Retroselective: Serie A In The Nineties

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?

Milano_-_zona_san_siro_-_italia_-_roberto_baggio

Stefano StabileCC-BY-SA-3.0

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…

GOALKEEPER: GIANLUIGI BUFFON

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.

CENTRE-BACK: FABIO CANNAVARO

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.

LEFT-BACK: PAOLO MALDINI

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.

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER: MARCEL DESAILLY

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.

RIGHT-OF-DIAMOND: ZVONIMIR BOBAN

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.

LEFT-OF-DIAMOND: JUAN SEBASTIAN VERON

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’.

I failed.

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.

CENTRE-FORWARD: GABRIEL BATISTUTA

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.

Do you agree with Dominic’s selection? Join the debate by commenting on Twitter @theinsidelefty or our Facebook page.

24 thoughts on “Retroselective: Serie A In The Nineties

  1. Oli B says:

    Somehow it feels wrong to have no Del Piero or Cafu (or even Totti) but then you try and decide who to take out and it starts to get more difficult!

    I’d still plump for Cafu over Zanetti, but that would maybe be my Roma bias.

    Wish we still had strikers like Batigol!

  2. David says:

    You spelled Totti with a Z. Fix that and it’s ok.

  3. I apologise if I’ve upset Roma fans with my lack of Cafu and Totti. For what it’s worth, I rate them both highly and wouldn’t complain if you selected them in your team. I climbed down off the fence for one feature and look what happened!

    • Moe K says:

      For me, Totti’s best years were during the 2000′s in the 90s he was still a WC player in formation. As for Cafu, that is another argument, in fact his best years were probably in the 90s but it will always be a difficult one to chose between him and Zanetti I think in the end it depends on what you would prefer, attacking threat from you full back or discipline and reassurance.

  4. Richard Bazzaz says:

    You’ve alluded to it in your piece, but I think of Buffon as more of a 2000s keeper, and he seems of a more recent era than some of the others in the team.

    For me, a true 90s vintage keeper would be Peruzzi from Juventus or Fiorentina’s Toldo, who were a couple of my favourites at the time.

    Can’t nitpick too much though, as I do remember Buffon’s Parma days, and didn’t realise that he signed for Juventus as long ago as 2001. He also made an important contribution to goalkeeping fashion: with Barthez in short sleeves and everyone else in long, Buffon shocked the world with a three-quarter length number in around ’99, a piece that featured in my GK kit rotation at the time.

  5. Gareth Walker says:

    Zidane on the left of the diamond for me instead of Veron, with Totti or Del Piero at the top. Also Cafu instead of Zanetti.

  6. MBM says:

    A very poorly researched article with romantic ideas of players taking precedence of what they actually did on the pitch.

    Boban was an average player in a phenomenal Milan side. Savicevic was the creative force at Milan and the best #10 in the league that decade. Zidane’s best performances for Juve were in his last season -2000-2001 and chocking in 2 European Cup finals doesn’t make him one of the best of the 1990s.

    Even just for his 2 seasons Van Basten was so far ahead of every player in the league he should have made it.

    Cannavaro is a fraud. He only excelled when Thuram was around to hold it hand – look at how poor he was at Inter and Real Madrid.

    Zanetti? All he did was run and run and run. Monstrously overrated player. Cafu was vastly superior.

    Bone idle slacker Veron? He has two good seasons between 1999-2001.

    Baggio? In an Italy shirt magic but a failure at every big club, his best seasons were at Fiorentina and Bologna not Juventus, Milan and Inter.

  7. Sonny says:

    if you are in a 90s perspective,
    as Goalkeeper you should look for Peruzzi or Pagliuca (Marchegiani 3rd most probably)
    I disagree on Veron
    as Forward/winger than you miss Donadoni, Lentini (purest talent befor his car crash) and Signori (for several years the best scorer)

  8. Angelo Trofa says:

    What on gods earth is MBM talking about? In two world cups 1998 & 2006 Cannavaro was the best defender of the tournament, no Thuram in that team! For Juve he was a success, at Inter he suffered the curse that many of the worlds best suffered between the 90s and Mid 00s.

    Veron was an amazing player, and for me one of Te most underrated midfielders of all time, what he could do in the midfield at Parma and Lazio was amazing. I once read an article by an argentine writer who said Veron was the only player post Maradona to have the vision for a pass. Put his time in England aside and you’ll have seen he made a huge difference when he joined inter, his recall for Argentina in 2010 says it all!

    Then you say Zanetti overrated!? Madness, the oldest player at Inter and still the most important, he is the kind of player I don’t think I’ll see again in my lifetime! Then we have the Baggio comment, the guy for me is up there with Maradona and Pele, the guy was a genius, even at inter where he had limited time, watch his substitute appearance against real Madrid in 1999.

    For me the players I would have loved to have seen mentioned were Edgar David’s, Bobo Vieri and Igor Protti!

    Great article.

  9. Chris says:

    Ronaldo has to be there… unbelievable at Inter. Maradona played in the nineties – yup I’d still pick him too. The keeper Luca Paliuca. Also I’d pick Costacurta next to Baresi – Ying and Yang. And where was Atillo Lombardo – he was the nineties!!!!!!

  10. mooncat says:

    I think people are missing the point its Dominic’s Serie A Team Of The 90s not yours.
    Next Month Serie B Team Of The 80s.

  11. heinz says:

    Buffon is too 2000s even though he did well before. Let’s replace him with Pagliuca or Sebastiano Rossi (but AC Milan would become overly dominant).
    I agree with MBM about Cannavaro. He was mediocre compared to the likes of Thuram, Desailly, etc who were properly fast and bulky as well. @Angelo: agree with you over Veron but disagree over Cannavaro. The forwards Cannavaro faced in WC 2006 were dead horses like Trezeguet (that time) and Baros and in WC 1998 he was good but not that good. Let’s replace him with Bergomi or Vierchowod, that were so aggressive and tactically perfect.
    Zanetti goes too, because Cafu is so much more 90s and more of a winger.
    Midfield you could pick any and this is quite good indeed.

  12. william says:

    1
    peruzzi
    2 thuram 5 baresi 6 nesta 3 maldini

    7 rui costa 4 zidane 11 nedved

    8 batistuta 9 del piero 10 signori

  13. ade says:

    no rjikard, guilt, marco van basten. totally disagree

  14. ade says:

    this is a sentimental statement. zidane is simply too good, zanetti highly effective, veron was great, boban was phenomenal just lets know ur alternatives.

  15. Lanza says:

    @MBM – you are way off on your assessment of all the players you mentioned, most glaringly, Baggio and Cannavaro. Baggio is the quintessential #10 of the 90s, I couldnt agree more with Dominic on this. He was as creative and sublime a player as they come.

  16. MBM says:

    Baggio consistently failed at big sides because he didn’t want to follow coaches instructions and because he didn’t like sharing the limelight. What does it say that his best season was at Bologna? Cannavaro was good at kicking people. Thuram is to Cannavaro as Baresi was to Costacurta. No one considers Costacurta one of the all time great defenders and rightly so, he was a very good defender who happened to have an incredible partner beside him.

  17. K says:

    Here’s an alternative without any from the team above:

    Pagliuca

    Cafu Nesta Costacurta Roberto Carlos

    Matthäus Rijkaard Gullit

    Rui Costa

    Ronaldo Del Piero

  18. P___ki says:

    RIJKAARD AND GULLIT ARE MORE 80′S PLAYERS TO ME.
    MY TEAM WOULD BE:

    PERUZZI

    CAFU FERRARA THURAM MALDINI

    DONADONI WEAH NEDVED

    DELPIERO ZOLA BAGGIO

  19. Lanza says:

    Baggio didn’t have a sparkling reputation at some of his larger clubs but I would not deem him a failure. Also, Pele played for Santos, Maradona for Napoli, etc….so you do not need to be a success at “big” club to be considered great.

  20. Christoph says:

    What a team! This XI oozes class, style!

  21. azzuri94jkt says:

    Back in the day, to play in the serie a you really needed something special, watching serie a was something special in itself. Class, elegance, grit, tactical genius, you had it all, the greatest defenders plied their trait and taught the world far more significantly than the cruyff system teaches today via barca.

    Forza calcio, want the good times again

  22. mark baker says:

    rijkaard would be in before desailly for me,likewise van basten for bati.

  23. Faraz says:

    Nice post. Brings back memories. Opinions will always vary but, for me, Signori needs to feature in there somewhere.

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