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:
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:
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.
- 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:
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.
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:
- Consistency is of surpreme importance.
- I know that Buffon played consistenly at a very high level for very long.
- I can’t be quite sure how consistent Yashin was.
- In order to select him anyway, he’d have to perform significantly better than Buffon in those matches that I did see.
- 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
Schmeichel: Team of the Decade 1990-2000
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.
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.
R. Carlos: Team of the Decade 1995-2005
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.
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.
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.
Zanetti: Team of the Decade 2000-2010
D. Santos: Team of the Decade 1955-1965
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ronaldo: Team of the Decade 1995-2005
Romario: Team of the Decade 1990-2000
van Basten: Team of the Decade 1985-1995