No.10: Top 4 playmakers … Ever.

The Number 10: the playmaker

The sacred shirt of the string-puller, the schemer, the creative force … the Number 10.
So many legendary players have worn it down the years, it’s difficult to know where to start, other than to say that even at school every kid knew it was the coolest number in the team.
These days there’s often as many as three of them in the same side as more and more clubs revert to playing with a deep-lying centre-forward. There’s nothing new in that: Hungary were doing it sixty years ago so Barcelona are only plundering the past.
As is the case with any art-form, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and sport is no different. Cesc Fabregas may not be quite the player Ferenc Puskas was, but they’re playing the same role and there’s been a few others to try it down the years.

It was during the 60s and 70s that our traditional idea of the “10” first came into being, as they developed from simple inside forwards into highly skilled lock-pickers as defences across the world became more and more obdurate. The rise of catenaccio and the five-man defence, usually with a sweeper, meant that a five man forward line was no longer feasible and in fact the entire tactical rule-book went out the window …
Some number 10s used close control and trickery, others used pace and power, while yet others relied more on guile and vision and an eye for the killer “final” ball to set up a team-mate. A handful used the lot.
We’re talking about the absolute pinnacle of footballing excellence here, people.
I hope you’re already lining up suitable candidates, though I sincerely believe there’ll be only one man standing at the end …

 

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My Top 4 playmakers … Ever.

#4
Dennis Bergkamp

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Bergkamp is one of my favourite ever players because he played the game the right way, the true way … the beautiful way. His touch was sublime, his athleticism supreme, his finishing superlative and his vision 3-dimensional. In many ways, Dennis Bergkamp was the perfect modern footballer and you get the impression – as with most of the top Dutch players – that he could’ve slotted in at left-back and been word class there as well. Many of his compatriots did just that of course, but with Bergkamp it would be like watering down a malt whisky: why would you want to ruin perfection ? Play the man up top in a free-role and sit back and watch the magic …

He not only did it at club level in Holland, Italy and England, but also for Holland, nearly going all the way on a couple of occasions. Though De Oranje may have ultimately come up short, Bergkamp never did. Who could forget his goal in 1998 against Argentina in the quarter-finals ? With two minutes to go, the score at 1-1 and extra-time looming, you have to be cold as ice to finish like that. Given what happened to Brazil in the final it seems a waste now that The Netherlands lost to them on penalties in the semi-final. Who knows what might have happened had it been them lining up against France in Paris ?
Now coaching and still staunchly of the same footballing philosophy, it won’t be long before he’s back at Highbury inspiring the next bunch of international fancy dans when his mentor, M. Wenger, saunters off into the sunset …

 

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#3
Michel Platini

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Speaking of mercurial Frenchmen …
Given that France has been involved in most of the pivotal decisions in world and European football since the early 20th century, it was always a mystery why their national team was rather average. With a strong domestic league, a large population and access to a vast array of African talent through their colonial links, they under-achieved for many decades until one man arrived on the scene in the 1970s: Michel Platini.
Football was never that popular in France. Cycling, handball and even basketball were all ranked higher as spectator sports until both Saint-Etienne and Platini got going. He joined Les Verts in 1979 when they were at their peak, with the aim being to win the European Cup. Despite some good results, they never really got near the latter stages of the tournament and with his personal reputation also at an all-time high, Platini signed for Juventus where he went on to win plenty of silverware. But it was for the national team that he became the icon he remains to this day. Dragging Les Bleus into the limelight at the 1982 World Cup, the side unexpectedly reached the semi-finals where they lost savagely at the hands (and feet) of West Germany, with ‘keeper Harald Schumacher ruthlessly taking out Patrick Battiston as he bore down on goal. Even now it seems impossible that not even a free-kick was given despite the striker needing oxygen on the pitch after being knocked out cold and losing two teeth in the process.
I firmly believe France would’ve won the tournament had they gone through and Platini would have held both a World Cup winners medal as well as the European Championship medal he won two years later. France romped to victory at Euro ’84 with Platini finishing as top scorer with a staggering nine goals from just five games, all of them from midfield. As one of the best dead-ball experts in history, Michel Platini literally won games on his own.
He actually went on to become France’s all-time top-scorer until one Thierry Henry finally overtook his record twenty years later.
Now head of UEFA, Platini is becoming a real rival to FIFA’s Sepp Blatter and is a strong candidate to stand against him at the next elections. With financial fair-play at the top of his agenda, if he were to take office in Switzerland, it would be the biggest shake-up in the history of the administrative side of the game for eons. And I for one would say “Bienvenue, Michel !” to that.

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#2
Zinedine Zidane

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Pace, power, touch, two great feet, the stamina of a long-distance runner, the vision of a prophet and the brain of a footballing Einstein, Zinedine Zidane was the ultimate modern footballer.
Forget the galacticos hype. Forget the temper. Forget the head-butt.
Remember the class, the style, the determination, the skill, the pure footballing ability that lifted him onto that stratospheric level he shares with Beckenbauer and Cruyff before him.
We’re not just talking world class here: we’re talking all-time great.

Zizou was deceptively quick, insanely strong and supremely gifted and he could run and run and run … if he was a race-horse, he’d be the most expensive stud in the history of the sport. As it was, for a while he was the most expensive player.
With a glittering career at both club level and internationally, he won a phenomenal amount of silverware:
2 Serie A titles, 2 Italian Cups (Juventus)
1 Champions League, 1 La Liga, 2 Spanish Cups (Real Madrid)
1 World Cup, 1 European Championship (France)
… as well as a host of smaller trophies and an endless array of individual honours, including outstanding references from the likes of Pele, Beckenbauer, Marcello Lippi and his peers Roberto Carlos and David Beckham.
France 98 was perhaps his crowning moment, though 2006 should have been. Having been named player of the tournament in the Germany World Cup, it seems a shame that for many people his lasting memory will be of headbutting an opponent. It shouldn’t be: he created far too many magical moments before that, with that Champions League final winner for Real being the ultimate. I could watch that goal forever …
Now assistant coach in Madrid, Zidane’s story is not yet over.

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#1
Diego Maradona

Soccer - World Cup Mexico 86 - Quarter Final - England v Argentina

There could be no other choice.
For me, the greatest player ever to play the game, Maradona is peerless, even over and above Pelé. My argument is this: my mum could’ve played in that Brazil ’70 team and they still would’ve won the World Cup (she was only 36 at the time), but Maradona made Argentina ’86 into champions on his own … single-handedly.
Like many true geniuses, Diego Armando Maradona trod a very thin line between absolute brilliance and complete and utter madness. At times, he jumped over it with both feet: the air-gun incident with the journalist; the drug-taking at USA ’94; the alleged coke addiction; the alleged tax evasion; various disciplinary problems … I could go on, but you get the idea.
And yet, and yet … when he had a ball at his feet (or should I say foot for he really was one of the most one-footed players of all time?) it all paled into insignificance. Yes, there was the Hand Of God and yes it was shameless, but who of those England fans bemoaning his audacity didn’t cheer when Michael Owen dived to win a penalty against the same side in both 1998 and 2002 ? Double standards, if you ask me, and I’m a huge England fan. The reason I bring all that up is because in the very same (original) game Maradona scored what can only be described as the best goal of all time.
And that’s what you get: lunacy one minute, genius the next.
Like George Best before him and Gazza shortly after, Maradona was a head-case footballer par excellence.
His club football career could arguably have been said to eclipse even his own World Cup brilliance for Argentina. Having enjoyed success with both Argentinos and Boca Juniors in his homeland, he won three trophies with Barcelona before joining Napoli, where his legend really began to take root.
It would not be over-stating things to describe his time with the southern club as simply out-of-this-world. Maradona transformed the provincial club into double Serie A champions, with two runners-up spots and three domestic cups all in the space of a glorious four years.
If ever you needed a match-winner, whether in the first minute or the 91st, Maradona was your man. Embrace the madness. Enjoy the roller-coaster. The lows will be low, but the highs will be stratospheric.
To paraphrase Phillip K. Dick, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very, very brightly, Diego …”

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Maradona

 

Honourable mentions: Ferenc Puskas, Zico, Socrates, Roberto Baggio, Gheorge Hagi, Francesco Totti, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Ruud Gullit … and Dirk Kuyt.

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