Ferrara spent his playing career as a defender, initially at Napoli and later on at Juventus, winning seven total Serie A titles as well as other domestic and international trophies. At international level, he represented Italy at the 1988 Summer Olympics, at two UEFA European Championships, in 1988 and 2000, and at the 1990 World Cup.
An elegant yet powerful and tenacious defender, Ferrara was known throughout his career for his composure, technical skills, ball-playing ability and class, which enabled him to play anywhere along the back-line, both in the centre, or as a full-back. A world-class defender regarded as one of the best Italian centre-backs of his generation, Ferrara was a complete, experienced, consistent, cautious and successful defender, with a good positional sense, who was quick, strong in the air, a good tackler and who excelled at reading the game and marking his opponents. In addition to his ability as a defender, he was also known for his professionalism and his commanding presence both on the pitch and in the dressing room.
A native of Naples, Ferrara began his career with the youth system of hometown club Napoli in 1980. He graduated the primavera youth squad in 1984, and began to earn first team call-ups that season. He made 14 total appearances with the club in his first full season. The following season, Ferrara became a part of the starting XI, and he soon began earning call-ups to the Italy national team, making the squad for the 1990 FIFA World Cup. He also scored one of Napoli's goals as they won the 1989 UEFA Cup final. In addition to the UEFA Cup, with Napoli he won two Serie A titles (in 1986–87 and 1989–90), the 1987 Coppa Italia final, and the 1990 Supercoppa Italiana, the latter over his future team, Juventus.
In the summer of 1994, Ferrara transferred to Turin-based club Juventus under coach Marcello Lippi, and was quickly introduced into the starting XI, making over 40 total appearances for the club in all competitions in his first season, scoring one goal. He is considered one of the best central defenders of his generation, not relinquishing his starting position for the club for the next ten years. He also captained the team from 1995 to 1996 and became one of the most experienced and decorated players of the past two decades, winning eight Serie A championships, six of which were with Juventus, and two with Napoli. Ferrara was also part of two Coppa Italia titles (one with each team), three Supercoppa Italiana titles (two with Juventus, one with Napoli) and several European competitions, including the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup, Intercontinental Cup and European Super Cup). His role as captain, however, was taken over by Alessandro Del Piero in 1996.
Throughout his Juventus career, Ferrara played an important role in the club's backline, with his vast experienced and dominating defensive style. Throughout his 12-year tenure with the club, Ferrara formed impressive defensive partnerships with the likes of Mark Iuliano, Moreno Torricelli, Paolo Montero, Gianluca Pessotto, Lilian Thuram, Alessandro Birindelli, Igor Tudor, Gianluca Zambrotta, Nicola Legrottaglie and Fabio Cannavaro. Juventus had what was considered as the best defence in the world at this time, and teams strongly regretted ever going down a goal to the club, as they knew how hard it would be to score one back for themselves. In the 1996–97 season, one of his peak seasons, he scored 4 goals in 32 Serie A matches, while also being capped eight times internationally.Following the Scudetto-winning season, Ferrara, along with veteran defensive teammates Mark Iuliano and Paolo Montero, ended their Juventus careers. While Montero returned to Uruguay and Iuliano opted to join smaller clubs to conclude his career, Ferrara retired from football altogether in May 2005 at age 38. He made just four Serie A appearances in his final season with the club. Following Juventus' involvement in the 2006 Italian football scandal, "Calciopoli", Juventus' 2004–05 title was later revoked.
For Italy, Ferrara was capped 49 times and played 1 match each at the 1990 FIFA World Cup on home soil (where Italy finished in third place after a semi-final penalty shootout defeat to Argentina) and at UEFA Euro 2000 (where Italy reached the final, losing to France on a golden goal). Ferrara took part at Euro 1988, where Italy reached the semi-finals, although he did not appear during the tournament. The same year, he was a member of the Italy team that finished in fourth place at the 1988 Summer Olympics after reaching the semi-final.
Ferrara's brilliance, however, was never truly realised at international level despite his impressive tally of caps. During this time, Italy had a plethora of top-class defenders such as Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Mauro Tassotti, Pietro Vierchowod, Riccardo Ferri, Giuseppe Bergomi, Gianluca Pessotto, Paolo Maldini, and in later years, stars like Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta. He was also unfortunate with untimely injuries, most notably in the buildup to the 1998 World Cup in France. Ferrara, aged 31 at the time, was at the peak of his career and had just finished three superb seasons at Juventus; during the 1996–97 and 1997–98 seasons, he had established himself as one of the best defenders in Italy, and was a regular in his national side's line-up. Ferrara, however, suffered a serious injury a few weeks before the 1998 World Cup and missed the tournament; he was replaced by Nesta, who would go on to take his place in Italy's starting line-up alongside Cannavaro.
From this time on, Ferrara was a reserve for Italy. Had Ferrara not suffered this injury, many believe he would have been one of the stars of France 1998, as he was at the peak of his career. For this reason, he is not so well known outside his native country, but within Italy he is regarded as yet another illustrious defender in a long line of world class Italian defenders.
Ferrara was part of the Italian technical staff for the 2006 World Cup. After winning the World Cup, he became part of Juventus' staff, joining former club and national teammate Gianluca Pessotto, with Ferrara being named youth system chief (responsabile settore giovanile), dealing mostly with organisational aspects of the Juve academy. In July 2008, Ferrara took the UEFA Pro License coaching badges following training at Coverciano, Florence. After Juventus fired Claudio Ranieri following a string of seven league games without a win in the 2008–09 season, Ferrara was named interim head coach of Juventus on 18 May 2009 for the remaining two weeks of the season, with the goal of maintaining second place in the league table, and the possibility of being appointed on a full-time basis for a longer period. In his two games as caretaker manager, he led Juventus to 3–0 and 2–0 wins over Siena and Lazio respectively, thus ensuring a second-place finish over rivals Milan. Following these results, he emerged as a strong candidate for to take the job permanently for the next season. On 5 June 2009, Juventus formally announced his appointment as manager for 2009–10 season.
During the summer, the team was then strengthened with high-profile signings such as Brazilian internationals Diego and Felipe Melo; 2006 World Cup champions Fabio Cannavaro and Fabio Grosso in defence; and young Uruguayan international Martín Cáceres, on loan. After winning his first four league matches, Ferrara's fortunes changed after Juve failed to make the knockout stage of the 2009–10 UEFA Champions League following a 4–1 defeat by Bayern Munich at home in a match where a draw would have awarded Juve the qualification to the following phase, despite a promising start to the campaign. Despite a win over Derby d'Italia rivals Internazionale, Juve embarked on a losing streak over the winter, notably against minor teams such as Sicilian side Catania and recently promoted Bari. He came under intense scrutiny from the media and there was much speculation about who would succeed him as manager, especially after he was absent at the traditional meeting of all Serie A managers, coaches and referees in Rome during mid-season and was instead represented by then-Juventus director of sport Alessio Secco and 23-year-old midfielder Claudio Marchisio at the press conference.
Six days later, Juventus were knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Inter 2–1 at the San Siro, leading the board of directors to ultimately sack Ferrara after weeks of speculation regarding his position, replacing him with Alberto Zaccheroni until the end of the season.
On 22 October 2010, Ferrara was announced as new head coach of the Italy under-21 team, with former teammate Angelo Peruzzi his assistant. Under Ferrara, the Azzurrini remain unbeaten in the 2013 UEFA European U21 Championship qualifiers as of June 2012. On 2 July 2012, he left the country's U-21 side to coach newly promoted Serie A side Sampdoria for the 2012–13 season. However, he was sacked on 17 December 2012.
With his fellow Neapolitan friend and former defensive teammate Fabio Cannavaro, Ferrara has helped establish a charity foundation, Fondazione Cannavaro Ferrara, specialising in the procurement of cancer research equipment and surgery for special cases of cancer for a hospital in their native Naples. The foundation also aims to help at risk youth in Naples.As of 23 March 2017
Serie A: 1986–87, 1989–90
UEFA Cup: 1988–89
Coppa Italia: 1986–87
Supercoppa Italiana: 1990
Serie A: 1994–95, 1996–97, 1997–98, 2001–02, 2002–03
Champions League: 1995–96
Intercontinental Cup: 1996
European Super Cup: 1996
Coppa Italia: 1994–95
Italian Super Cup: 1995, 1997, 2002, 2003
Intertoto Cup: 1999
FIFA World Cup Third Place: 1990
UEFA European Championship Runner-up: 2000
ESM Team of the Year: 1996–97
Pallone d'Argento: 2003
FIFA XI (Reserve): 2000
Premio Nazionale Carriera Esemplare "Gaetano Scirea": 2003
5th Class/Knight: Cavaliere Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana
4th Class/Officer: Ufficiale Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana
FIFA World Cup: 2006