The Century: The unluckiest five to miss out on our countdown of the 100 greatest players

The Century: This week, The Independent is counting down the 100 best players of the last twenty years. But not everybody could make the list...

Sports Staff
Monday 14 October 2019 12:19
OTD: The Magic Night in Manchester (2003)

This week The Independent is counting down through our 100 greatest players of the 21st century.

We asked ten of our football writers to identify their 50 greatest players of the past two decades, with each player assigned a number of points determined by their rank, before our overall list was then worked out.

Twenty players will be revealed every day of this week, with the overall winner announced on Friday.

But not every player to make those individual lists of 50 could make the cut.

On the day that we launch our countdown of the 100 greatest players, five of our football writers single out the players they feel were especially unlucky to miss out.

Gennaro Gattuso

British football never saw the best of Gennaro Gattuso. Signed by Rangers from Perugia in 1997, the teenager was initially prevented from playing in Scotland as the Italian FA refused to release his registration. When he did get on the pitch, he was frequently played out of position. He struggled with the language and, according to legend, once arrived at training to find that a certain Mr P Gascogine had defected in his socks.

Gennaro Gattuso was a World Cup winner

But he soon got to grips with playing so far from home and, one season later, earned himself a move to AC Milan. That is where his career truly took off, and where he became one of the best players in the world. He would go on to make over 450 appearances as Milan’s snarling heart: winning two Serie A titles and two Champions Leagues.

In 2006, he also played a starring role in Italy’s World Cup triumph in Germany. Deep into extra-time in the final against France, as the game began to lurch wildly from one end of the pitch to the other, it was Gattuso who saved his beloved nation: twice haring back downfield to dispossess Florent Malouda and scupper French counter-attacks. Italy would not have won that World Cup without him.

Gattuso may not have been the most technically astute midfielder of the past twenty years, but he was one of the most passionate and vital: a born winner who dragged his teams through their most difficult moments, often by sheer force of will alone. He deserves a place in our list. Luke Brown

Javier Mascherano

It’s hard to explain why Javier Mascherano doesn’t feature in this list. Five La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues and a swamp of other baubles certainly feels like it passes the invisible threshold that separates success and greatness. He played with a rugged tactical nous that translated fluently from San Lorenzo to London, Liverpool and then into a finer art at Barcelona and his enduring leadership saw him become the highest-capped player in Argentina’s history.

Javier Mascherano left Liverpool for Barcelona (Getty)

Perhaps, then, it is because Mascherano was always one of the unsung cogs in a team. The man who filled the voids others didn’t want to step into. Within Barcelona’s beauty, he was the brash disruptor wading through with his hands covered in oil. The cynical foul to disrupt a counter-attack, the clattering tackle that others shied away from, the petulance and permanent whisper in the referee’s ear.

Maybe it’s why he isn’t necessarily remembered with such gleam, but even on of the greatest Barcelona teams relied on such a figure to prop up the canvas, and Mascherano was one of the best to play that villain over the past two decades. Tom Kershaw


Maicon was the epitome of the traditional buccaneering Brazilian full-back and his peak might be as close to Cafu as we have seen. Dani Alves had the longevity, but Maicon in his prime was more destructive and lifted his teams by starting – and finishing – moves. It was less picking the lock and more smashing the door down when Maicon had picked up top speed.

Maicon was a force of nature at right-back (Getty)

Integral to Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter Milan, his goal in perhaps the greatest Champions League tie against Barcelona defined him. Lionel Messi was hurried off the ball down Barcelona’s right, which acted as a trigger for Maicon, who swiftly stormed down the vacant corridor of space on the opposite side of the pitch. A perfectly-timed run into the box, collecting Diego Milito’s cutback, combined with a calm finish perfectly illustrated how devastating Maicon could be. Jack Rathborn

Mesut Ozil

It would be easy to look at Mesut Ozil today, those sad eyes peering out under the hood of his rain jacket on the Arsenal bench, and forget what came before. It would be understandable if we’d lost sight of the irrepressible Ozil of 2011-12, who made 19 goals as Real Madrid won La Liga with a record 100 points, flitting up the right wing and bending unethical throughballs with the outside of his left foot; or the player who buzzed at the heart of Germany’s 2014 World Cup triumph; or the player who made 15+ assists in six different seasons in the Bundesliga, La Liga and the Premier League.

Ozil starred at the 2014 World Cup 

He still has those gifts – Philipp Lahm once said Ozil has the best vision of any player he’s played with, and that vision will never fade – but perhaps football has moved on too quickly. If Ozil briefly felt like a player ahead of his time, he now seems like one from an age gone by. Someone like Wesley Sneijder, for example, had a similar magical touch without great mobility, but he got out before the Guardiola press and the Klopp counter-press consumed the game. Now 30, Ozil is left looking like a weak link rather than a secret weapon, but that fact should only strengthen our resolve not to blur the memory of one of the most relentlessly creative footballers of the 21st century. Lawrence Ostlere

Ricardo Carvalho

Ricardo Carvalho established himself as one of the most majestic centre-backs of his era, while also having the craft to bend the rules in his favour. The Portuguese thrived under Jose Mourinho, both at Porto, where he won the Champions League, and then at Chelsea, where he formed one of the finest partnerships of the decade alongside John Terry.

Carvalho would pick up possession with a swagger, sweeping the ball to any target he desired, while also daring the opposition to offer him a channel of space that he would regularly penetrate with his regular forrays out from the back. A stint at Real Madrid yielded a La Liga title, while he was also part of the Portuguese side who won the European Championship in 2016.

One of the most composed defenders of his generation (Getty)

Carvalho’s speciality was the interception; often lurking, ready to jump out from the back and pinch possession in midfield to join the subsequent counter-attack. While his slide tackling was usually exquisite; timed perfectly due to his useful pace and reliable reading of the game, Carvalho was truly outstanding. Jack Rathborn

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments