As four-time winners of the World Cup, possessor of some of the most beautiful shirts in international football history and producer of some of the iconic players in world football, how can it be that Italy still hasn’t come close to breaking their all-time international scoring record since it was set over 45 years ago? With the abundance of talent they have produced in that time, were they simply too good to score?
Scoring goals is the… goal
Finding a striker that can regularly find the net is a challenge for all football teams, no matter what level you’re playing. That’s why the very best consistently earn the most money, the most recognition and the most adoring of fans. Children around the world grow up wanting to be Romario, Cristiano, Messi or Shearer. Less so for the likes of Dunga, Ricardo Carvalho, Mascherano or Anderton. Fine players who reached the very peak of their abilities at roughly similar times and eras, but without the glamour or acclaim.
For national sides, the challenge is even harder. There is no option to go out and splash the cash on a replacement striker. You can’t nurture the talents yourself to ensure that they reach their goal-scoring potential. National sides are at the mercy of club sides to produce and look after their star strikers.
The centre-forward you rely on so heavily can go from the first pick to the reserves between international breaks. They can lose form, or be pushed out wide to accommodate other players. Perhaps this is why international goal-scoring records are so hard to break.
We’ve become accustomed to the frankly ridiculous stats posted by the aforementioned CR7 and Leo in the modern era. But there is something extra special about scoring for your country. An extra burden that perhaps stops some players reaching their potential on the biggest stage.
Italy’s top-scorer is an absolute icon of Italian football. A player who never played for one of the ‘big clubs’ in Italy. A scudetto winner with lowly Cagliari, Luigi Riva captured the hearts and minds of all Italian’s in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was perhaps his avoidance of the traditionally fashionable clubs that enabled him to be loved by all.
If you ask any Italian who remembers seeing Riva in his prime, they will wistfully regale you with tales of his greatness and his goal-scoring exploits. A man who scored nearly a goal a game at international level despite having also suffered two broken legs.
Riva was the first player for the Azzuri since the ‘50s to strike 30 goals or more for the national team. He is also the last player to reach such a milestone. As I write, there are currently 15 European nations, plus both East and West Germany, to have players with over 50 goals for their country. Riva’s record stands at 35.
Great strikers of the ’80s
Since Riva’s last goal for the Azzuri, they have won two World Cups, one European Championship and finished runners-up in both competitions on two other separate occasions. Italy has never been a team shy of competing for major honours, nor producing players capable of getting them to those heights.
The 1980s are considered the heyday for Italian football, certainly in terms of the league’s dominance and appeal. During this decade they produced forwards such as Bruno Conti, Paolo Rossi, Roberto Mancini, Toto Schillaci and Gianluca Vialli to name just a few. Yet no one from this list even makes it into Italy’s top ten. The iconic Paolo Rossi, of 1982 World Cup-winning goal fame gets the closest with 20 goals. David Platt and Peter Crouch both have more goals than this for England. Just to put it into perspective.
The golden generation
For readers of my age, it’s the ‘90s that Italian football really came alive thanks to the live terrestrial broadcast of Serie A on Channel 4. The goal-scoring exploits of Baggio, Signori, Del Piero, Vieri and Zola brought right into your living room. However, those goal-scoring exploits were not ever to be truly repeated on the international stage.
The style of football that the Italian national side played during this period became very stodgy and focused on tactics over entertainment. Arrigo Sacchi’s team that came so close to winning the World Cup in 1994 may have featured Baggio, Signori, Casiraghi and Zola, but only scored eight goals throughout the tournament. Baggio scored six of those goals.
So the cycle seemed to continue, as the national side failed to live up to expectations during the rest of the ‘90s. Strikers came and went but the problems persisted. As tactics began to shift in Serie A, the reliance on traditional centre forwards became less and less pronounced. For those teams that did employ a more standard striker, they often found foreign, usually South American, imports to be the most effective. Salas, Crespo and Batistuta to name a few.
That didn’t mean there wasn’t a place for forward-thinking Italians, it’s just they could now be found slightly deeper, pulling the strings.
Rebels and outcasts
The Trequartista role is not a recent phenomenon. Meaning ‘three quarters’, this title is reserved for someone who plays between the midfield and forward lines, Roberto Baggio was one such player, and perhaps the finest example of a player who fully embodied that role. But he was by no means the only player.
Baggio could perhaps be the reason that the likes of Roberto Mancini, Beppe Signori and Gianfranco Zola didn’t earn as many caps as their talent deserved. Whilst Italy has never shied away from employing ‘luxury’ players, fitting them into the system hasn’t always come easy.
Much like the Gerrard-Lampard quandary that befuddled England managers for years, Italy has often had similar problems. Fitting players of such extreme ability and confidence into a national side can be a challenge too great for many a manager. Club sides have the luxury to pick, choose and buy the talents to build around their mercurials talents. No such joy for national sides.
Perhaps the most talented player that Italy produced in the past 20 years, and the heir to Baggio’s crown, was Francesco Totti. Roma’s all-time top scorer with 250 career goals, could only manage nine during his international career. With only 58 caps to his name too, that’s nowhere near enough for a player of his skill or for a player that had a playing career spanning nearly 25 years.
What might the future hold?
Whilst Cristiano Ronaldo is preparing to break the century mark for Portugal and continues to hunt down Ali Daei’s record of 109 senior international goals in men’s football, Italy struggle to find players that can find the net at all.
Of the players currently available for the national side, only Mario Balotelli and Ciro Immobile have hit double figures for the Azzuri. 14 and ten goals respectively. Whilst there is no denying his undeniable talent, the fact that Italy is preparing to go into this summer’s European Championships with 37-year old Fabio Quagliarella as their first-choice striker tells its own story.
The hunt for Italy’s next top striker continues…