Each one, a colossus

Drawing up a list of icons is a mighty tricky task — easy to blotch and impossible to get right. So, while it may not be perfect, here is Karthik Krishnaswamy's final list of World Cup greats.

Franz Beckenbauer

Centre backs can be broadly classified into two kinds. Nemanja Vidic typifies the first, brawny and fearless to the point of foolhardiness, forever hurling himself into challenges or rising above oceans of bodies to send defensive headers 50 yards down the pitch. Someone in the mould of Alessandro Nesta, however, would disdain muddying his shorts or bruising his nose in such unseemly manner, and use his tactical nous to minimise the need for throwing himself about, stepping in front of forwards to make interceptions or outpacing them in pursuit of searching balls into the channels.

Franz Beckenbauer took this latter style into its logical extreme. Originally a midfielder, Beckenbauer dropped into defence at his peak, as coaches sought to utilise his unmatched reading of the game in an organisational capacity at the back. Occupying the same space on the pitch a sweeper would, he began to essay a role hitherto unseen in football — that of the libero.

When the other team had the ball, Beckenbauer plugged gaps in the back-line, and stepped into midfield when his team took possession, becoming the team's playmaker, spraying passes about, revelling in the space he commanded as the ‘spare man'.

Beckenbauer's first two World Cups ended in near-misses for West Germany, losing to England in extra-time in the 1966 final and losing 3-4 to Italy (in extra time again) in a pulsating semi-final in '70. He played a prominent role in both tournaments; scoring four times from midfield in '66 and providing the '70 edition one of its defining images, striding around the Estadio Azteca with one arm in a sling in the semi-final.

In 1974, on home soil, West Germany started as favourite, especially after its European Championship title two years back. With a format designed to iron out the effect of upsets (the second round consisted of two round-robin groups, the toppers of which would make the final), it was no surprise that Beckenbauer found himself in his second final, facing his rival to the title of world's best footballer — Holland's Johann Cruyff. Comparing a forward to a defender is meaningless, and both played influential roles in the game (Cruyff set things up by winning a penalty after just a minute of play), but the Germans' 2-1 comeback triumph displayed one facet of the game where Beckenbauer trumped the iconoclastic Cruyff — his calm leadership which contrasted with the Dutchman's constant bickering to the referee once his side's lead had disappeared.

Johan Cruyff

Total Football's blinding success, exemplified by the all-conquering Ajax team that won three European Cups in succession from 1971 to '73, tends somehow to get overshadowed by its one heartbreaking defeat, Holland's at the final of the 1974 World Cup.

The overbearing effect of the World Cup defeat is understandable, given the reach and undeniable romance of the competition, especially in the less globalised world of the early 70s. The dominant images of Total Football we carry in our heads, therefore, are those of floppy-haired players in orange, and not the white and red of Ajax. At the centre of it all is Johan Cruyff.

On paper the team's centre forward, Cruyff was not restricted in any way on the pitch, his roaming complemented by the movement of the players around him, nearly all of them his teammates at Ajax with whom he had an intuitive understanding. The precision of his passing and his awareness of space were best summed up by Times sportswriter David Miller, who called him 'Pythagoras in boots.'

At the '74 World Cup, Cruyff scored three goals, all in the second round, played in a two-group round-robin format. Against Argentina, Cruyff set up a 4-0 win, scoring twice and finding the head of Johnny Rep with a pinpoint far-post cross from the left wing. In the must-win virtual semi-final against Brazil, Cruyff was magnificent in the face of cynical Brazilian fouling a 2-0 win, slipping a low cross from the right that Johann Neeskens slid home in the 50th minute, and settling the issue 15 minutes later with an acrobatic volley from left back Ruud Krol's first-time cross.

The first minute of the final showcased Total Football, and Cruyff's place in it, in its entirety. After receiving the 15th languid pass of the game near the halfway line, Cruyff, at that point the deepest-lying of Holland's players, changed the tempo abruptly, setting off on a dribble that took out three defenders before West Germany knew what was happening. Panic set in, and Uli Hoeness slid in to bring him down just as he entered the penalty area. Neeskens converted from the spot, and Holland was on its way.

How such a dominant beginning gave way to a disappointing 2-1 defeat has been the subject of a million debates. If there's any consensus, it's that the Dutch became complacent and underestimated the skill and resilience of the Germans.

Diego Maradona

Boston, June 21, 1994. An era was ending, although no one quite knew then. Argentina thumped Greece 4-0, Gabriel Batistuta bagged a hat trick, and in between, a 33-year-old Diego Maradona thumped in a glorious left-footed strike after a dizzying sequence of one-touch exchanges outside the Greece penalty area. Having played only a scattering of games for Sevilla and Newell's Old Boys in two years since serving a 15-month ban for cocaine use, the world's greatest footballer looked fitter than ever and seemed primed for another shot at World Cup glory.

Four days later, Maradona tested positive for ephedrine, a performance-enhancing and weight-loss inducing substance, and left the World Cup in disgrace.

His career had completed the circle that began in 1982, when he had walked off red-carded after kicking out at Brazil's Joao Batista in the dying minutes of Argentina's campaign-ending 1-3 second round defeat.

Four years later, the genius in him overpowered his petulant streak and transformed an otherwise workmanlike Argentina into a World Cup winner. He scored five goals in the competition, including two in the quarterfinal at the Estadio Azteca — the ‘Hand of God' and the ‘Goal of the Century', that scarcely believable dribble that took him from the halfway line past pretty much each one of the England players — that will forever define the two sides of his personality, streetwise genius and footballing god.

In the semi-final against Belgium, he scored twice in a 2-0 win, the first a casual flick with the outside of his left foot, the second another solo effort that saw him slalom past four defenders.

Argentina beat Germany 3-2 in a tense final, where Maradona, his explosive surges contained by a young Lothar Matthaus, produced a quiet master-class, scoring none of the goals himself, but having a hand in each of them, winning the free kick that led to Jose Luis Brown's headed opener, starting with a quick turn in midfield the move finished by Valdano, and playing the through-ball out of a tight clutch of German players that Burruchaga ran on to secure victory.

In 1990, Maradona was equally influential in setting up another Argentina-Germany final. Most memorably, he assisted the only goal in the 1-0 second round win over Brazil, dribbling through the heart of the opposition before releasing to Claudio Caniggia. Ahead of the semi-final against host Italy, he cheekily exhorted the Naples crowd to cheer for him (he played for Napoli in Serie A) over their country, stating that “'Italy makes it (Naples) feel important one day of the year, but forgets about it the other 364.'' Whether this had an effect or not, Argentina scraped through on penalties, with Maradona converting the last of his team's spot-kicks. In the end though, Germany exacted revenge for '86, winning a dull final 1-0.

Ronaldo

At his peak, Ronaldo was the most frightening footballer in the world. He ticked pretty much every box an attacking player possibly could — speed, strength, technique, finishing, passing, dribbling, off-the-ball movement, whatever else you can think of. Coming into the 1998 World Cup, Ronaldo was definitely at his peak. He had won the FIFA World Player of the Year award for the previous two years, and had scored 81 goals in his two previous seasons at Barcelona and Inter Milan. He was only 21.

As expected, Ronaldo was irrepressible throughout much of the tournament in France, scoring five times, including two in the pre-quarterfinal against Chile, and a superb finish in the semi-final against Holland, demonstrating superb first touch with the outside of his left foot to latch on to Rivaldo's cross, holding off Philip Cocu and then slipping the ball through 'keeper Edwin van Der Saar's legs.

The night before the final, however, Ronaldo suffered a seizure, and was taken to hospital. Initially left out of the first team, Ronaldo convinced coach Mario Zagallo that he could play. Eventually, he and the rest of the Brazil side were well below par in the 3-0 defeat to host France.

Following that, Ronaldo suffered a series of knee injuries and long spells on the sidelines. By the time the 2002 World Cup began, fans wondered if he'd ever be the same player again. Despite showing a drop in pace, Ronaldo revelled in Japan and South Korea, spearheading a loose trio of forwards comprising himself, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. He scored against every single opponent bar England (whom the other two Rs took care of), and Brazil rode almost unchallenged to its fifth World Cup title. He scored twice in the final against a subdued Germany, capitalising on a spill from the normally ultra-reliable Oliver Kahn to set Brazil on its way before ensuring victory in the 79th minute with a precise drive into the bottom corner.

Zinedine Zidane

Zinedine Zidane's tempestuous exit from football, sent off for head-butting Marco Materazzi in extra time during the 2006 World Cup final, was far from uncharacteristic of the Frenchman. He was sent off 14 times over a career punctuated almost as often by acts of violence as by dainty pirouettes and eye-of-the-needle passes.

Eight years before the Materazzi incident, Zidane marched off the field for a stamp on Saudi Arabia's Fuad Amin in France's second group game of the '98 World Cup. Banned for two matches following the red card, Zidane missed France's final group game and the pre-quarterfinal against Paraguay. Back in his playmaking role, he was solid if unspectacular as France progressed past Italy on penalties after a goalless quarterfinal, and past Croatia with a 2-1 semi-final win. So far, Zidane had been quiet. But the final against Brazil was all his — twice in the first half, his balding head popped up to make decisive, and unexpected contact with corner kicks to put France 2-0 up in front of its adoring fans. Emmanuel Petit's stylish injury-time finish gave the contest a fitting end, and France was world champion for the first time.

France though was humbled in the 2002 World Cup, exiting after a first round that yielded it no wins and no goals. Zidane missed the first two games with a thigh injury, and even his return couldn't prevent a 2-0 defeat to Denmark in the final group game.

The 2006 World Cup was an entirely different story. Given no chance by anyone to progress too far with a squad of ageing stars, France felled one fancied team after another in the knockout stage. In the middle of it all was Zidane, coaxing out of his teammates every drop of their effort and ability.

In the second round, France vanquished Spain 3-1 after going a goal down. Zidane finished the match in style with an injury time goal, peeling off to the left, cutting in and beating a defender before slotting coolly home.

Zidane was Man of the Match against Brazil in the 1-0 quarterfinal win, a game where the Brazilians simply couldn't get the ball off him, the 34-year-old playmaker slipping away from midfield opponents with clever flicks and turns each time they closed him down. In the semi-final, Portugal was seen off, Zidane scoring from the spot in another 1-0 win. Another penalty, a somewhat fortuitous finish bouncing down off the crossbar, put France a goal up seven minutes into the final against Italy, making Zidane the fourth player to score in two World Cup finals. Italy equalised, and it stayed 1-1 through normal and extra time. Zidane still had time to pick up another, unwanted, record, of becoming only the second player to be sent off twice in World Cup games.