In soccer, as elsewhere, there are no absolutes, but I anticipate some surprise in the omission from my list of Michel Platini, and perhaps a little bewilderment at the inclusion of his compatriot Raymond Kopa.
Platini was beyond all doubt one of the finest players of his generation, but though France duly won the European title in 1984, Platini had disappointing games in the semi-final and Final despite what, I understand, was a brilliant beginning in the tournament. I saw those two last games, arriving from covering the England tour in South America.
Kopa, it is true, wasn’t able to play in the 1960 finals and I hesitated before choosing him ahead of the Real Madrid winger, and later inside-right, Amancio, who was a Nations Cup winner in 1964 and a winner of the European Cup two years later.
Lev Yashin (USSR)
Superb in the first-ever finals tournament, in France in 1960, where he was crucial in the Soviets winning the title. Towering and black-jerseyed, he was the king of his own penalty box and had already shone in the 1956 Olympic tournament in Melbourne, which the USSR had won, and in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. While his team profited from Spain’s refusal to play them for political reasons in the quarter-finals, he kept Yugoslavia at bay in the Final and a goal by Viktor Ponedelnik gave the USSR victory in extra time.
Sergio Ramos (Spain)
Solidly built with an adventurous line in overlapping, often to positive effect, Ramos was a salient figure not only in Spain’s success in the 2008 European Championship, but also in their World Cup triumph in South Africa two years later. Though now so prominent with Real Madrid, who he joined on a buy-out clause in 2005, he is a product of Sevilla, where he was playing when he won his first international cap, versus China in March 2005, just days short
of his 19th birthday.
Franz Beckenbaur (West Germany)
Arguably the inventor of “Total Football” as a mere teenager when, as a precocious member of the Bayern Munich team in his native city, he decided that what Giacinto Facchetti could do, attacking for Internazionale and Italy from left-back, he could do from behind the back line as an attacking sweeper. It would be years before Helmut Schoen allowed him to do as much for West Germany, but it was as sweeper, and captain that he had a splendid European Championship tournament in Belgium in 1972.
Carles Puyol (Spain)
Although short for a central defender, at 5ft 10in he still contrives to dominate for both his club, Barcelona, who he captains with authority, and his country, who he has represented since November 2000. Has competed in three World Cups and two European finals, and was a member of the team that won the Euro trophy in 2008. Quick, combative and an excellent positional player who is swift to see and defuse dangerous situations, he gained first-team status at Barcelona as a 21-year-old in 1999.
Paul Breitner (West Germany)
An attacking full-back of speed and skill, and an expert taker of free-kicks, Breitner played a leading role in West Germany’s victories in the 1972 European tournament and on home ground in the World Cup two years later. Ever an independent figure, he was – as a so-called Maoist – out of step with the Bavarians of his original club, Bayern Munich, even to the point of walking out of the post World Cup Final celebrations of 1974, announcing that he had no wish to be associated with a “scheiss verein” (crap team).
Raymond Kopa (France)
It may seem strange to choose Kopa, such an inspired deep-lying centre-forward, on the right wing, but this is actually where he began and where he won three successive European Cup finals with Real Madrid, in 1957, 1958 and 1959. A perfectly balanced, elusive, inventive player, and an exquisite passer of the ball – especially to Just Fontaine – he helped France qualify for the 1960 Euro finals but missed those himself. The son of a Polish miner, he was hurt in a mining accident before becoming a professional footballer.
Ruud Gullit (Holland)
One of the glorious Dutch trio, completed by Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten, who enabled Holland to win their first major trophy, the European Championship of 1988 in Munich. Tall, powerfully built and infinitely versatile, Gullit could play in a variety of positions, combining strength with supreme technique, a devastating right foot and menace in the air. Fluent in several languages and famously unpredictable, he walked out of Holland’s World Cup training camp in 1994.
Jovan Acimovic (Yugoslavia)
Technically adroit, shrewd in his use of the ball, an inside-left of quality and influence, Acimovic did much to get Yugoslavia to the Final of the 1968 tournament in Rome, England having been beaten in Florence in the semi-finals. In the first Final, Yugoslavia were manifestly cheated by a deeply suspect refereeing decision enabling Italy to draw. He also helped Yugoslavia reach the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany where he played all six games for them before having to do his military service.
Dragan Dzajic (Yugoslavia)
A winger of great elegance and skill, he scored the goal which knocked out England in a bruising 1968 semi-final in Florence, although his own behaviour was always impeccable. Born in Belgrade, in May 1946, he made his debut for Red Star in June 1963 and scored in the 1968 first Final against Italy in Rome. In 1973 he broke a leg and then had to serve his conscription, but he came back to help Yugoslavia into the 1974 World Cup finals. Eventually found his way to the French league, playing for Bastia.
Marco Van Basten (Holland)
Will always be remembered for the stupendous right-foot volley with which he scored Holland’s spectacular second goal against the USSR in the 1988 Final in Munich, having set up the first Dutch goal for Ruud Gullit. Bizarrely, Holland coach Rinus Michels hadn’t started with him in the opening match, perhaps because Van Basten was known to be recovering from an ankle injury. But he then proceeded to destroy the England defence, scoring three goals, and to excel in the Final.
Gerd Muller (West Germany)
Alias “Der Bomber”, a prolific centre-forward, he scored an astounding 68 goals in 62 appearances for his country, the last of them winning the 1974 World Cup Final, after which he retired from international football. Squat and powerful in the thighs, with a low centre of gravity, he would almost magically find space and time in and around the penalty box. He scored 10 goals for West Germany in the 1970 World Cup, two in the European Final in Brussels two years later, and the winner in the 1974 World Cup Final.
By Brian Glanville