Stars, past and present

COMPARISONS are odious goes the old saying and you might say that in soccer, they tend to be irrelevant.


COMPARISONS are odious goes the old saying and you might say that in soccer, they tend to be irrelevant. Over the years the game changes so often and so radically as it grows faster and faster, the players fitter and fitter, the tactics more sophisticated, that you can only guess at how certain refulgent stars of the past would fare today. Nevertheless it is always enjoyable to speculate.

Gordon Banks was simply irresistible in the 1966 World Cup, with some wonderful saves in the final. England won the championship. Banks would have revelled in present day soccer as well, feels the author. — Pic. GETTY IMAGES-

The present team before us, for instance, has Gianluigi Buffon of Juventus — where his relative, Renzo Buffon, preceded him 40 years ago in goal. There's no doubt of his excellence though like every 'keeper who ever put on a pair of gloves he's had his uneasy days. But you knew when, as a youngster, he had to take the field in Moscow on a snowy icy day for Italy against Russia as a substitute and performed impeccably that he was a major force. I'd put the case of England's Gordon Banks to fill the role, not least for the amazing save he made in Guadalajara playing for England in the World Cup 1970 finals against Brazil. When the ball came over from Jairzinho on the right, the incomparable Pele got in a fierce, bouncing header and was already shouting, "Gol!" when Banks somehow hurled himself across his goal, got a flailing hand to the ball and turned it over the bar. He'd of course been a World Cup winner in 1966 making some excellent saves in the Final. And had he not succumbed to food poisoning — he is still suspicious about how it could have happened only to him of all the team — before the 1970 quarter-final against West Germany, maybe England would have gone to that Final, too.

Lilian Thuram is a right back who may even have astonished himself with his two exhilarating and dramatic goals for France against Croatia in Paris to win the 1998 World Cup semi-final. He'd hardly ever scored before. Brazil's Djalma Santos, twice a World Cup winner, in 1958 and 1962, would be my choice here. Tall, black, powerfully built, he actually didn't have a game for Brazil in the 1958 finals till the Final itself when he easily snuffed out the ebullient little Swede Nacka Sloglund. How well I remember seeing him, in the 1962 Final against the Czechs in Santiago, almost casually turning back to hook the ball high into the goalmouth where goalkeeper Schroiff dropped it in the bright sunshine and Vava scored.

In the given team we have two accomplished Italian centre backs, Fabio Cannavaro, a Neapolitan who's found his way North to Inter and Alessandro Nesta who after years with Lazio — and a disastrous derby against Roma which saw him walk out of the game in despair — has blossomed again with Milan. He didn't have the greatest of 2002 World Cups but his class is undeniable. I'd certainly have Franz Beckenbauer in one of these central roles; not only one of the great influential players of all time but the one who as a youngster with Bayern Munich virtually invented the role of the attacking sweeper and thus Total Football itself with its exciting emphasis on versatility. Put him centre right; for centre left I'd have Bobby Moore who captained England so impressively in the 1966 World Cup — when he was voted Best Player — and 1970. Tall, blond, utterly cool, a superb positional player who made light of his relative lack of pace, Moore was really a case of mind over matter, whose sheer determination and intelligence made him a great defender.

There are many candidates for left back; a position which has now become far more adventurous and attack oriented; sometimes I feel to the detriment of defensive abilities. Beckenbauer modelled his play on an attacking left back, towering Giacinto Facchetti of Inter, Paolo Maldini of Milan his only club plays on superbly into his mid thirties. Ruud Krol was a superb all-rounder there for Holland who later became a dominant sweeper. So I think I'd pick Krol because while with Holland and Ajax he'd attack from left back, he also turned into a doughty central defender as he proved in the Argentine World Cup of 1978.

In central midfield, let's have Alfredo Di Stefano and Diego Maradona two of the greatest of all time, behind only Pele. Di Stefano, an Argentine, was the ultra competent ubiquitous centre forward and tireless inspiration of the Real Madrid team which won all five of the first European Cups. Maradona as we know was the supremely versatile star of an Argentina team which reached the World Cup Finals of 1986 and 1990, endless inspirational, endlessly controversial, with an incredible left foot, infinite flair and skill, capable of superb solo goals.

In front of them, a right flanker in Garrincha, the remarkable Brazilian whose two jaguar bursts turned the 1958 World Cup Final and who in 1962 emerged as a complete all-rounder, capable of even head in goals from corners, small though he was, and getting goals from afar with his left foot too. In the centre, the incomparable Pele, master of every aspect of the game, scorer of two astounding goals as a 17-year-old, with foot and head, in the World Cup 1958 Final, header of another spectacular goal in the 1970 Final when he made two others. Alongside him on the left George Best, the little Ulsterman who in fact could play anywhere across the front line or in midfield though he started as a teen-aged winger. Like Pele a supreme ball artist, and surprisingly dangerous in the air.

Which leaves us with Johan Cruyff at centre forward, where you could imagine him — if they didn't quarrel throughout the game, egotists as both were — able to drop back and switch from time to time with Di Stefano. Cruyff to the Total Football of Ajax and Holland was what Beckenbauer was to German football, a consummate technician and tactician, wonderfully quick off the mark and quick in thought, at once rational, inventive and incisive.