From Pele to Messi and Ronaldo: Players Who Defined Generations

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From Pele to Messi and Ronaldo: Players Who Defined Generations
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It's often said that once in a while, a football player comes along who defines not just his club—not just the position he plays—but an entire generation within the sport.

While naturally being talented enough to come to the attention of so many people, this player is not necessarily the greatest player around, but he makes the absolute most of his skill set against the prevailing tactics of the day to make himself a genuine winner, superstar and world-renowned name.

When others speak of a decade of football from days gone by, of major tournaments or of a style of play, this player's name and image are almost without fail recalled.

From the late 1950s or early 1960s, those names are perhaps readily identifiable in periods.

Beforehand, while there was no shortage of talent, it is more difficult to pin down exact periods when one player was more dominant than any other or more well-known throughout the game when conversations are struck up.

Giuseppe Meazza, Stanley Matthews or Tom Finney might be seen as world-beaters before the '50s, and all had a lasting impact on the game in one way or another.

Into the '50s, Alfredo Di Stefano was a genuine stand-out talent, while Just Fontaine and others of the same era rightly get plenty of acclaim.

But players who defined a generation? They perhaps came just afterward.

Ferenc Puskas still perhaps does not receive due credit. A Hungarian striker of fearsome talent and consistency, he moved to Real Madrid in '58 at the age of 31 and started six seasons, netting 358 league goals in only 349 league games.

Even after a further two campaigns where he featured (and scored) less often, he still ended his career in Spain with more goals than games.

And yet he is often, if not always, overlooked by another player, one so famous that his legend has arguably become even greater than the story it tells: Edson Arantes do Nascimento, more commonly known as Pele.

That wondrous 17-year-old burst onto the scene in such spectacular fashion at the World Cup and instantly held the attentions of the entire globe.

He was the youngest player to ever score a hat trick at the finals, appear in the final itself and the youngest ever scorer in the final. Goals, records and trophies quickly came tumbling his way in the iconic kit of Brazil.

Pele immediately became an icon, and nothing he did thereafter has done anything to take the shine off his name as a player.

He, without any shadow of a doubt, is the man who defined the period from the late '50s to as far along as the 1970 World Cup, which he also won after scoring in the final.

By that time, new powers in the game were rising, and late in 1970, the first glimpse of a soon-to-be familiar sight was had.

Over in Holland, Ajax's Dutch maestro Johan Cruyff made his return from injury, sporting the No. 14 jersey, which was to become synonymous with him over the coming years. As Dutch Total Football came to its peak, Cruyff was the magician who could do everything in the game. He had the technique, mentality and tactical discipline to do it all extremely well.

In '71, '72 and '73, Ajax won the European Cup three years consecutively. Cruyff was central to all the team's best work and scored both goals in a 2-0 triumph over Inter Milan in the second final.

He moved then to Barcelona, where more accolades came his way. He missed out on winning the World Cup by only the slimmest of margins, losing 2-1 to West Germany in the '74 final.

Total Football encapsulated the world for almost a decade spanning the late '60s and early to mid-'70s, and Cruyff was the face, core and idealism behind the movement.

In the post-Pele years, nobody came close to matching Cruyff for impact on the game and defining an entire generation of the sport. Even now, years later, his impact, methodology and teams are spoken about arguably more than Rinus Michels, the actual coach in charge of Ajax (and Holland in the '74 final), who devised and employed those tactics.

In terms of football life, generations do not necessarily fall directly in line.

Great players may have come and gone, but there was none in particular between Cruyff and Diego Maradona who could claim to define a generation of football.

Maradona, though, was spellbinding and watchable every time he took to the field. His own fire-starting brand of impacting on games was unmissable.

Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli and, of course, Argentina all saw the best of the best. Greatness on the ball aside though, it was his inspirational ability to dictate a game, to individually wrest victory from anything approaching defeat and his unstoppable array of skills and speed on the ball that made him so memorable.

That, and the red cards, drug addiction and trophy wins, of course.

The most curious period perhaps followed Maradona's demise in terms of a generation of football.

After he lost the World Cup final in 1990 (like Cruyff in '74, to West Germany), Maradona's career was basically over shortly afterward, as he left Napoli after failing a drug test and receiving a suspension of more than a year.

Fast forward to the modern era of the game—which is dominated by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldowas there a single, indisputable stand-out star?

The strength of the game in the '90s was arguably based in Italy's Serie A, but while many candidates were playing at the very highest level, it is difficult to argue that any were held, or indeed are now held, in the esteem of Pele, Cruyff and Maradona.

Roberto Baggio, Marco van Basten, Gabriel Batistuta and perhaps most of all the entire AC Milan defensive line all featured amongst the very best the game had to offer.

But with the potential exception of Paolo Maldini, whose career spanned a generation or two all by itself, perhaps only former Brazilian striker Ronaldo encapsulated an entire generation and an unsurpassed level of quality.

Alas, Ronaldo's career was cut down by several years by lingering knee injuries, which robbed the game of what could have been the greatest out-and-out striker in the history of football.

And so to the current period of time, and the ongoing, eternal, life-sapping debate over whether Barcelona's Messi or Real Madrid's Ronaldo holds sway.

Who defines the current generation?

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Right now, it's immaterial of course.

Only in the fullness of time will endless replays, stories, books and DVDs—or whatever contraption takes the place of digital media in the forthcoming decade or so—about both players offer up some kind of majority vote as to who was better.

It's plausible that, perhaps for the first time, the saturation levels of media surrounding the players and the game will mean that the actual rivalry between the duo will indicate that both players defined the generation.

And, after three decades of trying to discern whether Pele or Maradona, separated by decades of the changing face of the sport, were better than each other...maybe having such a direct comparison to enjoy won't be such a bad thing.

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