Football is a generation game.
We’re always talking about definable eras, whether it be the past, present or future.
It’s apart of the vernacular to discuss this generation or the next generation and so it seems appropriate that with the current decade drawing to a close, we take stock of the supreme talents to have flowed through the game, while looking at who could be set to dominate in the years to come.
From the 1980s through to the 2020s, we’ve examined the stars who shone and will shine brightest during their respective decades. Today we look at the 90s.
The 90s is synonymous with one man, if of course he can actually be called that. El Fenomeno was a scarcely believable talent. Think of a heavyweight boxer with the lightning fast speed and footwork of a lightweight, and that was Ronaldo.
His knees struggled to contain all the dynamite power and so we’re left with a smaller memory box of an icon, but the 90s was the Brazilian’s best period.
He broke three world record transfer fees during this time, firstly becoming the most expensive teenager ever when he signed for PSV in 1994 and then smashing the overall record with moves to Barcelona and Inter Milan.
His sole season at the Camp Nou remains one of the greatest single-campaigns in history as in 1996/97, having only just turned 20 when signing for the club, he scored 47 goals in 49 games, 34 in 37 league appearances.
A contract dispute saw him join Inter, and while injuries followed, so did success as he became the youngest winner of the Ballon d’Or in 1997 at the age of 21.
He was mesmeric at the 1998 World Cup, and although the next decade brought about more iconic moments, it was in the 90s he was truly outrageous.
Put together a poster for this decade and Zinedine Zidane will be front and centre. To borrow a term from NBA, he spent most of it posterising defenders, too.
Statistically, there is nothing freakish about Zidane, but numbers have a way of diluting feel, and Zidane made us feel a certain way.
The game seemed so pure with the ball at his feet as his sass was usually reserved for the dance floor, not the pitch. Now, most of Zidane’s success came toward the end of the 90s, especially with Real Madrid in the 00s, but at Juventus where he twice won the league and in particular with France, the pirouetting playmaker was just ooh la la.
The obvious highlight is the 1998 World Cup in France, when he was named man of the match against Brazil in the final and claimed FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or.
Zidane could have been offered a residency in Las Vegas after retirement such was the magic he produced.
Perhaps we look back so fondly on the 80s and 90s because of the Italian influence, something which is obvious through the first two editions but has waned in recent decades.
One of the most treasured is Maldini. It feels like the name Maldini is as woven into the game as the kits, boots and balls.
His career spanned so many decades he could feature in any one of them, but it’s the 90s we hark back to when looking to dig out the best footage of him in action.
The left-back claimed five of his seven Scudettos in the 90s, two of his five Champions League winners medals and his closest chance of silverware with the Azzurri was finishing as a runner-up in 1994.
He made defending cool, a job which essentially entails just getting in the way, with his influence and remarkable consistency. Maldini was one of the great defenders of his age – pick any of them, there are many.
Laudrup is one of those players eulogised far more by his peers and colleagues than fans.
The game came so easy to the Dane that his 70-80 percent was far better than anyone else’s 100 percent, but it is that dynamic which is perhaps why he’s a little unloved.
Indeed, Johan Cruyff lamented Laudrup’s work ethic, a trait which he believed barriered his presence among the all-time greats.
But during the 90s his effortless ability was something to marvel. Under Cruyff at Barcelona he formed a lethal connection with Hristo Stoichkov to stock up his trophy cabinet, collecting four La Liga titles and a European Cup.
The midfielder left in bitter circumstances after being dropped for the 1994 Champions League final and joined the one club which send bitterness back the other way, Real Madrid.
His talent helped Los Blancos claim the league title that season and it’s a sign of his exalted status that he’s still held in high regard by both sets of fans.
A debilitating knee injury at 18 years old led Baggio to concede he was only fully fit for “three to four games a season”, but it didn’t stop him from being universally adored.
At Juventus he was tasked with bringing back success to the club by filling the No10 shirt of a player who defined the previous decade in Michel Platini.
It was with the Bianconeri in the early 90s his immortal nickname was spawned, Il Divin Codino – The Divine Ponytail.
But despite personal success – he claimed the Ballon d’Or, European and World Player of the Year awards – as a collective Baggio would only win the UEFA Cup before the 1994 World Cup.
It was Stateside with Italy we witnessed his rise and fall, scoring in the last-16, quarter-finals and last four before his infamous penalty miss against Brazil in the final.
Injury and the emergence of Alessandro Del Piero saw him relegated to the bench after the tournament and Baggio made less than 20 league starts when Juve won their first Scudetto in a decade. He left for Milan but despite winning the league in his first season, turmoil followed, though he would enjoy redemption at Bologna late in the 90s.
There is something fitting that perhaps his finest season came after chopping off the ponytail, taking the 1997/98 Capocannoniere title which would lead to a World Cup recall in 1998.
Two years of Inter rounded out the decade, but it was mere flashes of his genius at that point.
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