WORDS: ROB FIELDER
Five different European nations have won the World Cup, and several more have come close to lifting the most prestigious trophy in international football since its inception in 1930, making the task of selecting an all-time European XI from the tournament’s history an almost impossible task…
Having selected the greatest South American World Cup XI in history, the task now comes to find a European side that can match up to them.
Whereas South American success has been founded squarely on the three giants of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Europe has always had a rather more evenly spread selection of powerhouses. The continent can boast five winners to the Americas’ three, nine finalists to the same tally, and 17 semi-finalists compared with the four that South America has provided.
The result is that, while there might not be a Pele or a Diego Maradona among the ranks of Europe’s greatest stars, there is a seemingly endless list of potential candidates to make the list. Although Italy, winners four times, and Germany with their exceptional consistency, can justifiably claim to be the continent’s most successful sides, they are far from being the only nations to have supplied worthy players for consideration. The likes of Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoichkov, Czechoslovakia’s Josef Masopust and Romania’s Gheorghe Hagi all demonstrated the power of some of the less fancied nations when it comes to performing at the World Cup, but did they do enough to earn a place in this star-studded line-up?
As with the South American selection, I have only looked at World Cup performances when picking this team. George Best so often heads up lists of the greatest players never to appear on the greatest stage but, as such, he has no place here. Similarly, Ferenc Puskas belongs among the finest footballers ever, but his World Cup contribution amounts to less than three whole games, even if he did score in each of them. Again I have looked, where possible, for those players who lit up multiple tournaments, who made an indelible mark over the years and earned their place in the pantheon, rather than being a flash in the pan. Hopefully it succeeds in reflecting the incredible achievements of such a great group of players, and offers a stiff test for their South American rivals.
Note: All appearances and goals relate to the World Cup finals. Only tournaments where the player took the field (ie rather than as a squad member of unused substitute) are included.
Was it really the greatest save in football history? Gordon Banks’s flying stop to deny Pele in 1970 has been widely lauded as the most impressive of all time, but the man himself was rather more circumspect. As the Brazilian maestro wheeled away in celebration, already convinced he had scored, Banks produced a remarkable piece of agility and athleticism, not just to get a hand to the ball but to turn it over the bar. Having produced the most famous save the World Cup has seen, Banks was teasingly told by Bobby Moore: “You’re getting old Banksy, you used to hold on to them.”
That save was just a part of the Banks story at the World Cup. In nine matches he kept six clean sheets, including four in a row in 1966. His importance throughout that tournament was self-evident, leading many to regard him as the best goalkeeper in the world, but in some regards it was 1970 which best highlighted his significance to the team. A bout of food poisoning which ruled him out of the quarter-final against West Germany elevated Peter Bonetti to a starting berth. The famous errors of the Chelsea keeper, particularly for the first German goal scored from long-range by Franz Beckenbauer, ultimately saw England throw away a two goal lead and with it slip out of the tournament. Had Banks been fit to play, there are many who still believe England might have been two-time world champions.
Honourable mentions: Frantisek Planicka (Czechoslovakia), Dino Zoff (Italy)
For all the memories of Zinedine Zidane’s brilliance, the 1998 World Cup was won by the French defence. With just two goals conceded across seven games, the back four of Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc and Bixente Lizarazu, proved the critical factor as the side swept to glory. They trailed only once throughout the competition, a Davor Suker goal for Croatia in the semi-finals. It was then that Thuram chose to score his only two goals in 142 internationals, powering his side over the finishing line.
In 2006 Thuram had switched to his preferred position at the centre of defence. Unsurprisingly his performances were no less significant. Marshalling a rather less spectacular back four, he was outstanding as Les Bleus nullified the threats posed by Brazil and Portugal in the quarter and semi-finals. While France couldn’t prevail in the final it was no reflection on the performance of Thuram who, along with Fabio Cannavaro, had marked himself out as the best centre-back of the competition.
Honourable mentions: Berti Vogts (West Germany), Wim Suubier (Netherlands)
Honourable mentions: Franco Baresi (Italy), Ruud Krol (Netherlands)
The first time the world discovered Franz Beckenbauer he was a dynamic and purposeful midfielder, able to drive from box to box, showing grace and guile on his way. The 1966 World Cup was a coming of age for the German who, at 20 years old, showed himself more than a match for such elevated company. Many regarded him as the player of the tournament, though his attacking influence in the final was diminished by the decision of Helmut Schön, the German manager, to use him as a marker to nullify the danger posed by Bobby Charlton.
The 1970 World Cup saw Beckenbauer continuing in midfield, showing his iron will as well as his comfort on the ball in a famous match against Italy, arguably the greatest in World Cup history. With the Germans already having used their two available substitutes, Beckenbauer suffered a dislocated shoulder but rather than going off he simply had his arm strapped to his chest and played on. A heartbreaking 4-3 defeat in extra-time did little to ease his pain.
By the time the 1974 finals rolled round Beckenbauer had finally assumed the role of libero with which he is so commonly associated. Disharmony within the West German squad over the size of prospective bonuses threatened to undermine their preparations, while defeat to East Germany was hardly short of a national disaster. Yet as with the rest of the team, the performances of “Der Kaiser” grew ever more assured until they finally saw off the challenge of Cruyff’s Holland. Three World Cups, three teams of the tournament, no player performed with such consistent brilliance across such a wealth of matches as Beckenbauer.
Many of the World Cup’s best ever defenders have few “showreel” moments to mark out their contributions. Despite being a singularly unfussy player, Bobby Moore has a list of them. His clever free-kick to Geoff Hurst that prompted England’s equaliser in the 1966 final was one. The measured pass to Hurst, while Jack Charlton was exhorting him to hoof the ball into the stands, which created the fourth in that match was another. Meanwhile he also executed arguably the finest tackle in history against Brazil in 1970, backpedalling away from Jairzinho before, when the chance arose, decisively robbing the winger and launching another counter.
Arguably his greatest World Cup exploit took place off the field. Accused on trumped-up charges of stealing a bracelet in a hotel in Colombia, he maintained his serene calm and unflappable nature throughout the finals of 1970. With the weight of such pressure on his shoulders, Moore exuded the authority which characterised his career, demonstrating, as he had in 1966, that there was no better centre-back in world football.
Honourable mentions: Gaetano Scirea (Italy), Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)
Growing up as the child of a World Cup veteran can never be easy. Cesare Maldini had played for the Azzurri at the World Cup of 1962, an utter disaster which had seen the Italians return home in disgrace. Yet Paolo enjoyed an immaculate World Cup career, shining consistently despite his failure to ever land the top prize.
The Italian defence of 1990 was immaculate. It took until deep into the semi-final against Argentina for them to first concede and when they did it had nothing to do with the left-back. Given the stability offered by the likes of Franco Baresi, Giuseppe Bergomi and Riccardo Ferri, Maldini was asked to get forward, almost as a wing-back and act as a counter-balance to Roberto Donadoni on the right. The 1994 World Cup was a markedly different matter. An early injury to Baresi rocked the fragile backline, leading Maldini to shift into the centre with outstanding results. An indication of his success came in being the first defender to be named World Player of the Year by World Soccer, thanks in equal measure to his World Cup exploits and the calibre of his play with Milan.
1998 witness another penalty shoot-out defeat as Paolo, now managed by father Cesare, saw his side go down to hosts France. If anything their exit in 2002 was even more painful as a pitiful refereeing display saw South Korea gain a contentious win in extra-time. In 21 matches Maldini lost just once in normal time (against Ireland in 1994) and yet, despite such consistent excellence, he never lifted the biggest prize of all.
Honourable mentions: Andreas Brehme (Germany), Paul Breitner (West Germany)
There have been few better sights in recent World Cups than Lothar Matthäus in full flight. His coruscating runs forward, best illustrated during Italia 90, were imbued with verve, brio and raw power. As with the rest of the West German side, he began that competition in remarkable style, imperious against Yugoslavia with two sensational goals that announced the nation’s intent. One left-footed, the other supplied with his right, it was a single match but it demonstrated the full range of the Inter midfielder’s talents.
In truth the versatility of Matthäus means he could have been included in any number of positions in this team. He began his career as a defensive midfielder before growing into a box-to-box role which better utilised his attacking prowess. As the years rolled on, the Germans attempted to shape him into the new Beckenbauer but the move to play as a sweeper was not a resounding success, negating his quality going forward. Despite that he remained a player of terrific class, deputising for the injured Matthias Sammer in the 1998 World Cup and ending his career with more appearances at the Mundial than any other man.
Honourable mentions: Johan Neeskens (Netherlands), Marco Tardelli (Italy)
In some regards Bobby Charlton’s best World Cup was the one that is least remembered. The 1962 tournament in Chile has been largely forgotten in Britain, in no small part due to the distance and the fact that England were the only domestic representative. Overall it was a dour, cynical and uninspiring finals, yet Bobby Charlton emerged as one of the finds of the competition, heralded by many as a real star thanks to his impressive display against Hungary and a powerful goal that helped secure victory against Argentina.
Already he was displaying the wonderful balance, passing and shooting from distance that would become the trademarks of his career. In England four years later his upwards trajectory continued, most notably with a sensational goal against Mexico, struck from 35 yards out and which threatened to break the net. A double in the semi-final against Portugal, both from distance, carried England into the final and Charlton was rewarded for England’s success by being named European Player of the Year for 1966.
The heat and altitude of Mexico proved rather a challenge but many regard the fateful decision of Alf Ramsey to replace a tiring Charlton with Colin Bell against West Germany as costing England their place in the semi-finals. As he drew down the curtain on an incredible career, Charlton had become the most capped player in history (surpassing Billy Wright’s 105 appearances). It was only a pity that he didn’t get to go out on a sweeter note.
Honourable mentions: Helmut Rahn (West Germany), Grzegorz Lato (Poland)
Contrary to popular perceptions, Zinedine Zidane did not carry France to greatness in 1998. Until the final he had been an influential figure whose involvement had been hampered by his own short temper, sent off in the group stage for directing a needless stamp at Saudi captain Fuad Amin. That ruled him out of the second round match with Paraguay, a game that came desperately close to penalties after the heroic efforts of Jose Luis Chilavert. However, his significance in the final cannot be ignored with two headed goals, an unusual contribution for a languid playmaker, decisively settled the contest.
Sadly 2002 was rather less kind with an injury sustained before the tournament limiting his participation to the final match against Denmark, in which a clearly unfit Zidane was unable to turn the tide. In contrast his swansong of 2006 proved a far more productive, with match-winning displays against Spain and Brazil sweeping the French along to the final. That his final act as a professional footballer was the brutal headbutt on Marco Materazzi was a cruel way for a great player to bow out. Yet it illustrated the fire and venom which drove Zidane, a truly atypical number 10.
Honourable mentions: Raymond Kopa (France), Kazimierz Deyna (Poland)
As Roberto Baggio prepared for the 1990 World Cup he might easily have been put off by the burden of an £8m world record transfer to Juventus which was due to follow the finals. Admittedly, his was a tournament of cameos, largely playing second fiddle (as everyone else did) to Toto Schillaci, but his goal against Czechoslovakia was the equal of anything those heady weeks in Italy witnessed.
Four years later things had changed for the “divine ponytail”. By now he had marked himself out as the game’s premier player and had expectations to match. Initially underwhelming in the group stages, he came to the fore in decisive fashion when the knock-out rounds commenced, scoring five of the Azzurri’s six goals as they reached the final. Of course his miss in the penalty shoot-out will be remembered forever, but he went some way to exorcising those demons with a crucial spot-kick against Chile at France 1998.
Yet again he went out on penalties, this time against the hosts, but Baggio had elevated himself to the ranks of the true greats. His class on the ball, his grace and poise, all combined to make him the finest player of his generation. Quite what he might have done if not beset by knee injuries throughout his career, we will never know.
Honourable mentions: Giuseppe Meazza (Italy), Johan Cruyff (Netherlands)
The prodigious goalscoring feats of “Der Bomber” are the stuff of legend. Ten goals in Mexico in 1970, including hat-tricks against Peru and Bulgaria, were enough to earn him the Ballon d’Or and made him the last man to hit double figures on the biggest stage of all. Having taken Uwe Seeler’s position as the attacking spearhead (the Hamburg veteran proving his versatility in midfield in response), Müller was in lethal form as he hunted out openings.
In truth Mexico was a snapshot of Müller’s career. For both club and country he always found a way to exploit the slightest opportunity; the greatest penalty box striker the game has ever seen. At home in 1974 his output was rather less potent, but if anything it marked a greater maturity to his play, focussed more on the team rather than simply goals. Against Sweden in the second group stage Müller didn’t find himself on the score sheet but he had a hand in each of the West Germans’ four goals. Typically when he was needed the Bayern star didn’t disappoint. The only goal against Poland in what was effectively the semi-final, a clinically struck shot, was followed by the winner against the Netherlands, pivoting as was his trademark before directing the ball past Jan Jongbloed. With that he surpassed Just Fontaine as the tournament’s most prolific scorer and the following day he retired from international football at the age of 28, having scored 68 goals in just 62 appearances.
Honourable mentions: Just Fontaine (France), Eusebio (Portugal)
The only man in either of the teams to have played at just one World Cup is Sandor Kocsis. The Hungarian inside-right, known as the “golden head” on account of his ability in the air, may have played less matches than any of the other nominees, but there were precious few who made such a prodigious impact in such little time. The 1954 tournament was a World Cup of goals. Hungary opened up against South Korea and humbled them 9-0, Kocsis grabbed a hat-trick but he was far from a flat-track bully,
Their next encounter was against West Germany but while that match was won 8-3, Kocsis scoring four this time, it came at a cost as Ferenc Puskas, the “galloping major”, sustained an injury thanks to a wayward tackle from Werner Liebrich. Deprived of the team’s best player and his strike-partner, Kocsis set about compensating for the absence of Puskas. Two goals against Brazil were followed by another brace against Uruguay during extra-time in a match described by many as the greatest in football history. That Kocsis failed to score in the final, a tragic 3-2 defeat to West Germany, might count against him, but nobody could question the form that he demonstrated against the world’s finest powers. Had it not been for the Hungarian revolution of 1956, he might well have set a World Cup scoring record that would never have been broken.
Honourable mentions: Paolo Rossi (Italy), Gary Lineker (England)