21st Century Greatest Footballers – 30-26

21st Century Greatest Footballers – 30-26
  1. Didier Drogba

“I have won many trophies in my time, but nothing will ever top helping win the battle for peace in my country.”

Position: Striker

Country: Ivory Coast

Teams: Le Mans, Guingamp, Marseille, Chelsea, Shanghai Shenhua, Galatasaray, Chelsea, Montreal Impact

There are some professional footballers who can be described as cult players. But a few of these could conceivably, if bothered, start an actual cult: bigamy and mass-suicide included. Diego Maradona comes to mind, for sure. And so does Didier Drogba. Both at Stamford Bridge and in his home country of the Ivory Coast, Drogba enjoys something of a messianic aura. For Christ’s sake, his old shirt hangs like a holy relic in a Marseille church too and he only spent a season there. For the Ivory Coast, Drogba delivered recognition for the African nation on a worldwide scale. For Chelsea, Drogba delivered major trophies on a consistent basis.

If we are to consider the attributes one would want in a great centre-forward, Drogba had them all: brute strength, deceptive acceleration, canon-like shot power, obscene ability in the air. The great Ivorian’s greatest attribute though was his big game mentality. Ten goals in ten major finals for Chelsea garnered ten trophies; not to mention a plethora of tight knock-out matches, title and title scraps.

Drogba arrived at Stamford Bridge in 2004 after a fruitful spell in France where, despite a slow start, Jose Mourinho recognised him as the man to spearhead his three-man forward line. As well as scoring goals (he twice topped the Golden Boot charts), Drogba accentuated the gifts of team-mates. By the time Drogba entered the 2011/12 season, there was only one thing left to do for him at Chelsea. He was already a legend with every domestic honour to his name. Now he would transcend that by dragging a transitional Chelsea side kicking and screaming to the Champions League. A goal in the semi-final against Barcelona was followed by a dramatic late equaliser as the Blues denied Bayern Munich winning the European Cup in their own stadium. Completing his swansong in the subsequent penalty shoot-out, Drogba repaid Roman Abramovich’s millions tenfold by delivering the trophy to Chelsea with his (then) final kick for the club.

Sure, he had flaws: there was the occasional stroppiness and a very-heated temper (the 2012 Champions League campaign would have been recalled very differently if either Messi or Robben had scored the penalties he conceded). But that passion was a key part of Drogba’s appeal. He endured the agony and ecstasy of football beside the supporters. Plus, can any other player on this list claim to have actually aided in ending a heinous civil war? Didn’t think so, Mr. Messi.

(Editor’s note: Although Zlatan Ibrahimovich does indeed claim to have significantly inspired those involved in drafting the Good Friday Agreement).

Gregory McNally

  1. Cafu

When asked why he became a professional footballer – “I was born in 1970.”

Position: Full-back

Country: Brazil

Teams: Roma, Milan

The definition of a tireless full-back, Cafu is certainly one of the most energetic players of his time. The right side was always safe with the Brazilian in the team as Cafu ran his opponents ragged up and down the pitch again and again.

As Denis Irwin describes playing against Cafu: “What a nightmare to play against. The last thing you need is an overlapping full-back, creating two-versus-one situations against you. He’d bomb on for 90 minutes and wouldn’t give you a minute’s peace.”

While Cafu had a fine career in the 1990s, winning South American Footballer of the Year in 1994 and being a part of the 1994 World Cup-winning squad, his best years were in his 30s, unusual for a player that relied on stamina. He signed for Roma in 1997 however it was 2001 that was his crowning moment at the club, winning Serie A. At Roma, he earned the nickname Il Pendolino, roughly translated as ‘The Express Train’.

After six years at Roma, he joined AC Milan at the peak of their powers in the summer of 2003 as he teamed up with one of the best defences of the modern era – Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini and Jaap Stam were regular partners – and won the Champions League trophy in 2007 where his continued attacking presence from right-back was crucial in Milan’s narrow formation.

Cafu’s best memories were with Brazil however where he is still their most-capped player of all-time with 142 appearances. In 2002, a 3-5-2 formation allowed Cafu and left-back Roberto Carlos the freedom to impress going forward. Together with a dynamic front three of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, they formed an exciting attack that resulted in captain Cafu lifting the World Cup trophy in his final match for Brazil.

David Gorman

  1. Samuel Eto’o

“I have nothing to prove, I am Samuel Eto’o.”

Position: Forward

Country: Cameroon

Teams: Mallorca, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Anzhi Makhachkala, Chelsea, Everton, Sampdoria, ntalyspor

Rarely in football has there been a player so good and yet so consistently undervalued by his coaches. Samuel Eto’o began his career at Real Madrid but was never considered worthy of their star-studded side. Later, he became a legend at FC Barcelona before being utilized as a make-way in the bid to sign Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter Milan. Again he threw adversity back in the face of his critics as Inter lifted the treble with Eto’o as a key player.

In terms of what he has accomplished, Eto’o eclipses essentially every other African player and he did it all on the back foot. He may not be as adored in world football today as the likes of Didier Drogba, Roger Milla or George Weah but throughout his career, Eto’o has proved to be as good as any other striker of the last fifteen years.

Joining Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona, they strolled to the league title that year with Eto’o as their main striker. The following year he scored in the Champions’ League final as the Catalans lifted a European and domestic double. However, from there on, a general malaise set upon Barcelona and it took the arrival of Pep Guardiola as coach to alleviate it. As Deco and Ronaldinho fell upon the new coach’s sword, it seemed Eto’o would be next. However, he would survive to write another chapter in Barcelona history.

The following season was the greatest in this illustrious club’s history. While Xavi and Iniesta created a snake-charmeresque metronome in midfield, a forward line of Messi, Henry and Eto’o wreaked havoc upon the competition. Real Madrid fell away limply in a 4-1 victory at the Bernabeu to concede the league title, even the best Manchester United side for a decade proved no matched for Barcelona. Goals from Messi and Eto’o secured the treble.

This victory signalled the beginning of domination for Barca over the coming years. However, Eto’o would have no part in it. That summer he, along with 46 million Euros, was incomprehensively gifted to Inter Milan to attain the services of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

While Ibrahimovic struggled as deputy to Lionel Messi at Barca, Eto’o thrived under coach Inter Jose Mourinho in a new left-wing role. Ultimate revenge came as Inter triumphed over Barca in the Champions’ League semi-final. A win over Bayern Munich in the final meant Eto’o became the first player to win the treble in consecutive seasons.

Gregory McNally

27. Bastian Schweinsteiger 

“You have to give it your all to be successful.”

Position: Midfielder

Country: Germany

Teams: Bayern Munich, Manchester United

The engine behind Germany and Bayern Munich’s resurgence from the late 2000s onwards, Bastian Schweinsteiger may have been declared semi-retired by Jose Mourinho at Manchester United upon turning only 32, but he still demands massive respect in the game after a mammoth career.

Schweinsteiger, whose name means ‘pig farmer’ in German, began his career as a wide midfielder, but it was only after he moved to central midfield with the arrival of Louis Van Gaal at Bayern Munich in 2009 that he truly began to flourish in the deeper role. Still maintaining the explosiveness and creativity from his years playing further forward, Schweinsteiger became one of Europe’s best box-to-box midfielders, and later deep-lying playmakers. He was dubbed the ‘Midfield Motor’ for his boundless energy and superb reading of the game.

Like Xavi has become associated with tika-taka football, Schweinsteiger, to a lesser extent, was one of the prominent figures in the fast-paced German football and their preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. The double-pivot saw Schweinsteiger at his best, alongside Sami Khedira for Germany and Javi Martinez for Bayern Munich. In particular, his 2012-13 season, alongside Martinez for Bayern Munich, was outstanding, as he won German Footballer of the Year.

But if there was a match that Schweinsteiger wanted to show to his grandchildren to sum up his career, it would be the 2014 World Cup final. The figure of the bloody Schweinsteiger toiling for Germany will last long in the memory of the German public. He was sublime in midfield for Joachim Low’s team, completing 90 per cent of his passes and winning tackles all over the pitch. Roy Keane against Juventus has become the standard for inspirational midfield general performances, but Basti’s effort is definitely up there as well.

In the end, it meant a World Cup winners’ medal will sit alongside seven Bundesliga titles, seven German Cups, two League Cups and a Champions League title in cabinet. Surely worth a game then, Jose?

David Gorman

26. Francesco Totti

“Winning one league title at Roma to me is worth winning 10 at Juventus or Real Madrid.”

Position: Forward

Country: Italy

Teams: Roma

The only star on this list to be one of the best players in the world at the start of the 21st Century and still make an impact today, 40-year-old Francesco Totti is an icon of Roma and a rare case of loyalty in the modern game. Man of the Match in the final of Euro 2000, as well as Serie A Footballer of the Year in that year, Totti was 5th in the Ballon d’Or in 2001 as Roma won the Scudetto for only the third time in their history. With Fabio Capello at the helm and stars like Cafu and Batistuta surrounding Totti, it seemed like his hometown club were set to be challengers at the highest level of football for many years to come.

Instead, Roma were nearly men of Liverpool-like proportions in Serie A, with the difference being that they had at least won one. Totti has eight runners-up medals with Roma and five runners-up medals in the Coppa Italia. Over 25 years at Roma, Totti has won only three major trophies. Nobody would have blamed a player of his ability moving to pastures anew, with Real Madrid seriously interested at one point, but Totti stayed firm at I Lupi.  He has become synonymous with the club. He is the second highest goalscorer in Italian league history but that only reveals part of the story with this classy playmaker, whose elegant style, vision and passing has made him a threat all across the forward line.

Totti did at least have the opportunity to win the biggest one of them all, the World Cup in 2006, as he played all seven matches. Struggling with lack of match practice after an injury before the tournament, Totti was not quite at his Euro 2000 best but a World Cup win was a fitting reward for a player that is an Italian footballing legend.

David Gorman

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