30. Andres Iniesta
Career span 2001-
Country Spain: 54 caps, 5 goals
Position attacking midfielder
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 3 Champions Leagues, 6 Spanish titles, 1 Spanish cup
One of football’s great aphorisms is that you only truly appreciate a true ability when he’s absent. And it can be no coincidence that Barcelona’s only real blip between 2008 and 2011 came when Andres Iniesta was injured. Without the attacking midfielder’s innovative mind, Barca couldn’t manufacture the extra opening that would have seen them knock out Inter in 2010 and surely retain the Champions League. Indeed, it isn’t an exaggeration to argue that only Iniesta’s injury came between Barca and a historic three-in-a-row.
Because, although he may not be quite as central to the team’s style as Xavi or as outrageously talented as Leo Messi, he is the crucial link between the two. Alex Ferguson certainly concurred. On the eve of the 2009 Champions League final, the Manchester United manager claimed “I’m not obsessed with Messi. Iniesta is the danger. He’s fantastic. He makes the team work. He finds passes, his movement and ability to create space is incredible.”
Unfortunately for Ferguson, he would be proven emphatically accurate within 24 hours. Iniesta provided the perceptive through ball that opened – and eventually won – won the game, for Samuel Eto’o’s goal.
And it was only part of a continuum in terms of Iniesta’s influence on the elite level of the game. Having come on with Henrik Larsson to swing the 2006 final in Barca’s favour, he scored the equaliser against Chelsea in 2009 and played the through ball that allowed Pedro to kill of Real Madrid in 2011.
Most famously though, he rose to the World Cup’s most important matches just months after the injury against Inter and the first real doubts of his career. It was Iniesta’s passes that allowed David Villa to score against Portugal and Paraguay and Spain as a whole to spin Germany around.
Just like Ferguson, then, Holland realised who they had to target in the World Cup final itself. But in the most aggressive manner possible. Aptly, Iniesta illustrated true character to rise above it to score the winner.
As Eto’o enthused, “whenever Iniesta is on the pitch, he creates a spectacle”.
Career span 1962-73
Country Brazil: 54 caps, 32 goals
Clubs America, Cruzeiro, Vasco da Gama
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 Brazilian championship, 5 state championships
Because of the apparent freedom the Brazil 1970 side played with, as well as the philosophy of their coach Mario Zagallo, an image has arisen that they were a team for which tactics were a secondary concern. That Zagallo just let “great players play”.
And, to an extent, that might have been accurate. Except every team, no matter how talented the individuals, requires understanding and intelligence.
And Tostao – perhaps fittingly given that he became a doctor – certainly provided the latter. Although he was the same type of forward as Pele, he had the nous to know that he should drop back and allow the team’s number 10 to wreak havoc. The result was that Tostao only scored two goals in the competition but set up many more. As Brian Glanville wrote, “he had developed into a player of glorious technical skill, great subtlety and considerable courage”.
Because, although he was so much more than a goalscorer, he certainly proved a very productive one at Cruzeiro. Between 1963 and 1972, Tostao became the club’s all-time top scorer with 249 goals that helped them to five state championships.
It was perhaps a cruel quirk of fate that a detached retina had forced his retirement at the age of just 27. Because his vision had already helped him enjoy one of the most victorious.
28. Giacinto Facchetti
Career span 1960-78
Country Italy: 94 caps, 3 goals
Position left-back, centre-back
Medals 1 European Championship, 2 European Cups, 4 Italian titles, 1 Italian cup
Franz Beckenbauer was intrigued. While much of the football world had been putting off watching the counter-attacking football of Italy and Inter during the ’60s, the German captain realised there was something in it.
“Watching Giacinto Facchetti’s spectacular incursions from left-back and his thundering shots”, Brian Glanville wrote, “Beckenbauer asked himself why he, as a libero or sweeper, should not move into attack from a more central role. He did; and total football was born at Bayern Munich.”
Of course, in the football philosophy that preceded it, Helenio Herrera always pointed to Facchetti as evidence of why Catenaccio was not a defensive system. That may have been stretching the truth, of course. But the full-back was without doubt “the keystone” to the system for club and country. His pace, poise and technique allowed Inter to swiftly switch from rearguard to raid. Indeed, before being spotted by Herrera in 1960, he has very realistic dreams of becoming a 100m Olympic sprinter for Inter.
But his game was not all about speed. In 1965-66, for example, the nominal left-back scored a goal every three games. In that, he was a forerunner for Antonio Cabrini’s role at Juventus.
Facchetti, it must be said, was not the first attacking full-back. Nilton and Djalma Santos had already laid the path. But it was Facchetti who mapped it. Glanville described him as “the towering embodiment of the overlapping full-back” and Fifa’s official history as “the man who brought full-backs out of their shells”.
In that, he was ahead of his time. And, more often than not, ahead of the field. Facchetti was one of the influential players in Inter’s conquering of the continent in the club game over 1964 and 1965 and Italy’s in the international game in 1968.
Only illustrating the all-round nature of his game, he eventually moved to sweeper. But, for most of his career, Facchetti swept up all before him.
27. Lev Yashin
Career span 1950-70
Clubs Dynamo Moscow
Medals 1 European Championship, 5 Soviet leagues, 3 Soviet cups
“What kind of goalkeeper is the one who is not tormented by the goal he has allowed?” Lev Yashin once pondered. “He must be tormented! And if he is calm, that means the end.”
So much for the ideal archetype of a composed, confident goalkeeper capable of pulling off world-class saves when called upon.
But then Yashin was always able for the latter. He was just a little too forthright for the former. Yashin was never content to just contain himself within the parameters of his position. Like many of the best players on this list, he was a pioneer. He sought to redefine those parameters.
Among his many achievements, the Russian was the first goalkeeper to consistently come off his line and collect crosses and the first to start commanding and organising his defence – mostly through angry orders.
All of this, of course, was born from Yashin’s obsession with keeping clean sheets. And that drive underpinned Russia’s greatest ever team. In that sense, Yashin was not just among the most exceptional keepers. But also, crucially, the most influential. Between 1960 and 1966, the USSR won the European Championships and reached another final as well as the last four of the World Cup. And underpinning all of that was Yashin.
Most notably, he performed heroics to keep Yugoslavia at just 1-0 for the majority of the victorious 1960 final and then did the same against Hungary in 1996 to ease the USSR’s passage to the semi-finals.
The pity, perhaps, is that he played in an era when Soviet sides did not enter the European Cup. Although Yashin won four of his five league titles after the competition began, the Soviet Top League didn’t enter a team until 1966-67, when Torpedo Moscow were champions.
By then, however, Yashin had already illustrated that his ability went well beyond his continent.
Career span 1971-94
Country Brazil: 72 caps, 52 goals
Clubs Flamengo, Udinese, Flamengo, Kashima Antlers
Medals 1 Copa Libertadores, 4 Brazilian championships, 6 state championships
“Zico never won the World Cup? The Brazilian journalist Juca Kfouri once asked. “Well, that’s the World Cup’s problem.”
Certainly, Zico caused a lot of opposition teams a lot more problems during a joyous career.
And Liverpool can testify to that. In 1981, with the Merseyside machine at the very height of its dominance, Zico utterly unravelled them apart in a 3-0 win for Flamengo that could have been many more.
At that point, the playmaker was regularly being compared to Pele. And, only strengthening the parallels, Zico ensured that Flamengo enjoyed the most successful period of their history by far. They also became the first Brazilian club to win the Copa Libertadores since Pele’s Santos in 1963.
And yet, a year later, Zico lead an even more spectacular team. The Brazilian side that competed in the 1982 World Cup was arguably the most outrageously talented, and offered the most truly memorable moments, since their 1970 predecessors. Zico himself seemed to embody an old Brazilian school of football as art.
With one difference. When it came right down to it, Brazil never brought their beauty to the next level. Zico was to remain empty-handed in international football.
And, although many may talk poetically about the true value of football, Zico has made his feelings clear.
“It’s always important to leave a legacy. But what matters to a professional is the title. I’m happy to have been part of a team like that, though, and people everywhere still remember us. But I’d have been even happier if we’d have won.”
He would also be even higher on this list.
Career span 1991-
Country Brazil: 74 caps, 34 goals
Clubs Santa Cruz, Mogi Mirim (Corinthians), Palmeiras, Deportivo, Barcelona, Milan, Cruzeiro, Olympiakos, AEK Athens, Bunyodkor, Mogi Mirim, Sao Paulo
Position attacking midfielder, forward
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 Copa America, 1 Champions league, 9 domestic titles (3 Greek, 3 Uzbek, 2 Spanish, 1 Brazilian), 2 Brazilian state championships, 5 domestic cups (2 Greek, 2 Uzbek, 1 Spanish)
For a player who dominated – and decorated – two successive World Cups as well as a half-decade of Spanish football, there’s always been an odd discord about Rivaldo’s career.
In Brazil, they often grumbled that he must have been sending his inferior twin brother to home games. In Barcelona, vast swathes of the Camp Nou crowd used to complain he was a mercenary who didn’t care.
And all of this despite the fact he was the player who pushed Zinedine Zidane closest as the world’s greatest between 1997 and 2002. Indeed, there is an argument that Rivaldo was even more consistent. For a nominal attacking midfielder, he had a ratio of a goal every game. And, as Spanish football expert John Carlin argued, very few player players combine the two essential qualities of the ideal footballer so dazzlingly: artistry and efficiency.
A perfect example was his famous hat-trick against Valencia in 2001. Just consider the dimensions of his final goal. Not only did it come in the very last minute of a league season that went down to the wire, but he settled with arguably the most spectacular type of goal possible: a bicycle kick from outside the box. To a degree, you could call it the perfect goal.
Except, the very context of the game perhaps explains the eternal problem with Rivaldo. Scrambling into the Champions League via fourth was hardly befitting a club of Barca’s self-perceived profile.
And, in that, he was perhaps unfortunate to be at his peak during two peculiar eras for club and country.
Although Brazil would ultimately enjoy a glorious redemption in 2002 – in which Rivaldo would score five goals – it came after the most miserable period in the team’s history. That competition’s qualifiers represented the only time in which Brazil were in any danger of not qualifying – leading to even more negative focus on Rivaldo’s influence.
Along the same lines, Barca won two league titles between 1997 and 2002 but generally endured a miserable time in the Champions League and seemed to keep stumbling from conquest to crisis.
Another classic case in point was the 3-3 draw with Manchester United at Camp Nou in November 1998. In what was arguably Rivaldo’s finest individual display, he curled in an exquisite free, scored a bicycle kick and smashed the bar from 35 yards.
But, despite raising the bar, it couldn’t push Barca over the line. On account of the fact that Barca didn’t win that same game, they were knocked out of Europe.
As Louis van Gaal argued afterwards, “it is not always easy to play attractive football and win titles”.
Rivaldo, however, usually did his best to.
24. Marco van Basten
Career span 1982-95
Country Holland: 58 caps, 24 goals
Clubs Ajax, Milan
Medals 1 European Championship, 2 European Cups, 1 Cup Winners Cups, 6 domestic titles (3 Holland, 3 Italy), 3 Dutch cups
The ultimate example of a career cruelly cut short by injury. Van Basten was only 27 when he was first afflicted by his notorious ankle-injury. And, although he persevered until the age of 30, it effectively meant we never got to see him in his prime.
But it’s testament to Van Basten’s ability that he still achieved so, so much. Because it is quite possible that he might have been the most complete number-nine of all time, Van Basten combined pace, power and an intimidating six-foot-two frame with an adhesive touch, all-round technique and deadly finishing. When on form, it made him near unplayable. As Gerry Muhren said of that goal against USSR in 1988, “Marco made a not very good pass look very good.”
Muhren may as well have been talking about Van Basten’s entire career as opposed to his greatest moment. But then even that is up for debate.
In 1987, Van Basten’s goals “raised Dutch football to its highest level in a decade” – according to David Winner – as a resurgent Ajax claimed the Cup Winners Cup. A year after that, he ensured they went even further as the country claimed their only international title. And Van Basten, again, was the dominant player. The striker scored the hat-trick against England that finally kick-started Holland’s Euro 88, the winner in the semis against West Germany and then the goal of the tournament. If not all time. (That’s a debate for another time.)
And, a year after that, he escalated again. Although Van Basten barely played 15 games in the 1988-89 season, two of them were the 5-0 win over Real Madrid and 4-0 win over Steaua Bucharest in which he scored three goals and won the European Cup.
To a degree, the decline had begun though. Van Basten struggled with the rest of the Dutch team in Italia 90 and never actually scored at the World Cup.
He would have been 29 in USA 94. At his very peak. Just a pity no-one got to see it.
Career span 1959-82
Country Brazil: 81 caps, 35 goals
Clubs Botafogo, Marseille, Cruzeiro, Portuguesa, Noroeste, Fast Club, Jorge Wilstermann, Botafogo, 9 de Octubre
Position winger, forward
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 Copa Libertadores, 2 Brazilian titles, 2 state championships
In the perfect World Cup, Jairzinho had the perfect record. With seven goals in six games, the winger is the only player in tournament history to score in every match.
But, as with all of the true greats, that is much more than a mere stat.
For a start, there was the remarkable range of goals. Against Czechoslovakia, he expertly lifted the ball over the keeper before finishing and then later beat three players. Against England, he powered it over Gordon Banks first time. Against Romania, he flicked one in.
Secondly, there the was the all-round play that so improved Brazil’s overall game. While his pace did give them a potent outlet – and he spent hours with Gerson trying to perfect timed runs on the midfielder’s calibrated cross-field balls – his own superb passing also added to the side’s dazzling angles of attack.
It was Jairzinho’s exceptional at-pace cross, after all, that brought such a fine save from Banks for Pele’s header. And it was all the more remarkable given the manner in which he ran onto Carlos Alberto’s ball.
And Jairzinho was much more than the indulged, pacy forward who demands through-balls. In the final itself, he showed an under-acknowledged tactical acumen by continually moving into the centre to draw out Giacinto Facchetti and leave the right side free for Carlos Alberto to rampage down.
That peak was all the more impressive given that he had come back from two broken legs, injuries which arguably robbed his first club Botafogo of even more trophies.
Jairzinho would however, go on to claim the greatest South American club trophy of all. After an underwhelming 1974 World Cup and disappointing spell at Marseille, he expertly played the role of elder statesman as Cruzeiro lifted the Copa Libertadores in 1976.
Career span 1997-
Country Spain: 103 caps, 10 goals
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 3 Champions Leagues, 6 Spanish titles, 1 Spanish cup
When it comes to discussing the exact merits of Xavi’s career, a common complaint is that he’s always been allowed play in systems that perfectly suit his abilities.
In truth, though, this is looking at the issue from the wrong end.
Xavi hasn’t been placed in the systems. He’s defined them.
Both Barcelona and Spain have specifically adapted their approaches around his passing game. He’s the player that makes them tick, the one who sets the tempo. In what is probably the most apt use of the old football cliché, he is at the centre of everything. As Pep Guardiola once told Xavi, “I can’t imagine Barcelona without you.” And as Carlos Puyol once told the world, “he’s absolutely fundamental”.
In essence, he is the central fulcrum of two of the greatest sides of all time.
And that’s the kind of influence that demands inclusion at the top of any such lists.
But then, if you want to bring the debate back to pure ability, it’s highly probable that Xavi is the greatest passer the game has even seen. Xabi Alonso certainly thinks so: “He probably has the best passing ratio in history of you look at possession, participation and how rarely he loses the ball.”
That’s certainly the case since the stats started being recorded. Xavi has played more passes, and more passes successfully, than any other player. And every single one of them has had an effect, steadily building structure and momentum to attacks while opening space in the opposition.
But then this isn’t just about the ratios that fill screens any time Barcelona or Spain are playing. It’s also about the range.
In April 2010, it was Xavi’s two through-balls that decided the key Clasico. And, as far back as 2001, it was another brilliantly piercing ball from inside his own half – after a 30-pass move – that put Liverpool out of the Champions League.
Ultimately, Xavi may not be as consistently spectacular a player as Leo Messi. But very few are as spectacularly consistent as Xavi.
21. Nandor Hidegkuti
Career span 1942-58
Country Hungary: 69 caps,39 goals
Clubs Elktromos,MTK Hungaria, Budapesti Textiles,Budapesti Bastya, Voros Lobogo, MTK Hungaria
Medals 3 Hungarian titles, 1 Hungarian cup
On the few occasions that England got a moment’s reprieve against Hungary in 1953, centre-half Harry Johnstone kept looking to Stanley Matthews in desperation.
“Do I stay or do I go Stan?! Do I stay or do I go?”
Matthews, however, remembers “not saying much at all”.
The fact was that he just didn’t know. No-one in England did. They were facing a formation they had never come across before. To them, the number-nine was the battering ram that played furthest forward. But, here, Hungary had practically withdrawn him to midfield. And the man in the shirt – Nandor Hidegkuti – was causing havoc.
As Jonathan Wilson wrote in Inverting the Pyramid, poor old Johnstone was caught between two stools. Stay with Hidegkuti and he left a massive hole at the back. Leave him and the playmaker was allowed to direct the game.
Because that is what Hidegkuti was – the first true playmaker.
“To me, the tragedy was the utter helplessness,” Johnstone later wrote in his autobiography, “being unable to do anything to alter the grim outlook.”
To a degree, evaluating Hidegkuti’s exact performances over that period presents the eternal problem when it comes to judging a player. How much of an advantage did he get from this new, unprecedented position?
Well, the fact is that, even though he was presented with the space, Hidegkuti still possessed – and applied – the ability to absolutely maximise it.
As if to prove that, Hidegkuti hadn’t initially been a regular in the victorious 1952 Olympic squad. His club teammate Peter Palotas filled an early version of the role. But hardly to the same effect. Just half an hour into a prestige friendly against Switzerland the following September, Hungary found themselves 2-0. Seeing the problems in both attack and cohesion, manager Gustav Sebes switched Hidegkuti there. But it wasn’t just the personnel or the game that Sebes changed. It was football history. Hungary promptly won that game 4-2 as well as 15 of their next 19.
Indeed, they were unbeaten for four years going into the 1954 World Cup. And, in the tournament itself, they were again exquisite with Hidegkuti plundering four goals.
It was just a pity that the one game they lost proved to be the most important. And that was largely down to the fact West Germany saw fit to employ a man-marker in Horst Eckel.
Hidegkuti still hit the post. But, thanks to the manner they disrupted Hungary’s fluency, it was the West Germans who were first past it.
Hidegkuti would go on to dazzle the European Cup with a fine Voros Lobogo team. But, with the onset of the Hungarian Revolution, he was never allowed influence that competition like he did football history.