So last week we delivered the first part of this double feature where we lined Cristiano Ronaldo up alongside some of the Premier League’s very best forwards from years past. Here then is the follow-up piece, with a few choice selections from Europe during the Premier League years, as well as some players from your Dad’s days. Obviously this could have gone on indefinitely so we tried to be as strict as possible in our selection process, focusing primarily just on attacking players. Obviously there have been some spectacular defenders and goalkeepers in the past, but it seemed a bit unfair to compare them to Ronaldo and the other guys on here simply because they wouldn’t always have the sheer stats to back it up. If we’ve missed anyone really pertinent however, please feel free to leave us something glib and condescending in the comment box at the end of the article…
George Weah (1994 – 1995)
A great man in more ways than one, Weah was not just an incredible footballer but also a genuine philanthropist and a politician. He was playing professionally before I was even born, but it was under Arsene Wenger at Monaco in the late-80s that Weah started to become the legend he is now. A spell at PSG followed, but in his five years at AC Milan between 1995 and 2000, he was elevated to very upper echelons of world football alongside most of the guys that will follow here. In 1995, he was named African Footballer of the Year, and also became the only African to win both FIFA World Player of the Year and European Footballer of the Year awards. In 1999 he was voted African Footballer of the Century, joining Pele (South American Footballer of the Century) and Johan Cruyff (European Footballer of the Century) as the very best of the best. Here then are some of his Milan highlights, with one of the greatest goals in history appearing at about 2:15 -
Alvaro Recoba (1996 – 1997)
Almost certainly the best player you’ve never heard of, Recoba is universally considered to be one of the most naturally talented footballers of all time, but for one reason or another, never really made the most of his gift. He made his debut in his native Uruguay at just 17 and then in his first full season that followed, he netted a spectacular 27 times in just 30 games for the Nacional side. This earned him a move to Inter Milan he following year, where he stayed for a decade on and off, slowing fading into the background amidst passport fraud, falling out with the management and general laziness. He did do this in his debut for the Italian giants however, two of the greatest goals ever scored in Serie A:
Ronaldo (1996 – 1997)
And starting alongside Recoba at Inter in 1997 was this man. Following a spell at PSV Eindhoven where he netted 55 times in 57 official games, Ronaldo was snapped up by Barcelona. He played for Barca 49 times (including appearances in the Copa del Rey and European Cup Winners Cup), scoring 47 goals in total, leading the Catalan side to UEFA Cup Winners' Cup triumph. More than a decade on, Ronaldo is still the last man to score 30 goals in a La Liga season, and despite impressive times at both Milan clubs and Real Madrid, it was this one season at the Nou Camp that resonates as nothing but simply breath-taking. You can see every goal he scored for Barce here:
Andriy Shevchenko (1999 – 2000)
Shevchenko joined A.C. Milan from Dynamo Kiev in 1999 for a then-record transfer fee of $25 million. He became the first foreign player to win the Serie A scoring title in his debut season, finishing with an impressive 24 goals in 32 matches against the world’s most famously stringent defences. Several of Sheva’s seasons at Milan qualified for selection here, but this debut year is made all the more impressive due to the huge shift from the Ukranian league to the Italian. Here’s a compilation from his years at Milan; remind yourself of when he used to be really, really good:
Henrik Larsson (2000 – 2001)
In a total of seven years at Celtic, Larsson scored 242 goals in 315 matches. That’s pretty good figures. But in this season Larsson really pushed on, not just impressing against the traditionally-weak Scottish defences, but impressing throughout Europe. HHHe won the European Golden Boot award for being the whole continent's most prolific goal scorer with 35 league goals just for starters; his total in all competitions that season was a staggering 53. His goal-scoring feats on the continent for Celtic are such that he holds the record for number of goals scored for a club from the British Isles in European matches. He will go down in history alongside Martin O’Neill for helping Celtic to reverse a run of nine-straight Rangers Scottish League titles, check out some choice highlights for yourself here:
Zinidine Zidane (2001 – 2002)
In 2001, Zidane joined Real Madrid from Juventus for a world-record €76 million. He enjoyed a steady run of success on the individual and team fronts, beginning with a spectacular winning volley in the 2002 UEFA Champions League final. For about three years he was by far the most talented player in the world, running past anyone with ease and picking passes that simply weren’t on. The next season, Real Madrid won the European Super Cup, and Zidane was named FIFA World Player of the Year for the third time, joining Ronaldo as the only other three-time winner of the award. Obviously you don’t need me to tell you he is one of the greatest players that will ever play the game, but in case you needed reminding, watch this video and set your jaw to ‘drop:’
Ronaldinho (2005 – 2006)
In the season Barcelona won the Champions League, Ronaldinho was undoubtedly the lynch-pin, carrying the team to La Liga and European Cup success. It seems pointless to describe why he was so good because like ZZ before him, and like Cristiano Ronaldo now, he was the complete attacking package; sublime dribbling, footwork that defies physics and lethal shooting off both feet. Within a year Ronnie won FIFPro World Player of the Year (voted by fellow players), the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year. Since this season its been a slow descend into mediocrity and unrest, but remember him here for what he once was:
And going back a little bit further in time…
Dixie Dean (1927 – 1928)
The only man in history to score 60 goals in a season; in his 399 appearances for Everton over a spell of 12 years, he is reported to have netted 349 times. Most remarkably, around 50% of these goals were scored with headers, and remember, these were the days when the ball weighed as much as pubescent child.
Stanley Matthews (1952 – 1953)
Winning the FA Cup in a match dubbed ‘the Matthews Final’ with Blackpool was the highlight, but accolades poured down upon the great man for about a decade. He won the inaugural Football Writers' Association Footballer of the Year award the year before, and the first-ever European Footballer of the Year (Balon d'Or) award two seasons later, but this was the year that Matthews marked his place in history.
Alfredo di Stefano (1956 – 1957)
From 1956 to 1960, Real Madrid won five consecutive European Cups, and the man that spear-headed this dominance was an Argentine gentlemen nick-named the Blond Arrow. Di Stefano is still the leading Real scorer of all time (216 goals in 282 league matches between 1953 and 1964), and the third highest scorer in La Liga history. In the season in question, Senor di Stefano won World Soccer Player of the Year, European Footballer of the Year, Spanish Athlete of the Year as well as La Liga’s top goal-scoring trophy, the Pichichi.
Pele (1961 – 1962)
It’s pretty difficult to nail down one season where Pele stood out because his whole career basically qualifies. We went for this season though just because his club Santos won four of the six major South American competitions (Campeonato Paulista, Taça Brasil, Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup), as well as Brazil securing their second consecutive World Cup. In all competitions, including International friendlies, Pele netted 52 times in 60 games that season. No wonder he’s considered the greatest to ever kick a ball.
Eusebio (1965 – 1966)
Undoubtedly one of the greatest footballers of all time, Eusebio is legendary throughout the world. He was the 1965 European Footballer of the Year, finishing top scorer of the Portuguese League as he helped Benefica to yet another title, while his goals also dragged the club to the European Cup final. In the late-60s, Eusebio won basically everything there is to win with Benefica, as well as finishing with the World Cup’s Golden Boot in 1966. In total he scored 727 goals in 715 matches wearing Benfica's jersey, including 317 goals in 301 Portuguese league matches. That is absolutely incredible.
Johan Cruyff (1971 – 1972)
As previously mentioned, Cruyff was voted alongside Pele and Weah as Players of the Century. And with good reason. Not only did he (obviously) invent the Cruyff turn, but he also brought the concept of Total Football to the forefront, propelling his home club of Ajax to their second European Cup in history, beating Inter in the final with Cruyff scoring both goals. Cruyff also scored in the victory over FC Den Haag in the KNVB Cup final (the equivalent of the FA Cup) while also netting 25 league goals as Ajax won the championship and completed the treble.
Ian Rush (1983 – 1984)
Having picked up the PFA Young Player of the Year award the previous season, Rush shone as Liverpool continued their unparalleled dominance of the country and Europe in general. The Scousers retained both the League and the League Cup, while also picking up their fourth European Cup in history. On a personal level, Rush won the PFA Player of the Year, the Football Writers’ Player of the Year, and the European Golden Boot; not a bad return for his 32 goals in 41 league games, and 47 goals in 65 matches in total.
Michel Platini (1983 – 1984)
Ok so our current UEFA president could play a bit in his day. For three years he won the Ballon d’Or during his time at Juventus, but it was this first season in Italy where he really shone. In this one year he carried Juve to the Italian championship, the European Cup Winners' Cup and the European Super Cup, while he himself finished Serie A top scorer, and collected the European Footballer of the Year and World Soccer overall Player of the Year. In other words, he was amazing.
Diego Maradona (1985 – 1986)
Underlined by carrying his country to World Cup victory at the end of the playing year, for his club Napoli, Maradona was operating on another plain this season. He averaged a goal every other game and subsequently won the Argentine Sports Writers' Sportsman of the Year, World Player of the Year, and the World Cup’s Golden Ball. Napoli won the league and cup double, which kind of justified their then-record fee of £6.9million.
Marco van Basten (1991 – 1992)
Under some guy you might’ve heard of called Fabio Capello in the early 90s, AC Milan went 58 games undefeated, and van Basten netted 25 times for the Italian giants in this incredible season. Alongside similarly sensational countrymen Ruud Gullet and Frank Rijkaard in 1992, van Basten was named European Footballer of the Year for the third time, and also FIFA World Player of the Year. In many ways however this was his swan-song, as just a few games into the following season a recurrence of an old ankle injury kept him sidelined. He played the odd game here and there afterwards for Milan before finally admitting defeat in 1995.
More (in no particular order) that didn’t quite make the cut…Just Fontaine, Terry Bly, Raymond Kopa, Arthur Rowley, Kevin Hector, Gerd Muller John Atyeo, Ferenc Puskas, Brian Laudrup, Raul Gonzalez, Hristo Stoichkov, Ruud Gullet, Jimmy Greaves, Roberto Baggio, Romario, Gabriel Batistuta, Alessandro del Piero
So, I think you’ll agree that’s pretty comprehensive. As I said earlier, if we’ve missed off your favourite player and/or most memorable individual season, then drop us a line, and if the response is big enough we might even put together a Part Three in the near future.
But we are still left with that burning question: was Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance last season the greatest of all time? Obviously there are so many external factors to take into consideration, and clearly football in the late 1920s was considerably different (in terms of attacking style, athleticism, pace etc) to how it is now, but the facts still remain. Personally, the one that resonates most with me is the other Ronaldo; if you haven’t already, I encourage you to watch both above videos of the great Brazilian during his time at the Nou Camp. For several years he was basically the perfect forward, with incomparable pace and power topped off with the ability to score with any part of his body. Add to that his trickery, movement and lethal knack of shooting early and you have the greatest individual season in history. Fact.
At the end of the day, the sheer fact that at just 23-years-old we are comparing Cristiano with literally the greatest players of all time could not pay more of a compliment to the Portuguese winger. But what also ties these other guys together is their consistency, so there’s no way we can talk about his place in history alongside the likes of Cruyff and Pele just yet. That comes with season after season of success, both at club and international level, as well as the desire to push themselves further by risking transfers to different leagues for different challenges. At this time, Cristiano has as much potential as anyone in history perhaps, but he must mature his style of play to do the simple things well when called upon, and also prepare to start contributing significantly more in the big games. A move to Spain or Italy would also be a serious gauge of his talent in the near future, as then we will truly see whether it’s top 50 of all time, or top 5…