Divided by the Mar Balear and Mar Tirreno - two parts of the Mediterranean Sea, Spain and Italy are two European nations who have shared a rich history in football over the centuries that have gone by. Madrid is about a 19-hour drive away from Rome. The drive becomes even shorter if someone is visiting the province of Savona (about 13 hours). Savona is the birthplace of Real Madrid’s first-ever Italian player. On the verge of facing a completely new Italian opponent in Atalanta, we’ll begin our Italian-lookback with Christian Panucci - a key chapter in Real Madrid’s fascinating stories intertwined with Italy and its football.
A man who escaped a tragic plane crash, a Ballon D’or winner, and a Nutella-enthusiast - these are the only three Italian players ever to have played for Real Madrid. Panucci was the first of them. His Real Madrid career was sandwiched between stints at AC Milan and Inter Milan. The versatile full-back made an early impression at Madrid, winning La Liga in his first season in 1997. He also created one of the most formidable full-back pairings of Europe with Roberto Carlos on the left. However, his Real Madrid career wasn’t long enough to see the turn of the century. In 1996, he escaped a plane crash as he just missed the flight which eventually ended up in a brutal crash.
Antonio Cassano was the next Italian to don a Real Madrid shirt. Cassano scored into just the first three minutes of his debut but everything went south from thereon. He gained so much weight due to his love of ‘Nutella’ that the club had to impose an overweight fine at one point. His relationship with Fabio Capello wasn’t nice either and he even got suspended for disrespecting the manager.
The last and most recent Italian player who played for Real Madrid had a different story. Fabio Cannavaro was a world-cup winning captain and a Ballon d’Or winner. Ramon Calderon did not really follow Florentino’s Galactico policy but Cannavaro’s case was as big as a Galactico signing. His three-year stay at the club saw him win two La Liga titles. However, his performances dropped significantly in 2008-09 as Real Madrid had to see arch-rivals Barcelona win the treble under Pep Guardiola.
Real Madrid only ever had a couple of Italian managers in their entire history. Fabio Capello managed the side in two separate one-year-long stints and won La Liga on both occasions. He served the club under two Presidents Lorenzo Sanz (1996-97) and Ramon Calderon (2006-07) but was dismissed by the club just after one year, both times. Florentino Perez has perhaps been the most influential president at the club since the great Santiago Bernabeu himself. But somehow, Capello’s tenures never crossed paths with Florentino.
Carlo Ancelotti was a managerial signing of Galactic proportions. Florentino Perez had been chasing Carlo since 2003. Many believe - Real Madrid’s appointment of Arrigo Sacchi as their Director of Football was in fact intended for persuading Ancelotti in joining the club much earlier than he eventually did. Carlo Ancelotti’s name is forever engraved in the history of Real Madrid with 24-carat gold. He will forever remain the manager who won La Decima regardless of how Real Madrid imploded in his final season in 2014-15.
Real Madrid have played 76 matches in European competitions, against Italian sides. Real Madrid’s history of playing against Italian clubs goes way back compared to their history with specific Italian players or managers. In any European competition, Real Madrid faced an Italian side for the first time in 1955-56. Madrid locked horns with AC Milan at the semi-final stage of the European Cup en route to grabbing their first European crown. Between 1957 and 1964, Real Madrid faced Italian opponents in three-separate European Cup finals (Fiorentina, AC Milan, Inter Milan, respectively), winning twice and losing once on the grandest stage of club football.
Their 32-year drought at the European Summit was also ended against an Italian side in a 1-0 win over Juventus in 1998. They became the first team to defend the title since the remodeling of the tournament against the same opponent - Juventus in 2017 under former Juventus star Zinedine Zidane. Real Madrid have also had fierce battles with the likes of Napoli and AS Roma. Chendo’s nutmeg over the Late Diego Maradona in 1987 is still considered as one of the iconic moments that involved the Argentine legend and the Spanish giants.
Not to forget, the last Italian side (Mourinho’s Inter in 2010) who won the Champions League - did it at the Santiago Bernabeu of all places in the world.
Transfers from/to Serie A
Some of the greatest imports in the history of Real Madrid have been from the Serie-A. When considering incoming players, none of them would probably eclipse the significance of Zinedine Zidane's transfer to the Spanish capital from Juventus in 2001. Zidane has been with the club ever since in multiple roles, finding success in pretty much every position he had held. Real Madrid have always been cordial and friendly with Italian clubs. While players like Ronaldo Nazario and Zidane arrived from Italy, the likes of Clarence Seedorf and Fernando Redondo headed the other way after their Real Madrid chapters have ended.
However, among the players who moved to Serie-A from Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer will always be the biggest one. Poetically, just like Juventus saw their prized-possession join Real Madrid in 2001, Real Madrid had to endure the same (in the other direction) after 17 years.
Over the years, some Italian names got away. Florentino Perez tried to bring the likes of Francesco Totti and Andrea Pirlo to the Bernabeu more than once. But Real Madrid’s count for Italian players remains three to this day.
On November 5, 2008, one of the most beautiful moments of Real Madrid’s Italian crossroads took place at the Bernabeu. After decimating Bernd Schuster’s Real Madrid side with a free-kick and another cool finish, Juventus captain Alessandro Del Piero left the pitch with the applause of a standing Bernabeu crowd. Del Piero was surprised at this moment of pure footballing respect.
History repeated itself when Cristiano Ronaldo received the same treatment from the Turin crowd on a rainy night in 2018. His unthinkable bicycle kick won the hearts of the crowd as they applauded the legend, on their feet. This gesture allegedly played a huge part in Ronaldo’s decision to join Juventus at the end of the 2017-18 season.
Real Madrid are about to play two immensely difficult games against the newest Italian enigma on the European stage. For a country that boasts of great clubs like AC Milan, Inter Milan, Napoli, Roma, Lazio, and Fiorentina, Atalanta's rise is should not be a surprise. Considering stature, there is no club bigger than Real Madrid on a European night regardless of form. It would be the greatest challenge for Gian Piero Gasperini’s energetic Atalanta side who can be as devastating as anyone on their day. However, it will also be their biggest triumph to date if they can knock the air out the 13-time champions in their first-ever meeting. Two fascinating European nights await us.