100. Danny Blanchflower
Career span 1949-61
Country Northern Ireland: 56 caps, 2 goals
Clubs Barnsley, Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur
Medals 1 English title, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 2 FA Cups
The Barnsley coaches couldn’t quite believe it. There they were, attempting to drill their squad into shape, only for a young upstart from Belfast to demand they actually start training with a ball. Who knows, he wondered. It might actually improve the players’ technique.
Blanchflower, of course, was always something of an individualist. But only off the pitch. On it, his keen intelligence ensured his teams were gloriously cohesive. Arguably taking the role of captain to unprecedented levels, Blanchflower combined tactical acumen with exquisite technique. Such a role raised Tottenham to the most successful period of their history. But, arguably even more importantly, it took Northern Ireland to the World Cup quarter-finals in 1958.
Never a spectacular player. But a very special one.
99. Jozsef Bozsik
Career span 1943-62
Country Hungary: 101 caps, 11 goals
Clubs Kispesti, Honved
Medals 5 Hungarian titles
When Hungary eventually announced themselves as so, so much more than Olympic champions at Wembley in 1953, it was – predictably – Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti who dominated the headlines. The former for his drag-back and brilliant double. The latter for his hat-trick and the manner he utterly dominated the game as an unprecedented deep-lying forward.
But, typically, it was Bozsik that got the ball rolling. In every sense. After 45 seconds of that famous 6-3 at Wembley, he slipped Hidegkuti inside for the forward to fire home from outside the box. It was a common occurrence.
Indeed, Hidegkuti himself later explained to Jonathan Wilson how Bozsik’s passing and positioning from deep midfield were the “final touches to the tactical development” of a team that proved among the most influential in history.
As Brian Glanville wrote of Bozsik when covering the 1954 World Cup, he was “a driving, attacking player with strength, confidence and – of course – superb control. He was his side’s chief dynamo.”
Applying vision and vibrancy from defensive midfield, Bozsik often began moves before Hidgekuti took them on. That was the foundation of a 49-game unbeaten run that went all the way to the World Cup final, as well as Honved’ five league titles before the Hungarian revolution.
98. Just Fontaine
Career span 1950-62
Country France: 21 caps, 30 goals
Clubs Casablanca, Nice, Stade Reims
Medals 4 French titles, 3 French cups
It’s astonishing to think that, on the eve of the 1958 World Cup, Fontaine was no more than a reserve for the French squad.
His most important kick, however, wasn’t even one he provided himself. Just before the tournament began, first-choice centre-forward Rene Bliard walloped the ground when he went to strike the ball, hurt his ankle and had to be sent home.
As such, Fontaine was in. And France’s best forward line for three decades was born. The Moroccan-born striker developed a seemingly telepathic relationship with Raymond Kopa, expertly finishing so many of the playmaker’s through-balls. It led to Fontaine winning the Golden Boot with a record of 13 goals, and France reaching the semi-finals.
The pity, perhaps, is that the two players only belatedly got to link up in club football. When Kopa left Stade Reims for Real Madrid in 1956, Fontaine was brought in from Nice – who had just won the French title thanks to his goals – as a relative replacement. And, although the forward would fire Reims to the league again in 1958, he couldn’t help them improve on the 1956 European Cup performance. In 1959, they lost to Real in the final again.
As one of the most prolific strikers in the game, however, Fontaine’s goals at least ensured defeat was a rare feeling.
97. Elias Figueroa
Career span 1964-82
Country Chile: 47 caps, 2 goals
Clubs Santiago Wanderers, Penarol, Internacional, Palestino, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Colo-Colo
Medals 9 domestic titles (5 Brazilian state, 2 Uruguay, 1 Chile, 1 USA), 1 Chile Cup
It’s saying something that in a World Cup which featured Franz Beckenbauer, Berti Vogts, Ruud Krol, Tacisio Burgnich and Giacinto Facchetti, it was Elias Figueroa who was named Germany 1974’s best defender.
A rock of a centre-half, the Chilean combined concrete durability with calm composure. With Figueroa underpinning their team and often initiating attacks, Chile enjoyed their most sustained period of international success. Between 1966 and 1982, the country reached three World Cups and got the last four of the Copa America twice.
That saw him named South American Footballer of the Year three times and, eventually to travel the continent. Figueroa eventually won a series of titles in Brazil and Uruguay, with Internacional and Penarol respectively.
Indeed, Figueroa wasn’t just 1974’s best defender. He was one of the greatest in South American history. And, given the talent that has come out of that continent, that’s saying even more.
96. Josef Masopust
Career span 1950-70
Country Czechoslovakia: 63 caps, 10 goals
Clubs ZSJ Technomat Teplice, Dukla Prague, Crossing Molenbeek
Medals 8 Czechoslovak titles, 3 Czechoslovak cups
Josef Masopust had to make a correction. Because, as he checked into his Chilean hotel at the start of the 1962 World Cup, his name was grossly misspelt.
To a degree, that was understandable. Masopust wasn’t yet fully famous on his own continent, let alone South America. Like many players from communist Europe, he suffered from the regimes’ insistence on keeping the finest players under wraps. Although Masopust had initiated an era in which Dukla Prague would win eight domestic titles in 16 years and reach the 1967 European Cup semi-finals, he hadn’t yet grabbed attention. Even his sparkling performances in the nascent 1960 Nations Cup, that saw Czechoslovakia reach the last four, came without many of Europe’s marquee teams.
But it wouldn’t be long until Masopust proved he was well capable of playing in any of Europe’s marquee leagues. And no-one would ever spell his name wrong again. Particularly not in Chile, where he utterly dominated the World Cup.
Possessing exquisite technique with either foot, Masopust was a devastating dribbler. So much so that he achieved the ultimate accolade for any tricky player – he had a move named after him: ‘the Masopust slalom’.
Pele described him as “one of the greatest players I ever saw… with those explosive dribbles, he had to be Brazilian!”
But Ferenc Puskas went further. Because there was so much more to the Czechoslovakian’s game. “Masopust could do it all: win the ball, pass, dribble and break into the box. He was an outstanding player.”
And he would emphatically illustrate it in Chile. Masopust was instrumental in his country reaching the World Cup final for the second time and becoming the first European side to get to the last two outside their own continent.
And, in that final, he almost caused the ultimate shock. Masopust opened the scoring against that dynastic Brazilian team. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to win the tournament. But it was enough to cement Masopust’s status as one of the all-time greats.
95. Karl-Heinz Schnellinger
Career span 1959-75
Country West Germany: 47 caps, 1 goal
Clubs FC Koln, AC Mantova, Milan, Tennis Borussia
Position left-back, libero
Medals 1 European Cup, 2 Cup Winners Cup, 2 domestic titles (1 Germany, 1 Italy), 3 Italian Cups
Long before the Germans had solidified their football qualities to the point of becoming a stereotype, Schnellinger effectively defined the national team’s identity. Known in Italy as the “Volkswagen” for his unfailing consistency, the defender combined power with a relentless winning mentality. Indeed, even his rare goals emphasised his reliability. Although Schnellinger only scored a single goal in his 47 caps, it came in the 90th minute of the 1970 World Cup semi-final as West Germany trailed Italy 1-0.
Once the whistle blew for extra-time, some of Schnellinger’s furious Milan teammates reportedly told him “he would never return to Italy”. But such threats didn’t stop him continuing an already impressive Serie A career, as he added a further two Coppa Italias and Cup Winners Cup to his existing two medals for both trophies as well as a European Cup and a title.
94. Johnny Rep
Career span 1971-87
Country Netherlands: 42 caps, 12 goals
Clubs Ajax, Valencia, Bastia, St Etienne, PEC Zwolle, Feyenoord, Haarlem
Medals 1 European Cup, 2 domestic titles (1 Dutch, 1 French)
Johnny Rep was never one to be intimidated by aura. On one of his first training sessions with the Ajax senior team, he had a heated argument with Johan Cruyff which saw him banished to the reserves by the so-called “players’ council” for a month.
Initially quite an emotional character, Rep blamed that very council – as well the meek manager they supposedly controlled, Stefan Kovacs – for refusing to play him ahead of the aging club stalwart, Sjaak Swart. Eventually, though, the argument that Rep’s quality put forward became too compelling. Indeed, with Kovacs refusing to go against the players despite pressure from the Ajax board, Cruyff and co had to instruct the coach to include Rep in order to save his job.
But it couldn’t be denied that the young winger brought a new dimension to Ajax’s play. Previously, both Piet Keizer and Swart had been content to loiter at the edge of the box as the rest of the attack surged through. But, with Cruyff increasingly dropping back into midfield, Rep made the kind of incisive runs inside that allowed Ajax to wreak havoc. From such moves – as well as the captain’s perfect passé – Rep became the club’s top scorer in his first full season. And one of his goals was the winner in the 1973 European Cup final against Juventus.
Even more impressively, the then 22-year-old carried that elevated form in the 1974 World Cup. Rep scored four goals en route to that famous final.
The only caveat is that period may have proved a peak for Rep himself. Thereafter, his own aura diminished somewhat too. Part of that was down to relatively poor transfer choice. Rep often joined good clubs at slightly wrong times: St Etienne in between the brilliance of the mid-70s and the magnificence of Michel Platini; Valencia while Heriberto Herrera misguided the team.
But he still became Holland’s highest ever World Cup scorer with a further three goals in 1978. And the rampaging style ensured he was always more memorable than the stats.
93. Daniel Passarella
Career span 1971-89
Country Argentina: 70 caps, 22 goals
Clubs Sarmiento, River Plate, Fiorentina, Inter, River Plate
Position central defender
Medals 2 World Cups, 6 Argentine titles
Intimidating, uncompromising but also exceptionally elegant. Passarella was known as ‘El Kaiser’ for his grace as much as his authoritarianism. Argentina’s 1978 World Cup-winning manager, Cesar Luis Menotti said he “had no doubts about making him captain. His professionalism and ability to influence others were remarkable”. Diego Maradona, meanwhile, described his former leader as the “best defender I’ve ever seen… and the best header of a ball too – in attack as well as defense.”
Indeed, Passarella began as many attacks as he broke up. Until Ronald Koeman, he was the most prolific nominal defender in football history. Such a fluidity helped form a vital link in Argentina’s freewheeling 1978 squad, raise River to a series of titles and allowed Passarella himself to impress in Italy. As well as on a series of opposing players throughout his career.
92. Marcel Desailly
Career span 1986-2006
Country France: 116 caps, 3 goals
Clubs Nantes, Marseille, Milan, Chelsea, Al-Gharafa, Qatar SC
Position central defender, midfielder
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 2 Champions Leagues, 3 domestic titles (2 Italy, 1 Qatar), 1 FA Cup
Zinedine Zidane may well have been head and shoulders above the rest of the French team in the 1998 World Cup final. But, as good as the playmaker went on to become, that run was not powered by his poise. Rather, it was founded on what was statistically the finest defence in World Cup history.
And its most dynamic member was Desailly. The Ghanaian-born powerhouse truly illustrated his range – in terms of both versatility and the ground he covered – as a defensive midfielder with Milan. And he emphasised his drive with the curling striker that clinched the 1994 Champions League final, as well as his second European medal in successive seasons. Despite Milan missing both Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta against Barcelona in Athens, Desailly brought his game to a new level. And, beyond that, he became one of the most assured and intimidating defenders in the world for almost a decade.
91. Enzo Francescoli
Career span 1980-97
Country Uruguay: 73 caps, 15 goals
Clubs Wanderers, River Plate, Racing Club Paris, Marseille, Cagliari, Torino, River Plate
Position attacking midfielder
Medals 3 Copa Americas, 1 Copa Libertadores, 1 Supercopa Sudamericana, 6 domestic titles (5 Argentine, 1 French)
One of the most elegant playmakers of all time. So much so, that Zinedine Zidane named his son after the Uruguayan.
That is perhaps explained, however, by the fact that Francescoli guided the Frenchman’s boyhood club Marseille to the 1990 Ligue Un title.
And, to a degree, the fact that was the only piece of silverware Francescoli won in Europe has somewhat affected his reputation here. But, although he only ever decorated his periods at Cagliari and Torino rather than deliver the clubs to glory, there’d no denying that Francescoli dominated many other elevated stages.
His innovation helped Uruguay end a 16-year Copa America drought in 1983 before retaining it in 1987, as well as twice driving the side into the last 16 of the World Cup. As an elder statesman in 1996, then, he guided River Plate to only the second Copa Libertadores in their history.