20. Gerd Muller
Career span 1963-81
Country West Germany: 62 caps, 68 goals
Clubs 1861 Nordlingen, Bayern Munich, Fort Lauderdale Strikers
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 3 European Cups, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 4 German titles, 4 German cups
In the heightened level of modern football discussion, one of the more contentious theories is that “goals are overrated”. The idea behind the argument is that the basic numbers of goal returns rarely tell the full story – no matter how sensational. You don’t know when they came or what their exact importance was.
It is, however, a claim you could never level at Gerd Muller.
When Bayern Munich celebrated the striker’s 50th birthday, Franz Beckenbauer made another. And, given the circumstances of Muller’s recent – victorious – battle with alcoholism, you could forgive an element of exaggeration. “Without Gerd,” Beckenbauer proclaimed, “we’d probably still be in the wooden hut that was once our clubhouse.”
But, when you start to investigate the facts, it seems impossible to deny that Bayern would not have become quite so all-conquering had they not unearthed a striker of such unremitting productivity.
Consider the context for once. When Muller went to Bayern in 1964, football tactics were undergoing a huge transformation. Catenaccio had come to dominate the global game and a majority of sides were now playing four at the back. As a clear example of the effect of all that, in the 1958 World Cup the average amount of goals per game was almost 4. In 1966, it was 2.78 – modern levels.
And yet, for years beyond this period, Muller kept up a goal ratio that was more in-keeping with the 50s and before: almost a goal a game. And even more for his country. Muller scored 68 goals in 62 caps for West Germany.
On immediately arriving at Bayern, too, he set off on a run that would see him become the club’s top scorer for the next 14 seasons.
But, crucially, it wasn’t just the tonnage. It was the timing.
In 1970, Muller top-scored with 10 goals as West Germany got to the World Cup semi-finals. In Euro 72, he scored the opening goals in both the semi-final and final. Two years later, he bettered even that, scoring the goal against Poland that put West Germany into the World Cup final and then the historic strike against the Dutch that won it.
As if that wasn’t enough, he also scored in two out of three victorious European Cup finals.
Throughout all of this period, many tried to explain Muller’s almost supernatural ability to sniff out a chance. Some pointed to his unusually low centre of gravity, others to an otherworldly instinct.
Most of all, though, Muller simply practised. He spent hours, for example, perfecting his lightning-quick one-twos with Franz Beckenbauer.
And that level of preparation ensured that Muller became the finest pure striker that has ever played the game. No-one else has combined such a prolific rate with outright productivity.
19. Johan Neeskens
Career span 1968-85
Country Holland: 49 caps, 17 goals
Clubs RCH, Ajax, Barcelona, New York Cosmos, Groningen, Fort Lauderdale
Medals 3 European Cups, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 2 Dutch titles, 3 domestic cups (2 Dutch, 1 Spanish)
With genuine innovation, there is always a debate about how much of it is down to intelligent design and how much organic evolution. Generally, the truth is somewhere in between. And so it proved with the pressing game that was so important to Ajax’s Total Football template.
Certainly, Rinus Michels was beginning to experiment with squeezing space. And he was greatly complemented by Velibor Vasovic’s tactical acumen.
But both were also greatly helped by the ferocious natural aggression of Johan Neeskens. As Ajax assistant manager Bobby Haarms said, “he was like a kamikaze pilot, a forward soldier”. On first getting into the side, Neeskens would ferociously hound opposition players into their half while also intimidating them with his hard tackling. He was irrepressible.
And gradually, as Haarms explained, the rest of the team began to follow him.
But it wasn’t all about the energy with Neeskens. He also had the ingenuity. Sjaak Swart said that “in midfield, Neeskens could play for two”.
As Brian Glanville described it, “he broke frequently and furiously into attack”, usually exchanging flowing passes with Johan Cruyff. That brought an impressive return of a goal every four games in his club career and three strikes in the 1974 World Cup.
The partnership also provided the engine for both the Ajax and Dutch teams of the early ’70s. Indeed, so central were they that it was these two Michels picked when he went to Barcelona as manager.
Unfortunately, once Michels departed in 1975, it proved yet another overly political era at Camp Nou. But, although Neeskens himself would never win a league title there, he did earn the popularity of the masses for his vision and vigour. After the Cup Winners Cup victory of 1979 – which Neeskens had helped settled with two glorious through balls against Fortuna Dusseldorf in the final – the fans chanted his name. Weeping at the official ceremony, Neeskens threw his tie into the crowd.
A player who mixed passion and aggression with genuine creativity, Neeskens was the complete midfielder.
Career span 1993-2011
Country Brazil: 98 caps, 62 goals
Clubs Cruzeiro, PSV, Barcelona, Inter, Real Madrid, Milan, Corinthians
Medals 2 World Cups, 2 Copa Americas, 1 Uefa Cup, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 2 Spanish titles, 2 Brazilian state championships, 4 domestic cups (2 Brazil, 1 Holland, 1 Spain)
The Juventus defenders were anxious. You could tell that from their desperate swings and frightened faces. But it wasn’t like they didn’t have strength in numbers. There were six of them. And they were blocking just one man’s way.
At that point in April 1998, though, that man had illustrated the kind of transcendental ability that marked the careers of Pele and Diego Maradona.
Between the summers of 1996 and 1998, Ronaldo was as close to unstoppable as any individual player can possibly be. He was, in short, a phenomenon.
In 1996-97 for Barca, he hit 47 goals in 49 games – the majority of them either rampaging runs or ludicrous long-range finishes. In 1997-98 for Inter, it was 34 in 47 amid the more stifling surrounds of Serie A. And, up to the final of the 1998 World Cup, he had hit four goals in six.
Aside from his ability, at that point Ronaldo’s actual influence seemed the equivalent of Alfredo Di Stefano at Real Madrid in the ’50s, Pele at Santos in the ’60s and Maradona for Argentina in 1986.
But there was one crucial difference.
Ronaldo didn’t lift his teams to the unprecedented levels they did. Ultimately, he was stoppable.
In 1996-97, all of those goals for Barca couldn’t prevent Real Madrid winning the title. In 1997-98, it was that very game against Juventus which saw the Nerazzuri defence eventually stop him and go straight up the other end to score the contentious goal that eventually sealed the scudetto. Indeed, Ronaldo would have to wait until 2003 to win the first of just two domestic titles in his career. And, by then, he had already endured his most defining defeat.
It is quite possible that, had Ronaldo not suffered the meltdown before the 1998 final – and subsequent breakdown – then he might have reached the level of the sport’s general immortals. But the fact is that we’ll never know.
All of this, of course, may seem like heresy to anyone who witnessed his eight goals in the 2002 World Cup. Particularly since three of them were the only strikes in the semi-final and final. And, clearly, it was a wonderful story of redemption. But, really, that was the most remarkable thing about it: the redemption – how Ronaldo went from potentially being finished to one of the most potent players in the world again. And the scale of that achievement has caused some to overstate its exact quality in the grander context of history.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that 2002 was the World Cup of the underdogs. And, to a certain extent given his injuries, Ronaldo was one of them. Especially since, at best, he was only operating at 80% of the level of 1996-98. Where once his style was powerful and emphatic, now it was necessarily precise and adapted. As writer Rob Smyth has argued, that ability to really “shred” a team had gone.
Even the 2002-03 campaign with Real Madrid was a case in point. Ronaldo scored a supreme hat-trick in a game at Old Trafford that was developing into a dead-rubber. But it wasn’t enough to win the one trophy that eluded him: the Champions League.
None of this is to denigrate Ronaldo’s magnificent career. It’s merely to state that its exact nature wasn’t quite up there with Maradona, Pele, Cruyff and Di Stefano. It never quite saw that truly perfect balance of ability, application, effect and achievement.
In other words, the level he should have reached.
17. Obdulio Varela
Career span 1936-55
Country Uruguay: 45 caps, 9 goals
Clubs Deportivo Juventud, Montevideo Wanderers, Penarol
Position midfielder, centre-back
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 Copa America, 7 Uruguayan titles
The Uruguayan party weren’t just wary. They were petrified.
On the morning of the 1950 World Cup deciding match against Brazil, members of the country’s FA apparently told the squad “four is acceptable”.
The Brazilians had, after all, put seven past Sweden and six past Spain in their last two games. And there was high expectation that the hosts would do the same to Uruguay. That day’s Rio papers had printed a photo of the side with the headline “Today, Brazil wins the World Cup”.
And, so intimidated was Uruguayan coach Juan Lopez that he instructed the team to play a defensive game and keep it as tight as possibly.
But there was one exception to all of this anxiety. The captain Obdulio Varela.
Earlier in the day, he had collected every one of those newspapers he could and got his teammates to urinate on them. And now, as soon as Lopez had left the room, Varela gathered the team together again.
“Juan is a good man, but if we do defend then we will suffer the same fate of Sweden and Spain… Put that crowd out of your minds, don’t look up. The game is played down on the pitch.”
Over the previous decade, Varela had been an inspirational captain for both club and country. He drove Penarol to a series of titles and Uruguay to the 1942 South American Championships.
But, in the highly intimidating surroundings of a packed Maracana, Varela’s influence went beyond mere instruction and inspiration. There’s arguably never been a single player that has so dominated a World Cup final. Varela had a huge psychological effect on his team.
Even when Brazil eventually went ahead two minutes into the second half, Varela realised the importance of calming things down. With the 200,000 crowd having gone into rapture, Brazil could well have been carried along by the wave and destroyed Uruguay. So Varela began to remonstrate with the referee over a non-existent offside.
“I took the discussion as far as it would go,” Varela later said. “To the point they had to get an interpreter. The stadium fell silent and that’s when I knew we could win the game.”
Certainly, Varela was winning the battle. As Brian Glanville wrote “it was now Varela who bestrode the field, nonchalant and indomitable, masterfully breaking up and launching attacks, the old-school centre-half par excellence.”
Because that was the most important aspect of Varela’s career. He took his speech before the final very personally. The nominal centre-half didn’t just defend. He was a deep-lying playmaker. On 66 minutes, it was Varela who spread the ball out to Alcides Ghiggia with the winger then crossing for Juan Schiaffino to sweep home the equaliser. Thirteen minutes later, Ghiggia scored the winner and Varela lifted the trophy.
And he might have done so again four years later. Indeed, the only World Cup game Uruguay lost over 1950-54 was the semi-final against Hungary when Varela was missing through injury.
16. George Best
Career span 1963-81
Country Northern Ireland: 37 caps, 9 goals
Clubs Manchester United, Stockport County, Cork Celtic, LA Aztecs, Fulham, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Hibernian, San Jose Earthquakes
Position winger, forward
Medals 1 European Cup, 2 English titles
For a footballer that became the sport’s first true celebrity and fashion icon, it is fitting that Best came to primarily symbolise the freedom of the ’60s.
Not to the people of Manchester, of course. There, Best’s youthful brio breathed life into a city and club still recovering from the tragic demise of the Busby Babes.
Of course, the bare fact is that Best surpassed every single one of them. Indeed, in terms of pure ability, he surpassed almost every player in history. Brian Glanville described him as a “sublime compound of almost every talent… pace, courage, skill, balance and invention”. Famously, when United scout Bob Bishop first saw Best, he sent Matt Busby a simple telegram declaring “I think I’ve found a genius”.
And so it proved. For four years between 1964 and 1968, he was far and away Europe’s dominant player.
Indeed, the continent’s attention was commanded on an illuminating night in Lisbon on 9 March 1966.
To give some context to the scale of the task that Best and United faced that night, Benfica had never been beaten at home in the European Cup. In their last 17 matches there, they had scored an average of 4.3 goals a game. In their last six, they had managed 5.5. Among other celebrated sides, Real Madrid had been beaten 5-1 there.
That wouldn’t quite happen on this night. But, so wary was Matt Busby after a narrow 3-2 win at Old Trafford, he instructed the team to keep it as tight as possible early on.
By half-time, the manager was wryly saying “you obviously weren’t listening. Best had scored twice in the first 13 minutes. The first was a header, the second a run that saw him beat three players as he absolutely ripped Benfica apart in a 5-1 win.
United wouldn’t win the European Cup that year. But Best himself would finish the job two years later.
Having scored in every round of the 1967-68 season, he rounded Jose Henrique to score the goal that would put – and keep – United ahead. Finally, they were European champions. And this was the level at which Best belonged. It was also the level he should have stayed it. Or even surpassed. He did, after all, seem to have time and talent on his side.
Unfortunately, at just 22, it would prove a peak.
All of the trappings of that new status and lifestyle would start to have a debilitating effect.
The biggest pity, of course, is that Best never played in a World Cup.
In that, he was somewhat unlucky to play between eras for Northern Ireland. In 1970, for example, he scored his only goal against opponents of genuine international pedigree – England. That came 12 years after the North’s first World Cup and 12 years before their second.
Of course, at 38, Best might well have been turned out in 1982 had he adopted Bobby Charlton’s ascetic approach.
But that was never going to be the case. That was never part of the legend.
“I was born with a great gift,” Best once acknowledged. “And sometimes that comes with a destructive streak.”
It was just a pity that didn’t prove the case for opposition sides for much, much longer.
15. Carlos Alberto
Career span 1963-82
Country Brazil: 53 caps, 8 goals
Clubs Fluminense, Santos, Fluminense, Flamengo, New York Cosmos, California Surf
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 Recopa Sudamericana, 7 Brazilian state championships
It was a transcendental moment in football history that also illustrated the full extent of the type of player a right-back could be.
And we’re not talking the run and drive that rounded off both Brazil’s flowing move in the 1970 final as well as the tournament itself.
Rather, it was another famous moment from Mexico 1970. But an oft-forgotten part of it. Before Gordon Banks got down in impossible fashion, before Pele powered a header a goal and before Jairzinho found him in emphatic fashion, Carlos Alberto hit one of the most sumptuous passes ever seen.
Gambolling forward, the full-back hit an exquisite 40-yard ball with the outside of his right foot that fell perfectly into Jairzinho’s path.
It was that outrageous technique, allied to pure tenacity and intelligence, which made Carlos Alberto such an outstanding all-round defender. Not to mention the captain of the greatest international side of all time.
It was also some rise considering he had been left out of the Brazilian squad in 1966. But, then, such was Carlos Alberto’s reputation that it also caused a huge controversy in the country. The full-back had been a cornerstone of two great South American teams in Fluminense and Santos.
Immediate vindication came, however, as Brazil crashed out of 1966 in the first round amid a cacophony about poor planning.
And long-term vindication would come in 1970. Carlos Alberto finished the “perfect goal”. And proved himself the perfect right-back.
14. Franco Baresi
Career span 1977-97
Country Italy: 81 caps, 1 goal
Position sweeper, centre-back
Medals 1 World Cup, 3 Champions Leagues, 6 Italian titles
When you look through the pantheon of great Italian defenders, one of the most striking aspects is the exact range of styles. For a part of a team that requires order and rigidity, the Italians have developed quite a depth of nuance.
In that, Franco Baresi was never quite as brutal as Tarcisio Burgnich nor as elegant as Gaetano Scirea. But the highest praise you can give him is that he combined all of those qualities. With pace, patience, timing, technique and strength, Baresi was probably the most balanced of all Italian defenders.
And, through those abilities, he arguably marked the end point in one country’s obsession with the most fundamental part of the game. The most evolved state.
Suitably, Baresi always argued that his greatest strength was something that couldn’t be taught.
“Above all I was fast up here, in the head… Of course you can improve it, you can grow with experience. But it’s one of those natural things.”
Like all of the true greats, however, the key to Baresi was that he went beyond his own abilities to influence the sides he played in. He was arguably the greatest defensive organiser the game has seen.
In USA 94, for example, he asked Arrigo Sacchi that the defence be exempt a day off so that their process of integration would not be interrupted.
And that came across in the numbers too. Baresi was the centre of what were, statistically, the greatest defences of all time.
By only conceding two goals in 12 games, Milan’s 1993-94 side offered the best record the European Cup had ever seen. And four places behind them, having only conceded three goals in nine games, were Milan 1989-90.
The oddity in all of this is that it took Baresi so long to establish himself for the national side. And also that his entire career for it was overshadowed by his final kick: the penalty miss against Brazil.
The former, however, can be explained by the fact that Scirea was such a formidable leader in the formative years of Baresi’s career. And, by the time he should have taken the Juventus sweeper’s place in 1986, he fell out with Enzo Bearzot. Despite that, Baresi still won 81 caps. And, along the way to winning them, he underpinned the rise to the semi-finals of both Euro 88 and Italia 90 as well as the USA 94 final.
And, in the case of the latter, it’s often forgotten that Baresi had a knee operation just before the tournament began. Yet he still masterminded the only defence to keep out Brazil’s brilliant strike force. In every other game of the tournament, either Bebeto or Romario scored.
But then that was the sort of feat Baresi had made a habit of.
Career span 1957-79
Country Portugal: 64 caps, 41 goals
Clubs Sporting de Lourenco Marques, Benfica, Boston Minutemen, Monterrey, Toronto Metros-Croatia, Beira-Mar, Las Vegas Quicksilvers, Uniao de Tomar
Medals 1 European Cup, 13 domestic titles (11 Portugal, 1 Mozambique, 1 American), 5 Portuguese cups
When Alfredo Di Stefano gave his shirt to Eusebio at the end of the 1962 European Cup final, it was seen as a symbolic passing of the torch.
Certainly, the Mozanbique-born striker was one of Di Stefano’s ’60s heirs in terms of influence on the game. But he exerted it in a different way. Where the Argentine was mostly about poise and control, Eusebio was all pace and power. And, at his peak, he was explosive – capable of driving past players at will and finishing from most angles and distances. In all, he scored 638 goals in 614 games for Benfica. But, importantly – with 11 titles secured – most of those goals had a purpose. That was emphatically illustrated in the 1962 final itself as Eusebio scored the last two goals of the game to beat Real Madrid 5-3. In doing so, Benfica also successfully defended the European Cup that the Spaniards had won so many times in the ’50s.
Four years later Eusebio would do the same to equally deified opponents in the World Cup. His two goals put Brazil out in the first round and sent Portugal to the semis as well as the striker himself to the Golden Boot. It was quite an achievement for a country that had never previously qualified.
The only issue with Eusebio was that proved an isolated achievement. Portugal didn’t go far in Euro 68 and performed miserably in the Mexico 70 qualifiers.
But he had already more than qualified all of the praise.
Career span 1946-66
Country Brazil: 72 caps, 24 goals
Clubs Americano, Lencoense, Madureira, Fluminense, Botafogo, Real Madrid, Botafogo, Sao Paulo, Botafogo, Veracruz, Sao Paulo
Medals 2 World Cups, 2 European Cups, 4 Brazilian state championships
Didi didn’t play in the 1950 World Cup. But then, so traumatic was it for the country that it was burned on every Brazilian’s memory.
It was only Didi, however, who had the presence of mind to learn from it rather than let it drag him down in Stockholm eight years later.
“When Sweden went 1-0 up,” Djalma Santos said of the 1958 final, “Didi picked the ball up and started talking to us, telling us we had the strength to go on and win the game… because of what happened in 1950 there was this idea that Brazil would get to the final and cave in. So what Didi did was crucial.”
Not quite as crucial as his general play though. A “wizard”, Didi was an utterly sublime central midfielder who picked passes as effortlessly as he intercepted them.
Except for the fact that, off the pitch, Didi put a lot of effort into his craft. As ferociously driven as he was gifted because of an impoverished youth, the Campos-native was determined to make the most of his talent. A case in point was his famous ‘falling leaf’ free-kick. Didi was one of the first players to realise the effect of set-pieces and spent hours practising them.
Indeed, it was with one of his trademark lofted efforts that actually put Brazil into the 1958 World Cup. His dead ball beat Peru 1-0.
Once there, both he and other members of the Brazilian team had to contend with a lot of ludicrous off-field issues. And although – remarkably – Didi almost didn’t make the team, it was still he that the English management realised they must stop in order to stop Brazil.
Walter Winterbottom’s team still struggled to do so. But, with the Brazilian side so imbalanced, there was no target for Didi’s technique. The game ended 0-0. And Brazil were almost out.
At the least, though, that result forced Vicente Feola to include Garrincha and Pele.
Didi finally had an outlet and Brazil were finally outstanding. Within minutes of the next game against USSR starting, Didi had supplied three through balls to initiate three incredible moves. The third saw Vava open the scoring. Gabriel Hanot, the founder of the European Cup, called them “the greatest three minutes ever played”.
Except Didi and Brazil would provide many more. From that point, they dominated the tournament with Didi dominating every midfield. In the semi-final, he scored the goal that put them ahead against France. In the final, he lifted the level in multiple ways.
Those performances earned Didi a move to Real Madrid. But, with Alfredo Di Stefano unwilling to share his throne, the Brazilian was frozen out.
So dissatisfied was he that he avidly hoped his team would meet Di Stefano’s Spain in 1962. “I utterly desired to show them the kind of player I was”.
Di Stefano wouldn’t play in that tournament. Whereas Didi would once again bestride football’s greatest show.
11. Michel Platini
Career span 1972-87
Country France: 72 caps, 41 goals
Clubs Nancy, St Etienne, Juventus
Medals 1 European Championship, 1 European Cup, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 3 domestic titles (2 Italy, 1 France), 2 domestic cups (1 France, 1 Italy)
With five wins out of five and 14 goals plundered in fantastic fashion, France 1984 were Europe’s version of Brazil 1970. And, tearing teams apart in the number-10 shirt, Michel Platini was the European Championship’s Pele.
The victory marked the peak of an exquisite period for France in which their ‘Le Carre Magique’ midfield illuminated international football. And it also marked the absolute zenith for Platini.
Since he started moves as well as finished so many of them, there’s arguably never been a player who has so decided one tournament as Platini did in 1984. Among the nine goals that secured the golden boot, Platini scored two late winners against Denmark – one in the opening game, another in extra-time of the semi-final – two ‘perfect hat-tricks’ in 5-0 and 3-2 victories over Belgium and Yugoslavia, respectively, and then, finally, the opener in the 2-0 victory over Spain.
“It’s not that I regarded myself as the best player in the world,” he once said. “I was the best player in the world. What else do you want me to say?! I was full of confidence in myself. I knew I could run the game, I knew I could score goals.” And he certainly did that. Euro 84 came in the middle of a three-season run in which he was Serie A’s top scorer every year. It eventually culminated with Juventus winning the one trophy that eluded them. Platini hit the penalty that finally won the European Cup for the club.
The triumph of that moment was, however, taken away by the tragedy of Heysel. Debate has always raged over how much the players knew and Platini’s own comments have always been conflicting.
What the moment did show, though – in this case somewhat negatively – was that he possessed an utter ruthlessness in terms of winning. He admitted as much himself.
“I was a terrible loser. And I still am. I simply hate losing and I’m not a good person to speak to when I have.”
Yet, as much as winning consumed Platini, it didn’t quite mean he consumed the pitch. For all of his elegance and incision, there was an element of irreverence to his game that you didn’t see in the likes of Diego Maradona and Alfredo Di Stefano. When the Juventus owner Gianni Agnelli once saw Platini smoking, he frowned “this worries me”. Nonchalantly nodding his head at Massimo Bonini, Platini replied “it’s only a worry if he starts”. Bonini, after all, had done most of Platini’s running.
But, more often than not, the Frenchman made sure it counted.