The Best Footballers in the World… in 1966. Who comes top?
The boys at the back
Russia’s captain Valery Voronin was a stopper who, with the intelligence and technique to play on either flank, pointed towards a more creative future
Gordon Banks’s idol Lev Yashin could still turn it on in goal, as he showed with a stupendous save against Hungary in the World Cup quarter-finals. Ladislao Mazurkiewicz – Mazurka to teammates – was already showing the quality for Uruguay and Penarol, who won the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup (against Real Madrid), that would prompt Yashin to anoint him as his successor.
The changing nature of the defender’s role was reflected in the World Cup. While England’s Jack Charlton and West Germany’s Willie Schulz epitomised the best of the old-school destroyer, Russia’s captain Valery Voronin was a stopper who, with the intelligence and technique to play on either flank, pointed towards a more creative future.
One pioneer of the new style was Velibor Vasovic who, as centre-back in the Partisan Belgrade that reached the 1966 European Cup final, impressed Ajax’s coach Rinus Michels with his willingness to turn defence into attack. Vasovic, who gave Partisan a shock lead against Real Madrid, would later help Michels perfect Total Football.
A decade after they had been pioneered by Hungary and Brazil, attacking full-backs were still in vogue. Giacinto Facchetti raided forwarded as an auxiliary attacker in Inter and Italy’s catenaccio system, and the ability of England’s full-backs George Cohen and Ray Wilson to make overlapping runs helped persuade Alf Ramsey that he could ease wingers out of his side.
The men in the middle
Pirri was the ideal central midfielder: energetic, brave, intelligent, good in the air and exceptional on the ball
In midfield, intensity was beginning to be as influential as natural talent, and 1966 produced its share of tireless heroes. The tragicomic vicissitudes of Alan Ball’s managerial career have obscured his qualities as a player; a master of the short game, always available to collect a pass out of defence and find a team-mate, Ball was good enough to break the British transfer record in 1966, when Everton paid £110,000 for him.
As good as Ball was, Real Madrid’s Pirri was arguably better. Though he – and Spain – disappointed at the World Cup, he was the coach on the pitch in the Real Madrid side that won its sixth European Cup in May. A former centre-forward, inside-forward and right-half, Pirri was the ideal central midfielder: energetic, brave, intelligent, good in the air and exceptional on the ball.
Yet 1966 was also blessed with its fair share of artists. Uruguay and Penarol playmaker Pedro Rocha was so gifted he could do whatever he wanted with the ball. And let’s not forget Antonio Rattin, captain of Argentina and Boca, whose red card against England – for nothing at all or consistent dissent, depending on your politics – has overshadowed the fact that he was described thusly by Bobby Moore: “Powerful, fine skill, good appreciation of what was going on around him. Knew the game inside out.”
In 1966, apart from a few Italian film directors like Pier Paolo Pasolini, there were no football hipsters as such. Yet in retrospect, the hipster’s idol would probably have been Andriy Biba, Soviet player of the year in 1966. Biba fulfilled the Bobby Charlton role as an advanced attacking midfielder in Victor Maslow's Dynamo Kyiv side, who may well have invented the 4-4-2 formation.
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