Manager: Sepp Herberger
Bench: Yashin, Gilmar, Ramallets; Zebec, Hannapi, Kohlmeyer; Bellini, Lorant, Jonquet; D. Santos, Happel, Marquitos; N. Rossi, Blanchflower, Wright; Schiaffino, Liedholm, Masopust; F. Walter, Didi, Zizinho; Czibor, Zagallo, Hamrin; Kocsis, Nordahl, Fontaine; Boniperti, Lofthouse, Evaristo; Kopa, Rahn, Garrincha
Best Player: Alfredo Di Stéfano
Best Team: Hungary 1950-1956
Best Club: Real Madrid
Best Match: England – Hungary, 1953 Friendly
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 last in a series of articles in which I compile Teams of the Decade. The last one was about the 1955-1965 Team of the Decade. I will stop here 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 1950-1960 decade as starting with the opening whistle of the opening match of the 1950 World Cup and ending with the final whistle of the 1960 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 for this post. These articles would be much worse without your contributions.
Having an educated opinion on who was the best goalkeeper of the 50s is next to impossible. Consistency is an important quality for every football player, but especially for the goalkeeper. And there are only very limited ways to judge the consistency of a 50s goalkeeper because of the lack of footage. Also, when you watch, let’s say, an attacking midfielder who’s having a bad day, you more often than not are still able to get a grasp of his underlying quality as a player. Not so much in the case of the goalkeeper. If he’s having a game to forget, there is a very real possibility that the only thing you will see of him is how adept he is at collecting ball out of the net.
Keeping that in mind, Gyula Grosics is my choice for the 50s. I’ve seen him play at Wembley and in the 1954 World Cup. Playing in goal for one of the most dominant national teams of all time can be a somewhat unglamorous job, because you rarely get the chance to save the day for your team. However, Grosics didn’t need to make jaw-dropping saves to help his team. He is famous for being one of the goalkeepers who first championed a more proactive style of goalkeeping. He was no Manuel Neuer of course, but given the standards of his time, he was one of his predecessors.
To experience Grosics at his best, look no further than for his darkest hour. The 1954 World Cup final against Germany may have been the ultimate disappointment of his career, but on a purely personal level he played a great game. He makes a couple of high quality saves, handles crosses wellhandles crosses well, and is markedly quicker at initiating play than his contemporaries. By the way: given the modern of the interpretation of the rules, the second German goal should have been disallowed. A German player clearly jumps into Grosics as Walter’s corner sails into the area and stops him from collecting the ball. A pity that the rules were different back then.
Grosics’ closest rival for the starting spot was Lev Yashin. By the end of the decade the Russian reached a higher peak than Grosics arguably ever did, but the fact that he hardly played any football for the first three years of the 50s counts against him.
If you want to read my portrait of Nilton Santos, let me please point you to the one I’ve written for the 1955-1965 Team of the Decade. For now, let me just say a few words on why I think his inclusion in this team is well warranted. As I noted in my previous portrait on him, by the early 60s Santos was a veteran player. When he played for Brazil in the 1962 World Cup he was already 37 years old. So the period from ’55 to ’65 actually doesn’t mark the peak of his career, the 50s, on the other hand, do. He was a member of the Brazil squad in all three World Cups of the 50s, the only outfield player to do so. This points to his continously strong form throughout the decade.
The earliest matches with Santos on the field that I’ve seen are from the 1958 World Cup. By then he was a very experienced, calm, and controlled left-back in a four men defense. Earlier in his career he played as the left-sided defender in the classic WM-system. That is the role that he plays in this team as well. I haven’t seen him play it but I have no doubt that he excelled in it.
It is my opinion that Nilton Santos was one of, and maybe even the strongest left-back ever to come out of South America. He may not have had the spectacular runs of players like Roberto Carlos, but I have rarely seen a left-back not named Paolo Maldini whose defensive prowess was that convincing. His name was one of the first on the teamsheet.
John Charles is the central defender of my team. Over the course of his career he scored more than 350 goals.
Wait, what? Surely that can’t be right. Even Ronald Koeman, probably the highest scoring defender in living memory scored “only” a little over 200 goals (which, by the way, is totally insane). Surely Charles didn’t score almost twice as much!
Well, he did, but most of them as a centre forward. John Charles is one of the very, very few players in football history who excelled in two positions, central defender and centre forward. He started out as a defender for Leeds United, before, still at the same club, he was transformed into a striker. I’m pretty sure this change of position took place between the 1951-52 season and the 1952-53 season or early in the latter season. 0 goals in ’51-’52 and 26 goals in ’52-’53 speak a clear language.
But if he stopped playing as a defender in 1952, isn’t it quite dubious that I play him in that position? I can’t fully dispell that impression, but it isn’t as dubious as one might think. For all I’ve seen and heard, Charles didn’t completely switch positions. Especially at Juventus he did play in defense from time to time. The legend goes that he was ordered back when Juventus had to cling to a narrow lead (most of the time brought about by the man himself). It is said that he basically was their best striker and their best defender. Not bad considering that Juventus back then (like most of the time) was a world class team.
Footballia lists only one game with him on the pitch, the match against Real Madrid in 1962. Charles is a veteran by then and arguably past his peak. In this match he plays just in front of the defense and as a central striker. So while I have to rely on second hand sources for most of what I know about him, I can verify that he did drop back at times. How often that happened, if he did so on a weekly basis or if it happened more seldomly, I’m not sure. If you happen to be a historically interested Juventus supporter or just somebody who somehow knows these things, feel free to let me know.
Setting the matter of his position aside, what kind of player was John Charles? Apart from being known to be an absolute gentleman on the field, Charles is perhaps most famous for his heading ability. Both at offensive and defensive headers, he was one of the best of his time and arguably all time. Maybe Sandor Kocsis can rival his quality at offensive headers, but apart from that very few players come to mind. 1,88m is still pretty tall for a striker today, back then he was a (gentle) giant. He dwarfed the players around him like somebody like Jan Koller did in more recent times, while being arguably the more athletic and dynamic player. Obviously being very tall and strong helps you to be strong at headers, but you need timing and technique as well. The fact that Charles scored a very significant percentage of his goals with his head (I can’t be sure how many exactly) is testament to the fact that he possessed these qualities as well.
There is a surprisingly extensive video compilations of some of his goals in Serie A online. In addition to his trademark headers it shows mostly typical strikers goals. He evidently possessed a fine sense of timing and positioning in the box. He also seems very fast when he chases through balls. A little gem is this wall-splitting free kick. Unsurprisingly he possessed quite a shot.
My main impression when I watched him for 90 minutes against Real, the two positions thing aside, was that most of his actions looked really clean. There was hardly anything scruffy about his playing style. Whatever he did, he did it with a clear intent and with the footballing quality to transform his ideas into reality. Surely a sign of his class.
As I said, fielding him as a central defender is indeed a bit fishy. But on the hand, it highlights his unique qualities. Since it is at least possible that he played centre back (in addition to centre forward) all through his career, I hope I can get away with playing him in defense.
If you are a central defender, being nicknamed “The Wall” is always a good sign. Santamaria is probably most famous for being the defensive lynchpin of Real Madrid during the last three of their five consecutive European Cup wins. He also possesses a winner’s medal for the 1966 EC win, but by then he rarely featured in the first eleven. But Santamaria was not always a Merengue and does not originate from Spain. He’s from Uruguay and played for Nacional and “La Celeste” before transferring to Madrid and eventually playing for the Spanish national team.
As with so many other players of this decade, I have a hard time saying anything about their early years because basically no footage has survived until today. Santamaria did feature in the 1954 World Cup All Star team, though, and won the Uruguayan Primera Division five times before his move to Europe. Add to that the fact that he must somehow impressed the Madrid scouts enough to sign him, and I think we can safely assume that he was a world class player for most of the decade.
As I said, Santamaria was a central defender. I do field him as a right sided defender in this team and cannot fully fend off the suspicion that this isn’t the historically exact position for him. However, he plays in a three men defense, so it’s not like I expect him to run up and down the flank very much. Being 1,79m tall, he was dynamic enough to defend in the halfspace. All in all, I think it’s not too much of a historical inaccuracy to play him in this position.
The games I’ve seen him play are mostly from around 1960. My impression of him is that he is a formidable defender without the ball. In this match he shows on a couple of occassions his fine understanding of the game when he anticipates passes and proactively movers to intercept them. As you would expect of an Uruguayan defender of his day and age (and in fact, in general), he was also a tough man marker who marshalled his area of the pitch with the necessary physical robustness. With the ball at his feet he was no Beckenbauer, but no Otamendi/Rojo either. (Sorry, I’ve watched an Argentina match a few days ago.)
I could have fielded Djalma Santos (who was more of a right-back) in Santamaria’s place just as well. I rank both players to be roughly on the same level. Although I usually don’t want aspects like that to influence my selection, the fact that Djalma Santos already made one team and Santamaria didn’t might have made the decision among those two a bit easier for me.
When people discuss which individual was the most valuable player of the great Hungary team of the early-mid 50s that became famous as the “Mighty Magyars”, votes are usually evenly split between Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti. While I will by no means deny their importance, there is a third player who should, in my opinion, be named alongside them, Jozsef Bozsik.
If Puskas was Hungary’s Messi (with a bit of Suarez) and Hidegkuti Hungary’s Iniesta (but scoring way more goals and used similarly to Messi), Bozsik was their Busquets (and Xavi). The middle of the park was his realm, basically at all times could he be found in the central area of the pitch between the two penalty areas. But like Busquets, he was no overly dynamic box-to-box player. He didn’t make a lot of swashbuckling runs (be it with or without the ball), but slowly drifted between his own and the opponent’s half, just as the respective situation called for.
Bozsik was a surpremely intelligent player whose understanding of the game was way ahead of that of most of his contemporaries. I don’t think I’ve seen a player from the 50s whose passing game was as close to the modern ideal of constructive and rational football. And, thinking about it, I can’t really think of a midfielder from the 60s or 70s either, who reached Bozsik’s level in that regard. (Although players like Rattin and Voronin came close.) To get an impression of his qualities, look no further than for this passage leading to the opening goal in the ’54 final. Watch the first 20 seconds of the video and you have seen him play an amazing first touch killer pass, make an interception and play another creative pass that ultimately leads to the goal. (He wears the No.5 shirt.) Or have a look at this Pirlo-esque moment: he wins the ball close to his own box and launches the attack with a quick yet precise vertical long ball. And while we’re at it, here is a moment that showcases his fine spatial awareness even under pressure. This looks impressive even to modern eyes, back then it was nothing but sensational.
Given the fact that he was more of a defensive/central midfielder, he didn’t play that many passes into the box and subsequently didn’t register a lot of assists, but he was capable of playing the final ball, too. Not being the most dynamic player, his dribbling skills were limited but as players like Redondo and Busquets have shown, there are dribbling styles that do without physical prowess. The same can be said about Bozsik. Most of the time he would go for the quick one-two and evade the direct confrontation but if a little dribble was a sensible solution, he could do that too. Something similar can be said about his qualities as a goal threat: not a key aspect of his game, but (unlike Busquets) he did possess a powerful and precise shot that led to the odd goal. But, as I said, his game was really about weaving precise and constructive passing patterns, improving his team’s position one pass at a time. Without the ball he was no ferocious ball winner but still managed to make a significant contribution to his team’s defensive game through clever positioning and good timing.
So far I’ve watched him in the famous Wembley match and in the 1954 World Cup. He was brilliant in all those matches. Since the Wembley match is the only complete match, I strongly recommend you to watch that one. It is without a doubt one of the most important and aesthetically pleasing (yet one sided) matches in football history. Bozsik produces a masterclass performance, producing interceptions and between the lines passes on a regular basis. I’ve yet to see him in the 1958 World Cup. If any of you have, feel free to share your impression.
There is no doubt in my mind that Bozsik was the best defensive midfielder of the 50s and at the end of the day I even judge him to be one of the finest defensive midfielders of football history.
Finding a second defensively minded midfielder to play next to Bozsik was quite hard. At first I thought about fielding Didi. He had made the bench of the 1955-1965 team and only narrowly missed out on the first team. By the late 50s and early 60s he played quite deep for Brazil (I’ve never seen him play at club level). But even then he was more of a central midfielder with noticable attacking tendencies and earlier on in his career he played in a more forward position still. He wasn’t the right fit. Next in line was Fritz Walter. The legendary German skipper greatly impressed me in the 1954 World Cup final. Initially I ruled him out because he was almost 30 when the decade started. But since he was still going strong for Germany in the 1958 World Cup I reconsidered. However, what I said about Didi applies to him, too. If you were pressed to name the position he played in, something between CM and AM would be the most correct answer. Thus, he wasn’t the right man for the job.
In the end I settled for Ernst Ocwirk. The Austrian skipper is mostly forgotten today but still fondly remembered in his homeland. Here is the thing about Ocwirk: I’ve never seen a full match with him on the field. He is the only player ever selected in this series that I haven’t watched at least one full match of. So what I have to say about him is based almost entirely on what I’ve read about him and does not reflect a first hand impression. This contradicts the aim of this series of blogposts and serves neatly as an explanation of why this is the last Team of the Decade. Going even further back in time means giving up on the idea of forming an opinion on the selected players that is truly my own.
Here is what I know about Ocwirk: He was the defensive midfielder of the Austrian team that reached the semi-finals of the 1954 World Cup. He was a physically strong player that nevertheless possessed a fine technique and passing game. His long passes in particular were a feared weapon. While he shielded the defense for most of the time, he made occasional forward runs and scored quite a few goals for a defensive midfielder. After playing for Austria Wien for the first six years of the 50s he transferred to Sampdoria Genua where he quickly established himself as a key player and was reverred by fans and teammates alike. He even captained the FIFA World XI at some point during the decade. Apart from his passing game, his biggest strength were probably his pressing resistance and his understanding of the game. His defensive positioning was usually spot on and he balanced the movements of his teammates well. At the same his general playing style and decision making could be erratic at times.
Most of what I know about Ocwirk I learned from a player analysis of him written by Rene Maric. If you speak German you should check it out. Maric is probably the biggest Ocwirk expert around, exluding, obviously, those who have seen him play back in the day.
From what I know, it seems like Ocwirk was one of the strongest defensive midfielders of the decade. He also gets full points for quantity of performance because the 50s mark the main body of his career. All in all I think his inclusion is justifiable – but shows why compiling these teams for even earlier times makes little sense.
Alfredo Di Stéfano
Alfredo Di Stéfano fascinates me. Of all the historic players I have watched over the last couple of years his playing style is both the most old-fashioned and, in a way, the most modern. Post-modern even. Because in some ways football evolution hasn’t caught up yet with Di Stéfano – more than 50 years after he retired.
“Don” Alfredo’s career began in the mid-40s in Argentina. He started out at River Plate, as an understudy to the players of the legendary “La Maquina”. Sadly virtually no footage of this most famous of all River teams has survived the ages. We will never know how good players like Pedernera, Munoz, Moreno, Labruna and Loustau really were. However, Di Stéfano, having learned his trade training and playing with them, is something like a living fossil. Through him we can get a glimpse into the fabled pre-50s Argentinean football. And indeed, there is something to his game that is positively old-fashioned. A certain elegance that is grounded in calm, composed and languid movements. It is impossible to overlook the similarities to the great Argentinean dance, the Tango. Moves like this one look both ingenious and antique to modern eyes.
However, not everything about Di Stéfano’s game was old-fashioned. For all we know, he did way more than carry the torch of Argentinia’s Golden Age. He also transcendent it in numerous ways. Legends like Pedernera have a mystical appeal to modern football fans like myself, but there is little doubt that Di Stéfano was not only their successor but also their superior.
Here is one way in which Di Stéfano was superior to his teachers – and arguably everyone else: Alfredo Stéfano Di Stéfano Laulhé was the total footballer. No other player in the history of the game can claim to be as polyvalent as he was. Certainly not Pelé, Maradona and Messi, the other GOAT candidates, and in my opinion not even Mr. Total Football himself, Johan Cruyff. See, I haven’t yet told you what position Di Stéfano did play in. If you look it up, you will read that he was a centre forward and just maybe you will finde the description “false nine” floating around somewhere. While none of that is entirely false, here is something that is much closer to the truth: Di Stéfano had no real position. At least not in any classical sense of the word. Please note that this is different to what I wrote about John Charles. He had two positions in which he excelled, centre half and centre forward. Di Stéfano on the other hand excelled in all of them.
Watch the earliest matches of him that have survived until today, especially the 1960 Eurpoean Cup final, and you see a player who pops up everywhere across the field. There are moves when he receives the ball at the edge of his own sixteen yard box, participates in the passing game in the middle of the park, only to finish the move from the centre forward position. Cruyff, at his very best, did so as well. But Di Stéfano is equally omnipresent when his team doesn’t have the ball. He tracks back time and time again and sometimes can be found playing in defense for longer spells. I know of one match in which Cruyff actually played as a defender for the whole game but for the most part his defensive contributions were rather limited. Just like Lionel Messi, Cruyff had outstanding defensive skills but used them seldomly. The Real Madrid legend, on the other hand, had both the skills and the workrate to really become the complete footballer. Between libero and centre forward he could play every position. He even was a more than decent wide player. As far as I know, this is unmatched in football history. No player did as many things as well as Di Stéfano.
After a players’ strike in 1949 Di Stéfano, like several other Argentiniean greats, moved to Millonarios Fútbol Club in Bogota, Colombia. As with “La Maquina”, very little footage of this team is available today. “The Ballet Azul” seems to have been a very strong team, though. They managed to beat some of the finest European club sides when they toured overseas in the early 50s. Di Stéfano scored 100 goals in only 112 appearances for them. This is the best goal return of his career. But he didn’t fare that much worse at his other stations. 53 in 72 for River and 307 in 396 for Real (let’s ignore the spell at Espanyol) are excellent numbers. All but maybe the top 10 pure centre forwards in football history would be proud to have these scoring rates. And Di Stéfano, as I just elaborated upon, was far from being a pure centre forward. The fact that he nevertheless boasts these numbers tells you all you need to know about his qualities as a finisher. Take a look at some of his goal compilations and one thing stands out: there are quite a few poacher’s goals among them. No surprise for a classic fox-in-the-box kind of striker, but more noteworthy in Don Alfredo’s case. That he could spend so much time outside of the immediate danger zone and still arrive so often at the exact spot he needed to be is testament to his goalscoring instinct. The elegant maestro, the tango dancer on the football pitch – he knew exactly where to stand in order to poke some scrappy rebound home. Doesn’t make you a worse player.
The main body of Di Stéfano’s career will forever be associated with one club – and rightly so. He is without a doubt the most important player in the history of Real Madrid and together with Santiago Bernabeu the most important person in their history. Real being named the best club of the 20th century by FIFA is unthinkable without Di Stéfano. (Having said that, the words “unthinkable” and “FIFA” should be used together only with great caution.) He led the “Merengues” to five consecutive European Cup wins between 1956 and 1960. This is arguably the most succesful streak of any football club anywhere. To claim that “they won everything” would be wrong, though. The original “White Ballet” failed to win a single Copa del Rey and only won two out of five La Liga titles during their unmatched European run. They weren’t unbeatable. However, this doesn’t change the fact that Di Stéfano’s Real was one of the strongest club sides in football history. Very few, if any, other teams towered above their contemporaries like they did. And when other teams ruled football for a time, they were usually able to do so (among other things) because they were tactically ahead of the competition. Take the Ajax team of the early 70s. They seemed to be years or maybe even decades ahead of the competition. They were faster, more powerful, more collective, more vertical than their opponents. Similar, yet very different, was the case of Guardiola’s Barcelona or the “Mighty Magyars”, the other great team of the 50s. All of them were in some way conceptually ahead of the competition. From what I can tell, Real Madrid weren’t – but they had Di Stéfano!
Okay, I admit it, that is a bit much. They had many fine players who worked well together. Giants of the game like Gento, Santamaria, Puskas, Didi, and Kopa cannot be easily discarded. But still… the statement is not entirely wrong. None of the great club sides in history were as obviously created in the image of a single player as they were. And that player was Di Stéfano. I’m not an expert on basketball, but maybe this analogy isn’t entirely off: Sure, the Chicago Bulls of the 90s had more than one outstanding player and they contributed greatly, but at the same time there is a true sense in which they were Michael Jordan’s team. The same thing applies to the Real Madrid side of the 50s and Di Stéfano. He transformed the team and even the club. That side was “his” team in a stronger sense than Ajax were Cruyff’s team, France ’84 Platini’s team or Argentina ’86 Maradona’s team. Both on and off the field, Di Stéfano acted as the undisputed leader of this group of players. Even calling him a team dictator isn’t entirely wrong. The most famous signs of his status among his teammates are probably the situations in which he runs at one of his own teammates and takes the ball off him. If he wasn’t satisfied with what his teammates were doing, he wasn’t afraid to let the whole world see it. As far as we know, Di Stéfano’s influence both on and off the field knew few bounds.
Few characters would be even willing to do something like this, fewer even can manage to pull it off. One reason why Di Stéfano succeeded in making Real Madrid “his” team is obviously that he was such an excellent footballer. His teammates realised that he was their superior and were willing to follow him because of that. But being a great player is not enough to become a great leader of your team. You have to have the right personality for it: The Argentine was an extremely ambitious and focused player. He wanted his team to be as succesful as possible and was willing to go to great lengths to ensure that success. Whoever stood in his way was brushed aside. His determination is unmatched among the greats. Players like Pelé and Messi were top professionals, too. (Maradona less so.) They took their work seriously. But Di Stéfano’s absolute, burning ambition is absent in them. If a modern player embodies it, it’s probably Cristiano Ronaldo. (Although there are some doubts on what exactly the ultimate goal of his ambition is.) The outstanding in-depth-analysis of Di Stéfano, written by Rene Maric, mentions Cristiano as a reference point for Di Stéfano’s ambition as well. There are massive differences between their player profiles, though. Maric calls Di Stéfano a cross between Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo, but while there is some truth to that, I think he has actually more of Modric than of Ronaldo.
If one had to answer the question how Real Madrid managed to win five European Cups in a row in one sentence, this could be a sensible answer: Because a group of fine players were drilled into a relentless winning machine by one of the greatest and most complete players of all time. “Because by having Di Stéfano on the field they always had at least a one man advantage” is another decent try.
This very driven and pragmatic streak is another thing that sets Di Stéfano apart from his mentors. The famous attack of “La Maquina” was also called the “Knights of the Anguish” because they often failed to convert their dominance into clear scorelines. Di Stéfano did not toy around with his opponents. He beat them, period.
I have already implied that Di Stéfano, for me, is one of the few players who can claim to be a candidate for the title of best football player ever. I have pointed out some ways in which he was different and quite possibly superior to the other three players I consider worthy of being mentioned in that debate. His total approach to playing football and his brutal ambition set him apart from Pelé, Maradona and Messi. Does that imply that I think he’s the best of them all things considered? No, for now I don’t want subscribe to that statement. While, as I said, there are ways in which he was superior to them, there are also some respects in which he was a weaker player. If one could quantify the raw talent a player has, how much he becomes one with the ball, how intuitive his mastery of the sport seems – if one could measure that, I tend to think that Di Stéfano would reach a lower score than the other three. Pelé, Maradona, and Messi play like they were born with the ball at their feet. Their mastery of it is as complete as humanly possible. Di Stéfano, as I said, is a very fine footballer, very elegant with an evasive dribbling style, excellent technique, but not as excellent as with the other three. He has a unique and very interesting way to dribble, but those mazy corkscrew-like runs with the ball at his feet that you see the other three players pull off on a regular basis are beyond him as far as I can tell. Now, of course dribblings like that are just one aspect of technical mastery and there are many more, but I think it is fair to say that Di Stéfano was ultimately a technically weaker player than the other three. He was more skillful than naturally talented, if you know what I mean. He could pull off pieces of great skill, but the ball was not a part of his body like it is with Pelé, Maradona or Messi. Those three have different player profiles as well, but by and large they are remarkably similar. The difference between Di Stéfano and the other three is bigger than that between Pelé, Maradona, and Messi. If one had to break it down to one short formula, one could say that while Pelé, Maradona, and Messi mostly interact with the ball, Di Stéfano’s game was more about the interactions with the greater dynamics of the game. He wasn’t able to control the ball as well as his GOAT rivals, but he controlled the ebb and flow of the game more than they did, or in Messi’s case, do.
Also, Di Stéfano wasn’t the most precise player. His pass completion rate could have been higher, you do see him misplace relatively easy passes once in a while. In that regard, he was a product of his times. Even the very best players regularly lost balls that modern players shouldn’t lose and tried things modern players wouldn’t try because they know it makes little sense. You also see him play very few throughballs which underlines the lack of precision. Di Stéfano’s overall approach to the game made him a very valuable player in virtually every game, his actions with the ball were more hit and miss than that.
If you want to experience him at his best, I can point you to two videos. The first is the best highlight reel of him I’ve seen so far. The second is the full video of the 1960 European Cup final against Eintracht Frankfurt. This is the best full match I’ve seen him play. Frankfurt try their best but ultimately they can’t get close to him. He is forever sending the Germans the wrong way and dictates Real’s game from the middle of the park. A true maestro’s performance. Oh, and he scores a hattrick.
This seems to be the right moment to make my now almost customary remark that you should treat most of what I say about Di Stéfano with caution. I’ve watched the full Di Stéfano archive on Footballia.net but since it only contains six matches, that hardly adds up to a full picture. This is amplified by the fact that the earliest match is from 1959. By that time Di Stéfano is 33 years old. Forming an opinion on the playing style of the younger Di Stéfano is virtually impossible. There are some short snippets of footage but not enough to get more than a fleeting impression.
If the younger Di Stéfano combined the strengths of his older self with a more dynamic and powerful physique (he was also nicknamed “The Blond Arrow” after all), I may have to scratch some of the qualificatory remarks I’ve made. Maybe he was a better vertical dribbler than I think he was. The thing is, we can’t be sure. There is a real possibility that the Di Stéfano of ~1956 had the highest peak in football history, but we will never know for sure. For now, I’m going with the assumption that Di Stéfano’s playing style, apart from the obvious changes that come with age, remained relatively unchanged over the course of his career. That means I’m extrapolating from what I’ve seen the older Di Stéfano do on the pitch.
To finish this portrait, I want to point you to some specific scenes that showcase his brilliance. Here he is showing his fine basic technique by controlling a powerful shot instantly. In this scene he scores a backheel volley goal. Finally, this passage of play gives you a broader picture what he was all about. You see him shouting commands to his teammates, you see his evasive dribbling and his creative link-up play. You even see his trademark move, the backheel. Actually, the fact that he used this move so often tells you quite a bit about him. A backheel pass can be played with little physical effort and does not even require that much technique, but to use it to your advantage you need an excellent understanding of what happens around you on the pitch. This paramount understanding of the dynamics that unfold on the football pitch is perhaps Di Stéfano’s greatest strength and make him a unique and ultimately outstanding footballer.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Di Stéfano has earned a place in the team and the title Player of the Decade. The timespan from 1950 to 1960 mark the best years of his career. You could still see what an extraordinary player he was in the early 60s, but the 50s, right up to the Frankfurt final, are the pinnacle of his career. Thus, he gets top marks for both quantity and quality of performance. Péle might have overtaken him during the final months of the decade in question, but apart from that Di Stéfano may just have been the best player in the world from 1950 right through 1960.
The biggest compliments often do not come from your friends and teammates, but from your opponents. When Sepp Herberger, the manager of the German national team, prepared his side for the 1954 World Cup final, he knew which tactical objective his team needed to fulfill in order to have a chance against the mighty Hungarians: stop Hidegkuti. Sure, they had goal machines like Puskas and Kocsis, brilliant players in their own right, but the key man, Herberger knew, was Hidegkuti.
Hidegkuti wasn’t a fast player, and he wasn’t strong or powerful. He had a good technique, excellent even in some regards, but he was no magician on the ball. What made him so dangerous was his intelligence. He was one of the smartest players of his age and, looked at in hindsight, one of the most influential. What will forever be associated with the name Hidegkuti is the “invention” of the “False 9”. On paper Hidegkuti was Hungary’s central striker. According to the football orthodoxy of the day he should have played in and close to the box. He even wore the number 9 jersey. But that was not how he played. Similarly to Di Stéfano he liked to drop deep and collect the ball in midfield and sometimes even in defence. From there he would initiate play. Sometimes with long passes but more often with quick link-up play. Exchanging passes with his teammates or with the ball at his feet he would accelerate towards where the opponent thought he should have been in the first place.
Defenders didn’t know what hit them. In the strict man marking system of the 50s, Hidegkuti’s playing style caused all sorts of problems. Should his marker follow him? That would create space for Puskas and Kocsis. And you really, really, really don’t want to give space to those two. Or should his marker they put? In that case you’d have an unmarked Hidegkuti running at you with speed, not a viable option either.
Here is a textbook example of Hidegkuti’s playing style. He receives the ball deep and then advances towards goal while participating in his team’s link up game. By the way, this was called offside. Even keeping in mind that the offside rule was a bit different back then, that is a horrendous call if I’ve ever seen one.
So while Hidegkuti by no means played like an orthodox centre forward, his goal ratio is that of an elite striker. 265 goals in 381 games at club level is an excellent return. 39 in 69 international games is slightly worse and could be an indicator that he played more “false” when on international duty. But this is just guesswork. Perhaps the best goal of him I’ve seen so far is this one. Bozsik wins the ball in midfield and quickly plays a constructive pass forward, Hidegkuti produces a lovely body feint before showing his excellent shooting technique. If you want to get a good impression of prime Hidegkuti you can watch his personal highlights from the Wembley match or, better still, the whole thing.
His performance in the 1954 final wasn’t bad either, but unlucky. He hit the post once and squandered one of Hungary’s biggest chances. You can’t really blame him, though. When you hit a hard volley from close distance on goal and not diretcly at the goalkeeper that is enough to score in 999/1000 cases. Somehow, Toni Turek managed to make that attempt the 1000th case.
Hidegkuti was also quite good without the ball. For an attacking player of his day and age he made a lot of interceptions. And while the main purpose behind him leaving his position was an attacking one, it did enable him to make defensive contributions – sometimes even in his own penalty box! While I still think that Di Stéfano was the total footballer of the decade, Hidegkuti surely comes in second.
Hidegkuti’s career ended in 1958 but I’m confident that he did more than enough to merit inclusion. He’s among the 3-4 players who have a legitimate claim for the title of best player in the world during the first half of the 50s. To make a more precise assessment is impossible due to the lack of footage. Unlike some of his teammates, Hidegkuti stayed in Hungary even after the smashed revolution and subsequently there is less footage of him than of, for example, Puskas.
Nandor Hidegkuti, one of the finest creative players and tactical revolutionaries of the decade, one of if not the key player of the “Mighty Magyars”, easily makes the team.
This is the second time Gento features in one of my teams. Javier from Footballia.net wrote a profile on him for the ’55-’65 team. If you want to read what a really competent person has to say about him, the sensible thing would be to read his portrait.
Javier points out that while Gento was most famous for his pace, he had some other outstanding qualities as well. This is undoubtedly true. Having said that… my word, was he fast! I’ve recently watched the 1962 European Cup final between Madrid and Benfica. Gento is 28 by that time, which means that just maybe he is already one or two years past his peak speed-wise. He just runs his direct opponent to bits. Taking into account the improvements in physical trainining and so on, one can assume that some modern players (Aubameyang, Jesus Navas) are probably even fast than Gento in absolute terms, but I’ve never seen a player who is that much faster than his contemporaries. To experience his pace, look no further than the aforementioned match.
Gento’s closest rival for the first team spot was Zoltán Czibor. The left winger of the “Mighty Magyars”ultimately misses out because he didn’t impress me that much in the famous match against England and because his career has a two year gap after he fled Hungary. Since quantity of performance is one of the two key factors for inclusion this has to speak against his inclusion.
László Kubala by Javier
Often overlooked in discussions about the great players of all times, László Kubala – known as Ladislao in Spain after he became a citizen – was regarded as the best player in FC Barcelona history until Leo Messi came along. He was so good he brought about the building of the Camp Nou because the old Les Corts stadium couldn’t hold the number of people who wanted to see him play. He’s also the only player to this day to have a statue outside the stadium.
Kubala defected his native Hungary to escape communism and the military service. Ironically he did so dressed as a soldier in a military truck. In his own words, he wanted to be a sportsman, not a soldier. While living in Italy, he was invited to travel with the the great Torino side to Lisbon, but he didn’t get permission. He was very disappointed, but in missing that trip, he would also save his life, as the team’s plane would crash on the Superga hills outside Turin in one of football’s worst tragedies.
After a two-year FIFA ban, he settled in Barcelona where he revolutionized the football played in Spain at the time. His own teammates would say Kubala taught them to play football and touch the ball “the right way”. He did things nobody had seen before back then. It’s a common view today, but he was the first player to curb the ball over the wall when taking a free kick. His penalties were also almost perfect; he said himself he was sure he’d only missed one, and maybe another, but he didn’t remember very well. He would stop his run toward the ball suddenly and wait for the keeper to hint a motion to one side, then he’d coolly shoot to the other.
Unfortunately, we only have a handful of full games of Kubala, and in all of them he was already in his early 30s, past his prime, but they’re still worth watching every minute, as we can see his area of influence on the pitch. It’s also plain to see he was a special player even at that age. In those matches we can see him in different attacking positions, usually as a link between the midfield and the striker(s), or even as a faux right winger. His number of goals and goal ratio vary according to the source, but in any case, they’re very high. According to different articles online, he scored 194 goals in 256 matches in his 10 years at Barcelona. He’s also the first player to have scored 7 goals in a single league match. Therefore we could define him, not as a number 10, not as a number 9 either, but as a 9.5.
Apart from the handful of full matches, there are a number of highlight reels available online and the accounts of those who saw him play. They all agree that when he protected the ball, nobody could take it away from him as he would use his powerful physique to get himself between the opponent and the ball. Some of the footage remind us of the way Luis Suárez uses his butt nowadays to keep the opponent away from the ball. But he wasn’t only a strong player. By all accounts he was more technically gifted than anyone at the time. He would feint going one way and would go the other, he would touch the ball with the soles of his feet, he could dribble, he was equally adept with both feet… Many of these things sound very common today, but he did them when nobody else was doing it.
If we take a look at the bigger picture, he also boosted FC Barcelona to a myriad of trophies during the 1950s and he became a cultural figure in Spanish everyday life at the time and a legend – especially in Catalonia – today.
So why, then, is he often overlooked as one of the greatest players of all time? He is one of the few players to have played for three different National Teams – Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Spain – and yet, he never played in a World Cup. In an era without the all-important European Cup, the World Cup was the biggest – if not the only – international spotlight for a player. And he wasn’t in it. But he still deserves the same praise as Di Stéfano or countryman Puskás, for example, who considered him their equal and their friend even, as proven by the fact that both – being Real Madrid legends – donned the Barça shirt for Kubala’s testimonial match.
So, all in all, for all these reasons, his place in this team is undisputed.
Ferenc Puskás by Daniel Roßbach
I have written about Puskás in these pages before, focusing on the later part of the great Hungarian’s career. In this second part of the portrait we will say what can be said about the early Puskás, where we encounter the serious lack of material that makes it necessary to end the series at this point.
That is not a great empirical foundation, even if we take into account the snippets from other games, whose selection bias is especially problematic if our aim is, as it happens to be, to chart how Puskás’ positional play and involvement in different phases of games has changed over time. So, these are the grains of salt with which to take the following.
The conventional view on Puskás development is, I suppose, that as an inside-forward in Hungary and Honved’s WM-system, he played in a more withdrawn, dynamic, midfield-y role. I would disagree somewhat with that view and instead argue that Puskás didn’t change his style of play much at all. Even though the young Puskás was more lean and agile than his later self (whose bursts of pace must not be underestimated, as we
have already seen), he still mostly played in and scored from what would become the 10 space and the penalty box. He could already be seen to cleverly create space with well-chosen moments of pause and clever back-heeled passes, and of course had command of his trademark shot. He was also already far enough removed from an ideal athletic figure for then Chelsea player Ron Greenwood to remark that he appeared as “a
roly-poly little fellow who looked as if he did most of his training in restaurants”.
What changed was the system and the players around Puskás. With Hungary, the (great, great) Hidegkuti was both the supply path and often recipient of Puskás’ plays, while the second inside forward Kocsis and the wingers provided additional outlets. In Spain, this
morphed into a system in which Puskás was formally the furthest player forward, with Di Stefano doing similar things to Hidegkuti but without the two inside forwards. This meant that while Puskás had similar actions as previously, the balance of the team around him shifted backwards, thus making his role a more advanced one.
That the great Hungarian side wasn’t perfect is even visible in the England game, in which the hosts are granted plenty of space in between the defensive and attacking halves of the Hungarian team. But team compactness wasn’t really a footballing category at the time. Instead, Puskás, Kocsis and Hidegkuti juggled the ball effortlessly just before
the match kicked off.
Also changed where the political circumstances in which Puskás played his football. When the Hungarian uprising of 1956 happened, his Honved side were away to Athletic Club in Bilbao, and subsequently after playing the return leg in Bruxelles didn’t return to Budapest, instead going on a fundraising and publicity tour through Europe that wasn’t sanctioned by the Hungarian authorities or FIFA and resulted in a 2 year ban, after which Puskás signed with Madrid – swapping the Communist dictatorship Hungarians had rebelled against for the fascist Franco regime in Spain.
Puskás, significantly but temporarily out of shape, was apparently not wanted by any of the Italian clubs, while Germany was yet to establish a professional league just as England had trouble accommodating foreigners in its game. So, there were limited options for Puskás. But even so, signing for a Spanish club that was not in any way opposed to the Franco regime, does cast some doubt on the image of Puskás as engaged in a democratic revolution. This claim does get repeated regularly, in spite of a lack of much evidence for it.
We do have evidence (though not as much as we’d like) for Puskás’ outstanding talent, which was not just greater than that of next to all footballers throughout history, but is also quite unique in the way he combined vision and technique with just enough athleticism to allow his footballing ability to translate into magnificence on the field.
Well, this is the end. This project started almost two years ago with the first part of the German version of the 2005-15 Team of the Decade. As I’ve said in the disclaimer before every one of these blogposts, I will end this series with the 50s team. Compiling teams for the decades before the 50s makes little sense to me. There is basically no footage of the players available and thus I can’t form an opinion that is truly my own.
For my part, I am very pleased with how this series of blogposts turned out. I learned a lot, had very interesting discussions and above all I had lots of fun watching the matches, writing about the players and interacting with my readers. I thank you all.
However, there are some people that I want to mention in particular. They joined me as guest authors and without their contributions this blog would have been so much poorer. These are in chronological order: @hyperpressing, Rob Fielder, Javier, Tobias Escher and Daniel Roßbach. Massive thanks to each and every one of you!
Basically every second link that I put in the player profiles leads to Footballia.net. This homepage has revolutionised the availability of historical matches. Their contribution to the study of football history is immense. You should check them out.
In the next couple of weeks I will publish another few posts to cap this project off. I also recorded a podcast with Sebastian Kahl from the Yesteryear Football Podcast in which I look back on this project (among other things).
So this is the end of my little journey through football history. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I did. We’ll meet each other again in 2020, when the next Team of the Decade is due.