Are we entering the final chapter for Italian football's great generation of world class talent.
Six years ago Italy were about to play Germany in the semi final of the World Cup, they overcame the Germans with two extra time goals from Grosso and Del Piero to set up a final with France in the final. Six years later we have a semi final between the same two nations. Is it destined for Italy to defeat the much fancied Germans again and progress to another final? If it is, then it may represent the final chapter for Italy’s great generation of world class talent.
After watching Andrea Pirlo give a masterclass performance against England, following up on his Scudetto winning performances this past season for Juve also, it made me wonder, with a feeling of sadness, that we were witnessing the end of a truly splendid period of Italian football.
Last summer Milan believed that Pirlo had lost his mobility and was deemed surplus to Milan’s new style, however in retrospect Milan made a grave mistake in allowing him to leave. His poise, class and control of the game is something to marvel and he has led both Juve and Italy beyond the expectations of many this year. It would appear that at 33 his best days may be behind him, although this was said about Scholes at the same age and he has continued to impress up to the present. Perhaps this is not the end of Pirlo in the top echelons of the game, but he may be the last of the truly special era of great Italians players.
Twenty years of world class talent
It amazes me why Italian players are not given the credit I believe they truly deserve when people discuss the best players in world football history. I will not delve into the 1930’s when Italy won two world cups. Instead I will talk about my generation, in the past twenty years and how Italy have produced some truly stunning players.
In 1989 Arrigo Saachi’s Milan defeated Steaua 4-0 in the European Cup final, in what was a spectacular performance using Sacchi’s high pressing tactic. The stars of the team were arguably the Dutch trio of Rijkaard, Van Basten and Gullit, however the key to the side was the strength of its defence; Baresi, Madini, Costacurta, Tassatti were a world class back four and it was the quality of these players which enabled the Dutch trio freedom to create and score.
In my opinion Franco Baresi is one of the greatest defenders to ever the play the game, playing as a libero, he read, anticipated and dictated the tempo of Milan and Italy’s defence and attack. He led Milan to three European Cups, three European Supercups, six Scudetto’s and four Italian Super Cups. He played 719 games for Milan, taking them from Serie B all the way to the heights of European glory. He was such an important player for Milan that they retired his number 6. For Italy he played 82 caps, winning the World Cup as a young player in 1982 and yet missing out on lifting the World Cup in 1994 as captain after losing on penalties for Brasil in the final.
For me Baresi represented everything that was great with the game and was a major part in the development of a new style of defender. He was a strong leader and defended excellently yet his best attribute was that he was excellent on the ball. His ability to read the game meant he could intercept and win possession effectively and start attacks. I still do not believe he gets the credit he deserves when people talk of the best players ever.
Mentoring of Il Capitano
One of Baresi's greatest achievements was the mentoring of a young Paolo Maldini, who like Baresi played his whole career at Milan, in total playing 647 games for Milan and winning 126 caps for Italy. He retired at 41, his international career spanning from 1998-2002. In this time Maldini won seven Scudetto’s and five European Cups with Milan, captaining his side to glory in 2007. He captained Italy from 1994-2002, yet he could not give Italy a trophy under his stewardship, although they did come close in 2000 losing to France in the final. Maldini is a player who appears to transcend the game, his youthful looks have made people forget that he began his career at Milan in 1985. His qualities were awarded in 1995 when he came 2nd to George Weah in the FIFA World Player of the Year award, the closest a defender got to the prize until Cannavaro won it in 2006. The teaching and development of world class defenders has been a hallmark of Italy and with the qualities of Maldini and Baresi, along with Costacurta and Tassotti, the Milan defence from 1988-1992 was one of the most formidable ever in world football.
Defending as an art form
They say the best sides possess the best defence and the Italians are famed for their defensive qualities, they appear to treat defending like an art form, they work together in perfect synchrony, able to read and anticipate the game, making their work look so efficient and calm. A famous quote I heard from Maldini was that “the best defenders don’t get their shorts dirty”. A lesson for many young players in England, who fail to lack the qualities to anticipate the game and ultimately are required to make last ditch tackles to prevent goals.
Although the Italians are more than capable of this skill, their understanding of the game and perfection of defending has defined them and their style and has meant they have been as good a defending side as any in the past 20 years. Baresi and Maldini's heirs were Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta, again, world class defenders. Cannavaro is the most capped player in Italian history with 136 caps, he led his side to glory in 2006 and was rewarded with the World Player of the Year award, the first ever defender to receive the award. Although not the tallest of players, he read the game so well that he could challenge for the ball in the air as well as on the floor, and the World Cup triumph came on the back of an excellent defensive display.
Alessandro Nesta was Cannavaro's national team mate in the centre of defence and they were a formiddable force in the major tournaments from 2000-2004, however in 2006 Nesta was injured and missed out on the sides success. Injuries would curtail much of his career, and there is an argument that Nesta could have been better than all those before him. Yet his class cannot be faulted and after a successful decade with Milan, he has finally retired from the top levels of the game, pursuing a career possibly in the MLS.
Players like Baresi, Maldini, Nesta and Cannavaro have graced the football world and tought many players, coaches and children the beauty and art of defending. Others like Costacurta, Tassotti and Zambrotta have been excellent also, yet as we see Nesta and Cannavaro leave the elite levels of the game, Italy looks to be entering an era devoid of real world class quality in defence, perhaps it is only Chiellini who is a possible heir to the players of the past twenty years. The famous trequartista
Italian football has not just produced world class defenders, it has also produced some of the world's best attacking players also. In 1994 Roberto Baggio missed the decisive penalty to give Brasil the World Cup win, however this failing should not overshadow what a great player Baggio was. His move to Juve in 1990 made him the world record transfer fee and he repaid that fee by captaining the side to a UEFA Cup triumph in 1993.
Baggio is considered one of Italy’s greatest and most loved players of all time and epitomizes the splendour of the number 10. Baggio was a player who epitomized the trequartista, he was an artist, was the playmaker, who could both assist and also score goals too. He only won the Scudetto twice, with Juve and Milan and perhaps his career should have been more decorated, yet his style, charisma and ability on the pitch made him one of the best of his generation. He is the only Italian player to score in three World Cups and has scored a total of 9 goals in those three tournaments. Baggio, like Baresi, would set down a style of playing which would produce many like him afterwards, as such it was his gift to the footballing world.
Baggio's successor would be Alessandro Del Piero, a player who perhaps amazingly still somewhat under rated in world football. Del Piero has been world class since his arrival for Juve in 1993. He played 513 games for Juve, scoring 208 goals and has been an inspiration and leader for Juve. His decision to stay with Juve when they were relegated in 2006 showed the respect he had for the club and the fans and his decision helped Juve get back to the top division straight away.
In what has been a somewhat difficult period for Del Piero, having to deal with becoming a fringe player at the club, it is fitting that his last season would see Juve bring back the Scudetto for their controversial 30th title crown. His career for Italy has not been easy however, he played second behind Baggio at first, yet he has participated in seven major international tournmanents for Italy, only the second Italian player to do so. His achievements are a Champions League triumph in 1996 yet missed out on three other occasions in the finals. He has won Serie A six times with Juve and the World Cup with Italy in 2006. He has broken many records also, he is Juve’s top goalscorer of all time with 289 goals and in the Champions League with 44 goals, he also holds the most appearances for Juve at 705 games. Del Piero oozes class, charisma and above all world class ability, his 19 years at Juve captivated the fans and idolised him, yet I question how many in England genuinely respect what Del Piero has done for the game.
Francesco Totti has been a sensation for Roma since 1993 and was captaining the side in 1998 at 22. He has been the symbol of the club since then and came into prominence under Zeman as a left winger in an attacking 4-3-3. In 2000 Capello turned him into a trequartista and he won the Scudetto under Capello’s stewardship. He was the Italian player of the year in both 2000 and 2001. In 641 games for Roma, Totti has scored 270 goals.
Totti is another one club man and he has been an idol and symbol of Roma for the past two decades. This past season Luis Enrique attempted to faze him out of the squad, a grave mistake for his own job, yet an indication that Totti, at 35 was at the end of his illustrious career. His career for Italy has been up and down, in 2000 he was simply sublime and produced a man of the match performance in the final, only to lose in extra time, however in 2002 and 2004 he was disappointing after being given the role of the number 10. He was a major part of the World Cup win in 2006, playing with Pirlo in midfield, he played in all seven games and was selected in the all star team. He retired from playing international football after the 2006 World Cup and although reports said he was interested in returning, this has not materialised. Totti appears to split opinion outside of Italy, clealry a player with much talent, it would seem that when he has played against English sides, he may not have shown his best talent, or more importantly, English fans did not appreciate what he did for the side.
Lack of recognition?
The fascinating thing about these Italian players is the lack of real recognition they truly get. I believe it comes down to the fact that they have not moved away from Italy and in some cases even from their clubs. Del Piero, Totti, Baresi and Maldini have stayed with the same club for their whole career and have such become legends to the fans and the club. Baggio moved around more, so too has Nesta and Cannavaro, however they have stayed in Italy for the majority of their careers. Is it because of this that we do not give these players the credit they really deserve? I believe so.
Many English fans will point to players like Zola, Ravenelli and Vialli as some of Italy’s finest players, and although they are excellent players, Zola in particular was a very special player, they are not world class. It is interesting to wonder how players like Del Piero and Totti would have fared in England, without doubt they would have been mesmerising, perfecting the number 10 position in ways that English football would not have seen previously. It is why Zola was so effective and Bergkamp was at Arsenal too.
Perhaps the ignorance of the English fans and media have not given these players the respect the deserve. Italy have produced genuine world class players in the past twenty years, more talented than what England have. The sad truth is that of this golden generation only two remain; Pirlo and Buffon. Perhaps they will continue for a few years still, yet the magic, the artistry of Italy's world class players has been a true gift to football these past twenty years and yet I wonder how many truly savoured it and was truly in awe of these players.
A new generation
Italy now have a real chance to progress to another major tournament final, and I believed prior to the tournament they could go all the way, for me they have a good understanding, a strong will and team spirit, a progressive coach and some real quality players. Yet, the future of Italian football is slightly dimmer than it has been previously. Players like De Rossi, Chiellini and Balotelli represent the future and are excellent players, yet I don’t see a Baresi, or a new Pirlo, there is no artist like Baggio, Del Piero or Totti.
A generation of world class talent has passed before our eyes, and yet we have disregarded it, believing that the Italian game is boring and slow. It is a shame more do not watch Serie A, as although the league has lost its charm due to financial issues and perhaps respect due to Calciopoli, the league still offers an art and style which we cannot see in England. In England the game is too rushed and the crash, bang, wallop approach has produced players who lack the poise, style and quality of these great Italians.
Many English do not understand the art of great defending, as we don’t really appreciate the wonder of the trequartista, instead we are ignorant and scoff at other leagues, when in fact it is the nations of Italy, Spain and Germany who are performing on the grandest stage consistently, while we are coming short and wondering why. Perhaps we should become slightly more humble and open our eyes to other cultures and styles, perhaps we could learn something and improve our culture. I worry many won’t and that is a shame.
As Italy prepare to face Germany, a golden generation of Italian football begins to fade into the horizon and a feeling of nostalgia and sadness overcomes me.