Friday, June 08, 2018

Top 10 greatest World Cup players ever

Football is a team game but time and again the FIFA World Cup has proven to be the stage for the game's most talented individuals to shine brightest.

In no other competition can a player fast-track their way into folklore and one or two players have the potential to do that in Russia this summer. Can Lionel Messi emulate Diego Maradona with Argentina? Will Neymar inspire Brazil to a sixth title? Or will Harry Kane prove to be as inspirational for England as Bobby Moore in 1966?

Any team hoping to lift the trophy will need a hero, and here Sportsmail pays tribute to the standout stars who have dragged their teams to a world title be it through skill, talent, leadership or a combination of the three.

10. Gerd Muller (West Germany)

World Cups: 1970, 1974

Winner: 1974

Appearances: 13 Goals: 14

Der Bomber is one of the few players to finish his international career with an average of more than a goal a game, hitting an incredible 68 goals for West Germany in just 62 caps, 14 of which came at World Cup finals.

The ultimate poacher, Muller had an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time and also possessed a leap any salmon would be proud of. He scored 10 of his World Cup goals in 1970, including the injury-time winner against England in the quarter-finals, to claim the Golden Boot.

Four years later, Muller managed a comparatively paltry four goals, but they included the winner against Poland to send West Germany into the final as well as the goal that downed Johan Cruyff’s much-fancied Holland and earned the hosts the World Cup.

9. Bobby Moore (England)

World Cups: 1962, 1966, 1970

Winner: 1966

Appearances: 14 Goals: 0

Of course, England’s greatest ever captain’s pinnacle moment came when he lifted the Jules Rimet trophy at Wembley Stadium, but Moore was equally impressive in the tournaments before and after 1966.

The West Ham legend, who Franz Beckenbauer described as ‘the best defender ever’, burst onto the international scene with several excellent displays at the 1962 tournament in Chile before England were knocked out by eventual winners Brazil in the quarter-finals.

The so-called ‘perfect tackle’ on Brazil’s Jairzinho, the footage of which continues to be shown today, defined his tournament in 1970 and while the holders lost that group game 1-0, Moore's performance was hailed as his best ever in an England shirt.

Moore retired in 1973 after England failed to qualify for the 1974 tournament, ending his World Cup career with 14 appearances and one trophy.

8. Garrincha (Brazil)

World Cups: 1958, 1962, 1966

Winner: 1958, 1962

Appearances: 12 Goals: 5

Brazil were left in mourning when a crushing injury ruled star striker Pele out in the early days of the 1962 World Cup in Chile, but by the time the tournament was finished they had a new hero to worship: The Bow-legged Angel.

Garrincha scored twice against England in the quarter-finals and twice more against hosts Chile in the semis as Brazil breezed to a second-consecutive World Cup with typical aplomb. More than that, his incredible dribbling skill and passing range helped set the tone for Brazil's Samba style for generations to come.

Some of those lucky enough to witness this generation of Brazilian stars believe he was better than even Pele himself.

By the time the 1966 World Cup came around, Garrincha’s body was feeling the effects of a life of excess and he was unable to perform at his previous level.

7. Xavi (Spain)

World Cups: 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014

Winner: 2010

Appearances: 15 Goals: 0

He didn't score goals, he didn't really tackle and he rarely raised his voice above the noise of those ridiculous Vuvuzelas, but what Xavi did do was keep one of international football's most successful teams ever ticking over as they won three successive major tournaments.

His pinnacle arrived in 2010 as he played the part of metronome at the very heart of Spain's midfield and helped them to their very first World Cup title in South Africa.

Spain's abject performance in 2014, where they failed to get out of the group, signified the end of a glorious era for both the team and Xavi. Luckily, both of their legacies were already set in stone.

6. Zinedine Zidane (France)

World Cups: 1998, 2002, 2006

Winner: 1998

Appearances: 12 Goals: 5

Thought his exit as Real Madrid manager was dramatic? Well, those old enough to remember both the 1998 and 2006 World Cup finals have come to expect the unexpected from this Dark Knight of football. Zinedine Zidane played the hero in the former and very much the villain in the latter.

In 1998, he scored twice against Brazil to seal what would be a unifying World Cup triumph for a divided France. Fast-forward eight years and he lead Les Bleus to another final before arguably costing them the game against Italy by head-butting his career into early retirement. Despite his red card, Zidane claimed the Golden Ball in that tournament.

His attack on Marco Materazzi was quite possibly the most infamous World Cup final moment since that Geoff Hurst goal 40 years previous. He remains arguably the finest European player of all time.

5. Lothar Matthaeus (West Germany, Germany)

World Cups: 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998

Winner: 1990

Appearances: 25 Goals: 6

No outfield player has ever managed to play in five different World Cups except Lothas Matthaeus. The box-to-box midfielder, who managed 150 caps for both West and a reunified Germany, went from making up the numbers in the 1982 tournament to being given the task of man-marking Diego Maradona in the final four years later.

Although the South Americans won that final, the formidable threat of Maradona was neutralised. Argentina's captain later described Matthaeus as the ‘best adversary I’ve ever had’, something he would further prove when he captained West Germany to the World Cup in 1990, beating Maradona's Argentina in a repeat of the final.

4. Franz Beckenbauer (West Germany)

World Cups: 1966, 1970, 1974

Winner: 1974

Appearances: 18 Goals: 5

To this day, no player has quite managed to emulate the exact role that Franz Beckenbauer performed for West Germany at three World Cups. Nicknamed Der Kaiser, Beckenbauer started out as a midfielder before moving to defence and ultimately combined his unique skill-set to create the sweeper role.

The position was a nightmare for man-markers of the day and his elegant link-up play with Gerd Muller inspired West Germany to success in the 1974 tournament.

He became only the second man to win a World Cup as a player and a manager, alongside Mario Zagallo, when he led West Germany to the title from the dugout in 1990.

3. Ronaldo (Brazil)

World Cups: 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006

Winner: 2002

Appearances: 19 Goals: 15

The Brazilian may have lost his title as the World Cup's all-time top scorer to Miroslav Klose four years ago, but with raw pace and a staggering ability to finish from all angles, it is Ronaldo and not the German who makes the top 10 list.

Although Ronaldo won the Golden Ball in 1998, his tournament was, and continues to be, shrouded in controversy due to the mysterious illness suffered just before the final against France. He played in that match, but it was the aforementioned Zidane who stole the show.

The stage was set for redemption in South Korea and Japan four years later as he scored eight goals to lead Brazil to their most recent World Cup title.

His career was on the slide by the 2006 tournament, but he managed to bag three more goals and overtook Gerd Muller as the competition's most prolific scorer, a title he held until Klose came along in 2014.

2. Diego Maradona (Argentina)

World Cups: 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994

Winner: 1986

Appearances: 21 Goals: 8

In the space of four World Cup quarter-final minutes, Diego Maradona sealed his reputation as one of the most controversial and talented figures in football history. His self-proclaimed 'Hand of God', in which he punched the ball over England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and into the net, was quickly followed by the World Cup's greatest ever goal. French newspaper L'Equipe summed the man up perfectly by calling him a 'half-devil, half angel'.

Maradona played every minute of every match in that 1986 tournament, scoring five goals and making five assists to mark the most domineering individual displays in any World Cup before or since.

Although also captaining them to a World Cup final four years later, Maradona failed to reached the astronomical heights of 1986. He was hampered by an ankle injury as Argentina lost out to West Germany in the 1990 final and was sent home in disgrace in 1994 for failing a drugs test for ephedrine.

1. Pele (Brazil)

World Cups: 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970

Winner: 1958, 1962, 1970

Appearances: 14 Goals: 12

When Pele arrived at the 1958 World Cup as an unknown 17-year-old, few opponents would have been concerned. Here was the youngest player ever to feature in the competition and he wasn't even fully fit. But once a troublesome knee injury was shaken off, Pele announced himself to the world in explosive fashion.

A hat-trick in the semi-final against France was followed by a brace in the final against hosts Sweden. It started a staggering international career with Brazil which eventually finished with 77 goals from 92 caps and three World Cup winners' medals.

He claimed his second World Cup in 1962, but an injury in the second group game against Czechoslovakia means he contributed little to the cause. He was then battered out of the 1966 tournament in England by overzealous Bulgarian and Portuguese defenders.

But it was his contribution to that famous 1970 team puts him above the rest. By then, he was an experienced head in an otherwise young but prodigiously talented Brazil squad and scored four goals as they dominated a World Cup like no other nation has done before or since.

He earned his third winners' medal and remains the only player to do so.

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