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This week marks the 20th anniversary of the tragic death of the legendary Juventus and Italy libero Gaetano Scirea. Goal.com's Gil Gillespie celebrates the life and achievements of arguably the greatest defender the game has ever seen...

Even in a land famous for producing the most complete defenders in the history of world football, Gaetano Scirea stands almost alone.

The Juventus and Italy libero is one of only five players who have won every single club trophy dreamt up by FIFA and UEFA, as well as the World Cup.

Usually positioned behind the defence in a sweeper role that has sadly become extinct in the modern age, Scirea was the ultimate reader of the game - Franz Beckenbauer, Daniel Passarella and Franco Baresi are the only other central defenders who even come close in terms of greatness.

Grace, elegance, composure, intelligence, pace, the almost Zen-like Juve man had all of these in spades.

Both on and off the pitch, he was a quiet, thoughtful leader who marshalled the back line for his club and his country with a colossal, yet almost silent, authority throughout a record-breaking career. As a defender, he always relied on subtlety rather than muscle, but he was equally adept at venturing forward and had the passing ability and drive of a pure midfielder, as well as an eye for goal that saw him find the back of the net 24 times during his 377-game club career with the Bianconeri.

It is truly amazing to think that in all that time, Scirea never received a red card, not a bad disciplinary record for someone who operated as the penultimate bolt in the team.

Upon his retirement from the international game in 1986, France Football magazine described him as "better than Pele, [Johan] Cruyff and [Alfredo] Di Stefano".

Gaetano Scirea was born in Cernusco sul Naviglio in the province of Milan on May 25, 1953. After coming through the celebrated youth academy at Atalanta, he made his Serie A debut for the Bergamo club against Cagliari on September 24, 1972. He remained with Atalanta for two seasons, before transferring to Juventus, the club he would stay with until the end of his playing career.

He spent 14 years with La Vecchia Signora, and during that time he scaled the pinnacle of domestic and European glory with Juve, playing alongside the decidedly more rugged, but still unreasonably talented Claudio Gentile.


Scirea | 'Better than Pele, Cruyff and Di Stefano'

Scirea was first called up to the Italian national team in 1974 and quickly established himself as one of the first names on Enzo Bearzot’s team-sheet. He remained there for the next decade, keeping a young upstart who went by the name of Franco Baresi out of the team. He eventually went on to compete in no less than three World Cups and one European Championship, but it was as part of Italy’s triumphant 1982 World Cup winning side when Scirea left mere mortals behind and joined the arena of the Gods.

The libero’s unflappable, almost transcendental, performances during the Azzurri’s games against Argentina, Brazil, Poland and West Germany were as vital as Marco Tardelli’s destructive midfield bursts or Paolo Rossi’s sudden outbreak of goalscoring greed.

Dino Zoff may have lifted the trophy, but no-one played a more definitive role than Scirea.

Four years later, Italy travelled to Mexico to defend their title but were knocked out in the second round by Michel Platini’s France. It was to be Scirea’s last tournament, as he drew the curtains on his international career aged 33.

In 1988, following one of the worst seasons in Juventus’ illustrious history, Scirea announced he was hanging up his boots completely after 14 seasons of faithful service with the club.

However, soon afterwards he was appointed assistant coach at Juve, working under his life-long friend Dino Zoff.

Then, in September 1989 he was sent on a scouting mission to watch the clubs’ UEFA Cup opponents, Polish side Gornik Zabrze. Scirea was being driven along the Warsaw-Katowice Superhighway when the Fiat 125 he was travelling in crashed head-on with a fully-laden petrol tanker. The tanker and the car exploded, instantly killing everyone involved. Scirea was just 36-years-old.

Since that terrible day, his name has lived on as a beacon of sportsmanship, and every year Italian journalists vote for the player who they believe has been the ideal role model, both on and off the field of play throughout the season. Last year's Gaetano Scirea Award was given to another Juve legend, Alessandro Del Piero. In 2005, ex-Italy national team coach Enzo Bearzot also proposed the retirement of the No.6 jersey of the national team and Juventus in recognition of the great man and all he achieved.


Sportsmanship | Del Piero holds Scirea's shirt

Not that anyone on the peninsula is about to forget someone of Scirea's stature. 'Il Capitano' will even have a stand at the soon-to-be-rebuilt Stadio delle Alpi named in his honour.

And, 20 years after the premature death of this most cerebral of Calcio’s all-time legends, Juve fans still chant his name and still remember his unforgettable contribution to the legacy of their club and their country.

Quite simply, Scirea redefined what it means to be a defender and what it means to be a sportsman. Without him, the likes of Alessandro Nesta would probably be playing in midfield.

Gil Gillespie, Goal.com

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