Team of Football History 1950-2017

During the last ten years I’ve watched my way through (male) football history. At first I did so without any specific plan. Whatever got me interested landed on my watch list. But during the last two years my viewing schedule got more structured. As many of you will know, I’ve compiled Teams of the Decade and published them on this blog. Starting with the 2005-15 team, I have worked my way back in five year steps to the 1950-60 team. After that I stopped because the lack of footage for players before 1950 makes it impossible to form an opinion on them that is truly my own. Working on this project meant that I had to watch many more matches in order to form an educated opinion on the great players of the past. By now I think I have a decent knowledge about football history.

Judging the quality of historic players is not always easy. Statements like “player X is better than player Y” are problematic even when you compare players from the same era and the same position. Things get much more messy when comparisons across eras and positions are made. Football is a complex game and simple statements often end up being simplistic. However, a radical skepticism on such comparisons seems to miss the mark as well. Statements like “Franz Beckenbauer was a better football player than Lukas Podolski” are tricky, sure, but most people who have a clue about football and football history will see that there is a relevant sense in which this is a true statement. So yes, comparing footballers across positions and eras is far from being easy and I cannot claim that it ultimately is serious business but it is not wholly arbitrary either. Things like educated opinions are possible. What you will now read is just that (I hope): an educated opinion. (And a lot of fun for me, maybe for you as well.)

You can find a lot of All Time XI’s floating around the internet. Most of them share the same weaknesses. Here is one the readers of the Guardian, one of the newspapers with the best football coverage, chose in 2010:

guardianxi

I will ignore the elephant in the room that is Steven Gerrard and comment on some more systemic issues:

  • the team lacks a defensive midfielder
  • the team lacks a central midfielder
  • the team lacks a physically strong central defender
  • there is a clear focus on fielding as many big name players as possible
  • apart from Pelé, players from the more distant past are absent

The first three points are harder criticism than the last two because they clearly state that something has gone astray. In this case it’s a lack of respect for the less shiny positions in football. Defensive midfielders, central midfielders and physically strong defenders are essential to football but often forgotten when Best of-Teams are compiled. I intend not to repeat this mistake.

What I want to do is to compile a team that is realistic and fair. What do I mean by that? No player should be barred from having a chance to make the team just because he plays in the wrong position. No defensive midfielder should be overlooked just because someone thinks fielding three strikers and four attacking midfielders is a good idea. That doesn’t do justice to the great players who played in these less heralded positions. So what I did is to create a blueprint from which I build the team. Here it is:

blaupause 5017

I think that every football player who has played after 1950 can fit into one of these positions. Some positions like wingback and wide midfielder aren’t listed but I think most players who played in these positions could feature as wingers or fullbacks as well.

Some explanations:

  • The two central defenders are described as “Libero” and “Centre-back”. What do I mean by that? The terms only really make sense in a tactical sense but for my purposes they have a different meaning: I want to field at least one physically strong defender. That is the centre-back. The other central defender can, of course, be physically strong as well, but the crucial point is: he doesn’t have to. Defending has a lot to do with clever positioning, working as a unit, intelligence, focus and experience. None of these things require physical strength. But raw power is something that is a big part of defending as well. That is why I decided not to field two physically weaker central defenders. Franz Beckenbauer marks the boundary between weaker and stronger defenders. All defenders who are physically more imposing than him count as physically strong while he himself is placed just inside the “weaker” fraction. One upshot of this rule is that a Beckenbauer-Baresi pairing is ruled out. Baresi was a tough player, but physically imposing he was not. So for me, “Libero” just means “central defender, no matter how physically imposing” and “centre back” means “central defender, physically imposing”.
  • Midfielders do only qualify as “defensive midfielders” if they are able to fill the spot in front of the defense on their own. Deep midfielders like Pirlo, who needed enforcers by their side, therefor do not count as “defensive midfielders”. Deep-lying playmakers like him are counted as “central midfielders” instead.
  • Apart from prototypical central midfielders like Xavi and the aforementioned deep-lying playmakers, box-to-box midfielders count as central midfielders as well.
  • Across football history there were a handful of players with a truly exceptional player profile. Looking at old teamsheets they are usually listed as forwards or attacking midfielders but what they really did is play just about everywhere. Di Stéfano, Hidegkuti and Johan Cruyff come to mind. These “total footballers” are for the purposes of this team counted as attacking midfielders.
  • Most of the candidates for the title of greatest player ever played roughly in the same position. Players like Pelé, Maradona and Messi can be categorized as “attacking allrounders”. Something similar applies to Zico, Ronaldinho and, for the most part, Cruyff. They played somewhere between the strikers and the midfield, sometimes in the centre of the pitch and sometimes more laterally, creating and scoring in equal measures. If football had something like a most valuable position, it would probably be this one. Most All Time XIs try to stuff as many attacking allrounders as possible into the starting line-up. I don’t. I restrict myself to fielding two of them at most. This directly implies that not all of Pelé, Maradona and Messi can make the first team. As tough as this choice is, I have to leave one of them on the bench. Unless I play Maradona as an attacking midfielder because it’s fair to say that the post ~1984 Maradona qualifies for that position as well.
  • The centre forward position is defined as being more attacking than the attacking allrounder. Players who qualify for this position don’t have to be out and out strikers but they must have played at least a bit more like a true forward than, for example, Pelé and Messi.

My selection is, as always, based on quality and quantity of performance alone. What is important is not how many titles you have won, how many individual awards you got, how famous or influentual you were or what the wider public thinks of you. What is important is how well you played football and for how long you did so. I’m not going as far as to commit myself to a specific formula on which I base my selection (like an addition of all weighted performance scores). Since compiling teams like these is no exact science to begin with, I think it’s enough to say that both quantity and quality of performance matter. What every selected player has done is to play really well for an extended period of time.

In what follows I present to you my selection for a Team of Football History 1950-2017 and explain my choices. These explanations will include a lot of information on the selected players but they are not meant to be player profiles by themselves. You can find these in my Team of the Decade blogposts.

Well, that was a rather long introduction. Here is the team:

5017

Manager: Alex Ferguson

Bench: (four players per position) Yashin, Kahn, Schmeichel, Neuer; N.Santos, R. Carlos, Krol, Breitner; Baresi, Scirea, Koeman, Passarella; Nesta, Moore, Desailly, Kohler; Zanetti, D. Santos, Cafu, Thuram; Bozsik, Makelele, Souness, Redondo; Matthäus, Coluna, L. Suarez M., Pirlo; Maradona, Zidane, Platini, B. Charlton; Cruyff, C. Ronaldo, Gento, Henry; G. Müller, Ronaldo, Romario, van Basten; Eusebio, Garrincha, Zico, Bergkamp

Best Player: I’ll save that one for another post

Best Team: FC Barcelona 2008-2012

Best Club: Real Madrid

Best Match: FC Barcelona – Real Madrid 5-0, 29.11.2010

 

Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Buffon

Bench for the position: Yashin, Kahn, Schmeichel, Neuer

I can tell you, selecting a goalkeeper was by no means one of the easier choices. What do you need to do to really be able to judge the quality of a goalkeeper? You have to watch him time and time again. Now, watching a lot of matches is a good way to get yourself in the position to properly judge a player for any position, but in the case of the goalkeeper it is even more essential. Watch a winger or a central midfielder and you will rather quickly get a general impression of his strengths and weaknesses. I find that the same doesn’t apply to the goalkeeper. Watch a top goalkeeper in any given match and there is a significant chance you will gather no meaningful information about him. Especially in the days before high pressing systems, goalkeepers were often spectators for most of the match. Maybe they had to make the odd routine save and manage to not embarrass themselves when collecting a cross or a corner but apart from that they had fairly little to do.

Gianluigi_Buffon_Euro_2012_final_01
Buffon during the Euro 2012 Final – 17 years after his professional debut. – Кирилл Крыжановский

Add to that the fact that consistency, while being a universal virtue in football, is probably most important for goalkeepers and judging the merits of keepers from days gone by gets insanely difficult.

I emphasize this point mainly because of Lev Yashin. The Soviet shot stopper whose career began in the 50s and lasted until the early 70s is the default candidat when it comes to the title of best goalkeeper ever. He’s the Pelé of goalkeepers, so to speak. As you have seen by now, I didn’t choose him. Here is the basic argument (without a strict logical structure) behind my choice:

  1. Consistency is of surpreme importance.
  2. I know that Buffon played consistenly at a very high level for very long.
  3. I can’t be quite sure how consistent Yashin was.
  4. In order to select him anyway, he’d have to perform significantly better than Buffon in those matches that I did see.
  5. What I saw from him was really great, but not much better than Buffon’s performances.

Still, Yashin came very close to making the team. I actually thought about just tossing a coin.

A word about the other candidates: Schmeichel and Kahn form what can be called the final evolutionary stage of the classical shot stopper. Both had fine careers that lasted well into the second half of their 30s and were as close to unbeatable on the line as any keeper. But since more modern keepers like Buffon, Neuer, and to his eternal credit, Yashin, weren’t much worse (if they were worse at all) at stopping shots than them, they can’t win the spot in the first eleven.

Neuer might just be on his way to dethrone Buffon. However, he will have to stay at his current level for a few more years until I’m willing to call him the new No.1. Right now his lack of quantity of performance in comparison to the other candidates speaks against him. If he produces some additional seasons or tournaments that are as good as his 2014 World Cup, he’ll be the best ever eventually.

Finally, a word on Buffon. He’s now in the late autumn of his career but I might just name him keeper of the season again for the 2016-17 season. He’s been playing at a world class level for ~20 years now. His peak came probably during the 2000s but he’s still really good with almost 40 years of age. For me, he’s not one those players whose quality of performance is so high, that I expect him to remain in this team for the next decades at least. Manuel Neuer at his very best comes close, but all things considered I think the Messi of goalkeepers is yet to be born (or it was Yashin all along…). Buffon leads the line in a long tradition of world class keepers. He is a very complete yet balanced player who kept his performance level up for ages.

Buffon: Team of the Decade 2000-2010

Yashin: Team of the Decade 1955-1965, Team of the Decade 1960-1970

Kahn: Team of the Decade 1995-2005

Schmeichel: Team of the Decade 1990-2000

Neuer: Team of the Decade 2005-2015, Euro 2016 XI, Team of the Season 2014-2015

 

Left back: Paolo Maldini

Bench for the position: N. Santos, R. Carlos, Krol, Breitner

As I said, choosing a goalkeeper was really tough. Leftback? Not so much.

Paolo_Maldini_-_Milan_AC_1996-97
Maldini at the peak of his powers. – Source

Maldini never quite matched the brutal attacking skills of Roberto Carlos, Paul Breitner, or, for a more modern example, Marcelo, but apart from that he ticks all the boxes. Outstanding peak? Yes (maybe early 90s, maybe mid 90s, maybe late 90s… maybe the whole 90s!!!). Longevity? Haha, to even ask that question… Defensively solid? Very much so. I’ve written extensively about Maldini, so I won’t repeat myself by losing many words about him. Let’s just say he came pretty close to being the first person on the teamsheet.

Just a quick word on the other candidates: Carlos, Krol and Breitner were all more attacking than Maldini but weren’t as solid defensively and didn’t match his consistency. Nilton Santos comes closest but I don’t think he was as athletic as Maldini. Then again, I find it hard to judge him because only a few matches are available.

Another famous leftback that narrowly missed out was Fachetti. I love the playing style of the Inter legend but I saw him commit a few defensive mistakes too many to include him on the bench ahead of, for example, Breitner. Maybe I selected the wrong matches and am being a little tough on him.

Maldini: Team of the Decade 1995-2005, Team of the Decade 1990-2000, Team of the Decade 1985-1995

N. Santos: Team of the Decade 1955-1965, Team of the Decade 1950-1960

R. Carlos: Team of the Decade 1995-2005

Krol: Team of the Decade 1970-1980

Breitner: Team of the Decade 1970-1980

 

Centre-back: Elias Figueroa

Bench for this position: Nesta, Moore, Desailly, Kohler

Remember that the “centre-back” central defender was the one that needed to be physically more imposing than Franz Beckenbauer. This is why players like Baresi and Scirea can’t be fielded in this position.

Elias Figueroa is one of those players that greatly impressed me but that I haven’t seen that much material of. Not for a lack of trying, of course, but for a lack of (quality) footage. But from what I’ve seen he might just have been the ultimate defender. Very physically imposing, super rational decision making, going about his business with a minimum of fuss and at the same time being very elegant and classy. He just plays like the perfect modern centre-back…. but in the 60s and 70s!

Nesta, Kohler and Desailly match Figueroa’s physical abilities and were as fearsome as he was, but lack his cultured playing style. Moore on the other hand was a very cultured defender but he didn’t have Figueroa’s athleticism and his actions weren’t quite as clear-defined and rational as those of the Chilean.

Figueroa: Team of the Decade 1970-1980, Team of the Decade 1965-1975

Nesta: Team of the Decade 2000-2010, Team of the Decade 1995-2005

Moore: Team of the Decade: 1965-1975, Team of the Decade 1960-1970

Desailly: Team of the Decade 1990-2000

Kohler: Team of the Decade 1985-1995

 

Libero: Franz Beckenbauer

Bench for this position: Baresi, Scirea, Koeman, Passarella

This was one of the more agonizing decisions. Beckenbauer or Baresi? I want to field both. Both had the qualities and the careers to qualify for a place in this team, but at the same time I think it is reasonable that I designed my team in a way that forbade me fielding both of them.

Comparing them isn’t that hard because they share a lot of similarities. Both where brilliant playmakers in defense. Both acted as the on-field organisators of their respective sides. Both were integral for one of the strongest club sides in history. Both liked to drive forward with the ball. One key difference between them might be that Baresi was a bit more of a gnarly defender, who was very adept at marking someone out of the game. Beckenbauer did so as well, but wasn’t quite as accomplished at marking as Baresi. On the other hand, Beckenbauer might just have been the greater genius. His passing game is unreached. He probably was the most cultured defender ever. Because of that he just nicks the place off Baresi. But it is quite possible that I will reverse that decision in a few years time when I have watched more matches of them.

Scirea, Koeman and Passarella all come from the same style of defenders as Beckenbauer and Baresi did. They have some substantial differences between them, but by and large they are not that different from the two and from each other. I have to watch more matches from Scirea to really pinpoint where he ranks but for now I thing none of them can reach the leading pair.

Beckenbauer: Team of the Decade 1970-1980, Team of the Decade 1965-1975

Baresi: Team of the Decade 1985-1995, Team of the Decade 1980-1990

Scirea: Team of the Decade 1980-1990, Team of the Decade 1975-1985

Koeman: Team of the Decade 1985-1995

Passarella: Team of the Decade 1975-1985

 

Right back: Philipp Lahm

Bench for this position: Zanetti, D. Santos, Cafu, Thuram

Right back might just be the position in world football history with the fewest great players. Which is not to say that there haven’t been some outstanding ones. You can find five of them right here and there are some others, but compared with some other positions, there is a certain lack of standout players.

Lahm in my opinion is the best of the bunch, mainly because he has something the others lack. He is a playmaker on the fullback position. This is very rare. I don’t think any of the other candidates can claim to be a considerable playmaking presence. Thuram and Djalma Santos were very defensive minded players who contributed little with the ball at their feet. Cafu, of course, was a fullback/winger hybrid. Zanetti is an interesting case because he was so polyvalent. But I don’t think he was as accomplished with the ball at his feet as Lahm was. Lahm’s rationality and decision making is what gives him the edge. The fact that he ended his career rather early makes me less assured in naming him the best ever right back but since he was über-consistent as long as he played, I think fielding him is justified.

Lahm: Team of the Decade 2005-2015, Team of the Season 2015-2016

Zanetti: Team of the Decade 2000-2010

D. Santos: Team of the Decade 1955-1965

Cafu: Team of the Decade 1990-2000

Thuram: Team of the Decade 1995-2005

 

Defensive Midfielder: Sergio Busquets

Bench for the position: Bozsik, Souness, Redondo, Makelele

The defensive midfield position still gets associated with burly enforcers who weren’t good enough technically to become more attacking midfielders. That is both a shame and historically wrong. There is a long line of defensive midfielders whose main strength was their fine understanding of the game and flawless technique. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When you think about it, the defensive midfield position calls for a strategic player. With the ball you are often the one who decides which kind of attacking move will be started. And without the ball you have so much space to cover that you can’t rely on running and tackling but have to have a fine understanding of where to position yourself in order to push the opponent into less dangerous areas. The best defensive midfielders the game has ever seen excelled in doing these things. They were real playmakers in front of the defence while simultanously shielding the back line all by themselves. All five selected players fit that description.

Spain_national_football_team_Euro_2012_final
Spain 2012. Busquets wears the no. 16 shirt.. – Илья Хохлов

Why did I choose Busquets? Doesn’t that choice seem a bit suspicious? He is only 28 after all. And yes, it really was a close call because Busquets’ quantity of performance is a bit lacking compared to some of the other candidates who have completed their career. However, when it comes to quality of performance, I genuinely think that Busquets is in a class of its own. I named him Player of the Season two times so far, which is quite an achievement in the age of Messi. (Unless, of course, my choice is unreasonable, which I don’t think it is.)

I have written about Busquets at length, so I just point you towards these writings. For now, let me just say, that I have never seen a defensive midfielder who combines the traits genius, all around rationality and defensive reliability as well as he does. He can give you many special moments, while doing the right thing in almost all other moments. This is a very seldom trait, that I will come back to when talking about Messi. Redondo, for example, provided many special moments as well, but that came at a certain cost. Makelele, on the other hand, was just as reliable as Busquets, but with far fewer special moments.

Busquets has been playing at a world class level since his breaktrough in 2008-09. From back then to now, he had two seasons that were a bit weaker (2014-15 & 2016-17) and two seasons that were even above his usual level (2013-14 & 2015-16). Apart from them, he has been consistenly playing at the upper end of the world class spectrum. All things considered that is enough to make the team. Possibly the most intelligent player in the history of football.

Busquets: Team of the Decade 2005-2015, Team of the Season 2015-2016

Bozsik: Team of the Season 1950-1960

Souness: Team of the Season 1975-1985

Redondo: Team of the Decade 1990-2000

Makelele: Team of the Decade 2000-2010

 

Central Midfielder: Xavi

Bench for the position: Matthäus, Coluna, L. Suarez M., Pirlo

Now that was a tough one. I’m reasonably sure that Xavi had some of the best seasons a central midfielder has ever had. And I’m reasonably sure that Xavi loses out in terms of quantity of performance to at least two of the benched players and possibly all four of them.

Andrea_Pirlo_and_Xavi_Euro_2012_final
Central midfield royalty. – Илья Хохлов

Let’s start with the first part: quality of performance. When Xavi was near his peak, he dominated world football like no other central midfielder before him. His era of dominance that stretched from Euro 2008 to Euro 2012 is, I think, superior to what any other central midfielder has ever done. Style-wise, Xavi was the cornerstone of both the most succesful international team since the Brazil side of ’58-’62 and what is maybe the most dominant club side ever in Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. I’m yet to see another central midfielder who could control the ebb and flow of the game as well as he did. Football becomes so much easier when you have that little guy playing somewhere around the centre circle and just doing everything right all the time.

Players like Matthäus and Coluna were far more complete than Xavi, but neither of them were as dominant. One could say that they were better at things that aren’t part of the key task of a central midfielder – like scoring goals and putting in tackles – but that Xavi was better than them at the most central task a central midfielder has, knitting it all together.

What makes me worry that I have chosen the wrong player is not Xavi’s quality of performance but the quantity. What did he do outside his peak years? Players like Matthäus can boast to have played almost 20 years at a high level, Xavi can’t. What saves the day for him is that I think his performances pre-2008 are severly underrated. I think he became a world class player in the early 2000s. In retrospect, I think I should have found a place for him in the Team of the Decade 2000-2010, possibly ahead of Scholes. This leaves Xavi with more than a decade as a world class player which is, in this case, just enough quantity of performance to make the team.

Xavi: Team of the Decade 2005-2015

Matthäus: Team of the Decade 1985-1995

Coluna: Team of the Decade 1960-1970

L. Suarez M.: Team of the Decade 1955-1965

Pirlo: Team of the Decade 2000-2010

 

Attacking Midfielder: Alfredo Di Stéfano

Bench for the position: Maradona, Zidane, Platini, Charlton

Okay, now we’re getting to the big guns. The attacking midfielder position is one of the most contested. And it is one of the positions for which some of the ‘big four’ are eligible. By the ‘big four’ I mean Di Stéfano, Pelé, Maradona and Messi. For me, those four players are the prime candidates for the title of best player in football history (so far). I will write about them in detail and present to you my view on who is the best of them. But I will do so in a separate blogpost. It’s obvious that this blogpost contains one big hint, because Maradona only makes the bench, but apart from that I will say no more about them. Instead I will say a few words on the benched players for this position.

Real_Madrid_(1964)
Real Madrid in their twilight years. Di Stéfano is the central player in the bottom row. Nationaal Archief

Bobby Charlton was a very versatile player who to this day marks the high water mark for the more attacking kind of English all-purpose midfielder, with Gerrard and Lampard as more modern examples. But ultimately he just didn’t have enough of that special magic spark to make it into the first eleven. Platini and Zidane did have plenty of magic. They are not really the same kind of player, though. For example, Platini scored way more goals than Zidane did. And Zidane had a more robust physique than Platini. Also, watching them play, Platini provides more of those creative moments you expect from a No.10, through balls, chipped passes and the like. Zidane has these moments far more seldomly than you might expect, but that doesn’t mean that he is a lesser player. His magic is entirely unorthodox. His whole way of moving is just unique in football history. The combination of power and elegance made him really hard to play against. You could never be sure that you had Zidane under control because his footballing repertoire was so eclectic. Looking at a single action, you could never be sure that he would do something productive, too. But looking at whole matches you could be reasonably sure that he would do something outrageous at some point. His better moments haven’t been matched by anyone ever since. A fascinating player.

Zidane was a player who had the same kind of genius the big four possess. But since he just couldn’t use it as consistenly, he is beaten for a spot in the team by one of them. In this case, the starting spot goes to Alfredo Di Stéfano.

Di Stéfano: Team of the Decade 1950-1960, Team of the Decade 1955-1965

Maradona: Team of the Decade 1980-1990, Team of the Decade 1985-1995

Zidane: Team of the Decade 1995-2005, Team of the Decade 2000-2010

Platini: Team of the Decade 1975-1985, Team of the Decade 1980-1990

Charlton: Team of the Decade 1960-1970

 

Left winger / Attacking all-rounder #1: Pelé

Bench for the position: Cruyff, C. Ronaldo, Gento, Henry

Please have a look at the segment on attacking midfielders for an explanation of why I won’t talk about Pelé here.

Johan Cruyff is one of the most exceptional footballers ever. The way he approached the game, combined with his excellent technique and physique made him the stand out forward of the first half of the 70s. What stops him from rivalling Pelé for a spot in the first eleven is his lack of consistency. And I mean lack of consistency a) when you look at the single actions in a match, b) when you look at single matches in a season and c) when you look at his whole career. In my big profile on him, I described him as a football idealist whose decision making was not quite sound enough to make him a true candidate for the the title of best player ever. I stand by that assessment.

Pelé_1960
Pelé around the time of his peak. – AFP/SCANPIX

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of football’s ultimate goal machines. But he provides too little in basically all other domains to rival one of the big four for a spot.

Gento is your quintessential winger. Decent dribbling technique but more than anything else he simply had speed to burn. He showed great consistency but, similar to Cristiano, isn’t complete enough to get past Pelé.

Henry still is the archetype of the modern goalscoring wide forward for me. Just a very good overall package of qualities, but ultimately lacking that genius edge to rival Pelé.

Pelé: Team of the Decade 1955-1965, Team of the Decade 1960-1970, Team of the Decade 1965-1975

Cruyff: Team of the Decade 1965-1975, Team of the Decade 1970-1980

C. Ronaldo: Team of the Decade 2005-2015, Team of the Season 2016-2017, Team of the Season 2015-2016, Team of the Season 2014-2015

Gento: Team of the Decade 1950-1960, Team of the Decade 1955-1965

Henry: Team of the Decade 2000-2010

 

Right winger / Attacking all-rounder #2: Lionel Messi

Bench for this position: Eusebio, Zico, Bergkamp, Garrincha

Please have a look at the segment on attacking midfielders for an explanation of why I won’t talk about Messi here.

Out of the four bench players, Eusebio might be the one with the strongest claim for a place in the first eleven. If you want to be charitable, you can call him a less creative but more powerful version of Pelé. However, charity aside, I think he is a bit too straightforward a player to be included. His game wasn’t nuanced enough. Players like Messi and Pelé have a much bigger repertoire than him.

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Not quite from this world. – Christopher Johnson

Garrincha was obviously a great dribbler with a very high peak but he’s lacking consistency. The whole “dribbling past your opponent, waiting for him to recover, dribbling past him again” routine tells you everything you need to know about why Garrincha was great and why he doesn’t stand a chance against Messi.

Zico is an interesting case. I just have to watch more of him to properly assess his qualities. From what I’ve seen he might have lacked the physique (Messi’s burst of pace, for example) to make his qualities with the ball count on a constant basis when playing against the world’s best players. I have watched him quite a few times by now, but I still feel that I haven’t fully understood what he’s about.

Bergkamp is an interesting case as well. His best moments rival anything another footballer has produced in football history, including Pelé and Messi. I have to watch him more often to reach a final verdict but right now, I think he could actually be one of the 10 best attacking players of all time. Maybe he was underappreciated at his time.

Messi: Team of the Decade 2005-2015, Team of the Season 2016-2017, Team of the Season 2015-2016, Team of the Season 2014-2015

Zico: Team of the Decade 1975-1985

Bergkamp: Team of the Decade 1995-2005

Garrincha: Team of the Decade 1955-1965

 

Centre forward: Ferenc Puskás

Bench for this position: G. Müller, Ronaldo, Romario, van Basten

This was a two-horse race between Gerd Müller and Ferenc Puskas. Ronaldo was the player who should have been the best centre forward of all time but his body didn’t allow it. Something similar, just maybe one level below Ronaldo, can be said about van Basten. They both miss out on a real chance to make the first team due to the lack of quantity of performance.

Golden_Team_1953
Possibly the best international side of all time. Puskas is the central player in the bottom row. – Tibor Erky-NagyFOTO:Fortepan

Romario basically is the Brazilian version of Gerd Müller and Ferenc Puskas. His career was too much up and down to rival the two Europeans, though. Had he possessed the mindset to stay in a big league and prove himself against top opponents year in year out, he might just have edged them. But since this wasn’t the case, I feel comfortable saying that he wasn’t as great as Müller and Puskas.

So why did I choose Puskas and not Gerd Müller? Basically because I think the former was the slightly more complete player. For example, Puskas was a great dribbler, Müller wasn’t. Puskas was very dangerous from distance, Müller wasn’t. They are both geniuses in the penalty area and Müller might just edge Pukas in that regard, but Puskas’ qualities as a poacher are sufficiently close to those of Müller that I think Puskas comes out ahead all things considered.

However, please note that Müller was not the single minded opportunist that he is said to have been. He often dropped deep and participated in his team’s combination play. But so did Puskas. And doing so, the “Galloping Major” was arguably the more creative player.

Please note that I defined the centre forward position in a way so that attacking all-rounders like Pelé and Messi aren’t available for selection.

Puskas: Team of the Decade 1950-1960, Team of the Decade 1955-1965

G. Müller: Team of the Decade 1965-1975, Team of the Decade 1970-1980

Ronaldo: Team of the Decade 1995-2005

Romario: Team of the Decade 1990-2000

van Basten: Team of the Decade 1985-1995

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31 thoughts on “Team of Football History 1950-2017

  1. Garrincha was “dribbling past your opponent, waiting for him to recover, dribbling past him again”
    Messi is “dribble past your opponent, score/assist a goal, next posession dribble past him again”

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      • I just discovered this blog 8 hours ago. I haven’t slept since then. Holy smokes. I think it’s the best piece of sports writing as a collective by a mile. The only thing that comes close is “federer as religious experience “by David foster, and “Lionel messi is impossible” both of which changed my opinions/broadened my thinking.
        I went through all your articles and I finally understand my father and grandfather’s ravings about di Stefano and puskas.
        I am only 21 years old, so bear with me – only started watching football In the 04/05 season. However, here are some issues that raised my hackles.
        1) you suggested that c.ronaldo isn’t in the top 10-20 players around. That’s a bit harsh don’t you think. That implies that with overall all time greatness he deserves to be with -Henry, ibrahimovic and forlan, Raul,eto, e.t.c as a merely pretty good attacker…. that’s diminishing his greatness .
        2) It seems to me that most fans of “intelligent” football worship the Barca-guardiola era as though it was some kind of 2nd coming of Christ. It wasn’t. It was highly entertaining to watch. But why was it better than the ferguson -(2007-2011) era.
        3) I am studying for a double major in physics – math with a minor in statistics and your seeming aversion to numbers makes me want to lecture 🙈. numbers don’t lie,and they can deceive. However they are a very good picture of trends and patterns across a defined era

        Sorry for the long screed;I am a Nigerian living in Canada. Football fans here are rarer than astronauts.
        P.s
        If you don’t mind,Other than Juninho . Who’s the best free kick taker for sheer shot power?
        Is pele overrated? My Godfather thinks so. I’ve read a bunch of articles that argue that he was. However his reputation must be based in some factual basis.
        Finally, who are your top 5 goal scorers of all time(based on pure goal scoring ability. A.k.A finding the net)?

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      • Thank you for the comment! Here are some replies:

        1) I think that when you look at the whole career, Cristiano Ronaldo belongs to the 10-20 best attackers of all time. Which places him much higher than Forlan and Co.

        2) Re Guardiola’s Barcelona: It’s true, I love to watch them play. But that is not why I chose them. I think they were the best team in the world for 4 seasons straight. They were the best team in every competition they entered between 2008 and 2012. And no, the fact that they didn’t win everything does not falsify that claim. In football, the best team does not always win. I don’t think any team was the best team in world football for four years straight at least since the days of the Golden Ajax team of the early 70s but possibly ever. That is why I chose them.

        3) Sure, statistical analysis is great. I think in theory football could by fully understood by statistics alone. However, there are hardly any meaningful statistics for historic players available and that’s why we shouldn’t focus on them that much.

        4) I think Pelé is one of the four GOAT candidates. Hence, he can’t the that overrated in my view.

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    • Why do you think he should be at least on the bench? What are his qualities? He’s among the 2-3 other right backs that I considered for the bench, but ultimately I see the others as superior. However, I’d like to hear why you rate him higher than I do (at the moment). 🙂

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  2. I’d argue that C. Ronaldo could’ve, would’ve, and based on how he plays, been the best central forward. Arguably better dribbler than pukas. As great of a goal scorer in the box as or better anyone in history. And don’t forget, an absolute monster from outside the box. And I hate the guy, just respect him. I also put ruud gullit in the mix for attacking mid. Maybe fabio cannavaro as a bench role. Id also include frank rijkaard and xabi alonso in the deep midfield role. And no ryan giggs? speaking of longevity and consistency. Otherwise a great list, though i think that you rely too heavily on players from much early years, which is the opposite of the knock you gave to the other lineup. Need to pick players based on level of play, iq, and the chemistry of the team. You might want to include the stle of play, and how these players would fit together, that’d be really cool.

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    • I think I’m in the same situation as you. Not a fan of Cristiano Ronaldo but not oblivious to his qualities either. Here is why I don’t included him in the centre forward category: For most of his career he played as a wide forward. Not your classical winger because he mostly stayed on the wing when his team didn’t have the ball and quickly moved to the centre (with or without the ball) when his team is in possession. Therefore, he really is some kind of winger-striker hybrid. But I wanted to field a real centre forward in this team. Although striker really is one of the more prominent position, real strikers often get overlooked in these kind of teams in favour of what I called “attacking all-rounders”. Hence, I applied a rather strict category for the centre forwards and he does not quite fit into it.

      But even if he did, I’m not sure I’d have prefered him to Puskas and Müller. For one thing, Cristiano (maybe until recently) took way too many shots. For a long time he was just a bit too selfish a player. I don’t mind if he is selfish by character, that doesn’t feature in here, but if his supposed selfishness shows in his game, it becomes a problem. Because selfish decisions are bad decisions by definition. Just remember the amount of shots from distance he took for most of his career. Sure, he has a fine right foot, but not fine enough to justify wasting so many opportunities.

      Just something to think about, I’m not 100% sure how significant it is: Real became more and more succesful as Ronaldo’s role shrunk further and further. Right now, he is “only” a killer in the box, which he does brilliantly. But for most of his career, he tried to be the focal point of his team and that came at a cost.

      Summary: had he always played like he does now, he would have a big chance to win the CF spot. But he was a lesser player than he is now for most of his career.

      Regarding the other players: Sure, they are fine players. But which players would you take off the bench to include them?

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    • C.Ronaldo is not a monster outside the box, he has not been a good player outside the box for at least 3, argubly 4 years. He always took way to many shots from far away and his dribbling number have been going down since his second year in Madrid.
      Even his conversion of long freekicks (once a trademark shot of him) has been comicly low for years, until recently they stopped and gave them to Kroos and put him back in the box for the header.
      ATM there is nothing I opponent can wish more than Ronaldo with the ball at his feet outside the box.

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  3. No George best in the teams Bobby Moore would get any team no Gordon Banks world class just ask Pele just shocking really even though you have many names you can’t leave these 3 out of any team

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  4. So any inconsistencies in this article. Busquets is the one that sticks out the most, better than Redondo? That’s laughable considering Sergio is no even better than Xabi Alonso not to Kenton the man who has the position NAMED after him in Makelele. I personally find Xabi to be overrated and would take pirlo or Platini( who is more of a cm than an am imo) over him but he has his merits so I can accept that. Then you put Henry on the wrong side of the pitch( everyone who actually knows football knows Henry played on the egg so he could cut inside) and Zico is a classic AM #10 not a winger.

    Next you claim that C.Ronaldo doesn’t provide enough in other areas beside goal scoring conveniently not mentioning his assist tallies or the fact he would drop deep and take people on in his pre 2014 years, but you include Pele inbred XI when he was certainly not well rounded and can’t claim to be a a greater goalscorer than CR7. Somehow you include Gerd Muller who wasn’t ever much more than a poacher with limited technique and Romario whos moments on tip were very brief compared to others.
    So Cruyff and C. Ronaldo get benched by Pele? Lmao and how is Ronald in Ho not on this list if Rosario and Henry are

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    • Just a quick reply on the points regarding Zico and Henry: As you can see in the second graphic I included, both wide positions are not just reserved for wingers but for what I called “attacking all-rounders”. I think both Zico and Henry can be described as such, although they were of course somewhat different player types. I think I wanted to include Henry on the left side and Bergkamp on the right and got them mixed up, but since both positions have the same secondary description, I didn’t think it matters that much. But since you have pointed it out, I might as well change them.

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    • LoL. The last day Xabi Alonso was better than Busquets, Busquets was still playing U19.
      The only reason Xabi got games in the Spanish National team after Busquets stepped on the field of professional football was to prep up the number of Real Madrid players.

      The second passage is a beauty of fractal wrongness, it may even qualify for an award.

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  5. Great read. This would be my team:
    Buffon (or Neuer if he continues to play at the level he has been for a couple more years)
    Cafu (I believe Lahm is slightly overrated due to his longevity)
    Beckenbauer
    Baresi
    Maldini
    Xavi
    Iniesta (Zidane just misses out)
    Maradona
    Di Stefano
    Pele
    Messi
    However I have put less emphasis on the team functioning well in reality, which is why it is very attack minded.

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  6. That’s great a team. Like a fantasy come true. However, I would remove maradona and replace with C.Ronaldo. Different players obviously, however we have God -a.k.a messi and I think we need a “clutch” goal scorer. Who better than CR7?

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  7. Just now found the time to give this a proper read (almost had me going with Gerrard yesterday) but wanted to commend you on a bang up job, very enjoyable read. And congrats on pulling this off, or rather seeing it all the way through.

    Two questions:
    – “Best match” was included for the others I believe. Too tough to call here?
    – Ferguson figures under the quality & quantity criteria. Saw on Twitter you weighed him against Pep; any other honourable mentions?

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    • I forgot about the best match category but now that you’ve mentioned it, I included one.

      I think Herrera, Michels and Sacchi are three other candidates because they contributed greatly to the evolution of football. Cruyff, too. But their way of working with their respective teams had a pretty fixed expiration date, which, in my opinion, speaks against them.

      And thank you!

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  8. Awesome article, but I disagree with the logic of the picks (and that’s only my humble opinion),
    We sure had great players in the 50s 60s 70s and even the 80s, but things has changed quite a bit since then!! Today’s players are much faster much stronger better dribblers higher jumps stronger shots, more tactical, more agile, more stamina more knowledgeable ,,,, etc, just because of advancement in science and technology, plus you have to remember that a lot of these players had actual jobs besides playing football cause they could not make a living just playing football,,, so I think it’s just not fair to make a comparison.

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    • sport science and nutrition got so much better that today any 3rd league defender could mark pele a 25year old out of a game and not break a sweat.

      Thats the reason on the physiologial level players are compared to other athletes of their time. Otherwise it would force you to only select players from the past 5 years. And that would be true for any kind of best team of all time at any given point in time. And that would make the whole thing very boring.
      just look how much taller the average player is compared to the 70s.

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  9. I think Michael Laudrup should have been given some thought for attacking midfielder. He is far too underrated and was a genius. Was an integral part of Cruyff’s dream team. 5-0, 5-0, that’s no coincidence.
    Barca was a great great team under Pep, but still think Sacchi’s milan was something else.
    Just for a thought, i think the best ever team that ever lived (though for a very very short time) was Jupp Heyncke’s treble winning Bayern, it was a total total machine. Even Barca never dominated like them, too sad it was destroyed from too much tinkering from Pep.
    Not a CR7 fanboy, but he gets too much stick than he deserves. Messi is arguably the greatest that ever lived, and to think that CR7 is constantly a threat to his throne speaks volumes for his talent. talk about any player here, has anyone able to mould their game style like he did? talk about longevity, talk about big games, he was a winger, he became a forward, one thing that never changed was his goals, and for a selfish player he provides lots of assists as well. The amount of data we have these days, the amount of research done these days on a single player just to shut him down, still performing on the highest level, i think he is right up there with the greatests. If only he was a little modest (who doesn’t like the shy guy performing), i think our perspectives would have been a lot different.
    My team
    Buffon (yashin)
    lahm (can be used as LB, CM, CDM if needed)
    Beckenbauer (Baresi, rotation)
    Figueroa
    Maldini
    Lothar Matthaus ( Makelele)
    Pirlo (xavi)
    Laudrup (stefano)
    Messi
    Pele (Maradona)
    Cristiano (puskas)
    I make this team keeping in mind the flexibility that can have if i really need to change the formations.
    It can shift to false nine, 3 men defense, 4-3-3, 4-4-2 with ease. front 3 are all capable of shifting places, which makes it really hard to defend against. There are a lot of creative forces in the team which justifies Matthaus as a CDM. I like the CDM to be CDM more, old school, the destroyer.

    still loved how you made your team, on the basis of merit and as a football team not just the big names.
    Kudos!

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    • Hi, thanks for the comment!
      Some replies:

      Heynckes’ Bayern were excellent but, as you said, only for a very short time. Basically the second half of the 12-13 season. I don’t think they would have lasted even if Heynckes had stayed. They hit the heights during exactly the right time. Guardiola’s Barcelona had similar phases of absolute dominance (and arguably even better ones, for example the late autumn of 2010, incl. my Best Match pick).

      I love to watch Laudrup play, but he wasn’t even a guaranteed starter under Cruyff at times. This was partly down to their personal differences but still, I fear he is one of those players who are really good but not as good as they are beautiful to watch.

      I don’t think Cristiano Ronaldo was a threat to Messi’s throne at any time post 2008. Which has a lot to do with Messi and little with Ronaldo. He had some great matches in the final stages of this year’s Champions League but let’s not get carried away. I still stand by what I’ve written about his limitations in the Team of the Decade 2005-15 and the three Team of the Seasons.

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      • IIRC laudrup was not always first team bc only 3 foreigners were allowed at the time and barca hat 4 and had to leave out 1 at a time. koeman, stoichkov, laudrup and ?, later romario i think. you are the expert here 😉

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  10. Any chance the author admits his view of Ronaldo might have something to do with seeing him through culé lenses? I mean his name is Sergio Xaviniesta?

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    • I’m not really a culé. I have sympathies for the playing style and several individual players but am not a fan of the club.

      I tried to base my selection not on personal preferences, but on more objective criteria. Choosing the players for such a team will never be a 100% objective business but I tried to do my best. Feel free to argue your case, though.

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  11. Wonderful article.
    If it was upto me, I would have made it a 442, removing Puskas and adding Maradona into a 4 man midfield. Messi and Pele at the top.
    I would have used Cruyff as the coach.
    Whatever, Congratulations. The effort and thought behind your whole exercise deserves some award.

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  12. Great blog. Now, for me, it is almost impossible to watch football nowadays, because i hate modern football, and it’s not football anymore it’s “penalty&redcard&dive”. You can’t really compare players from different era, because everything in football has changed. For example, if you implement current standards for a yellow and red cards to an old match, you can easily find at least 5 red cards in every old/vintage game. Sound ridiculous but thats how it is. So it would be very interesting to see, i dont now, lets say C. Ronaldo, a diving queen, to play against some hard men defenders with license “to kill”. Can you imagine reactions? Tackle from behind and maybe, just maybe, you get a foul?!

    I hate these “new&improved&modern&futsal&beachball&bullshit” balls, there so ugly, light, with changed ballistic attributes to make it easier to score, because yeah it;s all about fans, right FIFA/UEFA?

    I hate superclubs. Just money, money and money, and same old shit every year in CL; and BTW please change the name of the competition, you cant name it CHAMPIONS league if there gonna play four teams from one country (maybe Rich Only League, or SuperLeague, i’m sure that stupid brains from UEFA will come up with something).

    Basically they ruined everthing. I mean it takes a lot of stupidity to destroy a Euro or World cup, but when you have these “experts” its easy. Last EURO was the worst EURO ever, just too many teams, lasted for too long, literally half of Europe played in France. And now, World cup with 48 teams!!! Amazing!!!

    I really liked Barcelona under Guardiola, amazing team, oh 5-0 against Real Madrid, destroying “pragmatic” boring twat Mourinho, hmmmmmmmm. For me, the best thing is how Barcelona forces every team, literally every team, from Real Madrid to Osasuna, to play defensive, “park the bus”, football all the time. But if u ask me which team played best and most beautifull football. it’s Holland 1974.

    My selection : Busquets is amazaing player, but also a diving cunt, replace him with Van Hanegem or Redondo, and change formation to a 3-4-3, so i could have Maradona in first 11 (Lahm out). Dont know anything about Figueroa, didnt watch a single game of him, so instead Figueroa-powerful Desailly (played with Basile Boli for OM, probably strongest CB duo ever).Puskas out-Cruyff in. Johan Cruyff has to be in first 11, sorry Ferenc
    Anyway, here’s my final team :

    http://lineupbuilder.com/?sk=tx9qy6

    Like

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