1 – Giuseppe Meazza
The brush of time often runs with the least kindness over those who are the most deserving of its honours. They all go into the dark, wrote Eliot. No more fitting words, and no more moving image, could be employed to talk of Giuseppe Meazza. The greatest Italian footballer of all time played before television, before football became the arena of cults and legends it is now. You cannot find Meazza on YouTube, and you will not hear his name when popular debates – in Italy or elsewhere – weigh up the greatest players in football. We can no longer see him – all we can do is remember him.
Meazza was born before either of the wars, in 1910, and when he started playing, Italy was anything but the football giant that he would later make it. Back then, of course, football was a different sport – and this is normally the excuse brought up by those who do not know him to discount his success. Football was different, Meazza had it ‘easier.’ In fact it was even harder back then to become a starter in Serie A before the age of 20 – and Meazza picked up the starting Inter shirt for the first time aged 17. The responses that this prompted from his teammates back then were not unlike those of the above-mentioned contemporaries. “We’re selecting our players from the kindergarten now,” they laughed (and that is an actual quote). Then the game began. Ball to Meazza. Goal. Another ball to Meazza. Goal again. Third ball – and again. A hat-trick on his debut, and in the changing room no-one was laughing anymore. Two years later, at the age of 19, he was leading that same team to its first Scudetto, demolishing all barriers with a stunning 31 goals in one season and walking home with the title of the league’s top scorer. The profusion of goals that he produced would remain consistent throughout his career – among the Italians, only Silvio Piola ever managed to score more goals in Serie A.
Meazza’s early start meant a similarly precocious debut with the Azzurri (and two goals on his first game, just to drive the point home). It was the beginning of a glorious cycle. The first edition of the ‘International Cup’ (the ancestor of today’s Euro Cup) saw him lead his nation to the victory with a hat-trick in the final against Hungary – still aged 19, for the record. In 1934, as the unripe goleador from Porta Vittoria flourished into a mature, highly technical team-player, he conquered Italy’s first World Cup, scoring four goals in the tournament. In 1935 he claimed the International Cup again. In 1938 came the second World Cup, and by then Meazza was flanked by Piola, making for the most fantastic offensive duo ever produced by this country. Their irresistible combination demolished every obstacle on the way to the final (including the first historical match against Brazil), making of Italy the only nation in the world alongside Pelè’s iteration of the Seleção to have won two consecutive editions of the World Cup. Meazza played in an age when football was very crude, disallowing for the subtle technical distinctions which subsist today. As a consequence, we cannot in all justice call him a fantasista in the lines of Gianni Rivera or Roberto Baggio. Nonetheless his technique is said to have been extraordinary in dribbling as much as in finalising, as indeed it must have been to earn him all that it did. For upon Meazza’s two World Cups and two European victories rests more than half the trophy cabinet that make of Italy the second greatest nation in football. This means that in the space of one career Meazza won more with the Azzurri shirt than all other 19 players on this list put together. Aside from Pelè, there is no player in the history of football that has ever accomplished so much. Not even the phenomenons, not even la crème de la crème – Beckenbauer, Maradona, Zidane. Pepin, as he was nicknamed in Milanese, did more than all of them. He just never had the media to remember it.
Whether Meazza innovated or changed the way that football itself was played is something that we cannot really know, seen how difficult it is to find recordings of the sport as it was played in his time (not to mention his own games). What is certain is that Italy as the football nation that it is now would not exist without Giuseppe Meazza. Not only for the trophies that he achieved, but for the culture that he promoted. Following his hat-trick against Hungary, the popular surge of interest for the sport and the man in Italy was immense – and Meazza made sure that such an interest was held high by consistently taking his nation to the most rarefied spaces in the upper stratosphere, where the earth looks like a tissue of sand and where Italy’s fingertips brushed the sky for a decade. In this he laid the foundations for the onset of a true football culture, so that by the time he was through, Serie A was stable and potent like an old oak and there were football schools all over the country. While he had started his career by kicking a ball made of rags around the street, new talents were now being picked and raised with infinite care. It wasn’t only the work of Meazza that did this, but his contribution to this process of construction, and therefore to the sport in Italy, was irreplaceable – certainly greater than that of any other player to have lived in his country, and if this is not what defines athletic greatness, then what is?
Conqueror of the whole world, Azzurro in black and white, there are no more songs for you. The televisions came too late and the voice of the people ignores you. Your heritage is in your trophies, but the illusion that they perpetuate was your own. And the battlefield never teaches the lesson that you leave to us – except too late. For among all the games you closed, and all the monuments you pulled from their pedestals, was your own game, and your own monument. The rest is the mercy of the almanacs.
Top 20 Azzurri players of all time
A WORD ON THE CRITERIA
This list is concerned with the greatest Italian players, not with the best. The ‘best’ players are normally thought of as the ones with the most elevated technique, but choosing this as the measure for a player’s role in history is inadequate for a number of reasons – the first and most obvious of these being that forwards would have a huge advantage over defenders as their role requires more elaborate, polymorphous and spectacular technical prowess. As importantly, technique is not objectively quantifiable and the differences in degree between top players like Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti or Fabio Cannavaro and Paolo Maldini are really much more subtle than most fans would like to believe. All of these players possess such stellar skills that disparities in their performances will far more likely be affected by contingent form than by inborn talent. Finally, technique does not ensure results – several teams which were mediocre on paper went on to demonstrate superb accomplishments. The sheer skill of each player was accounted for as one factor, but not as the only one. The criteria for the laying down of this list were as follows.
Firstly, performances and results with the Azzurri. This is how someone like Gianluca Zambrotta can place himself above someone like Del Piero as well as the reason why Andrea Pirlo gets the edge over Giuseppe Giannini or Demetrio Albertini and Bruno Conti gets it over Roberto Donadoni. Performances as a whole have been given a slight favour over results, which is also why Franco Baresi, Giacinto Facchetti and Baggio are above Totti even though the latter is a World Cup winner and they are not – Totti’s performances in 2006 were distinctly less impressive than those of Baggio in 1990 or 1994.
Technique was held right up there with Azzurri history. For this reason several important players of proletarian talent, including such wonderful midfielders as Gennaro Gattuso or Alessio Tacchinardi, were not included. The fact that technique was not the only criterion had the collateral effect of excluding players who were as gifted as any of the above in terms of talent but who came short in all the other fields – for instance, Alessandro Nesta. Ethics, moral fibre, commitment to values, loyalty to one’s team and the capacity and willingness to stand as an example to others held an important place. Maldini, Baresi and Facchetti are the only three defenders to make it into the top 10 for this reason among others. Consistency in form and performance over one’s career as a whole was kept into account, which is why Fabio Grosso does not make it into the list and Zambrotta does. Originality and tactical influence were given great weight, ensuring that Rivera conquers the top 10 and preventing Riva from the same achievement. Finally, club career was given recognition, albeit less so than the more egalitarian and globally memorable field of the Azzurri. By a combination of all the above factors players have been given or denied a spot in these standings.