The best of the best
In this slideshow, we count down the best 25 players we've had the privilege of clapping eyes on since our debut issue launched.
25. Gianluigi Buffon
After an underwhelming single season at PSG, Buffon is back at Juventus and looking to add to his 656 senior appearances for Italy's most successful club. He's already won seven Serie A titles and five Coppas Italia (one with Parma, where he was also victorious in the UEFA Cup), and although the Champions League has hitherto eluded him, Buffon can console himself with a World Cup winner's medal from 2006.
Arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time, he's definitely the best FourFourTwo has seen in the last quarter of a century. Now 41, the 2019/20 campaign is likely to be his last.
24. Sergio Ramos
A man who's unlikely to win many popularity contests outside of (and even within) Madrid, Ramos is nonetheless a superb centre-back who's won the lot. An integral part of the Spain team that dominated Europe and the world between 2008 and 2012 - first as a right-back, then in the heart of the defence - the tough tackler has also scooped four La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues in his time.
He's a man for the big occasion too, having scored numerous vital goals for Madrid - most notably a last-gasp equaliser to force extra time in the 2014 Champions League Final against Atletico Madrid.
Quite simply one of the most gifted centre-forwards to ever play the game. After beginning his career at Vasco da Gama, Romario made his name on this side of the Atlantic with PSV, for whom he struck an absurd 127 goals in 142 appearances.
That phenomenal haul brought a move to Barcelona, where Romario duly broke the 30-goal barrier in his debut campaign. He only lasted a few more months at the Camp Nou, though, a falling-out with manager Johan Cruyff pushing him back to Brazil.
He received a hero's welcome upon return for helping his country win its fourth World Cup in 1994, and by the time of his retirement he'd scored 55 times in 70 games for the Seleção.
22. Paul Scholes
There's a belief these days that Scholes was underrated in England, and frequently misused by a national team in awe of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. That isn't really the case, not least because it casts Scholes as a deep-lying, metronomic midfielder for the bulk of his time at Manchester United.
In fact, the strawberry-blond academy product was a box-to-box operator in his earlier years; only in his 30s did he become more 'give' than 'go'. Scholes was fantastic in both roles, helping Alex Ferguson's side win 11 Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues.
Pre-Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul was unrivalled in Europe. In 2005 he was the first player to hit 50 goals in the European Cup, remaining its top scorer until 2014, and he won the trophy three times too while amassing a record 741 Real Madrid appearances.
“Raul may not be 10 out of 10 in anything,” said Fernando Hierro, “but he’s nine-and-a-half at absolutely everything.”
20. Sergio Busquets
He rarely hogs the headlines – few holding midfielders do – but Busquets has quietly accumulated one World Cup, one European Championship, a trio of Champions Leagues and seven La Liga titles.
His slick passing and astute positioning has proved integral to arguably the two best teams of the modern era. Once grossly underrated, it’s now rare to find a football fan who doesn’t appreciate Busquets’s talent – even if they do so begrudgingly.
19. Luka Modric
“Give the ball to Modric,” was Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham tactic – and it worked. Good things happen when the midfielder is in possession; that’s why he’s won four Champions League trophies in five years, helped Croatia to a surprise World Cup final appearance and won the Ballon d’Or after 10 years of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Last season suggested that the 33-year-old’s best days are behind him, but for a time there was no one better at dictating a game from the centre of the park.
18. Eric Cantona
No player in the Premier League era has had as huge a transformative effect on a club as Cantona at Manchester United, although the first two seasons of his Old Trafford career fall just outside our 25-year cut-off point.
He was still mightily influential from 1994 onwards, though, scoring 19 goals in all competitions as United won the double in 1995/96. That represented a remarkable recovery for a man who had been banned for eight months for kung-fu kicking a Crystal Palace fan at Selhurst Park, an act the Frenchman didn’t seem to regret. “I should have hit him harder,” he told FourFourTwo in 2016.
17. Gabriel Batistuta
Wembley, October 27, 1999. Batistuta shifts the ball to his right, then hammers a thunderbolt into the top corner from an impossible angle. This Champions League goal for Fiorentina against Arsenal epitomised Batigol’s career – as a goalscorer, he was unstoppable.
No other player in history has scored a hat-trick at two World Cup finals, and Lionel Messi is the only Argentinian in history to have scored more often for the Albiceleste.
16. Luis Figo
After five successful years at Barcelona which brought two La Liga titles, two Copas del Rey and a Cup Winners’ Cup, Figo did the natural thing and… joined Real Madrid. It was a sensational transfer, and it’s testament to Figo’s mental strength as well as his incredible ability that he was able to thrive on both sides of the Clasico divide.
And thrive he did, the winger adding one Champions League and two more La Liga medals to his collection. He wasn’t done there either, rounding off his career by scooping four Serie A championships with Inter.
15. Wayne Rooney
Did Wazza live up to all that early-career promise? Probably not. Does that matter? Definitely not.
Among the most naturally gifted players English football has produced, Rooney should be remembered as the primal juggernaut who first announced himself against Arsenal as a teenager or the more nuanced centre-forward he became. Remember the name.
Unexpectedly quick, Kaka glided over the pitch with the grace of a gazelle and the vision and intellect of a footballing nuclear physicist.
His assist for Hernan Crespo to put Milan 3-0 at half-time in the 2005 Champions League Final is a contender for the greatest pass of all time: it took four players out of the game, having already turned Steven Gerrard inside out. A Rolls-Royce playmaker.
13. Ryan Giggs
The numbers alone are staggering. A youth team graduate, Giggs played 963 matches for Manchester United, scoring in every Premier League season between 1992/93 and 2012/13, and winning no fewer than 13 Premier League titles (plus two Champions Leagues, four FA Cups and three League Cups).
He did so as two very different players, too: first, as a tricky, quick-footed left winger; then as a thoughtful, deep-lying central midfielder. His appearance record for United will surely never be broken.
12. Fabio Cannavaro
You have to be some player to win the Ballon d’Or as a defender (none have managed it since Cannavaro in 2006) and to go up against Serie A’s offensive brutes at 5ft 9in and emerge victorious.
Cannavaro was just that: an incredible reader of the game who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time – fast, technical and one step ahead of the most skilful opponent. As Italy’s most capped captain, Cannavaro’s greatest glory arrived in the summer of 2006, as he led the Azzurri to World Cup victory in Germany.
As the 1990s drew to a breathless end, the bow-legged Barcelona winger was probably the best player in the world – something that was recognised by virtually everyone except his manager at the time, Louis van Gaal.
Strong and skilful, Rivaldo combined the balance of a ballet dancer with an assassin’s killer instinct. He had absolutely everything. Except a right foot. Most of the time, he didn’t even need that.
10. Roberto Baggio
Unfortunately, the Divine Ponytail will always be known for blazing Italy’s crucial spot-kick over the bar in the 1994 World Cup Final, handing the trophy to Brazil. It affected him for years.
It’s a tremendous shame, because Baggio was one of history’s most technically blessed attacking midfielders – a playmaking grandmaster for Juventus, Milan and the Azzurri. When he was on song, he possessed a cutting edge and vision that can only be defined as genius, sometimes on a parallel with Diego Maradona.
9. Paolo Maldini
A one-club man, Maldini made 902 appearances during his 24-year Milan career – and you don’t do that unless you’re a world-class operator. Phenomenal at both left-back and centre-half, the handsome Italian won seven Serie A titles and five Champions Leagues at San Siro, the latter haul placing him joint-second on the all-time list behind only Paco Gento.
Maldini didn’t quite reach the same heights at international level, finishing as a runner-up at the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000. He’d hung up his boots by the time of Italy’s against-the-odds triumph in 2006, but he’s still Italy’s second-most capped outfielder.
8. Andres Iniesta
Appropriately nestled beside his club-and-country soulmate Xavi on our list, as he was in his pomp, Iniesta embodied a style of football responsible for the sport’s biggest sea-change since FourFourTwo’s inception: a receive-pass-offer-pass doctrine that conquered all for Barcelona and Spain.
Iniesta was more than just a possession blueprint pioneer, mind: he’d ping perfect long balls as well as those laser-guided short passes, dribble aggressively and always be tactically savvy.
Few players define an era quite like Xavi, the beating heart of the Barcelona and Spain sides which dominated European and world football in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
A midfield metronome who rarely gave the ball away, Xavi was the man who set the tempo of his team’s hypnotic play for both club and country. A winner of eight La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues, the World Cup and two European Championships, he’s arguably the greatest Spaniard to have ever played the game.
6. Thierry Henry
When Arsenal paid £11m in 1999 to sign a young winger who'd been struggling for game time at Juventus, even the most passionate members of the In Arsene We Trust brigade might have some harboured some doubts. Even Wenger himself surely didn't realise he'd just signed a man who would go on to become the greatest Arsenal player of all time.
Henry was a sensation in north London, a quick, skilful, charismatic forward who excelled after being re-deployed centrally by his manager. The Frenchman scored 226 times during an Arsenal career which brought the club two Premier League titles and two FA Cups, and Henry the honour of being the best player in Premier League history.
Blame the pooch. “As a kid, I honed my dribbling with my dog,” Ronaldinho told FFT in 2012. “When my friends got tired, he ran after the ball.” That mutt assisted in creating possibly the best technician in the history of football in Brazil. Brazil!
Juninho declared Ronny “the most skilful player I’ve ever seen,” adding: “There was no end to his tricks.” He did them at top speed, too, which felt almost disrespectful. It all added up to winner’s medals at the World Cup and in the Champions League, La Liga and more, even if he will be remembered for that other Brazilian cliché: playing with a big, toothy grin.
Pele is probably the only man who can justifiably claim to have had as big an impact on the game at such a young age. Former Cruzeiro sharp-shooter Ronaldo redefined bursting onto the scene at PSV, for whom he scored an outrageous 54 goals in 57 games as a teenager.
Such a talent for introducing ball to net brought a move to Barcelona, where Ronaldo picked up where he left off with 47 strikes in 49 matches. He was never quite the same after suffering a series of knee injuries around the turn of the century, but the Brazilian still inspired his country to glory at the 2002 World Cup and won two La Liga titles at Real Madrid thereafter.
3. Zinedine Zidane
Many younger Real Madrid fans will know Zidane only as the man who won three Champions League trophies as the club's manager, which certainly isn't a bad reputation to have. Yet the Frenchman means so much more to Madrid and football as a whole, such were his remarkable gifts as a player.
An elegant attacking midfielder who could both create and convert, Zidane established himself as one of the world's best during five years at Juventus. He spent the same amount of time at Madrid, where he added a La Liga title and Champions League to his honours list having won two Serie A crowns with the Bianconeri; the playmaker also inspired France to glory at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, before taking them so close to another triumph at the 2006 World Cup.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
On more than one occasion in the last few years, observers have opined that Ronaldo's career is about to wind down. Instead, the Portugal international continues to confound expectations, and it still among the world's best at the ripe old age of 34.
Having transformed from fancy-dan winger to ruthless goalscoring machine at Manchester United, Ronaldo took his game to even greater heights at Real Madrid, where he notched a frankly ludicrous 450 goals in 438 games. He enjoyed plenty of collective success too, winning two La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues before last summer's move to Juventus.
1. Lionel Messi
What more is there to say? The greatest player of FourFourTwo's 25 years also has as good a claim as any to the all-time crown, having paired brilliance with consistency to a degree we've rarely seen before.
Messi has scored 603 goals in 687 games for Barcelona, but such statistics always feels a little reductive when it comes to summarising his influence. Not just a scorer of goals, not just a creator of chances and not just a world-class passer and dribbler, Messi is all of the above and more. The Champions League has proved elusive in recent years but he's still won the competition four times, while his 10 La Liga triumphs put him two behind record-holder Paco Gento. Simply the best.
Greg Lea is a freelance football journalist who's filled in wherever FourFourTwo needs him since 2014. He became a Crystal Palace fan after watching a 1-0 loss to Port Vale in 1998, and once got on the scoresheet in a primary school game against Wilfried Zaha's Whitehorse Manor (an own goal in an 8-0 defeat).
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