the competition and finished as the top-scorer, won the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball. He became the third player to achieve this feat after Garrincha and Mario Kempes. But all of his great showings were even more satisfactory because of the manner he performed after enduring a shameful period in his career. Rossi was one of the several players who was found guilty for being involved in the infamous Totonero scandal and he was suspended for three years.
After constant appeals, the ban was reduced to two years which allowed Rossi to return just in time for the World Cup among much discomfort and skepticism from the Italian press. After a slow start, Rossi came to life in the game against the mighty Brazilians and scored a memorable hat-trick to secure a 3-2 win. In the final, he opened Italy's account by netting the first goal. The tournament turned him into a World Cup legend for Italy. He takes his place in the team of elites as one of two strikers up front.
Giuseppe Meazza is the most successful Italian player to play in the World Cup till date. The Inter Milan legend led his nation to two World Cup glories in 1934 and 1938. Considered as one of the pioneers of Italian football, he was hugely responsible for constructing Italy's reputation as a heavyweight of the tournament. He ended up bagging the Golden Ball in 1934 as the best player of the tournament.
He captained the 1938 squad who successfully defended their crown as World's best. His unforgettable moment in the tournament was the penalty against Brazil which he scored while his shorts came off. Besides all the humor and fun, Italy won the match 2-1 and Meazza sent them to their second consecutive final. Italy faced Hungary in the final which they won 3-1. It was his last World Cup game as he called time on an illustrious career that saw him score 33 goals for his nation. Milan's home stadium is named after him and we honour him as Paolo Rossi's striking partner in the team of Italian legends.
Substitutes: Dino Zoff, Alessandro Nesta, Claudio Gentile, Gianni Rivera, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Pierro, Bruno Conti