Khamis, 7 Jun 2012

The top 10 European Championship players of all time

A definitive list of the 10 best players who have helped to write the history of the competition.

10. XAVI

              The pass master | The Barca man opened the floodgates for La Roja

One of the finest playmakers ever to have played the game, Xavi's first experience of the European Championship was as disappointing as his second was sensational. The Barcelona midfielder was not afforded a single minute of game time during Spain's dismal first-round exit at Euro 2004 in Portugal but, four years later in Austria and Switzerland, Xavi was the undoubted star of the show.

The heartbeat of a wonderful Spanish side, the Catalan was at his peerless best throughout, but really stepped up when Luis Aragones' team needed him most, scoring the opener in their semi-final win over Russia before playing the typically sumptuous through-ball from which Fernando Torres scored the winning goal in the tournament decider. Another stellar showing in Poland and Ukraine, and Xavi will be much higher up this list when Euro 2016 rolls around.


           The Great Dane | The Man United legend looked unbeatable at Euro '92

An imposing physical specimen who put as much fear into the defenders who played in front of him as the strikers who had the misfortune to go one on one with him, Peter Schmeichel was the greatest goalkeeper of his generation. The Dane played in four Euros in total but he is best remembered for his heroics in Denmark's stunning upset win in Sweden in 1992.

The penalty save from Marco van Basten in the semi-final shoot-out success over Netherlands was a truly iconic moment, while his performance against Germany in the final was absolutely outstanding. However, while he made three world-class stops during the latter contest, it was the one-handed catch from a looping cross into the penalty area which became the stuff of legend in Denmark.


       Longevity & class | Maldini is a true football legend, thanks to his Euro showings

The greatest left-back in history, Paolo Maldini was the model of consistency, as evidenced by the fact that of the four European Championships the Italian competed in, he was selected in three All-Star Teams. He burst on to the world stage as a 19-year-old during the group stages in Germany in 1988 when he silenced Spain’s best player, Michel. The Azzurri disappointed in their next appearance at the Euros, failing to reach the last eight in Euro '96, but went desperately close to winning the tournament under Maldini's leadership four years later.

At Euro 2000, the AC Milan legend featured as a left wing-back and formed an almost impenetrable backline with Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and goalkeeper Francesco Toldo. However, Maldini was cruelly denied the opportunity to lift the trophy by a last-minute equaliser from Sylvain Wiltord in Italy’s ‘Golden Goal’ defeat by France in the final.


   A real custodian | Zoff lifted the Euro 68 trophy after just his fourth Azzurri appearance

While the aforementioned Schmeichel must be regarded as one of the greatest goalkeepers ever, he is not the highest-ranked shot-stopper on our list. That honour goes to Dino Zoff. The ex-Juventus man is, of course, most famous for captaining Italy to World Cup glory at the age of 40, but his European Championship record was also outstanding. In seven games split between two tournaments, three of which went to extra time, Zoff conceded just two goals.

Having made his international debut in the second leg of the 1968 quarter-final victory over Bulgaria, he then went on to play an integral role in the Azzurri's eventual tournament triumph, turning in inspired displays in the semi-final toss-of-the-coin win over the Soviet Union, before keeping another clean sheet in the replayed tournament decider against Yugoslavia.


      On the spot | Netzer put a penalty past Gordon Banks en route to a famous victory

When it comes to discussing the finest midfielders of all time, the name of Gunter Netzer is often criminally overlooked. However, it is worth remembering that no player has single-handedly humiliated England at Wembley like the German did during a now legendary Euro '72 quarter-final first-leg clash in London. The then Borussia Monchengladbach playmaker ran the show from start to finish and capped a wonderful display with a late penalty in a thoroughly deserved 3-1 win.

Netzer maintained his majestic form in the semi-final and final; the Soviet Union could not get close to him as they were thrashed 3-0 in the Brussels showpiece. Sadly, Netzer would not shine on the international stage again due to the presence of the great Wolfgang Overath, with whom he was considered incompatible, but he had already left an indelible mark on the European Championship.


     A fitting moniker | British press dubbed him 'The Magic Dragan' after lobbing Banks

Regarded by some as Europe's greatest-ever left winger, Dragan Dzajic was the best player on show at Euro 68. With just three minutes of normal time remaining in Yugoslavia's semi-final showdown with England in Florence, the Red Star Belgrade man stunned the reigning world champions by lobbing Gordon Banks to set up a meeting with tournament hosts Italy in Rome. Dzajic also looked to have scored the winner in the final but a late equaliser from Angelo Domenghini forced a replay that the Azzurri went on to win.

A master dribbler, he got up to more mischief eight years later as he ran West Germany ragged in an enthralling semi-final clash in Belgrade and put Yugoslavia two goals to the good 30 minutes in. However, Germany forced extra time with a late rally and eventually ran out 4-2 winners, denying Dzajic the opportunity to claim the winners' medal his talent so richly deserved.


            Golden goals | Zidane's contribution to the Euros can not be questioned

After making a name for himself at Bordeaux, great things were expected of the Juventus-bound Zinedine Zidane in his first tournament outing in 1996, but the playmaker failed to live up to the hype as France bowed out in the quarter-finals. However, he was at the peak of his powers four years later when Les Bleus followed up their World Cup success on home soil two years previously with a dramatic European triumph in Netherlands and Belgium.

In the group stages, Zidane delighted with his trademark ‘Marseilles Turn’; in the knockout rounds, the Bianconeri star scored a stunning free-kick winner against Spain in the quarters and the 'Golden Goal' penalty that eliminated Portugal in the semis. Despite being a part of a clearly divided French squad in 2004, he was still able to produce moments of genius and scored three times in total, with the highlight being a magnificent free kick against England.

  All smiles | Der Kaiser was part of one of the best international teams in European history

The West Germany side which triumphed in Belgium in 1972 are considered by some as the best international team Europe has ever produced. The leader of die Mannschaft, of course, was Franz Beckenbauer, Germany's greatest-ever player. By this point in his illustrious career, the 26-year-old sweeper had already suffered his fair share of World Cup woe.

However, he channelled that disappointment in the best possible fashion and, having been appointed as captain of the national side the year before, Beckenbauer inspired his side to the title, turning in a characteristically classy display as West Germany cruised past the Soviets 3-0 in a one-sided final. Four years later, in his final tournament outing, 'Der Kaiser' earned a runners-up medal, after a classic semi-final comeback against Yugoslavia, and an almost-heroic recovery against Czechoslovakia in the final.


      Fully deserved | His iconic volley v the Soviets could be the greatest goal in a final

The symbol of Rinus Michels’ wonderful Euro 88 winners was Marco van Basten, who finished top scorer with five goals. His clinical hat-trick in the group stages eliminated England, while his 88th-minute turn-and-shot knocked out hosts and favourites West Germany. But Van Basten will always be remembered for what he did in the final as he produced a thunderous volley from a seemingly impossible angle – the greatest Euro goal ever – to finish off the Soviets in a 2-0 win.

Van Basten enjoyed less success four years later as the Dutch lost to shock-winners Denmark in the semis, with the AC Milan legend missing a crucial spot-kick. However, that did nothing to diminish his European Championship legacy.


     Freedom and guile | Platini was the stand-out in one of the best midfields in history

No player has matched the impact that Platini made at Euro 84. The Juventus fantasista scored an incredible nine goals for the tournament hosts, including two hat-tricks, and was to France what Diego Maradona was to Argentina at the World Cup two years later. Making up the famed 'magic square' playing ahead of the supremely talented Luis Fernandez, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse, Platini was given the freedom to do as he pleased - and created havoc as a consequence.

He fired home a 119th-minute winner in the epic 3-2 semi-final victory over Portugal, and also broke the deadlock with a free kick in the 2-0 final success over Spain. Simply the best passer the game has ever seen and the man responsible for the most memorable individual European Championship campaign.


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