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World Cup

First XI: Defensive midfielders

April 20, 2010
By Robin Hackett
(Archive)

Following the First XI goalkeepers and defenders, we return with a selection of the World Cup's greatest defensive midfielders.

Obdulio Varela is considered one of the greatest captains of all-time
GettyImagesObdulio Varela is considered one of the greatest captains of all-time

Obdulio Varela (Uruguay) The man who silenced 174,000 Brazilian fans at the Maracana is considered among the most inspirational players of them all. In the famous story, detailed in our First XI World Cup upsets, Varela told his Uruguay team-mates to either "win here or die trying" as they created one of the biggest ever shocks by coming from behind to beat Brazil 2-1 to win the 1950 World Cup. Varela was not all talk, though: he was a fearsome enforcer and helped subdue Brazil in the match with a strong challenge on Bigode, who had attempted to intimidate a team-mate with a series of violent fouls. Varela, who could also play as a centre half, returned to the World Cup with Uruguay in 1954, the veteran helping his team to the semi-final.

Jozsef Bozsik (Hungary) Technically playing in the now defunct right-half position, Bozsik occupied the position of a modern-day defensive midfielder and is rated as one of the all-time greats. Playing in the 'Magical Magyars' side alongside Ferenc Puskas, he was part of the team that reached the 1954 World Cup final only to suffer a shock defeat to West Germany. He also featured in the '58 tournament and won a total of 101 caps. Like many of his international team-mates, he boasted great attacking qualities and scored a number of spectacular goals, but perhaps more important was his football brain, positional sense and great tackling ability.

Nobby Stiles celebrates England's World Cup success in 1966
GettyImagesNobby Stiles celebrates England's World Cup success in 1966

Nobby Stiles (England) His role is almost ubiquitous in the modern game, but Manchester United's European Cup-winning 'Toothless Tiger' was a rarity at the time: an out-and-out ball-winner in midfield whose job was to prevent the opposition's key players from performing and free up his own team-mates. Recalling the press reaction to his approach, he told the Guardian: "I got slaughtered in the papers, absolutely slaughtered [but] you can't play if you haven't got the ball. My job was to win it, give it to Bobby [Charlton] and let him get on with it." He was a central part of England's 1966 World Cup victory, snuffing out the threat of Eusebio in the semi-finals, and famously danced with the Jules Rimet Trophy after the final with his false teeth in his other hand.

Arie Haan (Netherlands) Typically for a Total Footballer, Haan operated in more than one position in his career and had wide-ranging abilities. He was a two-time World Cup finalist, playing as a libero in '74 as Netherlands went down to defeat against West Germany. Four years later, he had moved forwards into central midfield. His role in midfield was as an enforcer, there largely to do the dirty work, but he showed during the tournament that there was much more to his game. Johan Cruyff had said the player had 'dynamite' in his boots and he proved as much with two exceptional long-range strikes against West Germany and Italy in the second group stage. He was unable to score in the final, though, and Netherlands lost 3-1 to Argentina.

Americo Gallego (Argentina) In his debut World Cup in 1978, El Tolo played all but five minutes of the tournament as Argentina lifted the trophy for the first time. In Cesar Luis Menotti's attacking 4-3-3 formation, he offered protection to the back four. Diego Maradona credited Gallego with creating the defensive-midfield shielding position, saying "the ball always seemed to be attracted to him", while goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol described him as an "octopus", stealing possession from the opposition all around. Gallego, who spent the entirety of his club career in Argentina and Mexico, played in all but one game in the 1982 World Cup as Argentina departed at the second group stage.

Marco Tardelli celebrates Italy's second goal in the 3-1 World Cup final win over West Germany
EmpicsMarco Tardelli celebrates Italy's second goal in the 3-1 World Cup final win over West Germany

Marco Tardelli (Italy) This Juventus star was an indefatigable presence in central midfield, a driving force for Italy with a ferocious tackling style. He was an ever-present in the 1978 World Cup until a suspension kept him out of the third-place play-off, but he returned in 1982 to help charge his country to glory. He was capable of scoring goals, too, as millions remember thanks to his famous celebration in the final. "It was such a release," he later told FIFA. "You live your life and have some good experiences and some bad ones. Then it all comes out at that moment."

Lothar Matthaus (West Germany/Germany) While labelling him a destroyer would be reductive in discussion of a man of his talents, Matthaus' abilities as a defensive midfielder necessitate his inclusion on this list. He participated at five World Cups, his first in 1982, and was given the job of man-marking Diego Maradona in the 1986 final. Argentina won the match 3-2, but Maradona was full of praise for Matthaus: "He is the best rival I've ever had. I guess that's enough to define him." At Italia '90, Matthaus - now captain - had his revenge. West Germany returned to the final, helped by four goals from Matthaus, and saw off Maradona's Argentina 1-0 to take the trophy. Matthaus became Germany's sweeper in September 1993 and featured at USA '94 and, at the age of 37, France '98. He won 150 caps for his country over a 20-year career.

Dunga (Brazil) The man named after Dopey from Snow White's Seven Dwarfs has often seemed at odds with the Brazilian philosophy and attracted as much criticism as a player as he has as a manager. His style of play appeared slow and clumsy - even thuggish - by the standards of his homeland, but his strength, tactics and tackling ensured he won the trust of his coaches. "When I'm wearing the jersey of the selection, I don't feel pain," he said in 1998. "You can kick me - I feel nothing." He was scapegoated after the early Italia '90 exit but came back to captain Brazil to a first world title in 24 years at USA '94. His abrasive style often caused friction and Dunga had a heated on-field argument with team-mate Bebeto at France '98. Nonetheless, Dunga - still captain - led the team to the final once more, where they lost to France.

Water-carrier Didier Deschamps carries something a little more weighty
GettyImagesWater-carrier Didier Deschamps carries something a little more weighty

Didier Deschamps (France) Eric Cantona once disparagingly labelled Deschamps a "water carrier", but Deschamps insisted after his retirement that he has "never been too worried" about that kind of criticism. A player of great tactical nous, leadership, energy, desire and willpower, he told FIFA: "I play to win, not to have fun." France boss Aime Jacquet dropped Cantona, who never played at a World Cup, as his captain following his attack on a Crystal Palace fan in 1995. Deschamps, a natural leader, took the armband and led France to the semi-finals at Euro '96. His greatest moment came in 1998 when, on home soil, he became the first Frenchman to lift the World Cup. Two years later, he captained France to the Euro 2000 title, and it's telling that his presence meant Claude Makelele did not make his debut at a major international tournament until 2002.

Claude Makelele (France) Despite making his France debut in July 1995, Makelele missed out on the France '98 squad. Having had spells with Nantes and Marseille, his career took off in Spain with Celta Vigo as he began establishing himself in what would become known as the Makelele role. In 2000, he forced a move to Real Madrid but missed out again for his country as he was omitted from France's victorious European Championship squad. He eventually made his World Cup bow in 2002 as France crashed out without scoring a goal. However - along with Zinedine Zidane, the man who described him as "the entire engine" of the Real Madrid team - he came out of retirement for the 2006 tournament as France defied the odds to reach the final. One of the conditions of Zidane's return had been that Makelele would play alongside him: high praise indeed.

Gennaro Gattuso's famous celebration
EmpicsGennaro Gattuso's famous celebration

Gennaro Gattuso (Italy) A terrier for both Milan and Italy, Ringhio ('The Snarler') has added steel to his country's midfield throughout the last decade. Gattuso was used as a substitute in his first World Cup in 2002 when Italy crashed out in the second round against co-hosts South Korea but - after Daniele De Rossi had received a red card during the second group match - he became a central part of the midfield when they lifted the trophy four years later. His hard running and determination allowed club colleague Andrea Pirlo the space and time to dictate play as Italy powered to the final in Germany. Gattuso, incidentally, also developed a habit for attacking coach Marcello Lippi in celebration during the tournament. "He's kind of a rough guy," Lippi said after he was effectively punched in the face during the group stage. "That's just how he shows his joy." After Italy beat France on penalties in the final, he showed his joy in an altogether different way: running around in his underwear.