Italy is one of the most successful national teams in World Cup history, having won four titles (1934, 1938, 1982, and 2006) and making appearances in two more finals. They were the first team to successfully defend their World Cup title in 1938, and due to the outbreak of World War II, they were able to do so for another 12 years. Following the death of the bulk of the team in a plane crash in 1949, the team did not move past the group stage of the next two World Cup tournaments, and also failed to qualify for the 1958 edition—a failure to qualify for the World Cup would not occur again until the 2018 edition.
The Azzurri are widely regarded as one of the strongest national teams in the world, but their relegation in recent years has been genuinely startling. Even as Italian football prepares to take the next huge step toward a future without Buffon, Chiellini, and a slew of other superstars, we look back at the ten greatest players to ever wear the blue shirt.
10. Alessandro Del Piero
Del Piero earned six Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, and one Champions League trophy during his 19 years in Turin. In 2005 and 2006, he also won league titles, which were later cancelled due to the Calciopoli scandal. With 91 caps, he is Italy's 10th most capped player. He scored 27 goals for them, including a semi-final goal in a 2-0 World Cup victory over Germany in 2006. In the final, he also scored a penalty in a shootout against France. Del Piero announced his retirement in 2015 after playing for Sydney FC and Delhi Dynamos toward the end of his career.
9. Sandro Mazzola
Sandro, the son of the renowned Valentino Mazzola who regrettably went away in the Turin plane catastrophe which wiped out the entire Torino team. In 70 caps for Italy, he has 22 goals. In 1968, he and his country won the Euros. Mazzola was quick, deft, and tactically astute, with a strong defensive work rate. Sandro Mazzola was a key member of "La Grande Inter," arguably the strongest team the Nerazzurri have ever fielded.
8. Roberto Baggio
Roberto Baggio is perhaps one of the greatest attacking Italian players of all time, with unrivalled vision, creativity, passing, and finishing in the 1980s and 1990s. Even though he only won one Serie A title and never won the World Cup, he is still considered an Italian icon. But, sadly, he will be associated with one of the most terrible moments in Italian football history, when he missed a penalty against Brazil in the World Cup final, costing the Azzurri the greatest triumph in the sport.
7. Fabio Cannavaro
Cannavaro has the second-most caps of any Italian player in history (with 136 caps). Captain Fabio Cannavaro was undeniably the backbone of Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning defence. Throughout the competition, Cannavaro forged an excellent combination with the mercurial Marco Materazzi, who proved to be the ideal contrast for him at the back. In 2006, he was the last defender to win the Ballon d'Or, and the only one in the twenty-first century.
6. Franco Baresi
Baresi was a member of the team that won the World Cup for the first time in 44 years in 1982, despite never having played a match. He did not become a regular member of the national team until the mid-1980s. As a regular squad member, he came close to winning the World Cup in 1990 and 1994, placing third and second, respectively. He retired the legendary number 6 shirt in his honour when he retired at the age of 37. According to some purists, Franco Baresi was the greatest central defender the game has ever seen.
5. Giuseppe Meazza
Most modern football fans are unfamiliar with Meazza, but most Italians remember him as the driving force behind their two World Cup victories in 1934 and 1938. Meazza was flamboyant on and off the field, and for the majority of his career, he was used as an all-out striker or an inside forward. He is Italy's second-highest goalscorer, with 33 in 53 games. He is known for his passing, shooting, dribbling, and heading. Between 1927 and 1940, he scored 242 goals in 348 games for Inter.
4. Luigi Riva
Riva was a member of the Italian national team that won the 1968 UEFA European Championship and finished second in the 1970 FIFA World Cup; he also played in the 1974 FIFA World Cup. He is Italy's all-time leading goalscorer, with 35 goals in 42 matches between 1965 and 1974. His tremendous left foot and time with the Italian national team made him an Azzurri legend. It's a shame he always played for Cagliari, because one can only imagine the success he might have had if he had played for a more prominent team.
3. Paolo Maldini
Maldini has been an AC Milan legend for more than two decades, captaining the squad and bleeding the colours. With the Invincibili of the early 1990s, he played more than 900 competitive games for the Milanese club, going down in history as a member of perhaps the finest defence in history. He has 126 caps for Italy, including captaining the team from 1994 until 2002. The only prize he lacks is one with the national team, though he came agonisingly close in 1994, losing in the final to Brazil.
2. Gianni Rivera
Rivera, dubbed "Italy's Golden Boy" by the media, spent the majority of his club career with A.C. Milan. He began his career with hometown club Alessandria in 1959. Rivera was known for his surgically placed passes that can rip open an entire defence in a matter of seconds. Aside from that, he had a scoring touch and was a devastating player in his time. In 1969, he was awarded the Ballon d'Or. He helped Italy win the UEFA Euros in 1970 and was runners-up in the 1968 FIFA World Cup.
1. Gianluigi Buffon
Gianluigi Buffon, one of the great goalkeepers of all time, was the driving force behind Italy's 2006 World Cup victory in Germany. His incredible defensive effort for Italy was one of the key reasons the team only conceded one goal (an own goal by Christian Zaccardo) till the final. It is only right that Italy's greatest ever player and record appearance maker (176 caps) is one of the best goalkeepers to have ever played the beautiful game for a country that prides itself on its defensive flair and solidity.