10. Giuseppe Meazza
Career span 1927-47
Country Italy: 53 caps, 33 goals
Clubs Inter, Milan, Juventus, Varese, Atalanta, Inter
Position inside-right, -left
Medals 2 World Cups, 3 Italian titles, 1 Italian cup
“Having Meazza on the team,” the great Italian manager Vittorio Pozzo once declared, “was like starting the game 1-0 up.”
That was just as well because there’s an easy joke to be made here about Meazza scoring before he even got on the pitch. The striker became famous for going to a brothel the night before games and was often late for training because of his love “for champagne and women”.
Former teammate Peppino Prisco argued that “Meazza was great, unbeatable, even if he would occasionally run into a frightful crisis caused by his intense sexual activity and passion for the game.”
He always got away with it, though, because he had the ability to make up for his errant behaviour. On another occasion, he arrived at the Inter stadium five minutes before kick-off after another hectic night.
“I could hear the directors saying ‘We’ll deal with him after the match’. Luckily, I scored a hat-trick so afterwards no one said a word!”
It was a frequent occurrence. The match-winning goals, that is.
Because, while many of these stories may be apocryphal, the accounts of Meazza’s ability are not. Short and stocky but with a “bullfighter’s grace”, he also possessed outstanding individual technique. At a time when the game was still developing, Meazza’s 21st century dribbling ability proved truly devastating. His speciality was the “goal by invitation” whereby Meazza would draw the keeper out and effortlessly round him. On one occasion in April 1930, he had done this twice to Roma keeper Ballante within the first 20 minutes. So, when it came to the third, the keeper stayed firmly on his line. Meazza still scored. But Ballante loudly celebrated the fact that he wasn’t deceived.
A natural showman, Meazza still combined entertainment with end product. His 31 goals in 33 games delivered Inter the Serie A title in the competition’s inaugural season.
“He was a born striker,” Pozzo enthused. “He could read the game understand situations and make the whole attack work by applying a concept of the game was based entirely on technique.”
It was for that reason that Pozzo positioned him on the wing for the 1934 World Cup. Meazza’s ingenuity would prove influential. Having knocked out Spain in the quarter-finals with the only goal of the game, his through balls would provide the winners in both the semi-final and final.
But Meazza’s annus mirabilis was undoubtedly 1938. Having again won Inter the title with 28 goals in 30 matches, he assumed the captaincy of his country for their World Cup defence. And he performed imperiously, as Pozzo’s team glided to the glory.
Italy became the first team to retain the trophy. And Meazza confirmed his status as football’s finest pre-war player.
9. Zinedine Zidane
Career span 1988-2006
Country France: 108 caps, 31 goals
Clubs Cannes, Bordeaux, Juventus, Real Madrid
Position attacking midfielder
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 1 Champions League, 3 domestic titles (2 Italian, 1 Spanish)
Very infrequently, football provides the kind of symmetry that can seem supernatural.
Forty-two years after Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas had produced one of Real Madrid’s – and, indeed, football history’s – finest ever performances in Hampden Park, Zinedine Zidane rose to the same level in the same stadium.
The volley which won the 2002 Champions League final was a decisive moment of the highest possible quality on the highest possible stage. The only way it could actually have been improved was if it came under the highest possible pressure – the last minute. Otherwise, it was a perfect example of transcendental ability.
But, the curiosity of Zidane’s career is that his quality still seemed to require that kind of confirmation. Because, although some of his career had surpassed both Puskas and Di Stefano – particularly the international medals – many other aspects suggested significant inferiority.
In truth, Zidane was never quite consumed by the kind of battle rage that saw many other great player absolutely dominate games on a consistent basis.
Sure, he did have a temper as we saw in the 2006 World Cup final and a series of other red cards. But the fact that they were isolated instances is also representative of the more positive side of his career as a whole.
For the majority of his many games, Zidane was a cool, controlling presence. Astutely, Rob Smyth described him as a “cerebral genius” and “avant-garde footballer”. And, along the same lines, Alex Ferguson once said that Zidane “didn’t hurt teams”. While that could be construed as a criticism, it was likely more a reference to the fact that Zidane would tend to withdraw and dictate teams rather than decide them. As Thierry Henry said, “he is the guy we can always count on, the one who really takes control”.
But the first part of Henry’s sentence is just as important. Because, as in the 2002 final and as with the occasional moments of anger, Zidane would save his most decisive moments for the most demanding occasions: the 1998 World Cup final, the entirety of Euro 2000, the last two minutes of France’s Euro 2004 group game with England, the knock-out rounds of the 2006 World Cup.
In that, he was the ultimate big-game player.
8. Leo Messi
Career span 2004-
Country Argentina: 63 caps, 18 goals
Medals 3 Champions Leagues, 5 Spanish titles, 1 Spanish cup
Too high, too soon?
Only because of the fact he has too much quality. Without doubt, Messi’s abilities are up there with football’s genuine immortals.
In terms of fundamental technique, there’s probably no purer indication of quality than the capacity to dribble past a player – or a series of them. And very few in football history have done this as effortlessly or as excellently as Messi.
“Once he’s on the run,” Arsene Wenger has said, “Messi is unstoppable. He’s the only player who can change direction at such pace… he takes advantage of every mistake.”
Because, as Wenger also mentioned at the end, even fewer players know how to then use the ball so spectacularly and so often. Over the last few seasons, Messi has provided at least a goal or assist every game. More often than not, he provides both.
It’s the highest rate of productivity since assist records started being collected.
And that’s another key point in Messi’s career. At 24, he’s won more medals than every single one of football’s immortals (ie, the players ahead of him in this list) except Pele at the same age.
And it’s not just about the conquests. It’s about his contribution to them. As barely needs to be repeated, Messi has been the most influential player in one of the greatest teams of all time.
Moreover, Messi has now dominated three Champions League seasons – having already decorated three others – in the manner that Maradona did the 1986 World Cup.
Of course, until Messi comes close to replicating that feat then it seems that there will always be a caveat about his career.
In truth, though, his international has never been as underwhelming as assumed – even if it hasn’t reached the standards of his club career.
In 2007, for example, he was instrumental in Argentina’s run to the Copa America final. A year later, he helped deliver the team to Olympic gold – an achievement with some prestige in South America.
Finally, it’s too often forgotten that Messi was thoroughly dynamic in the first four games of the 2010 World Cup – and that despite the chaotic management of Diego Maradona which eventually lead to the defeat to Germany.
But the ultimate question is, if Messi does eventually have that World Cup, will he be top of such a list?
As the hero of 1986 himself said, “The Maradona and Pele polemics would end.”
7. Ferenc Puskas
Career span 1943-66
Country Hungary: 85 caps, 84 goals; Spain: 4 caps
Clubs Kispest, Budapest Honved, Real Madrid
Medals 1 European Cups, 10 domestic titles (5 Spain, 5 Hungary), 1 Spanish cup
“If a good player has the ball,” Hungary’s Jeno Buzansky once said, “he should have the vision to spot three passes. Puskas always saw at least five.”
To a certain degree, outstanding numbers like that defined Puskas’s career. He ended up with an average of a goal every game: 84 in 85 caps for Hungary, 240 in 260 games for Real, 165 in 164 for Honved.
Except it would, of course, do Puskas a huge disservice to reduce his career to mere goals.
In the 1950s, he was the “star of stars” as Brian Glanville wrote. He had “superb control, supreme strategy and above all a left-footed shot which was unrivalled in the world, dangerous from any distance up to 35 yards.”
Like so many genuine greats, Puskas was also a pioneer. So regular has the simple drag-back become now that it seems a routine skill. But, in 1953 when Puskas sent Billy Wright running “like a fire engine going to the wrong fire” – in the immortal words of Geoffrey Green – it seemed revolutionary.
Puskas had the foresight to think of it first. Indeed, as Buzansky insisted, vision was the Hungarian captain’s greatest virtue. Jorge Valdano claimed that Puskas could easily have been a defender if he wanted because his football intelligence would have “obviated the need to make a tackle”.
Instead, Puskas spent most of his career side-stepping challenges – as he illustrated so exquisitely with Wright. The 7-3 win that moment came in the middle of, of course, was one of the high points of Hungary’s sensational 49-game unbeaten run.
And they might well have crowned the sequence had Puskas not got injured against West Germany in the group stage. The big debate before the final was whether he would play. Eventually, Puskas did so with a hairline fracture. But that debate has seemingly never finished as so many involved with the team continued to argue about it for years after it.
In his defence, Puskas did say that – despite his immobility – he still scored and had another potential late equaliser disallowed in highly controversial fashion.
Having already delivered Honved to five titles in the days before the European Cup, however, Puskas would go on to win the international medals he finally deserved at Real Madrid.
And, there, he provided so much more than goals. As well as a divine partnership with Alfredo Di Stefano, he provided one of the game’s great spectacles in 1960.
Career span 1953-72
Country Brazil: 50 caps, 12 goals
Clubs Botafogo, Corinthians, Portuguesa Carioca, Atletico Junior, Flamengo, Olaria
Medals 2 World Cups, 3 Brazilian state championships
“Remember,” Vicente Feola told his anxious Brazilian team ahead of their crucial 1958 group game against USSR, “the first pass goes to Garrincha.”
Still without a win in the World Cup at that point, the Brazilian squad were somewhat intimidated by their own imperfect history. So now, requiring a win against the USSR, Feola realised the only solution was to face the challenge head on and intimidate the opposition. And he had just the player.
Having initially been dropped from the side for showboating against Austria in a World Cup warm-up, Garrincha’s outrageous technique was enough to unnerve any team. When in the mood – which, at that point, was often – he was simply impossible to play against.
That day, it took Didi 20 seconds to get the ball out to Garrincha. And it took Garrincha just three minutes to destroy the Russians and set the tone for the tournament – as well Brazil’s future.
“Garrincha feinted left and went right,” Jonathan Wilson writes in Inverting the Pyramid,” Boris Kuznetsov was left on the ground. Garrincha passed, and beat him again. And again. And then once again put him on the ground. Garrincha advanced, leaving Yuri Voinov on his backside… and fired a shot from a narrow angle that smacked the post.”
Mel Hopkins, who was left to ‘mark’ Garrincha in Wales’ quarter-final defeat, explained how exactly how he did.
“He was a phenomenon, capable of sheer magic. It was difficult to know which way he was going to because of his legs and because he was as comfortable on his left foot as his right, so he could cut inside or go down the line and he had a ferocious shot too.”
It is highly probable, Wilson argues, that Garrincha would have had to adapt his then unprecedented dribbling style in the modern game. But it’s also undeniable he had the sheer ability to thrive in any era. Indeed, the ability to adapt was one of his greatest attributes – as he proved emphatically in the 1962 World Cup.
With the early injury to Pele, Garrincha altered and elevated his game considerably. Having scored no goals in 1958 as the team’s supplier, he then hit two in the 1962 quarter-final and another brace in the semi as the team’s undoubted talisman. It was unquestionably his tournament.
And 1957 was unquestionably his club year as Garrincha hit 20 goals in 26 games to deliver the state championship for Botafogo.
For all that Garrincha is feted as one of the most important figures in Botafogo’s history, however, it is possible that the sheer difficulty of controlling him in the more day-to-day world of club football meant he didn’t quite have the domestic career he should have.
Ultimately, though, it was his ability to improvise so artistically and anarchically that marked him apart. He may have been likened to jazz musicians and all manner of impresarios. But, in truth, he was utterly unique.
5. Franz Beckenbauer
Career span 1964-82
Country West Germany: 103 caps, 14 goals
Clubs Bayern Munich, New York Cosmos, Hamburg
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 3 European Cups, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 8 domestic titles (5 Germany, 3 USA), 4 German cups
Dettmar Cramer was going blue in the face. But Helmut Schoen just wouldn’t be moved.
Ahead of the 1966 World Cup final, Cramer – the West Germany assistant manager – insisted that making Franz Beckenbauer mark Bobby Charlton would rob the Germans of most of their creativity.
Cramer was to be proved right. But the debate itself, with Beckenbauer just 20 years old, was testament to his abilities.
And, very soon, he would find a way to combine – and maximise – all of his qualities. Indeed, within four years, he would be effortlessly eclipsing Charlton.
Because, by that point in 1970, Beckenbauer had carefully studied the game of Giacinto Facchetti. He realised that, when playing in defence, he need not be so confined by the traditional interpretations of defence. So, the role of libero was launched. And so was Beckenbauer’s truly elite status.
From that point and that position, the fittingly-nicknamed Kaiser would exert almost unprecedented influence on games. And not just while on the pitch.
In 1974, as a broken Schoen struggled to cope with the new financial demands of the German squad, it was Beckenbauer who stepped in to prevent their World Cup descending into complete chaos. He convinced the rest of the squad to accept an offer and then essentially took over as co-manner.
From there, Uli Hesse wrote in Tor!, “Beckenbauer was in great form and had become the boss both on and off the pitch”.
In the final itself, he took command while Johan Cruyff took effective leave of the pitch. And it marked only the peak of a sensational period for captain, club and country. Beckenbauer was the key influence in two of the greatest sides of all time, as he personally collected a clean sweep of the game’s major honors.
4. Alfredo Di Stefano
Career span 1945-66
Country Argentina: 6 caps, 6 goals; Colombia: 4 caps, 0 goals; Spain: 31 caps, 23 goals
Clubs River Plate (Huracan), Millonarios, Real Madrid, Espanypol
Medals 1 Copa America, 5 European Cups, 13 domestic titles (8 Spanish, 3 Colombian, 2 Argentine), 2 domestic cups (1 Spain, 1 Colombia)
To put it quite bluntly, there has simply never been a club career as perfect as Alfredo Di Stefano’s.
Many clubs like to cite the arrival of certain players as key points in their histories. At Manchester United, Eric Cantona’s innovation initiated the current spell of success. At Liverpool, Kenny Dalglish defined a dynasty. At Barcelona, Johan Cruff changed the culture.
But by dint of the fact that Di Stefano effectively combined all of those individual eras, he overshadows every one of them. No-one has had an influence on any one club like the Argentine had on Madrid.
On arriving – somewhat controversially – in 1953, he didn’t just complete a team or claim a first trophy.
His attitude altered the club’s entire ethos. His ability immediately elevated their overall quality. And his consistency created the most spectacular spell of success that club football has ever seen.
As the most elementary example of his influence, Di Stefano scored in all five of the club’s victorious first European Cup finals – culminating perfectly with the hat-trick at Hampden Park. Moreover, he is the competition’s third most prolific scorer after Gerd Muller and Ferenc Puskas.
And that from a player who could never be described as a striker.
But, then, Di Stefano’s emphatically complete club career was in keeping with the exquisitely complete nature of his game.
“I think nothing of popping up at centre-half or full-back,” Di Stefano once said himself. “We are all footballers and as such should be able to perform competently in all 11 positions.”
In effect, he was describing Total Football – a full 15 years before it was thought of. “And has there ever been a footballer so superbly equipped to play it?” Brian Glanville enquired.
“Pointing, shouting, gesturing,” Glanville added, “Di Stefano ran the show – a more or less benevolent despot.”
Bobby Charlton went further. “He’s got the ball all the time. Everything’s happening around him. He takes it off the goalkeeper, the defenders.”
Real teammate Jose Santamaria concurred. “He was the most complete player ever, something I’ve never seen anywhere else. And I’ve seen a lot of players.”
Just as valuable, however, was the influence he had on everyone else. “It was on and off the pitch,” Santamaria continued. “On the pitch because he was everywhere. Off the pitch, because he showed like no-one else how much he loved and respected Real Madrid and he transmitted that respect to all his teammates.”
The most remarkable part of all of this, of course, is that it took place after resoundingly successful periods with River Plate and then Millonarios. Prior to Madrid, he had already enjoyed the kind of career that would put a player in the top 50 of this list. Indeed, with Argentina, he even won a Copa America – indicating his international career wasn’t quite as underwhelming as though.
Ultimately, though, he never appeared in a World Cup. And it is open to debate whether that’s down to poor timing. In the 40s there was no World Cup, and he didn’t declare for Spain until 1957.
There is no denying, however, that he belonged on the stage.
3. Johan Cruyff
Career span 1964-84
Country Holland: 48 caps, 33 goals
Clubs Ajax, Barcelona, LA Aztecs, Washington Diplomats, Levante, Ajax, Feyenoord
Medals 3 European Cups, 10 domestic titles (9 Dutch, 1 Spain), 7 domestic cups (6 Dutch, 1 Spain)
While Alfredo Di Stefano may have greatly influenced the entire history of a club, Johan Cruyff helped create an entire football philosophy.
The charismatic Dutchman was not, of course, the originator of Total Football. But, as Ajax assistant manager Bobby Haarms always insisted, “Cruyff had a massive input… you could say it was [Rinus] Michels and Cruyff”.
Primarily, that was through his elementary – but also elevated – on-pitch intelligence. Cruyff’s innate knowledge of where to run and what pass to make essentially set Total Football in motion. As Haarms added, “he could do everything… and with such speed”.
The famous Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, meanwhile, was awe-struck by Cruyff’s movement, proclaiming that both his body and mind were supernaturally swift.
And, even in Ajax’s early, imperfect development, that had a devastating effect. In the 1966-67 European Cup finals, with the team still a long way from the telepathic interchanges of the early ’70s, Cruyff scored twice at Anfield to annihilate Bill Shankly’s Liverpool.
But it was as the young playmaker gradually accumulated such experience and began to talk about, that his career – and Ajax’s unique approach – really accelerated.
Cruyff began to discuss with Michels the finer points of the game, what players worked where, whether others had unseen talents for different positions. Crucially, though, he also applied such thought to his own play. Although Cruyff possessed a similar level of sublime raw talent as Pele and Diego Maradona, he seemed to use his more calculatingly. Whereas they often appeared to know what to do with a ball by pure instinct, Cruyff used intuition. Such was the calculated purpose of some of his touches that it seemed he had instantaneously done the geometry in his head. This exquisite first touch on the turn, against Den Haag in January 1972, is the perfect example. Little wonder renowned journalist David Miller described as “Pythagoras in boots”.
And, like all true innovators, the Ajax captained patented one particular piece of genius: the Cruyff turn.
“At that moment,” Swedish defender Jan Olsson said of his encounter with Cruyff in the 1974 World Cup, “I thought ‘I have him’… I thought I’d win the ball for sure. But he tricked me. I was not humiliated. I had no chance. Cruyff was a genius… it was the proudest memory of my career.”
At that point, of course, Cruyff was enjoying the very peak of his own career. The evolution of Total Football had eventually reached the stage where Ajax almost effortlessly won three successive European Cups. And, throughout each campaign, Cruyff wasn’t just imperious. He was seemingly redefining the presumed parameters of performance. While appearing to glide, he relentlessly unravelled a series of established sides.
And so it was at the 1974 World Cup too. As Dutch football historian David Winner has asserted, “across four weeks, Holland rendered South American football redundant”. In the 4-0 win over Argentina, the defenders were reduced to rugby-tackling Cruyff in order to keep the score down.
And, by then, he had also overturned Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. With a vengeance. With Barcelona winning 5-0, historian Jimmy Burns wrote that “with Cruyff, the team felt they couldn’t lose”. He gave them speed, flexibility and a sense of themselves.
Perhaps fittingly for a player that thought so much, though, Cruyff’s career never reached an inarguably conclusion. Holland never won that international trophy. Barca faded after the fantasy of 1974.
It’s little exaggeration, though, to describe Cruyff as the most influential player of all time. And not just in single matches. He himself, after all, knew the importance of combining the individual with the collective.
Career span 1956-77
Country Brazil: 92 caps, 77 goals
Clubs Santos, New York Cosmos
Medals 3 World Cups, 2 Copa Libertadores, 1 Recopa Intercontinental, 5 Brazilian championships, 10 state championships
So ubiquitous is the praise for Pele, and so ingrained is the idea that he was among the very greatest of all time, that his exact talent can – counter-intuitively – be underappreciated. Even taken for granted.
But there was nothing to be taken for granted about Brazilian football in 1958. Infamously, they had repeatedly allowed the World Cup trophy to slip from their grasp. And the heightened tension now seemed to have a constant hold on the team.
Until, finally – and fittingly – Pele overturned all expectations himself.
With the final itself at a particular fraught point on 54 minutes, and Brazil holding a still fragile 2-1 lead, the ball came to the 17-year-old in the Swedish box.
“I made as if I was going to run forward but turned back instead,” Pele said. “That confused the defender and he let the ball come through to me. When I controlled it on my chest he thought I was going to shoot. I got my foot on it and flicked it over his head, which was something the Europeans weren’t used to… it was one of the most beautiful goals of my career.”
As we’ve seen elsewhere on this list, Pele was hardly the single reason a weight – and wait – was lifted for Brazil that summer. Indeed, the only actual game-changing goal he got was in the 1-0 quarter-final over Wales. But that was still one of six, with a hat-trick coming in the semi and two in the final itself. And, the truth was that, such was the way Pele’s youthful exuberance washed away all of the old flaws, and such was the manner in which his all-round game represented the apogee of a purposeful evolution in Brazilian football, that he forever became associated with a glorious new era. In essence, he was a symbol. But one with an awful lot of substance.
The irony, of course, is that he barely got to exert himself at a World Cup for another 12 years. Pele was injured early in 1962 and kicked out of 1966.
But, in the meantime, he also altered the history of club football.
Again, the accepted realities of the modern game mean that can be difficult to truly appreciate. Because of the fact the top South Americans must travel to Europe long before they mature as players these days, the Copa Libertadores no longer possesses the game’s premium talents. But that was hardly the case in the ’60s. Santos represented the very peak of club football. And Pele was at the centre of their reign.
He had, of course, started it too. In 1962, he had scored a brace in the final against defending champions Penarol to secure Brazilian football’s first ever Copa Libertadores. But, if that series of games was close – with both sides winning away from home before a play-off in Buenos Aires – the subsequent Intercontinental Cup was anything but.
Having scored twice in the Maracana to give Santos a 3-2 lead, Pele then scored a hat-trick in Lisbon to embarrass Benfica 5-2 and completely overshadow Eusebio. As if to only emphasise his obvious superiority then, he humiliated the great Portuguese striker with a nut-meg.
A year later it would be the opposite, with a spectacular Copa Libertadores and a harder fought Intercontinental Cup. First off, Pele crushed his Brazilian teammates Jairzinho and Garrincha with a hat-trick in a 4-0 win over a brilliant Botofogo. Then, he rounded off a resounding win over Boca Juniors.
Milan would provide a stiffer test. Both sides won 4-2 before Dalma settled a play-off for Santos. But, again, Pele made his mark with four goals over the three games.
And, finally, in 1970 he would confirm his legacy.
Of that year’s World Cup final, Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich said: “I told myself before the game, ‘he’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else’. But I was wrong.”
And yet, as sublime as Pele was throughout the tournament and the showpiece itself, the moment that most stood out was of the utmost simplicity – a basic, but brilliant, five-yard pass for Carlos Alberto.
And the beauty was that it was only a repeat of a similar match-winning delivery for Jairzinho in the earlier game against England.
Essentially, in a tournament that many have described as the closest football has come to art, Pele seemed to be proving Leonardo Da Vinci’s maxim that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.
But then, throughout that World Cup, Pele had been so on top of his game that he seemed to be very testing the limits of the sport: the dummy against Uruguay, the shot from his own half against Czechoslovakia.
It didn’t matter that they didn’t come off. He was the first to try them. “He was the most complete player I’ve ever seen,” Bobby Moore said. “Capable of everything.”
And, as a result, he would be first in this list – except for one reason. Pele undoubtedly reached the very top of the sport but his route there wasn’t exactly huge in range.
Indeed, 1958 set the tone for his career. Pele was utterly magnificent but was always ably complemented by magnificent players. In 1962, with Santos and then in 1970.
The same could not be said of his rival. Even it if is impossible to say anything else negative.
1. Diego Maradona
Career span 1976-97
Country Argentina: 91 caps, 34 goals
Clubs Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys, Boca Juniors
Position attacking midfielder
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 Uefa Cup, 3 domestic titles (2 Italy, 1 Argentina), 1 Italian cup
Given the stage, given the statement of intent and given the staggering number of players left in his wake, there has probably never been a great illustration of individual excellence as Diego Maradona’s second goal against England in 1986.
And yet, as unlikely as the run was, there was still a sense of inevitability and destiny about it. Because, as complete as Pele might have been and as innovate as Johan Cruyff was, no-one quite had the elemental mastery of a ball that Maradona possessed.
“I remember our early training sessions with him,” former Barca teammate Jose Carrasco said. “The rest of the team were so amazed that they just stood and watched him. Only he could create such a feeling of expectation.”
But the anomaly is that it took until 1986 for Maradona to properly fulfil it. Although he was only 25 at the time, it is incredible to think now how dubious his claims to true greatness were before that World Cup. Essentially, you can take the existing caveats about Leo Messi’s performance in the same tournament and multiply them by five.
At that point, Maradona had only won a solitary Argentine title and a Spanish cup, despite starting his career at 15 – the same age as Pele.
It was such parallels – as well as such ability, of course – that brought eternal comparisons with his Brazilian predecessor.
But, in truth, Pele faced far fewer obstacles than Maradona.
While both made their international debuts before the 1958 and 1978 World Cups, respectively, Argentina’s Cesar Menotti didn’t quite have the faith in youth that Vicente Feola did 20 years earlier.
As such, Maradona remained something of a rumour. While Pele got to announce his talent.
On a similar level, the Brazilian began his career at one of his country’s biggest clubs. By contrast, Argentinos Juniors had never won a professional title. And even when Maradona delivered a title to Boca Juniors in his only season there early on – thanks to 28 goals in 40 games – he arguably made the wrong move in going to Barcelona.
At that point, the Catalan club were often more moral victors than the outstanding champions of today. Still without a European Cup, Barca saw more decade-long droughts than league titles and seemed to perpetually stumble from crisis to crisis. And it was into another that Maradona walked in 1982.
Biographer Jimmy Burns wrote that “in Spain, both during the World Cup and in Barcelona, Maradona’s game had often been so undermined by bad refereeing as to become almost unplayable.”
Indeed, an infamous Andoni Goikoetxea assault put him out of action for three months in 1983-84. And that only followed a bout of hepatitis in his first season as well as an ongoing personality clash with president Josep Lluis Nunez. Because of so many external complications, Alfredo Di Stefano argued that Barcelona only saw 20% of Maradona’s full potential.
But it was still enough to score 38 goals in 58 games. Still enough to beat Real Madrid in a Spanish cup final. Still enough for Bernd Schuster to argue with Steve Archibald about who wouldn’t wear the number-10 shirt in his departure.
It was also still enough for Carrasco to see what really drove the player.
“When I was with him he seemed all too conscious of his roots. I’d realised how much he’d struggled to get where he was and how much he felt he still had to achieve to secure his family’s future.”
It was a narrative arc that was to apply to his greatest achievements.
Because, when Maradona went to Napoli in 1984, they had only won a solitary cup in their history. They were the unloved urchins of Italian football.
At the same time, Argentina hardly looked like world champions. They had won less than 40% of their matches in the four years leading up to the 1986 World Cup. Worse, they didn’t even have a system.
And, yet, Maradona lifted both to the greatest heights in their histories.
Because this is the real point about his career. In Mexico, Maradona didn’t just fulfil expectation. He finished it.
As Hugh McIlvanney wrote of the tournament, “Never before has the talent of a single footballer loomed so pervasively over everybody’s thinking… Maradona’s impact goes far beyond the simple realisation that he is indisputably the best and most exciting player now at work in the game. It is in inseparable from the potent sense of declaration inherent in almost everything he has done in the field here in Mexico.”
Sure, Michel Platini’s goals may have been statistically more decisive in Euro 84. But, quite simply, no one influenced an individual tournament like Maradona did in 1986.
But, as emphatic as his five goals were – from the Hand of God to the highlight reel against Belgium in the semi-finals – it was a more understatement performance in the final that truly illustrated the depth of his quality.
Throughout the game, Lothar Matthaus was charged with man-marking Maradona. But, realising that playing his normal game in such restrictive conditions would greatly diminish – and damage – his team, Maradona decided to go so deep so as to draw Matthaus from his anchor role and completely destabilise the Germans.
It worked perfectly as Argentina roared into a 2-0 lead.
Typical of the Germans, though, they exploited the team’s main weakness by scoring twice from set-pieces. But it was to prove their momentum. With momentum behind them, West German abandoned their restrictive approach in order to win the game.
Instead, it took Maradona just three minutes to exploit the extra space. With a divine through ball for Burruchaga, he settled the World Cup.
Four years later, Maradona would prove almost as impressive as he dragged Argentina to the final again. And, in between, he won Napoli the first two titles of their career as well as the Uefa Cup.
Given their history of failure, it is arguably the player’s equivalent of Brian Clough lifting Nottingham Forest to a European Cup.
And most impressively, amid the shackles of Italian football at the time, Maradona sustained his irrepressible, evasive style of play.
Of such moves in general and the goal against England specifically, Maradona once said “I seemed to be able to leave everyone behind.”
He may as well have been talking about football history.