Team of the Decade 1955-1965

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Manager: Helenio Herrera

Bench: Gilmar, L. Buffon, Schrojf; Angelo, Cervato, Jusufi; Santamaria, Bellini, C. Maldini; Cavém, Armfield, Bergmark; Coluna, Zito, Bozsik; Didi, del Sol, Netto; Zagallo, Czibor, Charlton; Kopa, Masopust, Seeler; Charles, Vava, Fontaine, Altafini, Kocsis, Pepe; Hamrin, Kubala, Sivori

Best Player: Pelé

Best Team: Real Madrid 1955-1960

Best Club: Real Madrid

Best Match: Real Madrid – Eintracht Frankfurt, European Cup Final 1960

A preliminary remark: when people compile Teams of the Decade, they most often restrict the meaning of the term ‘decade’ to something like the 80s or the 90s. I don’t. When I say ‘decade’, I simply mean a time span of 10 years. This post is the tenth in a series of articles in which I compile Teams of the Decade. I will work my way back in time in 5 year steps. After this post, the next one and final one will be about the 1950-1960 Team of the Decade, the last one was about the 1960-1970 Team of the Decade. I’ll work my way back in time until the 1950-1960 Team of the Decade. I will stop there because the lack of footage for players before 1950 makes it impossible for me to form an opinion about them that is truly my own. I chose to go back in steps of 5 years, because that seems to be a good compromise. Going back in steps of 10 years is unfair towards those players who have performed the best around the turn of a decade (take Xavi, for example). Smaller steps would mean a lot of repetition: the 2004-2014 Team of the Decade won’t be that different from the 2005-2015 Team of the Decade.

Inclusion in this team is based solely on quantity and quality of performance during the respective period of time. It’s not about whether a player has won a lot of trophies, or fits some artistic ideal, even whether a player was ahead of his time in itself isn’t a criterion. It’s about performance and performance alone. You don’t necessarily have to get top marks for both quantity and quality of performance to be included. If the quality of your performances was outstanding, you will have a chance to be included even if, for example, you only performed on that level for, say, 5 of the 10 years. But the lack of quantity of performance will speak against you. Also, the chances of any given player to be included, of course,  heavily depend on the quality and quantity of performance of other players who played in the same position during the same period of time. This is all still a bit vague, but since fantasy football teams are far from being exact science to begin with, I think that’s okay. The main point that I want to emphasize is that both quantity and quality of performance matter.

I define the 1955-1965 decade as starting on the first of July 1955 and ending with the final whistle of the 1965 European Cup final.

Finally, a massive thank you to Daniel Roßbach and Javier from @footballiaweb. It’s an honour to have you on board as guest authors. These articles would be much worse without your contributions.

Lev Yashin

This is Yashin’s second inclusion in one of my Teams of the Decade. I’ve already written a longer profile on him, so I’m trying to keep this rather short. Having an informed opinion on Yashin’s standing among the great goalkeepers of football history isn’t easy for me. I’ve watched most of his games that I was able to find online. Which isn’t that impressive, because there aren’t that many. And while it is somewhat possible to judge a striker’s consistency by looking at his goal records, nothing similar applies to goalkeepers (or any other position, for that matter).

I’ve already written on Yashin’s overall playing style and his strengths and I won’t repeat myself. Instead I’m going to say something on his supposed weaknesses. I say “supposed” because I can’t really be sure. My sample size is just too small. So what follows is just a first impression I got from watching him. My guess is that he wasn’t exempt from what one might call “the curse of the progressive”. As I said, Yashin was somebody who widened the profile of the goalkeeper. He left his line much more willingly than other keepers did and participated in his team’s overall game. Sometimes that will result in mistakes. Mistakes that other, more conservative keepers wouldn’t commit. Take England’s first goal against the Soviet Union in the 1958 World Cup. A long ball floats into the box and takes a bounce and maybe a deflection. Yashin leaves his line but the bounce/deflection turns out to be stranger than expected. Eventually it sails past him and England score. Had he stayed on his line, this wouldn’t have happened. However, a proactive goalkeeping style has many advantages and conservatism is by no means clearly superior. The trick, of course, is to keep one’s decision making as rational as possible. Going for the proactive style when it is called for and remaining conservative when that makes sense. Maybe, just maybe, Yashin erred on the side of the proactive more often than the other way around.

In the end I included Yashin in the 1960-70 team despite the fact that he was 40 years old when the decade ended. His inclusion in the 1955-1965 team, however, was never in any doubt. These years mark his peak and, as I said, I do think that he belongs among the great keepers of football history. Choosing him for this team was therefore an easy choice.

Nilton Santos

Some years ago I watched all the material from Brazil’s 1958 World Cup campaign that I could find. Like everyone else on the planet who is even remotely interested in football I heard a lot about Pelé. I’ve never seen him play though, and couldn’t wait to be blown away by this God of football, who was supposedly so much better than today’s superstars. My expectations were so high, needless to say they were ultimately disappointed (a bit). ‘Man’, I said to myself, ‘he isn’t even the best player on the pitch! The left-back is.’ That left-back, of course, was Nilton Santos. (However, since then I re-watched the matches another time and… well, just keep on reading.)

At the time of the ’58 World Cup Nilton Santos was already 33 years old. In 1965 he was 40 and retired for a year. You would be forgiven for thinking that including him in this team has more to do with nostalgia. Surely he wasn’t that good at such an old age? Well, I think he was. Nilton, nicknamed “The Encyclopedia” because of his vast football knowledge (*swoon*), while being able to put in a tackle or two, was a player whose stand-out qualities were of a more refined nature. He had an excellent spatial awareness. I frequently saw him picking the ball from his opponent’s foot without the need for much physical contact. Intercepting passes was another of his specialties. Since these things don’t rely all that much on speed and strength, Santos was able to compete at a very high level until his mid-late 30s.

He was also more than competent with the ball at his feet. In the 1962 World Cup quarter-final against England, for example, he was Brazil’s go-to man in the buildup game. Operating from his usual left-back position he played passes with the outside of his boot to the left winger Zagallo, diagonal passes to Didi or crossfield passes to the advancing Djalma Santos (no relation, as the BBC commentator of does not get tired of saying).

I have little doubt that Nilton Santos was the best left-back in the world for the first five years of the decade. Combine that with his still high level of performance in the second half and the veteran easily makes the team.

Armando Picchi

Here is what the English Wikipedia has to say about Picchi’s playing style:

“A versatile defender, Picchi began his career as a right back, but later came into his own in the libero role. Picchi was primarily an old-fashioned sweeper who was mainly known for his defensive skills, and ability to win back, intercept and clear loose balls as a last man; despite his more traditional interpretation of the role, he was, however, also capable of carrying the ball out into midfield or starting plays from the back-line. Regarded as one of Italy’s greatest defenders, he was highly regarded for his tactical intelligence, tenacity, and vocal leadership on the pitch, and was known for his ability to organise and motivate his team-mates.”

While the overall description seems about right to me, I disagree with one crucial detail. I think Picchi was an extraordinary playmaking defender for his day and age. His ability with the ball at his feet was not something that I would categorize under “yeah, he could do a bit of that, too”. The Grande Inter captain in my opinion is one of the great proto-liberos of the game. He rarely went forward to join the attack in person, it took the Kaiser to do that, but his passing game was almost as good as that of classic liberos like Beckenbauer and Baresi.

Obviously judging how often a player performed at his top level gets harder and harder as we go back in history. There aren’t that many games available on video and defenders don’t produce the kind of statistics that are still remembered today (e.g. goals). But whenever I saw Picchi play, his performance was convincing. In fact, he was the player who most frequently made a good impression on me when I watched all Grande Inter matches I could find (which I did some years ago, so maybe don’t trust my judgment too much).

Djalma Santos

I admit it, I have a weakness for those defenders who don’t rely on their physical prowess all that much. Brains over brawns, even in defense. But I can appreciate defenders in the more classical mold, too. Case in point: Djalma Santos.

Now don’t get me wrong. Santos was no braindead bully. He’d hardly made it into the starting eleven of two World Cup winning teams and into three World Cup All-Star Teams in a row without being a decent footballer. Occasionally he even used a bit of Brazilian flair in his game. But by and large, Djalma Santos was a tough and robust man-marker. He nullified his direct opponent and that was that. Santos sometimes made runs into the second third but his capabilities with the ball at his feet weren’t that great. He always seemed to need an extra touch or an extra second to adjust his position to the ball. A rather high percentage of his passes were long balls. The right flank of Brazil in those days consisted of Garrincha and Djalma Santos and there could be no question who was the artist and who was the workman.

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The Brazil side that narrowly failed to win the first of two Copa Americas in 1959. Djalma Santos if the first player from the left in the top row. – Source

But at his peak, Djalma Santos was indeed a fine football worker. The Brazilian was as broad as he was tall and could not be physically bettered by any opponent. He was a tough marker who frequently went for the “infight” against his direct opponents. In my opinion, the defence was the best part of the ’58 Brazil side and Djalma Santos’ hard tackling was a major reason for that.

Naturally, his performance level dropped steeply when age finally caught up with him. The Brazil friendly against France in ’63 is an example of that. He is frequently overrun.But before that happened, he could lay claim to being the finest right-back in the game.

To experience him at his best, look no further than the 1962 World Cup final.

Antonio Rattin

If you google for videos of Antonio Rattin, the first thing you’re gonna find is him being sent off against England in the 1966 World Cup. Until this day the name Rattin is associated with dirty and cynical play.

That is (mostly) unfair. First of all, that expulsion against England happened under very controversial circumstances. The Argentine was sent off for “violence of the tongue” despite the fact that he only spoke Spanish and the referee didn’t. But much more importantly than that, characterizing Rattin as a dirty strongman obfuscates the fact that he was a very fine footballer.

Rattin was a defensive midfielder in the classical sense. Not a deep-lying playmaker, not a box-to-box player, not a man marker but a midfielder who plays just in front of the defense. His job was to break up attacks that came through the middle of the pitch and, when in possession, initiate his team’s attacking game with intelligent yet mostly unspectacular passes. As one should expect, he spent most of his time somewhere between the centre circle and the edge of his own sixteen yard box. However, there are two exceptions to this rule. Once in a while he did join his team’s attacking game. 26 goals in 352 games for Boca aren’t the goal return of a prolific attacking force but when you keep in mind that, for example, Busquets will never come close to scoring as many goals, you’ll understand that Rattin wasn’t entirely harmless in front of goal. Secondly, Rattin is an early example of a player trying to counter press the opponent. When he sees that his teammates lose the ball but the opponent cannot fully control it either, he will occasionally sprint towards the action and put pressure on the opponent even if that means that he has to leave his position and enter the attacking third of the pitch. Nowadays you see stuff like that all the time, but back then it was very rarely seen. It’s testament to his intelligence as a player that he used this tactic when hardly anybody else did.

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Rattin on the cover of the famous South American football magazine El Gráfico. – Source

While his defensive game did contain the odd bone-crunching tackle, most of it was about clever positioning, reading the game and using his giant frame to shield the ball from opponents. In fact you rarely see a player whose overall game looks so calm and controlled. For a modern point of comparison, players like Busquets and Thiago Motta come to mind. Maybe Motta is even closer to Rattin’s playing style than Busquets. The latter lacks Rattin’s imposing physique but is even better technically and tactically. Which hardly diminishes Rattin’s skills in those areas because Busquets simply is the high water mark for technical and tactical play as a defensive midfielder. All in all they are quite similar, though. Rattin was one of those players (like Redondo and Guardiola) who could be called “Busquets before Busquets” because they showed us that the defensive midfield position can be played with style and intelligence – yes, and a bit of cynicism.

Little footage of Rattin from the period in question has survived but if you want to get an impression of him, you can watch him play at the 1966 World Cup.

A word on two players who miss out on this team: Both Didi and Coluna are fine footballers who I rate at least as highly as Rattin. They don’t make the first team because I wanted to field a true defensive midfielder. Most all star teams make the mistake of ignoring true defensive midfielders and it is one of the goals of this series of blogposts not to repeat that mistake.

Luis Suárez  by Javier

Luis Suárez was the quintessential playmaker. He was an elegant player, technically gifted, he understood the game. The first match I saw of him was the 1961 European Cup final and I thought he reminded me of Andrés Iniesta. But then when I saw him with Inter, I didn’t think so anymore. And I’ll explain why.

He started out as what was then called an inside left in the classic WM formation, an attacking midfielder in present-day terminology. In his pre-Inter era, Suárez played behind the forwards, linking the midfield and the attack. He would move to left or right to support their teammates and occupy the spaces left by man-to-man marking. But he wasn’t only a passer, he got his fair share of goals, too. He would either arrive by surprise in the penalty box or take a shot at goal from outside the box.

While at Barcelona, when he and Kubala were both in the team, they would sometimes swap positions, as can be seen in the aforementioned ’61 final. In that match, you can see him running with the ball, taking on defenders and conducting his team’s play. In the semi-final against Hamburg, he even played portions of the game on the right, where he detected an empty space to tackle, as the team was playing without a specific right winger. He had a similar role with Spain, as can be seen in the 1962 and 1966 World Cups or the 1964 Euro final, where he owned the game.

For all these reasons, I mentioned above that he reminded me of Iniesta. However, when Helenio Herrera took him to Inter, he would change his position to make him the cornerstone of the team that would be known as La Grande Inter, the Great Inter.

Herrera would play him in front of the defense. Although he would have a hard worker alongside him, like Tagnin or Bedin, and the support of Mario Corso, Suárez wasn’t exempt of defensive duties. I’ve described him as a technical player, and he sure was, but technical players are usually considered weak off the ball. Suárez, instead, worked hard helping the midfield to get the ball back.

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The midfield general of “La Grande Inter”. – Source

But as I said, he was a playmaker, and Herrera designed the team around him. Inter was one of the first defensive-minded teams, playing with a libero behind the three marking defenders catenaccio-style. In big matches they would sit back off the ball, and when they got it back, Suárez would launch his trademark long, accurate passes to Mazzola and Milani or Cappellini, similar to an American football quarterback. The whole collective mechanism of the team relied on him. By then he wouldn’t frequent the box as often, or run with the ball as much, turning more into a “Guardiola” and less of an “Iniesta”. In fact, the shift in position he underwent was similar to that of another Inter player many years later, Andrea Pirlo, although he would do so with their Milanese neighbours.

All in all, Luis Suárez, was a world class player who earned his spot in this team.

Alfredo Di Stéfano

I won’t spoiler you too much when I tell you that this will not be the last time I write about Di Stéfano. A more extensive profile on him will be part of the 1950-60 Team of the Decade. I will therefore keep this profile rather short.

Di Stéfano was 38 when the decade in question, as I defined it, ended. A natural worry would therefore be that his quantity of performance isn’t sufficient to merit inclusion. And yes, the Argentine was clearly a veteran player by the early 60s. “The Blond Arrow” had lost both hair and pace by then. But since there was always more to his game than his physical attributes, he aged rather well. I don’t think he was among the best players in the world by, let’s say, 1962, but he still played at a very decent level. His game became more about strong moments (especially early on in the game) than about total domination, as it was earlier… but as I said, more on that next time.

Paco Gento by Javier

If Suárez was the quintessential playmaker, Gento was the quintessential winger. An almost extinct species nowadays, back then every team played with wingers. And Gento was the best of his time.

When one thinks of all the qualities a winger should have, Gento had them all, but he is mostly remembered as a fast player. Nicknamed “la galerna del Cantábrico”, after a wind in his birth region in the north of Spain, he would outrun virtually any opponent. Taking advantage of the common man-to-man marking of the time, he would fall back into midfield and, when his marker followed him, he would touch the ball to the space behind the defender and run. And that was it for the defender. Gento would run with the ball down the left flank creating havoc in their opponents. He was actually so fast, his legs moved so quick, that it sometimes looks like the footage is in fast motion. But it isn’t, he was just that fast.

But is fast all he was? By no means. A highly resourceful player near the box, when he didn’t cross the ball – the most common way to culminate a run for a classic winger – Gento would set up fast combinations with teammates like Di Stéfano or Puskás to get into the box and then take a powerful left-footed shot.

Another required skill for a winger is dribbling. Gento was able to combine his speed with his technique to get past his opponents. He could backheel the ball, pass it between the opponent’s legs, or feint going one way and then going the other – similar to another top winger of all times, Garrincha.

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Doing what he did best. – Bogaerts, Rob / ANEFO, [onbekend] / neg. stroken, 1945-1989, 2.24.01.05, item number 918-1565
All these qualities suffice to qualify him as one of the best wingers in history, but his greatest contribution in my opinion is how often he did this. Take any game he plays in, and you’ll see how often he participates, usually a lot more than his right counterpart, and that made him an invaluable asset for his team, an easy solution for any teammate in trouble, who knew they could give the ball to Gento and he’d produce something out of it.

Last but not least, Gento is the only player in history to win 6 European Cups. Younger than Di Stéfano, Puskás or Kopa, he won the first 5 cups (1956-1960) with that generation and then was the link to the next great Real Madrid generation of Amancio, Velázquez, Zoco or Pirri. In 1966, when R. Madrid won their 6th title, Gento was the leader of a group of young players who saw him as a living legend.

That was Paco Gento, one of the true greats of the game.

(By the way: The ‘g’ in Gento is pronounced similar to the ‘h’ in English, but stronger; like ‘ch’ in German in ‘Buch’.)

Pelé

Pelé is widely regarded as being one of the greatest players of all time. Both contemporary witnesses and later generations of football experts think that he is at the very least a contender for being the best ever. However, the reason why I write these blogposts is that I want to form an opinion of my own. This opinion more often than not aligns with what most other people think, but there is no necessary connection between these two things.

Now, forming an opinion on Pelé isn’t that easy. He rose to prominence in the late 50s, especially in the 1958 World Cup, and his last great moment on the big stage was probably the 1970 World Cup. Complete footage in good quality exists of the 1970 World Cup, but before that things become more sketchy. Footballia lists ten matches of his before 1970. However, two of them are friendlies, three have very poor video quality and he’s half injured in another two. This leaves us with little material to judge Pelé’s performances before he became more of a  veteran player in the early 70s. Of course, full matches are not everything. There are more and better highlight reels and goal compilations of him online than I expected. Also, since he was an attacking player at least one crucial statistic measure of his game has survived the ages: his goal statistics. Add that up and an informed judgement of Pelé is possible even without relying too much on other people’s opinion. However, I want to point out that I have seen way more games of players like Maradona, not to mention Messi, than of Pelé. You should keep that in mind while reading what I have to say about him.

This player portrait will be a bit (okay: way) longer than the other ones. Pelé had a starting spot in the ’65-’75 Team and was named Player of the Decade for the 60s, yet I’ve never written a proper profile on him. So I guess I owe you one and now I intend to pay that debt. I’ll discuss his career in chronological order. In between I’ll say something about his general playing style. I won’t do an elaborate comparison with the other GOAT candidates, because I’ll save that one for another time. (Also, I haven’t yet written a proper profile on one of the GOAT candidates, although I may have said a few words about him in this blogpost…)

Pelé became an overnight sensation in the 1958 World Cup. That’s when the world was alerted to the existence of his mercurial talent. Today we are basically in the same situation. The first full matches available of him are from said tournament. Obviously, in order to make Brazil’s World Cup squad (and what a squad they had!), he had to make a name for himself in Brazil itself. He did so by breaking into the first team at Santos, the only Brazilian club he ever played for, and almost immediatly producing unreal goalscoring statistics. He scored 36 in 29 matches in the Campeonato Paulista in 1957 (if the English Wikipedia is to be trusted on that matter, the page on him does look trustworthy, though). Now, the CP was the regional league for the state of Sao Paulo. Back then Brazil had no national league. Obviously that makes judging his performances by his statistics alone much more tricky. How good were his opponents? Was the quality of the competition so poor that most above average players recorded very good goalscoring returns? A look at the statistics of Pelé’s fellow attackers Pepe and Coutinho does indicate that scoring goals in the CP wasn’t as hard as it would have been in a national league. They scored lots of goals, too. Less than Pelé, though. So I guess we should take his goalscoring tally in this regional competition with a pinch of salt. Since these matches make up a significant chunk of his career his overall record might be somewhat inflated, too. Still, these statistics are far from worthless. Looked at with a bit of caution they still paint the picture of a player who virtually took no time to grew accustomed to professional footballer. His talent was obvious from the very beginning.

The look at his statistics was important because they are basically all neutral information we have on him for the time before the 1958 World Cup. There may be some footage of him before the WC somewhere, but nothing that could give us really meaningful information on his performance level.

Now to the 1958 World Cup. As I said, this was the tournament when he announced himself to the world. “Announced” is a serious understatement, though. He “announced” himself to the world in the same sense that the meteor “announced” himself to the dinosaurs. He just hit and things were much different afterwards. I’ve watched both of the available matches with him on the field, the semi-final and the final. Both of them I consider masterclass performances. The semi-final in particular is a fine game and Pelé plays a match for the ages. In the final he plays like an unbelievably talented youngster. He is very effective but not very efficient, a lot of the stuff he tries doesn’t quite work out. But his semi-final performance is just something else. He didn’t play like an über-talent but like an ageless football deity. I never thought a 17-year old could play as well as he did. I’m pretty sure no other footballer has ever reached such a level at such an age.

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A 17 year-old Pelé takes on the world. – Charlie Raasum

Pelé scores a hattrick in that match, but his overall performance is even more impressive than the numbers suggest. He does everything. He displays the trickery and the inventiveness you expect from a wonderkid. He’s already a very accomplished dribbler, very agile and with sometimes surreal balance, and his almost complete mastery of the ball is evident. But he also does things such a young player has no right to do. His decision making is spot on, he makes clever off the ball runs, he repeatedly squares the ball instead of trying the impossible himself, there is a directness to his game that so many of his (more experienced) contemporaries never reached. Sure, there are moments when he slows down to walking pace, waiting for the opponent to make the first move, only to show him (and the world) that he can leave any opponent for dead. But there are also several one touch actions that are much more impressive to me. Minutes before the end, when the game is already decided (thanks in no small part to him), Pelé even tracks back to his own sixteen yard box and wins the ball back. If you want to experience what the young Pelé can do, I can only advise you to watch this match (or at least his personal match highlights).

His performance in the final is more in line with what you should expect from somebody who is both a GOAT candidate and still only 17 years of age. There are moments of brilliance, his goals in particular, but also quite a lot of things that don’t quite work out. Which is totally normal even for the best of his more senior contemporaries. Most great players of the (distant) past could do great things because they played in a way that also produced a lot of wastage. Add his young age and his final performance can also be considered a masterclass. Still, the semi-final is something else.

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Pelé around the time of his peak. – AFP/SCANPIX

Was Pelé already at his peak in 1958? From what I know, he rarely played much better than in the match against France, but my best guess is that his peak came later, in the early 60s. I say “guess” because there is very little material to judge him on. The 1962 World Cup should have been his tournament, but he got injured early on. Before that happened, though, he managed to play one full match. His performance against Mexico is, in my opinion, the closest thing we have to watching peak Pelé. He does many of the things I already described but now he has the body of a man instead of that of a boy. The trickery, the feints, the dribbling, the clever layoffs, the passes – it’s all still there. But now he adds power, brutal acceleration, and a much tougher attitude in general to the mix. Pelé even does some defensive work – and he does it well! He has grown up while retaining everything that made him great in the first place. His goal in particular shows us a player that is as close to being unstoppable as you will ever see.

There are some other full matches from his peak time available on Footballia, but they are either friendlies or basically unwatchable because of poor video quality. The friendlies contain moments of genius, but friendlies being friendlies you can never really estimate their informative value. So what we are left with is statistics and highlight reels. The statistics are very impressive indeed. If Wikipedia is correct Pelé scored 302 goals in official club competitions alone between 1960 and 1965. That is roughly half of the official goals he scored in his club career before his transfer to NASL. Now for the highlight videos. There are some general and very extensive highlight videos of him online. Pinpointing what footage comes from which point of his career is not always easy but from what I’ve seen they contain plenty of material from his peak time. There is also this video containing 340 of his goals. One thing quickly becomes apparant: this man scored lots of brilliant goals. Scoring one or a few great goals isn’t that hard. Many very mediocre players scored the odd wondergoal. This is why I try to judge all players, even strikers, more on statistics and full match videos than on their highlight reels. But Pelé scored loads and loads of fantastic goals. He is a strong contender for being the player who scored the most great goals ever (with “great goal” obviously being a vague term). Add all of that up and a rather clear picture emerges: Pelé, at his peak, was a world beater. Very few players were ever as good as Pelé was at his best – if any.

The early 60s were not only his personal peak, but also the most succesful period of his club career. He led Santos to two succesive Copa Libertadores titles in 1962 and 1963. Winning the South American continental competition qualified them to play in the International Cup. These matches are very interesting for people like me, who are interested in learning more about Pelé’s quality as a player, because they pitted him against the finest European teams. The 1962 International Cup, played against the great Benfica side, is of special importance. If I could wish for quality full match footage of one of Pelé’s matches that is unavailable to this day, I would choose this one. He plays against the toughest opponents imaginable, against the likes of Eusebio and Mario Coluna, and proves that he is a class apart. 5 goals in 2 matches, including a hattrick in the Estadio da Luz. Luckily some footage has survived the ages. It shows Pelé at his very best. But the full video seems forever lost. If there was one occasion when he proved beyond any doubt, that he is a GOAT candidate, it was that night in Lisbon.

Sadly the 1966 World Cup proved even more tragic for Pelé than the previous one. Yet again, he got injured early on. He continued playing half (or more than that) injured but it is impossible to judge him based on these performances. Since there is little full match footage from the second half of the sixties, the 1970 World Cup is the next opportunity we have to watch him extensively.

The matches from the Mexico World Cup are probably the most often watched matches with Pelé on the field. It was, after all, the first globally televised World Cup (in colour, too!) and ended with an unprecedented third win for “O Rei”. However, my opinion is that Pelé was no longer at or close to his best by then. Don’t get me wrong, he was still very good. World class even. One of the ten best performers of the tournament, surely. But no longer… well, himself basically. He was only 29 in 1970, but by then he played professionally for quite a bit more than a decade and had experienced several injuries (and countless nasty tackles from desperate defenders). If I think of Pelé at the 1970 World Cup, two moments come to mind, both from the final. His opening goal header and the layoff for Carlos Alberto’s goal. Both are world class actions. But the absolute genius that marked his peak is mostly absent. His famous dummy against Uruguay comes closest, but it is not entirely untypical that he doesn’t quite manage to pull it off. At his best, his performance level seemed extraterrestrial. Now he’s back on earth. The Brazil team is a fine collective and Pelé among the most important pieces of the puzzle, but he no longer stands above his teammates. He is slower, less dynamic, not as inventive – but still world class.

Pelé played four more years for Santos and another three in the United States, but from what I’ve seen he never again reached the level he had in the sixties – which, of course, is entirely unsurprising.

As I pointed out repeatedly, judging Pelé is not easy. His peak is not very well documented and there isn’t that much footage of him in general. But from what I’ve seen, he was a player of the very highest calibre. If he was as good or even better than the likes of Maradona and Messi will be discussed another time. For now, I will simply conclude that Pelé was one of the most complete and generally best forwards in the history of the game. Everybody knows about his goalscoring prowess and his flawless technique, but there was also creativity, competitiveness, athleticism, and rationality. The finest Brazilian player of all time.

Ferenc Puskas by Daniel Roßbach

When Ferenc Puskás is rated among the players with the highest peak Goal Impact rating in history, that validates the metric as much as it proves Puskás’ extraordinary talent.

As Puskas will also feature heavily in the 50s team, we will focus here on the time between 1960 and 1965, when, deep in his 30s, he still did enough to warrant selection here.

Obviously, the later Puskás was helped both by the relative slowness of the game at the time and by being flanked by Gento, who wouldn’t just stretch the defense, but might even demand the attention of two defenders, thus creating space and providing an outlet for Puskás. Yet even in his 30s, Puskás’ explosiveness was not limited to his
thunderous left foot, as he could still show flashes of pace over 10 to 20 yards to penetrate defenses or go down the left flank. And neither was his role in the great Real Madrid side exclusively that of the – perhaps fictional – ‘traditional centre forward’.

Instead, it usually would consist in picking the ball up somewhere in what we might call the 10-space and then, often from a stand-still, either entering a dribbling against a direct opponent which if won, would generate space for a shot by the Ibero-Hungarian himself; or putting a team mate through (a nice example of the latter is the 1-0 away to Nice in the 1960 European Cup, the first of two Puskás assists in the first half of that Quarter-final).

This playmaking role was, however, more prominent in the absence of the omnipresent Di Stefano. In games without the Argentinian, Puskás would at times collect the ball deeper in midfield and assume some of Di Stefano’s universally playmaking duties, albeit without the defensive contribution Di Stefano could make.

But while Puskás might have been more central when Di Stefano wasn’t around, them playing together surely was one of the high water marks of football history. Di Stefano carrying the ball through midfield would force opposing teams to engage with Real’s attacks relatively high up the pitch, thus stretching defenses vertically and creating space for Puskas. The awareness and technical perfection of Di Stefano, paired with a cast of highly competent players, would allow them to utilise this space – see the opening goal against Juventus in Paris in 1962 as an example, when Di Stefano attracted three players in the right half space, played out between them and thus allowed Puskas to put Felo through with a perfectly weighted, Laudrupesk pass. It was the first of three assists Puskas registered in Real’s 3-1 victory. Perhaps in contrast to other great duos, the two players with a claim to GOAT-status in this team had matching qualities that added up to something special, rather than mutually amplifying their strengths. They did play off each other productively, but often times also seemed to present alternative routes to finish attacks, rather than a combined one. In matches like the 7-3 over Eintracht, there remained a sense of rivalry between them, as Puskas’ four goals ‘beat’ Di Stefano’s three. But rather than seeing this constellation as proof of excessive egoism, that their relationship within the team lasted and did not tear the side apart should testify to their sporting personalities.

The aforementioned moments of pause, as Puskás, having received the ball and feinting with deceptive jolts of his feet, choose his moment to accelerate, are maybe the defining dramaturgic element of Puskás game. What he tried after them – preferably rolling the ball between the defender’s legs and running onto it, or a chipped pass – wouldn’t always come off, but these moments exuded the kind of command, and a whiff of arrogance, that earned ‘The Major’ his nickname.

Puskás also was capable of sprints hat belied his rotund shape until remarkably late in his astonishingly long career. That career began on top flight level in 1943 and lasted until 1966. Over this time, he managed to maintain an almost-a-goal-a-came ratio, with peaks like the 1960 European Cup campaign that were even better. Of course, playing in a dominant Real Madrid side helped, but Puskás was a cornerstone of that dominance. Still, Puskás arguably reached his peak in the Wembley demolition of England in 1953, a full 13 years before the end of his career. He was an early but prime example of an exceptional post-prime sportsperson. In this way, he is comparable to figures like Roger Federer.

The high point of Puskás in his waning years probably came in defeat to Eusebio and Coluna’s Benfica in 1962. Besides scoring all of Madrid’s goals in a brilliant hattrick, Puskás also produced a number of great flick-ons with back-heels and, still athletically capable, headers. The second goal, a shot from 25 yards after guiding the ball out of the air and through his legs, might have been one of his best.

Towards the end there was – hardly surprising – a clear decline, though. In the 1964 Final against Inter, Real as a team were far inferior and, at 37, Di Stefano and Puskás were unable to shift the balance of the game.

Garrincha

Garrincha, the (in)famous „Little Bird“, after whom the home cabin at Brazil’s Maracana national stadium is named. He continues to be one of the great cult heroes of football history. His tragic story makes him the much more interesting historical figure compared to the spotless Pelé. However, the purpose of this blog isn’t to tell interesting stories but to arrive at a somewhat more objective estimate of past legends. So, what kind of player was Garrincha and how does he rank among the other greats?

First of all, it is yet again necessary to preach caution. There aren’t that many games with Garrincha on the field available. So there is the very real possibility that my impression of him is way off.

Garrincha is the archetype of the South American right winger. His dribbling skills were his main weapon. His dribbling style isn’t so much about close control and changes of direction (like the “Gambetta” dribblings of Maradona and Messi) but about body feints, little tricks and superhuman acceleration. His most famous trick went like this: Garrincha approaches the opponent on the right wing at little more (and often less) than walking pace, he leans his body to the inside before playing the ball to the outside of the defender. A quick burst of speed enables him to reach the ball before his opponent does or the ball crosses the line. Now he can cross the ball into the back of the defense or, if he’s got the time, he starts dribbling along the line towards the goal.

Why do I describe this move in such detail? Well, because he did it all the time. Calling him a one trick pony would be way too harsh, but… let’s just say you’re forgiven if these words enter your mind.

GARRINCHA
Garrincha dribbling against two opponents. – Source

As I said, I wasn’t able to find that many matches with him on the field. Mostly from the 1958 and 1962 World Cup. But that should be no disadvantage to him because both tournaments (especially the 1962 World Cup) are considered to be among his finest hours. From what I’ve seen, Garrincha wasn’t the most efficient player. He loses the ball all the time. While we should keep in mind that efficiency wasn’t as valued back then as it is now, his lack of efficiency in some games is rather obvious. He was a player for the big moments, but as with many other greats of the past, these moments came at a price. In Garrincha’s case that price was comparatively high. Therefore, I think he’s not among the very best players of all time (especially if you consider that his career peak was relatively short as well). But the magic he was undoubtedly capable of is more than enough to earn him a place in this team.

Maybe a final word on the relation between Garrincha and Brazil. Garrincha is often said to be the epitomy of Brazilian football. Full of flair, magic, technique, creativity, but maybe a bit short on rationality and consistency. I don’t think that is quite fair. Brazil produced more than enough players who were as rational and consistent as the finest European players. Take Falcao, Nilton Santos, Didi, Zito, Dunga, Gerson or Clodoaldo. Just like the cliché of Brazil producing plenty of attacking players but no good defenders, it is a lazy myth with little footing in reality.

To experience Garrincha at his very best, watch the final 30 minutes of Brazil-England at the 1962 World Cup. (And for a more nuanced picture, watch the whole match.)

As a little bonus, here is the portrait on Coluna that I wrote before I remembered about Rattin and included him instead:

Mario Coluna

As it is the case for some of the other players I picked for this team, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about Coluna. The Mozambique-born Portuguese international had already won a starting spot in the 60s team. As I’ve already said, Coluna was a very complete midfielder. One of those players who can run a team all by themselves, a midfield “engine”. I’ve compared him to some contemporary players but, thinking about it, peak Lothar Matthäus might be another player who shares a lot of similarities with Coluna. Both of them are fine allrounders that you can put in any midfield and no matter which other players play alongside them and no matter which style the team plays, you can be basically sure that they will enrich the team.

Including Coluna in this team means that Didi misses out on the first team and is reduced to a place on the bench. That is very harsh on him. The central creative midfielder of two World Cup winning teams has surely done enough to merit inclusion. And yes, Didi was a fine player indeed. Here is why he lost out to Coluna: The Benfica man is the more complete player. Most importantly his defensive game was clearly superior to Didi’s. Given my other player selections I needed a player who could act as a defensive enforcer (among other things). Coluna just fitted this description better. Secondly, Didi, for all his playmaking ability, has an unnerving habit to try a dribble against multiple opponents in central midfield. And I’m not talking about dynamic situations in which he could be reasonably sure to retain the ball, but static situations. He just ran into them and more often than not lost the ball. Now, a lost ball isn’t too bad, when the situation allows you to risk a dribble. But loosing the ball somewhere in the centre circle, with very little protection behind you was and continues to be foolish. To sum it up, Didi’s playing style is a bit too risky for my taste. Coluna looks the more modern player to me. He doesn’t rely on his teammates to cover for him as much. This is a better fit for the job description for a DM/CM place in this team.

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