WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
For the first time ever, the Nineties saw overseas domestic football find its way onto British television as Channel 4 began screening Football Italia. A whole new generation of calcio fans was born in the UK and one of them has chosen his Serie A team of the decade for TheInsideLeft. But do you agree?
Inspired by Giancarlo Rinaldi’s love letter to Fiorentina, written for this site last week, I decided to take on the near-impossible task of selecting my dream line-up of players who appeared in Serie A during the Nineties.
It wasn’t until I was half an hour into the process of drawing up shortlists for each position that I realised how difficult a project this was going to be. But, my word, was it enjoyable. I lost count of the number of times I broke away to look at YouTube videos of the men in the frame for selection, videos like this tribute to Franco Baresi’s (ultimately tragic) heroism in the 1994 World Cup Final.
Picking an eleven when there were at least that many world-class players in contention for almost every position made for some interesting formations and combinations as the process developed. The typically narrow nature of many great Italian sides over the years meant that out-and-out widemen were perhaps the scarcest breed among the greats of the Nineties, with the notable exceptions of Roberto Donadoni, Pavel Nedved and Attilio Lombardo.
So I settled on a narrow four-man diamond in midfield, filling my boots with creative players and making sure at least two of their number knew the meaning of hard running. Having initially considered a three-man defence in order to accommodate Baresi, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro, I eventually yielded to the need for more creativity in midfield and, against my better judgement, dropped Nesta from the back four, supposing that both he and Baresi would be most comfortable on the left of the central defensive pairing.
That left me with two forward positions and I could not pick a Serie A side without going for a classic No10/No9 partnership. Despite the fact that some of the world’s best players filled these roles for Italian clubs throughout the chosen decade, I found this an unexpectedly straightforward decision to make.
Even more unexpected was the position that proved to be the most difficult to whittle down to one man. Right-back! Consider the solution to this problem: Cafu, Javier Zanetti and Lilian Thuram have their boots on and are ready to play, but only one can make the team. Do you see what I mean now?
Check out the line up and then find out why I picked each of them below, but please remember this is my personal selection. If you disagree with any of my choices, air your views in the comments section at the foot of the piece, through our Twitter feed or on our Facebook page, just don’t take out a vendetta…
He may have emerged in the latter part of the decade but Gianluigi Buffon wasted absolutely no time in making an impression on us all. Told by his coach at the age of 14 that he could be a Serie A goalkeeper by the time he was 20, he replied: “Oh. Well what am I supposed to do until then?”
It’s a quote that tells you all you need to know about a man whose self-confidence seeps into the men in front of him and galvanises them all into a wall of belief.
Nevio Scala had chosen him between the sticks for Parma three years later and his displays for the gialloblu following that debut in 1995 saw Juventus make him the most expensive goalkeeper of all-time in 2001, when they paid a reported £32.6 million to make him theirs.
RIGHT-BACK: JAVIER ZANETTI
Indisputably the man for this role in the team of the 2000s, Javier Zanetti had stiff competition from the likes of Cafu and Lilian Thuram for his position in this team. I felt that his overlapping runs and reliable positional play would suit the system I have chosen for my side. His goal in the 1998 UEFA Cup Final demonstrated his technical prowess and the threat he posed going forward in his pomp, while his longevity has surely had something to do with his leadership skills. In a team that seemed to have a revolving door transfer policy for much of the past two decades and who underachieved for many years before hitting a purple patch in the mid-2000s, Zanetti was the mainstay. ‘Il capitano’ was signed in 1995 and still wears the armband for Inter 17 years later. He will never be forgotten by nerazzurri tifosi for always showing a level of professionalism to match his technical attributes.
Perhaps I should have selected a stopper centre-back to play alongside the ultimate mobile libero, Franco Baresi, but I settled upon Fabio Cannavaro, the consummate covering defender. Possessing unmatched agility, Cannavaro made up for his lack of height with a remarkable leap and an in-built positional perception that saw him frustrate even the most intelligent strikers. He proved vital to Parma after joining them from his hometown club, Napoli, in 1995. His ability to make up ground and force forwards wide when all seemed lost saw him earn a reputation for combining quick thinking with quick acting which he never lost. I believe that, if he or Baresi were to step up or stride out irresponsibly (and let’s face it, that would be a rare occurrence), the other would possess the mental and physical qualities required to recover.
CENTRE-BACK: FRANCO BARESI
No shock here. This man defined not only a position but a complete shift in tactical direction with his ability to play the role of libero (supposedly the spare third centre-back) within a back four. His reading of the game, his pace and his ability to turn on a sixpence (cliché klaxon) enabled Baresi to be a strident sweeper without the necessity of two stopper centre-backs alongside him. Suddenly, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan were free to add another player to their pressing machine further up the field.
Baresi’s attributes also enabled the functioning of an intricate offside system known as ‘elastico’ in Italy. Imagine each member of the back four as pegs on a board around which an elastic band was stretched. Three of those pegs would aim to position themselves in a line, high up the pitch, while the fourth – Baresi – would drop deeper, stretching the elastic band back and allowing a small pocket of space into which the opposition forward could run without being in an offside position. However, the alert Baresi was always the quicker of the two men when it came to stepping back into line and, before the ball was played in towards his man, the legendary No6 would step up, snapping the imaginary band forwards like elastic. Offside.
Who else? Whichever system I had chosen for this side to line up within, Paolo Maldini would have been the man wearing the No3 shirt. He excelled in every aspect of full-back play and he demonstrated that over three decades, peaking in the Nineties.
He only ever represented Milan and Italy and perhaps the fact that we can only imagine Maldini in two contexts helps to maintain his legend – it certainly does among the rossoneri faithful.
Two European Cup winner’s medals and five Scudetti made the Nineties a decade of rich success for the left-back who won the 1994 World Soccer World Player of the Year award ahead of Baresi, the man from whom he took on the captaincy of his club.
They called him ‘The Rock’ for a reason. Perhaps he will be best remembered as a ball-playing centre-back with the pace and awareness to match his physical strength and aerial dominance, but Marcel Desailly made the midfield playmakers of the Nineties quake in their boots during his time as a strident midfield wrecking ball for Milan.
The site of his majestic frame carrying the ball forward time and time again defined the Fabio Capello era at Milan and his performance in the 1994 Champions League Final undermined any claims Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona had to being the best on the planet. He was capable of decimating or dissecting his opponents, depending on which part of his footballing armoury he chose to call upon. He nearly always chose well.
This team is beginning to reflect the admiration I had for the Milan sides of the Nineties now. The Croatian midfielder had the spirit and the sorcery that only certain parts of the world seem to produce. The Balkans has thrown up a number of creative midfielders with added bite and, in Boban, they gave us something truly special. Four Serie A titles and a Champions League trophy tell you all you need to know about the character of the man who played with as much pride as any footballer I can remember watching.
His bearded presence among the creators who will follow in this list would certainly give the team a dynamic edge and I like to think that he and Zanetti – club rivalries aside – would combine to devastating effect with the latter overlapping on the outside.
Some of you may be recalling his days in the Premier League and wondering how Juan Veron has come to find himself among this exalted company, but those of you who saw his roaming midfield displays in Serie A, for Sampdoria, Parma and Lazio, will know exactly why he is in this team.
From a disguised, slightly deeper role on the left, I feel the Argentinean could easily form the creative fulcrum of any side, and particularly one playing with a diamond midfield. His cross-field diagonals and his cutting through balls against the direction of play were enough to scythe through some of the most disciplined defensive organisations of Serie A – the league that trademarked defensive organisation.
TOP-OF-DIAMOND: ZINEDINE ZIDANE
Similar, in a sense, to the deep creative force embodied in this side by Veron and also to the No10 role long favoured on the peninsula, Zidane was not quite the same as either. Instead, the man who confirmed himself as a world-class talent at Juventus between 1996 and 2001 thrived in the space between midfield and attack.
Lurking with intent between the lines, the technically infallible Frenchman would control the ball like it was a reflex, no matter how it came towards him. His turns, his upper body strength and his spatial awareness made him extremely difficult to dispossess and he backed it all up with an eye for a sublime pass. Then there were the set-pieces, the volleys, the curling, top-corner bound efforts that left goalkeepers grasping at thin air, while all too often, the defenders lucky enough to be captioned alongside him in the morning papers were left simply to ‘look on’.
NUMBER 10: ROBERTO BAGGIO
For some reason, I vividly remember that Roberto Baggio was the protagonist the first time I heard a commentator use the phrase “passed the ball into the net”. I immediately switched on my SNES, selected Italy on International Superstar Soccer and attempted to score with a pass from the man in the No10 shirt with the ponytail, whose name, for copyright reasons, was ‘Galfano’.
But, whether Baggio passed, stroked or caressed the ball, it generally went beyond the goalkeeper and into that spot just inside the far post where nobody can stop it.
When I hear the phrase ‘skips inside’ to describe a forward who has opened his hips up and slipped the ball across a defender, I think of Roberto Baggio’s goal against Czechoslovakia at Italia ’90. Despite facing competition from the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Dejan Savicevic and Manuel Rui Costa, my vote for Serie A No10 of the Nineties was only ever going to one man.
With his hair flapping around his shoulders as he burst past defenders with his customary powerful runs into the area, Gabriel Batistuta always seemed to be scoring when I tuned into watch the Serie A highlights on the Saturday morning Gazzetta show as a boy.
His finishing across advancing goalkeepers, his instincts in a crowded, or empty, penalty area and his distinctive appearance made the Argentinean stand out. He gunned down opponents and then gunned down the crowd with his trademark machine-gun celebration. I wondered how Fiorentina would survive without him – they didn’t.
‘Batigol’ scored 168 league goals in nine years with the viola. Just imagine the damage he would do with Veron, Zidane and Baggio as his supporting cast.