By Lucien Betancourt
Welcome back to Part 3 of this ongoing series looking at the best soccer players of all time. This time around, we will be looking at the best midfielders to ever play the game.
First on this list is another one of the dominant 1950s Hungarian national team known as the “Mighty Magyars,” Jozsef Zakarias. He played as a central defensive midfielder for both Hungary and MTK Hungaria . He won 2 Hungarian League titles, a Hungarian Cup, and the Mitropa Cup, which was the Champions League for Central Europe. He also won Olympic Gold with Hungary in 1952 and won the 1953 Central European Cup, as well as finishing second in the 1954 World Cup. He was an aggressive defensive midfielder, with a focus on charging towards the ball and carrying it up field. He was vital in Hungary’s defensive identity, as was his partner Jozsef Bozsik, tracking up and down the field and playing the ball for their legendary offensive attack. He was joined at midfield by Nandor Hidegkuti, who also had success domestically and was stronger as a goalscorer. Hidegkuti scored 300 goals in 450 appearances, and would later help ACF Fiorentina find success as club manager.
Another player worth a mention is Lothar Matthaus, a legend for both the German national team and legendary clubs Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. He had early success with Germany, winning the European Cup in 1980. A decade later, he would help lead the team to a World Cup. With Bayern, he won 7 Bundesligas and got to a pair of Champions League finals. With Inter Milan, he won a Serie A championship and a Europa League title. In 1990, he won the Ballon D’or as he captained Germany to the aforementioned World Cup win, becoming one of few defensive midfielders to win the prestigious award.
Now, let’s talk about Frank Rijkaard, a Dutch and AC Milan legend in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1988, he helped the Dutch make an improbable run to the 1988 Euro championship, where they eventually won their only international trophy to date. With Ajax, he won 5 Eredivisie and the Champions League in 1994. With AC Milan he had even more success despite playing for only 5 seasons– winning multiple Serie As and Champions Leagues in that time. He is also well known for bringing Barcelona success from 2004-2006 as club manager, where he won 2 La Ligas and a Champions League. He is credited with kickstarting Barcelona’s modern dominance internationally and domestically, and his legacy as a great player and coach only boosts his reputation.
There’s also Didier Deschamps, the only player to have won the World Cup as a player and manager. In 1998, France won the World Cup at home, with Deschamps as captain leading the great French defense on an unbeaten run to the trophy. He also captained France’s European Championship-winning team in 2000. In 2018, as France national team manager, he led the team to a World Cup, besting Croatia in the final. In Deschamps’ playing career, he played for Marseille, Juventus, and Chelsea, winning 5 league titles and reaching 4 Champions League finals. He was nicknamed “The Water-Carrier” for his exceptionally progressive play, advancing the ball up the field.
Next on this list is Dutch legend William Van Hanegem, who won a couple trophies in the early 1970s with domestic club Feyenoord as well as being a key contributor to the Dutch national team’s dominance from 1974-1978. With Feyenoord, he won 3 Eredivisie as well as Champions League and Europa League. With the Dutch, he reached the World Cup final and Euro Final, playing a key role in both tournaments. He was named “De Kromme” (The Crooked) for his ability to curve the ball into tight space. Over the course of his storied career, he scored 180 goals in just 680 games. His counterpart in Johan Neeskens was known for his time with Ajax in the 1970s, but was also a key contributor to those 1970s Dutch national teams. He won 2 Eredivisie and 3 Champions Leagues with Ajax before a shorter but still relatively successful stint with FC Barcelona. He was one of the first “box-to-box” midfielders. He was a tireless runner, and was said by teammate Sjaak Swart to be “worth two men in midfield.”
Another Dutch legend is Clarence Seedorf, who, unlike the other two Dutch legends, had more success outside of the Netherlands in the 1990s and 2000s He played for Ajax, Real Madrid, and AC Milan, becoming the first and only player to win a Champions League with three different clubs. He won 2 Eredivisie with Ajax, a La Liga, with Real Madrid, and 2 Serie As with AC Milan. He was a well rounded and versatile player, nicknamed “Il Professor” for his pace, agility, passing, crossing, strength and stamina. He was a defensive playmaker, holding the midfield line and progressing the ball upfield. While not achieving much success internationally, he is a club legend in three storied teams’ histories, which is quite a feat.
Another AC Milan legend worth a mention is Andrea Pirlo. He captained the Italian national team to the 2006 World Cup and won 6 Serie As and 2 Champions Leagues with AC Milan and fellow Serie A elite Juventus. Pirlo played as a deep-lying midfielder, passing wide, playing crosses upfield, and finding targets with his exceptionally good vision. He wasn’t as flashy as other midfielders, as he was slow, weak, small, and below-average defensively. But he had good ball control and dribbling, which helped him get past. He was nicknamed “L’Architetto,” (in English, “The Architect”) because of his playstyle that relied on building on others’ performances.
A midfielder’s name that you likely don’t know but definitely should is Michel Platini, the only midfielder to win 3 straight Ballon D’Ors. He won a Ligue 1, 2 Serie As, a Champions League title, the UEFA Super Cup, the European Cup, and helped bring the French national team and Saint Etienne to some of their most successful eras. Staying on the subject of the Ballon D’Or, the only right midfielder to win one thus far is Raymond Kopa. Over the course of his storied career, Koga also won 2 Latin Cups (the Mediterranean equivalent of the Champions League), 4 Ligue 1 titles, 2 La Ligas, 3 Champions Leagues, and scored over 140 goals and 200 assists in 600 appearances.
The final three on this list are names you may have heard a few times before. First, Zinedine Zidane. He also won the World Cup with France in 1998– leading to a Ballon D’Or win that year– and the European Championship in 2000. He started his domestic career at Bordeaux, leading the team to the 1996 Europa League Final, where they lost to Bayern Munich. He earned a move to Juventus and joined with fellow France teammate Didier Deschamps, where he won 2 Serie A’s and reached 2 consecutive Champions League Finals. In 2001, he joined Real Madrid, winning a Champions League and 2 La Ligas. As manager for Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid, he won 3 Champions Leagues and 3 La Ligas from 2015 until his firing in 2021.
Second, Argentinian legend Diego Maradona. He played for Barcelona and Napoli, helping the latter become a dominant Serie A club, winning multiple titles. This was the peak of Napoli’s dominance, and it would be a peak that they have never again reached. With Argentina, he won the World Cup in 1986, scoring two of the most famous goals in history, known respectively as “The Hand of God” and the “Goal of the Century.” As many attacking midfielders were and still are, he was a classic No. 10, playing behind the forwards but having a strong presence in scoring goals and assists. Over the course of his career, he registered an inhuman 300 goals in 500 appearances.
Finally, Pele. The only 3-time World Cup winner needs no introduction. Domestically, he won 6 Brazilian Serie As. He scored a ridiculous 580 goals in 590 games. He was one of the first dual footed players in history, and a prolific goalscorer and playmaker, building the blueprint for decades of future central attacking midfielders. He was also very fast and elusive, which helped in getting open and creating chances. In 2000, he won FIFA’s Player of the Century. Pele may be the greatest soccer player ever– there’s a reason everyone knows his name.
That’ll do it for the midfielders, but next time, we’ll discuss the attackers that they set up: the forwards.