21st Century Greatest Footballers – 25-21

21st Century Greatest Footballers – 25-21
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  1. Raúl

“Football is and has been my life. Real Madrid has been my home and here I have experienced unique emotions.”

Position: Striker

Country: Spain

Teams: Real Madrid, Schalke 04, Al Sadd, New York Cosmos

Despite never possessing the technical mastery of a Zidane or a Figo, Raul entrenched himself into the hearts of Real Madrid through sheer force of will alone. Still Real’s top appearance maker and, until recently, their top scorer, Raul will remain perhaps the most adored figure in history for Madridistas because he was their avatar on the pitch. He was one of them.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, Raul was already an icon at the Santiago Bernabau. Since debuting in the mid-nineties at 17, Raul had helped Madrid clinch two league titles and two European Cups. He was the premier Spanish talent in La Liga and he had played a huge role in Real’s re-assent to the top table of European football after a gap of over thirty years. In 2002, there was more success, most notably in the 2-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions’ League final (where Raul scored the least remembered goal in Real Madrid history). However, the arrival of Ronaldo in 2002 and his usurpation of Fernando Morientes as Raul’s strike partner signalled the first fatal flaw as Raul was not a Galactico.

If anything, he owed more in his career to the “Quinta del Buitre” tradition of Real Madrid, wherein Madrid won the league five times in a row during the 1980s with a team of mainly homegrown players.

With Ronaldo and other incoming Galacticos at his side, Raul was more often inclined to sacrifice his own game in order to provide balance to this bloated side.

When the military precision of Fabio Capello and then Bernd Schuster allowed Madrid to regain dominance from FC Barcelona. Raul also enjoyed a resurgence and his form almost saw him return to the Spanish national, a side which he had captained with dignity for many years but who now saw him as a relic. Barcelona’s treble win in 2009 signaled the end. In 2010, Raul left the Bernabeau after 16 years’ service. An outstanding spell afterwards with Schalke 04 notwithstanding, Raul had given the best years of his life Madrid. Yet they had perpetually sought newer and shinier toys to replace him. Raul may not have been the Galactico they sought.

Gregory McNally

  1. John Terry

“You don’t have to be captain to have an opinion.” 

Position: Defender

Country: England

Teams: Chelsea

England fans love brave leaders. They love fist-pumping, trachea-rupturing bravado. They love warriors who will fight on even when held together with sticky-tape. They love pie’n’mash and Stella Export and by god, they love defiance in the face of the enemy. But they don’t love John Terry.                                             

Despite being seemingly constructed in a lab from the recycled remnants of Butcher, Pearce and Adams et al, and despite being one of Europe’s top defenders for over a decade, Terry has never been as admired as some of his predecessors as England skipper. It seems the Chelsea man’s attitude and indiscretions (both off and on the pitch) have precluded him from taking a place in the fond memories of the neutrals. I doubt he cares though. He’ll always be a god at the Bridge.

A promising young central defender under Claudio Ranieri, Terry developed into one of Europe’s best defenders whilst drinking the Mourinho Kool-Aid. The Portuguese immediately designated Terry the man most fit to serve as his lieutenant on the pitch and lift the multitude of trophies which flowed into West London. He was strong, fantastic in the air and capable of popping with key goals (look to his late winner against Barcelona in 2005) whilst also being disturbingly willing to throw himself into the way of danger for the cause, swallowed tongues be damned.

However it was after Mourinho left in 2007 that Terry showed his true value to Chelsea. A host of managers followed in the Special One’s wake, some with success (Ancelotti, Di Matteo) and some without (Scolari, Villas-Boaz). Consistently though, Chelsea remained in the hunt for accolades. The Terry-Lampard axis was the de-facto team in charge of Chelsea FC during their most fruitful era. And John Terry (albeit in cosplay attie) was there to hoist that trophy up in 2012, simultaneously bringing the giant trophy to London for the first time and exorcising his personal demons about his penalty miss in the 2008 final.

It’s normal while a player is still active for fans of other clubs to begrudge them their due. But that doesn’t fit Terry. Frankly, football fans at large will never grow to love John Terry because that’s never what he wanted.

Gregory McNally

  1. Steven Gerrard

“When I die, don’t bring me to the hospital. Bring me to Anfield. I was born there and will die there.”

Position: Midfielder

Country: England

Teams: Liverpool, LA Galaxy

In Liverpool history, the post-war years have been dubbed the era of “Liddelpool” after their legendary player Billy Liddel. Were his name more convenient for spinners of puns, the years since the millennium would be similarly named after Steven Gerrard. The twenty-first century for Liverpool FC has been defined by “Stevie G” and, likewise, he by them. He has almost single-handedly gifted them their triumphs and has likewise been hindered by their limitations. But that is both the asterisk against and the case for his legacy. Gerrard could have gone elsewhere and yet chose not to. He stood by Liverpool even to the detriment of his own medal collection, and as a result, he will die an Anfield great.

Many would mark the key date in Gerrard’s career to be the famous comeback against AC Milan in the Champions’ League final on May 25 2005. It wasn’t, it was just over a month later as he performed a last-minute U-turn in his negotiations over a move to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. By this stage, Gerrard was already recognized as one of Europe’s best midfielders. He had been a key member of the club’s 2001 cup treble and runners-up league finish in 2002. Gerrard’s absence from England’s 2002 World Cup squad through injury is often brought up as a factor in the side’s quarter-final exit to Brazil that year.

Over the next few seasons, Liverpool failed to compete for the title despite a change in manager. The exceptional progress of Gerrard however as well as his obvious connection to the supporters saw the midfielder made captain to no-one’s surprise. Against all odds, he led the club to their fifth European Cup in 2005. Ending Liverpool’s long journey back to the top was a goal with real merit. Sadly it wasn’t to be.

That’s not to say there wasn’t success for Gerrard. A one-man show in the 2006 FA Cup final preceded a near-miss in the 2007 Champions’ League. And twice in the coming years did Liverpool legitimately challenge for the title. The first came in 2009 as Gerrard played as No.10 behind Fernando Torres, a position which benefitted his mercurial yet ill-disciplined talent better than the centre-midfield berth. The second came as an elder statesman in 2013/14 as a Luis Suarez-led Liverpool just fell short. At national level, Gerrard won over 100 caps and the captain’s armband. But for some reason, the golden generation of English football which he belonged to failed to generate results on a major stage. Another what-could-have-been story.

But these failures only add to the romance of Gerrard’s career. An exhilarating player to watch, the fact Gerrard devoted all his energy and talent to Liverpool has made him an unquestionable face on Liverpool’s Mount Rushmore.

Gregory McNally

  1. Paul Scholes

“I don’t like compliments. No. I prefer criticisms; prefer to prove them wrong.”

Position: Midfielder

Country: England

Teams: Manchester United

By the time of the new millennium, Paul Scholes had already established himself for club and country as a key figure in any midfield and a man blessed with the ability to summon the wrath of God from his right boot. At this time, his game differed somewhat from the archpuppeteer he would become in later life. The impact Scholes provided tended to come further up the pitch, either in the form of a lacerating pass or a well-timed foray into the penalty area. In many ways, he provided the template upon which England team-mates Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard would later build Hall of Fame careers. The arrival of Ruud Van Nistelrooy from PSV in 2001 allowed Alex Ferguson to accentuate these gifts as he deployed Scholes behind the forward in a 4-4-1-1 formation over the next few seasons, leading to a surge in the midfielder’s goalscoring prowess (a career-high 20 in 2003) if also a dip in his team’s overall effectiveness.

The turning point in Scholes’ career came in 2006. A case of near-blindness, combined with the ravages of time, transformed him into a deep-lying playmaker feeding the likes of Rooney & Ronaldo with one succulent treat after another. His annus mirabilis was the 2006/07 season where he won a place in PFA Team of the Year in the process of re-establishing Manchester United as England’s dominant predator. Over the following seasons, the gnomic midfielder was the point of origin for near every United attack, the diode which lit up game after game with a measured way of approaching football in a league synonymous Paleolithic directness.

When Paul Scholes retired (at the second attempt) in 2013, he left behind a list of honours longer than Jimmy Saville’s rap sheet. However, this is not the legacy most indicative of what Scholes was. Instead, it is the comments from legends like Xavi, Zidane and Pele who rate the United midfielder as the greatest of his age that cements Scholes’ place in football history. Perhaps then this is how Scholes will be remembered. Just as Howling Wolf is cited as the rock musician’s musican, Paul Scholes is the English footballer’s footballer. He is a man who’s role on the pitch was so subtle that the average fan might not notice it…and yet so crucial that none of the victories they were so overjoyed to witness might have occurred without him.

Gregory McNally

  1. David Villa

“We had no idea that in 10 years, I would be raising the World Cup trophy. The only thing we knew then was that my electrician career was on hold.”

Position: Forward

Country: Spain

Teams: Sporting Gijon, Real Zaragoza, Valencia, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, New York City FC

The 21st century has seen emphasis increasingly placed on club football and the Champions League, so sometimes it feels like a player like David Villa gets slightly forgotten about. A star of both club and international football, it is, however, Villa’s achievements for Spain that predominately that made him the great forward he was, and those achievements will last the test of time.

From his breakthrough for Spain at the 2006 World Cup to the 2014 World Cup, Villa scored 13 goals in four tournaments, missing Euro 2012 through injury and only playing a bit-part in 2014, as Spain enjoyed the most successful period in their history.

Having made his mark in the 2006 World Cup, Villa won the Golden Boot at Euro 2008 as the Spaniards won the first of three consecutive international tournaments, helped by a virtuoso hat-trick in the Group Stage against a strong Russian team.

While Spain were free-flowing in attack at the Euro 2008, it was not the case at the 2010 World Cup. Spain’s midfield brilliance allowed them to control games at will, but with a misfiring Fernando Torres and limited creativity from the wings, it was the responsibility of Villa to win them games.

More than just a poacher, Villa drifted in from wing areas, providing important game-breaking runs with his agility and close-control dribbling. He would score the winning goal in three of their games en route to the final and it impossible to look at Spain’s success without giving Villa massive credit.

Where he differs from someone like Miroslav Klose, who became the top scorer in World Cup history in this century, is that he had a decorated club career as well. One of the finest strikers in Valencia history, between 2005 and 2010, he scored 107 goals in 166 La Liga games for the club before joining Guardiola’s Barcelona, where he played second-fiddle to Messi, but had an excellent debut season, where he added the flourish to Barcelona’s dismantling of Manchester United in the Champions League final with a superb curling shot.

Minutes away from another Champions League with Atletico Madrid in 2014, 35-year-old Villa has recently won 2016 MLS MVP. A truly fantastic player who has not always got the acclaim he deserves.

David Gorman

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