James Lawton: A team good enough to drop Best and Charlton

Manchester United legends overlooked for 'House of European Football' as Uefa associations pick greatest players of last 50 years
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The Independent Football

Imagine the scene of the Golden Jubilee celebrations at Uefa headquarters in Switzerland next summer when the doors of the House of European Football are thrown open to the 52 best European players over the last 50 years, as nominated by their national associations.

There is George Best, the most gifted player ever produced in Northern Ireland, maybe all of Europe, teetering back through some of the great days at Old Trafford with Sir Bobby Charlton.

And who's that in the far corner? Zinedine Zidane, or is it Michel Platini, hob-nobbing with the Emperor, Franz Beckenbauer. And there, surely, you see Paolo Maldini in his Versace suit and greying curls sipping a glass of his favourite Chianti, exchanging the odd perspective with the great Dave Mackay of Scotland?

Images to thrill the football cognoscenti, but none of them will take shape. Not, at least, in the House of European Football.

None of that aristocracy of the beautiful game has made it. Best, who will go to his grave swearing that he was denied a crowning moment of genius when he flicked the ball away from Gordon Banks and slotted it coolly into the back of the English net on a wild day at Windsor Park, is probably the most contentious omission.

A luminous talent, rated by many aficionados among the half-dozen most gifted players of all time - with only a touch of irony, he called his autobiography Blessed - Best failed to pass the ultimate question posed by Uefa. It was for the national associations to decide who was their outstanding player, not just in terms of raw ability but consistently brilliant service to the national team.

Pat Jennings, of the huge hands and unflappable nature, was deemed by the Irish FA to be the man. The Tottenham and Arsenal goalkeeper played 109 times for Northern Ireland with a phenomenally sustained mixture of nerve and judgement.

Best, partly because of his wayward nature, and no doubt because despite all his other virtues his Manchester United manager, Sir Matt Busby, was never famous for putting the interests of a player's country before those of his club, played just 39 times in the green shirt.

In England, for all the celebrity of David Beckham and the goalscoring facility and impeccable discipline of Gary Lineker and the searing professionalism of Alan Shearer, the choice was between two: Sir Bobby and his World Cup captain, Bobby Moore. Charlton's claim was his scoring record of 49 goals in 106 games for England, and a sumptuous style; Moore's was that he provided the leadership of the gods, a fact acknowledged by no one more dramatically than the world's greatest footballer Pele, who after their epic duel in a World Cup game in Guadalajara in 1970, embraced the England captain and declared: "Bobby has proved himself to be one of the most important figures who have ever played the game. We won, but it was very difficult. I am proud to think of him as my friend." That Brazilian team, fuelled by the genius and the character of Pele, was widely considered to be the best that ever competed in a World Cup.

What happened, for heavens sake, to the Kaiser? A brilliant performer in the World Cups of 1966 and 1970, before delivering the trophy in front of his own people in 1974 against the superb Dutch of Johan Cruyff, Beckenbauer has been the brains and the style of German football administration ever since. But he lost out to Fritz Walter.

Fritz who? He was not a talent to be compared with Beckenbauer, or Gerd Müller or Wolfgang Overath for that matter, but he did something quite indelible. As the captain of the 1954 West German World Cup team he persuaded his team-mates that beating the Hungary of Puskas and Bozsik and Hidegkuti, the one that had ravaged England in two games by an aggregate score of 13-4 a year earlier - and Germany 8-3 in a group match - was not a fantasy. Walter's men staggered the football world with their 3-2 victory, and they laid the foundation stone of the nation's stunning World Cup record of three victories and seven appearances in the final. The vote went to Walter because, maybe, he announced that if you were tough enough, committed enough, anything was possible.

Zidane would have been most people's favourite for France with his huge contribution to the World Cup win of 1998 and the Euro triumph of 2000, heading off Platini, the beautifully acute inspiration of the nation's first major tournament win, in the European Championship of 1984, and today's sensation, Thierry Henry, the favourite to be voted the world's outstanding player.

But the French, like the Germans, turned their minds back to earlier days, when an extraordinary standard was set by Just Fontaine in the 1958 World Cup of Sweden. Fontaine finished the tournament with a four-goal blitzkrieg of the Germans in the game for the third place - earlier he had scored three against Paraguay, two against Yugoslavia, one against Scotland, two against Northern Ireland, and one against Brazil in the semi-final.

That was 13 goals in six games, two better than the previous mark set by Sandor Kocsis of Hungary four years earlier. Fontaine, as it happened, was beautifully served by the haunting talent of Raymond Kopa, who moved on, spectacularly, to Real Madrid. But the French federation declared that Fontaine had rampaged his way to permanent glory, and their voting was the pattern adopted by so many national bodies. Was this a sign of old men nursing their memories, or a commendable effort to cast aside the celebrity market of today?

The Irish Republic, as part of the pattern, looked beyond the boiling controversies and warrior zeal of Roy Keane, and went back to the craft and generalship of Johnny Giles. The Scots, of course, had little choice; their best talent is a matter of lengthening memory, and the prodigious Mackay and the sublime Jim Baxter and Kenny Dalglish must have been the strongest rivals to the winner, the electric Denis Law.

Most notably, Sweden elected to live with the latest headlines. They nominated the Prince of Glasgow, Celtic's Henrik Larsson, scorer of a phenomenal 157 League goals in 198 games. But then, how does that compare with the great Viking Gunnar Nordahl, who left the essentially amateur game of Sweden for Milan and proceeded to score 225 in 257 games in the home of the "bolted door".

But Nordahl, like Beckenbauer and Best, Platini and Maldini, who was beaten by the great goalkeeper Dino Zoff, is shut out of the House of European Football. It is, of course, an entirely arbitrary matter. Greatness, reassuringly, lives in the minds of those who saw it - out on the field, not in a museum.

EUROPE'S TOP 50

Albania: Pano Panajot

Andorra: Koldo

Armenia: Khoren Hovhannisyan

Azerbaijan: Anatoli Banishevski

Belarus: Sergei Aleinikov

Belgium: Paul Van Himst

Bosnia-Herzegovina: Safet Susic

Bulgaria: Hristo Stoichkov

Croatia: Davor Suker

Cyprus: Sotiris Kalafas

Czech Republic: Josef Masopust

Denmark: Michael Laudrup

England: Bobby Moore

Estonia: Mart Poom

Faroes: Abraham Lokin

Finland: Jari Litmanen

France: Just Fontaine

Georgia: Murtaz Khurtsilava

Germany: Fritz Walter

Greece: Vassilis Hatzipanagis

Hungary: Ferenc Puskas

Iceland: Asgeir Sigurvinsson

Northern Ireland: Pat Jennings

Republic of Ireland: John Giles

Israel: Mordechai Shpigler

Italy: Dino Zoff

Kazakhstan: Sergey Kvochkin

Latvia: Aleksandrs Starkovs

Liechtenstein: Rainer Hasler

Lithuania: Arminas Narbekovas

Luxembourg: Louis Pilot

Macedonia: Darko Panchev

Malta: Carmel Busuttil

Maldova: Pavel Cebanu

Netherlands: Johan Cruyff

Norway: Rune Bratseth

Poland: Wlodzimierz Lubanski

Portugal: Eusebio

Romania: Gheorghe Hagi

Russia: Lev Yashin

San Marino: Massimo Bonini

Scotland: Denis Law

Serbia and Montenegro: Dragan Dzajic

Slovakia: Jan Popluhar

Slovenia: Brane Oblak

Spain: Alfredo Di Stefano

Sweden: Henrik Larsson

Switzlerand: Stephane Chapuisat

Turkey: Hakan Sukur

Ukraine: Oleg Blokhin

Wales: John Charles

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