Author Archives: Miguel Delaney
When we look back over football history, or indeed our own history with the game, it’s never truly the realities of matches or seasons that we remember. It’s the individual moments. The last-minute winners. The touches of transcendent quality. The shock incidents.
They energise us, excite us and – of course – move us. In truth, such moments are what we follow football for. As Nick Nornby writes in Fever Pitch, real life doesn’t usually provide last-minute winners.
Clearly, some moments are more important than others in the context of a match or season. Some mean more in the long-term. Some are more spectacular. Some more surprising. Some more symbolic. And then some are just unique. Continue reading
So, in attempting to determine the greatest and most historic moments in football history, we looked to distil these qualities.
In a team sport, it can often seem obscene – even absurd – to reward a single player ahead of the collective.
But, equally, every match is no more than an accumulation of individual moments. Games are secured by unlikely saves, defined by timely tackles, unlocked with visionary passes and settled by important strikes.
Some players undoubtedly perform these specific tasks with greater consistency and to a higher quality than others. So, as difficult as it is for any player to perform in isolation, some are clearly more important to glories than their teammates.
Indeed, depending on their position and style, certain players form the building-blocks of great teams, others provide the spine and an elite minority complete teams – lifting them to greater levels.
There can be no denying, for example, that Pele and Garrincha’s irreverent excellence removed a half-century of fear from Brazilian football in 1958. Or that Argentina would not have won the 1986 World Cup without Diego Maradona.
Yet the counterpoint to that, of course, is that the otherwise fixed Argentine formation was specifically designed to maximise his contribution.
It’s the eternal debate in football, really, when it comes to assessing the exact abilities of any player. We see it raging today about Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi and Xavi.
Does the system make the players or do the players make the system?
The answer, naturally, depends on the individual situations but can still usually be found somewhere in between.
Welcome to the very first of what we hope is a regular feature on Football Pantheon. At the end of every season and calendar year, we’ll be attempting to sort the reality from the reputation in order to determine the world’s greatest player of the day.
Although this is something of a change for the website, given that this list is based on the present rather than the past, we feel it is in keeping with the overall style. For a start, the players who are viewed as the best in the world at any one time generally enter football’s pantheon themselves. Secondly, we’ll be attempting to sharpen that view by using methods that are objective and as relevant as possible.
On that note, there are a few caveats to this list. This isn’t merely a ranking of the most talented players of the day. There is little doubt, after all, that – for the moment – Steven Gerrard is a higher-quality midfielder than Eden Hazard. However, there is little point in having Diego Maradona’s ability if you cannot actually apply it regularly or maximise it. A player must have used his quality to a certain effect and to lift the overall performance of his team over an extended period of time.
As such, this list attempts to ascertain the extent of a player’s ability and how well he actually applied it. Application is key.
Alex Ferguson looked on, realising a big lesson was needed here. He had been sitting in the Carrington canteen, chatting away to an old friend but keeping a vigilant eye on the Manchester United youngsters lining up for lunch.
As underage forward Robbie Brady opened his mouth to order, he was suddenly cut off by someone cutting in. Cristiano Ronaldo, just in the door and having just received the 2008 Ballon D’Or, presumed the place in the queue to go with his new prize.
He presumed correctly. Brady stood off.
As the hungry lad walked off, tray in his hands a few moments later than he expected, Ferguson called the young Irishman over.
“Why did you let him in there?”
“Well, you know… it’s Ronaldo boss.”
“You’re here to try take his place son. Don’t let me see you do that again.”
It’s only a little vignette but still one that tells a whole lot about why Ferguson has won what he’s won.
It’s astonishing how close the world came to being denied perfection. Not to mention how fragile the conditions are that foster it in international football.
Three months before Mexico 1970, Brazil gave no indication they were about to produce the most sumptuous tournament performance ever seen. Indeed, they had just been beaten at home by non-qualifiers Argentina after a display that led defender Roberto Perfumo to describe them as “the poorest Brazil I have played against”.
So scared was then coach Joao Saldanha that he dramatically scaled back the team’s attacking approach and publicly admitted he might drop Pele. The actual response, however, was to sack Saldanha and instate Mario Zagallo. The rest, well, made history.
By imposing a loose system designed to let “great, intelligent players play” and “seeing where it takes us”, Zagallo facilitated a wondrous World Cup that transcended the sport itself. Individuals as uniquely talented as Carlos Alberto, Clodoaldo, Gerson, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Tostao and Pele were all integrated in an ideal formation at the very peak of their powers.
Coincidentally, it was another inspired – yet entirely improvised – movement of Zagallo that allowed Brazil the freedom to lift their next most legendary World Cup.
Alex Ferguson was left in no doubt. “In my time as a manager I would say yes, this is the best team I’ve faced.”
But then, on Saturday night at Wembley, the Manchester United manager wasn’t exactly analysing the issue with the most detached viewpoint. His team had just been utterly dismantled by Barcelona. And as he gets closer to the end of his football career, it was a performance that will probably leave as deep an imprint on his memory as that of Real Madrid at Hampden Park near the start of it.
When watching that landmark 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt now though, it is remarkable just how removed the speed and style are from modern football. In fact, they’re almost incomparable. As such, with the debate about the exact position of Pep Guardiola’s team in history reaching new highest, many commentators have complained it’s a futile exercise to try and compare.
And, to a degree, that’s correct. All teams can only ever be products of their own era. Tactical tricks that may have appeared revolutionary in one period may be routine in another. Certain combinations of players that ruled supreme at one stage may have well found themselves routed elsewhere. Indeed, Ferguson saw this with more immediacy than most. His fearsome midfield four of 1999 were rendered outdated by Fernando Redondo’s Real Madrid within less than a year.
As such, it is genuinely futile to try and argue whether one historic side would beat another. The rules, trends and even fitness techniques have all changed far too much.
But one thing never changes: how fully a team dominated their own era.
Since any individual side can only ever be the best in their own time, it is actually possible to compare and contrast how completely they dominated it.