The Greatest Footballers Of All Time
All this talk of "the greatest manager of all time" has returned my mind to one of its favourite byways: frittering away time thinking about the greatest footballers who ever lived.
Now, I'm well aware that this kind of thing is an exercise in futility: one cannot possibly meaningfully compare the footballers of yesteryear to those of today - George Best's fitness was so far away from that of (say) Cristiano Ronaldo that the two might as well be playing different sports, but then Ronaldo has never had to play on the sorts of mudbowl surfaces that Best navigated with ease, nor ride the sorts of career-ending tackles that the Irishman faced weekly. It's also tough not to be swayed by nostalgia (the footballers we pretended to be on the playground will always, in one sense, be our true greats), or modern hype and fanfare.
However, putting all that to one side, it's a huge amount of fun to pretend that we can, no? There are some knowledgeable football heads on here, so I'm intrigued to hear the views of the Massive, or whatever we're calling ourselves these days.
So, here are the rules: your top 10 in ascending order of greatness, with one "wildcard" suggestion of a player who you think tends to be unfairly overlooked in these sorts of discussions, or just deserves a bit of attention. Maybe not one of the authentic 10 best players of all time, but one of the most underrated, or a personal favourite you just can't bear to leave out even though you know it's a bit daft.
Post clips or photos if you like. Give reasons and anecdotes if you want. For my part, I favour a combination of on-field ability and what the player was actually able to achieve/win (on the assumption that the game's greatest players will generally, but not always, have won its greatest honours).
Here's my list to start us off:
1. Diego Maradona
One of the heroes of my childhood. I know that to some he will always be little more than a cheat and a drug addict, but the things he could do with a football were simply mind-boggling. Have a look at this for a few examples:
That sort of technique might be commonplace today. I'm not so sure it was in the 1980s.
He tops the list for me because of his unique achievements at club and national level. He dragged a mediocre Argentina side to two World Cup finals, winning one of them. He dragged a mediocre Napoli side to a first ever Serie A title. He could do it all - he made those around him better, he was a genius on the ball and a leader on the field.
It's easy to poke fun at him, and he hasn't always been the most dignified of figures (understatement), but to a schoolboy he was pure footballing fantasia, and I think it's bloody wonderful that the greatest player who ever lived was 5 ft 5, tubby and sporting a nascent afro that wouldn't have seen him out of place in the MC5.
2. Leo Messi
We've all seen him. This surely doesn't need much explanation.
Is he number 2? He is for me. His statistics are absurd, and his consistency is mind boggling. It's tough to compare him to Maradona (who played in worse teams, but was less consistently effective), or to Pele (who played in a tremendous national side and some mickey mouse club sides), but I think there's an argument that with the system Barca have built around him he is the most devastating tip of a spear that football has ever seen.
Despite the 90-odd goals he scored last year, it is not the Messi of 2012 who really springs to mind when I want to conjure the magic.
Instead, it's the Messi of 2010-2011. The emerging Messi, still playing out on the wing at times and scoring a few less goals, but all the more terrifying for the fact that his genius was not yet fully formed. And all the more charming for the terrible barnet.
I can recall a period of about 9 months (not sure exactly when, maybe a little over 2 years ago) during which he did something genuinely stunning in what felt like every match Barcelona played. I mean the sort of football that makes you laugh out loud in shock and delight. Not so much the goals, more the little pieces of skill, the little runs and dummies. The fancy stuff.
I could be wrong, but it's my impression that he dribbled more during that period. That he was fouled less often, and less brutally, and was accordingly less inhibited. Of course, he's more effective now, but it's an effectiveness that finds its expression in goals and economy - there was a little more playfulness to him back then, and he wasn't carrying the team so much. Genius before the onset of maturity, if you like, when his game seemed like pure joy and he signed his work with a flourish.
Anyway, that's just my sense of things: I could be wrong, but here's a great video of his dribbling from that very period:
I didn't get to experience Cruyff at first hand, I'm too young for that, so my impression of him is derived solely from old clips, re-runs of matches and various books.
He achieved less than some of those around him on this list, but I think he had a view of the game that was vastly ahead of its time, and that informs where things have headed since. Obviously, he had a hand in all that as a manager, but the seeds were also sown as a player.
I love watching the Dutch side of the 70s (who doesn't), and I love Cruyff's versatility. He could have played pretty much any position in any team and his reading of the game was superb. None of us can hope to ever dribble like Messi, or have the physical prowess of Ronaldo, but we can try to see the game the way Cruyff did/does and, even though we'll never get close to really doing so, it will improve us.
Perhaps he's too low here, but this is where he sits for me. Again, he was long before my time, and I know my grandfather (who was Argentinian and therefore had every reason to be biased) rated him the best ever, but I'm not sure that's so.
Obviously, he was a fantastic footballer. A total natural and he'd have thrived in any era. But I think he loses a few marks for his choices on the club side of things. He didn't leave Brazil until 1974, and when he did it was to spend the last three years of his career in the States.
His career is therefore divided into two categories: the national side, where he played as the figurehead of what was arguably the greatest football team of all time, and club level, where I'm not entirely sure he really stretched himself. Did he ever face true adversity on the pitch (beyond a relentless shoeing in the 66 world cup)? I'm not really sure - perhaps others can enlighten me.
In terms of winning the absolute lot at club and international level, Zidane is hard to beat. World Cup, Champs League, European Championships, Serie A, La Liga - he starred in teams that won these trophies.
He also dragged a fairly shoddy French side to the World Cup final in 2006, even if he didn't quite get the fairytale ending he might have hoped for.
On the pitch he was a total all-rounder, perhaps the greatest example of that type bar Cruyff. He had few, if any, weaknesses in his game and his vision and close control was up there with the very best there have ever been. But he was also a man for the big occasion, and he scored some huge, huge goals in the games that really mattered.
Here's my favourite clip of him, playing indoor football with a bunch of French kids - watch his feet:
I also like this footage of him teasing a keeper in training:
It's tough to put too many contemporary players on a list like this without seeming a bit starstruck or naive. But I honestly don't see how Xavi can be left off.
Again, he's won everything: World Cup, Champs League (three times), European Championships (twice), La Liga (six times). He acted as the lynchpin of teams that changed the way football is played, at domestic and national level.
See above re: Xavi. All of the same applies to Iniesta. He's a wonderful, wonderful footballer who has won the lot, and he's still only 27.
9. Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima
10. Alfredo Di Stefano
Wildcard: Ronaldinho - A preposterous cartoon of a footballer. I saw him live a few times and he just crackled with magic, until his lifestyle began to take its toll. If he'd had a little more discipline and drive then he might have achieved even more than he did, but perhaps he wouldn't have been the same player. I'm not sure I've ever seen any other individual express themselves more fully on a football field than Ronaldinho, or with greater joy. He was like a circus act. The last time I saw him play was with a bunch of mates at the Nou Camp back in 2006. I think the opponents were Osasuna. He put on an almighty show: tricks, flicks, the works. The crowd went insane for him. The next day we bought a paper to see how the papers had rated his performance, and we discovered that his pass completion had been 93%. He'd showboated all game and he'd barely given the ball away.
Sorry for the long post, and well done to anyone who made it through all that babbling. I've had this in my head a while and really needed to get it out.
Who makes your top 10?