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Great Football Players

Wherever football fans meet to talk, maybe in a bar or on a train to the match, the same question will occur again and again: who was the best football player of all time? It’s a question with no measurable answer, and therefore capable of endless argument – do you mean who had the most skill, the most natural ability, or who won the most in their career? How do you compare a striker to a goalkeeper?

There is a problem of geography: European football fans naturally know most about their own leagues or the Champions League, but may only have seen the best Brazilians or African players at the World Cup every four years. Then there is the issue of history: we tend to know the players of our own era, and probably to think of them as the best ever. If we never saw a player in action, we are not going to think of him when someone says “X was the best ever” and we want to disagree. And football is not the same today as in, say, the early 20th century, so how can you compare those who made their living playing in different football environments?

So, recognising the shortcomings of any list, here are some suggestions (in no particular order), to get the argument going:

Pele
Not long ago Pele was most people’s stock answer as the best of all time. Brazil won the World Cup with Pele three times, starting in 1958, and in 1999 he was named by FIFA as one of the two “Players of the Century”. Pele went on to be a great ambassador for football and a United Nations representative for ecology and the environment.

Maradona
The other FIFA “Player of the Century” did not go on to have such an illustrious career after football, but Diego Maradona of Argentina did score the official “Goal of the Century”. It was the one in the World Cup of 1986 which broke England fans’ hearts: Maradona dribbled 60 yards, beating five defenders, to knock England out 2-1. And he scored the other goal (with his hand) as well.

George Best
Perhaps the most naturally gifted player of all time, and certainly one of the most watchable, yet only voted 19th in the official list of the best footballers of the 20th century, George Best finished playing at only 27. Best scored 179 goals in only 11 years for Manchester United, many of them memorable for his balance, speed and control of the ball. As a Northern Irish international, Best was never going to win medals in the European Championship or World Cup, but those who saw him play will remember his unique talent.

Johan Cruyff
In the 1970s the Netherlands went through a golden era with the invention of “Total Football”, and although they lost to West Germany in the 1974 World Cup Final, they were most neutrals’ favourite team and Cruyff, their inspirational captain, was named Player of the Tournament. They had beaten Argentina, East Germany and Brazil in style and had taken football into a new era. The Netherlands never lost a game in which Cruyff scored, and he scored 33 international goals in 48 matches.

Lionel Messi
The only one in this list who could become greater still because he is still playing and only 26, Messi has starred for Barcelona and Argentina as a goalscorer of genius and has already won more competitions and broken more scoring records than can be listed here. Messi is the first player in history to win four “Ballons d’Or” and three “Golden Boot” awards. He could well go on to replace Pele as the undisputed best player of all time.

Franz Beckenbauer
Most of the players mentioned so far were goalscorers, but Beckenbauer was a defender with elegance and style who was also valued for his leadership. Not for nothing was twice European Footballer of the Year Beckenbauer known as “Der Kaiser”, and he led West Germany in three World Cups, appearing for the national team 103 times. Beckenbauer is the only man to win the World Cup as captain and as coach (1974 and 1990). Beckenbauer was highly respected in England for his rivalry and then friendship with England’s 1966 World Cup winning captain, Bobby Moore.

Bobby Charlton
Playing against Beckenbauer in the 1966 World Cup Final was a talented survivor of Manchester United’s 1958 Munich plane crash who should at least be considered in any list of great players. Charlton was one of the best attacking midfielders of all time and a gentleman ambassador for United, England, and football as a sport. He played in four World Cups, and captained the Manchester United team that won the European Cup in 1968. Renowned for his skill, passing and deadly long-range shot, Charlton won the Ballon d’Or in 1966 and played 106 times for his country.

 

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