70. Thierry Henry
Career span 1994-
Country France: 123 caps, 51 goals
Clubs Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona, New York Red Bulls
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 1 Champions League, 6 domestic titles (2 England, 2 Spain,1 France, 1 USA Eastern); 4 domestic cups (3 England, 1 Spain)
The great contradiction of Thierry Henry’s career is that his finest form never quite coincided with his most prized medals.
This is not to repeat the misguided charge that Henry was “not a big-game player”. He did, after all, score the quarter-final goal that put defending champions Brazil out of the 2006 World Cup. Before that, he had recharged a faltering Arsenal with the hat-trick against Liverpool that ensured their invincible season. And, bookending all of those feats, he had terrorised defences in Euro 2000 before proving a steady – and occasionally spectacular – presence on the wing for Barcelona’s historic treble.
But, in that 2008-09 campaign as well as France’s international double between 1998 and 2000, Henry was only ever a supporting actor in contrast to the star-turn he proved for Arsenal in between.
Which is not to take away from his highlights at Highbury. Henry was the player most responsible for the 2002 double, 2004 title and he even scored five goals in 11 games on the way to the 2006 Champions league final. As Arsene Wenger enthused, he could “take the ball in the middle of the park and score a goal that no one else in the world could.”
At his best, he was one of the most exquisite footballers ever seen. But, contrarily, his best moments never quite saw that.
69. Ladislao Kubala
Career span 1944-67
Country Czechoslovakia: 6 caps, 4 goals; Hungary: 3 caps; Spain: 19 caps, 11 goals
Clubs Ganz, Ferencvaros, Vasas, Pro Patria, Hungaria, Barcelona, Espanyol, Zurich
Medals 2 Fairs Cups, 4 Spanish titles, 5 Spanish cups
“Thanks to Kubala,” former Barcelona player and scout, Pepe Samitier once said, “football moved from being an operetta to become an opera.”
Certainly, his career was filled with dramatic extremes. He should, for example, have been on the Torino plane that crashed into the Superga hills on 4 May 1959. Only illness to his son prevented him travelling with the side after agreeing to play in a friendly against Benfica.
Otherwise a pawn of history, Kubala was denounced as a delinquent on leaving Communist Hungary before finding himself hijacked for all kinds of propaganda purposes in post-Civil War Spain.
But it’s also funny how history turns out.
The story goes that, on signing for Barcelona in 1950, the club’s representatives had to get him drunk so he wouldn’t realise he was heading for Camp Nou instead of the Bernabeu. It was initially Real Madrid Kubala thought he was signing for.
Such were Kubala’s subsequent successes at Barcelona between 1951 and 1953, however, that Real Madrid simply had to respond. And they did so by ensuring the Catalans certainly wouldn’t get Alfredo Di Stefano.
And so arrived one of football history’s great turning points. In a wicked ironic twist, Kubala’s wild living – and the drinking Barca had apparently encouraged at first – would curtail his career at the top. By contrast, Di Stefano’s discipline and drive would completely transform Real Madrid. They went from a moderate team to a mega institution.
There can be little doubt, however, that both Kubala and Di Stefano were equivalents in terms of ability. When asked to compare the two, Samitier was diplomatic. “I will simply say that no one like these two players has until now produced football of such beauty and entertainment.”
In his brilliant history, Barca, Jimmy Burns describes Kubala as a playmaker who “brought a combination of skills that the club had until then rarely seen. He was quick on and off the ball, demonstrated extraordinary control when dribbling, showed an unrivalled vision and was always accurate in shooting and deadfalls.”
More importantly, though, “it was around Kubala’s charisma and footballing skills that Barca overcame its post-war loss of confidence and shattered organisation, developing one of its strongest and most successful teams.”
Kubala immediately inspired the club to successive league and cup doubles between 1951 and 1953. But it was the second of those that secured his mythical status. Kubala recovered from a bout of tuberculosis that doctors said could end his career to belatedly fire Barca to the title.
All those extremes couldn’t be contained to the pitch though. Just before a 1955 Fairs Cup game, Kubala lead a group his teammates to a late-night brothel. The club didn’t just strip him of the captaincy. They ordered a private detective to monitor his private life.
And a notorious disciplinarian like Helenio Herrera was never going to stand for such hedonism. As the new manager’s Barcelona took flight from 1958, they returned from one European trip only for Kubala to be asked if he had anything to declare at the airport. “Yes, two bottles of whiskey,” he responded… before pointing to his stomach.
It was little coincidence that Kubala’s career waned as Herrera’s rose. And, in that sense, it’s possible Herrera might have fulfilled his potential even more had he got to perform properly in the nascent European Cup.
But he had already made history – even if he was occasionally used by it.
68. Frank Rijkaard
Career span 1980-95
Country Holland: 73 caps, 10 goals
Clubs Ajax, Sporting, Real Zaragoza (loan), Milan, Ajax
Medals 1 European Championship, 3 European Cups, 1 Cup Winners Cups, 7 domestic titles (5 Dutch, 2 Italian), 3 Dutch cups
Arrigo Sacchi would accept no alternatives. Despite president Silvio Berlusconi’s attempts to push other players in his direction, the Milan manager knew who he wanted in the summer of 1987: Frank Rijkaard.
The Dutch midfielder, after all, was a classic “universalist” as Sacchi would call it – equally proficient breaking up attacks as making them. The latter was most emphatically seen at Milan. Sacchi would use Rijkaard’s force and power to great effect in his pressing game – not least in the 1990 European Cup final when the Dutchman motored through the Benfica defence to score the game’s only goal.
In the same showpiece five years later, he would frustrate Milan using his other qualities. Louis van Gaal guided Ajax to the 1995 Champions League partly through his utilisation of Rijkaard as a wisened head at the back.
Not that we saw that side of him in 1990, of course. Rijkaard losing his temper was part of the reason Holland lost their World Cup second-round game against Germany. But then he had already been a focal point in the Euro 88 victory. And so many other victories thereafter.
67. John Charles
Career span 1948-74
Country Wales: 38 caps, 15 goals
Clubs Leeds United, Juventus, Leeds United, Roma, Cardiff City, Hereford United, Merthyr Tydfil
Position forward, centre-half
Medals 3 Italian titles, 2 Italian cups, 2 Welsh cups
Not Diego Maradona. Not Marco Van Basten. Not Ronaldo. Not Zinedine Zidane. The player at the top of Serie A’s greatest foreign imports is none other than the ‘gentle giant’ John Charles.
Part of that is undoubtedly down to the period he joined. Before Charles arrived, Juventus hadn’t won a title in six years. After it, they won Serie A three times in four years, with one of them part of a double.
By then, he had also been at the heart of Wales’s greatest ever international achievement as they reached the last eight of the 1958 World Cup. Only a Pele goal put them out, with Charles missing the game through injury. Brian Glanville wondered what might have happened had he been fit, since he had given opposition teams “immense trouble” throughout.
Indeed, one of his greatest gifts was undoubtedly his sheer presence, which helped him reach “a world-class level” – according to Bobby Robson – as a centre-half and centre-forward. Not to mention in two different countries.
66. Arie Haan
Career span 1969-85
Country Holland: 35 caps, 6 goals
Clubs Ajax, Anderlecht, Standard Liege, PSV Eindhoven, Seiko
Position defensive midfielder
Medals 3 European Cups, 2 Cup Winners Cups, 6 domestic titles (3 Holland, 3 Belgium), 4 domestic cups (3 Holland, 1 Belgium)
According to David Winner’s touchstone book on Dutch football, Brilliant Orange, Arie Haan was the most underrated player of the 1970s golden age for the country.
Not by himself of course. Haan actually accumulated more medals than any other individual of the period – as he always made sure to point out.
“Cruyff may have been the best, but I won more. And that’s what football is about.”
Whatever the truth of that, Haan arguably typified Total Football even more than Cruyff. Across his career, he moved from defensive midfield to libero to playmaker and ultimately striker. More importantly, he excelled in each.
Having been one of the midfield motors of the European three-in-a-row alongside Johan Neeskens, Haan was then moved into central defence by Rinus Michels for the 1974 World Cup. The idea was that the Dutch would be an even more aggressive, progressive team with Haan’s passing ability initiating attacks from just in front of the main centre-half. It worked superbly… until the final when his lack of actual defensive abilities allowed Rainer Bonhof to charge past him and set up Gerd Muller for the deciding goal.
Haan somewhat made up for that in the next tournament as his long-range rocket against Italy put the Dutch back into the final. Thereby, he also fulfilled one of Cruyff’s predictions from his youth.
“That lad has gunpowder in his shoes,” Cruyff enthused on first seeing Haan. “Watch him, he’ll develop himself tremendously and he will demonstrate his rickets from distance.”
Anderlecht certainly saw the best of that, as Haan’s goals effectively secured the first of two Cup Winners Cups. But, evidently, there was so much more to Haan’s game.
65. Roberto Baggio
Career span 1982-2004
Country Italy: 56 caps, 27 goals
Clubs Vicenza, Fiorentina, Juventus, Milan, Bologna, Inter, Brescia
Medals 1 Uefa Cup; 2 Italian titles; 1 Italian Cup
So much talent. So few actual trophies to show for it.
To an extent, Baggio’s problem was timing. Despite proving himself one of the most prolific Italian penalty-makers, for example, he went and missed the most infamous spot-kick in the country’s history. Shortly after that, he fell out with Marcello Lippi just as Juventus embarked on the most successful era in their history. And he then joined Milan in 1995 just as theirs was coming to an end.
If Baggio didn’t exactly lift many trophies, however, he did lift a lot of spirits. Not least at USA 94. In effect, Baggio dragged Italy to the final. He scored the last-minute equaliser against Nigeria in the last-16, the late quarter-final winner against Spain and then tore Bulgaria apart in the semi-finals. In terms of match-winning influence in latter-stage games, there have been very few players who have matched Baggio’s in that World Cup. It remains one of the competition’s great individual displays, whatever followed in the final.
But then that tournament also illustrated his eternal difficulty in Italian football. When the side went down to 10 men in the opening round against Norway, manager Arrigo Sacchi sacrificed his star turn in order to keep the structure of the system. In essence, Baggio was always too effervescent – as well as headstrong – to fit into the country’s rigid tactical approaches of the time.
It ensured he finished with few medals. But plenty of memories.
64. Samuel Eto’o
Career span 1997-
Country Cameroon: 103 caps, 50 goals
Clubs Real Madrid (Leganes, Espanyol, Mallorca); Malloca, Barcelona, Inter, Anzhi Makhachkala
Medals 2 African Cups of Nations; 3 Champions Leagues; 4 domestic titles (3 Spain, 1 Italy); 3 domestic cups (1 Spain, 2 Italy)
Off the pitch, Samuel Eto’o has always had something of a reputation for difficulty. He departed Real Madrid with the hierarchy complaining that “he leaves a lot to be desired as a person” before eventually falling out with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. And even beyond his difficulties with Spain’s big two, his career has been punctuated by training-ground spats, troubles with teammates and even an accusation that he had issued a reporter with a death threat.
But the offset has always been that, on the pitch, Eto’o has made life much easier for everyone except the opposition.
Firstly, through his goals. Between 2002 and 2011, Eto’o has enjoyed a ratio of a goal every 1.6 games. And two of his strikes, of course, were the equaliser in the 2006 Champions League final and the opener in the 2009 event. Talk about a striker that produces on the biggest stages.
But it was the Champions League final that he didn’t score in which illustrated Eto’o’s other main quality: his endeavour and selflessness. For Inter, Eto’o admirably adapted his game to prove a right-winger-cum-right-back. There can be no questioning his commitment when he’s actually playing.
Nor can you question his commitment to his continent. A very vocal and proud African, Eto’o is fittingly the Cup of Nations’ all-time leading scorer. And that has brought Cameroon two titles, in 2000 and 2002. The only caveat to his international career is that, in three World Cups, he has never driven his country to the second round.
He was much more successful, of course, in driving managers mad. But also in winning them trophies.
63. Omar Sivori
Career span 1954-69
Country Argentina: 19 caps, 9 goals; Italy: 9 caps, 8 goals
Clubs River Plate, Juventus, Napoli
Medals 1 Copa America; 6 domestic titles (3 Argentina, 3 Juventus); 2 Italian Cup
When Omar Sivori took to the field, he used to roll down his socks and provocatively expose his shins in order to show hack-happy defenders he wasn’t scared. His audacious dribbling ability did, after all, invite a lot of overzealous tackles. So exceptional was Sivori’s effervescent technique, that defenders found it immensely frustrating to get close to him. And, at just five-foot-six, he probably felt that he needed to make a statement beyond his size. In truth, though, Sivori was well able to handle himself. He was sent off on 10 occasions in his Serie A career – a record at the time – and once had to be slapped by John Charles to calm down.
Normally, however, the two got on much better. Indeed, despite their drastically different playing styles and personalities, Charles and Sivori complemented each other perfectly at Juventus. The little forward would destroy teams before the big Welshman would finish them. Their partnership led to three titles for Juventus and a 1961 Ballon D’Or for Sivori.
The Argentine, of course, qualified for the award at that point because he had by then switched nationality to Italy. Having decided to take one of the many lucrative offers from Europe after lighting up the Argentine championship with River Plate, he was effectively declared a non-person by his country’s association. And that despite helping their side to the 1957 Copa America.
He didn’t enjoy success with Italy as the side exited in the first round of his only World Cup. But that never affected his standing as one of the most spectacular players to ever appear in Serie A.
62. Juan Schiaffino
Career span 1943-62
Country Uruguay: 21 caps, 8 goals; Italy: 4 caps, 0 goals
Clubs Penarol, Milan, Roma
Position attacking midfielder
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 Fairs Cup, 7 domestic titles (4 Uruguay, 3 Milan)
In the summer of 1951, all of Italy’s elite seemed determined to bring Schiaffino to his ancestral home. Roma had readied a bid of half a million pesos, Juventus had even sent Fiat patron Gianni Agnelli to Montevideo.
Unsurprisingly, however, Penarol simply wouldn’t let him go.
The previous summer, after all, Schiaffino had confirmed his precocious ability with a key goal on the greatest stage of all. After Uruguay had just about managed to keep Brazil down to a goal in the 1950 World Cup decider, Schiaffino silenced the 200,000-strong crowd with an emphatic equaliser.
It set Uruguay on the way to their most glorious moment, as well as setting a trend for the player himself. As Brian Glanville wrote, the midfield schemer possessed “exquisite ball control, a gimlet eye for the telling pass and a left foot which scored many an important goal”.
Ironically, it was only after a World Cup in which Schiaffino didn’t score – but did prove himself as one of the globe’s pre-eminent players – that he got his move to Italy.
Following a series of performances that propelled Uruguay to the 1954 semi-finals, he finally got his move to Milan. And continued that trend.
Eventually moving to centre-forward, Schiaffino scored many a key goal on the way to three Serie A titles as well the strikes that put a post-Munich Manchester United out of the 1957-58 European Cup and the opener in that season’s final.
It wasn’t enough to interrupt Real Madrid’s run of five European Cups. But then it was also rare that any opposition interrupted Schiaffino’s rhythm.
61. Bobby Moore
Career span 1958-77
Country England: 108 caps, 2 goals
Clubs West Ham United, Fulham
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 1 FA Cup
Alf Ramsey put it pretty plainly.
“Without Bobby Moore, England would never have won the World Cup… he was the spirit and the heartbeat of the team.”
And, as much as the focus has always rightfully been on 1966, it’s often forgotten that team went on for some time. With Moore anchoring the backline and underpinning every attack, England only six times in five years and also reached the semi-finals of Euro 68. Indeed, Moore was central to the side’s most cherished moment. It was during the flight of his sublime, searching pass for Geoff Hurst that some people ran onto the pitch.
The curiosity in his career, however, is not just that Moore only enjoyed a moderate medal haul at West Ham. It’s that it almost cost him a place at 1966. By that summer, Moore was itching to leave East London. But, since he was at that point between contracts, it meant he was technically ineligible for a Fifa competition. So, for the good of England, Ramsey forced Moore and West Ham manager Ron Greenwood into the same room and got them to sort out the situation.
The result, of course, brought Moore’s country their greatest triumph. But it arguably cost him a more success-laden club career.
Nevertheless, Moore’s personal performances within West ham’s mid-table struggles should not be underestimated. Although he was neither the fastest nor the most forceful in the air, he overcame all of that with startling speed of thought. As Jock Stein once exasperated, “there should be a law against him. He knows what’s happening 20 minutes before everyone else.”
And it also ensured he was a few levels above almost every other defender in history.