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  • Writer's pictureThe Season Ticket

21st Century Greatest Footballers – 45-41

  1. Carles Puyol"I don't have Romario's technique, Overmars' pace or Kluivert's strength. But I work harder than the others." Position: Defender Country: Spain Teams: Barcelona Play word association with a twenty-year-old and the term “Spanish football” will in all likelihood see them launch into a doe-eyed spiel about the tika-taka-beautiful-game-diminutive-playmaker crap that streams out of Andy Townsend’s mouthanus every time he sees Andreas Iniesta control a pass. What these young, beautiful people are missing out on is the previous century in Spain where sweaty, mustachioed men would hack each other apart with such brutal aplomb that the pitch would resemble the Guernica. It is to this tradition more than the artistry commonly associated with La Masia that Carles Puyol belonged. With his rough, caveman-like appearance and battling style, Puyol made sure that the legacies of Migueli and Nadal were just as apparent as those of Guardiola and Cryuff in the triumphs of FC Barcelona and Spain 21st century dominance. As a youngster, Carles did not seem cut out to play for la Blaugrana. He flitted between midfield, forward and even goalkeeping duties and was almost off-loaded several times. Eventually though, he carved out as a niche at full-back under Louis Van Gaal. The diminutive defender would hurl himself into tackles and aerial duels with suicidal abandon. The early 2000s were a rough time for Barcelona as control of La Liga and when good times finally did arrive in 2004, Puyol was there to greet them as captain. Over the coming decade, Puyol, now a centre-half, was a fixture of two (arguably three) of history’s greatest teams. As Messi, Iniesta, Ronaldinho and Villa carved upon the hearts of football fans the world over, Puyol simply got with his job of stopping the opposition and winning the ball back for his all-star colleagues. The resulting trophy haul he enjoyed as a result could have filled Fort Knox. He featured in the Team of the Tournament for both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, scoring the vital winning goal in the semi-final of the latter and conceding no goals in the knock-out rounds of either, as Spain finally burned their underachiever reputation to the ground. Equal parts rabble-rousing mascot as defender, Puyol served as the inspirational figure to several of the 21st century’s greatest football triumphs. Gregory McNally 44. Frank Lampard "When you take a lot of stick, you want to ram it down people's throats." Position: Midfielder Country: England Teams: West Ham, Chelsea, Manchester City, New York FC There is no story in modern football which lends itself better to a cliché-ridden-underdog-overcomes-adversity tale than Frank Lampard. A fat young London boy, maligned by fans and suffocating beneath the weight of his family legacy, learns from a charismatic foreign coach and becomes the cornerstone for the renaissance of a success-starved local club. The only problem is that it isn’t true, strictly speaking. Lampard did endure abuse from fans at times, but it was still clear from the start that the boy was a gem. Lampard’s transfer to Chelsea in 2001 became the catalyst for his long-term development into one of the Premier League’s best midfielders. But it’s not the kind of transformation that lends itself well to a three-minute Rockyesque montage. Lampard had spent years conditioning himself into a lithe athlete with an irrepressible engine, a devotion to team play and an unmatched sense of timing when arriving in the opposition penalty area. Thus, when Jose Mourinho arrived in 2004, he already possessed the midfield dynamo he needed to make his new 4-3-3 system formation. Lampard played every league game in the 2004/05 season, inspiring Chelsea to their first league title in 50 years. Over the next few years, Lampard more than any player encapsulated the spirit with which Chelsea claimed victory after victory, trophy after trophy. He was pragmatic yet explosive when needed. Physically imposing yet technically brilliant. A Double came in 2010 as well as the long-desired capture of the Champion’s League in 2012 with Lampard bearing the armband His detractors may seek to cite a somewhat less successful spell in international football however this seems unfair. Lampard was named in the Team of the Tournament at Euro 2004 and performed admirably in England’s journey to the quarter-finals of the World Cup. There are few who boast more club success than Lampard, the symbol and constant to one of the 21st Century's most decorated club sides. His career may not fit the three-act structure of Hollywood but it still makes for a good story. Gregory McNally

  2. Michael Ballack"We didn't play so badly, but they won quite decisively." Position: Midfielder Country: Germany Teams: Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, Chelsea Back before the German generation that won the 2009 U21 European Championship and then later the 2014 World Cup, Michael Ballack was the last great player of an older generation in Germany. Rather than relying on technical geniuses like Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos today, Germany relied on their old-fashioned traits of steel, passion and of course the clichéd good old German efficiency. In what was a relatively weak era of German football, Ballack was identified as the ‘Fuhrungsspieler’, the leading player, the team’s superman that would save Germany. “They wanted me to win the ball at the back, dominate in the centre, pass to myself in the final third and score the goal,” Ballack lamented about the expectations placed on him to deliver. However, often ‘the little Kaiser’ almost did just that. In 2002, Ballack was as good of an all action midfielder as you can get and led his teams to almost win everything. The star of Bayer Leverkusen, in 2001-02 the German side finished second in Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal, Champions League, while Germany lost to Brazil in the 2002 World Cup final. As German journalist Rafael Hoginstein describes, Ballack wasn’t just the most important player in Germany’s system at that World Cup, he had become the system himself. When he was suspended for the final, Germany were easily second best. Ballack moved onto Bayern Munich and Chelsea where he was a prominent player in teams that won Bundesligas and a Premier League. But Bayern and Chelsea both won the Champions League after he left, Germany the World Cup after he retired. Despite being the perfect midfield all-rounder on his day - with an eye for a pass, powerful shot and aerial presence – he did not win the trophies that he could have won. David Gorman 42. Sergio Ramos "If you dont live, eat, breathe football, then youre not a true football player. You just wear the jersey." Position: Defender Country: Spain Teams: Sevilla, Real Madrid Once famously described by Irish pundit Eamon Dunphy as "Paul McShane on steroids", there is no doubt that Ramos’ playing style has been rash at times. Indeed, he currently holds the record for the most red cards obtained by a Real Madrid player. As Barney Ronay wrote in The Guardian: "The Real Madrid man can make you feel like stabbing yourself in the eye with a skewer in frustration at his horrendous antics, while also gurgling with laughter, and in between purring with pure pleasure at the sheer quality of his football." Despite his flaws, nobody can doubt that Ramos has among the best defenders in the world over the past five years. Aggressive, quick and strong, Ramos is also very capable at starting attacks from the back and indeed, scoring goals. In fact, Ramos may be remembered for his leadership when he retires more than anything, often contributing important goals when Real Madrid needed him most. In the 2014 Champions League, he scored two headers against Bayern Munich to dispatch the reigning champions, then headed home in stoppage time to tie the game against Atletico Madrid in the final as Real went onto win. In 2016, he once again scored in a Champions League final against Atletico Madrid, as Real won. He was named Man of the Match in both finals. As recently as this month, he scored a crucial late equaliser at Camp Nou against Barcelona, which leaves Real well clear in La Liga. It is not a defender’s job to score. But it certainly helps when they are goals that win titles and Ramos is no mug defensively either. His aggressive style leaves himself open to be turned but he often anticipates danger before it has a chance to develop. Ramos has a trophy cabinet the envy of many and has won basically every major club competition he has played in twice (La Liga, Copa del Rey, Champions League, Fifa Club World Cup), as well as two European Championships with Spain and a World Cup win. In Euro 2012, Spain conceded a single goal in the entire tournament with Ramos at the back. He was selected in Team of the Tournament at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, and was selected for the Fifa FIFPro World XI a massive six times. Even if at times these teams can seem like glorified popularity contests, and his role as captain of the biggest club in the world gives him a greater platform, this still shows the kind of regard that Ramos has in the football world. David Gorman

  3. Manuel Neuer"I hate the red carpet. I prefer the green grass." Position: Goalkeeper Country: Germany Teams: Schalke 04, Bayern Munich The common narrative for Manuel Neuer is that he transformed the goalkeeper position into that akin of an extra outfield player. In reality, the trend of goalkeepers veering from their starting position is not a new one in the history of the game, and the crown probably belongs to Gyula Grosics of the Magical Magyar Hungary team of the 1950s who was renowned for ‘playing the role of a fourth back’. The big difference between Neuer and Grosics is that Neuer stands five inches taller. He combines that Grosics-like agility with the rare physical and mental presence of his predecessor for Germany, Oliver Kahn. It makes Neuer into an intimidating figure in the goal, with the knowledge that he can both outmuscle you and outwit you. The powerful German gained worldwide fame after an outstanding World Cup in 2014, where he was arguably player of the tournament. His most notable performance was in the last 16 game against Algeria on the road to victory, where he touched the ball an incredible 19 times outside his area. It is hard to even contemplate how much courage it requires to play such a high-risk game of Beckenbauer-esque sweeping on the biggest stage without the safety net of a goalkeeper behind him. In the very next game, Neuer showed that he wasn’t a wannabe-outfielder one-trick pony either. He was equally impressive against France in a much cagier game, pulling off a crucial save from Karim Benzema as Germany progressed by a single goal. Neuer integrates the goalkeeper with the rest of the team. He is extremely comfortable on the ball and his speed and aggressiveness allow his teams to play high defensive lines, which in turn lead them to play a much more comfortable attacking game. Sure he may seem a bit crazy sometimes, especially when he is tackling on the halfway line or heading a ball away forty metres from his goal. Yet there is a method in his madness. The only way is up for Neuer on this list in the future, who has as much raw potential in the goalkeeping position as anyone in the history of the game. David Gorman <- 50-46 or 40-36 ->

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