The TGU Dream Team: Serie A in the 1990s

The inspiration

During a recent Bank Holiday Monday clear-out of his old bedroom, TGU writer Martin Dunlop came across his impressive assortment of Calcio Italia magazines. Needless to say, the collection survived the cull.

Amongst the iconic front covers – including Fabio Cannavaro kissing the World Cup trophy in 2006 and Gianfranco Zola munching on a pizza slice whilst sporting chef’s whites and hat – the magazine’s 116-page 100th edition special caught our eye.

The centrepiece of this nostalgic treat was a Serie A best XI for the period spanning the first 100 editions, 1992-2003. With the exception of Paul Gascoigne, we didn’t have any arguments with their selections. But would the Twitter world agree? As soon as we had posted the pic, the opinions poured in. And it was clear the debate would spark our own ‘Team of the 90s’ selection.

The process

Our editorial team thrashed out a shortlist of players – no mean feat for a league that boasted the cream of the world football throughout an unforgettable decade. And some big calls were made. For example, it was agreed that Gigi Buffon, Cafu and Marco van Basten (who all made the cut for Calcio Italia’s team) enjoyed their best Serie A years outwith the 1990s.

So, with our list in hand – four options for each position on the park – off to the twitter polls we went. Some places were more hotly contested than others: one player amassed 88% of the vote for his position (yes, he’s a full-back) while one of the central midfield berths went to a recount (to borrow political parlance) following a dead heat. So outraged were the voting public when it was discovered that one legend hadn’t made the team, a referendum was held.

Finally, after much contention, a consensus was reached and everyone was happy (more or less). So, here it is – the TGU Serie A team of the 1990s:

Backline

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Goalkeeper: Gianluca Pagliuca

When remembering any goalkeeper from Italy’s golden age of the 1990s, one has to look at context. The competition between peers was fierce, with the likes of Walter Zenga, Sebastiano Rossi, Angelo Peruzzi, Francesco Toldo and a young ‘Gigi’ Buffon guarding Serie A’s goals. And they also faced the attacking prowess of players like Beppe Signori, Gabriel Batistuta and Ronaldo.

After taking these factors into account, one can appreciate the brilliance of Gianluca Pagliuca. The 6ft 3” custodian played 165 games of his 634-game career (and arguably his best) at Inter. Nicknamed ‘the wall’, his athleticism, reactions and good positional sense were matched by his innovation as one of Italy’s first ‘sweeper keepers’.

His was famous for his long left-footed goal kicks and he was also a specialist in the penalty-saving department. Combine all these attributes and it is no surprise Pagliuca managed to see off stern competition in the public vote, notably from Zenga and Peruzzi, to secure his spot in our 90s dream team.

Left-back: Paolo Maldini

Some of the spots in our starting XI were more keenly contested than others but the left back berth wasn’t one of them. Is there anything left to be said about Paolo Maldini? The 1990s were the midpoint of Maldini’s 25 trophy-laden seasons with AC Milan. UK followers of Italian football were mesmerised by his exquisite timing, reading of the game, and all round class and sophistication as he became one of the most popular figures of the Gazzetta Football Italia era.

Maldini was an integral part of the Milan team that won the 1991-92 Serie A campaign without losing a single match, an unbeaten league run that eventually ended after a staggering 58 matches. Following Baresi’s retirement at the end of the 1996/97 campaign, Maldini was appointed Milan captain, a post he served impeccably until his own retirement in 2009. By the end of his quarter century with the club, Maldini had won seven league titles (five of which came during the 1990s) and an incredible five European Cups.

Centre-back: Franco Baresi

A one-club man who made over 500 appearances for AC Milan, Franco Baresi’s legendary status is untouchable. As is his place in this team.

In truth, it was closer than it might have been. Milan’s former captain edged out Inter’s Beppe Bergomi by 3% in the Twitter vote, but Baresi’s inclusion (along with Costacurta and Maldini) reflects the dominance of Milan’s defence in the first half of the decade. During this time, Baresi won four Serie A titles and two European Cups. Defensively, the high point of this dominance came during the 1993-94 season, when Milan kept 21 clean sheets, conceding just 15 goals in 34 games.

Baresi was the graceful libero who marshalled this formidable backline. He was composed yet uncompromising, subtle yet domineering. He was a role model for Messrs Maldini and Costacurta and remains one of the greatest centre-backs the Italian game has ever produced.

Centre-back: Alessandro Costacurta

If Baresi was the symbol of Milan’s indomitable defence during the 90s, then Alessandro Costacurta was the unsung hero.

Yet another bandiera who made over 450 appearances for the Rossoneri, ‘Billy’ (as he was known to his teammates) occupies the second centre-back berth in our dream team. Again, the polling was close, with Lilian Thuram also proving a highly popular defensive option. But in truth, Costacurta is the perfect fit, slotting in alongside his old sparring partner Baresi.

The Italian duo shared a telepathic understanding at the centre of Milan’s defence, pivoting and covering one another when they stepped out of defence to break up or initiate attacks. Costacurta himself was a master of dictating the game, cajoling and patrolling opponents into positions where they became ineffective. His consistency and unwavering high standards ensured Billy played until he was 41-years-old. Put simply, he was and remains one of Milan and Italy’s all-time great central defenders.

Right-back: Javier Zanetti

When you walk through the corridors of the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, you cannot escape the images of Inter’s past. The ground holds the name of one of the greats and inside no Nerazzurri player can hide from the murals of greats such as Sandro Mazzola, Giuseppe Bergomi, Mario Corso, Giacinto Facchetti and Meazza himself.

Javier Zanetti’s career earned him the right to be mentioned in the same breath as the former greats. He represents what modern Inter are as a club and as their longest ever serving Captain, it is no surprise that he secured our right-back spot with ease.

From 1995 to 2014, Il Capitano played 615 games for the Nerazzurri in midfield and at full-back. The Argentine’s professionalism, commitment and class on and off the pitch defined how any subsequent player should honour the club’s colours. Now Director of Football, he remains a constant in an ever-changing world.

Midfield

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Defensive midfield: Demetrio Albertini

A reluctant legend, but a legend nonetheless, Demetrio Albertini spent all but one year of the 1990s playing for the club he joined as a youth player aged 11. Such was his trajectory he made his Serie A debut for Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in 1989 aged just 17. A loan spell at Padova in the 1990/91 season rounded off his development and on his return he established himself as part of Fabio Capello’s undefeated starting XI of 1991/92 ahead of Carlo Ancelotti.

During 14 years in Milan, the quiet midfielder with a fondness for intellectual pursuits earned five Scudettos, three Supercoppa Italianas, three Champions Leagues and two UEFA Cups. He played in front of Tassotti, Costacurta, Baresi and Maldini, one of the best backlines world football has ever seen, but his role as guardian of their blockade is often overlooked due his quiet demeanour and lack of ego.

Albertini made a total of 406 appearances for Milan, scoring 28 goals before closing out his career with spells at Atletico Madrid, Lazio, Atalanta and Barcelona, where his final act as a player was to pick up a La Liga winner’s medal.

Left-midfield: Pavel Nedved

Before he morphed into Patrick Swayze at Juventus in the 00s, Pavel Nedved was a robust, short-haired winger who spent the last four years of the 90s rampaging down the wing for Lazio.

A star of the Czech side who made it to the final of Euro 96, Nedved was bought that summer for a measly £1.2 million. He scored in double figures three times in five seasons in the capital and struck the winning goal in the Cup Winners’ Cup final against Real Mallorca at Villa Park in May 1999, with a brilliant volley from the edge of the area.

Understandably, there was some controversy surrounding the Czech’s inclusion at the expense of Milan’s enigmatic fantasista, Dejan Savicevic, who captured the imaginations of many during the first half of the 90s. But Nedved’s personality, drive and continued success with the Biancocelesti, which included a leading role in the club’s Scudetto winning season of 1999/00, cemented his place as one of the decades great midfielders.

Attack

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Attacking midfielder (trequartista): Roberto Baggio

The definitive player of the decade; for better or worse, the 1990s belonged to Il Divin Codino.

From the highs of winning the 1993 Ballon d’Or to that penalty in Pasadena in July 1994, from the controversy surrounding his world record transfer to Juventus that sparked three days of riots in Florence to moments of breathtaking genius, from various spats with overzealous coaches to crumbling body parts, the introverted Baggio was rarely out of the headlines.

He even managed to steal the limelight in the selection process for our 90s dream team. Initially losing the vote in the forward area to Batistuta, Baggio’s omission triggered such a level of outrage that the TGU editors had no choice but to call a people’s referendum. Low and behold, he was triumphant and squeezed into the trequartista role behind our front two.

Baggio played for five clubs during the decade, and was loved by all, a rarity in the Italian game. In a sport that was evolving more towards athleticism than skill, Baggio was the antidote. An artist who could unlock any defence, could score any kind of goal, and could visualise things mere mortals couldn’t. He was arguably the game’s finest player between 1992 and 1995.

A team of the 90s wouldn’t be complete without the presence of The Divine One.

Right-midfield: Manuel Rui Costa

Although Manuel Rui Costa wasn’t the biggest name in Italian football during the 1990s, few could argue against the Portuguese being hailed as one of Serie A’s most skilful and entertaining players of this era.

Fiorentina signed Rui Costa from Benfica in 1994 and what a joy it was to see the number 10 orchestrating play behind La Viola’s hitman Gabriel Batistuta. Rui Costa was a player who glided effortlessly across the pitch. His nonchalant style lulled opponents into a false sense of security allowing him to unlock the tightest of defences with a trademark incisive pass or contrive a glorious finish of his own.

With his slicked back hair, the iconic tape under the knee and rolled down socks, Rui Costa truly was an icon of this fantastic era for football on the Peninsula.

Forward: Ronaldo

When he arrived at Inter from Barcelona, Ronaldo recalled there was nobody on the streets when he turned up at the club headquarters. But soon after signing, when he stepped onto a balcony and saw a sea of black and blue, he was taken aback.

The mutual love affair continued for five years as Ronaldo amazed Serie A with 59 goals in 99 matches. “Every game was a party,” the Brazilian said in 2017. “I wouldn’t trade my time at Inter for anything“.

Like any good love story, however, there was also tragedy. On April 12, 2000 after coming back from injury, his knee buckled again against Lazio and he was stretchered off in tears.

Ronaldo at Inter, while glorious, is also a story of what could have been. Had he managed to stay fit, it is possible to believe the Nerazzurri could have come out from the shadows of their Milanese neighbours much sooner.

Forward: Gabriel Batistuta

Batigol dressed in purple performing his machine gun celebration was one of the iconic images of 90s Italian football. In a golden era of video gaming when Fiorentina wore the Nintendo logo on their shirts, it seemed natural the Argentine should honour his shooting skills in such a direct and cartoonish manner.

He had plenty of reasons to be boastful, scoring 207 goals in 269 appearances during his nine years in Florence. He stuck with the club following their 1993 relegation and on their return to the top flight scored in the opening 11 games to break Ezio Pascutti’s 30-year-old record.

During his years with the Viola, the Santa Fe-born striker picked up a Coppa Italia and a Supercoppa Italiana but the league title eluded him. It wasn’t until he moved to Roma in 2000 he finally earned a Scudetto medal, netting 21 times as the capital club picked up their first league title since 1983.

Such was his popularity, he finished ahead of Roberto Baggio in the original poll, prompting a ‘peoples vote’ which saw the Divine Ponytail reinstated at Zidane’s expense.

Mister: Marcello Lippi

The man who knocked Milan off their mighty perch. Fabio Capello’s Milan had won 3 in a row when the suave, cigar-chomping Lippi was given the job of dethroning the red and black empire. Lippi promptly did so at the first attempt, and started his own era of dominance as Juve won practically ever trophy going. Lippi’s ever-evolving side reached 3 Champions League finals on the bounce, and made superstars of Alessandro Del Piero, Zinedine Zidane and Edgar Davids.

Sir Alex Ferguson is a huge admirer of Lippi, famously describing the ‘aura’ that the Juve side of mid-90s had when they repeatedly came up against Fergie’s fledglings in Europe, so much so that he made United watch videos of Lippi’s Juve for inspiration.

Words by Martin Dunlop: @Dunlop85, Luca Hodges-Ramon: @LH_Ramon25, Richard Hall: @RichHall80, Emmet Gates: @EmmetGates and Neil Morris: @nmorris01

You can find the full Twitter thread about our TGU Team of the 90s’, including all the polls we ran, here.

Graphic design by Ed Moynihan: @Forza27_RS