80. Matthias Sammer
Career span 1985-98
Country East Germany: 23 caps, 6 goals; Germany 51 caps, 8 goals
Clubs Dynamo Dresden, VfB Stuttgart, Inter, Borussia Dortmund
Position sweeper, central midfielder
Medals 1 European Championship, 1 Champions League, 5 domestic titles (3 German, 2 East German), 3 domestic cups (2 German, 1 East German)
Once the core of the World Cup-winning squad had waned, the 90s were something of a bleak decade for the German national team: two quarter-final defeats and a dismal Euro 2000. But there was one exception. And it came about because manager Berto Vogts made one himself.
In January 1995, Lothar Matthaus tore his Achilles tendon. Previously a complete midfielder, the German captain had withdrawn to a less convincing sweeper role. So, in the Euro 96 qualifiers, Vogts got to chance to put Borussia Dortmund’s burgeoning star back there – Sammer.
Immediately, the German team kept up a higher level of performance. And Sammer kept his place at the expense of Matthaus.
There can be little doubt that Sammer was the most capable German sweeper after Franz Beckenbauer. But, as Uli Hesse argues in Tor!, “in some respects he was even better”.
“While he lacked Beckenbauer’s elegance and finesse, he brought a fiery determination to the job, complemented by a readiness to take risks.”
In essence, Sammer had what all of football’s great leaders do – an ability to raise the level of performance from all of those around him, be it through inspiration, motivation or even example.
And that overarching influence was best illustrated in his emphatic displays at Euro 96.
“Whenever Germany got into trouble,” Hesse wrote, “Sammer stepped up a gear and did more than was asked of him.”
He broke the deadlock against Russia with a brilliant surging run, before striking the winner against Croatia in the quarter-finals.
In the following season’s victorious Champions League campaign, he was equally effective. Indeed, Ottmar Hitzfeld essentially built Borrusia Dortmund’s best ever era on his brilliant sweeper. A telling moment came in September 1995, as the new German champions were struggling at Eintracht Frankfurt. Sammer caught Hitzfeld’s eye, looking for approval to alter things. The manager, possessing implicit trust in his captain’s judgement, nodded. Sammer immediately moved forward and pushed through a 4-3 from a quasi-playmaker role.
As teammate Paul Lambert explained, “everyone in Germany assures me Sammer is the best libero since Beckenbauer. I’m not surprised. Pound for pound the best player in Europe.”
Injury, unfortunately, prevented him emphasising it. But Sammer had already achieved an awful lot.
79. Velibor Vasovic
Career span 1958-71
Country Yugoslavia: 32 caps, 2 goals
Clubs Partizan Belgrade, Red Star Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade, Ajax
Medals 1 European Cup, 7 domestic titles (4 Yugoslavia, 3 Dutch), 3 Dutch cups
For a time, it seemed that Velibor Vasovic’s talent would never quite get its rightful reward at the very top level. Having his seen his international career just miss two of Yugoslavia’s greatest campaigns – the run to the 1962 World Cup semi-final and Euro 68 final appearance – he then scored ultimately irrelevant goals in two losing European Cup finals: 1966 and 1969.
In truth, though, such experiences carved out the kind of building block on which Rinus Michels could construct his grand design. “Michels was the architect of Total Football,” Vasivoc himself said. “And I helped him the most.”
The Serbian sweeper certainly wasn’t modest. But then others argued he was just realistic. Certainly, Vasovic’s abrasiveness, ability and – most importantly – intelligence gave Ajax an edge they were previously missing when he arrived in 1966.
At 10 years older than Johan Neeskens and nine years older than Johan Cruyff, his nous complemented their nascent ability. Firstly, through example. “I did small things, like make an offside or stand in the wall to make a gap for goals. When you see examples from other players on the field, you learn a hundred times better than in training. In that way I was able to make a lot of changes at Ajax, which was a very young team at that time.”
Secondly, through influence. Just like classic captains such as Matthias Sammer and Roy Keane, Vasovic imposed his will on teams. “I was a winner all my life,” he typically explained to David Winner. “I could not understand why we would play a game in which we lose four kilos of bodyweight for nothing. When you put on your shirt and lace up your boots, you have to win… With such a character I was very helpful to the Dutch players because they were not naturally like that.”
Ruud Krol, for example, admitted he “tried to think and move like Vasovic. I learned a lot from him. He was the conductor.”
But, finally, there was Vasovic’s acumen. His football intelligence helped Michels put the final touches to his plan. With Ajax already experimenting with interchanging positions, the manager noticed that Neesken’s feral hunting and Vasovic’s natural inclination to step up and squeeze the space all enhanced the improvisation. And so the pressing game was born. “We discussed it, me and Michels, the aggressive way of defending.”
And, so, in 1971, Vasovic finally lifted the European Cup. And a dynasty began.
78. Armando Picchi
Career span 1954-69
Country Italy: 12 caps
Clubs Livorno, SPAL, Inter, Varese
Medals 2 European Cups, 3 Italian titles
In a country famed for producing defenders, it’s saying something that the annual award for Serie A’s best back is named after Armando Picchi.
The oddity, however, is that he only ever got 12 caps for his country. Although that was entirely down to politics and injury as opposed to any doubts about his ability. Because Picchi was undeniably one of the best. His omission from the 1966 World Cup squad over a “tactical dispute” resulted in an Italian cause celebre. Then, just as he had cemented his place in the team for the early games of the victorious Euro 68 campaign, he fractured his pelvis.
By that point, however, Picchi had already conquered the continent. Repeatedly. As one of the first true liberos, Picchi was the lynchpin of Helenio Herrera’s immense Inter team of the ’60s. The great Italian football writer Gianni Brera described him as a “defensive director… his passes were never random, his vision superb”.
Picchi was also one of the first on-pitch managers, and among the only players to openly challenge Herrera. He once told his authoritarian coach to “fuck of”. It was possibly that which lead to his early departure in 1967.
But it was also telling that Inter’s era of success went with him.
77. David Villa
Career span 1999-
Country Spain: 78 caps, 49 goals
Clubs Sporting Gijon, Zaragoza, Valencia, Barcelona
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 1 Champions League, 1 Spanish title, 2 Spanish cups
Too high? Well just count up all of the goals. Since the day he made his debut for Sporting Gijon B in 1999, David Villa has been ruthlessly prolific with an average of a goal every two games. It is by no means an exaggeration to argue he has been the dominant centre-forward of the last half-decade. For one thing, nine of his 300+ goals came as he top-scored in two victorious international tournaments – Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. Have golden boots ever had such actual significance?
And, although he suffered something of a striking slump for Barcelona last season (while still scoring 18 goals in 34 league games as well as the clincher in the Champions League), Villa’s mercury movement still ensured Barcelona maintained momentum. When he signed in the summer of 2010, it was hard to think of a more perfect transfer. Villa’s fluidity perfectly suited Barca’s finesse. As Johan Cruyff argued, “Villa is not only there to finish plays. He is synonymous with depth. It means always being ready to open passing lanes, to draw defenders and thus freeing space for others.”
Villa did much more than free space in South Africa, though. He freed Spain. As the Vicente Del Bosque’s side surprisingly toiled in the early rounds, Villa applied his ability to drive Spain through. First with a glorious openers in anxious games against Honduras and Chile, then with the solitary strikes against Portugal and Paraguay.
The goals made him Spain’s all-time top scorer. And one of the most productive forwards of all time.
76. Dixie Dean
Career span 1923-39
Country England: 16 caps, 18 goals
Clubs Tranmere Rovers, Everton, Notts County, Sligo Rovers
Medals 2 league titles, 1 FA Cup
When an Italian soldier was captured by British forces on the African front in the second world war, he allegedly told his captors “fuck your Winston Churchill and fuck your Dixie Dean”. Such was the fame of all the forward’s goals.
Dean was, essentially, the archetypal modern striker. Celebrated for his heading ability, he was the first forward to wear the number nine and enjoyed one of the most spectacular and sustained strike rates in the history of the game: 425 goals in 489 games as well as 18 in 16 caps for England.
Having set a record with 60 league goals in Everton’s victorious 1927-28 campaign, he was once asked whether it would ever be broken.
“I think it will,” he responded. “But there’s only one man who’ll do it. That’s the fellow that walks on water. I think he’s the only one.”
The record still stands.
75. Kurt Hamrin
Career span 1952-72
Country Sweden: 32 caps, 17 goals
Clubs AIK, Juventus, Padova, Fiorentina, Milan, Napoli, IFK Stockholm
Medals 1 European Cup, 2 Cup Winners Cups, 1 Italian title, 2 Italian cups
As Sweden prepared for the World Cup they were hosting in 1958, concerned coach George Raynor observed that his side was one of the slowest in the competition. With one very significant exception: the high-speed Kurt Hamrin.
In his history of the World Cup, Brian Glanville describes the winger as “a sturdy little man with superb powers of dribbling and acceleration and the ability and courage to strike through the middle as well as from the wing”.
He would do both throughout the tournament repeatedly. In all, Hamrin scored three goals while dominating the quarter- and semi-finals against the USSR and West Germany respectively.
By then, of course, he was already one of the most sought-after players in Serie A. But he would only increase his value on joining Milan in 1967. Hamrin provided the cutting edge to Nereo Rocco’s Catenaccio. The Swede would score both goals in the 1968 Cup Winners Cup final 2-0 win over Hamburg before terrorising full-backs on the way to the European Cup the following year.
74. Nils Liedholm
Career span 1938-61
Country Sweden: 21 goals, 10 caps
Clubs Valdemarsviks IF, IK Sleipner, IFK Norrkoping, Milan
Medals 6 league titles (4 Italy, 2 Sweden)
After Real Madrid had finally ousted AC Milan in the 1958 European Cup final, Alfredo Di Stefano was so impressed with Nils Liedholm’s performance that he asked the Swede to join him on a lap of honour.
“Keep it,” Liedholm responded. “That won’t matter. The only thing that will be remembered down the years is that Real Madrid won.”
Not quite. The Swede had provided a series of glorious memories in that campaign, let alone his entire career. Indeed, it was entirely appropriate that Di Stefano remembered Liedholm, in particular, once the trophy had been lifted.
Because, in truth, the Swede had been Milan’s equivalent of Di Stefano. Just as the Argentine had ended long years of frustration for Real and transformed them into a modern super club almost overnight, Liedholm had played the key role in a similar rise for the Italians.
When he arrived with compatriots Gunnar Gren and Gunnar Nordahl in 1949, the club hadn’t won a title since 1907. By 1958, they had won four in eight years and proved one of the most dominant teams in the early history of the European Cup. And, as the technical, thinking midfielder at the centre of that so-called Gre-No-Li trio, Liedholm made it all work. He also outlasted his compatriots thanks to a rigorous training regime.
At the age of 36, he was one of influential player in Sweden’s unprecedented run to the 1958 World Cup final – even scoring the opening goal in the last game.
What is most remembered from that match, of course, is Brazil’s ultimate 5-2 victory. But Liedholm ensured he will never be forgotten.
73. Marco Tardelli
Career span 1972-88
Country Italy: 87 caps, 7 goals
Clubs Pisa, Como, Juventus, Inter, St Gallen
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Cup, 1 Uefa Cup, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 5 Italian titles, 2 Italian cups
He will always be known for that primal scream, the “Tardelli cry”. And that’s hardly surprising given it represented what would have been the peak of any career: a glorious, clinching goal in the World Cup final.
But, in truth, there was so much more in the Italian’s career to shout about. A truly complete midfielder in the mould of Johan Neeskens, Tardelli combined technique and intelligence with tenacity and aggression. Such was his “hard man” attitude that Jimmy Greaves once said Tardelli was “responsible for more scar tissue than the surgeons at Harefield Hospital” He undoubtedly left a lot of psychological scars on opponents, too, as he was a mainstay in the all-conquering Juventus team of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Indeed, such was the energy he gave the team that Ernst Happel realised he was the player to specifically neuter in the 1983 European Cup final. That finished 1-0 to Hamburg. But it was to be an unusual feeling for Tardelli, who won every major honour bar the European Championships.
72. Jimmy Johnstone
Career span 1961-79
Country Scotland: 23 caps, 2 goals
Clubs Celtic, San Jose Earthquakes, Sheffield United, Dundee, Shelbourne, Elgin City
Medals 1 European Cup, 9 Scottish titles, 4 Scottish cups, 5 Scottish league cups
To a certain degree, Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone could be described as the Scottish George Best. They certainly shared a few parallels. To begin with – quite literally – the precocious Johnstone attracted the attention of Manchester United at the age of 13.
It was hardly surprising. For Johnstone’s dribbling ability – if not quite his all-round game – was on a par with Best’s. Most famously, he was given a standing ovation by the Bernabeu crowd after Alfredo Di Stefano’s testimonial.
More often, however, his irreverent evasiveness would inspire aggression rather than celebration. Just as Best found, embarrassed defenders were often left with no option other than to effectively assault Johnstone. A particularly unsavoury incident came in the 1973-74 European Cup semi-final when he was kicked in the testicles and three Atletico Madrid players were sent off. At the same stage of the competition four years beforehand, however, Leeds United full-back Terry Cooper had described his dissection at the feet of Johnston as “my nightmare”.
A less welcome parallel with Best, however, was that Johnstone frequently gave his own managers nightmares. So frustrated did Jock Stein become with his actions that he often dropped him – to the point that Johnstone’s own mother once complained to the Celtic manager that “you’re very hard on that wee lad”.
But Johnstone didn’t help himself. Infamously, he ended up stranded out at sea following a particularly long drinking session on the eve of the 1974 World Cup. But, while that anecdote has often been repeated, the reaction hasn’t. After Johnstone had scored both goals in a 2-0 warm-up win over England, he responded to the recent media criticism with two fingers to the press box. He was subsequently consigned to the bench for the entirety of West Germany 1974. And it was incidents like that which ensured Johnstone never enjoyed the international career he should have.
There was one crucial difference with Best, however: longevity. Johnstone rampaged down wings for much longer. Having blazed a trail in Europe in 1966-67, he was still driving Celtic to the competition’s latter stages almost a decade later.
71. Iker Casillas
Career span 1998-
Country Spain: 124 caps
Clubs Real Madrid
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 2 Champions Leagues, 4 Spanish titles, 1 Spanish cup
It’s generally accepted that, at a blue-chip club, the main requirement for a goalkeeper is reliability and the ability to keep focus for the rare occasions in which they actually have to make a save. And Iker Casillas has certainly provided that.
But, at a club who have considered defence an afterthought for most of the last decade, the Spanish captain has also had to give so much more. Take the game in which his career at the top level truly started, for example. On as a sub in the 2002 Champions League final, a series of saves effectively secured the title. The following season, he was repeatedly “under-protected and overexposed” in an increasingly imbalanced Real Madrid. Yet it was commonly accepted that a mix of Casillas’s saves at one end and Ronaldo goals at the other was enough to win the title.
Since then, he has kept up a remarkable balance between consistency and outright quality. Indeed, the only try dip of his career came in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup and continued into the finals themselves.
Typically, however, Casillas rose to the occasion. He pulled off that important penalty save against Paraguay in the quarter-finals before twice winning vital one-on-one duels with Arjen Robben in the final. It epitomised a career.