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13 of football's greatest-ever No.9s – and the brilliant stories behind them

Gabriel Batistuta
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10. The poacher: Gerd Muller

  • Matches: 769, Goals: 721

If scoring easy-looking goals was truly easy, then why couldn’t anyone else do it in Muller-like volumes?

There are plenty of misconceptions about the Germany and Bayern Munich goal machine Gerd Muller. One is that he was athletically average. Cursed with the nickname ‘Kleines dickes Muller’ – short, fat Muller – thanks to his somewhat squat stature, he was never going to be a CR7-style slice of muscle that could bulldoze defences. But he had a devastating turn of speed over short distances. “His pace was incredible,” reckoned Franz Beckenbauer. “In training, I never had a chance.”

Another is that his tendency for unglamorous tap-ins – hundreds of ’em – somehow lessened his worth compared to a Neymar-style box of tricks. In fact, Muller scored plenty of strikes that were extremely hard to execute.

Gerd Muller

Muller squeezes between two Yugoslav defenders to turn the ball home

His control and ability to turn in tight spaces were second to none, but what makes him arguably the purest No.9 in history was the sheer unpredictability of his close-range finishing. Play him the same pass 10 times, and the ball will usually end up in the net – but always in a different place. It may not be spectacular, but this metronomic ability to deceive the goalkeeper was unique: if scoring easy-looking goals was truly easy, then why couldn’t anyone else do it in Muller-like volumes?

His stat reel is mind-blowing: 566 Bayern Munich goals in 607 games; 68 in 62 for West Germany; 85 in the calendar year of 1972. And he did it when it really counted, too: at the 1970 World Cup (10 goals), at the 1972 European Championship (top scorer, two goals in the final) and at the 1974 World Cup, where he slotted the winner at his home stadium and outshone Johan Cruyff. How did he do it? Even he wasn’t sure. “You can’t learn it,” he stated. “You’ve got to have an instinct.” His was God-given.

11. The force of nature: Ronaldo

  • Matches: 616, Goals: 414

He put the fear of God into opposition defenders – they knew there was very little they could do to stop him

Let’s get one thing clear: anyone who refers to El Fenomeno as ‘Fat Ronaldo’ needs hurling in a dank prison cell for all eternity. Sure, the boy Cristiano has carved out a half-decent career for himself, but his Brazilian namesake – regardless of the size of his waistline during the latter stages of his career – is the Ronaldo.

Be it in the Netherlands (54 goals in 57 matches), Spain (151 in 226), Italy (68 in 119) or back home in Brazil (79 in 116), wherever he played he scored goals like it was the easiest thing in the world. To him it probably was. Combining searing pace, gargantuan strength and ruthless instincts, Ronaldo was the model striker. He put the fear of God into opposition defenders – they knew there was very little they could do to stop him.

Ronaldo

Ronaldo scored 59 goals in his five-year spell at Inter

His goal for Barcelona at Compostela in 1996/97, arguably his finest season, summed him up perfectly. Lurking inside his own half, the Brazilian outmuscled one Compostela player, holding him off as he yanked at his arm, before dazzling a covering defender with a drag-back, then clicking through the gears to burn past another. As he approached the edge of the opposition box, Ronaldo cut inside, bamboozling another two of his by-now-panting foes with a quick stepover, before sliding a low shot into the bottom corner. His manager, the great Bobby Robson, was visibly stunned. It was probably at that moment that he realised his No.9 was a force of nature.

It was poetic that Ronaldo should be the man to win the World Cup for Brazil in 2002, after the trauma suffered in France four years earlier. His Wikipedia page should without doubt be the first result when you Google ‘Ronaldo’. You can shove ‘search engine optimisation’ up your backside.

Ronaldo's goal against Compostela