By Ahmed Salah
Pele was born in October 1940 as Edson Arantes do Nascimento to Dondinho and Dona Celeste Arantes, his friends started calling him Pele after his favourite football player Vasco da Gama ‘Bile’, whom he mispronounced as ‘Pele’. Pele’s father was also a soccer player.
Throughout his illustrious career both on and off the pitch, Pele has remained a true ambassador of the game. Making his club debut for Santos at the age of 15 in 1956, he remained with the club until 1974. Although facts and figures could never do justice to the majesty that was Pele, his 1,281 goals in all competitions certainly serve to prove the point. He helped lead Santos to nine State Championships, and claimed two consecutive World Club Championships in 1962 and 1963.
There is no player who can claim greater success on the world stage. Pele made his international debut at the tender age of 16. A year later and his teammates pressured the national coaching staff to include the 17-year-old in the 1958 World Cup squad. Kept out of the majority of the tournament due to injury, Pele came on in Brazil’s pool match against the Soviet Union. In the quarterfinals, Pele scored the winner against Wales, a hat trick in the semi-finals against France, and two in the final against Sweden. Brazil won the 1958 World Cup, and a star was born. Out with injury for the 1962 World Cup, Pele returned to the national squad and claimed one more World Cup title in 1970. Voted the Century’s Greatest Footballer along with Diego Maradona, Pele has continued to be an inspiration to the “the beautiful game.”
Diego Maradona (1976-1997)
Diego Armando Maradona Born in 1960 in a shack so rickety that when it rained it was wetter inside than out, raised in one room with seven siblings, Maradona became the only man to win a World Cup virtually by himself. More than that: his skill and personality dominated a generation of World Cups.
His first World Cup came in 1982, but ended in disgrace when he was sent off for kicking the Brazilian Batista in the testicles. Mexico in 1986 was to be his zenith.
His ‘Hand of God’ goal against England at the 1986 World Cup and the stunning solo effort that followed sum up this flawed genius better than any words. Maradona did not always play by the rules, and confesses that his expulsion from the 1994 World Cup after testing positive for ephedrine is one of his saddest memories. But the Maradona that captained Argentina to the 1986 World Cup and helped unfashionable Napoli to Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990 was irrepressible.
Johan Cruyff (1964-1984)
Johan Cruyff (also known as Johan Cruijff), was born in Amsterdam in 1947 a few hundred meters from the Ajax stadium. He began hanging around the club as a toddler. His father, Manus, a grocer, supplied Ajax with fruit, and after Manus died when Cruyff was twelve, Cruyff’s mother cleaned Ajax’s locker rooms.
The skinny waif debuted for the first team at 17. Ajax was then a semi-professional club, barely known outside the Netherlands, but within a few years Cruyff and Ajax’s manager Rinus Michels turned it into the world’s best team. The duo invented a new kind of soccer, which foreigners called “Total football.” Players swapped positions at great speed, creating an unprecedented fluidity of play. In the midst of it was Cruyff, constantly changing position, pointing and shouting directions at others even while he dribbled past opponents.
Ajax won three straight European Cups from 1971 through 1973, and each time Cruyff was voted European Player of the Year. But he was an opinionated and difficult man, and quarrels punctuated his career. In 1973, after his teammates voted him out of Ajax’s captaincy, he fled to Barcelona. The club swiftly won its first Spanish title in fourteen years.
Cruyff is best remembered as the guide of Holland’s great team at the World Cup of 1974, though sadly the lost final against West Germany was his worst match of the tournament. In 1978, aged only 31, he decided for family reasons to skip the World Cup in Argentina. He retired from soccer that year, but then discovered that he had lost his money in terrible investments, and had to return. He played five more brilliant years for the Los Angeles Aztecs, Washington Diplomats, Ajax, and finally Ajax’s great rival Feyenoord Rotterdam, before retiring at age 37
Franz Beckenbauer (1964-1984)
Athlete Franz Anton Beckenbauer was born on September 11, 1945, in Munich, West Germany. Like many children growing up in the war-torn country, he was inspired by West Germany’s triumph in the 1954 World Cup. He joined the SC 1906 München youth team that year, and in 1959 he began his long relationship with FC Bayern Munich as a member of the club’s junior squad.
Franz Beckenbauer revolutionized the role of attacking sweeper during his days at Bayern Munich and led them to the 1967 Cup Winners’ Cup, as well as three consecutive European Cups from 1974 to 1976. In his time at Bayern, the club dominated the Bundesliga, winning the league title four times. His incredible form for club and country earned him the European Footballer of the Year award in 1972 and 1976.
The first player in West German history to reach 100 international caps, Beckenbauer burst onto the scene in the 1966 World Cup, scoring four goals for his side before losing the final in extra-time to England. Part of the squad that reached the 1970 World Cup final match, he continued to dominate in the early ‘70s, as he captained West Germany to the 1972 European Championship and 1974 World Cup titles. Beckenbauer, who is currently president of Bayern Munich, would go on to succeed at the managerial level, taking West Germany to the 1986 World Cup final match and lifting the trophy with the squad four years later in Italy. In terms of innovation and success on the pitch, “The Kaiser” is clearly in a class all his own.
Michel Platini (1973-1987)
Michel François Platini was born on June 21, 1955, in Joeuf, France. His father, Aldo, was a professional soccer player who became director of the AS Nancy club, and young Platini sought to follow in his footsteps. He joined the AS Joeuf youth team as an 11-year-old, and landed with Nancy as a reserve at age 17.
Michel Platini is arguably one of the best midfielders ever produced by the European continent. Having scored 98 goals over seven years for Nancy, Platini moved on to Turin giants Juventus in 1982, from French side St. Etienne. He quickly endeared himself to the Italian fans twice, leading Juventus to the Italian Championship and claiming three top-scoring titles. It was no surprise when he was named European Footballer of the Year for three consecutive seasons, from 1983 to 1985.
France’s golden boy went on to represent his country a total of 72 times, with a record 41 goals for his country. Platini played a major role in the golden age of French football, claiming a fourth-place finish in the 1982 World Cup and the bronze medal four years later. It’s rumoured that Michel Platini’s passion for the game took a turn following the 1985 Heysel disaster in Brussels, where Juventus claimed the European Cup on Platini’s penalty kick. Following an unsuccessful stint as national coach in 1990, Platini has continued to be a strong proponent of quality football, playing a large part in France’s successful hosting of the 1998 World Cup finals.
Zinedine Zidane (1992-2006)
“Yazid,” as his Algerian immigrant family called him, was born in a poor neighbourhood of Marseilles in 1972. Zidane learned to play soccer in the streets of La Castellane, a rough section of Marseille. After starring for local youth clubs, 14-year-old Zidane was discovered at a French Football Federation training camp by AS Cannes recruiter Jean Varraud, and spent the next three years honing his skills in Cannes’ youth division.
Aged 22, he marked his debut for France with two goals. Two years later he joined Juventus, where he won the Italian league but lost two straight Champions League finals. By the time France reached the World Cup final against Brazil in 1998, “Zizou” was known as a great but unfulfilled talent. But on match day, France’s manager, Aimé Jacquet, noting that the Brazilians did not mark tightly on corners, advised him to “take a stroll towards the front post.” Zidane headed home two corners, and France won 3-0. Afterward his face was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe, above the words, “Merci Zizou.” Inevitably he won the 1998 Ballon d’Or for European Footballer of the Year. When he then led France to victory at Euro 2000, he secured his spot as French national icon of his era. He regularly topped the newspaper Journal du Dimanche’s periodic vote for most popular Frenchman.
Zidane almost inspired a flawed French team to a second World Cup, but late in the final, after Marco Materazzi allegedly questioned the virtue of his female relatives, Zidane headbutted the Italian and was sent off.
Cristiano Ronaldo ( 2002 – )
Born Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro on February 5, 1985, in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal, a small island off the western coast of the country, Ronaldo is the youngest of four children born to Maria Dolores dos Santos and Jose Dinis Aveiro. He was named after Ronald Reagan, a favourite actor of his father’s.
Ronaldo grew up in a largely working class neighbourhood, his home a small tin roofed shack that overlooked the ocean. His early life was shaped by hardship; his father, a gardener, often drank too much, and eventually died from kidney problems in 2005. Ronaldo’s mother worked as a cook and cleaner.
By his early teens, Ronaldo’s talent and legend had grown considerably. After a stint with Nacional da liha da Madeira, he signed with Sporting Portugal in 2001. That same year, at the tender age of 16, Ronaldo turned heads with a mesmerizing performance against Manchester United, wowing even his opponents with his footwork and deft skill. He made such an impression that a number of United players asked their manager to try and sign the young player. It wasn’t long before the club paid Ronaldo’s team more than £12 million for his services – a record fee for a player of his age.
In Manchester, first as a winger and later as a striker, he racked up the prizes: three straight league titles from 2007 through 2009, and the Champions League in 2008. That night in Moscow he scored United’s only goal with a header, but missed his penalty in the shootout. He won the 2008 Ballon d’Or for European Footballer of the year.
In 2009 Real Madrid bought him for a world record transfer fee of $132 million. In hindsight, Ronaldo might have done better to stay at United. The team he joined was a disjointed outfit with too many stars. Even after Jose Mourinho became manager, Madrid could rarely match Barcelona. Since moving to Spain, Ronaldo has won just one Spanish Cup. Meanwhile Portugal has gone into decline.
Often apparently despairing of his teammates (as his perma-frown makes all too clear), he has become more of an individualist, shooting from all angles, but with brilliant results: it took him just over two years to notch 100 goals for Madrid. A ballet dancer built like a truck, he is the ultimate mix of power, grace and style. To move up the rankings, he needs just a couple more big trophies.
Leonil Messi ( 2003 – )
Lionel Messi was born Luis Lionel Andres Messi on June 24, 1987, in Rosario, Argentina. As a young boy, he tagged along when his two older brothers played soccer with their friends. At the age of 8, he was recruited to join the youth system of Newell’s Old Boys, a Rosario-based club. Recognizably smaller than most of the kids in his age group, Messi was eventually diagnosed by doctors as suffering from a hormone deficiency that restricted his growth.
Messi’s parents, Jorge and Ceclia, decided on a regimen of nightly growth-hormone injections for their son, though it soon proved impossible to pay several hundred dollars per month for the medication. So, at the age of 13, when Messi was offered the chance to train at soccer powerhouse FC Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, and have his medical bills covered by the team, Messi’s family picked up and moved across the Atlantic to make a new home in Spain.
Although he was often homesick in his new country, Messi moved quickly through the junior system ranks, and by the age of 16, he had made his first appearance for Barcelona. Messi put himself in the record books on May 1, 2005, as the youngest player to ever score a goal for the franchise. That same year, he led Argentina to the title in the under-20 World Cup, scoring on a pair of penalty kicks to propel the team over Nigeria.
Messi eventually grew to 5 feet and 7 inches, and with his short stature, speed and relentless attacking style, he drew comparisons to another famous Argentinean footballer: Diego Maradona. Messi steered Barcelona to a wealth of success, most notably in 2009, when the left-footer’s team captured the Champions League, La Liga, and Spanish Super Cup titles. That same year, after two consecutive runner-up finishes, he took home his first FIFA “World Player of the Year” honor/Ballon d’Or award.
Even the great Maradona gushed about his fellow countryman. “I see him as very similar to me,” the retired player told the BBC. “He’s a leader and is offering lessons in beautiful football. He has something different to any other player in the world.”
All information is sourced from: biography.com