For some reason, very few Spanish players who tried their luck at the Serie A have managed to perform at their best while in Italy, despite the two countries having quite many things in common: The geographical location, the culture, the similar language, the gastronomy…and, above all, the love for the “King sport” football.
Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez once said that the Serie A is a “crusher” for Spanish footballers and rather decided to give five of his best young players – including Dani Carvajal, Achraf Hakimi, and Borja Mayoral – on loan to the Bundesliga.
So, we took a look at what the reasons for these unsuccessful transfers might have been and came up with a Top 11 of Spanish players who have played in Serie A.
To make our choices, we took into consideration the overall career of the player and not just their time in Italy – as indeed very few españoles had a noteworthy stint in the transalpine country.
Let’s get it going, then:
Goalkeeper: José Manuel “Pepe” Reina
This was probably the easiest choice to make. When Pepe came out of La Masía, the shadow of his dad was overwhelming. For that reason, he decided to leave Barcelona and proof himself at Villareal, where he spent the glory days of the club. His exceptional performances convinced Rafa Benítez to sign him for the then European Champions Liverpool. Nevertheless, most football fans would agree that his best and more regular performances came in the South of Italy with the Napoli jersey. His charisma and leadership in and out of the pitch make him a world-class goalkeeper. Too bad for him that he had to compete with Iker Casillas for a spot in the national team. Now aged 37, he is still playing for Aston Villa after a couple of seasons as a back-up keeper at Milan.
Left Back: Marcos Alonso
When your grandfather “Marquitos” is a five-time European Champion with Real Madrid and your father is a Barcelona legend, you have no choice but to become a football player. Straight from Real Madrid’s La Fábrica, Marcos made his debut with Real in 2010. After a couple of loans in the Premier League, he joined Fiorentina where he found the perfect environment to show his skills. Two seasons playing regularly drew Antonio Conte’s attention and the Italian boss signed him for Chelsea – where he is still performing at a high level.
Center Back: Iván Helguera
After starting his career at Albacete in the Spanish Segunda División, Iván was quickly noticed by Roma and Real Madrid. After a long dispute throughout the summer of 1997, he decided to make a move to Italy. Unfortunately, he didn’t have many chances to prove himself and thus moved back to La Liga. After only one season at Espanyol, Real Madrid took the opportunity to finally sign him. For eight years, he was a regular starter of Real Madrid, as well as of the national team. His lesser-known brother, Luis Helguera, spent most of his career in Italian clubs Udinese, Fiorentina, Ancona, and Vicenza.
Right Back: Gaizka Mendieta
Many fans would not know, but the Basque started his career playing as a right-back for Valencia and ended it in the same position for Middlesbrough. When in Barcelona, he also had to play as a right-back in many circumstances. When Mendieta signed for Lazio, many European clubs were following him, especially Real Madrid. He was paid by Lazio €60M, which made him the most expensive player in the history of football back in 2001. How come Mendieta didn’t succeed in the Italian Capital and left after just one season with not a single goal scored is still a mystery as of today. Nevertheless, considering his overall career, the Basque deserves a spot in our team.
Left Midfielder: Luis Suarez
This is not who you are thinking. Much before Uruguay forward Luis Suarez – who never saw the Serie A and likely never will – there was another international football star bearing this name. This is the only case of a Spanish player who performed at a higher level in Serie A than in La Liga. Suarez was the first-ever Español to play in the Italian league and the only Spanish player to have ever won the Ballon d’Or. In 1961, he became the world’s most expensive footballer when he left Barcelona to join Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter. In nine seasons at Inter, he won anything possible. In 1970, he moved to Sampdoria, where he spent his last three seasons before retirement. From then on, he has maintained close ties with inter – which he also coached on three separate occasions.
Central Midfielder: Fabián Ruiz
It is always risky to pick up a player who is still young and has much to prove. However, the first two seasons of the Andalusian in Napoli have made such a remarkable impact that we couldn’t leave him out. Many European clubs are already trying to sign the young player who is a regular starter in the Spanish National Team.
Central Midfielder: Josep “Pep” Guardiola
Much has been said and written about one of the best coaches in the history of football. The time the Spanish spent in Serie A as a player, however, is not that known. Guardiola landed in Brescia looking for a new adventure and a completely new type of club and, on his second season, went on loan to Roma – where he was coached by Fabio Capello. From the Italian, Guardiola could learn a lot about leadership and management before moving back to Brescia and sharing the changing room with players like Roberto Baggio, and Luca Toni.
Central Midfielder: Suso
Joining Liverpool at the age of 17 shows just how high the Gaditano‘s expectations were. Suso had to prove himself during some loans, but Milan is where he achieved his best performance. With the Rossoneri, he came up as a confident, top-quality player, as well as a real leader able to change the course of the game. That is also the time when he won his first cap for Spain. Currently on loan at Sevilla, he will probably have one more chance in the Serie A, where he has also performed with Genoa’s colors.
Right Midfielder: José Callejón
Another product of La Fábrica, he became famous for a picture of José Mourinho jumping on him to celebrate a victory – which made it to most sports newspapers. The Portuguese was the first coach to trust and give Callejon confidence before he would fly to Italy to join Napoli and go on to enjoy a remarkable career. Callejón has been part of Napoli’s starting eleven for the last seven seasons, during which he managed to score 80 goals. His contract is now expiring and won’t be renewed, so let’s see where he goes next…
Attacking Midfielder: Rafael Martín Vazquez
Football lovers from the 1980s will always remember La quinta del Buitre, a group of five players grown in Real Madrid’s youth academy who would represent the Merengues for almost two decades. The most famous were – of course – El Buitre Emilio Butragueño, then Manolo Sanchís, Miguel Pardeza, and Míchel. The fifth one, Rafael Martín Vázquez, decided to take onto a new adventure at the peak of his career as he joined Torino in 1990. One year later, he would reach the Final of the UEFA Cup – eliminating Real Madrid in the process! – getting very close to achieve European glory with the Granata.
Forward: Fernando Llorente
After a long controversy with Athletic Bilbao’s President due to his refusal to extend his contract, Llorente joined Italian giants Juventus in 2013. The World Champion was mostly selected as a back-up player, often deployed by coaches in the second half of a game – when his privileged physical skill would help him score as things get complicated. Currently playing for Napoli, he still seems to have a lot to say in Serie A despite his 35 years of age.
Goalkeeper: Diego Lopez
When José Mourinho started his personal war with Iker Casillas, Diego Lopez found himself in the middle of it and became Real Madrid’s first choice between the posts until the Portuguese coach left. When Carlo Ancelotti replaced Mourinho, he kept Lopez as a starter in La Liga and selected Casillas for the Champions League and the Copa del Rey. During those years, he proved to be a world-class keeper and eventually got a chance to represent Milan for two seasons.
Center-back: Raúl Albiol
If we would consider only his Serie A performances, Albiol should probably get a spot in the starting XI instead of Helguera. Raúl Albiol has been a start for Napoli for six seasons, becoming a true leader of the Southern Italian team.
Midfielder: Manuel Borja Valero
A great representative of the Spanish Tiki Taka, Borja Valero’s best performances were made with the jersey of Fiorentina. Currently, he plays for Inter, but with a secondary role.
Offensive midfielder: Ivan De La Peña
Together with Raúl Gonzalez, De La Peña was one of the most talented players of his generation and seemed meant to be the symbol of a glorious age for Spanish football when he moved to Serie A. Unfortunately, and differently from Raúl, he failed to establish himself – especially during his stint with Lazio. Nevertheless, De La Peña was one of those players worth the price of the ticket.
Midfielder: Guillermo Amor
Together with Guardiola, Amor ruled Barcelona’s midfield for many years. When moving to Fiorentina, he joined a team full of talent – including Manuel Rui Costa and Predrag Mijatovic – and still managed to give a display of beautiful football.
Attacking Midfielder: Luis Alberto
After trying his luck at several teams and countries, Luis Alberto established himself at Lazio, becoming a regular starter and also earning his first caps for the national team. At 27, he still has a lot to say in the Serie A.
Forward: Fernando Torres
Torres’ time among Serie A players at Milan was not the brightest of his career, but his overall story makes him one of the best strikers in the history of Spanish Football.
The very physical, defensive, and strategic nature of calcio has made the Italian shores less suitable for Spanish players. Most of those who tried their hand at it during the Golden Age of Serie A have either failed or underperformed.
On the other hand, when Spain finally found themselves blessed with a generation of exquisitely talented players, the Serie A had lost most of its appeal – and the likes of Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas etc. preferred to either stay home or move to the Premier League.
The list of Spanish players in the Serie A, however, is very long – including José Mari, Diego Tristán, Bojan Krkic, Pedro Obiang, Gerard Deulofeu, Alberto Zapater, Iago Falqué, Pol Lirola, Javi Moreno, Joaquín Peiró, Luis Del Sol, Ricardo Gallego, Victor Muñoz – and who knows what the next decade will bring in terms of this Spanish-Italian football connection?
Feature Photo Graphics by Andreea Stefanescu