Stanley Matthews and 16 Great Wingers in World Football History
It's 15 years to the day since we lost one of English football’s all-time greats.
Sir Stanley Matthews was the first player to win the European Footballer of the Year award, as well as being the first and only player so far to be knighted while he was still playing.
He won 54 England caps during a playing career that spanned over 30 years and included the Second World War, with his most famous moment coming in 1953’s FA Cup final, when he inspired Blackpool to a 4-3 win over Bolton Wanderers in what later became known as the "Matthews Final."
Matthews was one of the greatest wingers in world football history. Here we remember 16 other players who share that status with the English icon.
One of Matthews’ key contemporaries in the 1940s and 50s, Tom Finney won 76 caps for England and became an icon at the well-respected Preston North End.
He was a favourite of legendary former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, who said of him, via FIFA.com:
Tom Finney would have been great in any team, in any match and in any age—even if he had been wearing an overcoat. He had the opposition so frightened that they'd have a man marking him when warming up!
Like Matthews, Finney was also eventually knighted for his services to football.
Arguably the first Brazilian football superstar, winger Garrincha won the World Cup with his country in both 1958 and 1962—inspiring his team in the absence of the injured Pele in the latter and becoming the tournament's joint-top goalscorer in the process.
Wales full-back Mel Hopkins, who had to mark him in the 1958 World Cup quarter-final, said to the BBC:
He attacked with such pace and I believe he was more of a danger than Pele at the time—he was a phenomenon, capable of sheer magic.
It was difficult to know which way he was going to go because of his legs and because he was as comfortable on his left foot as his right, so he could cut inside or go down the line and he had a ferocious shot too.
Garrincha would have been a real star today, no question about it—a superstar.
With incredible speed and excellent dribbling skills, Garrincha bent-legged style fooled opponents and ensured that he was hugely difficult to stop.
An icon on and off the football pitch, Manchester United legend George Best was one of the most popular figures of the 1960s and 70s, winning two league titles and the European Cup in 1968.
Everyone knew of his quality, with fellow United icon Sir Matt Busby once saying of Best, reported by the BBC:
He was able to use either foot—sometimes he seemed to have six.
Best’s off-field behaviour often attracted the limelight, though, as he dated a string of models and Miss Worlds and was rarely out of the British and European press, with a match in Portugal in 1966 leading to him picking up the nickname “El Beatle,” according to The Independent.
One of the stars of the all-conquering Real Madrid outfit of the 1950s and 60s, Francisco Gento won a remarkable six European Cups from eight finals—both records—as well as 12 La Liga titles.
Manchester United and England legend Bobby Charlton reportedly said of him:
There was Gento playing alongside [Alfredo Di Stefano], and Di Stefano just timed his passes perfectly for him. Gento ran so fast you couldn't get him offside. And I was just sitting there, watching, thinking it was the best thing I had ever seen.
Playing alongside the likes of Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, Gento had incredible speed and acted as a foil for those two superstars.
Perhaps one of the best under-the-radar players in European football history, Yugoslavia’s Dragan Dzajic is considered a legend at Red Star Belgrade, for whom he played for the majority of the 1960s and the early 1970s.
He was considered to be the star player at Euro 1968, where he was top scorer and player of the tournament.
After Yugoslavia lost in the final to Italy, Pele said of Dzajic, according to UEFA.com:
Dzajic is the Balkan miracle—a real wizard. I'm just sorry he's not Brazilian because I've never seen such a natural footballer.
Left-winger Dzajic won five Yugoslav League titles and was capped by Yugoslavia on 85 occasions.
One of only two players to score in every round at a World Cup finals, Brazil’s Jairzinho received worldwide acclaim for his displays as he helped the legendary Brazil team of 1970 to glory in Mexico.
Journalist Jonathan Liew even argues that Jairzinho deserves a higher level of praise than even Pele, writing in The Telegraph:
Ask a Brazilian who is their greatest ever player and you are as likely to hear Heleno, Garrincha, Jairzinho or Zizinho mentioned.
Effectively Brazil’s replacement for Garrincha, Jairzinho perhaps wasn't as tricky as his predecessor, but he was certainly more of an athlete, combining pace and raw power with an eye for goal that few could match.
On the other wing to Jairzinho in that all-conquering Brazil 1970 team was Roberto Rivelino, who scored three goals at the tournament and then took his skills into the 1974 and 1978 editions.
An official FIFA video released prior to the 2014 World Cup said of him:
[Rivelino was] one of the best midfielders of his generation; the moustachioed maestro was a great entertainer.
With his trademark moustache and remarkable free-kick abilities, Rivelino quickly gained a cult following among world football followers, and he is now fondly remembered as one of the greatest players of his era.
It takes a special figure to be recognised for just his shirt number, but even now, the sight of an orange shirt bearing the number 14 immediately makes people think of Johan Cruyff.
Although perhaps not a conventional winger, Cruyff was arguably the best European player of the 1970s, during which he won three successive European Cups with Ajax before reaching the 1974 World Cup final.
Legendary coach Rinus Michels, who worked with Cruyff at Ajax, Barcelona and the Netherlands, is reported by FIFA as saying of him:
When you saw Cruyff off the pitch he was like a thin boy. But on the pitch he was from another planet.
The "Cruyff turn” has long been a part of the football lexicon and ensures the Dutch master’s legacy lives on today.
The Liverpool team of the late 1980s is considered to be the best that the storied club have ever produced according to plenty of their fans, and winger John Barnes was a key part of that.
Speaking to FourFourTwo in 2009, one-time team-mate Peter Beardsley—himself an impressive wide man and forward—said of Barnes in 2009:
The best player I ever played with, bar none. For three or four years at the end of the '80s, John was possibly the best player in the world.
Powerful and fast, Barnes raided down the left wing for the Reds and was both a creator and scorer of goals, and while some consider his England career to be a failure, he did still score one of his nation’s greatest goals in the grand setting of Brazil’s Maracana.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of Manchester United’s period of dominance over English football, former Wales international Ryan Giggs racked up a club-record 963 appearances for the Red Devils, becoming the most decorated player in English and Welsh football history in the process, winning 13 Premier League titles, four FA Cups and two Champions Leagues.
Juventus legend Alessandro Del Piero once said of Giggs, per BT Sport:
This is embarrassing to say but I have cried twice in my life watching a football player. The first one was Maradona, and the second was Ryan Giggs.
Combining pace and flair, Giggs burst onto the scene as a quicksilver winger but was later able to reinvent his game somewhat, and he remained a crucial player for United right up until his retirement in 2014 after 24 seasons in the first team.
Perhaps primarily identified as a forward, much of Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov’s best work came in wide areas, where he could make the most of his outrageous talents.
A star at Barcelona in the early 1990s, Stoichkov also enjoyed a fantastic World Cup in the USA in 1994, at which he shared the Golden Boot with six goals as Bulgaria shocked everyone by reaching the last four.
Manchester United star Robin van Persie was recently very excited to meet Stoichkov:
Was very nice to meet Hristo Stoichkov today. Legend! pic.twitter.com/xe2XIVdQ3t— Robin van Persie (@Persie_Official) November 11, 2014
The football world was shocked when Luis Figo swapped Barcelona for Real Madrid in 2000, but that was only because of the high regard that the Portuguese was held in.
A player capable of using his silky-smooth skills to get past defenders on the right wing, Figo registered 106 La Liga assists during his time in the division, a record which was only recently matched by Lionel Messi, per Goal.com.
Figo, who is now running for FIFA president, has received support from his former manager Jose Mourinho, who said, reported by the Express:
Luis Figo’s candidacy is a great step forward for football. His career over many years grants a better future for FIFA.
Figo also played for Sporting Lisbon and Inter Milan, and he won eight league titles and the Champions League during his hugely successful career.
An elegant and poised presence in Arsenal’s terrific team of the early 2000s, French star Robert Pires can also point to World Cup and European Championship success on his stellar CV.
We knew Robert had talent, but the Premiership has made him take on a new dimension. It was similar for me. I remember when I arrived in England people wondered whether I was going to explode under the physical commitment.
Robert has shown proof of his intelligence. Technically, he was always there, but his game has become more direct. You feel that he has become liberated on and off the pitch. He is giving everything he has. When you have technique like his, you know you can come out of things well anywhere on the field.
One of Arsenal's best Premier League players, Pires dovetailed well with the likes of Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Freddie Ljungberg, as Arsene Wenger created a side capable of taking on and beating the very best.
Wingers can come in different forms and have different skill sets, so while David Beckham was never likely to beat his full-back with an outrageous piece of skill, on his day, he was arguably the best crosser of a ball in world football.
After breaking through at Manchester United and seemingly creating a whole new genre of celebrity footballer, Beckham shone both in an England kit and the white of Real Madrid.
When he played with Beckham at Paris Saint-Germain, where the Englishman finished his career, Zlatan Ibrahimovic told the BBC:
As a footballer it is important to be yourself and live your life—not to live in a bubble, not enjoying your life. That is what I admire about Beckham. The attention that follows him, is not easy to live out your life. But he does it.
Beckham also represented LA Galaxy and AC Milan during a remarkable career that yielded six Premier League titles, a La Liga crown, two MLS Cups and the Champions League, as well as 115 England caps.
One of the very best modern wingers in the game today, Dutchman Arjen Robben is so fast that there is very little you can do to stop him once he’s in full flow.
After developing his game at both Chelsea and Real Madrid, it is at Bayern Munich where Robben has really matured into one of the top players in the world game, and at the age of 31, he is showing no sign of slowing down.
Controversy has dogged Robben’s career, with many feeling that he goes down too easily in a bid to win free-kicks and penalties, but his former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho understands why that happens, reported by the Guardian:
My opinion on Robben? He was my player and I know better than many what a fantastic player he is.
I also know that because of his speed and because of his creativity he is punished a lot with fouls by opponents who cannot stop him. I also know that sometimes he tries to get an advantage and he tries to get a free kick or he tries to get a penalty.
The winger has won the title in every league in which he has played, and he scored the winning goal in the 2013 Champions League final.
One of two titans who look down on everyone else in the modern game, Cristiano Ronaldo is very much a forward these days, but it is his formative days as an out-and-out winger that helped to him become the remarkable player he is today.
The Portuguese came through the ranks at Sporting Lisbon, honed his game at Manchester United and then kicked on several levels when he joined Real Madrid.
His first season at United saw him largely stationed on the right-hand side of midfield, where he played in the 2004 FA Cup final against Millwall left back Robbie Ryan, who said afterward, per Yahoo Eurosport:
I have never played against anybody like that in my life, and I was pleased to be taken off.
There is very little doubt that the recently turned 30-year-old has played a major role in what has almost become a reinvention of the modern game.