When I was asked to come up with a list of some of the best players I've ever seen wear the No. 10 jersey at the international level, I first had to ask myself, "What makes a great No. 10?"
For decades, a player who wore his team's No. 10 shirt represented the most influential or creative force on the field. More specifically, the number was often given to a team's best playmaker. But being the most influential player on a team does not make you a great 10. When I think of great No. 10s, I think of players whose leadership ability matched their tremendous footballing ability. Ultimately, those "Top 10s" are individually great and, at the risk of using a cliché, make the players around them better. I like to think of them as conductors of great orchestras.
And while the practice of handing the 10 shirt to a team's best playmaker has begun to fade in the modern game, an aura of importance still surrounds the "holy digits." Below I've listed the best number 10s I have had the opportunity to see at the international level. Many of the players listed are attacking midfielders, but you will also find strikers and supporting strikers included. It was not an easy task, and the result is not perfect.
With this in mind, let the debate begin!
1. Pele (Brazil): Not much needs to be said here, as Pele's selection should come as no surprise. Now, I did not get to see much of Pele live when I was growing up, but what I did see and have since seen makes this an easy choice. He was a player who possessed an incredible touch and wonderful dribbling ability and was one of the best scorers in the history of the game, with more than 1,000 goals to his name. He is the best player of all time and, as a result, is the best player to wear the No. 10 shirt.
2. Diego Armando Maradona (Argentina): I was lucky enough to play against Maradona many times throughout my career. When I look back at those matches, what stands out most is his ball control. It was impossible to take the ball off his feet. He was an extremely well-balanced and strong player, with a low center of gravity. We squared off in many intense battles in the Italian league when he played at Napoli and I was with Milan. Some battles he won, others he lost, but even when Maradona lost, he went down fighting. He was a superstar who also possessed the qualities of a soldier in that he was willing to do whatever it took to win. And while his triumphs with Napoli will always be remembered, his performance at the 1986 World Cup, leading Argentina to the title, is his masterwork. He is the best player I have ever played against, and the player I most enjoyed watching.
3. Zinedine Zidane (France): If I could choose one player on this list to have as a teammate, it would be Zidane. I like to call him "The Glide." Unlike a player such as Maradona, who was more of a battler on the ball, Zidane was always as smooth as can be with his possessions. Even with chaos all around, he had the nerve and skill to slip sleekly through defenders as if they weren't there. Simply put, he was effortless. Of course, this is not to say he wasn't tough. He would battle you -- just ask Marco Matterazzi. But his game was really about elegance and class. Everything he did was so smooth, like a fine silk. His performance against Brazil, at age 34, in the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup was incredible. He was a true maestro in that game and is the most stylish player on this list.
4. Zico (Brazil): Zico is one of the best leaders on this list and one of the best free-kick takers I have ever seen. A free kick to him was more like a penalty kick, which is amazing given that the soccer ball used in his time was not the light ball one can easily manipulate in today's game. It's impossible to speak of Zico and not mention the amazing team that Brazil brought to the 1982 World Cup, a squad that delighted fans with its play. Zico was one of the best dribblers in the history of the game and was very nimble with great vision. At no time was this better exemplified than in Brazil's classic 1982 game against Italy when he turned Italian defender Caludio Gentile inside out, before gently tapping the ball into space for an onrushing teammate, Socrates, to strike home a goal. A brilliant player.
5. Michel Platini (France): The biggest compliment I can give Platini is that everything he did looked so easy. He made the game itself so simple for his teammates with his incredible talent for reading the game. The man was also a goal-scoring machine and, like Zico, an excellent free-kick taker. In 1984 he scored nine of France's 14 goals at the European Championships, when he led them to the title. He was a complete player, a true No. 10 in his ability to lead, create and score goals. And though he never won a World Cup (the closest he came was two semifinal matches), his leadership and on-field performance on soccer's biggest stage will never be forgotten.
6. Roberto Baggio (Italy): Baggio was an extremely influential player for Italy, particularly at the 1994 World Cup. Unfortunately for him, he is remembered at that World Cup for his missed penalty kick against Brazil in the final. But people forget that if it were not for Baggio, Italy would have never made it to the final that year. His incredible dribbling skills allowed him to cut through entire teams and score many "easy," tap-in goals. But he could also crack a goal from distance. He became an icon at Fiorentina and then at Juventus and remains a very special player in the history of Italian soccer. I will never forget the wonderful goal he scored against Czechoslovakia at Italia 1990, an effort that has now become a World Cup classic.
7. Gheorghe Hagi (Romania): Hagi was a very compact player who wasn't shy about unleashing devastating shots from distance. But he was also very technical in his play and passing ability. His quickness with the ball was another one of his strengths, as well as his ability to move laterally, cutting back inside defenders. Hagi was an excellent leader both at the club level and the international level with Romania. He was outstanding at the 1994 World Cup, particularly in Romania's 3-2 win over Argentina, a game in which he set up a goal and scored one, too. Hagi also scored on a wonder strike against Colombia in that same tournament.
8. Rivaldo (Brazil): Rivaldo in his prime was an exceptional player with that wonderfully creative South American style. I've never seen a player make bicycle-kick goals look so easy. He was a very tall player, which made his agility with the ball all the more impressive. Rivaldo did some extraordinary things when he was at Barcelona and for the Brazilian national team, particularly in the 2002 World Cup, where he scored five goals in Brazil's first five matches. One of his most memorable goals from the tournament was a crucial score in the Round of 16 against Belgium, in which he showed off his wonderful chest control. But it wasn't just goal scoring that defined Rivaldo; he was also excellent at setting up teammates. He was a great player who I believe is often overlooked because he played in the same era as Brazilian counterparts Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
9. Mario Kempes (Argentina): Kempes was a prolific goal scorer, but his game was not just about putting the ball in the back of the net. He had a unique style that combined strength and elegance. Often times in games, he would come outside the box to receive the ball before attacking defenders, using his great dribbling ability. He is of course remembered as the hero of the 1978 World Cup, leading the host country to its first title. Kempes put on an incredible goal-scoring display in the second round of the '78 tournament, netting six goals in four games, including two in Argentina's 3-1 win over the Netherlands in the final, a game I remember well.
10. Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria): What technique! What technique! Jay-Jay is one of the more flamboyant selections from this list, a true showman. He was just a delightful player to watch. He could do incredible things with the ball and, like Zidane, make it look easy. He was very tricky to deal with because you just didn't know what he would pull out of his bag of tricks. And if you weren't on your guard, he would make you look like a fool. He was very much a highlight-reel player in that he would do things with the ball you just couldn't fathom. He was an unbelievable player and a favorite of mine.
Ruud Gullit, the 1989 World Soccer Player of the Year, will serve as a studio analyst for ESPN during the 2010 World Cup.