The untimely death of Johan Cruyff at the age of 68 last week got us thinking: the Dutch artist, philosopher and footballer (in that order) is clearly the coolest player of all time, but who would join him in a coolest XI? Here’s our entirely subjective view, and you’ll notice there’s a distinct lack of current players in here. Sorry Raheem, but R&B, diamond-encrusted iPhones and a knack for saying ‘at the end of the day’ don’t cut it for us. Obviously we’ve gone for the coolest formation of all, the 3-3-1-3, with a stylish Argentine sitting in midfield and a Great Dane behind the fearsome front three.
GK: Rene Higuita
Like the man he edged out for this slot (see substitutes) Higuita is often lambasted by the unimaginative English as a bit of a clown. Of course, at times he was, but Higuita’s flamboyance and, ahem, extracurricular activities masked (or should we say embellished?) a footballing talent that was actually ahead of its time. Higuita was one of the first ‘sweeper keepers’, regularly patrolling the zone outside the box and calmly playing one-twos with defenders while opponents stalked the space in-between. OK, Higuita was a risk-taker and, fair enough, that sometimes backfired on him, but you don’t usually take such a shine to Colombian goalkeepers, do you?
RB: Carlos Alberto
The Brazil World Cup winning-side (there’s a trend starting here) of 1970 are probably the most loved of all time. Broadcast to homes around the world in glorious Technicolor, Pele, Jairzinho, Gerson and co. delighted football fans of all ages with their samba trickery, defeating world champions England and old foe Uruguay on their way to the final, where they’d go on to demolish Italy. Captain Carlos Alberto wasn’t the most notable figure on the team, but he gets in here purely because: a) there aren’t that many ‘cool’ defenders and b) he was the scorer of arguably the coolest goal of all time – despite the ball taking a cheeky bobble just before it was struck.
CB: Franz Beckenbauer
If the football world wasn’t so obsessed with goalscoring strikers and graceful playmakers, Franz Beckenbauer would probably be considered the greatest footballer of all time. Seriously. The lynchpin of Germany and Bayern Munich’s finest ever sides, ‘Der Kaiser’ (how about that for a nickname?) called on the experience of playing in midfield in his youth to redefine the sweeper position, languidly yet forcefully carrying the ball forward out of defence and launching attack after attack. He scored 14 goals for his national side – no mean feat for a defender – but is most famous for lifting the brand new World Cup trophy in 1974, as his Germans overcame the Netherlands’ side of Johan Cruyff. They often say no one remembers that German side, but it would be impossible to forget old Franz. Oh, he also played for the coolest club side in history, too: the New York Cosmos.
LB: Paul Breitner
Known throughout his time with Germany and Bayern Munich as ‘der Afro’, Breitner was known for his socialist views, speaking out against the Berlin Wall and carrying Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ around on team outings. Breitner featured in most of the notoriously efficient German sides of the 1970s and early ‘80s, but his curly hairstyle and beard set him apart as an individual. In retirement, he has remained critical of the establishment, once replacing Berti Vogts as Germany boss for a matter of hours before the appointment was deemed ‘too radical’. A shoo-in for the left-back slot, even if he’ll have to sit back a little bit more in this team.
DM: Fernando Redondo
A slightly left-field choice, given his lack of playing time in later years, Redondo built on everything Andrea Pirlo did before the Italian maestro even started doing it. A defensive midfielder by trade, Redondo boasted all the tricks in the book, as a certain Henning Berg will reluctantly testify. During his time as captain of the all-conquering Real Madrid side of the late 1990s, Redondo became known as ‘El Principe’ (The Prince), and we’re sure you’ll agree he was a pretty dashing looking chap. Another cool thing Redondo did: while at Milan, the Argentine suffered what turned out to be a career-ending knee injury, keeping him out for over two years. Rather than sit back and do a Winston Bogarde, Redondo suspended his salary, and even tried to give his house and car back to the club. What a legend. There’s never been a deep-lying midfielder like Redondo.
Ask your Dad about his favourite international side and, the chances are, depending on his age, he’ll say Tele Santana’s 1982 Brazil team. Well Socrates, a qualified doctor, was the midfielder who made that glorious bunch tick. Striding out on to the pitch in his headband, yellow shirt, tight blue shorts and long white socks, Socrates was the epitome of cool for schoolkids everywhere in the early ‘80s, and his playing style matched his effortlessly chic appearance. That the Brazil side he captained crashed out early – sending joga bonito into a 34-year deep sleep from which it is yet to return – is one of football’s great shames.
CM: Carlos Valderrama
Valderrama is an iconic figure despite – OK, it was mainly because of – boasting a Hair Bear Bunch haircut for his entire career. Captain and midfield lynchpin of Colombia’s exotic team of the 1990s, Valderrama never seemed to leave the centre circle, but when you can play assists like this, why bother? Sadly, the South American never played at the highest level in club football, despite being his country’s most capped player, although he did break records in the nascent years of MLS, crafting an incredible 26 assists for Tampa Bay Mutiny in the 2000 season. Valderrama made it look effortless, and you could always pick him out on TV, no matter how bad the picture.
AM: Michael Laudrup
As the playmaker in the ‘Danish Dynamite’ team – one of Europe’s coolest ever sides – Laudrup first caught the imagination with his flair and creativity in the chevron-daubed Hummel kit at the 1986 World Cup. He seemed to effortlessly glide into space, or find it for his teammates with a carefully measured pass. One of few players to appear in the colours of both Barcelona and Real Madrid, Laudrup is adored by fans of both clubs and would probably be more highly rated had he not played for a relative international minnow.
RF: George Best
The first rockstar footballer, Best – on these shores, at least – is renowned for three things: his outrageous footballing talent, his extraordinary prowess with the ladies and the legendary drinking to excess, which would ultimately lead to his untimely death at the age of 59. Despite effectively retiring from top-level football at 27, during Manchester United’s infamous relegation season, Best will be forever known as ‘el Beatle’ to some, blurring the lines between pop culture personality and sporting great. Franz Beckenbauer called him “one of the most talented players of all time” and, wherever he takes his place among your pantheon of legends, he was certainly one of the coolest.
“George Best was simply one of the most talented players of all time.” Franz Beckenbauer
CF: Ferenc Puskas
Despite harbouring a physique like your Dad’s mate Frank from down the pub, Puskas was the most gifted – and most famous – member of Hungary’s Aranycsapat, or Golden Team. In 1953, Puskas amazed the conformist English press by performing keepie-ups at Wembley, before going on to embarrass the Three Lions’ most capped player Billy Wright in a performance that went down in footballing folklore. Puskas later went on to play for Real Madrid, winning three European Cups and notching almost a goal a game for one of football’s most iconic sides. Later in life, he could be found prowling the touchlines as a coach, his growing rotundity failing to mask his outrageous skill.
LF: Johan Cruyff
If Wayne Gretzky is ice hockey, and Michael Jordan is basketball, Johan Cruyff is football. Quite simply the most imaginative, inventive and probably the most intelligent player who ever lived, Cruyff understood – and could manipulate – space on the pitch like no-one else. Without Cruyff, there would be no Total Football, no Guardiola’s Barcelona and, of course, no Dutch footballing heritage worth speaking of. Despite only featuring at one World Cup, Cruyff will be forever associated with the vivid orange of his home country and the number 14 shirt. Since his death, we’ve been trawling the archives for our favourite images of the iconic man, and here are just a few of our favourites: 1, 2 (how much does he look like Lionel Messi?) and 3. And this quote, doled out with the pithiness to which we all became accustomed, strips back the unending gossip, the vulgar streams of money and the storm-in-a-teacup controversies to describe the game at its most basic:
“If you have the ball you must make the field as big as possible, and if you don’t have the ball you must make it as small as possible.”
Now that, Louis van Gaal, is real philosophy.
GK: Fabien Barthez
Barthez made short sleeves between the sticks acceptable. And he was a smoker.
CB: Claudio Gentile
Gentile was ‘efficiently cool’, man-marking Diego Maradona out of the game in the 1982 World Cup and teaching the world all about the dark arts of Italian defending.
Twice a World Cup winner, silky winger Garrincha lost his virginity to a goat, fathered at least 14 children and died of alcoholism at the age of 49. Some Brazilians think he was better than Pele; he was certainly cooler.
AM: Eric Cantona
With endless pop culture references – from the Arctic Monkeys’ ‘leather jacket collar popped like Cantona’ to his puppet gracing the nation’s screens on Spitting Image, the Frenchman’s poise, grace and volatility caught the imagination like few others.
CF: Dimitar Berbatov
Tottenham and Manchester United’s Andy Garcia lookalike learned English by watching The Godfather and once interviewed himself after a game in Bulgaria. Never broke a sweat while playing in England; didn’t really need to.
Cesar Luis Menotti
The chain-smoking, silver-haired Argentinian coach of the 1978 World Cup wins his place in the dugout due to his socialist views and his ‘coffee house’ philosophical approach to the game.