On April 25, 2021, Between the Sticks celebrated its two-year anniversary. In honour of the milestone, goalkeeper journalist Mouhamad Rachini is ranking the 10 best goalkeepers of all time from each of the big five European leagues: the German Bundesliga, the Spanish Liga Santander, the French Ligue 1, the English Premier League, and the Italian Serie A.
Goalkeepers are ranked based on a number of different factors, including team honours, longevity, peak, and statistical success, but only in their SPECIFIC DOMESTIC LEAGUES and relevant domestic competitions.
Performances in continental competitions (like the UEFA Champions League) and international competitions (like the FIFA World Cup) WILL NOT be considered. On the other hand, domestic cup successes (such as the Coppa Italia) will be considered, but only to a small extent. Non-competition-specific individual accolades, such as Ballon d’Or votes and IFFHS top goalkeeper awards, will also be taken into account.
Furthermore, I’m only considering goalkeepers who played following the official founding of each league. In the Serie A’s case, I’m only looking at performances post-1929, when Italy’s top leagues switched from competitions organized into regional groups to a single round-robin system. If a goalkeeper played in an Italian league championship prior to playing in the Serie A, only his performances in the Serie A will be considered for this list.
If you’re looking for a ranking that considers everything a goalkeeper did in their career, check out my “Top 50 goalkeepers in football history” project from last year.
Enrico Albertosi (Italy): Enrico Albertosi was one of Italy’s top goalkeepers in the 1950s and 1960s. He won trophies with ACF Fiorentina, Cagliari Calcio (specifically, the club’s only Serie A title in 1970), and AC Milan. Albertosi was known for his technical and physical strengths, as well as his hot temper.
Giovanni Galli (Italy): A member of both ACF Fiorentina and AC Milan’s Halls of Fame, most of Giovanni Galli’s success came as a member of the latter; among other trophies, Galli won the Supercoppa Italiana and the Serie A with Milan in 1988. He also won the Supercoppa Italiana with Napoli in 1990.
Samir Handanović (Slovenia): Samir Handanović may not be the Serie A’s most decorated goalkeeper, but he’s certainly left his mark in Italian club football history. ‘Batman’ is a three-time winner of the AIC Goalkeeper of the Year award (behind only Gianluigi Buffon), and he holds the league record for most career penalties saved (26).
Giuliano Sarti (Italy): One of Italy’s first sweeper keepers, Giuliano Sarti is a certified legend for both ACF Fiorentina and Inter Milan. With the latter, he backstopped them to their first ever Serie A title in 1956; and with the former, he won back-to-back Serie A championships in 1965 and 1966.
Stefano Tacconi (Italy): It’s not easy to replace a legend like Dino Zoff, but Stefano Tacconi had no problem doing just that. After signing for Juventus in 1983 — the same year Zoff officially retired — Tacconi backstopped the club to two Serie A championships and the 1990 Coppa Italia, among other accolades.
10. Gianpiero Combi (Italy; Juventus FC)
When a legend like Gianpiero Combi only just cracks into the top 10, it speaks volumes about the quality of goalkeepers the Serie A has seen in its history.
Some might be surprised by Combi’s low ranking, but as I mentioned at the top of this piece, I’m only considering Serie A performances after 1929. Given most of Combi’s career was played before 1929, it’s obvious he takes a hit.
Even though Combi only has five seasons to work with, that half-decade was incredibly successful. The Italian goalkeeper won four Serie A titles in that span, all of which came between 1931 and 1934. His Juventus side only finished lower than 1st once in his Serie A career — 3rd in the Serie A’s debut season in 1929-30.
Along with teammates Virginio Rosetta and Umberto Caligaris, Combi formed an impenetrable defensive wall that was adequately known as the ‘Trio Combi-Rosetta-Caligaris’.
Combi retired in 1934 at the age of 31. He left the game as the first starting goalkeeper to win four Italian championships in a row and Juve’s all-time appearance maker for goalkeepers.
9. Lorenzo Buffon (Italy; Multiple Serie A clubs)
For many Italian football fans who grew up in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, the surname ‘Buffon’ is synonymous with excellent goalkeeping. But before there was Gianluigi, there was Lorenzo.
Nicknamed ‘Lorenzo il Magnifico’, Buffon is considered by some to be AC Milan’s greatest ever goalkeeper. He made his Serie A debut with the Rossoneri when he was just a teenager in 1949, and despite competition from Narciso Soldan, he would soon grab hold of the club’s starting spot.
It’s important to note that at the time of Buffon’s signing, Milan was not the powerhouse known today. But thanks to Buffon’s incredible play — as well as the offensive support provided by the Gre-No-Li triumvirate of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm — Milan won four Serie A titles between 1951 and 1959. They turned into a legitimate threat at both the domestic and continental levels, and Buffon became a well-known celebrity. (His off-pitch popularity was helped by his marriage to actress and television personality Edy Campagnoli.)
Buffon would go on to represent Genoa C.F.C., Inter Milan and ACF Fiorentina in the Serie A, though that part of his career was largely unsuccessful bar the 1963 Serie A championship. He retired in 1965.
8. Júlio César (Brazil; A.C. ChievoVerona & Inter Milan)
Following a successful tenure with Brazilian club Flamengo, Júlio César started his European adventure in the mid-2000s. Though technically an Inter Milan player, he initially registered with A.C. ChievoVerona due to Serie A regulations that impose a cap on the number of non-European players clubs can sign from abroad. He never made an appearance for the Gialloblu though, and by July 2005, César was officially an Inter member.
Initially a back-up to the Francesco Toldo, César made the starting position his by end of the 2005-06 season. He made 29 Serie A appearances and played in both legs of the 2006 Coppa Italia final as Inter captured their first domestic double.
César’s debut season was the catalyst to an incredibly successful half-decade. With César playing at an elite level, Inter added to their 2006 league championship with four straight Serie A titles between 2007 and 2010. César played 141 league matches in that span, including all 38 games (and the Coppa Italia final) in Inter’s historic 2009-10 treble-winning campaign.
A two-time Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year recipient, César holds the Inter record for most league clean sheets kept in a single season (17).
7. Sebastiano Rossi (Italy; A.C. Cesena, AC Milan & A.C. Perugia Calcio)
Serie A was the king of domestic European football in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the same can be said of the league’s goalkeepers. As this list will soon make clear, most of the league’s greatest ever goalkeepers played large parts of their calcio careers in at least one of the two decades.
How stacked was Italy’s goalkeeping department, you ask? Take a look at five-time Serie A winner Sebastiano Rossi; he’s the only goalkeeper on this list who never earned an international cap.
A tall albeit athletic goalkeeper, Rossi made his Serie A debut in 1987 with A.C. Cesena and retired in 2003 as a member of A.C. Perugia Calcio. But in between those two brief stints, he made 240 league appearances for one of the best AC Milan teams of all time — he won eight domestic trophies with the club, including three-straight Serie A titles between 1992 and 1994.
A member of Milan’s Hall of Fame, Rossi once held the league record for the longest streak without conceding a goal (929 minutes). He currently holds the Serie A record for fewest goals conceded in a single 34-game season (11).
6. Francesco Toldo (Italy; ACF Fiorentina & Inter Milan)
Francesco Toldo was a product of AC Milan’s youth academy, but he never made an appearance for the club’s senior team. Instead, his Serie A debut came with ACF Fiorentina in 1994, a year after he had joined the club while they were in the Serie B.
Toldo’s 8-year tenure as the club’s number one coincided with one of the greatest eras in Fiorentina history. Toldo led the club to top-five finishes in three of their first four seasons back, and he received the AIC Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2000. He also played key roles in Coppa Italia wins in 1996 and 2001 by keeping two clean sheets in three finals (the 2001 final had two legs).
After keeping 121 clean sheets in 338 total matches for the Viola, Toldo joined Inter Milan in 2001 for nearly €30 million. There, Toldo became a fan favourite as he heavily contributed to domestic and continental runs.
Toldo served as the club’s starting goalkeeper for four seasons before eventually stepping aside for Júlio César. In his new back-up role, Toldo won five Serie A titles and contributed to domestic cup wins in 2005 and 2006.
5. Gianluca Pagliuca (Italy; Multiple Serie A clubs)
It’s rare for a goalkeeper to become a club legend just a few years into his professional career, but that’s what a young Gianluca Pagliuca accomplished shortly after making his pro debut in 1987. Then on the cusp of his 20th birthday, the young Bologna native backstopped U.C. Sampdoria to the peak of Italian football.
In his first two seasons, Pagliuca took Sampdoria to back-to-back Coppa Italia victories in 1988 and 1989; it was the first time Sampdoria had retained a domestic championship. The latter victory was particularly special given it came at the expense of Diego Maradona’s S.S.C. Napoli; they were limited to a solitary goal across the two legs by Pagliuca.
Two seasons later, Pagliuca and Sampdoria one-upped themselves by capturing the first (and only) Serie A title in club history. Pagliuca appeared in 32 of the 34 games that season and conceded a mere 24 goals.
Pagliuca’s performances at the domestic level, combined with his continental and international exploits, made him a world-renowned goalkeeper. It also attracted heavy interest from some of the world’s top football clubs, including Inter Milan. The Nerazzurri signed Pagliuca in 1994 for a £7 million fee, a record fee for a goalkeeper. Unfortunately, Pagliuca never achieved domestic glory with Inter, though he did win the Pirata d’Oro as the club’s top player in 1995.
Pagliuca retired in 2007 after a few top-flight seasons with Bologna FC and Ascoli Calcio 1898 FC. He retired as the Serie A’s all-time record appearance maker for goalkeepers (592) and best penalty saver (24).
4. Angelo Peruzzi (Italy; Multiple Serie A clubs)
If you asked someone to name a Juventus FC goalkeeper, the reply you’d likely get is Gianluigi Buffon. Talk to a Gen Xer and they might mention Dino Zoff. And if the person you’re talking to is a real hipster, they might throw Gianpiero Combi’s name into the mix.
Those three are largely considered to be the greatest goalkeepers in the club’s history. But there’s another goalkeeper named Angelo Peruzzi who, though not of the same QUALITY as Buffon or Zoff, deserves to be praised for his accomplishments in Juve colours.
Peruzzi’s path to greatness wasn’t an easy one. He was doubted early in his career due to his short height and stocky build. He also came under fire in 1990 for failing a doping test due to a Phentermine-containing appetite suppressant he was taking.
But the then-21-year-old revived his career in 1991 when he joined Juventus. Initially a backup to Stefano Tacconi, Peruzzi overtook starting duties following Tacconi’s 1992 transfer to Genoa C.F.C. He made 202 Serie A appearances for the Zebras following Tacconi’s departure.
Peruzzi was considered to be among the world’s top goalkeepers in that period. He backstopped Juventus to three Serie A titles, including back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998. He was awarded the Serie A’s Goalkeeper of the Year award in both of those seasons, as well as the Guerin d’Oro as the Serie A’s top footballer in 1997.
Peruzzi joined Inter Milan in 1999 before transferring to S.S. Lazio a year later. Here, he made another 192 Serie A appearances across seven seasons and won the 2000 Supercoppa Italiana. Though he was entering the twilight of his career, Peruzzi continued playing at a high level and even won the Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year award for the third time in 2007.
3. Walter Zenga (Italy; Inter Milan & U.C. Sampdoria)
Of all of the incredible goalkeepers who’ve donned Inter Milan’s colours, few captured Nerazzurri hearts quite like the homegrown Walter Zenga.
Zenga spent seven years in the club’s youth academy before graduating in 1978. After a few seasons on loan to various lower division clubs, he was promoted to Inter’s cup goalkeeper position, behind fellow club legend Ivano Bordon. But following Bordon’s departure in 1983, the 23-year-old Zenga was awarded starting duties.
As Inter’s new number one, Zenga established himself as an eccentric and athletic goalkeeper. His explosiveness and positioning made him difficult to beat, even when he played behind some underwhelming Inter defences.
From a statistical perspective, no goalkeeper has made more total appearances for the club than Zenga (473) — he’s the only Inter goalkeeper to surpass 400 appearances. These include 328 Serie A appearances, spread across more than a decade in Black and Blue colours.
Unfortunately, Zenga’s Inter career wasn’t quite as successful as one might expect. His Nerazzurri usually came close to winning domestic titles, but often fell short. In Zenga’s 11 seasons as Inter’s starting goalkeeper, Inter finished five or fewer points away from the Serie A champion four times, and 10 or fewer points away an additional two times. They also failed to make an appearance in the Coppa Italia final despite winning the competition in 1982.
But Zenga was rarely at fault for Inter’s failings. He was regularly among the Serie A’s clean sheet and goals conceded leaders, and he became the first Serie A goalkeeper to win the IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper when he won it three times in a row between 1989 and 1990. He also backstopped Inter to Serie A glory in the 1988-89 season while conceding a league-best 19 goals.
2. Dino Zoff (Italy; Multiple Seire A clubs)
Now considered to be one of the best goalkeepers of all time, Dino Zoff didn’t always seem destined for greatness. He was initially rejected by Inter Milan and Juventus FC following trials at the two clubs, he conceded five goals in his Serie A debut, and he was relegated along with Udinese Calcio in his debut season.
Rather than pout at his misfortune, Zoff used these challenges to push his game to the next level. Now Udinese’s starter, Zoff helped the club gain promotion back into Serie A in 1963. His exploits earned him a move to Mantova 1911 that summer, and after some eye-catching performances, he was transferred to S.S.C. Napoli in 1967.
Zoff made 143 Serie A appearances in five seasons in Naples. He made 30 league appearances in each of his first four seasons with Napoli, and he helped them challenge for the league title in 1968 and 1971.
Now one of Europe’s top goalkeepers, Juventus put the past behind them and signed the Italian from Napoli in 1972. Zoff became a regular member of Juve’s starting eleven — he made 30 Serie A appearances in each of his 11 seasons in Turin.
As the club’s starting goalkeeper, Zoff oversaw what was then Juve’s most successful period. The club won six Serie A titles with Zoff in goal, including back-to-back championships in both 1977 & 1978 and 1980 & 1981.
Zoff’s efforts saw him become the first goalkeeper since Lev Yashin to finish in the top three in Ballon d’Or voting (he finished second in 1973). Following his retirement, he was also recognized by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics as the 20th century’s top Italian goalkeeper, second best European goalkeeper and the world’s third best goalkeeper.
1. Gianluigi Buffon (Italy; Parma Calcio 1913 & Juventus FC)
Gianluigi Buffon tops my list of the greatest Serie A goalkeepers of all time, and there’s not a soul on God’s green earth that’s surprised. It’s about as obvious of a ranking as it can be, and bar some Gen Xers and maybe some Juventus haters, I highly doubt anyone would argue against my decision.
No matter how one frames the debate, Buffon always comes out on top. Serie A titles? Buffon leads all players with 10 championships. In fact, he’s the only player to reach double-digits in that category. (And this doesn’t include the 2004–05 and 2005–06 Serie A titles, which were revoked following the Calciopoli scandal).
How about total appearances? Buffon has made a Serie A-record 656 appearances across 24 seasons. It’s 9 more appearances than second-placed Paolo Maldini and 37 more than third-placed Francesco Totti, both of whom played in 25 seasons.
What about clean sheets? Well, Buffon holds every major clean sheet record in Serie A history, from total clean sheets kept (299) to most clean sheets kept in a single season (21, which he accomplished twice). He even holds the league record for the longest consecutive run without conceding a goal (974 minutes, which is at least 45 minutes longer than any other Serie A goalkeeper has accomplished).
All of this just scratches the surface of Buffon’s extraordinary career. He made his Serie A debut when he was just 17 years old and he was still going strong at the age of 43. Between them, he established himself as one of the greatest goalkeepers in football history through his spectacular saves and incredible passion.
There’s never been a goalkeeper, Italian or otherwise, who has displayed the same level of consistency and longevity as Buffon. I’m confident in saying the marks he’s left on Italian football will never be matched.
Do you agree with my list? Which other Serie A goalkeepers do you think should’ve made the cut? Let me know in the comments below or through Twitter via @BlameTheKeeper.