The first ten years of the new millennium were certainly mixed with great emotions for the Italy national team. The Azzurri won their fourth World Cup at Germany 2006, the country’s first in 24 years, with Ghana, United States, Czech Republic, Australia, Ukraine, Germany and France dispatched on the path to glory.
Italy came agonizingly close to winning Euro 2000; leading 1-0 in the final against France, Sylvain Wiltord equalised in the fourth minute of injury time, before David Trezeguet blasted home the Golden Goal in extra time. La Nazionale crashed out amidst huge controversy at World Cup 2002 and Euro 2004. Finally, at Euro 2008, an ageing Italy limped through to the quarter finals before losing on penalties in the quarter finals against eventual winners Spain.
Carlo Garganese selects his best Italy XI from the past decade…
Gianluigi Buffon (1997- )
After making his Italy debut in the snow of Russia in 1997 at the age of 19, Buffon would have played at Euro 2000 but was ruled out through injury. He has starred at every major international tournament since, and was a major protagonist at the 2006 World Cup conceding just two goals – a freak own goal and contentious penalty – as Italy won the trophy. Buffon is currently just five short of 100 caps, and he will surely be his country’s all-time appearance holder when he retires. With perfect positioning, imperious decision-making, and outstanding pedigree in all departments except on penalties, Buffon may eventually be remembered as the greatest goalkeeper of all time.
Gianluca Zambrotta (1999- )
Debuting in 1999, Zambrotta has been an Italy regular for a decade now. He began his national career as a right midfielder-cum-wingback, a role he occupied at both Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002. In the former he was solid as Italy finished runners-up, although he missed the final after being sent off in the epic semi win over hosts Holland. In Korea-and-Japan, he suffered a serious injury during the notorious second round exit. After switching to full back for his club, he interpreted the same role for his country. Between 2004 and 2006, Zambrotta was arguably the best full back in the world, and he was immense as Italy earned their fourth star in Germany, bombing up and down the right flank, and scoring a long-range effort in the quarter final against Ukraine.
Alessandro Nesta (1996-2006)
Nesta is just another in a long-line of world class Italian centre backs, following on from the likes of Gaetano Scirea, Claudio Gentile, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta. The Rome-native was certainly the classiest defender of his generation, combining pace, strength, aerial prowess and tactical knowhow, with a magnificent reading of the game and the ability to bring the ball out of defence and instigate attacks. A contender for the best defender of the past 10 years, along with Lilian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro, Nesta was almost impenetrable at Euro 2000, but he was unlucky with injuries at many of his other major tournaments, including in 2006 when he didn’t play past the third group game. This convinced Nesta to retire from internationals on 78 caps.
Fabio Cannavaro (1997- )
Was there a better centre back partnership during the noughties than Cannavaro and Nesta? The two stoppers go together like a horse and carriage, to quote a line from a certain Frank Sinatra song. The pair complimented each other perfectly, forming the backbone of the Italy defence for four major international tournaments. Cannavaro was at his peak during the 2006 World Cup when he was undoubtedly the player of the tournament, an unbreakable ‘Berlin Wall’ who was the symbol of Italy’s success. Cannavaro had to play without Nesta throughout the entire knockouts, but was so imperious that he even turned Marco Materazzi into a top-class performer. Following the shootout win over France, captain Cannavaro lifted the World Cup on the occasion of his 100th cap, and he has since gone on to reach Paolo Maldini’s games record.
Paolo Maldini (1988-2002)
Having finally retired this summer after an unrivalled 25-year career, Maldini will go down in the history books as one of the greatest players of all time, and certainly the greatest left back. For Italy, Maldini won 126 caps, a number that has just recently been equalled by Cannavaro. The Milan legend played just two tournaments during the noughties before retiring from internationals – Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002. In the former, he played as an unorthodox left wing-back, and came so close to captaining his side to glory. Two years later, Maldini’s Italy career ended on a low, as he was outjumped by Ahn Jung Hwan for the hosts’ winning goal during one of Calcio’s darkest hours. Maldini resisted calls from Marcello Lippi to play at World Cup 2006, and thus missed out on the one big prize that eluded him during his career.
Fabio Grosso (2003- )
A late bloomer, Grosso was still at modest Palermo when the 2006 World Cup arrived, but went on to be the Azzurri’s unlikely hero in Germany. The full back won the hotly-disputed last minute penalty in the second round win over Australia, scored the famous and decisive 118th minute curler in the semi-final epic against hosts Germany, before slotting home the winning spot-kick in the final shootout victory against France. In the proceeding three years, Grosso has been the Italy regular at left back, and has rarely played a bad game, being one of his country’s best performers both at Euro 2008 and the 2009 Confederations Cup.
Andrea Pirlo (2002- )
The best deep-lying playmaker of the decade, it is testament to Pirlo’s outstanding ability that he excelled during a physical, athletic era that did not really suit his style of play. Despite starring for Milan since at least 2002, Pirlo did not actually become an Italy regular until Marcello Lippi took charge, as Giovanni Trapattoni bizarrely preferred Cristiano Zanetti and Simone Perrotta at the ill-fated Euro 2004. Pirlo would be a major protagonist, though, in Germany two years later, scoring Italy’s first goal in the opener against Ghana, and supplying three assists during the tournament, including the one in the final for Marco Materazzi. Also played well at Euro 2008, and many people cite his suspension against Spain as a reason for Italy’s quarter final exit. A masterful passer of the ball, with the ability to create chances and spot through passes that most others did not know existed.
Rino Gattuso (2000- )
The perfect partner for Pirlo for both Milan and Italy, while the former Brescia star was the creator, Gattuso was the destroyer. Ringhio was the pit-bull of the Azzurri midfield, and a crucial element of the 2006 World Cup success, charging around the pitch with fire in his belly, and closing down opponents. Italy have very rarely possessed a British-type bulldog like Gattuso over the years, and he became a real favourite with tifosi due to his never-say-die attitude, grit, and determination to die for the cause. Although his legs have perhaps started to go during the past 18 months, culminating in an under-par Euro 2008, Gattuso’s influence on Italy this decade cannot be underestimated, and he will forever be remembered for his passionate ‘slap’ on Marcello Lippi in the third group game win over Czech Republic in Germany.
Francesco Totti (1998-2006)
The idea that Francesco Totti always disappointed for his country is one of Calcio’s darkest myths. At Euro 2000, the Roma idol was some people’s Player of the Tournament. Totti scored twice, also chipping his famous ‘spoon-kick’ in the semi shootout win over hosts Holland. In the final itself, which Italy lost dramatically, Totti was the undoubted man-of-the-match, executing a genius backheel in the build-up to Marco Delvecchio’s opener. At the 2002 World Cup he provided numerous assists for goals that both stood and were wrongly disallowed before being incorrectly sent off against South Korea. A half-fit Totti still provided more assists than anyone else as Italy won the 2006 World Cup, also executing a crucial last-gasp second round penalty against Australia, although he blotched his copybook by spitting at Denmark’s Christian Poulsen at Euro 2004.
Christian Vieri (1997-2005)
Standing at well over six feet, Vieri combined height and aerial expertise, with a devastating mix of pace, power, and a crushing left foot. During his peak from the late 1990s up until 2003, excluding an injured Ronaldo, Vieri was probably the best striker in the world. A bully of a frontman who scared the living daylights out of defenders, Vieri added four goals at World Cup 2002 to the five he registered four years earlier in France. His career took a downturn after 2004, playing poorly at that year’s Euros, and then missing the 2006 World Cup with injury. Despite this, Italy have never really replaced him, and as we speak there is no world class Azzurri forward in his mould.
Pippo Inzaghi (1997-2007)
The day that Pippo Inzaghi retires will be a sad one for Calcio. SuperPippo may have no skill, technique, strength or blistering pace, but he is a true genius of a penalty box striker. It is debatable if there has ever been an attacker with better movement, anticipation and instincts than Inzaghi (perhaps only Gerd Muller). A prolific goalscorer for every team he has ever played for, even more so when you consider he took no free kicks and few penalties, Inzaghi struck 25 times in just 57 appearances for La Nazionale, fifth in the all-time list. He excelled at Euro 2000, scoring twice. At World Cup 2002 he had a number of strikes wrongly disallowed for non-existent offside positions, while he made just one substitute appearance at Germany 2006 against the Czechs, and of course he scored. A legend.
Cannavaro – Nesta – Maldini
Gattuso – Pirlo
Inzaghi – Vieri
Cannavaro – Nesta – Maldini
Gattuso – Pirlo
Inzaghi – Vieri
Do you agree with those who made it into the Azzurri Team of the Decade 2000-2010? What would be your XI? Goal.com wants to know what YOU think...
Carlo Garganese, Goal.com