Picking the best


"DO you think George Best was the best footballer ever?" asked the radioman from Best's native city, Belfast. "No," I replied. "But he was probably in the top five." When the Times magazine asked me to make up my list of the best 100 footballers of all time, I put Pele, as I told the Belfast reporter, top, Alfredo di Stefano second. Diego Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff all had abundant claims to a high place; as indeed did Best himself.

The Belfast radio man had contacted me because, at their annual Sports Personality of the Year, BBC TV had decided to give Best, now so sadly and pitifully reduced by alcoholism and a most delicate liver transplant which blessedly seems to be working, a Lifetime Award. Previously presented only to the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.

I readily agreed that George deserved it. "If I'd been born ugly," he once somewhat immodestly said, "You'd never have heard of Pele." By sharp and severe contrast with the multi-millionaire David Beckham, his successor on Manchester United's right wing, who has made the best of limited abilities, George could do everything and anything. He has indeed a bit tactlessly stressed the difference between Beckham and himself, alleging, with some basis, that the English international has no real pace, so cannot beat his man, no left foot, and cannot head the ball. George could do all these things and more, yet even he never remotely made the fortune Beckham has made. TV money rules these days.

Recently Brian Clough, the ever abrasive, ever controversial ex-manager of Derby County and Nottingham Forest — whom he so brilliantly managed to two consecutive European Cup victories — has revealed his own best ever team. Like Clough himself it is both unusual and somewhat perverse. Let us look at it and use it as a side, so to speak, to play off; to suggest a best ever team of our own.

In the first place, it doesn't include Alfredo Di Stefano, which makes it seriously suspect. How to deny the amazing, protean talents of the Argentinean centre-forward, the tireless inspiration of the Real Madrid team which won five — the first five — European Cups in a row? Di Stefano was surely playing Total Football long before anyone had thought of it. There is reason to think that he was more versatile than Pele who, a glorious attacking player, a superlative technician, an acrobat, a juggler, a dribbler, fantastically dangerous in the air for so small a man, full of sudden surprises, a clever passer of the ball, never covered as much ground as Pele.

You might think that just as the Olympic Games are the true test of the great athlete — I think of Australia's runner Ron Clarke who broke record after record but never had the finishing kick to win Olympic gold — then so is the World Cup as far as football is concerned. But neither Di Stefano nor Best ever played in the World Cup finals. Best because in his time for all his prowess Northern Ireland never got there. Di Stefano because as a young River Plate star he took off for Bogota to make money with the Millonatios club at a time when Colombia were not in FIFA, and from there went straight to Spain to play for Real: who managed to acquire him when Barcelona had equal rights to his services. True Di Stefano then proceeded to be naturalised and play for Spain but he didn't actually play in the 1962 Finals in Chile. Officially he was injured. I remember going down to Vina del Mar and the Spanish team's hotel, where Alfredo's elderly father told me he had brought liniment, which he swore to his son, would cure him! But the word was that Alfredo had no intention of playing for Helenio Herera, then manager of Spain and a fellow Argentine with an ego as big as his own!

Clough chooses British players whose claims seem suspect. Jimmy Greaves was beyond doubt one of the finest attacking players of his British generation. He even scored nine goals in double quick time in his brief spell with Milan in 1961 in just 10 games. But for all his acceleration, ball skills, finishing powers, he failed badly in the World Cup in Chile, and was controversially dropped from the 1966 World Cup team by Alf Ramsey in 1966. By the same token, Scotland's wing-half Dave Mackay was a crucial, potent figure in the Tottenham Hotspur team of the early 1960s, equally effective when though somewhat reduced in energy he joined Derby County, a major figure in Scotland's team, but hardly on the level of the best of all time. Which reminds me that Clough omits Diego Maradona, a figure for Argentina in no fewer than four World Cups, the inspiration of their success in Mexico in 1986 when he scored two astounding solo goals at the Azteca stadium. How to leave him out?

Clough has Gerd Muller as one of his strikers. The West German centre forward was astonishingly prolific, a fantastic opportunist, scorer of the clinching goal in the World Cup Final in Munich of 1974. But his work was done almost exclusively in and around the goal area, even if one could never go as far as the jealous girl athlete Heidi Rosendahl, who declared that all Muller ever did was score goals!

Clough's goalkeeper is another controversial choice. Of English keepers he prefers Peter Shilton to his predecessor and fellow Leicester City star, Gordon Banks, the man whose amazing one handed save from Pele's point blank header in the 1970 World Cup in Guadalajara is still rated as probably the finest ever seen in that tournament. Shilton won more caps than Banks, 125 in all; he also, for all his abilities, made more mistakes. Of course Clough will still be grateful to him for all he did for Nottingham Forest, especially in the European Cup Final against Hamburg and Kevin Keegan, when his saves won the match.

It's always hard to choose best ever teams, since football changes so much in speed, stamina and skills across the years. I'd suggest that any such team should include Pele, Di Stefano, Banks, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Best and that wonderful Brazilian right winger, so much more than that in the 1962 World Cup, Garrincha. That leaves four places to fill. I'd not quarrel with Clough in his preference for Italy's Paolo Maldini, still playing, at left back, nor of England's Tom Finney as a winger. Two Italian centre forwards, World Cup stars of the 1930s, Silvio Piola and Peppino Meazza, have claims. So has Johan Neeskens, a true Total Footballer for Holland and Ajax. But it's hard to establish objective criteria.