90. Grzegorz Lato
Career span 1966-84
Country Poland: 100 caps, 45 goals
Clubs Stal Mielec, Lokeren, Atlante
Medals 2 Polish titles, 1 Concacaf Champions Cup
It is European football’s great loss that the Polish football authorities were so isolationist throughout the peak of Lato’s career. Because of the rule that players couldn’t transfer out of the country until they reached 30, the winger only ever enjoyed moderate success with his clubs: two Polish league medals with Stal Mielec, a brief period in Belgium with Lokeren.
But he more than made up for it on the international stage. Along with Kazimierz Deyna and Andrzej Szarmach, Lato formed the core of a vibrant Polish team that energised – and might well have won – the 1974 World Cup. But, despite their collective quality, it was Lato’s individual gifts that often proved the difference. His pace and precision ensured he finished as top scorer with seven goals. And, in a slightly different role, Lato proved just as influential in 1982 as Poland reached the last four again. Just a pity the club career was always much slower than he himself.
89. Antonio Cabrini
Career span 1973-91
Country Italy: 73 caps, 9 goals
Clubs Cremonese, Atalanta, Juventus, Bologna
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Cup, 1 Uefa Cup, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 6 Italian titles, 2 Italian Cups
Throughout his career, Cabrini was known as “beautiful Antonio” and “Italy’s boyfriend”. Predictably, that was for his good looks. But then, Cabrini also provided the more aesthetic side to two rigorously ordered teams. As a roving left-back in classically Italian counter-attacking Juventus and Azzurri sides, Cabrini’s brilliant breaks proved a key outlet. As well as goal returns that were more than decent for a defender, his crossing ability supplied a series of easy headers for the likes of Roberto Bettega and Michel Platini.
A perfect example came in the 1982 World Cup game against Brazil. It was Cabrini’s cross that allowed Paolo Rossi to finally open his account. Indeed, so good was the ball for the previously forlorn striker that Rossi “only had to nod his head”.
But, as well as finally igniting Italy in the tournament, that move heralded the increasing importance of full-backs over the next three decades. Pitting extreme examples of football’s two fundamental tactical approaches against each other – Brazil’s open attacking against Italy’s closed defence – the match itself has been highlighted by Inverting the Pyramid as a key game in football history. And Cabrini’s surges played a key part in tilting the balance.
That victory, of course, set Italy on the way to the 1982 World Cup and Cabrini to complete one of the most impressive medal collections in the history of the game. The only major accolade missing was the European Championship. But he played a key part in conquering every other competition.
88. Jose Santamaria
Career span 1948-66
Country Uruguay: 20 caps; Spain 16 caps
Clubs Nacional de Montevideo, Real Madrid
Medals 4 European Cups, 10 league titles (5 Uruguay, 5 Spain), 1 Spanish cup
Jose Santamaria was a player so multi-talented that, initially, it caused him great misfortune. After Nacional had won the Uruguayan championship in 1950, the national side called him up for that summer’s World Cup as inside-forward. Since Santamaria was nominally a defender, however, his club refused to release him. And so he missed the most glorious moment in his country’s history.
Santamaria eventually got to play in the tournament in 1954 – as a defender – and his influential performances almost saw Uruguay repeat the feat, reaching the semi-finals. More importantly, though, it attracted the attention of Real Madrid. Once Santamaria went to the Bernabeu in 1957, he provided an immediate – and previously missing – balance to an otherwise brilliant team. Nicknamed ‘The Wall’, Santamaria actually gave their attack a different dimension once he was inserted into the centre of the backline. “In my opinion, football begins out of defense.”
And so began, too, the most impressive season of Real Madrid’s five European Cups. Although 1959-60 provided the most dazzling performance, at Hampden Park, it was 1957-58 in which they were most dominant. Real won a second successive league-and-European-Cup double but also came tantalisingly close to a treble, losing the Spanish Cup final 2-0 to Athletic Bilbao.
As the Puskas-Di Stefano era gradually passed, it was Santamaria that provided an important, anchoring experience as a new side went on to win the 1966 European Cup too. His subsequent 1962 World Cup experience with Spain wasn’t so successful – with the Uruguayan dropped for the final group game against Brazil. But, in all, Santamaria won four continental medals and 10 league titles. Almost made up for 1950.
87. Zoltan Czibor
Career span 1942-65
Country Hungary: 43 caps, 17 goals
Clubs Komarom, Ferencvaros, EDOSZ, Csepel SC, Honved, Roma, Barcelona, Espanyol, CE Europa, Basel, Austria, Wien, Toronto City
Position left wing
Medals 5 domestic titles (3 Hungary, 2 Spanish), 1 Fairs Cup
“In football, there are engineers and workers,” Zoltan Czibor once proclaimed. “I am the engineer.”
Arrogant as it may have sounded, Czibor was entirely accurate. Such was his blistering pace and breath-taking control at speed, that the winger was one of the key points of the Magic Magyars’ magnificent attack and arguably the fourth best player in the team. Most notably, Czibor terrorised the otherwise excellent Djalma Santos in Hungary’s 4-2 quarter-final over Brazil in the 1954 World Cup.
The then Honved player set up Sandor Kocsis for the key goal in that game, before then scoring the opener in the semi and second goal in the final himself. Infamously, the latter strike wasn’t to be enough to beat Germany in that Berne showpiece.
And it was a feeling Czibor was going to have to get accustomed to. Seven years later, in the exact same stadium, he again scored in a major final only to experience defeat once more. Czibor’s second goal wasn’t enough for a trailblazing Barcelona team to beat Bela Guttmann’s Benfica as they lost the European Cup final 3-2.
By that point, manager Helenio Herrera had shorn some of those more arrogant edges off his game. A more selfless approach was crucial to Czibor being a part of a third great team after Honved and Hungary. Thanks to the Hungarian’s input, Herrera’s Catalan completely overwhelmed that great Real Madrid in domestic competition – winning the 1959 and 1960 Spanish titles.
Unfortunately for Czibor, however, all of his talent could never quite engineer an elite medal.
86. Dino Zoff
Career span 1961-83
Country Italy: 112 caps
Clubs Udinese, Mantova, Napoli, Juventus
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 1 Uefa Cup, 6 Italian titles, 1 Italian Cup
Essentially, Dino Zoff exemplified the key to any truly successful goalkeeping career at the very top level. Not so much spectacular saves, but rather complete and total reliability. As former Italy manager Enzo Bearzot gushed about his eventual captain, “he was a level-headed goalkeeper, capable of staying calm during the toughest and most exhilarating moments”.
And Zoff’s talent ensured he enjoyed an awful lot of the latter. The goalkeeper actually made his international debut in the Euro 68 quarter-final against Bulgaria, thereby claiming a medal when Italy won the tournament. Eventually taking over as the country’s number one, his run of 1,142 minutes without conceding a goal between 1972 and 1974 remains an international record
By the start of that streak, he already gone to Juventus where he anchored one of the greatest defences even Italy had seen. And his career enjoyed a perfect end as he captained Italy in the 1982 World Cup at the age of 40. Amid so much chaos in the build-up to that tournament, Zoff’s calm head was more crucial than ever before.
85. Luis Figo
Career span 1989-2009
Country Portugal: 127 caps, 32 goals
Clubs Sporting, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter
Position attacking midfielder, winger
Medals 1 Champions League, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 8 domestic titles (4 Spain, 4 Italy), 3 domestic cups (2 Spain, 1 Italy)
Between 1997 and 2001, Luis Figo was undeniably one of the most irresistible attacking players in the world. By combining with the more devastating Rivaldo, Figo’s creativity first helped Barca to two successive titles. He then drove Portugal to the semi-finals of Euro 2000. In a tournament that was arguably the most exhilarating carnival of attacking football since 1970, Figo was one of its finest exponents. And, within months, Figo showed admirable nerve by overcoming that rancour that greeted his transfer to Real Madrid and raising them to a first title in four years.
At that point, he was arguably the equal of Zinedine Zidane. And then he was joined by Zidane. It may well be a coincidence, but Figo suffered a drastic drop in form from the middle of 2001 on. It was characterised by his 60th-minute substitution in the 2002 Champions League final and culminated in a miserable, unfit-looking display as Portugal crashed out of that summer’s World Cup in the first round. Worse, as he stepped up to take a penalty that should have pushed Juventus to extra-time in the 2003 Champions League semi-final, he lost his nerve.
By then, Real had appeared champions elect after their masterclass against Manchester United. But, as became typical of that period, Figo was a passenger in what should have been the most prized matches of his career. A move to Inter Milan eventually saw him recover some of his form – and reputation – but never to the same degree. Unlike Zidane and Rivaldo, Figo never provided the type of performance that truly told at the very top end.
84. Fabio Cannavaro
Career span 1992-2011
Country Italy: 136 caps, 2 goals
Clubs Napoli, Parma, Inter, Juventus, Real Madrid, Juventus, Al Ahli
Position central defender
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 Uefa Cup, 3 domestic titles (2 Spanish, 1 Italy), 2 Italian Cups
The very peak of Fabio Cannavaro’s career probably came in the 120th minute of the 2006 World Cup semi-final against Germany. Having utterly dominated Italy’s defence to the point they had only conceded one goal in six games – and would become, statistically, the competition’s best ever backline – he then drove forward 40 yards to set up a move that would culminate in Alessandro Del Piero curling the ball around Jens Lehmann for one of the competition’s finest team goals. At that point, he was most influential player in the tournament. And probably the planet.
The only problem was that after a peak comes an inevitable decline. And, although he ended up lifting the World Cup trophy, his actually started in the final. From there, a previously unseen waywardness entered his game and carried on into a mixed period with Real Madrid.
It shouldn’t be forgotten, though, that he had been almost unflappable up to that point. The roots of Italy’s 2006 defensive performance were actually seen in Euro 2000. During that run to the final, the partnership of Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta was almost impenetrable – particularly in the semi-final against Holland in which Italy had to make do with 10 men and some desperate defending throughout.
For well over a decade, Cannavaro’s qualities were based on a calm mind and a fearsome resolve to get almost any kind of touch on a ball if it meant preventing a chance. More often than not, he did. But very few other defenders came close to touching him.
83. Fernando Redondo
Career span 1985-2004
Country Argentina: 29 caps, 1 goal
Clubs Argentinos Juniors, Tenerife, Real Madrid, Milan
Position defensive midfield
Medals 1 Copa America, 3 Champions Leagues, 3 domestic titles (2 Spain, 1 Italy), 1 Italian Cup
Not for the last time, Alex Ferguson was awe-struck by the quality of a Spanish-league midfielder.
“What does that player have in his boots?” the Manchester United manager asked. “A magnet?” His team – and particularly Henning Berg – had just been utterly unravelled by Fernando Redondo in the 1999-2000 Champions League quarter-finals.
Roy Keane described the Argentine’s backheel-and-run as “football of the very highest quality – the standard to aim for”. Later on, Fabio Capello said the midfielder was “tactically perfect”. Supremely intelligent both on and off the pitch, Redondo’s teams ticked when he did. As the “fixed reference point” – as Luis Helguera put it – he made everyone else around him move in magnificent fashion.
The only problem was that Redondo’s exact intelligence had another edge. And, despite the heights his career reached, there’s an argument that it ensured he didn’t quite achieve the accolades he should have.
For a start, as much of a “natural leader” as he was, Redondo was often unfit or carrying injuries. And, when not in peak condition, this could make him look lazy when things were not going well.
Secondly, he could be outspoken and obstinate. Often, it was admirable. But it was still costly. Disputes over the direction of the Argentine national team under Carlos Bilardo and then Daniel Passarella cost him places at the 1990 and 1998 World Cups.
And at the very peak of his career, just after he had driven Real to the 2000 Champions League, he got involved in the club’s political machinations. Redondo backed the old president Lorenzo Sanz in the elections. So the new one, Florentino Perez, promptly sold him.
It was at that point he suffered the chronic knee injury that ended his career as a top-level player. But, before it, Redondo had often seen its extreme end.
82. Roy Keane
Career span 1989-2006
Country Ireland: 67 caps, nine goals
Clubs Cobh Ramblers, Nottingham Forest, Manchester United, Celtic
Medals 1 Champions League, 8 domestic titles (7 England, 1 Scotland), 4 FA Cups, 1 Scottish league cup
In terms of absolutely maximising available ability, there’s probably never been a player to match Roy Keane. And that’s not to diminish his technical quality.
The Irishman had an underrated passing range – as evidenced two Xavi-esque passes to pick out Paul Scholes in a 6-2 win at Newcastle United in 2003 – as well as a powerful long shot. And, as illustrated most of all in the 1999 Champions League semi-final, he had an eye for important goals.
But Keane’s determination made him so much more than all of that. As his former manager – and seeming soul mate – Alex Ferguson once argued “there isn’t a person in the game who has Roy’s mental toughness… just when you think he hasn’t got anything more, he gives it.”
There’s probably never been a player so defined by sheer drive. Essentially, he made himself a great.
Even more important as his individual effect, though, is the influence Keane had on everyone else: it’s exponential. Through example, aggression and endeavour he forced superior performances from everyone around him. As Gary Neville has explained, “his greatest gift was to create a standard that demanded the very best from his team”.
That extreme personality, however, did occasionally spill over into incidents that undid much of his good work: the frequent red cards; the tape that lead to his departure from Old Trafford; and, most of all, Saipan.
Given both his and Ireland’s form at the time, as well as the exact type of World Cup that panned out, 2002 might well have been Keane’s platform to forge a reputation as a truly global great.
Instead, his shunning of celebrity meant Keane’s exact value was often only truly appreciated by those who saw him close up. It was telling that, in the 2001 World Player of the Year vote, his only nomination came from Louis van Gaal. Because it was Van Gaal’s Holland, of course, that Keane had trampled all over in the 2002 qualifiers.
And on that, whatever happened in Asia thereafter, there’s absolutely no denying that Ireland would not have reached the World Cup without Keane’s influence. As his midfield partner Matt Holland argued, “there’s no question he dragged us through”.
Those performances only followed his displays in his only other international tournament, USA 94. As Ireland got to the last 16 there, Keane was named one of the best players of the campaign.
And how did he sum it up?
“There was nothing to celebrate. We achieved little.”
It was that attitude which drove Manchester United for over a decade.
81. Djalma Santos
Career span 1948-70
Country Brazil: 98 caps, 3 goals
Clubs Portuguesa, Palmeiras, Atletico Paranaense
Medals 2 World Cups, 2 Brazilian titles, 3 Brazilian state championships
One of the first modern full-backs. Having given Brazil a radical new dimension with his rampaging runs up the line in the 1958 World Cup final, Djalma Santos then showed the other side to his game by acting as a durable defensive wall throughout the 1962 campaign. As such, he was named in the team of the tournament for both competitions.
Santos’s time at Palmeiras was almost as triumphant. His arrival in 1959 heralded a first State Championship for the club in a decade. And, thereafter, he combined with the players of the quality of Ademir to earn the club the nickname ‘The Academy’ for the sophistication of their football.