Top 50 World Cup players (5 to 1)

*Disclaimer – this is from World Cups 1998 – 2010 only*

5 – Fabio Cannavaro cannavaro

There is a sense that Cannavaro’s overall reputation amongst the greats is over-enhanced by his Ballon d’Or prompting 2006 World Cup. That’s perfect here however. After some solid displays in 1998 especially 2006 was his undoubted career highlight. It was a Desailly rivalling campaign but elevated even more by Cannavaro marshalling a defence with Materazzi and the relative novice Grosso in it rather than having support like Blanc, Thuram, Lizarazu and Deschamps. Nesta’s World Cup curse struck for the third tournament in a row in the final group game at which point Cannavaro’s performances as if by necessity raised even more. The only time Italy would concede again was in the final as Materazzi was harshly adjudged to have felled Malouda. Cannvaro’s best performance came either in that final or the semi-final. It doesn’t really matter which it is, he was right at the top of his game when Italy needed him most. For spells in each match it was like deliveries were being sucked towards him given how correctly placed he always seemed to be in order to repel everything. He was awarded the Silver Ball to go with the important trophy. As with Pirlo this felt like one shade of metallic too low though, you can’t help but feel he was pipped by a more romantic narrative as much as actual performances.


4 – Zinedine Zidane

zidane

The man who pipped Cannavaro to that Golden Ball in 2006 was of course the great Frenchman. So much of that tournament and 1998 seemed deceptive, yet at the same time a placing at least this high appears a no-brainer. Neither tournament was a patch on his continually magnificent Euro 2000 yet in each there were enough of those Euro 2000 moments to make him a World Cup legend. Three goals in finals alone which should have been added to by multiple assists in 1998 but for a lack of finishing touches by Guivarc’h and Dugarry. His man of the match display in that 98 final had rescued an otherwise unremarkable tournament that threatened to be remembered more for a stamp than anything positive. In 2006 some nostalgic moments of genius against Brazil were the true highlight of a knock-out stages run which looks remarkable on paper. A great goal against Spain in the last 16, then set up the winner in the quarter-final, then scored the winner in the semi-final, then scored again in the final. Scratch deeper though and those three goals were a last minute goal against a vacant Spain midfield and Sergio Ramos as they desperately chased an equaliser and two penalties. It’s a massive shame he was so injured in 2002 as he was at a peak age at that point and at least individually a Euro 2000 repeat was on the cards. Despite all these if and buts it speaks volumes about the player that top five still seems so obvious.


3 – Rivaldo

rivaldo

Luiz Felipe Scolari said this following Brazil’s triumph in 2002, “I always put the squad first. But the success of a squad is only possible if great players help it. That was the case with Rivaldo who, for me, was the best player in the World Cup.” It seems a safe enough guess that Rivaldo’s individual honours only stretched as far as a place in the All-star team due to that shameful playacting against Turkey (a bit like Zidane above not winning the 2000 Ballon d’Or after this sickening red card). Playacting is unsavoury of course but unlike racism for example I still view goals as being more important, and Rivaldo had an amazing record for someone who wasn’t an out-and-out striker. In just two World Cups he returned eight goals, four assists and a moral assist for a magnificent dummy which helped kill off the 2002 final. A quiet game in the 1998 final was a disappointing blot on an otherwise clutch performer in World Cups.  He has a glorious winning goal in a last sixteen match with Belgium, demonstrating his famous chest control. He has three goals in quarter-finals of which two were equalisers and one was a trademark winner. The trademark winner to see off the Laudrup inspired Danes was a drill so devastating it almost required a BP apology. Next are semi-finals where he has an assist which took out several Dutch legends in one perfectly arced choice. In finals he has the aforementioned dummy (my favourite skill in football due to what it can achieve with literally no touches) to create Ronaldo’s second, which followed his first goal which came from Kahn parrying Rivaldo’s fizzing shot. He was an incredible player and fortunately – as many great players don’t – he has a golden World Cup legacy to add to everything else.


2 – Ronaldo

ronaldo

I’m trying desperately hard here to ignore the beautiful contextual glory of Ronaldo’s 2002 as technically it’s not relevant. Regardless though the man scored eight in seven matches including their final three of the tournament, the Turkey semi-final goal being especially brilliant. In the final as mentioned before Ronaldo’s second half goals more than rescued some previously below par finishing for his unrivalled standards. His making amends was even more literal as he initially robs Hamann of possession for the opening goal. Whilst he may not have been the obvious best player it was certainly his World Cup given what happened in the 1998 final and how ravaged his career was in between. He was the spearhead of the team who set a World Cup record by winning all seven matches. In 1998 he came into the tournament only about 75% fit yet in no time at all he was up to star attraction pace. In 2006 without barely needing to run he found a way to add the extra three goals needed to set the World Cup record. In total his record shows as 15 goals and 4 assists in 19 games. It’s terrifying to think how much further ahead he’d be without the knee injuries.


1 – Lilian Thuram

thuram

Like Lahm Thuram managed the rare feat of making two different All-star teams in two different playing positions. His feat is arguably even more impressive – or at least more complete – as it comprises differing defensive roles as opposed to mirroring ones. Not just the runaway right-back in the 98 tournament Thuram was awarded the Bronze Ball as the third best player full stop, something which may have turned silver or gold if it was awarded after the final rather than before. In terms of going beyond the norm can anyone compete with Thuram in that Croatia semi-final? The two goals were made even more remarkable in hindsight as they would be the only two in a 142 cap career. After feeling he was culpable  for the Šuker goal by playing Goran Vlaović onside, Thuram then went into a trance-like state which has meant his finest moment now remains little more than a blur to the man himself. This is Fight Club levels of gripping plot-twist which helps explain eyes which look almost glazed over in replays. It was one of the most incredible responses I’ve ever seen in sport and a winger would have been proud of both goals. This doesn’t over-elevate above a winger doing the same though, the difference is this came on top of excelling as a right-back in his more orthodox tasks. Also as mentioned with Lizarazu he had a lot of work to do with France so often having a narrow midfield. In 2006 he then gave Cannavaro a run for his money as the best centre-back in the tournament, which in itself is remarkable.

Bring both those campaigns together and Thuram is not just the defensive player here but the top man overall too. The tie-breaker in the end between him and the Brazilian duo is that Thuram’s two finals were more impressive. Ronaldo has a brilliant excuse in 1998 but ultimately it doesn’t change what actually happened. Materazzi was Vieira’s man for the only goal in 120 minutes in 2006, Thuram was busy tussling with Luca Toni. Pirlo was awarded man of the match despite Italy only scoring from a corner because Thuram was there snuffing out the attacking players Pirlo was feeding so well. In 1998 Rivaldo, Denilson and Roberto Carlos were barely given a sniff. He almost capped it off with a sixty yard assist but for an excellent Taffarel save. France got a corner from that chance which brought the team forward to immediately win the corner which Zidane scored his second from. The first Zidane goal had come from a corner won by Thuram and Karembeu completely hounding Roberto Carlos out of play from a Brazilian attack! If World Cup finals are the biggest matches in football then it’s Thuram two, Ronaldo one, Rivaldo one.

Fin

 

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Top 50 World Cup players (10 to 6)

10 – Andrea Pirlo

pirloOne of the most admirable things about Italy when they won in 2006 was their team was balanced with lots of very good players as opposed to a more unbalanced galácticos like situation. Nevertheless in Pirlo they had a player you felt they could not have won without. A midfielder with galáctico individual ability yet every ounce of it is complimentary to the prospects of the team as a whole. He immediately settled the nerves of the team with the opening goal of their tournament, the quality of the goal is implied. He then finished by scoring the opening penalty of the final shoot-out to again settle the nerves. Sandwiched in between were six matches of this calming effect courtesy of the type of unrivalled deep dictatorship he now gets full credit for. His reverse pass set-up the vital Grosso goal in the semi-final as part of a man of the match performance. He then set up the vital Materazzi goal in the final as part of a man of the match performance. Great all round, but especially when it mattered most.


9 – Marcel Desailly

desailly

If you strip-off the debatable leadership factor and then further shed attacking input you are left with just pure defending for centre-backs. Desailly’s 1998 may be the best pure defensive performance of this era. The final should have been an incredible battle between Ronaldo and the man who had made Christian Vieri look normal. He did of course get sent off in that final but the match had just crept into its final quarter with France two-nil up, his work was done. The red card finished a counter-attack which his interception had initiated. He was careering up the pitch in a clear belief he could add a goal to his tournament. The return pass was always overhit but the roar of the home crowd had infused into a mind which must have felt invincible by that point. He believed he could make the tackle, he didn’t quite reach, he walked. Those twenty-two minutes waiting to run on and celebrate would be the only ones he missed. His absolute no-brainer place in the Team of the Tournament was the middle of a hattrick with Euro 96 and Euro 2000. This middle was his awesome prime.


8 – Iker Casillas

casillas

Beaten just twice in the successful 2010 campaign, of which one was a shot which deflected across almost an entire width of the goal and the other a freak set of circumstances after he initially smothers a one on one with a trademark explosion from his six-yard box. Although some would disagree on the Switzerland goal, I believe he put in a Buffon-like faultless campaign. There was one nervy moment when a clearance was almost successfully charged-down against Paraguay. What he then did, just like in the final, is what elevates him ahead of Buffon here. It’s those extra clutch saves he was called upon to make at the business end of the competition. A penalty save at 0-0 in that Paraguay quarter-final and the two Robben chances at 0-0 in the final. Cardozo could have made things harder, or even impossible, for Casillas. But the Spaniard guessed right, made the save and even more importantly held on to deny a rebound opportunity. Likewise with Robben but Casillas seemed to make his own luck so often by rushing shots or dictating then snuffing dribbles. The most important toe in Spain’s history, and it belonged to Casillas.


=8 – Carles Puyol

puyol

After struggling to separate Puyol and Casillas I thought why bother? A rock solid defensive performance topped-up by an extra-mile winner in the semi-final. The one time he looked to have run out of attributes was when Robben’s pace seared past him but even then he pulls out some ridiculous breakdancing move to slow Robben down and unsettle him without ever over-stepping the mark of legality. Just like his bulldozing header to send Spain into the final this was a one action summary of the unrivalled hunger to put it all on the line for his country. This hunger coupled with a Wacky Races cavemen appearance risks concealing a gifted footballer but Puyol made sure that wasn’t the case. To add to Pique rivalling distribution in 2010 he was Spain’s right back in 2002 where he delivered the cross for Morientes to put Spain ahead in their last 16 match. More arousingly he did this in 2006, doing impressions of Zidane and Bergkamp in the same foray forward.


6 – Michael Ballack

ballack

It would be foolish to say World Cups – or tournaments in general – made Michael Ballack but they clearly played a massive part in his legacy. He was one of those who thrived on the uniquely pressured atmosphere. He is one of the select few who made multiple Teams of the Tournament (if you throw in Euros he made four in a row!). If he’s remembered as a bridesmaid then it should at least be one wearing a more kingly crown. In 2002 he helped give a bang-average Germany team hope with amongst other things the winners in the quarter-final and semi-final. He of course didn’t get the chance to make it a hattrick in the final due to suspension and Germany were completely blunt in open-play as a result. His 2002 was an epic which was gagging for the final chapter it never got. It shouldn’t be forgotten either that he was the leading assister in that tournament, pimping his total to seven goals and assists in six matches. 2006 could have been beautiful, aged 29 and a home World Cup. Again though the semi-final would be the last stop. He couldn’t quite repeat his man of the match performance in the Argentina quarter-final, or the semi-final four years before. It’s probably apt that he almost makes the top five here.


Places 5-1 here.

Top 50 World Cup players (20 to 11)

20 – Didier Deschamps

deschampsThe ultimate tournament captain, success stalked Deschamps to such an extent that there’s no room for coincidence. If he ever played with Makélélé then he would have done his work for him. In fact one of the best compliments you can pay him is Makélélé only had 22 caps by his 30th birthday thanks to Deschamps. An unorthodox way to highlight his worth is using the 1998 semi-final. In that match he failed with a tackle on Aljoša Asanović in the middle of the pitch. Asanović then released Šuker who made it one-nil. This is how critical his role was at this highest of levels and it would be the only time in the 593 minutes he played that they conceded. Ronaldo’s scoreless final made most of the headlines but Rivaldo was barely seen too which at that World Cup (he also became World Player of the Year the year after) was a serious coup. Not that it should be any surprise Deschamps was so successful, the word champ is in his name. Fromage.


19 – Miroslav Klose

klose

The man possibly about to become the highest goalscorer in World Cup history. So why isn’t he higher here? Where was Klose in the 2002 last 16? Where was Klose in the 2002 quarter-final? Where was Klose in the 2002 semi-final? Where was Klose in the 2002 final? Where was Klose in the 2006 semi-final? Where was Klose in the 2010 semi-final? At every hurdle Germany eventually fell at Klose ran out of steam. Although he probably didn’t, his service ran out of steam. This is what separates him from the real elite though, they’ll find a way around it. That all sounds too negative, fourteen times we’ve seen his knee-jarring forward flip celebration in nineteen appearances and all without the aid of penalties. This includes a surely record seven headers. One of the most reliable Johnny on the spots ever. An issue though is while the man he may be about to surpass has eight goals in ten knock-out games Klose has four in ten. Ronaldo also has four goals in four semis and finals whilst Klose has zero in four. Sorry Miroslav.


18 – Diego Forlan

forlan

I had forgotten all about Forlan playing in 2002 until being reminded of his goal the other day. It was a Jubilani-less screamer to start his notable World Cup collection. In 2010 he seemed one of very few who managed to tame the Jubilani ball and the results were devastating. Another five goals brought his total up to six in seven starts and one sub appearance. Given that four of them came from outside the area and one was right on the edge Forlan may well possess the best aggregate goal distance in World Cup history, OPTA, get on it. Most of all though Forlan was awarded the Golden Ball for the best player of the tournament. Only Ronaldo, Zidane and some other guy hold that honour in this time period. *Disclaimer. This award is voted for by football journalists, these kind of people have been known to play practical jokes like voting for Scott Parker in large enough numbers for him to actually win FWA Footballer of the Year.*


17 – Oliver Kahn

kahn

Probably too obvious a set-up but ‘that other guy’ of course being Oliver Kahn. Until 2006 there was a bit of a flaw in the Golden Ball award, a flaw frustratingly shared by the PFA Player of the Year. This flaw being that the award was decided before the final. If there is a god up there they seemingly agree as in 1998 Ronaldo went awol and in 2002 Kahn fumbled a shot he would have held nine times out of ten. It was a massive shame as until then he had been fully worthy of the Golden Ball. It was a surprisingly flat route to the final but Kahn was still worked a lot behind hardly the most vintage of German defences. I have since read he had hand ligament damage in the final which does make the error a lot more understandable and forgivable. Ultimately however it can’t make a difference here. It was a sad end to what was very surprisingly his only campaign as Germany’s number one. Who would be a goalkeeper?


16 – Cafu

cafu

The second World Cup winning captain on this page, but what does that actually mean? Probably very little so best to move on. There are few finer sights than wing-back Cafu making an entire touchline his own. We got a taste with Roma the season before and in 2002 Scolari released him to do so once more. It takes ridiculous stamina amongst other things to enable an extra couple of men to be pumped into the middle of the pitch but Cafu was the king in this respect. Ronaldo’s second goal in the final is a perfect example. Cafu plays the quick pass then absolutely roasts Marco Bode before continuing into a cheeky underlap to pull apart the defence and let the magic happen. The magic so often happened between Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, and Cafu being Cafu helped them all be squeezed into the team without the need for compromises. An enabler who was brilliant in his own right.


15 – Dennis Bergkamp

bergkamp

That goal is of course a major factor here. The reason being how many others could have scored it? It was so clearly special in terms of difficulty as well as pure aesthetics. The goal sent the Netherlands into the semi-finals. He’d earlier set-up Kluivert for the other goal in a way that again only a fraction of (if any) World Cup players could have thought up then executed. He scored or assisted the opening goal in every match barring the semi-final and the third place playoff. My theory here is – a bit like Patrice Evra after his goal against Bayern Munich last season – that Bergkamp actually suffered a bit from the enormity of that goal.  How can you focus fully so soon after a goal that good, after living a moment like that? He said himself it was like his whole life had been leading up to that moment.


14 – Ronaldinho

ronaldinho

Very much like the man above Ronaldinho makes it this high for moments you believe may be unique to his capabilities. His World Cup career is slightly odd as 2006 really should have been the stand out one. He came into 2002 off a debut season in Europe where there were relatively minor rumbles around his name as PSG weren’t really up to much. Fourth in their domestic league, no Champions League football and dumped out of the UEFA Cup early. Meanwhile going into 2006 Ronaldinho had just retained his World Player of the Year crown. In the end 2006 was a horror show and 2002 gets him on this list. He helped bail Brazil out of their match with England with moments of absolute genius for the equaliser then the winner. In the final he pulled the strings before the more remembered names took over. The Ronaldo goals helped banish an array of spurned chances before then where Ronaldinho was almost always the architect. He should have had an extra couple of assists in the final but in the end had to make do with three assists to add to his two goals in five matches. The numbers although impressive are pretty meaningless with Ronaldinho however, he did things in that World Cup which amazed and won matches that helped win a tournament.


13 – Davor Šuker

sukerFrance 98 was a huge personal triumph for Šuker (and his country of course) as Croatia went so close to a final they would have stood a great chance in. The third place playoff helped him secure the full house of award colours with a bronze medal and a golden boot to add to the prematurely awarded silver ball. The best left foot in the World Cup kept scoring all the way through whoever the opposition. The goals blossomed in quality as the tournament went on too with three good-looking ones following three with faces for radio. Going into matches you felt like Šuker would score at sometime in them. This anticipation is something I’ve felt extremely rarely since.


12 – Christian Vieri

vieri

One of only two other strikers who brought that feeling of anticipation, Christian Vieri. A penalty-free nine goals in nine World Cup appearances. It should be an even more awesome eleven in nine too. In 2002 he had a goal disallowed for offside despite him being behind the man who passed to him. Then in the infamous match with South Korea he missed a golden chance to add to his earlier goal. This is the sort of miss in a match where the team were eliminated which should relegate a striker way down the list. But no, Vieri in these World Cups was otherwise a level of unplayable so rarely seen, and not in the complimenting an otherwise useless lump sense. So many of his goals were him trailblazing his way through as his support watch on in awe of his ruinous blend of power, skill and finishing. To give a snap-shot of the sort of player he was at the time of these World Cups he scored 24 in 24 for Atlético in the season leading into France 98 and 24 in 23 for Inter Milan in the season after the 2002 World Cup.


11 – Gianluigi Buffon 

gigiAn unused backup to Pagliuca in 1998 and little more than a cheerleader in 2010 after a back injury in the first half of the opening match ended his tournament. In 2002 Buffon showed glimpses of what was to come four years later with a clutch penalty save and a great stop from one of those under the wall free-kicks in Italy’s final match of the tournament. 2006 was the most faultless seven matches humanly possible. In those matches which included two bouts of extra-time a Zidane penalty and an own-goal from Zaccardo were the only times he had to pick the ball out of his net. There is nothing more he could have done barring save that Zidane penalty. Just an amazing presence in 2006, commanding yet calming.


Places 10-6 here


Top 50 World Cup players (30 to 21)

30 – David Villa

villaYou could argue Villa was the most feared striker in the World between 2006 and 2010 and eight goals in ten World Cup starts backed this up. The lack of semi-final or final goals in 2010 is the only thing keeping him away from the top 10 as before then Spain would keep it tight and Villa would do the rest, scoring goals of great quality as well as quantity. His versatility to excel on the left was also a great asset for Del Bosque to call upon. The silly billy then went and broke his leg a couple of times and turn thirty to put an end to that great version of the striker.


29 – Laurent Blanc

blancBlanc formed an almost perfect partnership with the hugely complimentary Desailly in 98 which usually meant one goal was enough for France. So technically gifted and intelligent by that point that he probably could have played in several positions. Given his more classical defensive abilities on top of this it would have been a waste though. He missed the final after reacting too strongly to Slaven Bilić’s  goading but such was his quality in the rest of the tournament he deserves the luxury of having the dots joined. He plays instead of Leboeuf – whose caretaker job in that final should never be forgotten – and also keeps out the shadow of ex Barcelona teammate Ronaldo, the supporting cast and the surprising set-piece threat of César Sampaio.


28 – Bixente Lizarazu

lizarazuFrance set-up relatively narrowly in midfield in 1998 giving Lizarazu a hell of a lot of work to do on the left hand side. Like Thuram he took to the job and made the entire set-up look like it was almost made with him in mind. So much athlete was packed into that small frame and a lot of player full stop. Rested for the final group game Lizarazu only tasted a goal against once all tournament meaning he personally chipped in with more goals and assists than he watched go past Barthez. The only stain on his tournament was probably the penalty miss against Italy, but luckily for him France won that shoot-out so it was swiftly forgotten.


27 – Roberto Carlos

carlosHere he is, old thunder-thighs. You knew he was coming it was just a matter of when. Either side of a horrid failed bicycle kick in the 98 quarter-final were sixteen other appearances where just one goal against came from his side of the pitch. Going forward he was surprisingly assistless in his career and his trademark free-kick against China in 2002 was his only goal. If goals are measured on power of the shot multiplied by the opposition population then it was the greatest goal ever. Unfortunately they aren’t so it was more a bonus goal for spectators rather than a vital goal for the team. His all-round game makes him a must here, as a full back in 1998 and 2006 and as a one-man touchline in 2002. A combination of being quick enough to put wingers off trying to take him on and being energetic enough to keep them running the other way so often meant he must have been such a demoralising opponent in these World Cups.


26 – Ricardo Carvalho

carvalho

Yet another player who gets in mainly on the back of a World Cup at the age of 28. But four years later in South Africa – not fourteen as the stickers suggest – Carvalho put in another list worthy performance. Combine the two World Cups together and how can he be ignored? He was the star man in a defence who conceded just three times in his ten appearances. If Figo and Ronaldo had World Cups which rivalled his own then he could have an international honour to add to his full-house of club honours.


25 – Patrick Vieira

vieiraVieira’s career deserved a great World Cup and he provided that in 2006. He didn’t lift the trophy which he got to in 1998 but he had become the core of the side rather than the young guy on the fringes trying to break in. He was instrumental all over the pitch with the tournament being like a snap-shot of the Arsenal invincibles season where Makélélé played the part of Gilberto Silva freeing Vieira to do anything and everything. Had France gone on to win that final I think he’d have pushed the likes of Cannavaro, Zidane and Pirlo much harder for the Golden Ball.


24 – Xavi

xavi

Maybe there is an element of Giggsism here with this high a placing being like a lifetime achievement award. This is because Xavi wasn’t really ever at his best in any World Cup having age as a slight excuse in 2002 and 2006 and playing position as a slight excuse in 2010. Nevertheless not Xavi’s best is a bit like not Michael Laudrup’s best. He was more than handy in 2006 as Spain were more normal in style as well as results but when 2010 came around he defined a new style which maybe his presence had prompted in the first place. Again if you attribute Spain’s World Cup win to starving the opposition of the ball then Xavi as the iconic ring-leader may actually be placed too low here.


23 – Bastian Schweinsteiger 

schweinsteiger

You watch Schweinsteiger now and you can’t believe he was ever messing about on the wing. But in 2006 he was doing a very good job of messing about, helping himself to five goals and assists in six starts. He was understandably (but in my opinion foolishly) left out of the semi-final loss to Italy after his replacement in the quarter-final (Borowski) had helped rescue that match late on. He then took out his frustration perfectly in the third place playoff. 2010 is how he makes it this high up though with a pretty awesome campaign as a centre midfielder. Complete is an understatement, he did a bit of everything and so well too. The quarter-final thrashing of Argentina was his crowning glory where he probably put in the performance of the tournament, capped off with a fifth and then famous sixth assist of a World Cup career still in progress.


22 – Philipp Lahm 

lahm

One of a select few who has made consecutive Teams of the Tournament Lahm’s achievement is made even more impressive as one came as a left back and the other as a right back. He set the atmosphere alive immediately in the opening game of the 2006 World Cup with one of the great World Cup goals. It was a sign of things to come, not in terms of goals but the performances of one of the great full backs. Not that his performances need to improve but he’ll be hoping it’s third time lucky this summer after a couple of near misses.


21 – Gianluca Zambrotta

zambrotta

The closest thing to Philipp Lahm since… Philipp Lahm, add a bit of pace and take away a bit of shaving equipment. He played in midfield in 2002, both full back positions in 2006 and just right back in 2010. A bit like Ashley Cole Zambrotta managed to escape a 2010 horror show with credit. Four years before he was instrumental in a far happier tournament. The quarter-final being the most obvious illustration of his talents. He started by scoring one of the great full-back goals to break the deadlock then later cleared off the line to maintain the lead on one of the very few occasions all tournament that Buffon was beaten. It wasn’t one of those cases where the player is on the line anyway from a set-piece, it was scary anticipation from Zambrotta to pick the spot. He was later moved up into midfield and almost immediately set up Luca Toni to kill the game. All three moments helped paint a deceptively good scoreline but not deceptively elevate the reputation of Zambrotta, he was always a candidate for being the best defender of the tournament.


Places 20-11 here

World Cup top 50 players (40-31)

40 – Juan Román Riquelme

riquelmeTrivia: Riquelme appears in the France 98 sticker album but didn’t go on to make the final squad, the first of several managers who didn’t fully trust him. 2006 would be his only World Cup appearance, that’s all he needed though to leave his mark. If it wasn’t for Pekerman being the coach he may not have even figured there either which is just absurd given his talent and how he’d just helped Villarreal to the brink of a Champions League final. In Germany he had a claim to being man of the match in every single game he played before Argentina crashed out in the quarter-finals. He was famously withdrawn in that match with Argentina in control before Germany found a late equaliser then did what they always do in shoot-outs. It shouldn’t be forgotten though that the entire tournament he was on the field Argentina looked like World Cup winners in waiting given the extent he helped dictate games. He got another crack at major tournament football the following year in the Copa America – a favourite tournament since France 98 – where he again made a mockery of all the coaches before and since who didn’t use him.


39 – Francesco Totti 

totti

In terms of quality in 2002 and sheer quantity in 2006 there were great forward options for Italy but Totti was a mainstay. It’s his 2006 which gets him on this list and his part in Italy’s eventually victorious campaign. Simply playing any part was a remarkable achievement considering he suffered this injury just four months before the tournament. There’s no charity here though, Totti topped the assist charts in the tournament from his withdrawn striker role to add to his more straightforward but nevertheless nerveless stoppage-time penalty against Australia. Whilst Grosso deserves most of the praise for winning that penalty the pass to release him down the wing was a classic example of what Totti brought to the tournament. The only shame really is he didn’t make a bigger impact on the final to leave a more indelible mark internationally. Club wise he made up for that the following season by winning the European Golden Boot, yawning his way into life as the most advanced striker.


38 – Frank de Boer

deboer

Picked on the back of just one World Cup during which he initiated offside traps which backfired into goals in both the quarter-final and semi-final. In the former he was foiled by Reiziger being a fraction slow to follow, in the latter the defence played ball to catch Roberto Carlos offside only for Rivaldo to pull-out of the pass then instantly switch thoughts to Ronaldo’s prompt and exploit the new opening behind a now more advanced line. It’s these rare blips which ironically sum up what a defender de Boer was. His brain meant he could often defend without even needing his more inferior body. Only teammates being a step behind or the two best attacking players in the World could threaten this. In the rest of the match de Boer holds his own with Ronaldo which in itself is worthy of a place on this list. He doesn’t get the better of him, simply holds his own which was virtually impossible with Ronaldo at his tournament peak (sadly probably his career peak too) after coming into it with physical problems and ending it in a daze. This defending combined with his overall leadership and distribution skills earned him a place in the Team of the Tournament. He scored his semi-final penalty (this time) but it wasn’t enough as the Netherlands lost the shoot-out. In hindsight given what happened to Ronaldo it would have probably been better if the Netherlands won that shoot-out. It’s hard to imagine their de Boer marshalled defence conceding from two corners for starters.


37 – Roberto Ayala

ayala

One of the reasons that Bergkamp goal in 1998 was so special was because it came against one of the great World Cup defenders, not some clogger from Leicester. Ayala was still a young pup in 98 but by 2002 he had become the revered Valencia centre back. Argentina didn’t get out the group but Ayala still excelled, Beckham’s dubious penalty and the Svensson free kick were the only times they conceded. In fact in nine group matches Drogba was the only player to score from open play against an Argentina defence with Ayala in it. His goal so nearly got them into the semi-finals in 2006 but it just wasn’t to be, he in fact had his penalty saved in the shoot-out. By then his combination of danger sniffing and agility to make full use of that nose had secured his place in the Team of the Tournament, an accolade he would no doubt have got in 2002 as well if Argentina progressed further, he was simply too good a defender in his Valencia years not to have.


36 – Mesut Özil

ozil

His 2010 was one of the great world stage announcements of this era. All it lacked was a semi-final performance, to put it bluntly though you need the ball to make things happen and Spain choked the life out of the previously thrilling Germans. Özil was a star attacking with and without the ball and as a result was a chief part of that thrilling unit. As the leading assister of the tournament he should be ashamed of himself though as few things in life are more annoying than vuvuzelas.


35 – Andrés Iniesta 

iniesta

Taken to the 2006 World Cup for experience 2010 is of course the reason he makes this list. His place in that side was long in doubt after a season of muscular turmoil but he had reached a level where he was quite clearly worth any risk. Aside from the obvious winning goal in the final his blissfully nonchalant goal in the final group game secured their passage through as despite winning the thing Spain did make hard work of every stage of the tournament. Aside from those goals and a trademark glide through the final third for Villa’s late winner in the quarter-final Iniesta was otherwise fairly mediocre going forward. This however was a World Cup won by the team who kept the ball the best Iniesta would always be a major part of that. A class act, rammed home by his celebration for his trophy securing goal.


34 – Edgar Davids

davids

The pitbull is perhaps a harsh nickname for Davids as on top of all the rabid harrying he was a great user of the ball in 1998. Dominant in the middle of the pitch he would venture forward in the last 16 match to fizz home a stoppage time winner from distance. In the semi-final came his highlight at the other end of the pitch as he miraculously caught a clean-through Ronaldo and put him off enough for the ball to trickle agonisingly wide. It was incredible and it kept the match alive for Kluivert to later equalise and take the match into penalties. Davids’ presence also enabled Frank de Boer to have a wander forward every now and then, something Dennis Bergkamp Dennis Bergkamp Dennis Bergkamp Dennis Bergkamp Dennis Bergkamp aaaaahhahhhh enjoyed.


33 – Thomas Müller

muller

Speaking of great debut tournaments few can boast an arrival like Müller in 2010. Golden Boot winner courtesy of topping up his tournament high five goals with three assists. He was a complete natural at this level and terrorised with Özil on the counter-attack. Unlike Özil however he has an excuse for a quiet semi-final, he wasn’t playing! He was a victim of the tightrope like yellow card rule which meant he finished with five goals and assists in just three knock-out stage matches. It’s almost impossible to imagine that Germany wouldn’t have been much better off with him in that semi-final. You also can’t help but feel they would have gone on to win the final if they had managed to escape from the Spain treadmill.


32 – Sergio Busquets

busquets

Just like Barcelona (Yaya Toure) Spain used Busquets to fix something which wasn’t broken in 2010 (Marcos Senna). Busquets however went and spoiled the classic saying making the fix worthwhile. Everything in the middle was crisper, quicker and took even less touches in South Africa with Busquets. He even became like a third centre back at times further aiding a defence who have made conceding no knock-out goals a speciality. It was a remarkable debut World Cup but it almost turned very sour in the final. Unlike Kahn in the 2002 final Busquets had some good fortune on his side as his potentially match-defining error went unpunished by Robben. Like Kahn it was one blip on the back of six and a half matches of near perfection. He owes Casillas a San Miguel, likewise though, Casillas and the whole squad owe Busquets one too for his tournament.


31 – Wesley Sneijder

sneijder

Well and truly in his career peak coming off the back of an incredible Inter Milan season, the 2010 World Cup was perfectly timed for Sneijder. In some ways he was fortunate and unfortunate here. To finish joint top goalscorer was both hugely impressive for a midfielder yet fortunate too as a couple of the goals were dodgy to say the least. But it was his primary role in the team which saw his misfortune, as a playmaker. In the final he added weight to a claim of being the most reliable exponent of the through-ball at the time only for Robben to not convert the one-on-one, win the World Cup, and etch Sneijder into history forever as the main creator who made it happen. He was the artist surfing on top of a wave of thuggery who very nearly helped a relatively average group of players (at least defensively) win the biggest prize of all.


Places 30-21 here

Top 50 World Cup players (50 to 41)

*Disclaimer – this is from World Cups 1998 – 2010 only*

50 – Thierry Henryhenry

It is a shame really that a man who can strongly claim to be one of the top 3 strikers in this time period is as ‘low’ as 50 here. Just a raw yet clearly already gifted teenager in 98 Henry excelled in a gimme of a group for the hosts. He later fell victim however of a France attack who farted through the knockout stages meaning by the final he had lost his starting spot. 2002 like 2010 was a tournament to forget for Henry and France. Instead it’s his 2006 which gets him in here where although not prolific he still played a vital part in propelling France towards the final with the only goal of the quarter-final against Brazil then winning the penalty for the only goal in the semi-final. His elusive dribble to win that penalty made Carvalho look rash and clumsy, something which was almost impossible to do that tournament. Had he still been on the pitch for the shootout in the final maybe it would have been him taking Trezeguet’s penalty and history would be very different.


49 – Ashley Cole 

cole

Although Cole was not entirely blameless as England were taken apart by Germany in 2010 he was still one of the very few who came away from that tournament with any sort of credit. That has turned out to be his last ever World Cup match but before then were three campaigns where he was a key part of an England defence who conceded very few. His tussles with Cristiano Ronaldo in 2006 (on the back of Euro 2004) probably earned him the tag of best left back in the world in many places – many places in England – but just to be able to entertain the idea with a straight face showed what a fine player he had become. That’s simply not something that happens to English players normally. A lack of attacking input to bail out England in games where they were struggling to score is one reason Cole isn’t higher up this list. It’s not a primary job but there are several other defenders on the list who did so either as centre backs from corners or as full backs on forages forward.


48 – Sergio Ramos

ramos

This is the right back version of the player who appeared more erratically in 2006 then more erotically in 2010. He was part of a defence who didn’t concede a single knock-out stage goal in 2010 which included a full 120 minutes in the final. This is a gong shared by the entire back 5 – and aided by effectively defending with possession – but Ramos was always one of the more impressive defenders. His incredible natural athleticism and dogged marking didn’t ever really boil over into rashness. A bit like Cole above Ramos didn’t offer much going forward, again not his primary job, but it does keep him slightly under the radar here when *spoiler* compared with Puyol for example. Of course his end of season with Real Madrid showed he is more than capable of that part of the game, and judging by the Spanish striker options it looks like there’s a good chance he’ll be needed just like he was for his club.


47 – Emmanuel Petit

petit

A goal and an assist in a World Cup final can never be sniffed at and they both summed up Petit’s range of talents perfectly. The assist a corner caressed in so nonchalantly yet with an almost accelerating whip which was as inviting as a corner can get. The goal an eighty yard run culminating in a goal passed in from just inside the area. Very few married technique and industry like Petit did and in 1998 he was entering his prime at 27 and coming off a double with Arsenal. He also got the winner in the final group game, France were already through but if Denmark got the decisive third goal instead then France would have had to play Brazil in the quarter-finals, with Ronaldo at 100% this time.


46 – Cuauhtemoc Blanco 

blanco

A volatile deep forward who brought joy and laughter to the World Cup as much as ability. Maybe the famous bunny hop should not have been a surprise at all coming from a man who played passes with his back and even arse but back then it was magical. The fooling around was forgivable as aside from actually working so often it was coming from a talisman who adored the big stage (of his 39 Mexico goals 35 were in competitive games, with 23 coming in tournaments). In 1998 the decisive group game was the 2-2 comeback against Belgium as anything less than a draw and Mexico would have gone home early. Blanco’s scheming and vision helped win the penalty to pull one back before he himself scored a flying equaliser with the outside of his foot. In the second round he set-up the goal to put Mexico ahead but the Germans got two late goals to kill-off the dream. In 2002 he was again scoring, assisting and entertaining as Mexico topped their group ahead of Italy. He missed 2006 after a dispute with the coach but he made the squad in 2010 despite being 37 and even more overweight, a salute to the magic in his feet and mind.


45 – Carlos Gamarra

gamarra

Who? Gamarra. Who? The guy who scored the own goal against England. Aaah. Why’s he in it then? Because he was class before that. In 1998 Gamarra was named in the All-Star team despite Paraguay going out in the last 16. In that match he helped keep the French out for 113 minutes foiling the likes of Henry, Trezeguet, Djorkaeff and Pires. This was on top of the two shut-outs in the group stage against the likes of Raul and Stoichkov. 2002 and 2006 were not much to write home about for the 31 and 35 year old Gamarra but in 98 Paraguay were seven minutes away from a penalty shoot-out to take them into the quarter finals despite only scoring three goals, showing exactly where their strength was. He became their record cap holder and I’d be amazed if he isn’t regarded as their best ever defender, they could definitely do with him now as they finished bottom of the South American qualifying group.


44 – Sol Campbell 

sol

Campbell recently made a massive claim that he was the best centre back in the world between 2002 and 2004. A claim to being the best defender in the 2002 World Cup is a decent shout, let alone just best centre back. France bombed out early, Nesta was injured, Hierro was 34, Brazil had Roque Junior and Germany were reliant on Kahn. It’s not necessarily a win by default though, amongst other things England were the only team Ronaldo didn’t score against, he barely had a sniff in fact. For the Rivaldo goal Campbell was checkmated between confronting Ronaldinho and leaving Rivaldo free and visa versa. This was because Ferdinand was understandably slow to come across as he had exactly the same dilemma with Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. I still don’t think Campbell did anything wrong, he chose to go to the central man, the man nearest the goal and the immediate danger. It was just too much genius by Ronaldinho to set the checkmate situation having thrown Ashley Cole (the only man who could even up the numbers) off course with a devastatingly powerful dummy. Solid in 1998, as faultless as a centre back can realistically be at the very top level in 2002 and an able third-wheel to Ferdinand and Terry in 2006 when his almost unrivalled physicality was fading. He was a box of tricks going forward too with famous dribbles, disallowed goals and allowed goals making up a mixed World Cup career on that front.


43 – Fabio Grosso

grosso

Grosso only played one World Cup and in that he only missed one match. That match was the only game Italy conceded in before the final meaning Grosso was effectively a Malouda dive away from starting six matches without conceding. He’s famous of course for his extra time goal (and accompanying Tardelli like celebration) against Germany but there was another massive attacking input he had on the tournament too. Proving that Grosso is the Italian word for clutch the left back won a 95th minute penalty out of very little in the last 16 match against an Australia side Italy were otherwise unable to break down. Just like the semi-final Grosso stepped up and performed above and beyond his duties. To top it all off he had the final touch of the tournament, scoring the title sealing penalty. A beautiful man.


42 & 41 Michael and Brain Laudruplaudrup

The obvious answer here should be Michael above Brian but in the 98 World Cup – the last for both of them – Brian had the legs which Michael had lost to make it more 50-50. He was incredibly sharp in fact, occupying a more advanced wide position where that pace, crossing and almost suspicious instincts led to goals and assists in all but one match. Michael hung back in a deeper playmaker position where his age resilient world-class intelligence and technical ability could still play a huge part in matches. In their five matches in this World Cup they scored or created eight goals between them, propelling Denmark into the quarter-finals where they gave Brazil a massive fright until Rivaldo did his thing, pipping the Danes 3-2. That match turned out to be both their last matches for their country, whilst for Michael it was his last game of football full stop. To put in a  display like he did in the last 16 against Nigeria in the penultimate match of his career it’s almost like he was too good, he had to pass his peak to make it a fair game.


Places 40-31 here

Top 50 World Cup players

Ricky Gervais always says write about what you know, therefore this will be World Cup 1998 onwards. Memories of World Cup 1994 are moments like the Letchkov diving header and Houghton’s Italy-rocking goal but they are mere moments, moments orphaned from any actual match memories. It’s not just not bothering to research anything further back, but what is the point? How can you compete with a visceral experience of actually living it? OK it is a bit of laziness but the point still stands.

This is purely based on World Cup performances, possibly a great leveler in that sense. It can just be one World Cup campaign so whilst excelling in two or more will be beneficial it’s by no means necessary. Additionally excelling in just a couple of games can be enough with knock-out stage games of course favoured over group games. Difficulty of opponents is always taken into account, for example Turkey’s 2002 troops finished third but are almost fully ignored here due to such a bizarrely flat track towards the semis.

This started with over 80 names, so the choice in the end was a top 50 for these names to be squeezed and ordered into. It took a couple of weeks of near constant deliberation, research or memory flicking to come up with an order.

Firstly a list of names in alphabetical order who didn’t quite make the top 50 cut. This will be followed by a daily countdown towards the number 1.

Xabi Alonso, Özalan Alpay, Fabien Barthez, Gabriel Batistuta, Bebeto, David Beckham, Zvonimir Boban, Joan Capdevila, Fábio Coentrão, Hernán Crespo, R. de Boer, Dunga, Youri Djorkaeff, Rio Ferdinand, Luis Figo, Gennaro Gattuso, Luis Hernández, Fernando Hierro, Robert Jarni, Jürgen Klinsmann, Lúcio, Maicon, Claude Makélélé, Paolo Maldini, Maniche, Joris Mathijsen, Lionel Messi, Hong Myung-bo, Ryan Nelsen, Michael Owen, Gerard Piqué, Arjen Robben, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gilberto Silva, Juan Sebastián Verón, Zé Roberto.

*Acts of gamesmanship will not be frowned upon, if anything laughed at and treasured. If officials are incompetent enough to fall for it then sadly it’s their fault. *

Places 50-41.

Places 40-31.

Places 30-21.

Places 20-11.

Places 10-6.

Places 5-1.

World Cup goals OF THE MILLENIUM

Semi-real dragon Peter Jones once said the following about being an entrepreneur:

“The secret is to take an existing product, service or concept and take it up a level. By applying your own vision and creativity.”

As a new media entrepreneur these words from the man of impeccable height if not music taste were inspiring. I acted, taking this clumsily unpatented post idea by @robbro7, immediately trumping it with a more hyperbolic title and then applying some extra vision and creativity to ram home the extra sales.

As part of the dipping volleys are overrated fraternity there was an immediate hook towards a largely fine list which followed. The only surprise was a goal scored by Busquets on FIFA was not shoe-horned in to join those genuinely scored and assisted by Müller and Riquelme. Best goals are tricky, apart from the obvious subjective issues how do you compare the best solo efforts with the best team goals and the best one-touch wonders? The answer here is you don’t. Here are categorised picks from the three World Cups that have so far graced the 21st century.

Best shot – van Bronckhorst, Netherlands v Uruguay, 2010 semi-final.

This strike is an absolute arrow, it’s worth sitting it out until the final replay just to ogle over the sheer perfection of the accuracy. Throw in that it was the goal that broke the dead-lock in a semi final and it’s even more special. In fact it’s so perfect you suspect divine intervention. Maybe a helping hand from a Ghanaian spirit inflicting revenge upon those cheating Uruguayans. Immediate thoughts say the spirit of Tony Yeboah but you have to think if that was the case it would be more crossbar and less top of the post. Of course Yeboah still being alive is a bit of a stumbling block too, silly choice really.

Best headers and volleys tribute – Darío Rodríguez, Uruguay v Denmark, 2002 group stage.

Not such a silly choice any more! Yeboah as the patron saint of the volley helps segue perfectly into the best headers and volleys tribute. This goal eventually splatted in by the outside of Darío Rodríguez’s left boot is remarkable as the ball doesn’t ever touch the ground in play. It’s five Uruguayan touches and one intervention from a Danish spoil sport all over a combined distance of about 80 metres. The only non palatable touch is that of the corner taker, but look who it is? The man is like smack for hipsters, if anyone will be forgiven for a stain on the holistic beauty of this goal it’s him.

Best header – Borgetti, Mexico v Italy, 2002 group stage.

Not only is this a stand-out winner for best header it’s candidate for best celebration too. That’s one of the beauties of the World Cup, the purity and rawness of celebrations. If there is anything pre-rehearshed it’s probably forgotten anyway in the sheer euphoria of living the dream. The celebration also reveals a neck so pulsating and almost jurassic in length that maybe he has an unfair advantage here. The header is full of imagination and difficulty yet Borgetti makes it look fairly standard. It’s a surgical touch to finish a move of surgical quality. A quick look at his record around 2002 and maybe it’s no surprise he was so cold-blooded here.

Best free kick – Arce, Paraguay v South Africa, 2002 group stage.

This really should be Ronaldinho’s against England but it’s not worth the hate mail from flair atheists (if you do enjoy hate mail make sure to include that just like the Rivaldo equaliser the goal came from shoddy Paul Scholes play). Instead the sell-out alternative for non believers is Francisco Arce’s brilliantly disguised free kick from the same World Cup. It’s an amazing free kick even if it was from a more expected central position so coupled with the disguise element (although maybe that enables it too) it’s a winner. If the 90s was the decade of great world cup free kick routines (Zanetti 98 and Brolin 94, back in the days when he could be hidden behind walls less than six men wide), then the noughties was the decade of the great disguised free kicks.

Best solo goal – omitted due to dearth of options. Nelson Cuevas in 2002 and Villa against Honduras in 2010 got close.

Best chip – Quagliarella, Italy v Slovakia, 2010 group stage.

Again a bit of a dearth of options here unless Ronaldinho’s free kick was snuck in. The free kick he celebrates by first going to the bench to thank them for the idea then so overly aroused by his own brilliance he can’t help but get sent off soon after. Nevertheless Quagliarella’s could be a lot worse for the only contender despite counting for absolutely nothing as Italy somehow finished bottom of a group with New Zealand in it. It’s the hope that kills, and this was mass murder. Still, an excellent goal.

Best toe-punt – Ronaldo, Brazil v Turkey, 2002 semi-final.

Anyone suspecting this is a category purely chosen in order to link a Ronaldo goal, correct. Hear me out though. Like an homage to his predecessor Romario this toe-punt is perfect at catching the keeper off-guard. Even ignoring the context of it being the goal that took Brazil to the 2002 final the goal itself is worthy. When he receives possession about 40 yards out there is still a complete back four and keeper to beat and his teammates barely make a stretching run between them. Instead they basically ball-watch a man who sometimes didn’t require any help at all.

Best step-over goal against West African opposition – Ronaldo, Brazil v Ghana, 2006 last 16.

Best team goal

This one is obvious right? WRONG. There’s no I in team, yet take a look what’s lurking a few letters into Cambiasso’s name. It’s not even subtle, it’s slap-bang in the middle, it’s mocking you and it’s mocking me. The goal is a fraud. This sort of deception is of course no surprise coming from a man who wore a wig during the tournament as proved by later returning to Inter Milan with no hair at all.

Step forward Fernando Torres, set-up by Carles Puyol and Cesc Fabregas. Not a single I, just a move full of skill, vision at speed, a scarily well placed and weighted assist and the most clinical of finishes. The Puyol assist coming just after a Zidane like roulette does make you wonder if there is some Cambiasso like foul play going on here too however.

The goal is ruthless and straight to the point, there’s no masturbation in the middle of the pitch or in their own half. For every Cambiasso goal where the move is long yet mostly progressive and positively disorientating there is a youth football goal from Southern Europe retweeted onto your timeline where 45 seconds into the clip the ball is back at the goalkeeper.

Best ‘other’ goal – Nomvethe, South Africa v Slovenia, 2002 group stage.

There is something beautiful about this goal in how it makes the most unorthodox look fairly orthodox and intended. Seemingly put-off by Benni McCarthy’s attempted handball at the near post the already pot-commited Nomvethe is half way up for a header that actually requires no leap. In the end he manages to get his body facing a direction which is adequate enough to deflect the ball into the goal. The commentary is great too, “just look at his face.” The face of course being that of a man realising that he may have just scored the biggest goal of his life with his penis.

Best Matt Upson goal – Upson, England v Germany, 2010 last 16.

This may scream of running out of categories but when a player has as many World Cup goals as Messi, Rooney and Bale combined then why not? Cruelly side-stepping the obvious aesthetic quality of the goal for a second there was the importance factor too. Two-nil leads are notoriously tricky leads and goals just before half time are notoriously useful. The goal created a wave that Frank Lampard couldn’t help but grab his board and ride on to make it 2-2 soon after. The goal completely changed the course of the game, the tournament, and to be honest history in general. It was so much more than one of those consolations in a 4-1 defeat for example. Bring all this together and the goal really is the only choice for this category.

 Enjoy the World Cup.

Giggs and his longevity

giggs

image from personal collection of stolen stuff

There surely can only be positives from a ludicrously long twenty-three year career at the very top level, leading to an equally absurd twenty-five major trophies. But I’ll come straight in with another viewpoint, Giggs’ career has been so long and drawn out in the post peak years (arguably the centre midfield years) that the edge of the seat winger is too distant a memory. The biggest personal award of his career has come in those post peak years but if anything that has actually had an opposite effect on his legacy too. Just as when you feel a player is overrated you probably fall foul of underrating them in protest the PFA Player of the Year award was not necessarily positive. It was verging on patronising, this guy is probably retiring soon, can’t believe he hasn’t won one of these things, he probably should have one. This was written in the Guardian on that day:

“Some questioned his nomination, dismissing it as a nostalgic exercise, given that he has made only 12 starts in the Premier League this season, supplemented by the same number again of substitute appearances, and scoring a single goal – the winner against West Ham United at Upton Park in February, shortly before members of the PFA would have submitted their ballots.”

Hi, I am one of the some. Almost word for word my thoughts on that award. Not quite Scott Parker insta-killing the credibility of the writers’ award bad, but not way off either. Parker was actually the player Giggs shimmied into an Irish jig during that Upton Park goal. Anyway that’s nothing but another only semi-relevent cheap-shot at the smelly Scott Parker. The main point is that award was just one part of a final decade that I actually believe has been harmful to the legacy of one of the Premier League greats.

Let’s say the ‘orrible Michael Brown connected better with this charming tackle back in 2006 and finished off Giggs there and then. My theory is the individual legacy would actually be stronger, and not just in the way that all the forcibly retired (or the dead in other industries) receive some immediate reputation inflation. He’d have been eight years closer to those Juventus goals and the more mop-haired years. Memories of the exhilarating winger eight years less diluted. Giggs was obviously still a very classy player in a central position, calming yet still incisive. A favourite example how he picked out Michael Owen for the last-gasp Derby winner like it was the most obvious and easy thing in the world despite everyone around him (players, managers and fans alike) completely losing their shit. He was out there preventing panic-attacks. That’s great. But what about the version who caused the panic-attacks, the defensive home-wrecker (awkward) rather than the counsellor brought in to repair the marriage between the midfield and the attack.

The adaptation was admirable and it helped extend his career towards the one thousand game mark which should really be out of reach for outfield players, especially so when it’s all at the very top level. It would also be foolish to say he didn’t play a big enough part in the later trophies which made him so incredibly decorated that the bottom of his wikipedia page is verjazzled to the point of seizure warning. Speaking for myself only though, the great Giggs died soon after his famous Juventus goal in 2003. That’s a decade ago, a very long time to if not forget then at least have the memories dangerously faded. It’s almost like the once famously exposed chest-rug was symbolic of his powers. Whether it was shaved, waxed or burnt and snorted (however millionaires do it these days) it was tamed. He was tamed. Maybe he became a more complete and intelligent player into his thirties. He became more generic though, more relatively normal. There won’t be too many players who can play those sandwedge assists over the last line of defence like he could in the latter days, but there will be far more out there than those who could take a tired and errant Patrick Vieira pass in their own half and end up scoring.

I only had the pleasure of watching Giggs in the flesh once. He pounced on an error and nonchalently scored the winner against my team and it wasn’t just a case of not being mad, it was dangerously close to being happy. This is how much of a hero he was. (Hang in there, just one more bit of ‘cool story bro’ to go) His stock was so big when I was a kid that being a lefty was something of pride rather than shame of being a misfit that needed burning. Overall though seeing Giggs that match was somewhat underwhelming. It was 2006 and just into his those post chest-rug years. He simply wasn’t the player from TV and videos in the 10+ years before. Obviously he can’t score one of those mazy wonder goals every game but it was the lack of even the slightest hints here which was so underwhelming. Maybe Ferguson was only giving licence to one player to party on the wing by this point, Ronaldo in this case, but the fear was Giggs was no longer able as well as not allowed. It was actually quite like watching the other Ronaldo in the 2006 World Cup a few months later. Way beneath the refusal to acknowledge the best might be over was the acceptance it really was. Never meet your heroes etc etc.

Anyway, decide for yourself. Whilst unsuccessfully trying to find a favourite Giggs goal* I came across this video. It’s what looks like being part 1 of a several part epic of every Giggs goal. However no subsequent parts seem to exist, it’s cut short in 1994 only. In a way that’s the beauty though and why it’s so perfect here. Imagine a career** of this Giggs followed by a couple of years of natural wane, then retired nearer the 30th birthday than the 40th. Just how different would the legacy be? Would it be better?

*early or mid 90s goal, from an impossibly tight angle. He’s basically on the goal line, left of the goal about half way between goal and corner flag yet rolls it in. Head says Norwich or Sheffield Wednesday but it could be anyone, haven’t seen it for at least ten years.

**there’s probably a good argument about the league not being as strong back then. Dirtier midfields and defences, but ultimately slower and inferior.

Unfortunately Oxlade-Chamberlain is still a 20 year old English player

Özil was terrible whilst Oxlade-Chamberlain was either dazzling, brilliant, or came of age last night.

I can’t recall Özil doing anything really before an injury forced him off at half time, so whilst possibly too simplistic in a team sport, one word dismissals may not be too far off the mark. When I sit back and think what Oxlade-Chamberlain achieved in the match my memory is a couple of dribbles which came to nothing, one thanks to a reckless foul high up the pitch (high up the pitch due to Bayern being so utterly dominant), another due to a willing fall followed by a forgettable Cazorla free kick nearer the penalty area. A central midfielder who didn’t create a single chance in the match lauded as dazzling, brilliant and coming of age. England.

I think the stat was 21 touches for Özil in his half last night. That sounds about right for an attacking player stationed on the right in a side being dominated and relying on service from a dribbler like Oxlade-Chamberlain. How far into the half Özil actually got injured is anyone’s guess, you assume however it was close to the half time whistle given his March now looks over.

Of course Oxlade-Chamberlain shouldn’t be expected to have come out of this match with anything more than a 6/10 performance. He was a young central midfielder against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. Akin to his Barcelona in the same sport or nephew of ex teammate Miguel Ángel Nadal in another sport they get you on a treadmill which relentlessly spins round at a speed which overwhelms all to the extent where only a perfect performance will allow a chance of staying on the treadmill. Arsenal from minute one slipped down to the back half of the treadmill, just about remaining error-free enough in defence to stay on it. The rare chances to relieve pressure fell largely to Oxlade-Chamberlain, intentionally I believe, who do you close down if you’re a Bayern player, Arteta, Chamberlain or Özil? The reason I say this is one of the most frustratingly simple concepts, a ball can move faster than a player. Arteta & Özil as the superior passers hold the more immediate threat. I think it’s more sinister than good positioning and movement from Oxlade-Chamberlain which allowed him to be the out-ball so often for Arsenal’s gasps for air.

His method was fairly successful in pressure relief, he managed to get the ball back into Bayern’s half a couple of times. It was one step up from the big clearance, yet still a clear step down from Dortmund or Real Madrideqsue counter-attack of direct passing on the move . It’s obviously a skill to be able to beat a player then have the running power to consolidate that trickery, even Messi however will come unstuck by the 4th or 5th player unless they manage to offload first. You need both the willingness to offload and the ability to offload, Oxlade-Chamberlain so far has neither, Ross Barkley has a bit of both, slightly older model Jack Wilshere has the ability if not always the willingness. Worryingly the willingness seems to be becoming lower as lower as he feels more and more senior in the Arsenal side. The result is 3 almost players who regularly excite but rarely actually produce anything of genuine worth. Exciting means nothing (in terms of success rather than for a viewer) without an end product (not always just a blunt goal or assist). Almost doesn’t win anything.

The more I read the more I think the future of England is a middle three of Wilshere, Barkely and Oxlade Chamberlain. Can you imagine that now, it would be like QPR’s relegation season where even their defensive mids M’Bia and Diakité were dribblers. It’s clear from reading that this is what excites the writers and I suspect there is no divide between excitement and result. This is what’s best for England, look how dazzling this trio are when running with the ball.

Chamberlain and Barkley are clearly young enough to persist with, they seem to be able to do a bit of everything in isolation, with each of those isolated skills enough to hurt even elite opponents, it’s simply the stringing together of those skills to turn an action into a full move which brings a tangible result. My fear with players lacking this stringing together is not simply consistency which will come with age, it’s actually their brain, therefore not something that can really be installed adequately. By then you have it or you don’t, it should be a case of adding to it rather than simply switching it on.

This is not to say dribblers should be banished, although I do feel they have little place away from the front four. Iniesta for example I find fascinating as I get the impression he purposely dribbles into players. You think of a dribble and think of getting away from a player, getting around them, dodging them, avoiding them. With Iniesta I honestly feel he seeks out players with often no intention of actually going past them. He simply wants to commit them towards him, knowing if they’re in his face they can’t be marking someone else. He then backs his control and awareness so much that not only can he commit a player closer and closer to him without feeling in danger of losing the ball, but he can often commit more than one player towards him. It’s like the dummy run of the dribble, making a run with no intention of receiving the ball simply to drag other players away. I love that, but it would all mean absolutely nothing (and possibly backfire) if Iniesta couldn’t then release the ball to the right teammate. So even if Oxlade-Chamberlain does intend to be this cheeky (a couple of his dribbles yesterday did commit a fair few players towards him) I’m not sure he has that vision in him to consolidate it. To defend him slightly the power dribbler should naturally find it a bit harder anyway as in blunt terms precision is harder at higher speed.

Long story short I’m not buying this hype yet, without sounding too arsey it seems an extremely English type of hype so far. The sort of hype where Andros Townsend can be Tottenham’s player of the season despite no assists and a goal from a cross this season. That’s a bit reductive but answers on a postcard what else Townsend’s dazzling dribbles, thrilling running and explosive shooting from the right does for Spurs. Also certainly not buying the worth of a midfield of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Barkley and Wilshere. One of the three maybe, for some balance. Ideally all three develop into far more, they have plenty of time to. Exciting failure doesn’t appeal when there is some emotional attachment to the team in question.

Filtering out the romance

romance

Without sounding as patronising as saying ignornace is bliss, in football a little bit of ignorance is a little bit of bliss. A little bit patronising. A little bit deserved. A little bit unsure of how to pad out two or three points into an acceptable post.

Anyway, maybe it was just my youth ending or maybe it is genuine revelations but delving deeper into the skewing effects penalties and formations can have on goal records has sucked a lot of the joy out of both memories and the present. I was in awe of Frank Lampard’s midfield goalscoring until I realised Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo reached double figures for goals in the seasons they were allowed to take penalties too. I still doff my cap to Lampard for his achievements but it’s now like a beautiful image has been slightly photo-bombed. Mike Dean is having a wee in the background as 2012/13’s most improved google search Bobby Tambling hands over an award to Lampard.

On the surface Cavani is magnificent, his numbers are often used as illustration to back this up. 29 goals in just 34 Serie A games last season. Shave off the 7 penalties and it’s 22, still very good, but closer to the 1 in 2 mark than 1 in 1 brilliance.  The season before he scored 4 less, but he only took 3 penalties. The season before that he scored 3 less, he only took 5 penalties. It’s sad but you can largely tell how many penalties a player has taken in a season by their goal tallies, it’s the same with Messi and Ronaldo. Messi’s 50 goal season was made quite so ridiculous by 10 penalties, 50 in 37 games looks outrageous, 40 in 37 slightly more human.  Ronaldo “only” managed 34 in 34 games last season, the season before he got 46 in 38 games. Guess which season he scored 12 penalties and which season he only got to take 6?

Falcao is perhaps hit hardest by the penalty stripping as more than most he doesn’t have the fall-back of contributing anything outside the box or laying on goals for his colleagues.  28 in 34 games last season, strip away the penalties and it’s 20 in 34, verging on Benteke rather than the most feared natural striker in Europe. 24 in 34 the season before, “just” 5 penalties. He flirted with a goal a game in Portugal, in his last season he took no penalties so it was 16 goals in 22 games. The season before it was a magnificent 25 in 28. You guessed it.

Now where this penalty context almost brought me to tears, it tried to cock-block my favourite player of all time, the Brazilian Ronaldo.  Injury of course largely defines the player, let alone helps explain some differences. Likewise 1990s Serie A was thought of as the toughest of leagues for strikers. Nevertheless the goal a game Ronaldo took penalties, that’s the Cruziero, PSV, Barcelona and Inter Milan version. At Real Madrid he dipped to more of a 2 in 3 striker. He deserves more credit here though, only 1 of his 47 goals in 63 games in 02/03 & 03/04 was a penalty. Thierry Henry is another, pretty much the Michael Jordan on the Premier League in the mid noughties. Never a huge penalty scorer (around 0-4 a season) but the season he got to take the most penalties is the season he got to the 30 goal barrier (7 pens). In 04-05 he scored a very impressive 25 in 32 matches, winning him a share of the European golden boot, all without taking a single penalty. The purest of achievements. He shared the award with Forlan that season. In 2008/2009 Forlan won a second European Golden Boot. Some may question the value of individual awards anyway but it must be a pretty cool accolade to win. If I was Samuel Eto’o however I’d be a little bit miffed, Forlan pipped him as he basically scored 4 more penalties than Eto’o. Only one name stays in the record books, and it’s Forlan’s. Is that fair? Some would say yes, I hope however Everton win 40 penalties one season so the whole thing gets the necessary slap in the face when Messi and Baines share the trophy.

Luis Suarez represents both the unfortunate and fortunate of the penalty effect. For Liverpool last season Suarez was pipped by Van Persie for the golden boot. The infamous bite was one reason, not being a penalty taker is another. For Ajax he scored 18 league penalties in his last 2 and a bit seasons there. It has to be noted however he was a right winger for Ajax so should not be judged on goals that much anyway, he was a prolific assister as well. If Suarez is inevitably going to leave Liverpool soon the club would be wise to get Gerrard to hand over penalty duties to Suarez. He’s tucking them away for Uruguay currently and an extra 5-10 goals a season will add a nice premium to the transfer fee Liverpool receive. Just look at Falcao and Cavani even when more money than sense oil riches are taken into account.

At Napoli Cavani was about as pampered as a centre forward can possibly be and not just because of penalties. 3-5-2 type formations have a habit of funneling goals to the centre forwards more than any other. The attacking wingers aren’t there to chip-in as much compared to more conventional current set-ups. Ronaldo is an unfair example to use as a wide man in a back 4 and 1 striker formation as he’s a freak, so think someone like Arsenal with Walcott and Podolski. Wing-backs never really have this luxury, they’re providers and enablers more, normally players with incredible stamina to allow a sacrifice out wide to pump 2 extra men into the middle. Liverpool are currently rare adopters of a 3-5-2 type formation. So far 12 goals have been scored with it of which the only ones to not come from Suarez & Sturridge have been 2 Gerrard penalties. Now consider all this funneling to just 1 centre forward instead of 2. At Napoli Cavani always had forward players with him who were taking a slight back-seat deeper or wider, guys like Hamsik, Lavezzi and Pandev. These were like 3-4-2-1 formations. He was the undoubted spout of the whole operation, all roads pretty much lead to him. With Uruguay and now PSG courtesy of Ibrahimovic he doesn’t get this pampering. Again, a lot of the time he’ll be out wide for both where judging by goals is harsher.

Just how good are Cavani and Falcao? Maybe not quite as good as we think if numbers are the evidence. The silly thing is though they really probably are, ignore penalties, formations, everything, it’s Messi and Ronaldo distorting  what is thought of as the gold standard. A decade back 1 in 2 was more like the unwritten standard you’d judge on if you were bluntly judging. Brazilian Ronaldo tested this briefly before his body prevented him making a mockery of it in the way Ronaldo and especially Messi do currently. In some ways football without these two would be a better talking point, who would you pick as the best striker in the world let alone the best player in the world. So many exceptional and hard to separate candidates, yet all clearly enough a level below the main duo.

I’d love penalties to be scrapped from all golden boots though, for every little taint that occurs when a player misses a penalty but scores the rebound plenty more players will step up to the spot and get a goal for an original move they had nothing to do with. Penalties are just too good at explaining goal records. Lampard scored a mental 22 league goals in 2009/10. Context like Chelsea setting a record for goals in a season is unfair if used to tarnish, Lampard was a big part of that, he was a prolific assister then as well. 10 of the 22 being penalties however is a serious tarnisher. Penalty context should always exist, otherwise if left as just a number the reputations of some players can get inflated with a knock-on effect of non penalty takers being comparatively deflated. Penalty taking is a skill, of course it is. It’s a closed skill though, one I could perform coming off a sofa against even the best keeper in the world whereas in open play I’d be lost. Why not extend this to free-kicks? I think Lampard himself answers that one quite well with his free kick record.

The romance has definitely been sucked out a bit applying these filters but the end result can be very useful as well as fairer and dare I say more accurate. A season of watching Zola’s Watford is enough to suggest Suarez and Sturridge can both be dominant scorers rather than one having to take the lead. If it weren’t for prison and penalties last season (Crystal Palace had 16 pens! Rhodes and Austin are both penalty takers too) Watford’s most common 3-5-2 spearhead of Deeney and Vydra could have been the top 2 scorers in the league. This season Liverpool could provide this very rare occurence (a small side-note, since Suarez has returned and Liverpool adopted the formation they have had 4 of the easiest fixtures of the season) and if it does and doesn’t come at the detriment to results as a whole Rodgers should be applauded for the balls to try a formation the Premier League is relatively allergic to. Moyes’ and Pelligrini’s attempts to fit 2 big centre forwards in is so far not going very well at all, no coincidence Man City’s stand-out performance came in the meeting between the two.

Seriously though, I don’t want to care, I just want to watch. I used to think Cantona was a centre forward, not an attacking midfielder. I may have been wrong back then but I was happier too. Now I’d note Cantona was a penalty taker, tainting a goal record that could do without tainting, but it would all be explained by his playing position between the lines, receiving the ball deep then coming forward to get a ridiculous number of assists or pull out the most clutch of goals. Back then I’d simply run around the house with my collar up.

Watford and the 99 playoff final

*PROBABLY ONLY WORTH READING IF YOU SUPPORT WATFORD AND HAVE A BAD MEMORY. OR POSSIBLY A GOOD MEMORY SO THE REMINDERS IGNITE PICTURES. IDEALLY HAVE A MEMORY OF SOME SORT*

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjunL7v7lNc

Thanks to living in another country at the time supporting Watford was largely a Ceefax activity. Just a couple of years before my dad could teleport me from sofa to Vicarage Road seat in a matter of minutes. In May 1999 as Watford prepared for the First Division play-off Final it was now several hours. It didn’t matter, it was imperative we were there, at least that’s what my dad told me and he was spot on.

At that age Wembley was this huge mythical arena which I’d see on TV a couple of times a year. It could have been in Yorkshire for all I knew. It was a place for England and top-flight teams; at that point I’d never known a top-flight Watford. Two firsts were on the cards this day: the certain – a first visit to the then twin-towered Wembley, and the possible – Watford in the Premier League, on Match of the Day and finally on the lips of more than just me in the playground.

What happened next? A glorious two-nil win in the symbolic sunshine. Everything about the day was perfect, the goals, the weather, the prize; even the struggles enhanced the experience. Watford were hanging on for dear-life at times in the first half and that made the spectacle even more tense, more exciting, and in the end much more rewarding.

A young Icelandic striker kept spurning chance after chance for Bolton. “This blonde guy is a bit crap” was the relieved reaction in my young mind. Of course that man was a young Eidur Gudjohnsen, later of Chelsea and Barcelona and half of one of the better strike partnerships in Premier League history alongside Hasselbaink. I now appreciate the reason he had so many chances to spurn was his intelligence that manifested itself in superb movement to lose Page and Palmer and/or the technical expertise that ensured his first touch was good enough to turn a pass into a goal-scoring chance.

Watford weathered the storm thanks to a brilliant save from Chamberlain as well as this less than clinical finishing and the game was set-up for that goal – Nick Wright’s over-head kick just before half-time. As if an overhead kick isn’t good enough he stuck it in the top corner for good measure. The goal was incredible, the celebration equally brilliant. The moment represented everything that is great about football. I’m sure even in the households of Luton there was a begrudging respect for that goal, they’ll never admit it but it was there. Even the Bolton fans through their anguish would surely as fans of football have applauded the goal somewhere deep down.

The goal celebration itself was pure; there was nothing pre-rehearsed and tacky about it. Like Italy’s Marco Tardelli in the 1982 World Cup final it was raw spontaneous emotion. It’s why you play football in the first place, for feelings like that. The WAGs, the cars and the money will always be trumped by goals and celebrations like Wright’s. They’re moments for those who really matter, the fans, his friends and family and of course the man himself. Not since the playground had I seen a ginger person at the bottom of such a gleeful pile-up. There was no follicular racism here however, just ten men who wanted to share in a moment of genius.

One-nil up and although on top in the second half it was still a hugely tense lead thanks to its Crouchesque narrowness. Cometh the hour, cometh the Scotsman. Allan Smart’s clincher looked quite inevitable and dare I say it easy from my angle. A breakaway against exhausted opposition, an outnumbered defence and a squared pass is tucked away. Upon review and seeing it from behind the goal you see just what a brilliant finish it was. It’s testament to Smart that I underestimated the strike, he made it look so easy. The ball was coming across him and the stakes were massive – only years later would I fully understand the enormity of that moment for him. He delivered the truest, most deliberate of strikes swerving away from the keeper and slap-bang in the corner. He went wild, the squad and Taylor went wild, and we went wild with them. Years later I discovered his tears were partly fuelled by an incredible show of bouncebackability (always wanted to use that word). Just two years before he was stretchered off the hallowed Wembley turf with a broken ankle with the game just minutes old. He couldn’t have asked for a better response. When Taylor threw him on after 75 minutes the fire in Smart’s eyes must have been hard to miss. He was a man on a personal mission as well as one for his team. Luckily the two aims fuelled each other. He tracked back and won possession off Bolton in midfield and seconds later he made sure he was also the finisher of the move. He’d been waiting two years for that moment, it was fate and he was never going to miss. To this day I still feel blessed that I was fortunate enough to be sitting jumping around like a rabid dog in the section Smart saluted in that emotional celebration.

Wright of course suffered a horrible reversal of fortunes to those of Smart that day. Wright’s playoff goal marked a sickening start of the end for his career. We wanted to see our new hero go on to even better things; what we witnessed was a sad and slow end to his career through injury. If there was a cartilage register back then I would have happily donated mine for the cause. It’s the least I could have done for that moment he gave me as a Watford fan.

The team was littered with heroes on the day. Darren Bazeley, the man who showed Wembley that he doesn’t just look like Dimitar Berbatov but he dribbled like him too. His mazy dribble won a corner out of nothing, the corner Wright scored from.

There was Peter Kennedy, the man who took the corner for Wright’s wonder goal and later went on to provide the perfectly weighted and angled assist for Smart’s moment of redemption and glory.

Tommy Mooney may not have got the goal his end of season scoring streak probably deserved but he was a vital cog on the day, a tireless nuisance factor who occupied the Bolton defenders and freed space for others. Thanks to Match of The Day the next year I’d no longer have to explain why I had the name or a bare-cheeked taunt on the back of my shirt.

They weren’t alone; all eleven men were heroes that day. Graham Taylor had clearly masterminded a superb spirit in the camp and it showed that day, just as it did in the improbable late run into the playoffs in the first place. The stifling heat that got to Bolton in the second half didn’t have a chance of getting the better of Watford that day, their spirit defied physiology.

The occasion was perfect in every way and it was an absolute honour to be a Watford fan that day. There have been some memorable moments since but that day was a footballing jigsaw that was missing fewer pieces than any of these moments. If you had a chance to write the script it wouldn’t have been far off.

So how can Monday possibly compete?

On the day itself it most likely can’t. However should Watford manage to win the game I think they have a first realistic chance of staying up. Both Premier League adventures so far have felt like exactly that, adventures, unsustainable. On both occasions Watford were a very direct team but direct without the complete guilt-free dedication to filth that a side like Stoke have. If you’re going to do it at least do it properly. Zola is at the helm now and yes partly (largely) due to a loan system with more holes in it than Wentworth the team plays football. Swansea under Rodgers, Norwich under Lambert and Southampton this season (have we reached the point yet when 2012/13 becomes last season?) have all achieved survival with not too dissimilar styles and calibre of player. With the exception of West Ham the teams who survive promotion recently seem to be those with the most positive styles (Blackpool the exception the other way, Holloway did take the piss a bit though).

There’s a sense of maybe this time, and maybe feels better than a no. Although Zaha can make it an instant no, hmm probably should have waited three days to post this.