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Ranking Real Madrid’s Italians

In the second installment in this series, Matt Wiltse looks back at the Real Madrid careers of the mere three Italian players to have featured for the club.

Fabio Cannavaro Photo : Philippe Perusseau / Icon Sport via Getty Images

For a country that has won four World Cups, just behind leaders Brazil with five. As well as a country that boasts historic European clubs like Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Roma, it is quite surprising that only three Italians have stepped foot on the Santiago Bernabeu pitch while wearing the white shirt of Real Madrid. Let’s take a look back at those three player and examine their influence as well as success at the club:

3. Antonio Cassano

Fee: €5.5 million

Seasons: 2006 - 2007 (*Winter transfer in ‘05-’06 season)

Appearances: 28 appearances

Goals / Assists: 4 goals / 3 assists

Oh, Antonio Cassano — what a character Real Madrid had signed in 2006. He was dubbed as the heir to Totti’s thrown, the young prince at Roma who was scoring goals at will and a player who possessed tremendous talent. Roma signed Cassano at the age of 19 for €30 million and had made the Italian the most expensive teenager at the time. During his five seasons at the club, he developed a reputation as a “hot-head” as he publicly argued with managers and officials. He was the young Italian bad boy, but if he could be tamed, then there was a player with the talent to become Italy’s next great striker.

Sadly, for Cassano, he could not be tamed, not even at Real Madrid. After endless conflict with Roma over a potential renewal, Real Madrid saw an opportunity to snap up a young striker on the cheap in order to begin a gradual transition from the ageing Ronaldo Nazario and Raul. Six months before his contract expired, Real Madrid signed Cassano for just €5.5 million. He was only the second-ever Italian player to play for the club.

His debut could not have gone better. Cassano was substituted on for Roberto Soldado in the 61st minute of the Spanish Cup match vs Real Betis and scored the only goal of the game just four minutes later with an assist from young Sergio Ramos. Despite the positive start, Cassano’s Madrid career quickly spiraled in a negative fashion. Less than four months at the club, and he had earned the nickname “gordito” (littly fatty) due to his incessant eating.

Overall his Real Madrid career was brief - about 18 months. The downward trajectory only continued after a spat with his compatriot, and then manager, Fabio Capello in October of 2006. Real Madrid’s official website announced that Cassano had been suspended due to his “disrespect” of Capello, after a match vs Gimnastic de Tarragona. He only made 7 league appearances that season and scored just one goal in those appearances. Despite the meager amount of appearances, Cassano did leave Real Madrid with one La Liga title. After the 2006-2007 season, he was loaned to Sampdoria and then sold to the Italian club in 2008 for €3.3 million.

In a tell-all interview with AS in 2016, Cassano recognized his mistakes. “I didn’t realize I was at the biggest club in history. Only an idiot can behave the way I did at Real. In the same interview, Cassano admitted to being 10 kilos (22 pounds) overweight while at Madrid and was a sex addict. “Yes, I was a sex addict. When you’re 20 years old and you like girls, you have it in you to do it every day. And I had the chance to. I was Cassano, the Real Madrid player! If I would of had any other job, nobody would have looked at me, not even my mother! I’m a nice guy, but I’m not a looker.”

By all accounts, Antonio Cassano was a failed talent, an individual who fell victim to all the off-field indulgences that can impact a professional football player. After his Real Madrid adventure, he bounced around from Italian club to Italian club — six in total. He never again scored more than 15 goals in a season.

Real Betis v Real Madrid
Antonio Cassano celebrates after scoring on his debut vs Real Betis in the Copa Del Rey Quarter Final
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

2. Fabio Cannavaro

Fee: €7 million

Seasons: 2006 - 2009

Appearances: 106 appearances

Goals / Assists: 1 goals / 0 assists

After some of the best defensive performances in the history of the World Cup, Real Madrid took advantage of Juventus’ controversial relegation to Serie B to sign 33-year-old, World Champion, Fabio Cannavaro for €7 million. The manager at the time was fellow Italian, Fabio Capello, who immediately instilled the veteran as a starter throughout the title-winning 2006-2007 campaign. It was a career year for Cannavaro as he went on to win the 2006 Balon d’Or award and the 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year award.

For much of his Madrid career, Cannavaro struggled to rediscover the form that he displayed at the World Cup in Germany. He shuffled through center-back partners having featured with Sergio Ramos, Ivan Helguera, Pepe, Gabriel Heinze, and Christoph Metzelder. Injuries and his older age also did the Italian no favors as it was apparent that he was going through a gradual decline. Though, there were matches where his brilliant defensive anticipation, well-timed tackles, and incredible leap were on hand to save Real Madrid from conceding.

In 2007-2008, Cannavaro won his second consecutive La Liga title with Bernd Schuster at the helm. The formidable back four of Ramos, Pepe, Cannavaro, and Heinze, only conceded 36 goals from 38 match-days — the best in the league. Cannavaro’s second season at Real Madrid, with Schuster and a more consistent back line, produced his best form over the three season period.

His final year with the club was the 2008-2009 season where Madrid shuffled through coaches and Ramon Calderon’s presidency came to a sputtering end. The nail in the coffin was Real Madrid’s 4-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield in the Champions League round of 16 and the 6-2 loss to Barcelona in La Liga. It was one of the darkest seasons in Real Madrid’s history and was ultimately the catalyst that brought the return of Florentino Perez.

At the age of 36 and with his Real Madrid contract expiring, Cannavaro decided to return to Juventus on free transfer in the summer of 2009. Despite the up and down form, Cannavaro was fondly remembered by the Madrid faithful. His veteran presence was crucial for young players like Sergio Ramos, and in particular, Marcelo. The Italian wall was given a standing ovation during his final game at the Bernabeu and was even named in MARCA’s all-time foreign XI for Real Madrid back in 2013. He left having won two La Liga titles and one Spanish Super Cup title.

Real Madrid v Mallorca - La Liga
Fabio Cannavaro waves goodbye to the Santiago Bernabeu who gave him a standing ovation in May of 2009
Photo by Alejandro Gonzalez/Real Madrid via Getty Images

1. Christian Panucci

Fee: €4 million

Seasons: 1997 - 1999

Appearances: 96 appearances

Goals / Assists: 6 goals / 1 assists

The first Italian to ever play for Real Madrid did not arrive until 95 years after the club had formed. Christian Panucci signed for Real Madrid from AC Milan in the winter market of the 1996-1997 season. He immediately solidified himself as the undisputed starter at the right back position, although he proved versatile being able to play at left back and center back. He was just 23-years-old upon his arrival, but had already won a European Cup with AC Milan and had featured 89 times for the storied Italian club.

Despite only playing for the club for two and half seasons, Panucci was successful winning the UEFA Champions League, La Septima, after the club had endured a 32-year drought. He also won one La Liga title, one Spanish Cup, and one Intercontinental Cup. In 1999, he left Real Madrid to return to Italy and join Inter Milan — a decision he later revealed to El Partidazo de COPE that he regretted: “When I left Madrid I was convinced. I wanted to leave Madrid, and it was the biggest foolishness of my sports career, and I regret it now.

All three Italians at Real Madrid have one intertwining theme — Fabio Capello. The Italian coach, or for some, the drill-sergeant, was manager for Real Madrid in two separate spells. His first period in charge saw him push for his compatriot, Panucci, who is now widely considered as one of the best right backs in Real Madrid history.

Fußball: Christian Panucci posiert mit Pokal
The first Italian to play for Real Madrid and the only Italian to lift the UEFA Champions League with the club
Photo by Achim Scheidemann/picture alliance via Getty Images

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