50. Raymond Kopa
Career span 1949-67
Country France: 45 caps, 18 goals
Clubs Angers, Stade Reims, Real Madrid, Stade Reims
Position attacking midfielder
Medals 3 European Cups, 6 league titles (4 France, 2 Spanish)
On Raymond Kopa’s last game for Reims in 1956, he played Real Madrid in the European Cup final. And, on his last game for Real Madrid in 1959, he played Reims in the European Cup final.
Talk about symmetry.
But then, the marvelous playmaker in Kopa was usually at the centre of absolutely everything.
Not least the much admired “champagne football” of the Reims team that proved Real’s main rivals in the early years of the European Cup.
“Kopa was the player who symbolised ‘le jeu de la remoise’ – as we called champagne football,” Michel Hidalgo once said. “It was all about passing and fast, technical skills. He was the organiser, [manager] Albert Batteux’s mouthpiece… Kopa was capable of adjusting the tactics during a game and woe betide you if you didn’t play the way he wanted.”
That way was usually Kopa orchestrating play and feeding an array of attackers glorious through-balls. Indeed it was the route through which Just Fontaine set the all-time World Cup scoring record, as Kopa influenced the 1958 tournament more than any other player except Didi, Garrincha and Pele. Unfortunately for Kopa, though, they ensured he would go no further than the semi-final.
But he had already gone so much further. Having lifted Reims to the unmatched heights of the 1956 European Cup final, Kopa then set up the two goals to put the French side into an early 2-0 led. “We just couldn’t stop Kopa, especially early on,” Francisco Gento admitted.
Although that wasn’t enough to actually beat Real that day – as Alfredi Di Stefano then accelerated – Kopa had done enough to join Real Madrid.
In truth, however, although Kopa won three European Cups at the club, Real arguably didn’t see the very best of him. But that was through no fault of his own. With Di Stefano the team’s undisputed kingpin, Kopa was shunted out to the right. And he was forced further wide by the time Ferenc Puskas arrived.
Kopa, however, had more than illustrated he was capable of keeping up with the greatest of all time.
49. Luis Monti
Career span 1921-39
Country Argentina: 16 caps, 5 goals; Italy: 18 caps, 1 goal
Clubs Huracan, Boca Juniors, San Lorenzo, Juventus
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 Copa America, 8 domestic titles (4 Italian, 4 Argentine), 1 Italian cup
The only player in history to have played in World Cup finals for two different teams, losing with Argentina in 1930 but winning with Italy in 1934.
Monti, however, was one of a kind in other manners too. An attacking centre-half – or, perhaps, a defensive-midfield director in modern terms – his nickname was ‘double wide’ due to his coverage of the pitch. But he often combined outright aggression with ability and endurance.
A large factor in Argentina’s run to the 1930 final was Monti taking out more than one French attacker with “ferocious” tackles, as Brian Glanville described it. Such was his importance that there was even talk he had been threatened with death in the build-up to the showdown with host nation Uruguay. Whatever the truth, he had an unusually subdued final as Argentina lost 4-2. The team couldn’t complete an otherwise exceptional era in which they had also won the South American championship.
Monti’s performances, nevertheless, were still enough to earn him a move to Juventus, where he formed a key part of the club’s most successful period – winning four successive Italian titles. And that team – with Monti as its backbone – formed the spine of Italy’s 1934 success, providing no less than nine players to the final.
Even amid so many teammates, though, the Argentina remained unique.
48. Mattias Sindelar
Career span 1924-39
Country Austria: 43 caps, 27 goals
Clubs Austria Vienna
Medals 1 Austrian title, 5 Austrian cups
One of football’s great tragedies. But, at the least, Sindelar inspired so much triumph.
Certainly, the good died young. After the annexation of Austria in 1938, Sindelar had hardly been a Nazi supporter. He refused to put up their posters, danced in front of their top-ranking officials as he inspired a defeat of Germany in the same year and, finally, refused to play for the unified team.
But then, in the first month of 1939, he was found dead in his apartment with his girlfriend. Doubt remains as to whether it was accidental gas poisoning, suicide or murder.
No doubt remains, however, as to whether Sindelar was deserving of every single tributes flooded in. As the Austrian coffee-house writer elaborated, “he was endowed with such an unbelievable wealth of variations and ideas that no one could never really be sure which manner of play was to be expected. He had no system, to say nothing of a set pattern. He just had… genius.”
He also had a huge effect on the tactical development of the game. Sindelar was one of the first centre-forwards to drop back into midfield, preceding Nandor Hidegkuti. As well as causing havoc with opposition defences, it completed Austria’s so-called ‘Danubian Whirl’. In the early ’30s, Sindelar ensured they were probably the greatest team in the world.
“He would play football as a grandmaster plays chess,” writer Alfred Polgar argued. “With a broad mental conception, calculating moves and countermoves in advances, always choosing the most promising of possibilities.
Of course, the most promising was usually him dribbling towards goal. Sindelar’s technique was flawless.
The pity, perhaps, is that both he and the team were past their best by the 1934 World Cup. Although it didn’t help that he had effectively been kicked out of the semi-final by Luis Monti.
At his peak, though, Sindelar had usually evaded every challenge.
47. Valentino Mazzola
Career span 1939-49
Country Italy: 12 caps, 4 goals
Clubs Alfa Romeo, Venezia, Torino
Position attacking midfielder
Medals 5 Italian titles, 2 Italian cups
When news came through that the Torino plane had crashed at Superga in 1949, so great was the desire that Valentino Mazzola – above all else – had survived that many false stories spread that he had missed the flight.
Such was his effect on the Italian population. Let alone his teams. Prior to Torino, Mazzola had been influential in lifting lowly Venezia to the Coppa Italia and third in the league.
“He alone is half the squad,” Torino teammate Mario Rigamonti argued, “the other half is made by the rest of us together.”
And, certainly, Mazzola had some effect on them. On the rare occasions that Torino were struggling, he would famously roll up his sleeves and shout ‘go!’ A dramatic comeback usually followed. But they themselves were usually orchestrated by Mazzola’s own prodigious ability. Devastating all-round play was often finished by a thunderous shot.
The only caveat to Mazzola’s career is that he never truly translated his club form to Italian performances. But then he had already been the centre-point of one of the greatest teams the globe had ever seen. With Mazzola as the motor, Torino won five titles and set still-standing records in Italian football.
46. Sepp Maier
Career span 1962-79
Country West Germany: 95 caps
Clubs Bayern Munich
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 3 European Cups, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 4 German titles, 4 German cups
“There’s no need to make a daring leap,” Sepp Maier once said, “if you’re standing in the right place to begin with.”
Certainly, Maier very rarely got his positioning wrong. If German football epitomised reliability from the early ’70s on, it was the goalkeeper who personified it.
But that’s not to say he wasn’t capable of the daring. Quite the contrary given his athleticism and agility. And that was most evident in the 1974 World Cup effective play-off against Poland. With Grzegorz Lato and co absolutely pummelling the German goal, it was only Maier that kept the score at an undeserved 1-0 to the home side. As Franz Beckenbauer rightfull argued, “without Sepp we would never have won the World Cup”.
Of course, thanks to players like Beckenbauer, Maier himself won so much more. And, naturally, there was some degree of fortune to keep goal in two sides so exquisitely good. Notoriously, he once spent an entire match chasing after a duck that had flown onto the pitch while Bayern Munich absolutely battered Bochum.
But, otherwise, Maier more than played his part by never letting his own level drop.
45. Bobby Charlton
Career span 1956-76
Country England: 106 caps, 49 goals
Clubs Manchester United, Preston
Position midfielder, forward
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Cup, 3 English titles, 1 FA Cup
Given Bobby Charlton’s quietly dignified, patriarchal image at this point, it can be easy to forget just what a devastating, penetrative attacking player he was in his youth.
On initially making his name, Charlton was known for his sensational dribbling ability and speed. On then breaking so many records, he was celebrated for the outrageous range of his passing and the emphatic power of his shots.
Most of all, though, he should be revered for his moral courage. Charlton had already established himself as one of the Busby Babes’ most promising players by the time he saw so many of his young teammates die in Munich. The team was cruelly taken away just at the time they looked to be accumulating the experience necessary to properly challenge Real Madrid. Indeed, Charlton earned much admiration from Alfredo Di Stefano and co for his performance in the previous season’s semi-final between the two teams.
Remarkably, he emerged from the wreckage of Munich relatively unscathed physically. But there were many mental scars. Indeed, they arguably drove the rest of his career.
Along with Bill Foulkes, Charlton’s resolve helped Matt Busby rebuild Manchester United. Within five years, he was the focal point of a team again challenging for the game’s major honours. Within 10, he had scored the opening and closing goals in a European Cup final – adding an emotional symmetry to an iconic occasion.
And in between all of that, of course, Charlton was driving England’s greatest ever national side. His finest international moment came in the 1966 semi-final, where he – again – outshone Eusebio with the two goals that vanquished Portugal. But, of the final itself, Franz Beckenbauer said “England beat us because Charlton was just a bit better than me.”
Many players of the time knew the feeling.
44. Gunter Netzer
Career span 1963-77
Country West Germany: 37 caps, 6 goals
Clubs Borussia Monchengladbach, Real Madrid, Grasshopper
Position attacking midfielder
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 4 domestic titles (2 German, 2 Spain), 3 domestic cups (2 Spain, 1 German)
The German national team’s crowning moment may have come in the 1974 World Cup, when the team confirmed their place as one of the most all-conquering of all time. But it wasn’t their peak.
That came two years earlier in the European Championships. And, for once, it wasn’t primarily driven by Franz Beckenbauer.
The star was undoubtedly Gunter Netzer.
On frequent occasions during the quarter-final against England at Wembley, the partisan crowd broke into applause at the sheer excellence of the midfielder’s play. As Uli Hesse wrote in Tor!, Netzer was simply “overpowering”.
At the peak of his game in the early ’70s, Netzer orchestrated Germany’s greatest ever international side and one of the Bundesliga’s most exciting ever club teams.
To a degree, both Netzer and Beckenbauer defined the two dominant strands of German football in the 70s: effervescence and efficiency. Beckenbauer was seen as a “vain star”, Netzer the “mythic rebel”.
Part of that, of course, was down to his personality and playing style. “Other images,” Hesse wrote, “supplement this picture. Netzer at the wheel of his Ferrari, Netzer arm in arm with his beautiful girlfriend. It should be no surprise, then, that he captured the imagination.”
And he certainly did on the pitch. Netzer’s range-finding passes, fulminating strikes and driving runs all contributed to the image of a glamorous playmaker. Most famously of all, despite grieving the death of his mother and despite having just signed for Real Madrid, he came off the bench in the 1973 German cup final to score the winner against Koln. It capped a glorious period at Borussia Monchengladbach that only really lacked a European Cup.
Netzer wouldn’t win the competition at Real Madrid either. And, even by then, there was the argument that his rebellious image had already robbed him of a potentially better career.
In truth, he wasn’t actually a rebel. More a complex individualist. As he said himself, “I guess I really was a bit spoiled. Many things had come too easily, my self-confidence was astonishingly great.” And, later: “personally, training camps used to make me wonder whether I ought to pack football in.”
He may as well have done so for the 1974 World Cup. Manager Helmut Schoen barely played him, preferring the more positionally responsible Wolfgang Overath.
Through that, Netzer missed a famous win over Holland. But he had already established his own legend by inspiring many others. The wonder is that there just might have been more.
43. Nilton Santos
Career span 1948-64
Country Brazil: 75 caps, 3 goals
Medals 2 World Cups, 3 Brazilian state championships
For reasons off the pitch, Nilton Santos is one of the most influential figures in Brazilian football history. Known as “the encyclopaedia” because of his deep knowledge of the game, it was he who lead a player delegation to Vicente Feola in 1958 and implored the coach to start Pele and Garrincha in the crucial group game against USSR.
But Santos proved just as influential on the pitch. Solid in defence and scintillating in attack, his all-round abilities were integral to Brazil developing the 4-2-4 system – with overlapping full-backs – that won their first two World Cups in 1958 and 1962. That range was exemplified in the 1958 group game against Austria, when Santos picked the ball up in his own half, dribbled past a series of defenders and crashed the ball into the net.
For such influence, he was named in the team of the tournament. And he is undoubtedly in Brazil’s team of all time. Which is saying even more than his own words to Feola.
42. Tarcisio Burgnich
Career span 1958-77
Country Italy: 66 caps, 2 goals
Clubs Udinese, Juventus, Palermo, Inter, Napoli
Position right-back, sweeper
Medals 1 European Championship, 2 European Cups, 5 Italian titles, 1 Italian cup
Rather simply, Tarcisio Burgnich was known as “the rock”. And, unlike some of football’s quaint old nicknames, there’s rarely been one so apt. Burgnich was, essentially, a formidable presence that opposition attackers found very difficult to get around or by. He effectively set the template for the Italian defensive stereotype: uncompromising and unforgiving.
One story has it that, in the middle of a Serie A game, Luigi Rova knocked his teeth out. Unmoved, Burgnich still faced the striker down. And then spent the rest of the game enacting brutal revenge… but still embraced him afterwards.
Fittingly, “the rock” proved one of the building blocks to two for Italy’s greatest ever teams: the international side of 1968-70 that won the European Championships and got to the final of the World Cup; and Helenio Herrera’s Gran Inter. Of course, not only were they great Italian sides. But also two of the most durable defensive sides. Catenaccio couldn’t have been built on anything less than the likes of Burgnich.
41. Sandor Kocsis
Career span 1943-65
Country Hungary: 68 caps, 75 goals
Clubs Kobanyao, Ferencvaros, Edosz, Honved, Young Fellows Zurich, Barcelona
Medals 1 Fairs Cup, 6 domestic titles (4 Hungary, 2 Spain), 2 Spanish cups
In a 1954 World Cup final that was so full of surprises, one has often been overlooked: Sandor Kocsis didn’t score.
Indeed, had he done what had become routine in his international career, then it is highly likely that Hungary would have crowned four years of glory. Because, throughout that time, Kocsis scored a total of 75 goals in 68 games – more than one a match.
For players with more than 43 international caps, it is the most prolific rate that international football has ever seen (1.1) – even beating Gerd Muller.
Just a pity, then, that one of the few matches he missed in was the most important of his career.
There were, of course, wider reasons to that. And it’s still not to say he was a big-game bottler or anything of the sort. Indeed, his goal ratio again testifies to that. Kocsis scored in every other game of that tournament including two in the hard-fought ‘Battle of Berne’ quarter-final against Brazil. Before then, he had scored a goal a game as Honved dominated Hungarian football. After it, he hit a series of important strikes for Helenio Herrera’s irresistible Barcelona team of the late 50s.
Because of the amount of goals he scored through the air, Kocsis became known as ‘the Golden Head’. But there was so much more to his game than that.
Another game he didn’t score in was the famous 7-3 win over England, leading Jeno Buzanszky to comment that “if he had shown his real form, the result would have been even more cruel”. And yet, Kocsis still offered a series of key passes and assists in that game. As Jonathon Wilson wrote in Inverting the Pyramid, he was one of the “great players of the age” – almost the equal of Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti.
But, in terms of scoring, he had very few equals himself.