Wednesday, April 28, 2010
First XI: Attacking midfielders
We've had goalkeepers, defenders and defensive midfielders, but this week the focus turns to those concerned with the business of making and scoring goals.
This First XI incorporates goal-scoring and creative central and attacking midfielders. Second strikers and inside forwards will be incorporated into a later selection of attackers. For those who blur the boundaries, a judgment call has been made.
Zizinho (Brazil) Pele's childhood idol appeared in just one World Cup and, as it turned out, it saw Brazil suffer their most devastating defeat in the history of the tournament. He was just 16 for the 1938 tournament, so made his bow on home soil in 1950. Zizinho was a symbol of Brazil's brilliance: playing behind Friaca, Ademir and Chico, he was, as Pele put it, the complete player. "He played in midfield, in attack; he scored goals; he could mark, head and cross." It was not enough, however, to avoid the Maracanazo and, although Zizinho was named player of the tournament, he is said to have been disappointed enough to have considered retirement. He was not selected in 1954 - explanations for his surprise omission vary - while, by 1958, he was 36 and a 17-year-old Pele had arrived on the scene to take his place.
Sir Bobby Charlton (England) Sir Alf Ramsey built his team around Charlton for the 1966 World Cup campaign and for some time after he was the most famous English footballer around the globe. He began his career as an inside right but moved further back as his career progressed, playing in a central position behind the strikers in a 4-1-3-2 as England lifted the World Cup. He perhaps did not make the impact many had expected on the final, occupied largely in a personal battle with West Germany's Franz Beckenbauer, but he scored a spectacular goal in the opener against Mexico and then twice in the 2-1 semi-final victory over Eusebio's Portugal, contributing to his European Footballer of the Year accolade. And, as the magnanimous Beckenbauer later suggested, England won the tournament because "Bobby was just a bit better than me". Charlton was also named in the '58, '62 and '70 squads.
Sandro Mazzola (Italy) Often playing as an inside right or centre forward, Mazzola was a prolific goal-scorer whose creative gifts, driving runs and dribbling ability also allowed him to operate as an attacking midfielder. Having helped Italy to success at the 1968 European Championships, he adopted this more withdrawn position at the 1970 World Cup, where he was forced to share his playing time with Gianni Rivera, a brilliant but unpredictable player of the same mould. Coach Ferruccio Valcareggi's staffetta, as he called it, saw Mazzola replaced by Rivera at half-time in every game in the interests of appeasing both. Nonetheless, Mazzola was outstanding, and he was allowed to play the entire 90 minutes of the defeat against Brazil in the final, with Rivera having to wait until the 84th minute to replace Roberto Boninsegna. When the two played together in 1974, they were both into their 30s and failed to deliver their best form.
Zico (Brazil) A 'White Pele' who boasted a stunning array of talents, he was a superb dribbler and fine finisher with excellent vision, and deadly from free-kicks. He struggled to make his mark in the 1978 World Cup, with injury problems and tactical disagreements with defensively-minded coach Claudio Coutinho restricting his involvement. However, in 1982, he was at his brilliant best, named in FIFA's All-Star Team for the tournament, although the campaign ultimately proved unsuccessful after a 3-2 defeat to eventual champions Italy in the second group stage. In 1986, at the age of 33, he arrived in Mexico with an injury. He was restricted to three substitute appearances and, coming on in quarter-finals against France, missed a penalty. The match finished 1-1 and, while Zico converted his penalty in the shoot-out, France progressed.
Michel Platini (France) Platini's talent as a playmaker was unrivalled during the 1980s and he also boasted extraordinary finishing ability, scoring 41 goals in 72 games for his country. In his three World Cups, from 1978 to 1986, he reached the semi-finals on two occasions and was named European Player of the year in 1983, 1984 and 1985. A France Football poll named him French player of the century while, in Italy, he was voted the greatest player ever to have appeared for Juventus. Small wonder, then, that Zinedine Zidane modelled himself on Platini as a youngster.
Socrates (Brazil) A sublime talent with an exceptional football brain, Socrates did not make his international debut until the age of 25 but, three years later at the 1982 World Cup, he was Brazil's captain. He was never much of an athlete - it's said he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day - but his ability more than made up for any shortcomings. Brazil exited the '82 World Cup after a 3-2 defeat to eventual champions Italy in the second group stage, but he returned at the age of 32 in 1986 for another impressive tournament as Brazil lost to France in a penalty shoot-out at the quarter-final stage. Socrates returned to football in 2004 at the age of 50 to play for Garforth Town in the Northern Counties East League. He got 12 minutes against Tadcaster Albion and admitted he suffered a "terrible headache" in the cold Yorkshire conditions.
Enzo Scifo (Belgium) A veteran of four World Cups, and a leading star when Belgium reached the semi-finals in 1986, Scifo played for a string of top clubs around Europe but was at his best on the international stage. His second World Cup, in 1990, ended with a cruel defeat to England at the second-round stage, and he later described that side as "the best Belgium team we've ever had". Another second-round exit followed in 1994 and, by 1998, Scifo and Belgium were firmly on the wane as they went out in the first round.
Gheorghe Hagi (Romania) A brilliant playmaker and Romania's all-time leading scorer with 35 goals in 125 caps, Hagi is widely regarded as the best Romanian player of all-time. Before Hagi, Romania had not been beyond the first round at a World Cup. In the three tournaments he played in - 1990, 1994 and 1998 - they made it out of their group, with Hagi the inspiration for their finest performance at USA '94 as they reached the quarter-finals having eliminated Argentina. He was strongly aware of his importance, and told Champions League magazine in 2001: "Players wearing shirts numbered 10 will soon be popular, because it will be the only difference between the teams. You cannot win without a No. 10."
Zinedine Zidane (France) For three World Cups, Zidane was the unmistakeable star of a national team featuring some of the greatest players of the age. In 1998, he returned from suspension at the quarter-final stage to guide the side to victory against Italy and Croatia to reach the final. There, at the Stade de France, he scored two headed goals in a 3-0 win over Brazil in the final. In 2002, injury restricted him to one game - played at far below full fitness - and France exited at the first round. As Frank Leboeuf put it after the shock defeat to Senegal, "We needed Zizou". It was a similar story four years later, when Raymond Domenech repeatedly attempted to persuade Zidane to come out of retirement for the 2006 tournament. He eventually agreed, though apparently Domenech had little part in his decision, and led France to the final. His famous attack on Marco Materazzi was an unfortunate but strangely fitting end to the career of a controversial great, a man whose unrelenting brilliance was often betrayed by a violent temper.
Pierre Littbarski (West Germany) Littbarski said in an interview in 2006 that the two unhappiest days of his life were the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals. His happiest? "July 8, 1990, Rome. We got the World Cup." Littbarski played the full 90 minutes of West Germany's 3-1 defeat to Italy in the '82 final and was an unused substitute for the 3-2 defeat to Argentina in '86, so there can have been few more relieved men in the history of football than Litti when he helped his team defeat Argentina 1-0 at Italia '90. Littbarski was the type of player able to light up a match, world-renowned for his exceptional dribbling ability, and once described his career ambition as "scoring a goal after beating all ten outfield players, dribbling round the goalkeeper and putting the ball in the net with a backheel".
Rivaldo (Brazil) Rivaldo was a playmaker of breathtaking skill who scored 34 goals in 74 appearances for his country and a leading star in the 2002 World Cup triumph. He had been a finalist in 1998, scoring three goals during France '98, and made amends for the heavy defeat to France four years later. The early signs had not been good: Rivaldo said he would "have a think about [his] future with the national team" after receiving boos from his own fans during qualification. In the opening match of the tournament against Turkey, he brought disgrace upon the team with a shameful display of play-acting to get Hakan Unsal sent off. Nonetheless, he scored in the first five games of the tournament and earned a place in FIFA's All-Star Team as Brazil went on to clinch their fifth world title.