1960's – 2011 comparison (Pele)
There is no doubt that Brazilian striker Pele was the best player of the 1960's. Pele and Maradona are the two players who are always mentioned when the common question is asked, 'Who was the best player to have ever lived?' Pele will often be the answer. So what was Pele like? Pele was a natural goal scorer, the Santos striker was incredibly athletic and his dribbling / balance combination was unstoppable for defenders. His ability to go past defenders at such speed and maintain such balance credited him with many goal scoring opportunities, which more likely than not Pele would score emphatically. Pele had technique, the passing ability of a central midfield maestro, the engine of a Marathon runner and the power of a steam train. His statistics are sensational, 1281 goals in 1363 games.
No one can live up to Pele's name; Manchester United's George Best in the 70's was a similar type of player to Pele but was more a winger than a forward. In the modern era, few have been compared to Pele but none have lived up to the reputation that Brazilian Pele possessed. Alexandre Pato of AC Milan was tipped to be the Pele of this era, but he has to yet show any phenomenal form to even label him the one of the best strikers today let alone ever lived. Manchester United's Wayne Rooney is the closest of this decade that we have compared to Pele. Rooney possesses the same power and physique that Pele does, the same ability to pick out a 70 yard cross field ball and the same vision and technique. England striker Rooney just does not have the same amount of pace that Pele did which combines with the factor that Rooney does not particularly go past players with skill and flair.
Wayne Rooney has scored goals that you would not think were possible with the stunning volley against Newcastle and the recent potential goal of the season overhead against rivals Manchester City. Pele scored stunning goals in the 60's and 70's for Santos and Brazil, one 'near' goal that would've been one of the greatest goals of all time. His dummy against Uruguay that left the keeper for dead when the ball went one way and Pele went around the other way, but his shot off balance and on a tight angle just went wide.
1970's – 2011 comparison (Johann Cruyff)
Johann Cruyff was part of the Ajax side that inherited the 'total football' philosophy introduced by Dutch coach Rinul Michels. Former Barcelona and Ajax front man Johann Cruyff's style of play was influenced by the total football approach he conceded to his game. His natural position was center forward but because of the tactical way the Ajax side played the game, he roamed around and ended up playing on the wing and central midfield more often than not. The Holland striker spent half of the 1970's at Barcelona for Rinus Michels, where he was crowned European Footballer of the Year at his time at Barcelona in consecutive years.
Cruyff was dubbed the 'Pythagoras in boots' because of his ability to pick out passages from angles that looked impossible. Not only did he have an eye for a pass but he had a remarkable speed and his ability to accelerate away from defenders who was helped by the 'Cruyff turn' named after the Dutch maestro is still a turn associated with football 40 years later.
I do not think any striker could grace Cruyff's ability to play in multiple positions to maximum effect so I've chosen a playmaker and speed merchant who would grace Cruyff's technical and physical attributes to his game, Ryan Giggs. Both players in their prime had the ability to go past players with flair and tremendously pace creating goal scoring opportunities. Giggs is not as prolific as Cruyff as a finisher but Giggs certainly lives up to the playmaking abilities that Cruyff possessed. Ryan Giggs in his prime was lightening over 5-10 yards and could maintain such frightening pace for 40-50 yards which he shared with Cruyff.
However as football has changed much over the years since Cruyff's successful days at Ajax and Barcelona, the style of play has changed and there are not many similar type of players of Cruyff's calibre that could play naturally upfront and drop back deeper and still be extremely effective.
1980's – 2011 comparison (Diego Maradona)
Maradona or Messi? There is no doubt that of today's game, Lionel Messi is the nearest if not potential candidate to surpass Maradona's ability as a footballer. Former Barcelona striker Diego Maradona along with Pele is one of the best players to have ever graced this planet. He was not as clinical as Pele but taking nothing away from Maradona he still had a very good goal scoring record for club and country. The style of play on the ball for Maradona and Messi is identical. They both dribble with extreme pace and a very low center of gravity; they both possess extreme dribbling skills with the ability to have 5-10 touches in the space of seconds to make it impossible for defenders to tackle. Many have questioned whether Lionel Messi could do what Maradona did at Napoli. Maradona won what is now the Italian 'serie A' with Napoli with what was a very average squad, Maradona being the pivotal part of the Napoli side and no doubt would not have been title winners if Maradona was not on their books. Could Messi do a similar fate at Blackburn of the English Premiership, Udinese of the Italian Serie A? Many doubt whether Messi could.
In contrast Messi has achieved a lot more than Maradona at this age having already won the Spanish La Liga 4 times and Champions League 2 times. Messi is only 23, Maradona at 23 won the treble with Barcelona in 1983 and an Argentine title with Boca Juniors in 1981 but that was it. So Messi so far has had a better career on silverware success but Maradona's achievements at Napoli and on the international arena set him as to Messi. Infamously, Maradona also has a World Cup to his name in 1986 which Maradona made his name.
There is no doubt that Barcelona winger Messi scores goals from all sorts of angles and all sorts of scintillating runs but Maradona's second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup has been considered as the goal of the century by many people. Maradona traveled with the ball 60 meters and took on six English players in the process, rounded England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and scored from a tight angle to beat England 2-1 in the quarter finals of the 1986 World Cup which they went on to win. The ex-Napoli striker also scored the very controversial 'hand of god' goal in the same game which has been spoken about ever since. Messi has not really shined on the international stage and if he does, it may be what takes him past his boyhood hero's status.
1990's – 2011 comparison (Ronaldo)
He was a natural goal scorer of his era and by far the best striker in his generation for simply scoring goal after goal. Ronaldo played at the highest level through the 90's and early 00's, he represented PSV, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and AC Milan in an illustrious career that was disrupted by serious knee injuries.
Brazilian striker Ronaldo was a born goal scorer, he had the ability to go past players with his skill and power but defiantly his threat was in the box. He scored 62 goals in just under 100 appearances for Brazil and has been voted Brazil's best ever striker since Pele by numerous judging panels. Former Real Madrid striker Ronaldo was indestructible, if he got in the box it was inevitable he was going to score.
As Ronaldo has still been playing till quite recently, there has not been long for anyone to potentially replace Ronaldo's prowess for being a known goal scorer. However, there are a few players that this season in world Football has started to develop their reputation. Javier Hernandez of Manchester United is one striker that could have the potential to live up to Ronaldo's abilities in front of goal. He already has 16 goals for Manchester United in his first season and is a predator in the box similar to Ronaldo. It's doubtable whether Mexican forward Hernandez will have the impact on world football that Ronaldo did, but the Mexican is a very similar striker to what Ronaldo was in his prime.
Barcelona's David Villa is another striker who is known for his potential in the box. Spanish hit man David Villa has earned his trade at Valencia for several years and finally sealed a move to Barcelona where he already has 21 goals to his name. Villa has also lived up to Ronaldo's international reputation, having already won the European Championships in 2008 and the World Cup in 2010 with Spain being a key member of the winning side in both tournaments with his contribution of goals.
2000's – 2011 comparison (Zidane)
One of the most gifted players of this century was French midfielder and former Juventus / Bordeaux midfielder Zidane. One of the most natural players at playing the game, Zidane glided through the game in a nonchalant manner that saw him one of footballs most composed players ever to have graced the game. An out and out central midfielder, Zidane possessed a goal scoring ability from midfield and also the ability to craft out magic in midfield to launch attacks for his side.
Zidane joined Real Madrid from Juventus in 2001 for a world record fee at the time of around 50 million pounds. Zidane enjoyed success in Real Madrid, winning the Champions League and the Spanish La Liga in his 6 years at the club. Not to mention becoming a World cup winner with France in 1998 and a runner up in 2006. Zidane was a tall, strong midfielder at 6'1 he was no fool at defending and was not afraid to challenge for an aerial battle but Zidane came alive in the attacking half and his deft touches on the ball and he appeared to have eyes in the back of his head at times with his awareness of space around him.
Not many footballers have compositions as a skill to their game because of the extreme amounts of pressure footballers are put under and now with all the money at stake. However, Manchester United's Dimitar Berbatov is one of very few footballers that possess superb composition on the ball which is a very gracious skill to have. Bulgarian striker Berbatov and French midfielder Zidane also share the same style of control and first touch, with Berbatov having one of the greatest techniques in the world today to resemble Zidane in his prime. Although ex-Tottenham striker Berbatov is an out and out forward and Zidane never played upfront, the abilities they both have are very similar. Even their mental approaches are very alike, both are very quiet and do not particularly talk much when competing competitively. Both have tremendous control on the ball, both have the ability to go past players with the skill on the ball rather than speed or strength.
Great players are easy to come by; it's the magical players that are hard to come by. Who's going to replace Barcelona's Messi's or Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo's today's game in a few years? Football has the ability to produce stars to show on the world stage which is what makes football such an amazing sport to watch.