Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff emerge as greatest forwards of all time in tiered rankings

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Diego Maradona

Forwards have brought life to the phrase a “Beautiful Game”.

This invigorating role requires sublime skills and complete vision. Its finest protagonists also boost a telling influence and punishing consistency.

From the pugnacious street fighter Diego Maradona to the complete Ruud Gullit and unbounded creativity of Johan Cruyff, they come in various guises.

Using only retired players, we’ve reviewed the all-time greats.



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Potentially, the greatest player to ever kick a football. Unquestionably, the sport’s most-gripping personality.

Maradona beguiled with his preternatural ball control and enraged with his controversial antics – on and off the pitch. Tellingly, he remains nothing short of transfixing to this day.

“El Pibe de Oro” (“The Golden Boy”) rose from the slums of Vila Fiorito to twice break the world transfer record, enrapture a city when miraculously leading his revitalised Napoli to the 1986/87 and 1989/90 Serie A titles and singularly inspire Argentina to a sensational victory at the 1986 World Cup.

The defining match of his career would come at the latter-mentioned tournament, a 2-1 quarter-final victory against England. This was an exhibition of the dichotomy within Maradona’s soul; a combustible mixture of genius and scoundrel.

There was the infamous “Hand of God” when he punched the opener past a perplexed Peter Shilton, a moment he would later describe as “symbolic revenge” for the Falklands War.

Then came the unalloyed majesty of his second, dribbling past five England outfielders with 11 touches from within his own half and unforgettably leaving Shilton on his backside with an insouciant feint before slotting in.

Maradona’s playing career would end amid a haze of drug addiction, intoxicating idolisation and scandal that would follow him into retirement. But a legend had been forged that will last for eternity.


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A rare band of footballers boast an influence that transformed into an ideology.

‘Cruyffismo’ has come to define two of the game’s grandest clubs; Ajax and Barcelona. Its enduring values – crisp passing, rapid movement and unyielding dominance of the ball – underpin Lionel Messi’s ascension thanks to the founding of the La Masia academy at his insistence, inform the inimitable Pep Guardiola and made Spain dominant World and European champions.

For the ‘Beautiful Game’, the invaluable gifts bequeathed by Cruyff match those left by Socrates to Western philosophy and Descartes to the Scientific Revolution.

This process began long before Cruyff’s reputation as a deep thinker was solidified when manager of Barca’s ‘Dream Team’ from 1988-96.

Born on a street just five minutes away from Ajax’s stadium, the pure aesthete boasted otherworldly technique and adherence to the doctrine of ‘Totaalvoetbal’ espoused by mentor Rinus Michels. After three-successive European Cups, a world-record move to Barca in 1973 would move his stardom into another stratosphere.

The deft ‘Cruyff Turn’ – often imitated, rarely matched – and miraculous ‘Phantom Goal’ – a back heel against Atletico Madrid at neck height, facing away from goal – would further define his mastery.

Football lovers are united in gratitude for Cruyff’s contribution.



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Brazil’s gloriously flawed underachievers from World Cup 1982 are enshrined in football history.

Zico was their catalyst; the diminutive playmaker – suitably nicknamed ‘O Galinho’ (The Little Rooster) – with 360° vision and a thunderous free-kick, capable of manipulating the ball to satiate his every whim.

This magnificent ability marked him out at a tender age. Denizens of Rio de Janeiro’s Quintino Bocaiuva neighbourhood would gather to watch the infant Zico toy with much older children, prior to the auspicious intervention of radio reporter Celso Garcia sending the 14-year-old on his way to Flamengo.

This relationship came in the final generation before Europe’s increasingly enriched giants started sweeping up Brazil’s finest at a tender age. It would feature, across two spells, 13 major trophies and 401 goals from 580 appearances.

But it is the vibrant yellow of the Selecao that Zico is vividly remembered. He reached his zenith in 1982, entrancing the globe – alongside the likes of Socrates and Falcao – prior to a devastating interjection from Italy’s Paolo Rossi puncturing their dreams.


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Football’s original maverick left a trail of destruction.

Tragically, for both himself and those near him, this chaos impacted all those close to Garrincha prior to liver cirrhosis bringing a premature end to his life aged just 49.

Born with a bent spine, misshapen knees and a left leg a couple of inches shorter than his right, the Mage-native looked like he required a wheelchair. Yet the Anjo de Pernas Tortas (Bent-Legged Angel) was imbued with magic, his mischievous spirit and disdain for conformity combining to craft football’s greatest dribbler.

He was, patently, more than just mere foil to Pele.

They combined to enlivening effect in victory for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup. With the immortal striker then belligerently booted out of the 1962 edition after the second group match, a solitary Garrincha became the first player to win the Golden Ball (player of the tournament), Golden Boot (leading goal scorer) and World Cup in the same tournament.

The cavalier spirit in which his successes, largely for Brazil and Botafogo, were achieved engendered the nickname Alegria do Povo (People’s Joy) and saw his joyful torturing of defenders rewarded with the sport’s first “ole” chants.

Garrincha’s tumultuous lifestyle – that presaged the downfall of George Best (more on him later) would provide his premature undoing. The memories, however, would long outlive him.



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There was a sweet spot in Ronaldinho’s career, the time when his joyful excesses on duty were not matched by those off it.

After countryman Rivaldo had departed and Lionel Messi had yet to ascend, the Brazil icon’s ebullient smile and endless array of tricks made him king of Barca’s Camp Nou. His hedonistic streak fuelled him at that stage; it would all too soon, sadly, come to define him in an unbecoming journeyman’s finale.

From July 2003’s raid on Paris Saint-Germain to the stark underperformance at World Cup 2006 that heralded a slow descent, Ronaldinho operated in a sphere few have inhibited.

His sublime first clad in Blaugrana foretold what was to come. Charging clear from deep against Sevilla, a rasping shot from distance hammered off the underside of the crossbar and back up into the roof of the net.

Ronaldinho was already a World Cup winner by then, his ‘floating leaf’ free-kick against England in 2002’s rollercoaster quarter-final earning a place in football lore. Long before then, as a futsal prodigy he rose to the Brazilian media’s attention with all 23 goals in a 23-0 victory.

Such was Ronaldinho’s limitless talent, two FIFA World Player of the Year awards, a Ballon d’Or and 13 club trophies seem like a relative underachievement. But what an underachievement it was.


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Best was the ‘Fifth Beatle’, a winger whose flamboyance in possession was matched by his pop-star lifestyle of it.

He was a born showman on turf. Regular humiliation was dealt to brutish defenders of the era via a succession of nutmegs, cut backs and even mischievously playing of one-twos off their shins.

The Northern Irishman glided his way to the 1967/68 European Cup with Manchester United and that year’s Ballon d’Or, heading a field that also included legendary team-mate Sir Bobby Charlton and Germany’s colossus Franz Beckenbauer.

His extra-time goal in the final against Eusebio’s Benfica became emblematic, a mazy run and cheeky dummy that sat down goalkeeper Jose Henrique redolent of true genius.

At only 22-years old, the world was his. But he didn’t want it.

Dragged down by United’s steady decline, alluring excesses of the pitch and growing alcoholism, his last competitive outing for the club came aged just 27.

He was an apathetic and troubled individual by then, unable or unwilling to halt shameful relegation to the Second Division.

Tabloid scandal would follow him until his deathbed, as would the cherished memories from almost 40 years prior that saw approximately 100,000 mourners line his funeral route from east Belfast to Stormont.



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If Cruyff promulgated the tenets of ‘Totaalvoetbal’, Gullit exemplified them.

The Netherlands great, instantly recognisable with trademark dreadlocks and mustache, was world class in every position apart from goalkeeper and full-back. Yet it was his role as support striker to the supreme Marco van Basten in which the greatest glories were summoned.

Cajoled by remarkable synchronicity alongside lifelong friend and fellow Dutch legend Frank Rijkaard, Gullit would rise from street football in Amsterdam’s Old West to a key cog in the revolutionary Arrigo Sacchi’s winning AC Milan machine.

Clad in the Rossoneri’s colours from 1987-94, three Serie A titles and two European Cups – the first of which featured a Gullit brace against Steaua Bucharest in the final – were claimed.

Individual success with the 1987 Ballon d’Or would also be joyously followed by the collective triumph at Euro 1988. As skipper, Gullit would open the scoring in the 2-0 showpiece win against the Soviet Union.

Throughout, his tactical awareness and ceaseless engine made him a cut above. This faultless work rate caused him to be content tracking back to win a tackle, or bursting into the penalty box when netting almost 200 club goals.

There was also a pronounced ability to transcend the game. From the ubiquitous nature of the “sexy football” refrain as Chelsea player/manager, to an influential promotion of Nelson Mandela’s travails and the iniquities of Apartheid South Africa.

Gullit, in all his endeavours, symbolised the best things in life.


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“I was the mongrel who made it to Crufts, and that was fine by me…”

Humble words from Keegan in his auto-biography ring true.

His remarkable football journey took him from training on a concrete car park at fourth division Scunthorpe United, to lighting up the Kop alongside John Toshack at Liverpool and twice being crowned with the Ballon d’Or in 1978 and 1979 after a bold decision to join West Germany’s big-spending Hamburg.

Keegan was a stickler for physical fitness. This unquenchable winning spirit was witnessed in shuttle runs during the weeks and to legendary effect on match days at the weekend.

An intuitive understanding with Toshack, who towered over him to form a memorable ‘little and large’ duo, propelled Liverpool to nine major trophies during his seven-year stint at Anfield. Exactly 100 goals were netted in this spell from 323 run-outs – some return for £33,000.

Keegan’s stellar exploits then meant he had a pick of Europe’s elite. A troubled start at Hamburg, which featuring knocking out a lower league player and mundane struggles finding his beloved British cereals in German supermarkets, would soon be forgotten with 1978/79’s Bundesliga success and near miss with the European Cup.

Success in the club game would not bleed into the international arena. The low ebb of the 1970s for England was followed by an abysmal Euro 1980 and then the horrific point-blank header spurned by a half-fit Keegan in the must-win clash against Spain at World Cup 1982.

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