40. Lothar Matthaus
Career span 1979-2000
Country Germany: 150 caps, 23 goals
Clubs Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayern Munich, Inter, Bayern Munich, MetroStars
Position midfielder, sweeper
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 1 Uefa Cup, 8 domestic titles (7 German, 1 Italy), 2 German cups
Steffen Effenberg had a blank look on his face. Yes, the expression inferred, he was serious. The Bayern playmaker had just been brought in before the club’s hierarchy to discuss how they should discipline Bixente Lizerazu. The left-back had swung a punch at Lothar Matthaus in training.
“Give him a raise,” Effenberg responded.
Certainly, Matthaus has never been popular – either with fans or contemporaries. Known as “loud speaker”, the midfielder always had to give his “two cents” according to his weary former coach Erich Ribbeck. And so irritated did Rudi Voller get with those two cents that he once told Matthaus to “go and talk to the toilet”.
But, then, Matthaus never cared much for popularity. For the majority of his career, he was simply too professional.
When the West Germans faced a storm of criticism for the infamous match against Austria in 1982, the then 21-year-old said “what’s the problem? We won. That’s all that counts.”
And, eight years later, Matthaus gave up the chance for immortality. Although he was Germany’s nominal penalty-taker, he had changed his kicking boot during the final with Argentina and didn’t feel comfortable. So, he let Andreas Brehme step up to enter a group that included Geoff Hurst, Gerd Muller and Jose Burruchaga.
But, in any case, it was also Matthaus’s ultra-professionalism that afforded him a different kind of immortality: a World Cup-winning captain.
Up until the mid ’80s, according to Uli Hesse, Matthaus wasn’t actually that well regarded. He was primarily seen a limited if dogged defensive midfielder. With every season, he did – admittedly – mature. But it wasn’t until he linked up with Giovanni Trapattoni at Inter in 1988 that he made himself into the most complete midfield player in the world.
Manager Franz Beckenbauer saw – and celebrated – the fruits of that in 1990 as Matthaus drove West Germany to the final with four goals and some fearsome displays. It proved the peak of a magnificent period which saw Matthaus reach a European Cup final as well as lift Serie A and the Ballon D’Or. The ego had landed.
Ultimately, though, Matthaus’s professionalism arguably went too far. His dominant nature was eventually to the detriment of club and country. He fell out with Jurgen Klinsmann at Bayern and was dropped for Germany’s Euro 96 squad after an injury-enforced absence that saw Matthias Sammer – and the team – thrive.
But his most infamous moment came in the 1999 Champions League final as he sat stony-faced on the bench while Manchester United completed an unprecedented comeback. Matthaus’s old rival Effenberg claimed it was because he merely wanted to enjoy the applause.
“We were 1-0 up and only had to see the game through to full-time. If you’re the libero, how can you go off? I’d have needed a broken leg to do that.”
Ultimately, the European Cup was the only major trophy to elude Matthaus. But he had been truly influential in winning everything else.
Career span 1998-
Country Brazil: 90 caps, 32 goals
Clubs Gremio, Paris St Germain, Barcelona, Milan
Position attacking midfielder
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 Copa America, 1 Champions League, 2 Spanish titles, 1 Brazilian domestic title
Given that Ronaldinho was one of the most important players in a World Cup win, and the key influence in a Champions League victory, it may seem churlish to argue that he wasted his talent.
But not if you consider how good he was at his peak.
From the middle of 2003 to the middle of 2006, Ronaldinho was often unplayable and always spectacular. But he was also hugely productive. The sheer consistency of his quality at that time was remarkable.
A perfect example was the 2006 Champions League semi-final that eventually helped end Barca’s 14-year wait for a second title. With Milan’s famous defence restricting space and interrupting Frank Rijkaard’s usual passing game, Ronaldinho effortlessly beat two defenders and lofted a glorious pass for Ludovic Giuly to score.
If not quite as utterly astounding as some of his shots and runs in this time, it was every bit as exquisite and even more effective.
The problem, however, was that Ronaldinho was already sliding a month after that match. Having been at the peak of his powers and entering the usual prime of a career, the 2006 World Cup should – by right – have been Ronaldinho’s. Instead, it only saw the kind of lethargic, bloated displays that characterised the rest of his career.
Even his hugely impressive 2002 World Cup was out of synch with a period in which he was generally erratic and inconsistent for Paris St Germain. In effect, Ronaldinho only truly, properly applied his abilities between 2003 and 2006; his peak passing him by at the mere age of 26.
For a player of that much talent, it certainly seems a waste.
38. Jose Manuel Moreno
Career span 1935-61
Country Argentina: 34 caps, 19 goals
Clubs River Plate, Club Espana, River Plate, Universidad Catolica, Boca Juniors, Defensor, Ferrocarril Oeste, Independiente Medellin
Medals 3 Copa America, 9 domestic titles (5 Argentine, 2 Colombian, 1 Mexico, 1 Chile)
Until the emergence of luminaries like Alfedo Di Stefano, Obdulio Varela and Pele, Jose Manuel Moreno seemed to stand apart as South America’s greatest ever player.
Sure, his River Plate team Adolfo Pedernera might have challenged him for that title, but the playmaker didn’t quite dominate either their teams’ forward line or South American football in general like the way the forceful Moreno did.
The bulkily-built attacker – whose presence was complemented by an admirable finesse – formed part of the famous ‘La Maquina’ River Plate forward line along with Pedernera, Angel Labruna, Juan Carlos Munoz and Felix Loustau. Together, they won three Argentine titles to add to Moreno’s existing two, before the striker took his abilities to the international stage. In every sense.
First, he was the star performer as the widely celebrated Argentine team of the ’40s won three out of four Copa Americas under Guillermo Stabile. In 1943 Moreno was top scorer – hitting five goals in one match – and in 1947 he was player of the tournament.
Then, he became the first player in history to win domestic titles in four different countries: with Mexico’s Club Espana, Chile’s Universidad Catolica and Colombia’s Independiente Medellin.
Had he got to participate at a World Cup, then his legend might be even greater. But, either way, Moreno dominated every competition he could in his time.
Career span 1985-2009
Country Brazil: 70 caps, 55 goals
Clubs Vasco da Gama, PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona, Flamengo, Valencia, Flamengo, Valencia, Flamengo, Vasco da Gama, Fluminense, Al-Sadd, Fluminense, Vasco da Gama, Miami, Adelaide United, Vasco da Gama, America
Medals 1 World Cup, 2 Copa America, 1 Copa Mercosur, 5 domestic titles (3 Holland, 1 Spain, 1 Brazil), 2 Brazilian state championships, 2 Dutch cups
When in the right mood and in the right formation, there’s arguably never been a forward as reliable, ruthless or simply riveting as Romario.
A case in point was the 1994 World Cup. Despite playing in one of the most functional Brazilian teams in history, it was Romario’s finesse and exhilarating partnership with Bebeto that still made them fascinating to watch. The Rio-born striker scored five goals in seven games, with two of them game-changers in the quarter-final and semi-final.
At 28 years of age and the very peak of his career, Romario was enjoying a fearsome spell. Having devastated the Dutch league with an average of a goal a game, he was then top scorer for Barcelona during a season in which they retained the Spanish title and reached the final of the Champions League.
Michael Laudrup said “no-one else could utilise my passes the way he did”. While Johan Cruyff went further.
“Romario was a footballer who could do everything, a real quality player. His passing and scoring were very good, he was skilled in one-on-ones… a genius of the goal area”.
The only issue was that Romario was apparently part of a generation of hugely gifted Brazilian forwards who were a little too willing to enjoy the fruits of those gifts.
As Cruyff also argued, “he lacked discipline and that was one of the problems we had to deal with”. His second – and last – season at Camp Nou only saw four goals in 13 games – a worrying dip that was in stark contrast to the excellence that had gone before.
In all of that, there were more than a few parallels with Ronaldinho. For all their ability and achievements, the feeling remains they didn’t quite get the balance between the two right in the long run.
36. Mario Coluna
Career span 1954-72
Country Portugal: 57 caps, 8 goals
Clubs Benfica, Lyon
Position attacking midfielder
Medals 2 European Cups, 10 Portuguese titles, 6 Portuguese cups
Because of the nature of his game and the number of goals he scored, it has always been Eusebio that has been most identified with the great Benfica team of the ’60s. But, in truth, it was Coluna that completely underpinned it.
For a start, Eusebio wasn’t even at the club for the first European Cup victory in 1961. Second, he had scored game-changing goals in both that and the 1962 showpiece. To finish, Benfica probably would have won three in a row had it not been for the cynical manner that Milan specifically took Coluna out of the game in the 1963 final when there were no subs.
Had that not been the case, then Coluna might enjoy an even greater reputation now. Certainly, he deserves to. A contemporary of Nandor Hidegkuti, Raymond Kopa and Didi, manager Bela Guttmann realised that Coluna’s abilities were perfectly suited to the new playmaker role that recently proven so devastating.
And, more importantly, Coluna was fully willing to assume the responsibility. In a truly dynamic team, it was Coluna that directed the play, Coluna that drove in so many crucial long-range shots and Coluna that set up Eusebio so frequently.
They eventually took that relationship to the international stage, bringing Portugal to the 1966 World Cup semi-final and their best ever performance in the competition. As Brian Glanville wrote, Coluna was “an inspired and inspirational captain”.
Career span 1959-74
Country Brazil: 70 caps, 14 goals
Clubs Flamengo, Botafogo, Sao Paulo, Fluminense
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 Brazilian title, 6 Brazilian state championships
In the team that reached a higher level of play than any other in history, it was Gerson that set the pace and the tone. Indeed, he was so influential in 1970 that playmakers of the calibre of Roberto Rivelino and Tostao had to be accommodated around him.
Gerson himself, however, seemed to find sufficient space against any opposition – most notably the final itself. By spraying so many of his specific passes around and then scoring the game’s key goal with a fulminating drive to make it 2-1 on 66 minutes, the midfielder was named man of the match against Italy.
And he was already one of the players of the decade in Brazil, having fitted in seamlessly to a star-studded and successful Botafogo side.
Although blighted by injuries, Gerson was one of the finest passers the game has seen. And, as such, very few players ever passed him by.
34. Hristo Stoichkov
Career span 1981-2003
Country Bulgaria: 83 caps, 37 goals
Clubs Zavod, Hebros, CSKA Sofia, Barcelona, Parma, Barcelona, CSKA Sofia, All-Nassry, Kashiwa Reysol, Chicago Fire, DC United
Position striker, winger
Medals 1 Champions League, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 8 domestic titles (5 Spanish, 3 Bulgarian), 5 domestic cups (4 Bulgarian, 1 Spanish), 1 Asian Cup Winners Cup
It’s saying something when you’re described as a “key player” in Barcelona’s history and the “missing piece of the jigsaw” in their most historic moment. That, however, is what Jimmy Burns writes of Hristo Stoichkov in his landmark history of the club.
Certainly, there’s no arguing with his sense of timing. And not just in terms of his forceful runs and crucial strikes. When Stoichkov arrived at Camp Nou in 1990, he may have won the European Golden Boot with 38 goals in 30 games for a dominant CSKA Sofia side, but Barcelona hadn’t won a title in five years and still hadn’t lifted the European Cup.
All that was to change. And largely because of the different approach Stoichkov brought to the squad.
“Before Stoichkov,” Johan Cruyff argued, “we had a team of very nice people. You need someone like him who is aggressive in a positive way, and can pass this aggressiveness on to other players… He goes for the ball and when he gets the ball he shoots. There are other players who might wait and see… but he just went and hit it.”
Certainly, there was a dynamism to Stoichkov’s sheer directness. Dynamo Kyiv and Benfica bore the brunt of it, in particular, as Barcelona finally won the European Cup in 1992.
The Bulgarian wasn’t afraid to step on people’s toes. Literally. He was suspended during one Spanish season for stamping on a ref’s. More often, though – just as Cruyff predicted – Stoichkov’s aggression came out in positive ways.
And never more so than USA 94. Along with Roberto Baggio, Romario and Dunga, Stoichkov was one of the tournament’s dominant players. But, when placed in the context of their countries’ histories, Stoichkov’s performances were arguably the furthest reaching. Because while both Brazil and Italy were battling for their fourth titles, Bulgaria had never even won a match in the competition. Just like with Barcelona, that was all to change.
Stoichkov won the Golden Boot with six goals to send Bulgaria to the semi-finals. One of his finishes was a glorious breakaway against Mexico in the second round, another a high-pressure, high-quality free-kick to equalise against defending champions Germany in the quarters.
Because Stoichkov was so much more than a striker. Again, as Cruyff described, his attitude and ability simply infused the rest of the team with energy.
Ultimately, his own over-spilled. His personal performances in Euro 96 marked a rare high on a career that was on the way down. But then Stoichkov had reached – and stayed – at the very top.
33. Paul Breitner
Career span 1970-83
Country West Germany: 48 caps, 10 goals
Clubs Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich
Position left-back, midfielder
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 1 European Cup, 7 domestic titles (5 Germany, 2 Spain), 3 domestic cups (2 Germany, 1 Spain)
Paul Breitner sat on his bed, bag packed, fully prepared to take a remarkable step.
As the 1974 West German squad threatened to rip itself apart over team authority and bonus payments, the disgusted manager Helmut Schoen had specifically named Breitner as a ringleader. And all of Gunter Netzer, Wolfgang Overath, Gerd Muller and Uli Hoeness were now trying to talk the tempestuous young left-back around.
In the end, a kind of peace of restored. And, for the Germans, it was just as well.
Because, in the 25th minute of the final, Breitner was prepared to take another remarkable step that no-one else would. Although Bernd Holzenbein had gone over in the box to give the Germans a lifeline against the dominant Dutch, they had no set penalty-taker. Gerd Muller had missed a few in the Bundesliga while many other key figures were reluctant.
So Breitner, then just 22, assumed the responsibility. He scored and the equaliser, as the left-back has put it himself, “activated a turbo in our team”.
The contrasting vignettes are typical of Breitner: a notoriously liberal free spirit who was still blessed with the individualist will and determination of a born winner. Not to mention an awful lot of technical quality. Strong, fluid and with a fulminating strike, Breitner later adapted his game to become an influential central midfielder.
All of that character and quality ensured that, for all his contradictions, Breitner was a cornerstone of a series of overachieving sides: Real Madrid of the late ’70s, Bayern of the mid ’70s, West Germany 1972-74 and 1982. And, in each team, he always stepped up.
32. Luis Suarez
Career span 1953-73
Country Spain: 32 caps, 14 goals
Clubs Deportivo, CD Espana Industrial, Barcelona, Inter, Sampdoria
Position attacking midfielder, forward
Medals 1 European Championship, 2 European Cups, 1 Fairs Cup, 5 domestic titles (3 Italy, 2 Spain), 2 Spanish cups
One of the curiosities of Spanish football is that, despite producing so many elite club sides, they never quite did the same with players. Between the pre-war era of Pepe Samitier and the all-conquering current generation, they’ve barely had a superstar worthy of the title.
Sure, all of Emilio Butragueno, Raul, Miguel Munoz and Francisco Gento were world-class players. But they mostly decorated teams rather than defined them.
And, certainly, they never quite commanded attention like the one exception to all of that: Luis Suarez.
A “creative inside forward and superb organiser” in the words of Jimmy Burns, Helenio Herrera considered Suarez the “legitimate heir” to Alfredo Di Stefano. Indeed, he saw fit to build two teams around him and spend a world-record fee on the playmaker.
Before Suarez went to the San Siro in 1961, he had been the director of a brilliant Barca team that broke all manner of scoring records, won two successive titles and reached a European Cup final. Suarez himself hit an average of two a game.
He wasn’t quite so prolific at Inter. But that’s because he played an altered role in an even more successful side. As Herrera perfected Catenaccio, he relied on Suarez’s passing range to release so many cutting counter-attacks.
In between, too, Suarez was influential in Spain’s sole international success for three decades: the Euro 64 victory. He couldn’t go so far as to improve their World Cup record. But then that was out of step with a genuinely stellar career.
31. Gaetano Scirea
Career span 1972-88
Country Italy: 78 caps, 2 goals
Clubs Atalanta, Juventus
Medals 1 World Cup, 1 European Cup, 1 Uefa Cup, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 7 Italian titles, 2 Italian cups
In a country renowned for producing robust, uncompromising defenders, it is somewhat ironic that one of their finest was the opposite of that. Gaetano Scirea possessed neither particular strength nor stealth. But what he did have was a smart mind and smooth touch that allowed him to snuff out danger easily and create it just as quickly.
A perfect example was the 1982 World Cup final. In the 69th minute, Scirea intercepted a West German attack and strode forward at speed. With the Germans caught, Scirea exchanged a few passes before setting up Marco Tardelli for one of the most famous moments in Italian football history.
The true value of Scirea’s abilities, however, was that he added a different level to Italy’s staid defensive systems. By bringing a touch more fluidity and movement to rigid defensive lines, it was far easier for teams to break. And that provided the platform for Giovanni Trapattoni’s Juventus to conquer all between the late ’70s and mid ’80s. By the end of his career, Scirea had won every available club medal. And that was because he had usually won every possible battle before they had even begun.