Forever daring, controversial and rousing in equal measure, the Italian footballer has often portrayed the architect role in the Premier League’s most memorable moments. Since the English top flight’s renowned name change of 1992, Italians have counted for a significant proportion of the division’s most successful foreign imports from its opening decade to the pool of Azzurri talent found in today’s Premier League.
Of the 75 Italian representatives in the Premier League era, here we select the country’s ten greatest names to have graced England with dazzling charm.
Fabrizio Ravanelli (Middlesbrough, 1996-97 & Derby County, 2001-02)
The heroic magic of Fabrizio Ravanelli for a single season at the Riverside Stadium was enough to ensure his eternal cult status in the English top tier. A star turn for Juventus in the 1990s and fledgling Azzurri international, the Perugia-born striker remains one of the most notable figures in the recent history of Middlesbrough Football Club having quickly repaid his £7 million transfer fee in stunning goalscoring form with a debut hat-trick against Liverpool in 1996.
The sharp shooting Ravanelli was the star turn for Middlesbrough in their relegation campaign of 1996-97, scoring 31 times in 48 games. The forward’s fame on Teesside is almost unparalleled in spite of his short stint, owing to his all-round striking ability which was later partially replicated during an equally brief spell with Derby County in 2001.
Carlo Cudicini (Chelsea, 1999-2009 & Tottenham Hotspur, 2009-12)
Uncapped in an Italy jersey, goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini holds the record for the longest period of time spent in the English Premier League for an Italian player. Occasionally dismissed as a mere back-up goalie, Cudicini was Chelsea’s Player of the Year in 2002 as the Blues gravitated towards the glory of the Abramovich era. Highly capable in one-on-one situations, the Italian could be considered the closest replica of legendary Chelsea goalkeeper Peter Bonetti in the 21st century thanks to his supreme agility and dramatic saves.
Called upon less frequently as Petr Čech gained the number one shirt, Cudicini swapped Stamford Bridge for White Hart Lane in 2009 – featuring in 19 league matches for Spurs.
Mario Balotelli (Manchester City, 2010-13 & Liverpool, 2014-16)
The story of Mario Balotelli undoubtedly merits a feature length film, such is the scale of his early promise and ultimate anti-climax. The Italian centre forward matched his compatriots’ Premier League notoriety with distinctive “Super Mario” showmanship and regular flickers of world class brilliance whilst plying his trade with Manchester City and Liverpool.
A league winner with City in the 2011-12 season, Balotelli hit a total of 34 goals in English football.
Gianfranco Zola (Chelsea, 1996-2003)
In spite of his side’s continued Italian influence on the pitch, Chelsea hero Gianfranco Zola’s seven seasons of Premier League football ensured his status as the greatest Italian footballer to represent an English team. Zola used the ball with gleaming skill and finesse, tearing past stumbling opposition defences to score more than 50 Premier League goals. The former Serie A sensation was the poster boy of a flashy Blues team in the late 1990s and early 2000s which had lifted six notable trophies by the turn of the century.
While somewhat limited on the international stage with the Azzurri, the Sardinia-born forward was one of the first outstanding European footballers of the Premier League era due to his penchant for mazy, illusory dribbles into the box over 311 Chelsea appearances. Zola’s iconic number 25 jersey is yet to be worn by another Chelsea player since his 2003 departure.
Benito Carbone (Sheffield Wednesday, 1996-99, Aston Villa, 1999-2000, Bradford City, 2000-02, Derby County, 2001 & Middlesbrough 2002)
From San Siro to Sheffield Wednesday, Benito Carbone struck more than 40 goals during six seasons of Premier League football. Demonstrating exceptional team play along with his eye for goal, the classy Italian forward produced his finest form in the colours of Sheffield Wednesday and Bradford City as he formed an excellent strike partnership with fellow Italian Paolo Di Canio at Hillsborough before later taking the talisman role at Wednesday’s troubled Yorkshire rivals.
In spite of almost always being on the verge of a transfer, Carbone was a consistent goalscorer and notably contributed to Aston Villa’s FA Cup journey of the 1999-2000 season, taking home a silver medal having started the Villa Park side’s defeat to Chelsea in the final.
Roberto Di Matteo (Chelsea, 1996-2001)
Swiss-born midfield playmaker Roberto Di Matteo earned 34 Italy caps, the majority of which came after his move to Chelsea in 1996. An important player in attack and defence, Di Matteo was the midfield engine behind the prowess of Gianfranco Zola and Tore André Flo in the forward positions.
Whilst perhaps most famous for his exploits as Chelsea gaffer in the Blues’ 2012 Champions League triumph, Di Matteo was one of a number of key players to provide the platform for Chelsea’s ascension to European super club status in the 21st century. Twice scoring in English domestic cup finals, Di Matteo’s honours list also includes the 1997-98 Cup Winners’ Cup.
Massimo Maccarone (Middlesbrough, 2002-07)
Massimo Maccarone arrived in the Premier League as an unknown quantity in 2002, signing for Middlesbrough from Italian second tier side Empoli. And perhaps his outlandish centre forward talent was central to the rapid rise of Boro’s so-called “Big Mac”, who sparkled throughout the club’s adventurous opening to their 21st century history.
Under Steve McLaren, Maccarone complimented a growing list of international stars such as Mark Viduka, Fábio Rochemback and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to lift Middlesbrough to continental recognition with an appearance in the 2006 UEFA Cup Final, losing 4-0 to Sevilla. Maccarone – an inventive forward with technique and awareness – ended a five-year association with the Premier League in 2007 having scored 18 times in 80 league games.
Francesco Baiano (Derby County, 1997-99)
Collecting Derby’s Player of the Year award for 1998, Francesco Baiano thrilled Premier League audiences over his 64 appearances for the Rams. Born in Naples, the tricky Italian striker was a fan favourite at Pride Park as a solid performer during the club’s last successful period in the English top flight. Partnering fellow Azzurri forward Stefano Eranio up front, Baiano scored a variety of goals to confirm his reputation as one of the Premier League’s finest foreign imports.
Paolo Di Canio (Sheffield Wednesday, 1997-99, West Ham United, 1999-2003 & Charlton Athletic, 2003-04)
At once hated and adored by football fans worldwide, the scandalous yet sensational centre forward Paolo Di Canio headlined the first decade of the Premier League era with unprecedented Di Canio style. A divisive figure in Serie A with a handful of goals for Lazio, Juventus, Napoli and Milan, the Italian’s short spell with Celtic was indicative of the player arriving in England in 1997 – goals, red cards, bust-ups and volatile ability.
Born to be a headliner, Di Canio netted 73 goals in English football for Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton. Able to change any game in a second, his strikes are amongst the most audacious in Premier League history. Whether it be his provoking celebrations, cheeky skills or on-pitch fury, few have played the game quite like Paolo Di Canio.
Gianluca Vialli (Chelsea, 1996-99)
From starting his professional football career with Cremonese in 1980 to lifting EURO 2020 as part of Italy’s backroom staff, Gianluca Vialli has always oozed class. A prominent striker in his homeland for Sampdoria and Juventus, Vialli transferred to West London in 1996 in order to join up with one of the most exciting sides in the Premier League and quickly proved that goalscoring isn’t such a hard task.
After reaching the double figures mark for goals in his debut 1996-97 campaign, the Italian was asked to become Chelsea player-manager in an appointment which signalled the beginning of a new Chelsea in SW6. Regardless of his increased standing within the club, Vialli smashed in 29 goals whilst balancing his managerial duties with an obvious desire to further display his first class marksmanship in the Premier League.
The widely admired 59-cap Azzurri international rounded off an impressive playing career with a final strike against Derby County in 1999, although continued as Blues gaffer until 2000.