Vincenzo Grifo, Ciro Immobile, Luca Toni, Andrea Barzagli and Ruggiero Rizzitelli: the Bundesliga's Italian icons
With an estimated 1.2 million Italians currently living in Germany, it’s no surprise that the Bundesliga has also played host to some quality players who’ve made the short journey north over the Alps, swapping spaghetti for Spätzle, grappa for Glühwein, Milan for Munich.
With Freiburg and their talismanic Italian attacker Vincenzo Grifo in action against the mighty Juventus this week, what better time for bundesliga.com to take a look at five Italians who made their mark on the German game…
Appearances: 197 (47 goals)
Clubs: Hoffenheim, Freiburg, Borussia Mönchengladbach
Honours: Bundesliga 2 winner (2015/16), DFB Cup runner-up 2021–22
Born in south-west Germany to Italian parents, Grifo was something of a late bloomer. Although he made his Bundesliga debut as a teenager with Hoffenheim in 2012/13, it wasn’t until the attacking midfielder had a couple of productive seasons in Bundesliga 2 - first with FSV Frankfurt in 2014/15 and then with Freiburg the following season – that he truly began to establish himself as a player to keep an eye on.
The right-footer enjoys playing centrally, behind a main striker, but is also effective drifting in off the left wing. A dead-ball specialist, the 29-year-old has had three spells at Hoffenheim, as well as a season at Gladbach, but it is under Freiburg head coach Christian Streich that he has truly shone. “He’s a really hard worker and he’s not a bad player either,” said the 57-year-old tactician. “He’s self-critical too, so he’ll keep improving.”
So good is he, in fact, that he was called up to a star-studded Italy squad in 2018 and earned the first of eight senior caps [he has since scored four goals for the Azzurri] in a friendly against the USA. Grifo now takes the majority of Freiburg’s free-kicks, corners and penalties, and finished the 2021/22 campaign with a team-high nine goals and seven assists. He has gone on to better his goals tally this term, registering 12 in 22 Bundesliga appearances to date while laying on four assists.
Watch: Vincenzo Grifo's free-kick mastery
Appearances: 60 (38 goals)
Club: Bayern Munich
Honours: Bundesliga (2007/08, 2009/10), DFB Cup (2007/08, 2009/10), Bundesliga top scorer (2007/08), UEFA Cup top scorer (2007/08)
Toni’s spell at Bayern only lasted a couple of years but he crammed plenty in. He arrived back in Germany, where he’d won the 2006 FIFA World Cup with Italy, for the 2007/08 season and got off to a flying start after his move from Fiorentina, scoring in each of his first three Bundesliga games and having eight goals from his first eight appearances.
Watch: Toni's top 5 Bundesliga goals
Nicknamed Il Bomber (in reference to Gerd Müller) and Tonigol, his hat-trick against Hannover in February 2008 was the first by a Bayern player in the Bundesliga for almost 21 years. He got another three on the final day against Hertha Berlin to finish as the division’s top scorer on 24 and earn his first club silverware with the Meisterschale.
A brace in the DFB Cup final victory over Borussia Dortmund made it a double, while he got 10 in 11 games as part of the UEFA Cup semi-final run. The sight of his unique goal celebration, twisting his hand around his ear to say ‘Do you understand?’ was a common occurrence, striking 58 times in 89 matches for Bayern. His second campaign started well before an Achilles tendon problem slowed him down, but the striker still finished as the club’s top scorer with 14 from 25 Bundesliga games. After disagreements with coach Louis van Gaal, he returned home to Italy in 2009/10, but holds a place as the first Bundesliga player to earn senior caps for the Azzurri.
Appearances: 75 (1 goal)
Honours: Bundesliga (2008/09)
Most known for playing at the heart of the Juventus defence that once dominated Italian football, most people forget that Barzagli was the rock in Wolfsburg’s famous 2008/09 title-winning campaign – the first major club honour of his career. The central defender played every single minute of his first Bundesliga season after joining from Palermo, crediting taskmaster Felix Magath as the coach who helped forge him into a top-quality centre-back after telling him he trained badly and didn’t believe in himself.
Regarded as one of the finest defenders of his generation, Barzagli made 94 appearances for Wolfsburg across the Bundesliga, DFB Cup, UEFA Cup, Champions League and Europa League during two-and-a-half seasons at the Volkswagen Arena before returning to Italy with Juventus midway through 2010/11 after losing his place in the team.
Appearances: 45 (11 goals)
Club: Bayern Munich
Honours: Bundesliga (1996/97), DFB Cup (1998)
Erm, who? While perhaps not the most famous name in Italian football during its heyday in the 1990s, Rizzitelli introduced to Bundesliga audiences thanks to Giovanni Trapattoni, who was in his second spell in charge at Bayern in 1996.
Signed from relegation Serie A side Torino that same summer, the forward hit the ground running in a side that also contained the likes of Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Mehmet Scholl, among others. He scored on his debut in a 2-1 win over St. Pauli, and even registered three goals in his first three league outings, but only struck four more over the rest of the season.
Still, it was enough to help Bayern to the Bundesliga title, while he also lifted the DFB Cup the following campaign. That was to be his last year in Munich, however, as injuries and the emergence of Carsten Jancker limited his playing time, and Rizzitelli returned to Italy with Piacenza Calcio in July 1998.
Appearances: 24 (3 goals)
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Honours: DFL Supercup (2014)
Fresh from scoring 22 times in 33 Serie A games for Torino in 2013/14, Dortmund identified Immobile as the ideal replacement for Robert Lewandowski, who had departed for Bayern in summer 2014.
Big shoes to fill, then, and for the striker, who was still just 22 at the time and was adapting to a new country, language, culture and playing style, it proved a step too far. That is not to say, however, that Immobilie did not show flashes of the brilliance that has subsequently made him a legend at Lazio.
While his three goals in 24 Bundesliga outings is hardly prolific, it comes with the caveat that 15 of those appearances were as a substitute in the closing stages of games. The striker also chipped in with three in three DFB Cup matches, as well as four in six in the UEFA Champions League.
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