The Perfect 10 by Richard Williams

Why include the obnoxious Bergcamp?
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The Independent Culture

In the hands of a lesser writer such musings could seem pretentious; after all, these are football players we're talking about, not composers or artists. But it's a mark of the quality of this book that such comments fit gracefully into William's vision of the game. And it's true that those he has selected - among them such greats as Puskas, Pelé, Platini, Maradona and Zidane - somehow transcend their sport to embody something altogether more complex and mysterious: avatars, perhaps, of an ever-present human longing for something eternally out of reach.

Like most of the "best of" parlour games that fans like to conduct, it's not simply who makes it on to the list that excites debate, but the very criteria for qualification in the first place. And it's here that Williams reveals an idiosyncratic definition of what he perceives a "true" Number 10 to be: not simply a creative and imaginative playmaker but one who adheres to a strict, though vaguely defined, role. Thus those great players who did not wear a Number 10 shirt (De Stefano, Cruyff) are excluded, transparently enough, on the grounds of their shirt number; but other greats who did wear it - most notably Ruud Guillit - also fail to make the cut because they do not conform to William's vision of the role. Such quibbling illustrates a truism about football fans: that even the most gushing enthusiast enjoys a taste for disputation and demarcation that could shame a mediaeval scholastic philosopher.

Fortunately, Williams does not dwell on his criteria of inclusion, but devotes the bulk of his book to an analysis and evocation of the players themselves. Unusually for a writer who makes his living in newspapers (Williams writes for The Guardian) he seems much more at ease in the wide open spaces of the book than in the set word counts of the columnist. His range of reference is wide (Jean Luc Godard, a brief history of Uruguayan football, and the Buddhist philosophy of the Soka Gakkai movement as practiced by Roberto Baggio, for instance, all figure here), and throughout he deploys his learning engagingly and to telling effect. Best of all, his enthusiasm for his subject radiates from every page. This is not simply an appreciation, but a love letter to the players, games, and breathtaking moments of skill that have illuminated William's experience of the football game.

My one objection to an impressive list is the writer's misjudged inclusion of the obnoxious Dennis Bergkamp in this pantheon. Tantalisingly, he details his agonies over the decision and mentions those who made way so the Dutchman could be included - notably the magical Brazilian, Zico. However, other than this single, though major, lapse in taste, there is little else to decry. Williams has assembled a top 10 (plus one) of magical football talent. For "these are men worth arguing over," he says, who are not as other players but "who treat the ball as their own, who stroke it with a velvet touch, who disdain hurry and scurry and seem to be gazing over the heads of their teammates and opponents alike, searching the horizon for some golden opportunity invisible to other men."