With the World Cup in Brazil looming, The Associated Press takes a look at 10 great players in the tournament’s history:
Considered by many the greatest player in football history, Pele won three World Cups with Brazil. He was a teenager when he helped the “Selecao” lift the trophy in 1958, then four years later he won again despite playing only one match because of an injury. Pele’s career was at its peak when he led Brazil to victory in 1970. He remains the only player to win three titles.
Maradona was joint FIFA player of the 20th century with Pele. “El Pibe de Oro” inspired Argentina to victory in the 1986 tournament. The English will never forgive him for his “Hand of God” goal en route to winning in Mexico. And perhaps his own people, the Argentines, will never forgive him for being a terrible national coach four years ago in South Africa. But as a player, Maradona was peerless in his heyday, although drug problems marred the end of his career.
He is the most prolific scorer in World Cups with 15. He was a youngster in the Brazil squad that won the 1994 World Cup, then helped Brazil reach the final both in 1998 and 2002. He had convulsions hours before the 1998 final in France and didn’t play well in a 3-0 loss to the hosts, but four years later in Yokohama he scored twice in the final to give Brazil its fifth world title. Ronaldo’s last World Cup was in 2006.
People who don’t know football remember Zidane for the headbutt that put Marco Materazzi on the floor in the 2006 final. That earned Zidane a red card and an ignominious end to a glorious career. The connoisseurs cherish a player gifted with uncommon skill and technique, coupled with a penchant for big-game goals. The three-time world player of the year helped France win the 1998 World Cup on home soil — scoring on two headers in the final — and the 2000 European Championship. Soon after, he was sold by Juventus to Real Madrid for a then-record fee of $65 million.
Fontaine holds a record that is unlikely to be broken anytime soon: Scoring 13 goals in a single tournament. Fontaine took six games to achieve his feat in 1958 in Sweden, where he was a last-minute inclusion for France. Entering the tournament, the Moroccan-born Fontaine was a little-known forward outside of the French league. Yet he tormented opponents with his speed and finishing touch — and even with someone else’s boots. He had to borrow a pair after damaging his own boots in practice.
Beckenbauer defined the role of libero, and his elegant and effortless style earned him the nickname the Kaiser. Beckenbauer is the only man to captain (in 1974) and coach (1990) a team to the World Cup title. Beckenbauer made 103 appearances for Germany and is considered the football power’s greatest player. He also served as coach and president of Bayern Munich, where he won every available club honor as a player. At 68, he has given up official functions but still works for television and remains vastly popular in Germany.
He never won a World Cup, never was top scorer and played only one final tournament. Yet it was more than enough to turn Johan Cruyff into a World Cup great because less than a handful of the game’s greatest stars combined beauty, speed, vision and elegance like he did. At the 1974 event in West Germany, Cruyff led the Oranje with guile and cockiness as the Netherlands beat teams like Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil with free-flowing “Total Football” to reach the final against the host team. In his finest moment, the lanky playmaker used his dumbfounding body feints and speed to cut through the German defense from the opening kickoff to force a penalty and give the Netherlands the surprise lead. Shockingly, with the cup for the taking, Cruyff and the Dutch machine sputtered and stopped.
Of all the spectacular moments in Eusebio’s two-decade career, perhaps the most memorable was the comeback he inspired by Portugal against North Korea in the quarterfinals of the 1966 event in England. After Portugal fell 3-0 behind, Eusebio scored four goals in just over 30 minutes, demonstrating the athletic prowess and sure-eyed finishing that made him one of the world’s top scorers in the 1960s. Born into poverty in Africa, Eusebio became known as the Black Panther for his agility and hard-charging attacks. He was awarded the Ballon d’Or in 1965, and twice won the Golden Boot – in 1968 and 1973 – for being top scorer in Europe. He died in January.
The only goalkeeper ever voted European footballer of the year, Lev Yashin helped to redefine goalkeeping, producing acrobatic saves and marshalling his defense as few had done before. After bursting onto the international scene with spectacular stops against eventual winner Brazil at the 1958 tournament, he led the Soviet Union to fourth place in 1966, a result the team has yet to better. During a 20-year professional sports career, Yashin’s exceptional reflexes even allowed him to be a multi-sport champion, winning the Soviet Cup ice hockey trophy with Dynamo Moscow.
Regarded by many as the greatest Italian player, Meazza played in two World Cups, and Italy won both. Born and bred in a Milan suburb, the diminutive Meazza was 24 when Italy hosted the tournament in 1934. Used on the right wing rather than his favorite center-forward position, he unsettled defenses with his dribbles and set up the move that led to Angelo Schiavio’s winner in the final against Czechoslovakia. Four years later, his only goal was from the penalty spot against Brazil in the semifinals, his last appearance in an Italy shirt. AC Milan and Inter renamed their venue Stadio Giuseppe Meazza (better known as San Siro) after his death in 1979.
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