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Great Footballers

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A footballer executing a superb overhead kick.

A question like 'Who is the greatest footballer?' has magnitude. It's a bit like asking, 'What's your favourite Beatles' song?' Where do you begin? Of course, you might not like The Beatles. Equally, you might not like football1. But the point is, an awful lot of people do like football. And The Beatles. But a Fantasy Beatles Line-up's a bit limited, so...

Playing for England (Eng-er-land!)

The first player that comes to mind is the great Geoff Hurst. He scored a World Cup Final hat-trick; for most England fans, he doesn't need to have done anything else to qualify. But England's glories extend beyond one match in the mid-1960s... don't they?

Jimmy Greaves

Today more famous as a TV presenter (thanks to stints as a breakfast TV 'on-the-couch' reviewer of the previous night's television, and as one half of the legendary double-act 'Saint and Greavsie'), Jimmy Greaves scored 44 goals for England in only 57 games. Only Bobby Charlton (49 in 106) and Gary Lineker (48 in 80) scored more, but considerably less efficiently. Famously, Greaves was in the squad but was overlooked (in favour of Geoff Hurst) for the 1966 World Cup Final.

Here is one Researcher's memories of the great man in his prime:

In 1967 Coventry City made it into the top flight of English football, and as a 13 year old I went to watch the elite play.
Tottenham came, bringing with them one James Greaves, stalwart of the English team. He came to take a throw in just in front of me and I leaned over the wall and touched his shoulder, in sheer disbelief. Here was the legendary goal-scorer just in front of me, and he was smaller than me. In my mind he was a giant (you must remember in those days football was not the media circus that exists today, one hour of highlights once a week and England home games, plus the cup final. That was your lot).
He looked round at me, I just shrugged and smiled - then he took his throw in...

Lineker, Shearer...

One of the most outstanding strikers of the late 1980s and early '90s, Gary Lineker was a great ambassador for the game, with an unblemished record as the gentleman of his age - never booked or sent off in a game in over 600 appearances and modest too. He equalled the all-time record of England goals scored with Bobby Charlton - 49 with 80 caps!

He's currently trying to save his home town club (Leicester) from going into administration while balancing his successful TV career as football commentator, team captain on the lighthearted sports panel game They Think It's All Over and mascot for a certain brand of crisps. Self deprecating, versatile and a man of the people, surely he is a contender for greatest ever England captain?

Fans of Newcastle United might disagree...

Alan Shearer has to be one of the Greatest British footballers in the past decade. He has that heads-down, no-nonsense air and he has never let any team down. If there has been a greater English striker in the past ten years (apart perhaps from Gary Lineker) I haven't noticed. Anyway I've supported Newcastle since I was seven so this kind of figures.

Shackleton, Clough, Lofthouse...

2-1 up against Arsenal, he dribbled the ball into the Arsenal penalty area and then stopped, put his foot on the ball, checked his watch and then combed his hair!
Why? Because he could!

Len Shackleton should certainly receive a mention here simply because of the audacity of leaving a blank page in his autobiography dedicated to what he believed the Directors know about football. It was a feeling shared by Brian Clough (who, for his autobiography, claimed that if his own publishers would have let him, he'd have left a whole black chapter).

Cloughy's first 200 league goals took him only 219 games, a prolific scoring rate that has never been matched. To this day, Clough is rankled by the fact that despite his prolific league form, he only managed two (scoreless) caps for England before a knee injury ended his playing career and his chance to win more, on Boxing Day in 1962.

And who could forget Nat 'The Lion' Lofthouse - the archetypal old-fashioned English centre-forward, who, in battering-ram fashion, scored 30 goals in repayment for his 33 England caps. His whole career was spent with Bolton, who he captained to FA Cup Final success against Man Utd in 1958, scoring along the way by bundling the ball and the 'keeper over the line.

Duncan Edwards

None of the other players so far nominated would have left as much behind if they'd died as young. Duncan Edwards made his First Division debut (at 16) for Manchester United against Cardiff City in April 1953. Though brilliant at left-half, Edwards had the ability to play anywhere, even turning out as centre-forward in an emergency. Edwards played his last game on February 5, 1958, and had fewer than five full seasons in League football. Yet many fans can still remember the artistry, the sportsmanship, the apparent happiness every time he walked on the pitch. He never put a foot wrong until he got on the plane home, dying at 21 of injuries received in that tragic crash in Munich. In his home town there's a pub named after him, a statue and a stained glass window, and there hasn't been anything to touch him on the England left since

Bill 'Dixie' Dean!

Bill Dean - known as 'Dixie' - was another man who could easily claim to be the best player of his generation anywhere in the world. The pride of Everton FC (whose history is often overshadowed by their neighbours across the park, Liverpool). Probably the most significant thing about Dean was that he is the highest goal scorer in English League history with 60 goals in one season2. This is a record which has lasted over 70 years3. It's fair to say he was instrumental in Everton's title successes of the 1920s and 1930s, and was a good promoter of the club in his later years. He died at Goodison park in 1980 after an Everton v Liverpool Derby.

Billy got the nickname 'Dixie' from his dark skin and thick black curly hair, and unsurprisingly for the times - and considering the amount of racism still prevalent in the game today - it was not a nickname he cared for at all. In 1932, Everton were playing at Spurs in front of over 50,000 people in the old First Division. Everton won a throw in and Billy jogged over to take it. As he picked the ball up someone in the crowd shouted 'Wait 'till after the game, then we'll get you, you ni**er ba***rd!'.

This emanated from a large bank of fairly packed Spurs terracing. A nearby policeman was going to go into the crowd to arrest the man when Billy said 'No officer, I'll deal with this.' Billy then stepped into the Spurs crowd and knocked the man out with one punch. He emerged back onto the pitch to take the throw-in with a mighty roar of approval from the Spurs fans.

Eric Cantona eat your heart out!

Here are some more incredible statistics:

  • 60 league goals in one season (1927-28) and 100 goals scored overall that year, including seven hat-tricks.

  • 100 league goals scored before he was 21, 200 league goals in 199 games by the time he was 23.

  • 349 league goals for Everton

  • 37 hat-tricks in his career.

  • 16 international caps, scoring 18 goals.

  • In the 1929/30 season, Dean scored in 12 successive league matches.

  • Highest scorer of goals in Merseyside Derby matches with 19.

  • He averaged 0.94 goals a game: 473 goals in 502 matches.

  • Bill Dean is the only English player ever known to walk off after a England v Scotland game to a standing ovation at Hampden - he was that good.

All this despite sustaining serious injuries from a motorcycle accident at the age of 19, only shortly after joining Everton.

Finally, at the height of his goalscoring, the marking was getting ridiculous. So much so that, so the legend goes, during one match Dixie ran off the field during play. His marker asked him where was he going and Bill replied 'For a pee. You coming or what?'.

The Greatest of All Englishmen...

Widely regarded as one of English football's finest of his or today's generation, Sir Stanley Matthews (1 February, 1915-23, February 2000) was Stoke City's most famous footballing legend. He served with the RAF stationed in Blackpool during WWII (a town whose team he would later join). Known as the 'First Gentleman of Football,' like Lineker he earned the admirable feat of never having been booked or sent off in a match. Professional since the age of 17, he was a quick-footed, astute outside-right given his perfect sense of balance at timing, his twenty yard runs down the wing would quite often leave his opponents reeling. Given his prodigious talent, he never actually earned more that 50 pounds a week (excepting bonus) in those salary capped days.

In 1948, he moved to Blackpool where on 2 May, 1953, at Wembley, he won the FA Cup in what became famously known as the 'Matthews Cup Final.' 3-1 down to Bolton Wanderers with less than 25 minutes left to play, Matthews set up two of the three goals for teammate Stan Mortensen to score his hat-trick for Blackpool to win 4-3 with seconds to spare, but it was Matthews who was carried off the field!

At the age of 41 in 1956, he became the first ever European Player of the Year, and, in 1965, Matthews became the first ever professional footballer to be knighted. In 1961 at age 46, he returned to a struggling Stoke (on the back of criticism from sports' writers that he was past his best) who were struggling at the foot of Division Two with waning crowds of about 4,000. But upon his return to the Potteries (Stoke's home ground), crowds picked up again to 30,000 and helped elevate his home team to eighth by the end of the season. The following year, they were promoted to England's top flight! One singular feature about Sir Stanley the player was his ability to bring in the crowds. One match at Maine Road, Manchester, brought in a record of 84,569 people (still a provincial record!). Even in his forties, the Stoke fans still flocked to see him!! More than 35,000 witnessed his retirement match at Stoke in 1965. He also achieved 54 caps for England.

An ever-modest player in an age when he didn't have the intense media coverage to get word across about his talent, he let his football do the talking and the fans responded.

Or Perhaps Not...

If they're honest, the English sometimes like their heroes to be... well, a bit rubbish. Not for them the infallible, high-scoring sportsman. No, they prefer them to be raging alcoholics with troubled love lives and a history of embarrassing appearances on chatshows. According to one Researcher, memories of Chelsea and Sunderland player Gareth Hall still sends shudders around the 'Stadium of Light' faithful.

Faster than a speeding thing that had stopped and was looking idly the other way, and harder in the tackle than a puddle, Hall amazed everybody with his amazing techniques, ably described as: 'wait until the striker is in the area, then pull him down in a sumo-esque maneuver', the 'oh s*** I've lost him again' and 'if I just put my arms out, everything will be alright'. His nomination for 'greatness' comes simply on the premise that he made everyone else look good, and is therefore a benefactor to the modern game.

Le Monde est Bleu

When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think that sardines will be thrown into the sea...

The French generally regard Michel Platini to be their greatest ever player (though apparently, old Zizou4 is currently vying for that revered place in the Gallic collective consciousness). Then there's Jean-Pierre Papin (commonly referred to as JPP), who did the business for Marseille in the early 1990s, but tends to be overlooked at the international level as, at the time, France (along with England) didn't exactly light up the stage at that level in those days.

But for non-French fans, for the title of Greatest French Footballer, many would argue a case for the enfant terrible and master of the avant-garde philosophical soundbite, Eric Cantona. He was the mercurial Frenchman whose inspirational performances in midfield surely contributed to Manchester United's return to trophy-winning ways, winning the Premiership title in his first season with the club (1992/93). Coming to a team full of gifted individuals, Cantona was the conductor that made them play to the same tune. He'd achieved pretty much the same thing at Leeds United the previous season, winning the last ever old Division 1 title in his first and only season at Elland Road.

Collar turned up, back straight, chest out, he glided into the arena as if he owned the place. And nowhere more effectively than Old Trafford. This was his stage, he loved it and the crowd loved him.
- Manchester United player Roy Keane on Eric 'Le Roi' Cantona.

Cantona will be remembered for the infamous 'Kung Fu' attack on a Crystal Palace supporter at Selhurst Park on January 25, 1995, which resulted in a lengthy ban and some community service. However, he's solidified his position as modern Renaissance man as a fashion model, poet, artist, actor (both in films from his home country and as the French ambassador in the 1998 movie Elizabeth) and star of a Nike advert that also led to Elvis Presley having his first British No 1 hit in 25 years.

Fussball! Fussball! Fussball!

Besides Franz 'Der Kaiser' Beckenbauer, both West Germany and Bayern München (Munich) needed someone to score. This role was performed by Gerd Müller who helped Beckenbauer make Germany the World champions in 1974. Müller remains West Germany's top-scorer, having notched up 68 goals in 62 games.

In the late 1960s there was another popular German player named Stan Libuda, whose talents inspired the phrase 'An Gott kommt keiner vorbei - außer Libuda' ('Nobody could get past God - except Libuda').

Scotland the Brave!

My dad always eulogises the late Jim Baxter of Glasgow Rangers.

It was against England in 1967 that Jim Baxter audaciously played keepie-uppie on the wing in front of 90,000 people during a match where Scotland defeated the then-World Cup holders England 3-2. Football historian, Bob Crampsey, on a testimonial website set up shortly after Baxter's death, summed up the feelings of all those in the park when he wrote:

That's a defining moment for almost every football fan in Scotland irrespective of where their club allegiance lies.
Baxter going up and down that left wing at no great pace, keeping the ball off the deck with 90,000 people there was phenomenal. England had no idea what to do about it and Baxter was not about to solve that problem for them - it was a wonderful moment. Almost from the word go, he became a cult figure and he achieved almost Messianic status. I would seldom use this word about football, but I think Baxter was loved and loved in the totality.
Fans weren't blind to what others might have seen as faults. They knew he liked a drink, that he liked to stay out late and they knew he wasn't a dedicated pounder of the track, but they liked the package.
I think, more than anything else, that he was the player they would have liked to have been.


Kenny played for Glasgow Celtic until the summer of 1977 when he had the unenviable task of replacing Kevin Keegan at Liverpool. Among the firsts that Kenny achieved are the first player to score 100 goals in Scotland and England and also the first Scot to receive 100 caps. Additionally, he won every domestic trophy both in Scotland and England as well as being the only player-manager (at Liverpool) to win a League and Cup double in England.

30 goals from 102 caps for Scotland, equal with Denis Law (30 from only 55 games).

So, Who's The Best?

Truthfully, when taking into account national and international rivalry, favourite eras and differences in style and economics, it's a question that could never be answered to any definitive level. But one Researcher has collated what he feels could be the greatest fantasy side of all time. So sit back and imagine the team that could ever be brave enough to risk taking this lot on...

Lev Yashin

Goalkeeper Lev Yashin, the Black Panther, kitted out in trademark black, guarded the Russian onion-bag at the 1958, 1962 and 1966 World Cup finals, thrilling one and all with his acrobatics, agility and rare charisma. His finest hour came in 1966 when, leaping around his box like a gymnast on ecstasy, he helped Russia to reach the semi-finals, when Yashin's heroics between the sticks alone prevented the nine-man Russian team from getting completely trounced by the West German steamroller.

Paolo Maldini

Head and shoulders (and glossy hair) above anyone else in this position, Paolo Maldini is considered by many the best attacking full-back in football. A born leader, he has made more international appearances than any other Italian player, and has been picked as part of the Italian Squad at four World Cups (1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002). Whilst he steadfastly and assuredly controls the pace of the game from the left side of defence, it is offensive skills (he has a strong shot and is an excellent crosser of the ball) that set him apart.

Carlos Alberto

Considered by many to be Pelé's personal right-back, Brazilian Carlos Alberto captained the samba-boys to their 'three-peat' World Cup Final success in 1970, scoring in the victory over Italy, marshalling the back-four in a team that many football historians consider to be the greatest of all-time. Like Maldini, his pace and skill meant that he could be an extra attacker, yet still fulfil his defensive duties.

Michel Platini

It seems as though silky-skilled creative midfielder Michel Platini could've thread the ball through the eye of a needle if he'd wanted. This ability, combined with superb ball-control, vision and a penchant for goalscoring makes Platini one of the greatest midfielders in footballing history.

Franz Beckenbauer

Franz Beckenbauer is regarded as one of the greatest players of the modern era. He played key roles in two World Cup triumphs - one as a player (1974), the other as a team manager (1990) - and now he's the chairman of the committee that's already hard at work planning the 2006 World Cup.

But Beckenbauer's significance for football doesn't end there. He was highly influential in the development of modern football tactics. It was Beckenbauer who developed the concept of the libero - the lone free player in a team, not tied to any particular position on the pitch. It's no wonder that 'The Kaiser', as he's affectionately known, is one of the most respected figures in world football.

Bobby Moore

... But I still see that tackle by Moore ...
- Baddiel, Skinner and The Lightning Seeds - Three Lions (song)

Surely the finest English footballer of all time, Bobby Moore was nicknamed 'The Pickpocket' for the perfect timing and precision tackling that enabled him to take the ball off the toes of all and sundry who tried to get past him. Tall, blonde and unflappable in defence, he played at three World Cups, debuting in 1962, winning as captain in 1966, and famously swapping shirts with Pelé after losing 1-0 to Brazil in 1970. Indeed, it was in that England v Brazil match at the 1970 World Cup that Moore made that famous tackle on Jairzhino. Bobby Moore's attitude to defending was to stay on his feet noting that 'You can't tackle when you are on your backside'.


Without Garrincha, I would never have been a three times world champion
- Pelé

Despite his polio-twisted legs, Brazilian Garrincha surely vies only with Argentinian Diego Maradona for a place in history as football's greatest ever dribbler of the ball. But as well as turning defenders inside out with his mazy runs and baffling unpredictable ability, Garrincha is also credited with having perfected the banana-kick.

Born Manuel Francisco dos Santos in Pau Grande, Brazil, on October 28, 1933, he was nicknamed Garrincha - 'The Little Bird'. His legs never recovered straightness (the left one was bent inwards and the right was six centimeters shorter and curved outwards), but that didn't stop him from winning 60 international caps and two World Cup Champion medals (1958 and 1962), suffering only one defeat in his last match (against Hungary) in the 1966 World Cup. His international record is remarkable: P60 W52 D7 L1.

Johan Cruyff

Cruyff was the architect of, and personified Total Football, a peculiarly Dutch brand of tactical football in which all players are all things. Cruyff himself, perhaps the most complete player of all time, was totally at home in a team that are said to have evolved as a result of the Dutch attitude to land use, always making the best use of available space. Although he was man-marked out of the 1974 World Cup Final by West German, Berti Vogts, it is widely accepted that maverick Cruff's total footballing Dutchmen, despite suffering a 2-1 defeat, were the best team and deserved to have taken home the trophy.


Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, is recognised by football fans all over the world as perhaps the greatest player ever. He is the only player to hold three World Cup winner's medals, and he scored in two World Cup finals 12 years apart. His astonishing skills thrilled fans in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and he is one of the main reasons why the Brazilian World Cup-winning team of 1970 is still regarded with reverence, all these years later.

Marco Van Basten

'... an exquisite goal scorer. His balletic qualities belied his outstanding skill ...'
- Rio Ferdinand (England defender)
'There hasn't been a better striker since he retired ...'
- Alan Green (commentator)

The tall ill-fated Dutchman Marco Van Basten had it all; he was complete, on the ground, in the air, for the toe-poke in close and the poke-and-hope from 30 yards. A sensational scorer and fine leader on the pitch, his moment of glory came at Euro '88, which Holland won, Van Basten winning the golden boot and capping off his tournament with an audacious volley against the Soviet Union in the final.

George Best

Did he play on the right or the left? He was a top-class performer. Brilliant.
- Jon Hartson (Welsh striker)
I wouldn't expect him to stay in that position [Outside Left] but you've got to have him in the side somewhere .... such speed, such strength, such skill...
- Brian Moore (Commentator)

The near-mythical status of George Best should not be underestimated. As a footballer he was practically flawless. He started right-footed but then practised so much with his left that he ended up better with that foot. But he was also the first of the 'rock star' footballers, and his lifestyle tarnished a spectacularly promising career. As (manager) Tommy Docherty once said: 'George was a fantastic player and he would have been even better if he'd been able to pass nightclubs the way he passed the ball.' But to be fair, if he hadn't have run about so much he mightn't have been so thirsty.

Lest We Forget...

Not all the greats achieve fame and fortune. We should also remember those people lost to history even though they played their part - the Unknown Footballer.

The Unknown Footballer is a genuine grassroots enthusiast, who gives up his (or her) spare time to coach local teams, referee matches, organise leagues and so on, just for love of the game. The Unknown Footballer may not be blessed with the silky ball skills of a Pelé or a Platini, but contributes immensely to the well-being of the game.

In particular, we'd like to nominate all those involved on a voluntary basis in youth football. As well as teaching the beautiful game, these people give kids experience of working as a team, the habit of physical exercise, increased self-esteem, and discipline and personal responsibility.

Unknown Footballer, we salute you!

1That's 'soccer', for our American readers. For more on American English and English English read Trousers versus Pants! 2This was, incidentally, 60 league goals. He actually scored over eighty in all competitions.3The previous player to hold the record for most goals was George Camsell of (then) second division Middlesborough, who were promoted on the strength of those goals. The record lasted one season, as Dean stepped up the following season and scored the world famous 60 goals. 4Zizou is the nickname of French footballer Zinedine Zidane.

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