21st Century Greatest Footballers – 40-36

21st Century Greatest Footballers – 40-36
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40. Franck Ribery 

“I play how I feel, I don’t have a set way of playing. I get going, looking to create danger”

Position: Winger

Country: France

Teams: Boulogne, Alès, Brest, Metz, Galatasaray, Marseille, Bayern Munich

Born into a low-income neighbourhood in Boulongne-sur-Mer in Pas-de-Calais, Ribery has never had things easy. Involved in a car accident at two years old, Ribery suffered the serious facial injuries that he is well-known for today.

And the Frenchman has never made things easy for defenders. Ribery is a mesmerising winger in full-flow, with the ball glued to his feet as he ghosts past the opposition.

Ribery would have been a Ballon d’Or winner in the old system in 2013 – the journalists voted for him over Cristiano Ronaldo – and this was the crowning year of his career. At the time of the award, Bayern were on a 42 game unbeaten run with him in the side, as Bayern won the treble in 2012-13, showing how integral he was to one of the more exciting teams of this generation.

There is the feeling that Ribery could have been higher on this list but for injuries and personal issues that hindered his international career. Ribery had burst onto the scene for France at the 2006 World Cup as a Zidane-inspired France marched onto the final, and at 23, he seemed like the future of the French team. After a disappointing Euro 2008, Ribery and his team flopped at the 2010 World Cup amid serious disharmony in the camp and accusations of bullying by Ribery of Yoann Gourcuff. In the same year, Ribery was dogged by a court case involving sex with an underage prostitute.

He missed the 2014 World Cup through injury and then announced his retired for reasons ‘purely personal’. At Euro 2016, he could have been the Zidane in 2006, the old timer imposing himself on the tournament. Instead, he sat at home watching the action, wondering what might have been.

David Gorman

39. Luis Figo

“In football, day in day out, you always have to show your worth.”

Position: Winger

Country: Portugal

Teams: Real Madrid, Inter Milan

A severed pig’s head lying on the side of the pitch at the Camp Nou. That is likely to be the prevailing image of Luis Figo’s career. The Portuguese winger’s world record transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid in 2000 and the venomous bile which greeted him upon his return to the Catalonian capital is one of the most famed episodes in modern football. For Luis Figo was an amazing footballer. This wasn’t Boudewijn Zenden or Winston Bogarde whom their archrivals had stolen from them. This was their best player, their captain and the heartbeat of the team…and it hurt.

Figo’s arrival was to mark the beginning of the Galacticos policy at Madrid as each summer a new world superstar was to arrive at the Bernabeu in the hope of creating a football and commercial juggernaut. Initially, it seemed to work too. In his first three seasons at the club, Figo impressed as Madrid clinched the league title twice as well the ninth Champions League title in the club’s history. The Ballon D’or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards also found their way onto the Portuguese’s mantelpiece during this period.

However, the Galacticos’ success did not endure. As the side became more and more bloated with big names, the cohesive and dynamic side with which it had found early success collapsed under the weight of its egos and general imbalance. By the time Figo’s contract expired in 2005, it was simply an opulent mess only useful for selling replica shirts in Southeast Asia.

This cannot be blamed on Figo though. Like his team-mate Zinedine Zidane, he performed to the best of his ability and is still warmly remembered in Madrid. And also like Zidane, he stood out as the crown jewel of his national side’s “Golden Generation.” From 2000 until 2006, Portugal enjoyed their most consistent success since the Eusebio era, despite failing to capture a major title.

Boasting hypnotic dribbling skills and a wonderful range of passes & shots, Figo was able to overcome a relative lack of pace. But more than this, it was his demeanor on the pitch which was his real value. A born leader, Figo was always able to take control of the ball and walk others through a game.

Gregory McNally

38. Xabi Alonso 

“I left Real Madrid for the same reason Di Maria did. We work hard but only others get the praise.”

Position: Midfielder

Country: Spain

Teams: Real Sociedad, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich

Where Xabi Alonso goes, success inevitably follows. This is not opinion, this, as his former coach might say, is fact. And yet, Alonso is not a star footballer. Only at his boyhood club Real Sociedad was the Spaniard considered to be the main man. For the rest of his career though, for both club and country, Alonso has operated as the arch-facilitator, a footballing wingman looking on with voyeuristic pleasure as higher profile team-mates sucked in the adulation. But the proof of Alonso’s value can be found in his medals collection. Two Champions’ Leagues, two Euro Championships, the World Cup and domestic silverware spread across Europe’s top three leagues are all the reward which Alonso requires.

At Real Sociedad, Alonso not only led his side away from relegation but also standing within one win of clinching the title. It failed to happen and soon the Spain international had joined Rafael Benitez’s Latin Revolution at Anfield.

It was on Merseyside that football fans first saw his greatest virtue, his ability to cover others. By both screening the defence and beginning passing moves, Alonso was able to let loose Liverpool’s best player Steven Gerrard upon the opposition. Freed off his more banal duties, Gerrard enjoyed the best years of his career next to Alonso. This was a pattern which repeated itself over the coming years with Luka Modric at Real Madrid and Iniesta & Cesc Fabregas for the Spanish team. When Javier Mascherano joined them in 2007, a fearsome midfield triumvirate was formed and nearly captured Liverpool their fabled 19th league title in 2009.

But a need to cement himself as a cog in the passing machine that was the Spanish national side saw Alonso join the New Galacticos at Real Madrid. By tempering the obscene attacking instincts of his new club, the Basque helped Madrid trade success with rivals Barcelona over the coming years. He also achieved his chief ambition of establishing himself for La Roja as Spain passed their way to global and European success over the coming years, being virtually ever-present. To date, he has earned 114 caps for Spain.

Of all the players on our list, Alonso seems like the one most likely to drift between the cracks of memory over the coming decades. However, if we were to ask his former team-mates to select a man to play in their perfect XI, many would likely still choose him. Simply put, Alonso made everyone look good.

Gregory McNally

37. Ruud Van Nistelrooy

“But really, I can only be dangerous for the team in one place, and that is in the box.”

Position: Striker

Country: Netherlands

Teams: PSV, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Hamburg, Málaga

There are certain rules of thumb in English football that prove right more often than not. One is that an ungodly scoring record in the Eredivisie is no guarantee of success in the Premier League (see Messrs Kezman, Alves etc). Another is that when Sir Alex Ferguson says that you’re done, you’re done. Ruud Van Nistelrooy was a man of such unquenchable determination that he snapped rules of thumb like a mob boss’ hired heavy.

The epitome of the penalty-box predator, Van Nistelrooy earned himself a £19million transfer to Old Trafford in 2000 after tearing through the Dutch league in voracious fashion. However, the switch was forced to be postponed after the striker’s knee spontaneously combusted in a million bloody shards. A year later, Van Nistelrooy finally made his debut for United and began making up for lost time. In his debut season, he won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and proved so prolific that the legendary strike partnership of Andy Cole & Dwight Yorke were moved on to Blackburn Rovers. The following season, he spearheaded United’s successful reclamation on the league title from Arsenal.

Van Nistelrooy was always a man to repaid slights made against him with the greatest weapon he knew: goals. Perhaps the greatest example of Van Nistelrooy’s defiance came after he had been discarded by Ferguson and passed on to a transitional Real Madrid side in 2006.

Despite the departures of Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo and Beckham, Van Nistelrooy’s goals helped bring the title to the Bernabeau the following two seasons and cost compatriot Frank Rijkaard his job at the Camp Nou. Even as injuries began to pile up in his later career, Van Nistelrooy still managed to find the net on the increasingly rare occasions he could play.

In an age where out-and-out goalscorers seem to be relics of football’s past, Ruud Van Nistelrooy seems something of a throwback to the likes of Gerd Muller or Paolo Rossi. Of course, his hold-up play was good and he was strong as hell but that’s not why fans remember him. Ruud Van Nistelrooy satiated an atavistic desire in football fans everywhere. A desire to see goals. Just goals. Lots and lots and lots of them.

Gregory McNally

36. Patrick Vieira

“It is exciting because Keane is someone I really respect. He is one of the best players in his position so it should be a nice 1v1.”

Position: Midfielder

Country: France

Teams: Arsenal, Juventus, Inter Milan, Manchester City

Arsenal fans still wait on another Premier League title, less than a decade before they had possessed one of English football’s greatest ever sides. And at the heart of that side had been Patrick Vieira, a player possessing the heart and guile which they have now so sorely lacked.

The underlying theme of Arsene Wenger’s success had been to quietly secure great, young talent for a low price and nurture them into internationally renowned superstars then move them on once they had outlived their usefulness. Vieira had moved to Arsenal in 1996 from AC Milan’s reserves at Wenger’s behest. Within less than a year, he had established himself as one of the best midfielders in the Premier League as well as a main man for the French national side. When Arsenal’s legendary captain Tony Adams retired in 2002 there was no question that the young Frenchman would take over the armband.

Despite a habit of dabbing Vic on his shirt making him resemble a victim of Japanese bukkake, Vieira was an imposing figure. Standing at 6’4 and owning both a crunching tackle as well as a short-fuse, Vieira struck fear into every opponent he faced not named Roy Keane. However, his value to Arsenal was not just as a vicious bruiser. He was also the key man in how the side played.

Today the Gunners are synonymous with an often indulgent passing game but at that time their style was much more direct. Typically, it would be Vieira who brought the ball out of midfield and immediately would look to find the likes of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires or Dennis Bergkamp breaking forward. The football Arsenal played during the 2003/04 unbeaten campaign was kinetic, thrilling and virtually unstoppable, the antithesis of their game in the latter half of the decade. 

In 2005, Wenger made a choice. He decided that Vieira would have to be let go in order for the Cesc Fabregas era of Arsenal history to begin. With parting glass in hand, Vieira took the penalty that delivered the FA Cup to Highbury and went on his way to Italy. While the Frenchman enjoyed a respectable twilight at Juventus and Inter Milan (never failing to lift the scudetto at the end of each season), Arsenal fans realised that when Vieira left, he had taken the glory days with him.

Gregory McNally

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