Despite it’s recent decline, the Serie A has gifted us with some of the greatest sides in soccer history, from the post-war Torino side to the “Grande Inter” of the 1960’s to Sacchi’s AC Milan, Maradona’s Napoli and Lippi’s Juventus.
This XI encompasses players from different soccer eras, but they all have one thing in common: They were winners!
Some truly great, great players have been left out of this XI. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t fit in some of my personal football favorites, such as Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, John Charles, Gigi Riva and Lothar Matthaus.
I’m sure if a hundred people were asked to name such an XI, the result would be a hundred different selections.
Zoff’s career is truly a remarkable one, with his exploits for the national team and his role in the 1982 World Cup making him a true legend of the game. He also played in 20 different Serie A seasons representing three different clubs, with his stint at Juventus yielding an impressive 6 league titles.
In 11 seasons with Juve, Zoff played in ALL of their Serie A matches, even when well into his 40s (he retired at the age of 41). At one point, he also held the record for the most minutes without conceding a goal, 903. This was eventually surpassed by AC Milan’s Sebastiano Rossi, who was protected by a defense that is contributing to half of this XI’s back four.
Perhaps the last great sweeper soccer has seen, Baresi was superb. He skippered AC Milan for a surreal 15 years and made his role as the last line of defense his own. More impressive was his ability to start attacks right from the heart of defense as he marauded forward to join the likes of Rijkaard, Gullit and Albertini in building up an attack.
After his retirement, AC Milan decided to retire his shirt number, the number six, such was his impact on their history.
A gentleman on and off the pitch, Scirea sadly passed away at the young age of 36 in a car crash in Poland. Like Baresi, Scirea excelled in the sweeper role that had become widely used after Inter Milan used it to such good effect in the 1960s. Apart from seven Serie A titles, Juve’s very own number six also won all the domestic and European titles present at that time.
Scirea was not your typical central defender. He didn’t use aggression or intimidation but instead got the better of his opponents with tactical intelligence and grace. Perhaps unusual for a defensive player, Scirea was never shown a red card, highlighting his precise timing when challenging opponents for the ball.
126 international caps, 26 major honors, including five Champions League winners’ medals and seven Serie A titles. Over 900 appearances for AC Milan and eight years captaining Italy.
The best Serie A defender ever? No. Just the best defender ever.
Facchetti spent his entire career with Inter Milan and even served as their club president prior to his passing away in 2006. Part of the “Grande Inter” of the 1960s, Facchetti was impeccable in defense but also very potent in attack, scoring almost 50 league goals in his career. He was a winger’s nightmare!
Then manager Helenio Herrera built his Inter side on the “catenaccio” system, an ultra defensive formation which focused on counter attacks to harm the opposition. This required overlapping, attacking fullbacks in an era where such a role was seldom used.
Facchetti was a revelation in this role, acting as a precursor for the modern fullback. Would Facchetti have been such a hit nowadays? Yes. A million times yes.
Just like with Baresi and even Maldini, Inter retired Facchetti’s number 3 shirt.
Pirlo has been included mainly for his impact on both Italian and European soccer from his withdrawn creative role.
Over the years, Italy has produced one great trequartista after another, roaming behind the strikers and creating chances in any available pockets of space. In his early years with Inter Milan and Brescia, Pirlo actually played in such a role, but this soon changed when he met the man who would transform his career, Carlo Ancelotti.
At Milan, Ancelotti moved Pirlo 20-25 meters backward, allowing him to dictate play from deep in midfield. The impact this had on world soccer was immense.
Building attacks from the defensive midfield position gave AC Milan the edge, especially in Europe. Ancelotti played with a very narrow midfield with the Rossoneri in a 4-1-2-1-2 formation allowing the fullbacks to bomb forward. This made Pirlo’s next move so unpredictable. He could pass the ball short to the midfielders around him or the trequartista ahead — be it Rui Costa or Kaka — or he could find the strikers or the marauding fullbacks with a long ball. And boy was he precise!
And his set pieces? A joy to watch.
Zizou may be more renown for his time in Real Madrid, but he actually won the Ballon d’Or when playing with Juventus in 1998. A truly special player, Zidane wasn’t the quickest of players but drifted between defenders with such ease and class, especially with his Marseille turn.
We’ll probably never see such class ever again!
I certainly received lots of stick for including the Argentine legend in an all-time best Barcelona XI, but surely, surely, there’s no arguing his inclusion here!
Part of the famous Ma-Gi-Ca attacking trident along with Careca and Bruno Giordano, Maradona changed the face of Italian soccer by leading the southern city of Napoli to two Serie A titles at a time when AC Milan were at their peak. Yeah he MUST be in this XI!
Part of the “Grande Torino”, Mazzola tragically passed away at the age of 30 alongside his teammates in the Superga air disaster in May 1949. At the time, Torino were probably the best side in Europe and won the Serie A title five times consecutively. To put their standing into context, in 1947 10 Italian players who started a match against Hungary played for Torino.
Captain Mazzola was their talisman, scoring more than a hundred league goals in a career interrupted by the war and then so tragically shortened. Footage of his time on the pitch is rare but there’s no doubting his standing as one of the best players to have ever grazed a soccer pitch.
The “divine ponytail” won the Ballon d’Or in 1993 and followed this with an impressive World Cup 1994, which was unfortunately overshadowed by his last kick of the tournament, a missed penalty in the final against eventual winners Brazil.
Baggio had it all, an explosive turn of pace was matched by a wonderful touch and an eagle eye for the right pass. Most comfortable roaming behind the strikers, Baggio represented some of the greatest clubs in Italy, winning the Serie A with Juventus and AC Milan.
At the age of 33, he decided to join newly promoted Brescia, transforming a mediocre side into a mid-table one. Frequently criticized throughout his career, Baggio did most of the talking on the pitch and proved his critics wrong until he called it a day at the age of 37.
After much deliberation, I went for Swedish striker Nordahl to lead the line. This guy was a goal-scoring freak! 43 goals in just 33 international appearances for Sweden convinced AC Milan to bring the forward to Italy, with the result being 210 goals in just 257 league games.
Impressively, he was the Serie A top scorer FIVE times, winning the Serie A title twice. Every great soccer side needs a goal-machine and Nordahl was the deadliest goal-machine ever seen in Italy.
Like Maradona, Nordahl was part of a fearsome attacking trio, along side fellow Swedes Gunnar Gren and the magician Nils Liedholm. Not finding a slot for Liedholm in this XI has been gut wrenching!