The showstoppers

In the 1986 World Cup in Mexico what would Argentina have been without Diego Maradona? Let us cast a veil over the notorious ‘Hand of God’ goal, which he punched against England. He followed it up with an amazing solo which took him past man after English man before shooting home. On the same stadium and at the same end, Maradona scored an equally astonishing solo goal versus Belgium. By Brian Glanville.

One of England’s most distinguished sports columnists has very recently paid a grandiose tribute to Gareth Bale, the Welsh international attacker, now at Real Madrid. “If Manchester United are in the market for a Real Madrid player there should be only one name on the list. Were they to break the bank again, it must be for Gareth Bale. If Bale moves this summer, and it is by no means guaranteed, Bale wins the League for his English club next season.

“It really is as simple as that.... This is the Robin Van Persie transfer (from Arsenal to United) all over again, and the managers know it too.”

There is no questioning Bale’s outstanding abilities. Once a modest left back at Tottenham Hotspur, he was converted with colossal success to outside left by then manager Harry Redknapp and proceeded to inspire his team with his tremendous pace, his elusive skills and his powerful left foot. As time went by like many other gifted wingers before him, not least the late George Best, he moved increasingly into the middle, where his remarkable sustained slaloms took him past bewildered defenders.

Quite often he was criticised for allegedly diving, yet it was probably fairer to say that travelling at such tremendous speed with so little margin for error, the slightest touch by an opponent could send him tumbling.

Real Madrid paid the best part of EURO100 million for him and he did not disappoint them in his first season, this being his second. Somehow or other he found a modus Vivendi with the established star of the show, the prolific and super versatile Cristiano Ronaldo. Recently he galvanised the Welsh international team, inspiring them to an impressive European qualifying win in Israel.

Yet the other somewhat surprising side of the coin is that this season has seen him at odds with turbulent sections of the Real Madrid support, even to the extent of having his car attacked as he drove away from training. And it is true that he seemed to be finding it hard to dovetail Ronaldo, several times criticised by the press as well as fans for ineffectual performances.

If, thanks, in no small measure, to Bale, Wales do reach those European finals, it would be the first time they had qualified for a major tournament on their merits. In 1958 they got to the Swedish World Cup finals very much by the back door.

They had been eliminated in the qualifying stages. But when the Arab countries refused to play Israel in their group and FIFA decided to fill the empty place by choosing a team by lot. Uruguay were pulled out of the bag but as twice World Cup winners they proudly refused. The Welsh had no such qualms. Twice they beat Israel 2-0 to qualify, the irony being that in Sweden they were by far the best of the four British teams, which were involved for the one and only time, extremely unlucky to lose the quarterfinal to Brazil by the only goal in Gothenburg, a match I attended.

The Brazilian goal was somewhat scrappily scored by the then 17-year-old Pele, who would emerge as the phenomenal star of the tournament. Yet four years later in Chile, Pele dropped out of the World Cup tournament early on, injured, his place going to Amarildo, an effective but far less exceptional, player, and Brazil won the World Cup none the less. No one man team there; though arguably the marvellous versatility in attack of Garrincha galvanised Brazil post Pele.

Fast forward though to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and what would Argentina have been without Diego Maradona? Let us cast a veil over the notorious ‘Hand of God’ goal, which he punched against England. He followed it up with an amazing solo which took him past man after English man before shooting home. A leading Italian journalist opined to me that the English defenders were still in a state of shock after the punched goal. But then, on the same stadium and at the same end, Maradona scored an equally astonishing solo goal versus Belgium. Four years later in Italy his one legged brilliance, coping bravely with a damaged ankle, took Argentina to another final but this time his disability would be too much for him.

Recently we mourned the death of the once astonishing Alfredo Di Stefano, the dominant and dynamic force in the Real Madrid team which won all of the first five European Cups. A man you could say who was playing total football years before that style was invented. For Di Stefano, the Argentine who played just a handful of early games for his country, and never represented Spain, where he was naturalised, in a World Cup, was anywhere and everywhere.

As a centre forward, he had the classical gifts of finishing with either foot or head. But almost the whole ground was his domain, thanks to his amazing stamina — he used to say he had built it by running through the streets of his native Buenos Aires — flair, originality and perception. He was master of the deadly through ball. Even the great Hungarian inside left Ferenc Puskas when he came to Real Madrid after his country's revolution, deferred to him. Though in that 1960 final at Hampden Park where Eintracht Frankfurt were thrashed 7-3, Puskas scored four times to Di Stefano's three. But I still have an image in my mind from the 1962 European final in Amsterdam of an exquisitely timed through ball by Di Stefano sending Puskas trotting through to score for Real; though Eusebio's Benfica would beat them 5-3.

Puskas himself was renowned as the dominant captain of a great Hungarian team in the early 1950s, his left foot formidable. Yet when he dropped out of the side, hurt very early in the Swiss 1954 World Cup, it functioned very well without him, going on to reach the final, in which he insisted on playing; arguably still not fully fit and inevitably below his best.

More recently, both Barcelona and Argentina have benefited from the huge elusive talents of Lionel Messi with his cornucopia of goals, his amazing ability to find his way through a packed defence. He scored some glorious goals for Argentina in the 2014 World Cup but arguably they simply expected too much of him and he was a weary figure by the end, publicly and grievously disappointed after his team so narrowly lost the final to Germany. Now he plays in a Barcelona attack flanked by two other major stars in Brazil’s elegant Neymar and Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. No need for a one man team here, but he still looks the best of them all.