So, what’s the best way to make a list of sixty of the greatest European footballers of all time? A question so fraught with complexities, subjectivity and potential pitfalls that any normal person wouldn’t even bother trying to answer it. Which, of course, is where I come in.
As you might have imagined I would, I started by turning to my two most reliable standbys: total abdication of personal responsibility and lists. Two-thirds of the players that you now see before you are previous winners of the European Footballer of the Year award, also known its more poetic and original title the Ballon D’Or.
Between 1956 and 1994, this gong was voted for by European journalists and awarded by France Football magazine to the best football player both from, and playing in, the UEFA confederation during the previous year. In 1995 came the change: the criteria were loosened to allow players of non-European provenance plying their trade in European soccer to be eligible. This had an immediate impact, George Weah winning that year’s award. This continued until 2011 when the Ballon D’Or was subsumed by UEFA and turned into the romantically-named UEFA Best Player in Europe Award, although the eligibility criteria remained the same.
In order to make my list, I decided to go back to basics. Only players who were eligible for UEFA-affiliated nations and who played their football in Europe would be included. Once the Rivaldos, Kakas and Messis are cast aside from the honour roll, this left forty football superstars. My piece of paper, however, most comfortably divided up into 60 spots. Bugger.
Even that initial 40 weren’t beyond setting me booby traps. The single most commonly asked question as the image made its way around Twitter and Facebook was “where is Lionel Messi?”, hotly followed by “where is Diego Maradona?” Unfortunately, I’d made a rod for my own back with the inclusion of Alfredo Di Stefano and Omar Sivori, both Argentinian-born, and Eusebio who was born in Mozambique. Of course, all three of these players went on to play international football for European teams – Spain, Italy and Portugal respectvely – but arguing the niceties of such distinctions was always likely to be a fruitless endeavour, especially when one considers that rather than the questions being framed as I have done above, they were more likely to have been rendered as follows: “No Maradona”. The more expressive and loquacious of the commenters would append this with a baffling array of emoticons, emojis, swearing and personal abuse. Because the internet. The internet.
Interestingly enough, the twenty additional players I had to choose myself ended up causing me fewer problems than the ones chosen for me by Brian Glanville et al. The most commonly criticised omission who fitted my criteria was by far and away Eric Cantona. One correspondent even went as far as to cc Eric in on Twitter as he shot me down, presumably hoping that M. Cantona would come round to my house and mete out his own brand of studs-up justice. However, none of the players that I actually included received a single word of opprobrium.
How did I pick them? Well, firstly, I looked for holes. If TV pundits have taught us anything, it’s that the best players always operate in the hole. Hungary’s only representative on the official list was Florian Albert, a rather unfair situation considering that the award began in the mid-1950s. Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti were obvious inclusions. Eighteen left. Also making the top row were Just Fontaine, if only for his heroic goalscoring exploits at the 1958 World Cup, and John Charles, one of the greatest British football players of all time according to whichever criteria you care to mention.
On row two, only the final two needed to be added in. Dino Zoff was a fairly straightforward pick, a player of great achievement and also considerable longevity. He was joined by Gaetano Scirea, the PG-rated Claudio Gentile.
Row three straddles the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Kenny Dalglish was an obvious companion for Kevin Keegan, winner of the Ballon D’Or in both 1978 and 1979. The other additions here were Zbigniew Boniek, alongside his Juventus teammate and three-time European Footballer of the Year Michel Platini; and the immovable Franco Baresi with his colleagues from the era’s great AC Milan team Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit. Michael Laudrup is the final consideration, frankly a fairly staggering omission from the official list.
The fourth row is awash with personal prejudice. Remembering the excitement of seeing players of their pedigree coming to play in England is behind the inclusion of Vialli, Klinsmann and Bergkamp. Maldini and Buffon are also players that I have had to add in, another surprising blind spot in the official award’s roster. The penultimate row also includes the two players whose presence garnered the most praise: Gheorghe Hagi and, by far and away the most welcomed, Dragan Stojkovic. The response for these two doyens of football behind the Iron Curtain proved that the football hipster has been with us for far longer than you might think.
The final row saw a continuation of many of the same policies. Gianfranco Zola, perhaps the most magical player ever to grace the Premier League made the cut. As did Xavi, the rocksteady partner for the more explosive Andres Iniesta. Xavi’s muse, Paul Scholes, quickly followed him in. The final player that I needed to add was Thierry Henry. How could you not?
Obviously, there are countless more players that I could have chosen. Such is the nature of football, I think. Focusing on individual quality rather than trying to balance out national representation had some interesting results, not least the preponderance of Italian players on the list, as well as the number of players who have at some stage represented Juventus.
Just typing this has made me question myself as to what more Claudio Gentile, Bobby Moore or Francesco Totti need to do. No Laurent Blanc, no Cantona. Where is Ronald Koeman? Oliver Kahn? Gary Lineker? Trifon Ivanov? Ian Rush? Emilio Butrageuno? Bobby Mimms? Maybe not Bobby Mimms.
That’s the blessing of such a project, as well as its curse. What constitutes greatness in football is as subjective as the kind of mood you’re in personally, the kind of player you wish your team had or the kind of thing you saw on Saturday. That’s before you even get on to what constitutes greatness – or even competence – in art. Unfortunately, I can’t blame anybody but myself for that. Only one person so far has directly excoriated me for the steaming pile of failure I had dished up for him to look at, on Twitter, for free. This is perhaps an all time record low for the internet but it’s always a giddy thrill. If nothing else, it gave me a brief window into what it must be like to be David Squires.
There is always the chance that you actually like my choices AND my drawing, in which case I am naturally very pleased. I am equally pleased to be able to tell you that the piece is available to buy both in its original form and as a limited-to-100 A3 print. If you would like to buy one, you can find all the details about how to do so by clicking here.