Thursday, January 17, 2008

European 1990s XI

I buy a lot of football magazines. What I don't buy, I tend to leaf through in shops and read for free. I was reading one I'd never seen before - some sort of Premiership 1990s special that went through that decade, Season by Season - in a shop the other day, and it posited a Premiership XI from the 1990s. This, you'll agree, is an irresistable idea. Best enjoyed in the company of some opinionated Football fans of differing views, but enjoyable and provocative even in the dry pages of a glossy nostalgia football magazine. It is a great team, too, and I find it hard to disagree with a single player:

GK: Schmeichel

Defence: Dixon Adams McGrath Pearce

Midfield: LeTissier Keane Gascoine Giggs

Forwards: Cantona Shearer

Alright, I might include Denis Irwin instead of Lee Dixon, if pushed, and always believed Paul Gascoine was a supremely overrated player, but it is hard to think of a top quality alternative to play in the creative position in Central Midfield from the 1990s. Glenn Hoddle is more of a player of the 1980s, Scholes of the 2000s, and the only other players I can think of who could play there are Zola and Gary McAllister. So Gascoine can stay too. Otherwise, its hard to imagine many teams breaching that defence because with Keane patrolling in front of Adams and McGrath, theres not a weak link in sight. The midfield, Keane's destructive capabilities aside, is full of creativity and genius, with goals coming from all four players. And that forward line would terrify Claudio Gentile - each player a terrific mix of brawn and skill, Cantona dropping into the hole, Shearer playing on the shoulder.

But I think I can just possibly come up with a better 1990s XI. In the 1990s, of course, Serie A was pre-eminent. Juventus and Milan were Europe's dominant clubs and South Americans, Scandinavians, Germans and Dutch players all went to Italy to play their football. Spain's Primera Liga was beginning the rise that woud see it become perhaps the continent's dominant league - neck and neck with Premier League - in the new Century. And France, Holland and Portugal still produced their fair share of decent teams. So my 1990s XI will be drawn from across Europe, excluding the Premiership. Whereas the Premiership team is an obvious 4-4-2, my team would play 4-1-2-1-2, with a holding midfielder, two wingers and a playmaker at the apex of a midfield diamond. Gotta have a playmaker. I think its quite a handy little team:

GOALKEEPER : Jose Luis Chilavert

This was probably the hardest position to fill, apart from Number 10. Peter Schmeichel was so obviously the World's greatest Goalkeeper during the 1990s that he overshadows all of his rivals. Oliver Kahn came close, but he really only rose to proper International prominance near the end of the decade. Walter Zenga is almost exactly the opposite, his career defined by his exploits in the 1980s and slipping from the spotlight in the 90s. The likes of Edwin Van der Sar, Fabian Barthez and Marcel Preudhomme were never quite excellent enough for such a spot. But Jose Luis Chilavert was. The 6"4 Paraguayan played only briefly in Europe during the decade - for Zaragoza from 1988-1991 (he came back to Strasbourg in 2000-2002) - but that creates enough of a loophole for me to exploit adroitly. Chilavert had a massive personality and he was agile and dominant in the air, while also an excellent shot-stopper. What he would add to this team that none of his contempories could is Goalscoring ability. In all, he scored 37 goals over the course of his career, 8 of them for Paraguay, most from free kicks and penalties. He once scored a hat trick for Velez Sarsfield. Here's a video of his goalscoring exploits, including one from his own half against River Plate. Not a save in sight, though, but you'll just have to trust me, he was a good Keeper:


The fact that he's the most-capped Brazilian player of all time (with 156 caps) says it all about the man Roma fans christened "Il Pendolino" (The Express Train) because of the way he shuttled up and down the wing from his area to the oppositions all game. Stupendously fit and pacy, he also possessed a beautiful first touch and silky dribbling ability, which enabled him to drive his side on down the right, from where he supported attacks and sent in some lovely crosses. His stamina and timing in the tackle made him an excellent defender, combative in the challenge and stubborn as a marker. But that relentless drive forwards is what makes him (hes still playing at 38) a special player, and the original of a certain type more common in the game now than in the last decade. He has become an adjective. Attacking fullbacks - from Danniel Alves to Alan Hutton - are now routinely referred to as Cafu-esque, the ultimate compliment for that position. This video shows just about all of his talents:

LEFT BACK: Paolo Maldini

After the first leg of last year's Champions League Semi-Final at Old Trafford between Manchester United and AC Milan, Sir Alex Ferguson commented appreciatively on Paolo Maldini that he had played the entire match without making a single tackle. Fergie was applauding Maldini's peerless reading of the game, his ability to see danger before it developed and snuff it out at source. This is the kind of vision the great defenders tend to gain with experience, and it may compensate for the losses they suffer in pace and agility as their careers wear on. Maldini was born with such vision. Perhaps its because hes from a football family, with his father, Cesare, also a respected Italian player and Coach. Perhaps football really is in some players blood. The richness of Maldini's blood is such that he has become Italys most-capped player, has played in Eight Champions League Finals, and was the first defender to win World Soccer's Player of the Year Award, in 1994. He began his career as a left back, then moved to Centre Half, and has switched back and forth ever since. In his prime he had every asset a defender needs - in addition to the aforementioned vision, he was strong and pacy, good in the air, hard in the tackle, and always assured on the ball. No winger would fancy playing against Maldini and no right back would fancy having to track his driving runs upfield, either. He is also a fantastic leader and inspirational Captain, and would weigh in with his share of goals, many of them belters, as this video demonstrates:

CENTRE BACK: Franco Baresi

If Maldini possessed that defensive vision, that ability to sense danger, then Baresi was the very personification of it. He never seemed flustered, never seemed hurried. He never even seemed to have to sprint, moving across the pitch in a light jog, timing his tackles with the judgement and grace of a pickpocket. He was nearing the end of his playing career as the decade began and his experience and knowledge were immense - he would play 532 games for Milan, winning six league titles and three European Cups. He played in two World Cups for Italy (that would have been 3 if he had not refused to play for Coach Enzo Bearzot in 1986). His playing style was that of a Beckenbauer-style Libero. He generally operated behind the defensive line, tidying up, directing operations and picking passes. He was an inspirational captain, and Milan hold him in such high regard that they retired the No 6 shirt when he gave it up, in 1994 at the age of 37. He still works there, as a Youth Team Coach, and you get the feeling that some day soon he'll return as First Team Coach.
One final quality I remember him possessing, in common with many great Italian defenders - he was quite dirty. But extremely clever about it. His fouling was always "professional", almost subtle, never needless.
He wasn't exactly renowned for his goalscoring but this video features quite a lot of that nevertheless, alongside some perfectly timed tackling and a few nice little fouls:

CENTRE BACK: Fernando Hierro

In contrast, Hierro had an incredible goalscoring record for a Centre-Half. 439 games for Real Madrid played, 102 goals scored. From Central defence. 89 Spanish caps, 29 goals scored. From Central Defence. He was fantastic in the air, was part of it, leaping prodigiously and powering the ball goalwards with that thick necked, broad-shouldered force his general physical grace seemed to belie. But he was a beautiful ball-player, too, with a tremendous range of passing, an ability to make space for himself in the thick of things and a lovely first touch. He took - and scored from - many of Real Madrid's free-kicks and penalties. He was so good creatively that Sam Allardice used him as a defensive midfielder, rather in the mode of a Quarter-Back, during his final season at Bolton Wanderers. Of course, he excelled in the position. As a defender, he would be the animal to Baresi's artist - doing the dirty work, winning the headers, covering the ground. But they are both leaders, and any forward line would be intimidated by them.
This goal is a great demonstration of his technical ability:


I wrote about Redondo before, in my very first football post on this blog. Having such a strong Defensive line behind him would liberate him to a great extent, and he could boss midfield all game, sending those beautifully angled little passes through to the toes of his playmaker, playing one-twos, going on little dribbles. But not much would get past him going the other way.
Time and again in this video we see him go by players with a little trick, a swerve. He was an Argentine player, after all. But who amongst the candidates for the leading defensive midfielders in World Football today displays a similar skill level when on the ball? Makelele? Mascherano? Toure? Nobody. Of his peers in this position, the only one I really considered was Matthias Sammer. But Redondo was a class act:

LEFT WING: Hristo Stoitchkov

He sometimes played up front, but he was originally (and best deployed as) a winger. On the wing, his explosive pace and high-speed dribbling propelled him past reeling full backs, and his distance shooting made him an unpredictable opponent. His goals were generally spectacular, like his tantrums, his arguments with opponents and officials, and his free kicks. He was a scowling, passionate force of nature. He won European Footballer of the Year in 1994 and was joint top scorer at the 1994 World Cup, when he led Bulgaria to the semi-finals. On his day, he was virtually unplayable:


When I first became properly aware of Luis Figo (this was back in the days before you could watch football from just about every conceivable European League if you subscribed to the right satellite channels, back when you had to wait until they were paired with British teams to see some European Giants in action. Unless they were Italian, in which case they were on Channel 4) I really hated him. He seemed to dive more than any other player I had ever watched. He was constantly tumbling, tripping, rolling, getting up with a look at the referee, a wagged finger at an opponent. It seemed gamesmanship. But it wasn't really. He did go to ground easily, but then he got kicked all the time. His style relied on dribbling skill, on his ability to make an oponent look stupid, and many retaliated for their humiliation by hacking at his legs. Figo went down to protect himself and because he had to go down. Another part of that hatred was fear - it was obvious what a great player he was, how constantly dangerous, and when he played against a team I liked, I feared his effect on the game. He's still playing, so I won't go into his huge list of honours, because he'll likely add to it this year.
He always combined a massive heart and workrate with his sublime skill, and never seemed to fear the often outrageous tackles he suffered. He wouldn't offer very much defensively to this team, but then why should he, when he could contribute skills like this:


The Number 10. There were so many high-quality playmakers and attacking midfielders, inside forwards and link forwards in European football in the 1990s that I found it really dificult to pick just one. As you'll see from my next choice. For example, any of these players could have easily played in this team: Hagi, Savicevic, Rui Costa, Del Piero, Laudrup, Rivaldo, Effenberg, Scifo, Ortega, the start of the decade Maradona was still playing in Europe, but his very best years were behind him. So, instead it must be Zizou, who was pretty much indisputably the greatest player in the world for a few years in the late 90s and into the early years of this century. Do I really have to write up his catalogue of attributes? That caress of a touch, the outrageous vision, his ability to glide into space...I once read a quote about Maradona that said that when he played near his potential, he made it seem as if the other 21 men on the pitch were playing one game while he was playing another one entirely. Zidane, at his best, approached similar heights. His teammates often resorted to just giving him the ball and hoping he would do somethiing extraordinary. And he did, many times. Like the great playmakers, he was particularly adept at finding space where there seemingly was none. He would recieve the ball with a marker in close attendance, often two, then his feet would move, a swirl, a flick, all in a blur, and he had a yard, somehow. Enough time to pick out and deliver a pass nobody else had seen or launch himself on a run, dragging defenders into areas they prefer not to go in.
He scored big goals, too, important goals. That volley in the Champions League final in Glasgow for Real Madrid. Two goals in the 98 World Cup final in Paris. He was a big game player. He could carve open any defence.
This video focuses more on the "performing seal" aspects of his play than the excellent passing and setting of a tempo he was master of, but it has some awesome moments:

FORWARD: Roberto Baggio

The player who came closest to stealing Zidane's Number 10 shirt was the little Italian schemer, the Divine Ponytail himself. He was probably the World's Greatest Player in the years between the decline of Maradona and the rise of Zizou, and he almost singlehandedly dragged Italy to the final of the 1994 World Cup. He was both European and World Player of the Year in 1993, won Serie A with both Juventus and Milan as well as the two minor European Cups with Juve. He generally played a little further forward than Zidane and scored more poacher's goals, but was equally adept at dropping into midfield and linking play, building attacks with his acute passing and elusive dribbling. His technique was matchless, his vision and spirit at a similar level. I remember the excitement of his emergence at Italia 90, his class and stature obvious even then - you can generally tell when a major new player has arrived. Baggio was certainly one.
He could play in a two man forward line, he and Zidane alternating position and confusing centre backs with their movement and interplay while the other frontman, more of a spearhead, would have to be able to take on defenders on his own or hold the ball up. Baggio, scoring some awesome goals:

FORWARD: Ronaldo

He was nicknamed "The Phenomenon". There is no hyperbole in that name. At his brief peak, before injuries, psychological and commercial pressures and his own gluttony began to affect him, Ronaldo was an amazing player, almost unstoppable. In his single Season at Barcelona, he scored 34 goals in 37 games. And if there exists the suspicion that he never quite reached his potential, then that is only a sign of just how enormous his potential was. He won two World Cups and three World Player of the Year awards. Not bad for a player playing below his potential.
He was a new kind of forward. He would get the ball, take it beyond defenders with his exceptional pace and close control, then bury it. He could shoot from long distance with incredible accuracy and power. He got tap-ins, headers. He dribbled around goalkeepers, placed first time balls in corners. He was a goalscorer, but so much more. Defences were terrified of that raw pace, the way he could spring beyond them as if they weren't there.
Running onto the kind of delivery that Baggio and Zidane could provide, he would score many goals.
This short video is purely of his Barca season, but is a reminder of how incredible he was in his youth, when he still bounded along, three or four defenders in a cloud around him. What a player:

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