The trouble with soccer, historically at least, is that it isn’t cricket. That is to say that unlike cricket, where memories seem to echo down the ages, from W G Grace, that majestic bearded shamateur and sometime 19th century cheat onwards, the heroes of the sport are remembered.
Not long ago there was published an excellent biography of the Nottinghamshire fast “bodyline” bowler Harold Larwood, hero or villain of the Test series won by England in 1933 in Australia according to which side of the line you favourered. But I recall not long ago before an Arsenal match at Highbury mentioning my own boyhood hero the Gunners and England captain and left-back, a salient figure of the 1930s an early 1940s, to Alan Smith, not long since an Arsenal and England centre forward, and a fluent, intelligent figure who had his own newspaper column, to receive a blank response. He’d never heard of Hapgood.
By the same token, when a magazine such as World Soccer conducts as it recently did a major international poll to choose the best ever football team and the best ever managers, the results are predictably contemporary. Most of the correspondents I’d imagine were middle-aged and had only vague knowledge if any at all of the stars of the 1920s, 1930s and 40s or even of the fifties.
As my friend and editor of World Soccer justly pointed out, when we engaged in a BBC broadcast on the subject of the lists, only the arrival of colour television alerted critics and viewers to the merits of many stars at the expense of those who could have been seen only in black and white.
As with the list of managers, and Alex Ferguson’s colossal lead as number one, so obviously and excessively instigated by his recent retirement with a vast collection of domestic titles, so many choices were clearly influenced by the possibility of watching those chosen more or less recently; though in the case of Pele, always my number one of all time, and Alfredo Di Stefano, my number two, their huge prestige was big enough to survive the years.
There were, however, some odd choices and still odder omission. How could Lev Yashin romp home as best goalkeeper with a mammoth 31 votes, 25 ahead of my own first choice and the only Englishman I chose, Gordon Banks? If the World Cup is the ultimate criterion, though not in the case of Di Stefano who left Argentina when still young with a handful of caps for Colombia and Spain and who purportedly wouldn’t play under the aegis of Helenio Herrara for Spain, when naturalised in Chile in 1962, there was an exception to prove the rule. While the choice of Bobby Moore, second, though admittedly a long way behind, to Franz Beckenbauer, surprised me.
Moore had two splendid World Cups, in 1966 and 1970, and a highly promising one as a wing half in Chile in 1962 but he always seemed to me a triumph of mind over matter. As essentially a second stopper, he compensated his lack of pace with ultra shrewd reading of the game. He was never a great header of the ball and now and then could make alarming mistakes; as when he let his man through to score a vital goal for Poland in Katowice in 1973’s World Cup qualifier; I was there.
My own choice of centre half alongside Beckenbauer, Obdulio Jacinto Varela, a towering hero of the Uruguayan team which beat Brazil in the decisive game of the 1950 World Cup, no one but myself voted for him. Though at least my other defensive choice, Rodriguez Andrade, a defiant star of the Uruguayan defence against Brazil and just as impressive as a full back in Switzerland four years later, at least one other journalist than myself voted for him.
Among the managers, Ferguson coasted home on a great big wave of current euphoria but this was wholly as a club manager. When he managed Scotland in Mexico in the 1986 World Cup, the result was disappointing mediocrity. While it seemed absurd that Matt Busby, who put together his splendid Busby Babes team just after a war which left United with a bombed out stadium, got them into Europe against Football League opposition, and won the European Cup in 1968, the first time for an English club, should get one solitary vote.
For that matter little George Raynor, the Yorkshireman who did wonders with his Sweden teams, winning the Olympic tournament in London in 1948, getting his team to the 1958 European Cup final in Stockholm, should get no votes at all. Raynor it was who two weeks before Hungary thrashed England 6-3 at Wembley in November 1963, took his team (robbed of those stars who’d gone abroad as professionals) to Budapest and drew with the Hungarians, cleverly nullifying Nador Hidegkuti who as deep centre forward would rip the English defence apart.
Only two votes for Alf Ramsey, who transformed Ipswich Town into champions and won the World Cup with England in 1966 and might have got close again had Gordon Banks not been food poisoned (by whom, one would still like to know) on the eve of the 1970 World Cup quarter-final against West Germany. Ah, well. It’s all a matter of opinion as they say. Though some opinions seem more opposite than others.
By Brian Glanville