As well as a plethora of lethal goal-scorers and highly skilled footballing artisans, Italian football has always been home to world class defenders. One such individual was Paolo Montero, the Juventus stalwart who played 300 games in Italy and formed part of one the best defences in the modern calcio era. He was the archetypal ‘no nonsense’ centre-back and perhaps one of the last of his genre.
Montero arrived in Serie A in 1992 after signing with Atalanta, following a two-year spell in his homeland with Penarol. In his first season in Bergamo, the 21-year-old established himself as a regular in the heart of the Nerazzurri defence. At the time, Atalanta boasted a talented side, including Brazilians Careca and Alemao, as well as Montero’s future Juventus team-mate Sergio Porrini. They were also led by one of Italy’s coaching greats, Marcello Lippi, who steered La Dea to a respectable eighth place finish during Montero’s first season, just one point away from a UEFA Cup spot.
After a successful debut season, Montero’s second campaign in Bergamo was not nearly as fruitful. Lippi had moved on to Napoli and the in-coming Cesare Prandelli struggled to continue his predecessors good work, overseeing a disastrous season which ended in relegation. Despite the disappointment of relegation, Montero stuck with the Bergamaschi, who regained their top-flight status at the first attempt, thanks largely to the stewardship of new coach Emilaino Mondonico. Montero missed a large chunk of the season through injury, but still proved a vital cog in Atalanta’s defence when he played.
Upon his return to Serie A, his fortunes changed drastically thanks to Lippi. His old mister had followed his protégé closely and after taking over at Juventus, looked to add some defensive steel to his already impressive squad. Lippi made his move and took the Uruguayan defender to Turin for the 1996/97 season.
In terms of his playing style, Montero was strong, uncompromising and brutally effective. His pugilistic style only intensified with Juve and he soon earned the reputation of a hard man, greeting opposition strikers with a glare that ensured they knew they were in for a torrid 90 minutes.
But the fact that he was viewed as combative somewhat belied his footballing ability. Blessed with aerial prowess, Montero was also adept with the ball at his feet. He was as integral to starting attacking moves as to shutting down those of opponents.
In his debut season with la Vecchia Signora, Montero claimed the first of four Serie A titles. The man from Montivideo was a mainstay in Marcelo Lippi’s championship winning defence. Lippi had constructed a team that was as miserly in defence as it was productive in attack. The contrast of steel and flair a perfect combination as Juve edged Parma to become Champions of Italy.
It wasn’t all success in Montero’s debut season, however, as Juve lost to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions league Final. Europe’s elite club competition was a trophy that evaded Montero throughout his time at Juve – a missing piece to the puzzle which constituted the Uruguayan’s greatest regret during his time in Turin.
When looking back at this Juventus side, it beggars belief that they only managed to win one of the three Champions League finals they reached between 1996 and 1998. Angelo Peruzzi was the custodian behind the protection of Montero and his fellow defenders, including the legendary Ciro Ferrara, Moreno Torricelli and Gianluca Pessotto. The backline was assisted by the solidity of French World Cup winner Didier Deschamp, the industry of Dutch superstar Edgar Davids and Angelo Di Livio, and the gaelic flair of Zinedine Zidane in midfield. As if all that talent wasn’t enough, Juve had club legend Alessandro Del Piero adding his magic in the Fantasista role, supporting the likes of Filipo Inzaghi, Christian Vieri and Alen Bokšić in attack.
Juventus made it back-to-back championships in Montero’s second season, this time finishing above Inter. But for all their domestic dominance, history repeated itself in European competition. The Champions league final saw Juve defeated for the second season in a row, this time by Real Madrid, a late Pedrag Mijatovic goal proving decisive.
As Montero’s career at Juve progressed, his reputation as a proponent of the ‘dark arts’ grew. Nobody has received more red cards in Serie A and his record of 16 dismissals in 13 years is probably conservative when you consider what might have been had VAR been used back then.
Inter’s Luigi Di Biagio was a victim of Montero’s brutal tactics. During the Derby D’Italia in December 2000 (which ended in a 2-2 draw), Montero inexplicably landed a right-hand jab to the jaw of Inter midfielder while they jostled at a corner. The act of outright violence was later punished on review, with Montero receiving a three-match ban. But this was scant consolation to Inter and Di Biagio.
Montero’s rap sheet is long and his infamy followed him throughout his career. He will inevitably be remembered for his fearsome defensive style, but as a player, the Uruguayan was more than just an on-field enforcer.
With four Serie A and three Coppa Italia titles, his list of honours is impressive. It could have been even better were it not for three agonising Champions League final defeats, the third coming against Milan in 2003. As a defender, Montero’s talent was perhaps somewhat overlooked. He was versatile, intelligent in his reading of the game and a leader on the field.
Montero’s win-at-all-costs mentality sometimes saw him cross the line, a line on which he balanced uneasily when in the heart of battle. But at a time when calcio ruled the world, he stood equal to the league’s greatest stoppers.
As one of the world’s most feared defenders, playing in one of the most formidable club sides, Montero has to be considered one of Italian football’s all-time greats.
Words by Mark Gordon: @TheMarkGordon