Sunday 21 December 2014

James Lawton's 10 greatest players of all-time includes Ballon d-Or winner but he's well down the list

Cristiano Ronaldo deservedly took the Ballon d'Or last night but where does he rank among the legends seen by James Lawton in over 50 years watching and reporting on the game's leading lights?

Published 14/01/2014 | 02:30

Football legend Argentinian Diego Maradona
Football legend Argentinian Diego Maradona
Alfredo Di Stefano backheels the ball past Harry Gregg during a 6-1 victory at Old Trafford in 1959

You can do no better than invade the most vital moments of your destiny, gather together the best of your talent and strongest of your will. Cristiano Ronaldo collected the Ballon D'Or last night not as a gift but an absolute right.

In Rio this summer he may advance further a career which is already underpinned by the brilliant achievement of refining, and maturing, his game to the point where he inevitably claims a place among the 10 best players of all time.

Success in the World Cup, which for the time being is the ultimate test of a great footballer, would surely carry him to a place above his superb but currently injury-besieged rival Lionel Messi.

Such glory eluded Messi in South Africa four years ago and it is an account he has to settle as he strives to return to his old astonishing level of performance. Ronaldo had secured a distinct edge last night with his stupendous goals and his stunning physical strength.

Certainly there is reason to believe that he may prove to be the enduring talent of his generation.

Meanwhile, as we draw up our revived list of football history's top 10 we can again only regret the fact there is no place for any of the great defenders, men like Italy's Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, nor such virtuosos as Garrincha, Gerson and Denis Law.

Law? If he doesn't make the top 10, he does have one enduring tribute.

It is the consensus of a touring Brazilian team that he was the one player they would like to wrap up and take home.

Of the players I have seen in the flesh, my ranking runs like this ...

1 DIEGO MARADONA

What is the ultimate judgment on a footballer? It is how he inflicted himself at the very highest level of the game -- and under its most demanding challenges.

If you saw Maradona in Mexico in the World Cup of 1986, and then, a year later, delivering the Serie A title to Naples, you have to say that no one ever did more.

His wildness had taken him to the edge of destruction, but then he stepped back from the brink in a way you can never forget.

Certainly he will always be revered in Naples, that appropriately volatile and anarchic city.

2 PELE

You may worry about the sin of sacrilege because, for many, placing Pele second to anyone is not just a misjudgment but an affront.

However, if Pele had a sublime understanding of football as a team sport, if he also had the humility to always sublimate his genius to the requirements of any situation, it is -- rightly or wrong -- the astonishing deeds of Maradona which linger most persuasively.

Some may say this ignores the full sweep of a football talent, not just the most dramatic expression of it but the very core.

However, if emotion is still a most powerful ingredient, Maradona wins -- by the barest margin.

3 ALFREDO DI STEFANO

When Bobby Charlton went to Madrid as a young Manchester United reserve, he sat in the Bernabeu Stadium transfixed by the performance of the powerful man from Buenos Aires.

Di Stefano was the creative mainspring of the greatest club side European football has ever seen and Charlton's assessment still rings down the decades.

He said: "I was mesmerised and I would never ever again have such a vision of a great player."

4 JOHAN CRUYFF

The Golden Dutchman never won the World Cup. Indeed, some would say that, as captain and star of the 1974 Dutch team, he was part of the collective arrogance that allowed an outplayed Germany to seize the prize in Munich.

Yet what creative genius, what easy, phenomenal vision he had. Once he beat England at Wembley while scarcely crossing the half-way line.

5 GEORGE BEST

Like Maradona, Best (left) endangered his own almost surreal brilliance, but not to the extent that his breathtaking ability would ever be lost on the wider football world.

Always, there was evidence of a supreme talent, along with deadly speed and huge courage. He humiliated the reigning European champions Benfica on their ground -- and a few years later he was Player of the Year after leading Manchester United to the European Cup.

Some said it was a small haul when set against his natural gifts. Yet the quality of that talent is a flame that will never burn low for anyone who had the good luck to see it.

The day he died, a man stood at Old Trafford and said, with tears in his eyes, "He made football beautiful."

6 LIONEL MESSI

There is a disturbing theory that the hormone treatment that triggered the growth of the diminutive prodigy has now left him vulnerable to injury at a point of his career when world football imagined that he would achieve new and quite extraordinary heights.

It means that we can only hold our breath. Messi, at optimum fitness, will always be one of the great glories of the game.

7 CRISTIANO RONALDO

A legitimate worry was that narcissism, and a resulting petulance, would always inhibit the performance of the natural wonder who emerged from a troubled childhood in the Madeira. Last night that ultimately unfounded fear was assigned to the shadows of misadventure.

8 ZINEDINE ZIDANE

It will always be a matter of regret that the Frenchman reacted to the taunting of an Italian defender and left the 2006 Berlin World Cup final in disgrace.

He deserved far more of himself, and a double triumph in the greatest tournament, something to augment his brilliant triumph in Paris in 1998, would hardly been excessive reward for one of the great careers.

9 FRANZ BECKENBAUER

'The Emperor' is the only defender to make the list but describing him as such is a bit like saying that Leonardo da Vinci was a nifty draughtsman.

He was a player of superb insight and consummate touch and if the great Cruyff blew a historic opportunity in Munich, no one deserved to benefit more than the man who still personifies the best of German football.

10 BOBBY CHARLTON

More than anything, he was the scorer of great goals. He moved through midfield as a vision of grace -- some said it was a little like seeing a beautiful galleon with full sail -- and always there was a hard purpose, a wonderfully acute competitive edge.

Pele and Charlton remain devoted. It is that respect that happens between players who understand that having talent is not always enough. There also has to be the heart, vigour and supreme football intelligence. In all respects both men refused to stint themselves -- or the game they so hugely enhanced.

Irish Independent

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