60. Peter Schmeichel
Career span 1981-2003
Country Denmark: 129 caps, 1 goal
Clubs Gladsaze, Hvidovre, Brondby, Manchester United, Sporting, Aston Villa, Manchester City
Medals 1 European Championship, 1 Champions League, 9 domestic titles (5 English, 3 Danish, 1 Portuguese); 4 domestic cups (3 English, 1 Danish), 1 English league cup
Given the exact requirements of their position, goalkeepers can really do little beyond being reactive. As elaborated elsewhere on these pages, they’ve mostly got to maintain focus and deal competently with the action that eventually comes their way. Except, that was, for Peter Schmeichel. Like no other goalkeeper in history, he went beyond the narrow parameters of his position and attempted to impose his personality on general play.
Most obviously, that came through his loud voice and the unyielding demands on whatever defence was in front of him.
Then there was his movement. As well as utterly dominating his area with that intimidating, mobile frame, he wasn’t shy of influencing matters at the other end – most famously in the final minutes of the 1999 Champions League final as his presence caused panic in the Bayern Munich box.
But the main way that Schmeichel went beyond the parameters of his position was by making saves he simply had no right to make. Some of his stops – most notably the star-jumps for one-on-ones – were as spectacular as any strike on goal.
A perfect example was the 1-0 win at Newcastle United in March 1996. The performance has gone down as classic Alex Ferguson character – the sort of will that ensures titles. But the fact is that, had Schmeichel’s level of performance even been 5% less, then United would have been 3- or 4-0 down by half-time.
It was that assurance which also underpinned Denmark’s unprecedented Euro 92 victory, as well as an eventual treble for United.
59. Ruud Krol
Career span 1968-80
Country Holland: 83 caps, 4 goals
Clubs Ajax, Vancouver Whitecaps, Napoli, Cannes
Position left-back, centre-back, defensive midfielder
Medals 3 European Cups, 7 Dutch titles, 4 Dutch cups
So obvious was Ruud Krol’s talent that, even though the young defender had never played left-back when he signed for Ajax as a 19-year-old, Rinus Michels immediately spotted that he would excel in the role. And not just there.
Krol would prove he could perform anywhere across the backline, moving to centre-half and libero. It was from the latter position that he drove Holland’s run to the 1978 World Cup last two, by then the senior player in a second successive final defeat to the hosts.
But he will always be best remembered for his contribution to Ajax. Quick and agile of thought, it was Krol’s explosive runs down the left which provided the side with the extra dimensions and angles that so defined Total Football.
58. Kenny Dalglish
Career span 1969-90
Country Scotland: 102 caps, 30 goals
Clubs Celtic, Liverpool
Medals 3 European Cups, 10 domestic titles (6 English, 4 Scottish), 5 domestic cups (4 Scotland, 1 England), 4 English league cups
The great irony of Liverpool’s glory years is that, despite producing so many world-class teams, they weren’t necessarily filled with world-class players. Very good, dependable pros yes. But not an overload of otherworldly talent.
This was, perhaps, the perfect validation of the philosophy Bill Shankly had ingrained in the club. Football as a form of socialism, the collective over the individual – squads of solid pros combining to produce something that was far greater than the sum of its parts.
But there was – at least – one notable exception. There can be no denying Kenny Dalglish’s sheer class. Nor his historic influence on Liverpool.
As the Lisbon Lions waned, he had already kept up Celtic’s level of quality. And he only lifted Liverpool’s.
Dalglish was a definite, dynamic improvement on the more industrious Kevin Keegan. Indeed, the successive European Cup finals of 1977 and 1978 illustrated the contrast. Whereas Keegan had unnerved Borussia Monchengladbach in the first with his direct running, Dalglish ultimately defeated Club Brugge in the second with his depth of talent.
The chip over Birgir Jensen for the game’s only goal was both sumptuous and evidence of a truly innovative – and cool – talent.
Because, for all his crucial goals at Liverpool, it wasn’t just the end product. It was the leadership, the vision, the range and the sheer influence on games. As Alan Kennedy argued, “he worked hard for everybody… and saw passes and opportunities no-one else would.”
The surprise, however, is that he could never truly bring that level of cohesion to the international stage. And, here, Dalglish doesn’t quite have the excuse of playing in lesser sides – as others in the British Isles do. The Scottish squads which went to the 1974, 1978 and 1982 World Cups were bristling with talent. And, yet, as Brian Glanville wrote of Dalglish’s contribution to the 1982 tournament in The Story of the World Cup, “he was a disappointment yet again”.
Ultimately, though, no single player is so synonymous with the Liverpool team’s glory years.
57. Ruud Gullit
Career span 1979-98
Country Holland: 66 caps, 17 goals
Clubs Haarlem, Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven, Milan, Sampdoria, Milan, Chelsea
Position forward, sweeper, attacking midfielder
Medals 1 European Championship, 2 European Cups, 6 domestic titles (3 Italy, 3 Holland), 2 domestic cups (1 England, 1 Holland)
Once elaborating on his difficult early years at AC Milan, Arrigo Sacchi outlined the building blocks any coach needs to succeed.
Most obviously, there was patience and a willingness for the club to believe in the manager’s vision. But, much more importantly, there was the need for the players to believe in that vision.
Sacchi’s was to win and win in style. And it took a while to get around the minimalist result-based nature of Italian football. With one exception.
“Early on at Milan,” Sacchi explained, “I was greatly helped by Ruud Gullit. Because he had that mentality.”
Given that the club had signed him for a then world-record fee, that’s probably the least Sacchi could expect. Indeed, it was a far cry from Gullit’s early career when Welsh manager Barry Hughes had to convince lowly Haarlem to take a punt and Arsenal manager Terry Neill balked at a fee of £30,000. Within a few years, he was moving for £6m.
But, by then, he had all the attributes you would expect of the most expensive player in the world. As well as mentality, Gullit possessed power, presence and precision. “The perfect blend,” as George Best would say of him. Carlo Ancelotti described him, variously, as a “thoroughbred”, “a barracuda” and “a missile”.
Certainly, you only need to look at his emphatic effect on the most elevated stages: the header in the Euro 88 final, the volley against Steaua Bucharest in the following season’s European Cup final.
The only problem was that such forcefulness of presence and mind always threatened to spill over. By that 1989 final, he was already suffering the injuries that hamper him for the next decade. And his bullishness ensured he fell out with Sacchi and walked out on Holland’s USA 94 squad.
At his peak, Gullit was almost unplayable. But playing at that peak for any extended length of time was always precarious.
56. Sandro Mazzola
Career span 1960-77
Country Italy: 70 caps, 22 goals
Position forward, attacking midfielder
Medals 1 European Championship, 2 European Cups, 4 Italian titles
The anointed one. Because of the fact Sandro Mazzola was only six years old when his famous father Valentino died in the Superga air disaster, there was always a certain expectation attached to his career. But also pressure. And pity.
As a youth, he was always referred to as “poor little Sandro”. Indeed, as he struggled with all the commemorations about Superga – not to mention the controversies caused by his father’s infidelities – he eventually stopped going to them. Leading to more press speculation.
It wasn’t until young Mazzola went to Inter, and came across the necessarily paternalistic management of Helenio Herrera, that he eventually found himself. And what a player he found. Quick, creative, technical and tricky, Mazzola illustrated all of those abilities in the 1964 European Cup final. At the Praterstadion against Real Madrid, he scored the opening and closing goals in a 3-1 win. The first was a strike from the outside of the area, the second a precise finish with the outside of his foot after an evasive run.
Much of Mazzola’s success with Inter – his only club – was down to the management of Herrera. The Argentine understood Mazzola like no-one else – not least where to play him. Herrera positioned him as a forward, unlocking so much of that attacking ability.
Amid the rigid structures of the Italian national team at that time, he didn’t quite enjoy the same influence. A perfect illustration was the stafetta strategy employed by Ferruccio Valcareggi. Unwilling to break Italy’s formation and therefore unable to play two such talented playmakers in Mazzola and Gianni Rivera, the Italian manager would use one per half.
The fact Mazzola eventually played 83 minutes of the 1970 World Cup probably indicates he won that duel. And it wasn’t the only one in a dynamic career.
55. Francisco Gento
Career span 1952-71
Country Spain: 43 caps, 5 goals
Clubs Racing Santander, Real Madrid
Medals 1 European Championship, 6 European Cups, 12 Spanish titles, 2 Spanish cups
No player has won more European Cups, very few have won more domestic league titles and very, very few could run as fast. A champion sprinter in his youth, Francisco Gento offered Real Madrid’s great side an unrivalled acceleration that unravelled so many teams. With a nickname almost as elegant as some of his runs, he was known as La Galerna – the gale.
But there was much more to Gento’s game than sheer speed, as evidenced by his longevity. At the age of 32 he captained Real’s new generation of European Cup winners in 1966 and was the elder statesman in Spain’s then-isolated Euro 64 triumph.
Previously, though, he had proved one of the key components of Real’s Golden Age. Gento provided many a perfect cross for the Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas and enjoyed an almost telepathic relationship with the former. Indeed, by then enjoying a near managerial role in the side, Di Stefano explicitly asked president Santiago Bernabeu to sign Hector Rial in order to get the very best out of Gento. And that was exactly what Real saw.
As well as an average of a goal every three games, as well as a key strike in the 1957 European Cup final and the clincher in 1958.
Career span 1949-69
Country Brazil: 20 caps, 15 goals
Clubs Sport Recife, Vasco da Gama, Atletico Madrid, Palmeiras, America, Toros Neza, San Diego Toros, Portuguesa
Medals 2 World Cups, 5 Brazilian state championships
Vava did little other than score goals. But, when he did, they usually meant an awful lot.
Other than Pele, Paul Breitner and Zinedine Zidane, he is the only player to score in two World Cup finals. In the first, in 1958, he hit the equaliser and strike that put Brazil ahead. In the second, in 1962, he topped off a tournament which also saw him win the Golden Boot. What’s more, he had helped fill the void left by the injured Pele.
It was his exploits in 1958, however, that had already won Vava a transfer to Europe. Having helped a series of Brazilian clubs to state championships with his goals, he attempted to do the same with Atletico Madrid. And, although his personal record was admirable, he was unlucky to be in Spain at a time when Real Madrid and Barcelona had two of their greatest ever teams.
But then, on the international stage, Vava helped complete one of Brazil’s.
53. Roberto Rivelino
Career span 1965-81
Country Brazil: 92 caps, 26 goals
Clubs Corinthians, Fluminense, Al-Hilal
Position attacking midfielder
Medals 1 World Cup, 2 Brazilian state championships, 3 Saudi Arabian titles
“Rivelino was everything I wanted to be as a player,” Diego Maradona once commented. “His dribbling was flawless, his passes perfect and his shots unstoppable. And he did everything with his left foot. It didn’t matter if his right foot was only good to stand on, because there was nothing he couldn’t do with his left. To me it was beautiful.”
The highest praise. And, of course, Rivelino illustrated why on the highest stage. Having only belatedly been found a starting place in a Brazil team that was brimming with his style of creator, he arguably only follows Pele as the name most identified with the excellence of 1970. But, for all the problems he caused the opposition, Rivelino actually solved one for Mario Zagallo. With an off-form Brazil unable to find the right player for the left side of the field, the manager realised Rivelino’s natural inclination to come inside would provide a perfect counterweight to Jairzinho’s surges on the other side. With such iconic sides, of course, there is an eternal debate over whether the quality of the players makes the team or the quality of the team makes the players. There can be little doubt Rivelino falls into the former.
But the irony is perhaps that the 1970 World Cup did make his career. Previously, he had been a fantastic player who tended to fade in games. And he certainly didn’t have the energy to propel Corinthians to any major trophies during his nine-year stint there. For all of his class, the clubs’ fans eventually saw him as an “unlucky charm – a man incapable of leading the team to the titles they yearned for”.
It was only when he had left Corinthians, in acrimony, that he won the first club medals of his career: back-to-back state championships with Fluminense.
In what was perhaps a greater indication of his ability than any medal, however, it was Rivelino who would eventually inherit Pele’s fabled number-10 short.
52. Paolo Maldini
Career span 1984-2009
Country Italy: 126 caps, 7 goals
Position left-back, centre-back
Medals 5 Champions Leagues, 7 Italian titles, 1 Italian cup
When a player spends so long at such a successful club, it can often be difficult to extricate his exact influence in all of those victories. When Kaka arrived at Milan in 2003, however, he soon grasped the reality.
“I realised very quickly that he was exactly the player I’d watched on television, so I wanted to learn his secrets. I found that his strong motivation is simply due to his character. You have to be born that way.”
Much like Ryan Giggs at Manchester United, and Phil Thompson at Liverpool, Maldini imbued in Milan the kind of values that bring victory.
“He’s a true leader,” Gennaro Gattuso argued. “He never raises his voice and never shouts at anyone.”
Of course, such composure ensured Maldini was an almost impeccable defender. And an adventurous. His abrasive sliding tackles and ensuing charges up the line would often bring standing ovations from the San Siro crowd.
But that composure could, occasionally, slip into lack of focus. Ahead of USA 94, the excellent defensive analyst in Jack Charlton sat his Irish squad down in front of a screen and pointed out a series of flaws in Maldini’s game.
“People call him the best in the world but I’m not so sure. Look what happens here,” Charlton said as the squad watched footage of Jurgen Klinsmann holding off Maldini and then getting around him.
It wasn’t the only time. At Euro 96, Maldini endured a torrid time against Karel Poborsky and, in the 2002 World Cup, it was he who missed the header that allowed Korea to score the golden goal.
Certainly, Maldini made more than a few high-profile errors in his career. But he won many more high-profile games.
51. Michael Laudrup
Career span 1981-98
Country Denmark: 104 caps, 37 goals
Clubs KB, Brondby, Juventus, Lazio (loan), Barcelona, Real Madrid, Vissel Kobe, Ajax
Position attacking midfielder
Medals 1 Champions League, 7 domestic titles (5 Spain, 1 Italy, 1 Holland), 2 domestic cups (1 Spain, 1 Holland)
At his very best, Michael Laudrup was arguably an equal for football history’s genuine elite. Indeed it was often said that, although Johan Cruyff was unique, Laudrup was the player who came closest to his style and quality.
As if to give his personal approvals to the comparisons, of course, Cruyff then went and signed Laudrup for Barcelona.
“When Michael plays,” his new manager once said, “it’s like a dream, a magical illusion. No-one in the world comes anywhere near his level.”
Certainly – as Jimmy Burns summed up the Spanish belief at the time – “when Laudrup played well, Barcelona excelled”. Blessed with vision, terrific technique and a devastating change of pace, the Dane was the focal point of the Dream Team – winning four successive domestic titles and, finally, the Champions League.
The single problem was that that talent was only one side of Laudrup’s make-up. As Brian Glanville perfectly summed up, he was “an attacker of tremendous, fluent gifts but slightly suspect temperament.”
In that, Laudrup seemed to personify the fantastic but fragile Danish side of the mid-80s. Indeed, Cruyff had only signed him because of a period of relative failure in Italy. His predecessor Michel Platini, for example, argued at the time that Laudrup was “one of the biggest talents ever and the best in the world on the training pitch, but never used his talent to its full during matches.”
And, on signing for Barcelona, one of the club’s vice-presidents even asked “how can we buy a player who has not triumphed in Italy?”
Laudrup would make that vice-president eat his words. But even Cruyff came to echo them.
“I will not denigrate Laudrup. He was and is a very good player. I myself bought him from Italy when everyone had written off… but he is one of the most difficult players I have worked with. When he gives 80-90% he is still by far the best. But I want 100% and he rarely does that.”
The pity is that, when he did, he was up there with the best. Just not often enough.