Italians in the Premier League

Zola ChelseaEmanuele Giulianelli picks a team of Italians who have graced the Premier League since its inception.

Once upon a time, the greatest football players from all over the world dreamed of playing only in one country: Italy, and its Serie A. From Maradona to Platini, Zico to Falcao, Rummenigge to Rush; every top player in European football joined an Italian team.

Italy was an importer of football players and it barely exported at all. It was more than a rarity to find an Italian player in a foreign league and the few who decided to emigrate did it just at the end of their career, to pick up life experience. Pioneers in Italian football emigration included the likes of Bob Vieri, father of Christian, playing for Marconi Sydney in Australia from 1977 to 1982, or Roberto Bettega joining Toronto Blizzard in Canada in 1983/84. Giancarlo Antognoni and Marco Tardelli in Switzerland, Giorgio Chinaglia and Pino Wilson in the USA, with New York Cosmos. But they were exceptions to the rule that Italian players played only in Italy.

The Bosman ruling of 1995 broke this unwritten rule, as Italian players started to look more widely for experiences in other countries. So, for the first time, they went ashore to England, the land of football’s inventors. In homage to those trailblazers, I decided to put together an XI of representative Italian players that experienced the Premier League in that first wave. The formation I chose to line them up in is a 4-4-2, as a tribute to the tradition of English football, but the players involved make it more similar to a 4-2-4, with two very attack-minded wingers.

Not to put too fine a point on it, there were rather more attacking options than defensive ones for this selection, paving the way for some unexpected names in the backline, while the likes of Attilio Lombardo found their way into the side blocked. As ever, please join in the discussion in the comments section…

Goalkeeper: Carlo Cudicini

In the first wave of Italians who moved to the Premier League, there were only two goalkeepers: one was Carlo Cudicini; the other one was Massimo Taibi. Naturally, I chose Cudicini because he left his mark during his staying in Premier League, while Massimo didn’t enjoy much luck (to be euphemistic!) in his adventure between the Manchester United posts. Coming in as a replacement for the great Peter Schmeichel, he collected a series of comic errors that made him a figure of fun.

Cudicini, on the other hand, has always been a reliable goalkeeper. He arrived at Chelsea from Castel di Sangro (Italian Serie B) in 1999 at the age of 23, son of Fabio Cudicini (a renowned goalkeeper himself, who won a European Cup with AC Milan in 1968). Carlo was considered the back-up stopper to Ed De Goey initially and collected only one appearance in his first season, but in the years to come he became the undoubted first choice and hero of Chelsea’s faithful, even winning the ‘Golden Gloves’ award in 2003.

Right Back: Enzo Gambaro

Admittedly, this looks a very bizarre choice. If you look at the Premier League historical statistics, you will find that Enzo arrived at Bolton in January 1996 and left the team in March of the same year. Less than three months. So, why did I chose him as a representative player in this XI? The reason is simple.

Enzo Gambaro, aged 30 at the time, was the first Italian player to use the Bosman ruling in order to release himself from the contract he had with Reggiana and choose England as his new destination. He was a starter in his spell and I want to remember his career. Having started his career in Sampdoria, Gambaro made his name with Parma, before Arrigo Sacchi decided to take him to AC Milan in 1991. Five years later he was at Bolton, but his mix of running and technique made him every inch the modern right-back.    

Centre Back: Marco Materazzi

Marco Materazzi was 25 when he arrived in Merseyside to join Everton. Coming from Perugia, where he had just won promotion to Serie A, he was considered a regular in the starting eleven next to either Dave Watson or David Unsworth. He will be remembered most, though, for his rough play, so much so that he found time to collect four red cards in 27 appearances for the Toffees. Not bad!

Materazzi also scored two goals during his spell in England: one against Middlesbrough in the  Premier League and another in the League Cup, against Huddersfield. His experience in the Premier League lasted only one year and, in the summer of 1999, he returned to Perugia, where he became a favourite among local supporters. He didn’t leave a big mark in England, but I believe his adventure into a different football culture contributed to the process of improvement in a player that, some years later, became a World Champion with Italy.

Centre Back: Gianluca Festa

Born in Cagliari in 1969, Gianluca Festa played for his hometown team until 1993, before representing both Inter and Roma. Then, in 1996, Middlesbrough needed a centre-back to help bolster the defence of a team in the midst of a relegation battle. They turned to the Sardinian.

He made his debut in January 1997, scoring the winning goal against Sheffield Wednesday to cap off an impressive performance, and soon became the leader of the defence at a time when the Boro attack was ruled by another Italian boy, Fabrizio Ravanelli. His positional sense, his tackling and his dominance in the air were complimented by some important goals at the other end too, including the one that earned Middlesbrough a place in the FA Cup Final. In fact, Festa played at Wembley three times.

The following year, he remained at Middlsebrough, while a lot of team-mates departed following the club’s relegation from the top flight, becoming a leading figure in the team who won promotion back to Premier League at the first time of asking. In 1998 he was voted Middlesbrough’s Player of the Year.

Left Back: Alessandro Pistone

In 1996, when Roy Hodgson was the coach of Inter, he went down in club folklore for his much-discussed decision to select as his regular left-back a young player from Vicenza, Alessandro Pistone, in place of Roberto Carlos. It was something like a heresy, but he did it, and the Brazilian joined Real Madrid.

The Italian, Hodgson said, was more able defensively, while Roberto Carlos was more of an offensive wing-back style player – and the young Pistone didn’t fail to meet his coach’s expectations, playing a good season. His performances also impressed Newcastle United manager, Kenny Dalglish, who snapped Alessandro up for £4.5 million. Pistone played three season for the Magpies, reaching the FA Cup final in 1998, with a break for a loan move to Venezia during Ruud Gullit’s spell as manager. Pistone came back, though, recalled by Bobby Robson, and remained until 2000. Then he was sold to Everton, where he played for a further seven years in the Premier League.

Midfielder: Nicola Berti

Nicola Berti was a classy player. Ok, not comparable with David Beckham, but, for the period he played, Berti was a very stylish man, who sometimes seemed more interested in his tuft of hair than in the match he was playing. The girls went crazy for him, for his nice-boy face and his smile. But he was a good player too, a skillful midfielder, who learned the tricks of the trade from the great team-mates he had in his youth: Daniel Passarella and Lothar Matthaeus above all. He was in the Italian national team who won the bronze medal in the 1990 World Cup and the silver medal at USA ’94.

Having played for Parma, Fiorentina and Inter, Berti joined Tottenham Hotspur in 1998, at the age of 31. He made his debut in North London, on 10 January 1998, against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Alongside him was his former Inter team-mate, Jurgen Klinsmann.

Berti scored three times for Spurs and remained in England until September 1998, when he decided to try another experience abroad, this time in Spain. Destination: Alaves. Incidentally, the starting XI for his last match with Tottenham contained another Italian player, Paolo Tramezzani, at left back.

Midfielder: Roberto Di Matteo

Roberto Di Matteo. Who else? The mind of the midfield in a Chelsea squad that won the FA Cup in 1997 and the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1998, helping to restore the Blues to their former splendour.

He arrived in England from Lazio, in the summer of 1996, for £4.9 million. Glen Hoddle had just left Chelsea to become England manager and Ruud Gullit had taken the role of player-manager. The load-bearing axis of that team was made up of Italian players: Di Matteo in midfield, Gianfranco Zola playing in the hole and Gianluca Vialli competing for the centre-forward’s role with the Welshman, Mark Hughes. That Chelsea team reached an impressive sixth place in the league, but the greatest result was winning the FA Cup, after a 2-0 triumph over the Middlesbrough of Festa and Ravanelli at Wembley. Di Matteo scored the first goal in a record-breaking time of 43 seconds.

He became a firm pillar in Chelsea line-up for four years. Then, in 2000, he was seriously injured and subsequently suffered complications during treatment before, in 2002, he decided to end his playing career. He became a manager, reaching the pinnacle when he won the Champions League in 2012 – with Chelsea, of course.

Right Winger: Paolo Di Canio

Everyone knows Paolo Di Canio for his charisma, his rebellious attitude and also for an extraordinary act of fair play that won him the FIFA Fair Play Award in 2001. That was Di Canio – bright and naughty at the same time, a charismatic leader for his teammates and an idol for the supporters.

He arrived at Sheffield Wednesday in 1997, after a great season spent with Celtic, and very quickly became a favourite with the fans. He scored 14 goals during his first season in the Premier League, making him the leading goalscorer for Wednesday. In the next year, he sat out an extended ban of 11 matches after pushing referee Paul Alcock to the ground! Lights and shadows: that was Paolo Di Canio’s experience over the course of two years with Wednesday, four with West Ham and one at Charlton Athletic. His talent, however, was never in doubt.

Left Winger: Benito Carbone

A real globetrotter of English football, since 1996. Three seasons in Sheffield, where he was joined at Wednesday by Paolo Di Canio from 1997 and with another Italian mate, Francesco Sanetti in 1998/99. After coming to Hillsborough from Internazionale, he scored 25 goals scored in 96 matches before, in 1999, the call from Aston Villa arrived and he made the move to an ambitious team. The next season, Benny finished in sixth place at the end of the season and reached the FA Cup Final. Nicely done.

But, despite these results, Carbone was allowed to move to Bradford City on a free transfer in 2000. He became a favourite of Valley Parade supporters, scoring 10 goals in two seasons. With three English clubs already on is CV, he was loaned to Derby County in 2001/02. No panic, just the time to pack his bags and Benny was ready for a new English adventure. One season, with one goal scored against his former employers Aston Villa, he was transferred to Middlesbrough for one last season in England. A talented player, beloved by fans, especially at Wednesday and Bradford, he lacked the luck required to achieve something great in England.

Centre Forward: Fabrizio Ravanelli

I chose the “White Feather” to wear the No9 shirt and not Vialli, his strike partner in the great Juventus side of Marcello Lippi. After all, it might have been a bit flat if I had chosen all the Italian boys from the Chelsea of 1996-99. Ravanelli was real shot in the arm for the transfer market in 1996: he was a European Champion with Juve and, at the age of 28, in his sporting prime.

Middlesbrough, not one of the top clubs in Europe, bought him for £7 million. Great expectations were heaped upon him, but, despite finding the net with regularity, Ravanelli wasn’t able to carry the load over the course of the season. He started in impressive style, scoring a hat-trick on his debut on the opening day of the season, against Liverpool no less. He scored 17 goals with Boro, but they were not enough to save his team from relegation as Middlesbrough also reached the FA Cup and League Cup finals, losing both. After only one year, Ravanelli moved back to Italy, although he later returned to play for Derby County between 2001 and 2003.

Magician: Gianfranco Zola

I’m not drunk. No, it’s not a typo. I wrote “Magician” and not “Forward” or “Playmaker” because no definition can suitably describe Gianfranco Zola. The only label that looks good on Franco is “Magician”, the term used over and over again to describe him during seven incredible years with Chelsea.

Wasn’t that also the reason why Carlo Ancelotti didn’t want him anymore in his Parma side? Didn’t Carlo consider Zola unable to fit into a rigid system? You can call it  shortsightedness or stubbornness but the fact is that Parma sold Zola to Chelsea for £4.5 million. With the No25 on his back, Maradona’s former understudy at Napoli enchanted his audience with his change of pace, his style of play never seen before at Stamford Bridge, and his aptitude to play football. He scored 59 goals, made countless assists and helped the Blues to win two FA Cups, one Charity Shield, one League Cup, one Cup Winners Cup and the UEFA Super Cup. He became more than a player to Chelsea fans: he was a symbol, and remains a myth there – the little magician, Gianfranco Zola.

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