'Soccer World Cup Gods' of the last 50 years

Pele (AP)
Pele (AP)

With a sombre lull in the fabric of soccer history as the treacherous coronavirus continues to wreak havoc, it seemed opportune at this time to recall the great players I witnessed while covering 10 World Cup tournaments and assemble at the same time a hypothetical line-up from the greats of the game over the past 50 years.

The players in this mythical World Cup XI are of such immense stature that describing their talent as constituting a "dream team" would seem almost inadequate.

So I have referred to it as a line-up of "World Cup Gods", while contemplating at the magnificence that would emerge if this make-believe line-up could be transformed into reality.

The strength and stature of the "World Cup Gods" line-up is possibly best reflected by the calibre of the players who missed out in inclusion, if in some instances only by the narrowest of margins.

Numbering among these near-misses are such immortalised icons as Cristiano Ronaldo, Zico, Ronaldinho, Tostao, Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Baggio, Eusebio and Gordon Banks.

Pele, the only player to have been part of three World Cup-winning teams, would be the first choice in almost any all-time, composite World Cup line-up.

"The World Cup Gods", without exception, are loaded with skilled, inventive and inspirational performers and if anyone questions the emphasis of attack in this group of veritable magical footballers, it would probably score so many goals against anyone daring to oppose them that defending would be a secondary consideration.

At any rate, here goes with the names of my mythical 11 "World Cup Gods":

Goalkeeper: Sepp Maier (Germany).

Defenders: Carlos Alberto (Brazil), Franz Beckenbauer (Germany), Paulo Maldini (Italy) and Roberto Carlos (Brazil).

Midfield: Maradona (Argentina) and Johan Cruyff (Netherlands).

Strikers: Lionel Messi (Argentina) Romario (Brazil), Pele (Brazil) and Ronaldo (Brazil).

Among the near-misses, if one could refer to them in such simplistic terms, are Gordon Banks (England), Dino Zoff (Italy), Gianluigi Buffon (Italy), Peter Schmeichel (Denmark) Jorginho (Brazil), Cafu (Brazil), Carles Puyol (Spain), Daniel Passarella (Argentina), Laurent Blanc (France), Marcel Desailly (France) Marcelo (Brazil), Bobby Charlton (England), Ronaldinho (Brazil), Eusebio (Portugal,) Roberto Baggio (Italy), Zico (Brazil), Falcao (Brazil), Johan Neeskens (Netherlands), Paolo Rossi (Italy), Zinedine Zidane (France), Andres Iniesta (Spain), Michel Platini  (France), Kaka (Brazil), Luis Suarez (Uruguay), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), George Weah (Liberia), Garrincha (Brazil), Rivaldo (Brazil) and Abedi Pele (Ghana).

Because they gained soccer immortality for their feats prior to the past 50-year period, Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin and the kingpins of Real Madrid's Invincibles in the 1950s and early 1960s, Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, were not additions to the list of contenders.

And finally, herein are potted profiles of the "World Cup Gods" to ponder over as soccer worldwide has come to a veritable standstill.

Sepp Maier: Nicknamed "Die Katze van Anzing" and rated Germany's best-ever goalkeeper because of his exceptional reflexes. Appeared in four World Cup tournaments and was a pivotal influence when Germany won the World Cup on home soil in 1974. He played in an astonishing record 442 successive games for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga and was a member of the team that won the European Cup three times, as well as featuring in the German side that annexed the European Nations Cup. In all, he made 95 international appearances.

Carlos Alberto: Such were his qualities as a leader that soccer-mad Brazilian fans labelled him "The Eternal Captain." He captained Brazil's World Cup-winning team in 1970, which in the eyes of many constituted the world's best-ever soccer combination that has yet assembled. And in the 4-1 final victory over Italy, he also scored what is considered the best goal ever by a defender in World Cup history. He represented Brazil 53 times and turned to coaching after ending his playing career, becoming a city councillor before his death at the age of 72 from a heart attack.

Paulo Maldini: Italy's most acclaimed defender. "Anticipation not intimidation is what made him great," was one apt description in a report of his ability, which also described Maldini as "an icon and a gentleman." He made a record 126 appearances for Italy over a remarkable period of 25 years and featured in 19 World Cup Final matches. He won five European Cup titles and seven domestic Italian Championship medals with AC Milan. He was in the 1994 Italian team that lost to Brazil during a penalty shootout in the World Cup final and said that the biggest regret of his career was that he never finished on a winning team in the World Cup.

Franz Beckenbauer: Known as "Der Kaiser" during his playing career, he is  with Brazilian Mario Zagallo and   the only three soccer icons who have won World Cup titles as both a player and manager. He appeared in three World Cup tournaments and captained the side that beat the formidable Netherlands 2-1 in the 1974 final in Munich. His elegant style as both a central defender and clinical distributor while initiating attacks has earned him the reputation as Germany's best-ever player. He played for Germany on 103 occasions and was twice named Europe's "Footballer of the Year."

Roberto Carlos: The most offensive left back in the history of the game. Nicknamed "El Hombre Bala", - "The Bullet Man" - Roberto Carlos’s free-kicks were timed at more than 105 mph. He was in the Brazil team that reached the World Cup Final against France in 1998 and won the event in Japan in 2002.  In 1997 he was runner-up in FIFA’s "World Footballer of the Year" awards. He made 125 appearances for Brazil and helped Real Madrid gain three European Champions League titles and three Spanish League championships. Prone to occasional eccentric errors, he was as much feared as a scorer of stunning goals as that of a defender.

Lionel Messi: Enjoyed only relatively moderate success in World Cup tournaments. But the diminutive Messi's talents are immense, reflected in the fact that he was named FIFA's "World Footballer of the Year" on more occasions from than any other active player. He has helped Barcelona to numerous European Champions League titles and endless Spanish championships while filling the key role of team talisman. In 92 international appearances for Argentina he has scored 42 goals and been rated with Pele and Maradona one of the three greatest all-time soccer performers.

Maradona: Soccer's most controversial player of all-time and one many rate as only second to Pele in the all-time rankings. Just look at his vacillating record of World Cup ups-and-downs. Sent off the field in a defeat against Brazil in the 1982 tournament because of a crude, seemingly intentional kick into the groin area of an unsuspecting opponent; the unmatched giant in stature, if not in height, while guiding Argentina to the World Cup title in 1986 when he scored possibly the greatest and also most infamous goals of  any such event against England; valiantly guided a mediocre Argentinian team into the World Cup final in 1990 almost single-handedly despite being hacked to pieces by opponents in every game; and then, finally, being thrown out of the 1994 tournament in the United States because of ephedrine drug abuse. But what great vision and creativity he had while scoring 34 times in 91 games for Argentina and being treated as a saint when he took Napoli to greater heights than ever before in the Italian League.

Johan Cruyff: Credited as being the on-the-field orchestrator of the dizzy and destructive brand of "Total Football" that mesmerised opponents and spectators alike during the 1974 World Cup in Germany - before the Netherlands surprisingly lost the final to the host nation. The Dutch, nevertheless, earned the reputation along with the 1982 Brazilians of being the two greatest teams not to win the World Cup - and were a great deal better than many who have won the prized title. The elegant Cruyff was a great thinker and tactician on the field and also off it after his retirement - being credited as the architect of Barcelona's 'tiki-taka' soccer that delighted the world and bamboozled opponents before he was succeeded as manager by Pepe Guardiola. "Every disadvantage has its advantages”, he philosophised in helping him to the "World Footballer of the Year' honour on three occasions and scoring 33 goals in his 48 international appearances for The Netherlands.

Romario: Now an irrepressible Member of Parliament in Brazil. As one of the greatest and most prolific scorers of all-time, he could not be stopped from stamping his authority in the penalty area either. Described as "a genius of the goal area" and "a master of reduced space,'' Romario's awesome record at international level of scoring 55 goals from 70 matches is second only to that of Pele. He was at his best in 1994 when he guided Brazil to the World Cup title and was named FIFA’s "World Footballer of the Year." Injuries kept him out of the 1990 and 1998 World Cup Finals and mule-like stubbornness of coach Felipe Scolari - the same Scolari who was at the helm of Brazil's rock-bottom 7-1 defeat against Germany in 2014 - kept him out of the World Cup in 2002 despite a unanimous outcry from 200-million Brazilians. The result of this was that Romario and his fellow-great scoring machine, Ronaldo, never appeared together for Brazil at World Cup level.

Pele: The player born Edson Arantes do Nascimento and simply known as Pele for most of his 80-year life burst on the soccer world in 1958 as a 17 year-old while scoring two goals of disbelieving artistry and magic in the 5-2 World Cup Final victory over Sweden. Such was the spectacular impact made by the youngest-ever World Cup Finalist that he was clapped off the pitch by his opponents. And the resounding applause has continued ever since for a player who more so than anyone else has been acclaimed the greatest footballer of all-time. Pele scored a record 1 283 goals during his career and a record 77 times in internationals for Brazil. He is the only player boasting three World Cup-winning medals. Yet through all this deluge of success a conspicuous quality of note has been the modest and humble manner in which he has handled all his triumphs.  

Ronaldo: No disrespect to Cristiano, but when straight-talking Jose Mourinho was asked which of the two Ronaldos he was referring to as one of the "greatest of all-time", he replied succinctly: "the real Ronaldo." And it is to Brazilian Ronaldo's undiminishing credit and courage that when he emerged as the outstanding player and top scorer during Brazil's 2002 World Cup success he had already undergone surgery twice for crippling knee injuries that would have ended the careers of most other players there and then. His fellow-players, almost to a man, felt that without these injuries he would have been ranked alongside Pele, Maradona and Messi as the greatest players the planet has seen. As it was, he was not too far behind. He was known as "The Phenomenon" and lived up to his nickname while scoring 62 goals in 98 matches for Brazil and being chosen FIFA "World Player of the Year" on two occasions.

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