The best footballers of the 90s

ROTTERDAM 14 MAY 1997: Ronaldo celebrates at the end of the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup Final match between Barcelona and PSG played at Feijenoord Stadion in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
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From the birth of the Premier League to the outlawing of backpasses, the 90s were a time of great change for football.

The last decade of the 20th century was also chock-full of great players – truly extraordinary players, even.

Here, FourFourTwo counts down the best of them...

32. Thomas Ravelli

Thomas Ravelli of Sweden, 1997

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Save for a short stint with MLS outfit Tampa Bay Mutiny. Thomas Ravelli spent his whole career in his native Sweden – so it was on the international stage that he really showed the world what he could do.

One of the finest goalkeepers of his generation, Ravelli helped his country to the semi-finals of the 1994 World Cup, saving two penalties in a quarter-final shootout victory over Romania.

31. Ryan Giggs

Ryan Giggs of Manchester United

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A one-club man at Manchester United, Ryan Giggs retired in 2014 as one of the most decorated footballers of all time – and he started collecting that silverware in the early 90s.

The decade yielded a plethora of major honours for the Welsh winger, whose most iconic individual moment came when he scored this memorable winning goal against Arsenal in the 1998/99 FA Cup semi-final – a crucial step towards United’s historic treble triumph.

30. Edwin van der Sar

Edwin van der Sar of Ajax, 1994

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Netherlands number one by Euro 96, Edwin van der Sar emerged as a member of the Ajax golden generation which took the club to 1994/95 Champions League glory.

The giant custodian helped Ajax to the following season’s final – where they were beaten by Juventus, who he would go on to join in 1999.

29. Diego Maradona

Diego Maradona of Argentina during the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy

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By the early 90s, Diego Maradona’s best days were behind him – but it wasn’t as if he’d gone from the top player on the planet to Sunday league clogger: he was still pretty damn good…

Having left Napoli under a cloud after being banned from football for cocaine use, Maradona spent the 1992/93 campaign with Sevilla before returning home to finish his career with Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors.

28. Roy Keane

Roy Keane of Manchester United

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One of the ultimate Premier League hardmen, Roy Keane joined Manchester United from Nottingham Forest in 1993 – and he would win his first four of seven Premier League titles before the 90s were out.

The Irish midfield icon made the PFA Premier League Team of the Year twice during the decade and starred for the Republic of Ireland at the 1994 World Cup.

27. Cafu

Cafu of Brazil, 1996

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Arguably the greatest right-back of all time, Cafu won his first of 142 Brazil caps in 1990 and was a world champion within four years.

After replacing the injured Jorginho in the 1994 World Cup final victory over Italy, Cafu – who joined Roma in 1997 – never looked back and remained his country’s first-choice right-back for more than a decade.

26. George Weah

George Weah of AC Milan

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Africa’s first ever Ballon d’Or winner and FIFA World Player of the Year recipient when he scooped both awards in 1995, George Weah chalked up the goals for Monaco, PSG and AC Milan during the 90s.

Top scorer in the 1994/95 Champions League – where Milan lost to Ajax in the final – the future president of Liberia is regarded as one of the best players never to play at the World Cup.

26. Jurgen Klinsmann

Jurgen Klinsmann of West Germany playing against the Netherlands at the 1990 FIFA World Cup

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The 90s were a glorious decade for Jurgen Klinsmann, who lifted the 1990 World Cup with West Germany – making the tournament’s All-Star Team – and Euro 96 with a unified Germany, in addition to UEFA Cup triumphs with Inter Milan and Bayern Munich.

All the while, he proved himself as a thoroughly reliable goalscorer, even gracing the Premier League with a couple of brief spells at Tottenham.

24. Peter Schmeichel

21 Apr 1999: Peter Schmeichel of Manchester United celebrates victory over Juventus in the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg match at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin, Italy. United won 3-2 on the night to go through 4-3 on aggregate. \ MandatoryCredit: Ross Kinnaird /Allsport

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Signed from Brondby for £505,000, Peter Schmeichel was later described as the “bargain of the century” by Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson.

And with good reason: the veritably gigantic Dane (who had to wear custom-made size XXXL goalkeeping tops) produced many a heroic performance between the sticks to help United to numerous honours, including the 1998/99 treble.

Schmeichel was also a key member of the Denmark side who famously won Euro 92 having initially failed to qualify.

23. David Beckham

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 11: David Beckham of Manchester United celebrates after scoring the third goal in the 1996 FA Charity Shield between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Wembley Stadium on August 11, 1996 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Allsport/Getty Images)

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A truly iconic figure of not just English football but the global game during the 90s, David Beckham really arrived with his famous halfway-line goal for Manchester United against Wimbledon in 1996.

The dead-ball demon ended the 1995/96 season as PFA Young Player of the Year – and in the summer of 1997, following Eric Cantona’s retirement, he inherited United’s number seven shirt. The rest is history.

22. Michael Laudrup

Danish footballer Michael Laudrup playing for the Spanish club FC Barcelona, early 1990s. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

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Perhaps Denmark’s greatest ever player, Michael Laudrup was among the premier attacking midfielders of his era.

Already well-established by the beginning of the 90s, Laudrup played an instrumental part in Barcelona’s four successive La Liga title wins between 1991 and 1994 – and their 1991/92 European Cup victory – only to fall out with manager Johan Cruyff and do the unthinkable: move to Real Madrid.

21. Paul Gascoigne

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 15: England player Paul Gascoigne shoots to score the second England goal during the 1996 European Championships Group match against Scotland at Wembley Stadium on June 15, 1996 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Stu Forster/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

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A truly gifted footballer and a wonderful entertainer, Paul Gascoigne had a major role to play in England’s two semi-final runs of the 90s: first at the Italia ’90 World Cup, then at Euro 96 on home soil.

At the latter, Gazza – a 1990/91 FA Cup winner with Tottenham – scored one of the most famous Three Lions goals of all time: a sumptuous volley against Scotland (followed by the ‘dentist’s chair’ celebration).

20. Gheorghe Hagi

03 July 1994 - Fifa World Cup - Romania v Argentina - Gheorghe Hagi of Romania. (Photo by Mark Leech/Getty Images)

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Romania’s greatest player of all time, Gheorghe Hagi was nominated for the Ballon d’Or on sixth occasions, achieving his highest finish of fourth place in 1994 – when he made the World Cup’s All-Star Team.

Having begun the 90s at Steaua Bucuresti, the technically superb attacking midfielder went on to turn out for both Real Madrid and Barcelona – before finishing his career with great success at Galatasaray.

19. Davor Suker

LENS, FRANCE - JUNE 14: Croatia player Davor Suker celebrates after scoring against Jamaica at the 1998 World Cup Finals on June 14, 1998 in Lens, France. (Photo Allsport/Getty Images)

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Just four years after joining FIFA as an independent nation, Croatia finished third at the 1998 World Cup – and that was largely thanks to star striker Davor Suker’s Golden Boot-winning haul of six goals.

That year’s Ballon d’Or recipient, Suker found the net a total of 45 times in 68 caps for Croatia – the vast majority of them during the 90s, which saw him win the La Liga title and Champions League with Real Madrid.

18. Raul

TOKYO, JAPAN - DECEMBER 01: Raul Gonzalez of Real Madrid scores his team's second goal during the Toyota Cup match between Real Madrid and Vasco da Gama at the National Stadium on December 1, 1998 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Sports Nippon/Getty Images)

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A teammate of Davor Suker at Real Madrid, superstar Spanish marksman Raul rose through the ranks of his hometown club to become a legend.

Succeeding the great Emilio Butragueno up front, Raul notched at least 22 goals in each of the 1995/96, 1996/97 and 1998/99 campaigns, and was a European champion with Los Blancos in 1997/98.

17. Alessandro Del Piero

10 October 1997 Rome, Alessandro Del Piero relaxes with his feet up during the Italy Football squad training session. (Photo by Mark Leech/Offside via Getty Images)

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He’d already won his first Scudetto by then, but it all really started happening for Alessandro Del Piero in 1996 – when he helped Italy to U21 European Championship glory and Juventus to Champions League success.

A tremendously gifted and versatile attacking operator, the 1997/98 season saw Del Piero amass a career-best 32 goals in all competitions – which earned him a second straight Ballon d’Or nomination.

16. Alan Shearer

Newcastle United 4-3 Leicester City, premier league match at St James Park, Sunday 2nd February 1997. Our picture shows Alan Shearer, who scored a hat-trick during match, his first for Newcastle. (Photo by Nigel Dobson/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

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Alan Shearer was born to score goals, and score goals he did – not least in the 90s, when hogged the Premier League Golden Boot three years running between 1995 and 1997.

Having fired Blackburn Rovers to the 1994/95 title as one half of the famous SAS partnership with Chris Sutton, Shearer joined boyhood club Newcastle in 1996 for a world-record £15m.

That summer also saw him revive his stagnant England career: he top-scored with five goals at Euro 96.

15. Marcel Desailly

Credit: Gary M Prior/Allsport

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A back-to-back Champions League winners with different clubs early in the decade (Marseille in 1993, AC Milan in 1994), French great Marcel Desailly would establish himself as one of best centre-backs (/ defensive midfielders, such was his versatility) of all time during the 90s.

And Desailly’s success didn’t stop at club level, either: he was vital to France’s 1998 World Cup win (although he did get sent off in the final).

14. Roberto Carlos

Roberto Carlos of Brazil

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Once described as “the most offensive-minded left-back in the history of the game”, Roberto Carlos was something special – as Real Madrid acknowledged when they moved to sign him from Inter Milan in 1996.

A 1997/98 Champions League Winner, the brilliant Brazilian lifted the 1997 and 1999 Copas America – and pulled off that free-kick goal against France at Le Tournoi of 1998.

13. Lothar Matthaus

Lothar Matthaus (Germany) in action during a first round match of the 1994 FIFA World Cup against Spain (1-1). (Photo by Christian Liewig/TempSport/Corbis via Getty Images)

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Lothar Matthaus’ career seemed to last forever (in fairness, he did play from 1978 until 2000), and the legendary German midfielder enjoyed a trophy-laden 90s.

A 1990 World Cup and Ballon d’Or winner, Matthaus added three Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich and a UEFA Cup with both them and Inter Milan.

In 1999, he was named German Footballer of the Year at the ripe old age of 38.

12. Gabriel Batistuta

12 Sep 1998: Gabriel Batistuta of Fiorentina celebrates during the Serie A match against Empoli at the Stadio Communale in Florence, Italy. \ Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport

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Among a host of iconic players who lit up Serie A during its 90s heyday, Gabriel Batistuta was one of the biggest (figuratively and literally), terrorising defences in the colours of Fiorentina.

Signed from Boca Juniors in 1991, Batigol banged in 203 goals for La Viola between then and his 2000 departure – as well as 50 for Argentina, 12 of which came in 1998 alone.

11. Eric Cantona

16 Oct 1996: Eric Cantona of Manchester United goes by Ilker of Fenerbahce during the champions League match between Fenerbahce and Manchester United at Fenerbahce Stadium in Turkey. Manchester United went onto win the match by 0-2. Mandatory Credit: Shaun Botterill/Allsport

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The Premier League’s first foreign superstar, Eric Cantona was absolutely instrumental in propelling Manchester United into a new era of dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Named by Pele in his 2004 ‘FIFA 100’ list of the world’s greatest living players, the famously enigmatic Frenchman scored some of the great Premier League goals (and delivered its most notable kung fu kick…).

10. Hristo Stoichkov

16 July 1994 - FIFA World Cup - Sweden v Bulgaria - Hristo Stoitchkov of Bulgaria. (Photo by Mark Leech/Getty Images)

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Bulgaria’s best ever player and one of the finest forwards of all time, Hristo Stoichkov tore it up for club and country throughout the 90s, notably winning five La Liga titles and the European Cup with Barcelona.

His finest year was 1994, when he scooped the World Cup Golden Boot with six goals, having inspired his country to fourth place at the tournament. He also took home the Ballon d’Or.

9. Romario

DALLAS, TX - JULY 9: Brazilian forward Romario jubilates after scoring a goal against the Netherlands 09 July 1994 in Dallas during their World Cup quarterfinal soccer match. Brazil won 3-2 to advance to the semifinals. (Photo credit should read BOB DAEMMRICH/AFP via Getty Images)

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At the peak of his powers during the early 90s, Romario could be nigh on impossible to stop – as evidenced by his record of 110 goals in 153 games for PSV and Barcelona between the 1990/91 and 1993/94 seasons.

In 1994, Baixinho (Portuguese for Shorty) – who amassed over 700 goals over the course of his career – collected the Golden Ball as player of the tournament en route to Brazil’s 1994 World Cup victory.

8. Luis Figo

Luis Figo of Barcelona

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Among Portugal’s very best players of all time, Luis Figo moved from Sporting Lisbon to Barcelona in 1995 – and wasted no time in establishing himself as arguably the finest winger of his generation.

La Liga’s leading assist provider in 19967/97 and 1998/99, the 2000 Ballon d’Or recipient won two Spanish titles with Barca – doing the double in 1997/98 – and the Cup Winners’ Cup, having been a world youth champion with Portugal in 1991.

7. Dennis Bergkamp

18 April 1998, London - FA Carling Premiership - Arsenal v Wimbledon - Dennis Bergkamp celebrates after scoring the third goal for Arsenal at Highbury. (Photo by Mark Leech/Offside via Getty Images)

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Few players in the history of the game have been capable of scoring the kind of goals Dennis Bergkamp conjured up (with remarkable frequency) throughout the 90s, notably for Ajax, Arsenal and the Netherlands.

Ballon d’Or runner-up in 1993, Bergkamp almost broke commentator Jack van Gelder when he scored this last-gasp winner against Argentina in the last eight of the 1998 World Cup.

6. Marco van Basten

Marco van Basten of AC Milan

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An ankle injury cruelly cut Marco van Batsen’s career short in his late 20s, his last game being the 1993 Champions League final – but the Dutch genius was so brilliant right up until the end that we have no qualms about ranking him so high up this list.

In his last two seasons, Basta fired home 51 goals in 62 appearances for AC Milan, winning his third and final Ballon d’Or in 1992.

5. Rivaldo

28 Apr 1999: Rivaldo of Brazil celebrates during a match against Barcelona to commemorate the club's centenary at the Nou Camp in Barcelona, Spain. \ Mandatory Credit: Phil Cole /Allsport

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The epitome of Brazilian Samba style, the exquisitely skilful Rivaldo made such an impact with his first European club – Deportivo La Coruna – that Barcelona swooped to sign him after one season.

Ex-Barca manager Sir Bobby Robson told his old club that Rivaldo would guarantee plenty of goals – and so it proved: he netted 28 times in each of his first two campaigns at the Camp Nou, winning back-to-back La Liga titles and the 1999 Ballon d’Or.

4. Paolo Maldini

Paolo Maldini

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Impossibly handsome and imperiously robust at the back, Paolo Maldini is one of the greatest proponents of the art of defending – and he really did make an art of it – the game has ever seen.

Captain of AC Milan – the club for whom he made all 902 of his career appearances – Maldini won five Serie A titles and two European Cups / Champions Leagues during the 90s, finishing third in the 1994 Ballon d’Or.

3. Roberto Baggio

28 November 1993 - Italian Football, Serie A - Internazionale v Juventus - Juventus captain Roberto Baggio holds the match pennant - (Photo by David Davies/Offside via Getty Images)

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In 1993, Roberto Baggio did the double of Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year – before pretty much single-handedly dragging an unremarkable Italy side to the final of the 1994 World Cup.

Of course, Il Divin Codino (The Divine Ponytail) skied the decisive penalty in the shootout against Brazil – but that couldn’t detract from the sheer attacking brilliance he exhibited for Juventus, AC Milan and the Azzurri, among others.

2. Ronaldo

Ronaldo of Brazil

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Ronaldo took the role of the centre-forward to a whole new level with PSV, Barcelona, Inter Milan and Brazil during the 90s, picking up his first of two Ballons d’Or in 1997.

In his one and only season at Barca, O Fenomeno bagged an utterly prolific 47 goals in 49 outings in all competitions – and he might well have inspired Brazil to glory at the 1998 World Cup – where he won the Golden Ball – if not for the seizure which impacted his performance in the final against France.

1. Zinedine Zidane

Zinedine Zidane of France, 1998 World Cup final

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France had many main men as they lifted their maiden World Cup in 1998 on home soil – but Zinedine Zidane was the main man for Les Bleus, just as he was for Juventus between 1996 and the turn of the century.

A magnificently graceful playmaker, Zizou set France on their way to victory with a first-half brace in the final against Brazil.

His efforts throughout the finals ensured he won both the 1998 Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year.

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