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Ten out of ten

Call them playmakers, fantasisti, spielmacher or enganches, no position on the pitch fires the imagination like the classic No10. Over the following pages, we celebrate the virtuosos who have lit up this great competition down the years, taking our pick of the 50 best to have played in the European Cup and Champions League, and asking Danish legend Michael Laudrup how the position has evolved down the years. First, though, with the role now under threat, Graham Hunter salutes the magicians who have long beguiled us with their creative cunning, supreme technique and otherworldly vision

WORDS Sheridan Bird, Chris Burke, Vieri Capretta, Simon Hart and Graham Hunter

Interview
Choosing the top 50 No10s to have graced the European Cup was never going to be an easy task, but at Champions Journal we’re always up for a challenge. The No10 is more of a mindset than a number, and several of these players are just as well known for shining elsewhere on the pitch. Some, of course, will have had a huge impact on the competition; others, due to their club and circumstance, hardly featured at all. Our only criterion was that they required at least one European Cup appearance on their CVs. Cue plenty of debate, discussion and deliberation, and eventually a list of players. Here they are…

It’s a stark truth that, depending on when you were born, you may not have a cherished, warm little nook, or even a cranny, in your football bosom for the fabled No10. Worse, to some modern fans that term might only evoke the number of your favourite dish on a local takeaway menu, a cricket ‘nightwatchman’ or perhaps the recently retired bus route from Hammersmith to King’s Cross. 

But, on behalf of those a little longer in the tooth, a little bit more romantic or those who watched – wait, make that gazed lovingly – at continental football in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, these next ten minutes of your reading will be an unashamed love letter to an endangered breed: football’s No10s. 

The single most iconic No10s, conceptually, are the players who roamed their own personal territory, between midfield and attack, a Bermuda Triangle where rugged defenders and limpet man-to-man markers entered but mysteriously vanished. With the number ten emblazoned on the back of their shirt, they seemed to hear Miles Davis jazz in their heads while opponents around them performed to an internal soundtrack of dull, repetitive, hotel-lobby muzak. 

Juan Román Riquelme, Roberto Baggio, Dejan Savićević, Michel Platini, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Mancini…

Those around them saw narrow paths and brick walls. The true No10s envisioned wide, verdant meadows, blue skies… liberty. Because being a genuine No10 isn’t just about position and shirt number – it’s a state of mind, a philosophy which informs every decision you make on the ball. It’s your very essence distilled into elegant actions. 

Paul Weller, English music’s ‘Modfather’, always says about being a Mod that, “It’s timeless, it’s ever-expanding, it’s a way of looking at things, a way of adapting to your environment.” So is being a No10. 

It’s such an effervescent, buoyant concept that, just as the Inuit supposedly have over 50 words for snow and Scots have about 3,000 ways of saying “It’s raining,” football has found a myriad of ways to describe this position, this playing mentality. 

Playmaker (spielmacher in German and meneur de jeu in French); trequartista (Italian for someone who plays three-quarters of the way up the pitch); fantasista (self-explanatory); enganche (Spain and South America: to link up or attach things); someone who ‘plays in the hole’; mediapunta (Spanish for half-striker); volante de creación (South American: creative steering wheel)… and there are more out there should you want to go looking. 

If you haven’t had the joy of seeing a fantasista in full flow, there are other ways of evoking what that kind of football attitude truly means. For example, have you ever seen the movie Oliver! and thrilled to the brilliant character the Artful Dodger? Ragamuffin, small and unthreatening to look at – but impossible to resist, cocky, cheeky, tricksy, not hidebound by ordinary rules. Loveable. If the Artful Dodger played football, he’d be a No10. 

Equally, imagine you arrive at a new job. The office, indeed the company, gives you the feeling that you’ll never catch on, that there are hundreds of rules, codicils and unspoken laws. But a new colleague, unspeakably cool, knows the shortcuts and will show you them, knows how to charm the canteen staff into ladling out an extra portion of sticky toffee pudding at lunch and will tell you which of the bosses to trust and which not. 

There are No10s everywhere in life. You’ve seen them, you’ve envied them, you’ve walked taller when they bestow their charm, wit and savvy on you. 

Now, armed with those descriptions, does your mind stray to… Karim Benzema, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Scholes, Michael Laudrup, Xavi Hernández, David Silva, Lionel Messi, Jari Litmanen, Cesc Fàbregas, Isco, Ronaldinho, Wayne Rooney, Juan Sebastián Verón, Wesley Sneijder, Pablo Aimar, Paulo Dybala, Deco, Andy Möller, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Andrés Iniesta, Zinédine Zidane, Rui Costa, Paulo Sousa, Gianfranco Zola, Teddy Sheringham, Andrea Pirlo, Dennis Bergkamp, Antoine Griezmann and Kevin De Bruyne, or any of your own personal favourites?

It should. These men, not all of whom are equally iconic No10s as Riquelme, Maradona or Platini, have playmaking and fantasy in their soul. They brought a ‘10’ mentality to work every day. 

Whether or not they wear the number on their back, whether or not they play ‘in the hole’, whether or not the terminology changes irrevocably, the spirit, defiance, wit, vision and importance of the true No10 will never die, never disappear. 

Absolutely no chance. But, as with all important conservation issues, there’s an ongoing debate. Two of the all-time great No10s feel pessimistic, even bleak, about how that brand of football, the role which made them both famous and adored in equal measure, is under threat of extinction. 

Totti recently told Spanish football daily Marca, “I’m not going to say that it’s extinct, but the No10, now, is almost considered just like any other number in the team – it’s lost its relevance.”

More optimistically – albeit Roberto Mancini wrote this thesis over 20 years ago to earn a coaching badge – the Sampdoria and Lazio legend noted how, “The role has undergone a strong evolutionary process: Zidane, Rivaldo, Rui Costa and others are very different to their counterparts from the past. They combine undisputed technical qualities with good physical skills that allow them to participate more actively in the ball-recovery phase. 

“The different physical make-up of the ‘new  trequartisti’ permits them to compensate for the reductions of space and time to play the ball. The fantasisti have also had to adapt to a more athletic football in which technique is no longer enough to emerge at certain levels if not supported by good physical and character traits. For all these reasons, it’s increasingly difficult for the trequartista to ‘make a difference’ as used to happen. This explains the choice to give up on the trequartista, especially by mid and low-table teams.”

Any conservationist will tell you that when something valuable becomes threatened to the brink of extinction, it’s never down to one single cause. It’s by no means just because 4-3-1-2 and 4-2-1-3 are now rarely used formations that the No10 position can require binoculars and months of trekking, following a local guide through green foliage, in order to spot. 

The athletic pace of modern football. The ubiquitous notion that teams should ‘defend all over the pitch’, rather than trying to impose two banks of four impenetrable, defensively minded footballers, thus requiring a cat burglar No10 to unlock goals. The overwhelming popularity of pressing… There is a wide range of factors which explain the shrinking population of old-style trequartisti who play in a defined pocket of space between midfield and attack, all the while wearing the storied number on their shirt.

But, believe me, despite any tactical, athletic or strategic evolutions in our beautiful game, the ethos, the soul, the Artful Dodging all live on in a plethora of elite players. Just take the brilliance of De Bruyne. Pep Guardiola used him in a variety of positions last season as Manchester City soared to the first treble won by an English club in over 20 years, but did the exceptional Belgian display the same velvet first touch and scintillating instinct for passing, use of space and spectator entertainment as any of the timeless No10s? 

You betcha. 

Likewise, consider Lionel Messi. He has played wide on the right, as a false nine and later in his career as a deeper-lying playmaker, but he continues to stand out as a true No10, simply because every gesture, every exquisite skill and trick represent a cumulation of how Baggio, Platini, Maradona, Laudrup et al once managed to enchant us. Indeed, the list of Champions League nights when the former Barcelona genius produced the best fantasista football anyone has ever seen is almost endless.

Even so, I’d prefer to pick out a couple of slightly under-venerated, corner-of-your-mind examples of when a No10 made magic happen. 

First up, a Champions League semi-final back on 19 April 1995: Ajax 5-2 Bayern. The eventual European champions thumped Germany’s behemoth and their No10, Litmanen, scored twice. See if you can find footage of Litmanen’s ‘Artful’ dummy which   preceded Finidi George’s goal or the delicious feint via which the Finland ace left Mehmet Scholl on the ground, having lunged at thin air, before finishing into the top corner off his left foot. 

Bayern midfielder Dietmar Hamann was left flabbergasted. “We went to Amsterdam thinking, ‘There’s always a chance…’” he told me. “But they just rolled us over. They played a different game. You could put each of them, Jari included, in the team of the century. These were young lads, but they were in a different league. It was a procession and at times you felt like applauding them.” 

Louis van Gaal, Ajax coach that night, was similarly enthralled. “Jari had great vision,” he explained to The Athletic. “He was always free. You could always give him a pass. Not so fast but always right on time.”

Arguably the most exciting No10 super-show I ever reported on live, Messi notwithstanding, was the 2006 World Cup semi-final between Germany and Italy in Dortmund. The hosts were allergic to losing at the Westfalenstadion (it had never happened), they enjoyed home advantage and their rivals had drawn with the United States in the group stage before needing a contentious penalty to defeat Australia 1-0 in the round of 16. 

But the Azzurri, historically the prototype of defensively minded teams, ended the match with three – count them, THREE – No10s on the pitch: Del Piero, Totti and Pirlo. Either take my word for it or go seek the highlights, but Pirlo’s little dribble and no-look pass for the first goal, Totti’s defence-splitting ball and Del Piero’s top-corner finish for the crucial second sealed it for the world champions-elect. 

Their coach Marcello Lippi once recalled to me how, as a Sampdoria libero, his job had been to defend behind the two centre-backs, and he was warned that if he ever got near enough to even see the halfway line, he’d be dropped. “I swore to myself back then,” he explained, “that when I was a coach, my teams would attack, would be thrilling, would play with joy – not fear.” 

No better testimony, really, from the man who also led Juventus to Champions League glory in 1995/96, as to what a true No10 should embody, regardless of system, regardless of the number on their back: thrills, joy and not a drop of fear. 

“The genuine No10 Is not Just about position and shirt number; it’s a state of mind, a philosophy”
Messi back in his Barcelona days

Lionel Messi 

Appearances 163  |  Goals 129

As a shy teen, Messi broke into Barcelona’s starting XI on the right wing, but injury curtailed his precocious participation in their 2005/06 Champions League triumph before the quarter-finals. Amid doubts he could handle 60 games a season and withstand brutal marking, La Pulga (the Flea) quit junk food and strengthened his body. Next, critics claimed the mesmeric dribbler didn’t score enough, but his goal in the victorious 2009 final opened the floodgates. And although some still felt his contribution wasn’t commensurate with his gifts, he moved into the centre to end all debate. Now everyone agreed: Messi was the complete No10. The perfectly balanced, impish genius was a European champion again in 2010/11 and 2014/15, and ultimately it wasn’t an opponent who stopped him winning more but Barça’s decline.

Thomas Müller 

Appearances 146  |  Goals 53

A little ungainly compared to many on this list, the Bayern stalwart has excelled thanks to his sense of anticipation and instinctive positional movement. Germany’s most decorated player labels himself a “raumdeuter” (space interpreter), and his canny off-the-ball runs between the lines have been stretching defences apart for 15 years.

Raúl González

Appearances 142  |  Goals 71

It’s the things Raúl wasn’t that render his achievements so notable. The Spaniard wasn’t a speed merchant, muscle man nor a trickster extraordinaire. Yet for many years he was the competition’s top scorer. How? Because he was unrivalled in intelligence and courage. Few have known where to find space or slip past their marker like Raúl. Comfortable on either foot, the deceptively tough ace relished duels with the world’s most rugged defenders. Having conquered Europe three times with Madrid (and scored in two finals), Raúl spent two seasons with Schalke, leading them to the 2010/11 semi-finals. No gym routine or YouTube skills tutorial could ever teach you what this humble assassin brought to the pitch.

Paul Scholes

Appearances 124  |  Goals 24

The Manchester United great morphed from deep striker into “probably the best English midfielder since Bobby Charlton”, according to Sir Alex Ferguson, citing his “brain for the passing game”. As well as laser-guided passes, Scholes had a ferocious shot – witness the strike that beat Barcelona in the 2007/08 Champions League semi-finals.

Luka Modrić

Appearances 121  |  Goals 9

Dismissed as too frail in his youth, the Real Madrid and Croatia linchpin is still having the last laugh at the age of 38. Not just a master of ball retention, Modrić is a diligent dispossessor himself, combining defensive and attacking qualities to control matches, though his trademark long-range, curling passes invariably draw the loudest applause.

Andrea Pirlo

Appearances 108  |  Goals 8

“Don’t shout,” Pirlo once told AC Milan team-mate Kevin-Prince Boateng. “Opponents will know you’re free. I’ll see you.” That summarises the Italian: supreme vision and perfect passes from deep. Add set pieces, free-kick goals and underrated defensive ability and you get one of the most complete midfielders of his generation. A Champions League winner in 2002/03 and 2006/07.

Alessandro Del Piero

Appearances 89  |  Goals 42

Juventus’s all-time top scorer had his own speciality goal in Europe: a curler with the inside of the right boot that drops into the far corner, first glimpsed at Dortmund on his Champions League debut in 1995/96. After lifting the trophy that season, he buried a mind-blowing, back-heeled effort in Juve’s final loss a year later.

Kaká

Appearances 86  |  Goals 30

Football is a team sport but many believe Milan’s Kaká won the 2006/07 Champions League on his own. The graceful Brazilian ended the stalemate against Celtic in the round of 16 and dominated both semi-final legs against Manchester United. Elegant with a winner’s edge, ‘Ricky’ was comparable to peak Roger Federer.

Wayne Rooney

Appearances 85  |  Goals 30

Arrived at Old Trafford from Everton as “a remarkable raw talent”, to quote Sir Alex. A raging bullock who combined power, energy and intuition, the then 18-year-old duly hit a hat-trick on his Champions League debut against Fenerbahçe, before helping United reach three finals – winning in 2008 and scoring in the 2011 loss to Barcelona. 

Neymar

Appearances 81  |  Goals 43

The closest thing to a contemporary Ronaldinho and the purest dribbler of his generation. The ball-juggling skills go without saying, but Neymar also boasts outstanding vision and eye-popping stats, averaging almost one goal contribution (goal or assist) in over 80 Champions League games, including a late effort in Barcelona’s 2015 final victory.

Zinédine Zidane

Appearances 80  |  Goals 14

An Italian newspaper once described Zidane as possessing the “body of a bear and mind of a fox”. Balletic grace and the subtlest of touches don’t usually find a home in such an imposing frame. After losing two finals with Juventus, Zizou finally struck gold when his outrageous waist-high volley won the 2002 decider for Madrid.

Pavel Nedvěd

Appearances 79  |  Goals 15

This mop-topped maestro climbed the ladder thanks to a training regime more akin to a decathlete than a footballer, driving Juventus to the Champions League final and lifting the Ballon d’Or in 2003. His refusal to give in made him an idol to fans. At times irascible, he missed the 2003 decider through suspension.

Wesley Sneijder

Appearances 76  |  Goals 12

Short in stature but a towering talent, the Ajax academy graduate could unlock defences or find the net with both feet. Capped a record 134 times by the Netherlands, he provided the creative spark as Inter conquered Europe in 2009/10, delivering the pass for Diego Milito’s opener in the final – his sixth assist of the campaign.

Deco

Appearances 75  |  Goals 13

The Brazilian-born conjurer carried the creative burden when José Mourinho’s Porto side lifted the Champions League trophy in 2003/04 (scoring a brilliantly cheeky goal in the final). Then he flew to Barcelona, taking a deeper role feeding megastars Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o. Winners’ medal number two arrived in 2005/06.

Rivaldo

Appearances 73  |  Goals 27

Rivaldo embodied the effortlessness of samba football. His lean body, bowed legs and gaunt face were remnants of a tough, malnourished childhood, but the Brazilian spread joy with his acrobatics and pinpoint shooting. Having piled up ten Champions League goals for Barcelona in 1999/2000, he won the trophy with Milan in 2002/03.

Kevin De Bruyne

Appearances 70  |  Goals 14

Whether playing as an attacking midfielder or a false nine, the Belgian has lit up numerous Champions League nights with his tactical intelligence, driving forward runs and ability to deliver a through ball or cross with perfect pace and precision. Pivotal to Manchester City’s runs to the 2021 and 2023 finals.

David Silva

Appearances 70  |  Goals 10

Across ten years, David Silva – aka ‘Merlin’ – helped Manchester City build an era of dizzying success with his immaculate touch, balance and vision. As Pep Guardiola said of the Spanish World Cup winner, “When we have to find space, he’s the best I’ve seen. I’ve never seen anyone move between the lines like he does.”

Kenny Dalglish

Appearances 68  |  Goals 15

Combining world-class technique, spatial awareness and peripheral vision, the Scot thrived in a second-striker role at Liverpool, notably in tandem with Ian Rush. He became an instant hero with 31 goals in his first season after a British-record transfer from Celtic, including his 1978 final winner against Club Brugge, the first of three European Cups.

Rui Costa

Appearances 60  |  Goals 1

The Portuguese schemer seemed slow, and his long hair and half-pulled-up socks made him appear positively leisurely, but he was the business. An assist king, his exquisite pass for Andriy Shevchenko’s winner at home to Real Madrid in 2002/03 (en route to Milan lifting the cup) dissected Los Blancos’ midfield and rearguard.

Jari Litmanen 

Appearances 59  |  Goals 23

Finland’s most-capped player exploded onto the scene at Ajax, replacing Dennis Bergkamp and steering the Dutch outsiders to Champions League glory in 1994/95 and to the final the following season, hitting 15 goals across the two campaigns. Injuries later hobbled his career, but the languid schemer remains revered in Amsterdam.

Juninho

Appearances 59  |  Goals 18

The set-piece sorcerer has a strong claim to being the greatest dead-ball specialist of all time, with 44 of his 100 goals for Lyon coming from free-kicks. Hard-working and technically superb, Juninho offered plenty more besides, but those infamous set pieces – all swerve and wobble in the air – truly took the breath away.

Francesco Totti

Appearances 57  |  Goals 17

“I hoped to die before this,” read a banner in the crowd during the Roma skipper’s farewell in 2017. Nobody epitomises a one-club player better. The home-town hero was a No10, a winger, a false nine, a goalscorer and goal maker, and he was still scoring in the Champions League aged 38, 13 years after his competition debut.

Gheorghe Hagi 

Appearances 51  |  Goals 15

The ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’ lived up to the comparison thanks to his left-footed brilliance, surging runs, dead-ball prowess, stocky build and fiery temperament. Hagi’s rare gifts took him to both Real Madrid and Barcelona, but it was at Galatasaray that he left the most indelible mark, lifting the UEFA Cup in 1999/2000.

Johan Cruyff

Appearances 49  |  Goals 19

The brilliant, brooding prince of Dutch football simply oozed with cool. Cruyff was the perfect player for the Total Football revolution that swept Ajax to three European Cups from 1970/71 to 1972/73, his supercomputer mind analysing space, team shapes and angles at blistering speeds and his pace, dribbling and extraterrestrial technique allowing him to exploit the data. He took that potent mix to Barcelona in 1973 and later transformed the club as coach, laying down the same philosophy with which he had once reigned on the pitch – the need to play with your brain and the importance of winning with style. From tiki-taka to the Cruyff turn and countless stadiums, fields, academies and even an asteroid named in his honour, his prodigious legacy endures.

Ronaldinho

Appearances 47  |  Goals 18

Pelé was born in 1940, Maradona 1960 and Ronaldinho in 1980. The Brazilian continued the sequence of a genius every two decades with his inventiveness and unpredictability, even if all too briefly. But he did lead Barcelona to the European title in 2005/06, his samba
skills and perma-smile making him a joy to watch.

Luis Suárez

Appearances 45  |  Goals 8

A model of precision at Barcelona, where he won the Ballon d’Or in 1960, El Arquitecto (the Architect) truly blossomed with Inter after reuniting with former Barça coach Helenio Herrera in 1961. Redeployed in a deeper playmaking role, Suárez was essential to the counterattacking zip that brought back-to-back European Cup triumphs in 1963/64 and 1964/65.

Oleh Blokhin

Appearances 43  |  Goals 11

Turbocharged with a sprinter’s speed and lethal with either foot, the ‘Ukrainian arrow’ spearheaded Dynamo Kyiv to European Cup Winners’ Cup glory in 1974/75 – and then pipped Franz Beckenbauer to the Ballon d’Or. A decade later, he inspired Dynamo to a second Cup Winners’ Cup in 1985/86 and the 1986/87 European Cup semi-finals.

Ferenc Puskás 

Appearances 41  |  Goals 36

Army colonel Puskás led the Hungary team which obliterated dusty old philosophies in the early 1950s. But the star with the friendly face and slicked-back hair shone at club level too. On his arrival at European champions Real Madrid as an out-of-shape 31-year-old, many questioned what he could add to a forward line including Alfredo Di Stéfano, Paco Gento, Raymond Kopa and Héctor Rial. No10s come in different forms, however: more an attacker than a playmaker, he provided the penetrating runs as Di Stéfano dropped deep, and his versatility, agility (despite a sturdy frame) and goals helped deliver three European Cups. Known as the ‘Little Cannon’ for his monstrous left foot, Puskás scored four in Madrid’s 1960 final victory and three in the 1962 showpiece loss to Benfica. 

Michael Laudrup

Appearances 41  |  Goals 10

A beautifully graceful footballer who was instrumental to Barcelona’s first European Cup success in 1991/92. Laudrup credits his short legs for his dribbling panache and ability to change direction; his party piece was la croqueta – not the Spanish tapa but the way he shifted the ball from one foot to the other to start a dribble.

Dennis Bergkamp

Appearances 40  |  Goals 7

To watch a highlights reel of Bergkamp’s best goals is to witness impeccable technique in the hands of an artist. Even so, the Dutch master derived as much joy from assists (“It’s like solving a puzzle”) and the erstwhile Ajax goal machine eventually settled into a deeper role at Arsenal, delivering gems for Thierry Henry and Co.

Sandro Mazzola

Appearances 38  |  Goals 17

A one-club man devoted to the Inter cause, Mazzola was slightly less refined but quicker and more physical than Gianni Rivera, his great crosstown rival. Immaculately balanced, he was a regular supplier of goals too, scoring twice as the Nerazzurri downed Real Madrid 3-1 to clinch their maiden European Cup in 1964. 

Pablo Aimar

Appearances 37  |  Goals 5

Singled out by Diego Maradona as “the only current footballer I’d pay to watch”, the flamboyant entertainer was a purist. “I live for beautiful football” was his motto, backed up by a jaw-dropping array of tricks, but Aimar’s abilities yielded results too – notably, two Liga crowns, a UEFA Cup and a Champions League final with Valencia.

Zvonimir Boban

Appearances 37  |  Goals 3

Born leader Boban had the intelligence and technique to flourish in every midfield role. The consistent Croatian demonstrated his team-first credo in Milan’s 1994 Champions League final victory, when he helped turn the defensive screws on Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola. Even so, his trademark feints and dashing style were what thrilled supporters – hence his ‘Zorro’ sobriquet.

Bobby Murdoch

Appearances 35  |  Goals 4

Jock Stein considered Murdoch the best of Celtic’s 1967 Lisbon Lions for his subtlety and strength, while team-mate Bobby Lennox lauded his ability to feint a right-footed pass, “turn on a sixpence” and deliver with his left. Injury restricted Murdoch to his ‘weaker’ left in the final, but it was his shot that brought Steve Chalmers’ winning deflection.

Dejan Savićević

Appearances 34  |  Goals 11

Known as Il Genio (the Genius), the Montenegrin (below) was a European champion with Crvena zvezda in 1990/91 and Milan in 1993/94. Never a monument to consistency or needless running, the exquisitely gifted trequartista burst into life for big matches. His audacious lobbed goal against Barcelona in the 1994 final demonstrated his wicked, playful talent.

Andreas Möller

Appearances 32  |  Goals 8

Remembered by many for his strutting Wembley celebration at EURO ’96, the bustling force of nature had plenty to strut about: a glittering array of trophies, including Champions League victory with Dortmund in 1996/97, but also his irrepressible talent, his pace and power supplemented by dribbling finesse, passing prowess and
a terrifying shot.

Yıldıray Baştürk

Appearances 32  |  Goals 1

“A model professional,” according to his Leverkusen coach Klaus Toppmöller, the Türkiye star allied tenacity and combativeness to his more artful qualities. He took command of Bayer Leverkusen’s attack aged just 21 but performed wonders on their journey to the 2002 Champions League final, notching two assists in the semi-final against Manchester United.

Michel Platini

Appearances 30  |  Goals 17

Described by Pelé as “the European footballer of the 1980s”, the elegant Frenchman was a visionary passer, devilish dribbler and free-kick magician. He buried the winning penalty for Juventus in the 1985 European Cup final, though his greatest feat was racking up a remarkable nine goals in five games as France won the 1984 European Championship.

Teddy Sheringham

Appearances 30  |  Goals 9

Scorer of the equaliser in Manchester United’s dramatic 1999 Champions League final victory, Sheringham was a bridge between two worlds. He learned how to scrap and handle burly defenders in his early days with Millwall, giving him a hard edge. As part of an all-star cast at United, he let his refined technique take centre stage.

Bobby Charlton

Appearances 28  |  Goals 10

Ballon d’Or winner in 1966, the graceful, playmaking midfielder with the thunderclap shot helped Manchester United become England’s first European champions with two goals in the 1968 final against Benfica – a moment of joy but also deep poignancy for this survivor of the Munich air disaster a decade before.

Abedi Pele

Appearances 22  |  Goals 6

No less a defensive icon than Paolo Maldini counts Pele as one of the few players who really gave him problems. Marseille’s Ghanaian livewire tortured the Milan thoroughbred in the 1993 final. A runner-up in 1990/91 and winner two years later, the diminutive Pele was a quicksilver, mobile menace, pulling his markers all over the pitch.

Bernd Schuster 

Appearances 21  |  Goals 1

It takes a strong character to play for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid – and Schuster was certainly that. As well as penetrating passing, he offered perceptive positional play and excelled at ghosting into the box to score. Lost a European Cup final with Barcelona but did conquer Europe with West Germany.

Juan Román Riquelme

Appearances 20  |  Goals 3

“A footballer from another galaxy” in the words of former team-mate Alessio Tacchinardi, Riquelme also seemed to belong to another era – an age of poise and patient move construction. A selfless, methodical engineer of goals, he was a player teams were built around, not least the Villarreal side that reached the semi-finals in 2005/06.

Wim van Hanegem 

Appearances 19  |  Goals 10

Rated as a rival talent to Johan Cruyff in his native Netherlands, Van Hanegem scored four goals in Feyenoord’s triumphant 1969/70 European Cup campaign – including the second-round winner against holders Milan. Nicknamed De Kromme (the Crooked One) for both his bandy-legged posture and ball-curving ability, his passing range was even more impressive given his limited eyesight.

Gianni Rivera

Appearances 19  |  Goals 6

Italy’s ‘Golden boy’ was just 19 when he inspired Milan to their first European title in 1962/63, creating both goals for José Altafini in the 2-1 final defeat of Benfica. Rivera made over 600 appearances for the Rossoneri, his delectable control and vision earning him free reign in Nereo Rocco’s otherwise rigid catenaccio system. 

Roberto Mancini

Appearances 18  |  Goals 4

Mancini helped Sampdoria clinch their only Scudetto and then, with Gianluca Vialli, marched them to the 1992 European Cup final. Club president Paolo Mantovani would often telephone coach Sven-Göran Eriksson to ask, “Is Mancini playing?” When Vialli enquired, “President, why don’t you ask about me?” Mantovani replied, “You only run and score goals – Roberto makes art!” 

Nils Liedholm

Appearances 17  |  Goals 2

This fitness fanatic with an air of nobility was the fulcrum of the Milan side that almost dethroned Real Madrid in the 1958 final. Nicknamed Il Barone (the Baron) for his elegance on and off the pitch, the Swede supposedly went two years without misplacing a pass at San Siro, receiving a standing ovation when he eventually lost the ball.

Günter Netzer  

Appearances 16  |  Goals 3

Mönchengladbach’s maverick genius was renowned for his playboy lifestyle and love of fast cars, but his true claims to fame were his uncanny passing acumen and ability to put the ball wherever he wanted. The fact that Real Madrid snapped up Germany’s ‘Rebel on the ball’ in response to Johan Cruyff joining Barcelona said it all.

Roberto Baggio  

Appearances  9  |  Goals 4

To many the best Italian footballer ever, Il Divin Codino (the Divine Ponytail) is loved like no other on the peninsular. Injuries held him back, but he had his moment of Champions League brilliance with a double against Real Madrid in 1998. “Since Baggio stopped playing, it’s no longer Sunday,” sang cult Italian pop star Cesare Cremonini.

Diego Maradona

Appearances 6  |  Goals 2

Last by dint of fewest European Cup appearances, but far from least, perhaps the No10 by which all others are judged, so much so that he was known simply as El Diez – ‘the Ten’. Both hero and anti-hero, and a footballing deity either side of the Atlantic, Maradona has evolved into a quasi-mythical figure, his complex aura transcending the sport itself. To some, his is the story of a Buenos Aires urchin rising from slum life to stardom thanks to divine inspiration and Latin American cunning. To others, it’s a cautionary tale of excess. What remains unquestionable is the talent that dragged Napoli and Argentina to unforgettable successes, those stocky legs ablur as Maradona carved through the opposition, either finding the net himself or pulling defenders towards him like a magnet before releasing a team-mate.

Interview
When Messi met Zizou

Two of football’s greatest playmakers were brought together by adidas recently to discuss the No10 role. Here is what they had to say

WORDS Simon Hart

“For us Argentinians, ten is a very special number. Automatically, Maradona comes to mind.”

When Lionel Messi speaks, it pays to listen. Even more so when the topic is No10s. As one of the greatest exponents in football history – many would say the greatest – the Barcelona legend’s reflections on the role are stamped with significance.

For Messi and his childhood pals growing up in Rosario, Diego Maradona was the man to aspire to, and that meant wearing the same shirt number. “We all wanted to be like him,” says the record eight-time Ballon d’Or winner. “We all wanted to be that different player we all thought we were. And even if we weren’t, we all wanted to have the No10. Today, I don’t know if it’s the same.”

Messi’s ruminations can be heard during a fascinating encounter with another of the finest playmakers of the last quarter-century, Zinédine Zidane. The pair – Champions League winners with Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively – were recently brought together in Miami by adidas, and the No10 shirt and its meaning dominated their conversation.

“El Diez” is how Zidane describes Messi in the film of their tête-à-tête, echoing one of Maradona’s own nicknames. However, it was another South American who inspired the teenage Zizou – namely, Enzo Francescoli. “He was playing for Marseille and I was around 13,” recounts Zidane, who even named one of his sons after the Uruguayan. “When I saw him, I said, ‘I want to be him.’ He was very elegant: the way he played, the way he moved the ball as well. He did things with the ball and I thought, ‘He’s a magician.’ I wanted to do the same.”

For Zidane, like Messi, the No10 shirt was the dream, even if he ended up sporting No5 at Madrid. “All of us, when we were little, we wanted to have the No10. In the team, that was the leader.” Now, he too sees fewer players of that same mould amid a greater emphasis on systems: “Today, it’s not as important as it was.”

Messi, who names his own boyhood favourite as Pablo Aimar, expands on the theme. “Today, it’s more inside-forwards or false wingers who are the No10s. It’s true that the player who always typified the Argentinian No10 – the creative midfielder, the link player like [Juan Román] Riquelme or Aimar – there are few of those left, if any.

“I think football itself has changed a lot. When I was a boy, it was 4-3-3. Now, they often use a line of three or five at the back and the No10 we were talking about doesn’t fit, or is hard to fit, into the system.”

These observations chime with recent comments by Messi’s former Barcelona colleague and close friend Cesc Fàbregas, who reiterated the view that fewer possibilities exist for pure playmakers today. “Guys of the quality of [Mesut] Özil or James Rodríguez no longer interest coaches,” he said. “These players are capable of unlocking a match with a brilliant pass, but now the coaches prefer to have a stable structure.”

Back in Miami, as an absorbing discussion goes on, Zidane offers his own thoughts on the evolution of the role, telling Messi: “The No10 has to have a bit of magic, just like you. Because he is the leader of the team and the leader has to create. It’s what you had and what you have that is different from the rest – you see things before others do. I was one second ahead, you were three. That for me is what makes you different from the rest.”

In short, he adds, Messi is a purveyor of “pure magic”, a mix of anticipation, vision and execution. “Before receiving the ball, he already knew what had to be done.” And, as fans of Inter Miami will vouch, he still does. For that, Zidane is glad. “At least you’re still playing, so the No10 still exists.”

It’s a stark truth that, depending on when you were born, you may not have a cherished, warm little nook, or even a cranny, in your football bosom for the fabled No10. Worse, to some modern fans that term might only evoke the number of your favourite dish on a local takeaway menu, a cricket ‘nightwatchman’ or perhaps the recently retired bus route from Hammersmith to King’s Cross. 

But, on behalf of those a little longer in the tooth, a little bit more romantic or those who watched – wait, make that gazed lovingly – at continental football in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, these next ten minutes of your reading will be an unashamed love letter to an endangered breed: football’s No10s. 

The single most iconic No10s, conceptually, are the players who roamed their own personal territory, between midfield and attack, a Bermuda Triangle where rugged defenders and limpet man-to-man markers entered but mysteriously vanished. With the number ten emblazoned on the back of their shirt, they seemed to hear Miles Davis jazz in their heads while opponents around them performed to an internal soundtrack of dull, repetitive, hotel-lobby muzak. 

Juan Román Riquelme, Roberto Baggio, Dejan Savićević, Michel Platini, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Mancini…

Those around them saw narrow paths and brick walls. The true No10s envisioned wide, verdant meadows, blue skies… liberty. Because being a genuine No10 isn’t just about position and shirt number – it’s a state of mind, a philosophy which informs every decision you make on the ball. It’s your very essence distilled into elegant actions. 

Paul Weller, English music’s ‘Modfather’, always says about being a Mod that, “It’s timeless, it’s ever-expanding, it’s a way of looking at things, a way of adapting to your environment.” So is being a No10. 

It’s such an effervescent, buoyant concept that, just as the Inuit supposedly have over 50 words for snow and Scots have about 3,000 ways of saying “It’s raining,” football has found a myriad of ways to describe this position, this playing mentality. 

Playmaker (spielmacher in German and meneur de jeu in French); trequartista (Italian for someone who plays three-quarters of the way up the pitch); fantasista (self-explanatory); enganche (Spain and South America: to link up or attach things); someone who ‘plays in the hole’; mediapunta (Spanish for half-striker); volante de creación (South American: creative steering wheel)… and there are more out there should you want to go looking. 

If you haven’t had the joy of seeing a fantasista in full flow, there are other ways of evoking what that kind of football attitude truly means. For example, have you ever seen the movie Oliver! and thrilled to the brilliant character the Artful Dodger? Ragamuffin, small and unthreatening to look at – but impossible to resist, cocky, cheeky, tricksy, not hidebound by ordinary rules. Loveable. If the Artful Dodger played football, he’d be a No10. 

Equally, imagine you arrive at a new job. The office, indeed the company, gives you the feeling that you’ll never catch on, that there are hundreds of rules, codicils and unspoken laws. But a new colleague, unspeakably cool, knows the shortcuts and will show you them, knows how to charm the canteen staff into ladling out an extra portion of sticky toffee pudding at lunch and will tell you which of the bosses to trust and which not. 

There are No10s everywhere in life. You’ve seen them, you’ve envied them, you’ve walked taller when they bestow their charm, wit and savvy on you. 

Now, armed with those descriptions, does your mind stray to… Karim Benzema, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Scholes, Michael Laudrup, Xavi Hernández, David Silva, Lionel Messi, Jari Litmanen, Cesc Fàbregas, Isco, Ronaldinho, Wayne Rooney, Juan Sebastián Verón, Wesley Sneijder, Pablo Aimar, Paulo Dybala, Deco, Andy Möller, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Andrés Iniesta, Zinédine Zidane, Rui Costa, Paulo Sousa, Gianfranco Zola, Teddy Sheringham, Andrea Pirlo, Dennis Bergkamp, Antoine Griezmann and Kevin De Bruyne, or any of your own personal favourites?

It should. These men, not all of whom are equally iconic No10s as Riquelme, Maradona or Platini, have playmaking and fantasy in their soul. They brought a ‘10’ mentality to work every day. 

Whether or not they wear the number on their back, whether or not they play ‘in the hole’, whether or not the terminology changes irrevocably, the spirit, defiance, wit, vision and importance of the true No10 will never die, never disappear. 

Absolutely no chance. But, as with all important conservation issues, there’s an ongoing debate. Two of the all-time great No10s feel pessimistic, even bleak, about how that brand of football, the role which made them both famous and adored in equal measure, is under threat of extinction. 

Totti recently told Spanish football daily Marca, “I’m not going to say that it’s extinct, but the No10, now, is almost considered just like any other number in the team – it’s lost its relevance.”

More optimistically – albeit Roberto Mancini wrote this thesis over 20 years ago to earn a coaching badge – the Sampdoria and Lazio legend noted how, “The role has undergone a strong evolutionary process: Zidane, Rivaldo, Rui Costa and others are very different to their counterparts from the past. They combine undisputed technical qualities with good physical skills that allow them to participate more actively in the ball-recovery phase. 

“The different physical make-up of the ‘new  trequartisti’ permits them to compensate for the reductions of space and time to play the ball. The fantasisti have also had to adapt to a more athletic football in which technique is no longer enough to emerge at certain levels if not supported by good physical and character traits. For all these reasons, it’s increasingly difficult for the trequartista to ‘make a difference’ as used to happen. This explains the choice to give up on the trequartista, especially by mid and low-table teams.”

Any conservationist will tell you that when something valuable becomes threatened to the brink of extinction, it’s never down to one single cause. It’s by no means just because 4-3-1-2 and 4-2-1-3 are now rarely used formations that the No10 position can require binoculars and months of trekking, following a local guide through green foliage, in order to spot. 

The athletic pace of modern football. The ubiquitous notion that teams should ‘defend all over the pitch’, rather than trying to impose two banks of four impenetrable, defensively minded footballers, thus requiring a cat burglar No10 to unlock goals. The overwhelming popularity of pressing… There is a wide range of factors which explain the shrinking population of old-style trequartisti who play in a defined pocket of space between midfield and attack, all the while wearing the storied number on their shirt.

But, believe me, despite any tactical, athletic or strategic evolutions in our beautiful game, the ethos, the soul, the Artful Dodging all live on in a plethora of elite players. Just take the brilliance of De Bruyne. Pep Guardiola used him in a variety of positions last season as Manchester City soared to the first treble won by an English club in over 20 years, but did the exceptional Belgian display the same velvet first touch and scintillating instinct for passing, use of space and spectator entertainment as any of the timeless No10s? 

You betcha. 

Likewise, consider Lionel Messi. He has played wide on the right, as a false nine and later in his career as a deeper-lying playmaker, but he continues to stand out as a true No10, simply because every gesture, every exquisite skill and trick represent a cumulation of how Baggio, Platini, Maradona, Laudrup et al once managed to enchant us. Indeed, the list of Champions League nights when the former Barcelona genius produced the best fantasista football anyone has ever seen is almost endless.

Even so, I’d prefer to pick out a couple of slightly under-venerated, corner-of-your-mind examples of when a No10 made magic happen. 

First up, a Champions League semi-final back on 19 April 1995: Ajax 5-2 Bayern. The eventual European champions thumped Germany’s behemoth and their No10, Litmanen, scored twice. See if you can find footage of Litmanen’s ‘Artful’ dummy which   preceded Finidi George’s goal or the delicious feint via which the Finland ace left Mehmet Scholl on the ground, having lunged at thin air, before finishing into the top corner off his left foot. 

Bayern midfielder Dietmar Hamann was left flabbergasted. “We went to Amsterdam thinking, ‘There’s always a chance…’” he told me. “But they just rolled us over. They played a different game. You could put each of them, Jari included, in the team of the century. These were young lads, but they were in a different league. It was a procession and at times you felt like applauding them.” 

Louis van Gaal, Ajax coach that night, was similarly enthralled. “Jari had great vision,” he explained to The Athletic. “He was always free. You could always give him a pass. Not so fast but always right on time.”

Arguably the most exciting No10 super-show I ever reported on live, Messi notwithstanding, was the 2006 World Cup semi-final between Germany and Italy in Dortmund. The hosts were allergic to losing at the Westfalenstadion (it had never happened), they enjoyed home advantage and their rivals had drawn with the United States in the group stage before needing a contentious penalty to defeat Australia 1-0 in the round of 16. 

But the Azzurri, historically the prototype of defensively minded teams, ended the match with three – count them, THREE – No10s on the pitch: Del Piero, Totti and Pirlo. Either take my word for it or go seek the highlights, but Pirlo’s little dribble and no-look pass for the first goal, Totti’s defence-splitting ball and Del Piero’s top-corner finish for the crucial second sealed it for the world champions-elect. 

Their coach Marcello Lippi once recalled to me how, as a Sampdoria libero, his job had been to defend behind the two centre-backs, and he was warned that if he ever got near enough to even see the halfway line, he’d be dropped. “I swore to myself back then,” he explained, “that when I was a coach, my teams would attack, would be thrilling, would play with joy – not fear.” 

No better testimony, really, from the man who also led Juventus to Champions League glory in 1995/96, as to what a true No10 should embody, regardless of system, regardless of the number on their back: thrills, joy and not a drop of fear. 

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“The genuine No10 Is not Just about position and shirt number; it’s a state of mind, a philosophy”
Messi back in his Barcelona days

Lionel Messi 

Appearances 163  |  Goals 129

As a shy teen, Messi broke into Barcelona’s starting XI on the right wing, but injury curtailed his precocious participation in their 2005/06 Champions League triumph before the quarter-finals. Amid doubts he could handle 60 games a season and withstand brutal marking, La Pulga (the Flea) quit junk food and strengthened his body. Next, critics claimed the mesmeric dribbler didn’t score enough, but his goal in the victorious 2009 final opened the floodgates. And although some still felt his contribution wasn’t commensurate with his gifts, he moved into the centre to end all debate. Now everyone agreed: Messi was the complete No10. The perfectly balanced, impish genius was a European champion again in 2010/11 and 2014/15, and ultimately it wasn’t an opponent who stopped him winning more but Barça’s decline.

Thomas Müller 

Appearances 146  |  Goals 53

A little ungainly compared to many on this list, the Bayern stalwart has excelled thanks to his sense of anticipation and instinctive positional movement. Germany’s most decorated player labels himself a “raumdeuter” (space interpreter), and his canny off-the-ball runs between the lines have been stretching defences apart for 15 years.

Raúl González

Appearances 142  |  Goals 71

It’s the things Raúl wasn’t that render his achievements so notable. The Spaniard wasn’t a speed merchant, muscle man nor a trickster extraordinaire. Yet for many years he was the competition’s top scorer. How? Because he was unrivalled in intelligence and courage. Few have known where to find space or slip past their marker like Raúl. Comfortable on either foot, the deceptively tough ace relished duels with the world’s most rugged defenders. Having conquered Europe three times with Madrid (and scored in two finals), Raúl spent two seasons with Schalke, leading them to the 2010/11 semi-finals. No gym routine or YouTube skills tutorial could ever teach you what this humble assassin brought to the pitch.

Paul Scholes

Appearances 124  |  Goals 24

The Manchester United great morphed from deep striker into “probably the best English midfielder since Bobby Charlton”, according to Sir Alex Ferguson, citing his “brain for the passing game”. As well as laser-guided passes, Scholes had a ferocious shot – witness the strike that beat Barcelona in the 2007/08 Champions League semi-finals.

Luka Modrić

Appearances 121  |  Goals 9

Dismissed as too frail in his youth, the Real Madrid and Croatia linchpin is still having the last laugh at the age of 38. Not just a master of ball retention, Modrić is a diligent dispossessor himself, combining defensive and attacking qualities to control matches, though his trademark long-range, curling passes invariably draw the loudest applause.

Andrea Pirlo

Appearances 108  |  Goals 8

“Don’t shout,” Pirlo once told AC Milan team-mate Kevin-Prince Boateng. “Opponents will know you’re free. I’ll see you.” That summarises the Italian: supreme vision and perfect passes from deep. Add set pieces, free-kick goals and underrated defensive ability and you get one of the most complete midfielders of his generation. A Champions League winner in 2002/03 and 2006/07.

Alessandro Del Piero

Appearances 89  |  Goals 42

Juventus’s all-time top scorer had his own speciality goal in Europe: a curler with the inside of the right boot that drops into the far corner, first glimpsed at Dortmund on his Champions League debut in 1995/96. After lifting the trophy that season, he buried a mind-blowing, back-heeled effort in Juve’s final loss a year later.

Kaká

Appearances 86  |  Goals 30

Football is a team sport but many believe Milan’s Kaká won the 2006/07 Champions League on his own. The graceful Brazilian ended the stalemate against Celtic in the round of 16 and dominated both semi-final legs against Manchester United. Elegant with a winner’s edge, ‘Ricky’ was comparable to peak Roger Federer.

Wayne Rooney

Appearances 85  |  Goals 30

Arrived at Old Trafford from Everton as “a remarkable raw talent”, to quote Sir Alex. A raging bullock who combined power, energy and intuition, the then 18-year-old duly hit a hat-trick on his Champions League debut against Fenerbahçe, before helping United reach three finals – winning in 2008 and scoring in the 2011 loss to Barcelona. 

Neymar

Appearances 81  |  Goals 43

The closest thing to a contemporary Ronaldinho and the purest dribbler of his generation. The ball-juggling skills go without saying, but Neymar also boasts outstanding vision and eye-popping stats, averaging almost one goal contribution (goal or assist) in over 80 Champions League games, including a late effort in Barcelona’s 2015 final victory.

Zinédine Zidane

Appearances 80  |  Goals 14

An Italian newspaper once described Zidane as possessing the “body of a bear and mind of a fox”. Balletic grace and the subtlest of touches don’t usually find a home in such an imposing frame. After losing two finals with Juventus, Zizou finally struck gold when his outrageous waist-high volley won the 2002 decider for Madrid.

Pavel Nedvěd

Appearances 79  |  Goals 15

This mop-topped maestro climbed the ladder thanks to a training regime more akin to a decathlete than a footballer, driving Juventus to the Champions League final and lifting the Ballon d’Or in 2003. His refusal to give in made him an idol to fans. At times irascible, he missed the 2003 decider through suspension.

Wesley Sneijder

Appearances 76  |  Goals 12

Short in stature but a towering talent, the Ajax academy graduate could unlock defences or find the net with both feet. Capped a record 134 times by the Netherlands, he provided the creative spark as Inter conquered Europe in 2009/10, delivering the pass for Diego Milito’s opener in the final – his sixth assist of the campaign.

Deco

Appearances 75  |  Goals 13

The Brazilian-born conjurer carried the creative burden when José Mourinho’s Porto side lifted the Champions League trophy in 2003/04 (scoring a brilliantly cheeky goal in the final). Then he flew to Barcelona, taking a deeper role feeding megastars Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o. Winners’ medal number two arrived in 2005/06.

Rivaldo

Appearances 73  |  Goals 27

Rivaldo embodied the effortlessness of samba football. His lean body, bowed legs and gaunt face were remnants of a tough, malnourished childhood, but the Brazilian spread joy with his acrobatics and pinpoint shooting. Having piled up ten Champions League goals for Barcelona in 1999/2000, he won the trophy with Milan in 2002/03.

Kevin De Bruyne

Appearances 70  |  Goals 14

Whether playing as an attacking midfielder or a false nine, the Belgian has lit up numerous Champions League nights with his tactical intelligence, driving forward runs and ability to deliver a through ball or cross with perfect pace and precision. Pivotal to Manchester City’s runs to the 2021 and 2023 finals.

David Silva

Appearances 70  |  Goals 10

Across ten years, David Silva – aka ‘Merlin’ – helped Manchester City build an era of dizzying success with his immaculate touch, balance and vision. As Pep Guardiola said of the Spanish World Cup winner, “When we have to find space, he’s the best I’ve seen. I’ve never seen anyone move between the lines like he does.”

Kenny Dalglish

Appearances 68  |  Goals 15

Combining world-class technique, spatial awareness and peripheral vision, the Scot thrived in a second-striker role at Liverpool, notably in tandem with Ian Rush. He became an instant hero with 31 goals in his first season after a British-record transfer from Celtic, including his 1978 final winner against Club Brugge, the first of three European Cups.

Rui Costa

Appearances 60  |  Goals 1

The Portuguese schemer seemed slow, and his long hair and half-pulled-up socks made him appear positively leisurely, but he was the business. An assist king, his exquisite pass for Andriy Shevchenko’s winner at home to Real Madrid in 2002/03 (en route to Milan lifting the cup) dissected Los Blancos’ midfield and rearguard.

Jari Litmanen 

Appearances 59  |  Goals 23

Finland’s most-capped player exploded onto the scene at Ajax, replacing Dennis Bergkamp and steering the Dutch outsiders to Champions League glory in 1994/95 and to the final the following season, hitting 15 goals across the two campaigns. Injuries later hobbled his career, but the languid schemer remains revered in Amsterdam.

Juninho

Appearances 59  |  Goals 18

The set-piece sorcerer has a strong claim to being the greatest dead-ball specialist of all time, with 44 of his 100 goals for Lyon coming from free-kicks. Hard-working and technically superb, Juninho offered plenty more besides, but those infamous set pieces – all swerve and wobble in the air – truly took the breath away.

Francesco Totti

Appearances 57  |  Goals 17

“I hoped to die before this,” read a banner in the crowd during the Roma skipper’s farewell in 2017. Nobody epitomises a one-club player better. The home-town hero was a No10, a winger, a false nine, a goalscorer and goal maker, and he was still scoring in the Champions League aged 38, 13 years after his competition debut.

Gheorghe Hagi 

Appearances 51  |  Goals 15

The ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’ lived up to the comparison thanks to his left-footed brilliance, surging runs, dead-ball prowess, stocky build and fiery temperament. Hagi’s rare gifts took him to both Real Madrid and Barcelona, but it was at Galatasaray that he left the most indelible mark, lifting the UEFA Cup in 1999/2000.

Johan Cruyff

Appearances 49  |  Goals 19

The brilliant, brooding prince of Dutch football simply oozed with cool. Cruyff was the perfect player for the Total Football revolution that swept Ajax to three European Cups from 1970/71 to 1972/73, his supercomputer mind analysing space, team shapes and angles at blistering speeds and his pace, dribbling and extraterrestrial technique allowing him to exploit the data. He took that potent mix to Barcelona in 1973 and later transformed the club as coach, laying down the same philosophy with which he had once reigned on the pitch – the need to play with your brain and the importance of winning with style. From tiki-taka to the Cruyff turn and countless stadiums, fields, academies and even an asteroid named in his honour, his prodigious legacy endures.

Ronaldinho

Appearances 47  |  Goals 18

Pelé was born in 1940, Maradona 1960 and Ronaldinho in 1980. The Brazilian continued the sequence of a genius every two decades with his inventiveness and unpredictability, even if all too briefly. But he did lead Barcelona to the European title in 2005/06, his samba
skills and perma-smile making him a joy to watch.

Luis Suárez

Appearances 45  |  Goals 8

A model of precision at Barcelona, where he won the Ballon d’Or in 1960, El Arquitecto (the Architect) truly blossomed with Inter after reuniting with former Barça coach Helenio Herrera in 1961. Redeployed in a deeper playmaking role, Suárez was essential to the counterattacking zip that brought back-to-back European Cup triumphs in 1963/64 and 1964/65.

Oleh Blokhin

Appearances 43  |  Goals 11

Turbocharged with a sprinter’s speed and lethal with either foot, the ‘Ukrainian arrow’ spearheaded Dynamo Kyiv to European Cup Winners’ Cup glory in 1974/75 – and then pipped Franz Beckenbauer to the Ballon d’Or. A decade later, he inspired Dynamo to a second Cup Winners’ Cup in 1985/86 and the 1986/87 European Cup semi-finals.

Ferenc Puskás 

Appearances 41  |  Goals 36

Army colonel Puskás led the Hungary team which obliterated dusty old philosophies in the early 1950s. But the star with the friendly face and slicked-back hair shone at club level too. On his arrival at European champions Real Madrid as an out-of-shape 31-year-old, many questioned what he could add to a forward line including Alfredo Di Stéfano, Paco Gento, Raymond Kopa and Héctor Rial. No10s come in different forms, however: more an attacker than a playmaker, he provided the penetrating runs as Di Stéfano dropped deep, and his versatility, agility (despite a sturdy frame) and goals helped deliver three European Cups. Known as the ‘Little Cannon’ for his monstrous left foot, Puskás scored four in Madrid’s 1960 final victory and three in the 1962 showpiece loss to Benfica. 

Michael Laudrup

Appearances 41  |  Goals 10

A beautifully graceful footballer who was instrumental to Barcelona’s first European Cup success in 1991/92. Laudrup credits his short legs for his dribbling panache and ability to change direction; his party piece was la croqueta – not the Spanish tapa but the way he shifted the ball from one foot to the other to start a dribble.

Dennis Bergkamp

Appearances 40  |  Goals 7

To watch a highlights reel of Bergkamp’s best goals is to witness impeccable technique in the hands of an artist. Even so, the Dutch master derived as much joy from assists (“It’s like solving a puzzle”) and the erstwhile Ajax goal machine eventually settled into a deeper role at Arsenal, delivering gems for Thierry Henry and Co.

Sandro Mazzola

Appearances 38  |  Goals 17

A one-club man devoted to the Inter cause, Mazzola was slightly less refined but quicker and more physical than Gianni Rivera, his great crosstown rival. Immaculately balanced, he was a regular supplier of goals too, scoring twice as the Nerazzurri downed Real Madrid 3-1 to clinch their maiden European Cup in 1964. 

Pablo Aimar

Appearances 37  |  Goals 5

Singled out by Diego Maradona as “the only current footballer I’d pay to watch”, the flamboyant entertainer was a purist. “I live for beautiful football” was his motto, backed up by a jaw-dropping array of tricks, but Aimar’s abilities yielded results too – notably, two Liga crowns, a UEFA Cup and a Champions League final with Valencia.

Zvonimir Boban

Appearances 37  |  Goals 3

Born leader Boban had the intelligence and technique to flourish in every midfield role. The consistent Croatian demonstrated his team-first credo in Milan’s 1994 Champions League final victory, when he helped turn the defensive screws on Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola. Even so, his trademark feints and dashing style were what thrilled supporters – hence his ‘Zorro’ sobriquet.

Bobby Murdoch

Appearances 35  |  Goals 4

Jock Stein considered Murdoch the best of Celtic’s 1967 Lisbon Lions for his subtlety and strength, while team-mate Bobby Lennox lauded his ability to feint a right-footed pass, “turn on a sixpence” and deliver with his left. Injury restricted Murdoch to his ‘weaker’ left in the final, but it was his shot that brought Steve Chalmers’ winning deflection.

Dejan Savićević

Appearances 34  |  Goals 11

Known as Il Genio (the Genius), the Montenegrin (below) was a European champion with Crvena zvezda in 1990/91 and Milan in 1993/94. Never a monument to consistency or needless running, the exquisitely gifted trequartista burst into life for big matches. His audacious lobbed goal against Barcelona in the 1994 final demonstrated his wicked, playful talent.

Andreas Möller

Appearances 32  |  Goals 8

Remembered by many for his strutting Wembley celebration at EURO ’96, the bustling force of nature had plenty to strut about: a glittering array of trophies, including Champions League victory with Dortmund in 1996/97, but also his irrepressible talent, his pace and power supplemented by dribbling finesse, passing prowess and
a terrifying shot.

Yıldıray Baştürk

Appearances 32  |  Goals 1

“A model professional,” according to his Leverkusen coach Klaus Toppmöller, the Türkiye star allied tenacity and combativeness to his more artful qualities. He took command of Bayer Leverkusen’s attack aged just 21 but performed wonders on their journey to the 2002 Champions League final, notching two assists in the semi-final against Manchester United.

Michel Platini

Appearances 30  |  Goals 17

Described by Pelé as “the European footballer of the 1980s”, the elegant Frenchman was a visionary passer, devilish dribbler and free-kick magician. He buried the winning penalty for Juventus in the 1985 European Cup final, though his greatest feat was racking up a remarkable nine goals in five games as France won the 1984 European Championship.

Teddy Sheringham

Appearances 30  |  Goals 9

Scorer of the equaliser in Manchester United’s dramatic 1999 Champions League final victory, Sheringham was a bridge between two worlds. He learned how to scrap and handle burly defenders in his early days with Millwall, giving him a hard edge. As part of an all-star cast at United, he let his refined technique take centre stage.

Bobby Charlton

Appearances 28  |  Goals 10

Ballon d’Or winner in 1966, the graceful, playmaking midfielder with the thunderclap shot helped Manchester United become England’s first European champions with two goals in the 1968 final against Benfica – a moment of joy but also deep poignancy for this survivor of the Munich air disaster a decade before.

Abedi Pele

Appearances 22  |  Goals 6

No less a defensive icon than Paolo Maldini counts Pele as one of the few players who really gave him problems. Marseille’s Ghanaian livewire tortured the Milan thoroughbred in the 1993 final. A runner-up in 1990/91 and winner two years later, the diminutive Pele was a quicksilver, mobile menace, pulling his markers all over the pitch.

Bernd Schuster 

Appearances 21  |  Goals 1

It takes a strong character to play for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid – and Schuster was certainly that. As well as penetrating passing, he offered perceptive positional play and excelled at ghosting into the box to score. Lost a European Cup final with Barcelona but did conquer Europe with West Germany.

Juan Román Riquelme

Appearances 20  |  Goals 3

“A footballer from another galaxy” in the words of former team-mate Alessio Tacchinardi, Riquelme also seemed to belong to another era – an age of poise and patient move construction. A selfless, methodical engineer of goals, he was a player teams were built around, not least the Villarreal side that reached the semi-finals in 2005/06.

Wim van Hanegem 

Appearances 19  |  Goals 10

Rated as a rival talent to Johan Cruyff in his native Netherlands, Van Hanegem scored four goals in Feyenoord’s triumphant 1969/70 European Cup campaign – including the second-round winner against holders Milan. Nicknamed De Kromme (the Crooked One) for both his bandy-legged posture and ball-curving ability, his passing range was even more impressive given his limited eyesight.

Gianni Rivera

Appearances 19  |  Goals 6

Italy’s ‘Golden boy’ was just 19 when he inspired Milan to their first European title in 1962/63, creating both goals for José Altafini in the 2-1 final defeat of Benfica. Rivera made over 600 appearances for the Rossoneri, his delectable control and vision earning him free reign in Nereo Rocco’s otherwise rigid catenaccio system. 

Roberto Mancini

Appearances 18  |  Goals 4

Mancini helped Sampdoria clinch their only Scudetto and then, with Gianluca Vialli, marched them to the 1992 European Cup final. Club president Paolo Mantovani would often telephone coach Sven-Göran Eriksson to ask, “Is Mancini playing?” When Vialli enquired, “President, why don’t you ask about me?” Mantovani replied, “You only run and score goals – Roberto makes art!” 

Nils Liedholm

Appearances 17  |  Goals 2

This fitness fanatic with an air of nobility was the fulcrum of the Milan side that almost dethroned Real Madrid in the 1958 final. Nicknamed Il Barone (the Baron) for his elegance on and off the pitch, the Swede supposedly went two years without misplacing a pass at San Siro, receiving a standing ovation when he eventually lost the ball.

Günter Netzer  

Appearances 16  |  Goals 3

Mönchengladbach’s maverick genius was renowned for his playboy lifestyle and love of fast cars, but his true claims to fame were his uncanny passing acumen and ability to put the ball wherever he wanted. The fact that Real Madrid snapped up Germany’s ‘Rebel on the ball’ in response to Johan Cruyff joining Barcelona said it all.

Roberto Baggio  

Appearances  9  |  Goals 4

To many the best Italian footballer ever, Il Divin Codino (the Divine Ponytail) is loved like no other on the peninsular. Injuries held him back, but he had his moment of Champions League brilliance with a double against Real Madrid in 1998. “Since Baggio stopped playing, it’s no longer Sunday,” sang cult Italian pop star Cesare Cremonini.

Diego Maradona

Appearances 6  |  Goals 2

Last by dint of fewest European Cup appearances, but far from least, perhaps the No10 by which all others are judged, so much so that he was known simply as El Diez – ‘the Ten’. Both hero and anti-hero, and a footballing deity either side of the Atlantic, Maradona has evolved into a quasi-mythical figure, his complex aura transcending the sport itself. To some, his is the story of a Buenos Aires urchin rising from slum life to stardom thanks to divine inspiration and Latin American cunning. To others, it’s a cautionary tale of excess. What remains unquestionable is the talent that dragged Napoli and Argentina to unforgettable successes, those stocky legs ablur as Maradona carved through the opposition, either finding the net himself or pulling defenders towards him like a magnet before releasing a team-mate.

Interview
When Messi met Zizou

Two of football’s greatest playmakers were brought together by adidas recently to discuss the No10 role. Here is what they had to say

WORDS Simon Hart

“For us Argentinians, ten is a very special number. Automatically, Maradona comes to mind.”

When Lionel Messi speaks, it pays to listen. Even more so when the topic is No10s. As one of the greatest exponents in football history – many would say the greatest – the Barcelona legend’s reflections on the role are stamped with significance.

For Messi and his childhood pals growing up in Rosario, Diego Maradona was the man to aspire to, and that meant wearing the same shirt number. “We all wanted to be like him,” says the record eight-time Ballon d’Or winner. “We all wanted to be that different player we all thought we were. And even if we weren’t, we all wanted to have the No10. Today, I don’t know if it’s the same.”

Messi’s ruminations can be heard during a fascinating encounter with another of the finest playmakers of the last quarter-century, Zinédine Zidane. The pair – Champions League winners with Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively – were recently brought together in Miami by adidas, and the No10 shirt and its meaning dominated their conversation.

“El Diez” is how Zidane describes Messi in the film of their tête-à-tête, echoing one of Maradona’s own nicknames. However, it was another South American who inspired the teenage Zizou – namely, Enzo Francescoli. “He was playing for Marseille and I was around 13,” recounts Zidane, who even named one of his sons after the Uruguayan. “When I saw him, I said, ‘I want to be him.’ He was very elegant: the way he played, the way he moved the ball as well. He did things with the ball and I thought, ‘He’s a magician.’ I wanted to do the same.”

For Zidane, like Messi, the No10 shirt was the dream, even if he ended up sporting No5 at Madrid. “All of us, when we were little, we wanted to have the No10. In the team, that was the leader.” Now, he too sees fewer players of that same mould amid a greater emphasis on systems: “Today, it’s not as important as it was.”

Messi, who names his own boyhood favourite as Pablo Aimar, expands on the theme. “Today, it’s more inside-forwards or false wingers who are the No10s. It’s true that the player who always typified the Argentinian No10 – the creative midfielder, the link player like [Juan Román] Riquelme or Aimar – there are few of those left, if any.

“I think football itself has changed a lot. When I was a boy, it was 4-3-3. Now, they often use a line of three or five at the back and the No10 we were talking about doesn’t fit, or is hard to fit, into the system.”

These observations chime with recent comments by Messi’s former Barcelona colleague and close friend Cesc Fàbregas, who reiterated the view that fewer possibilities exist for pure playmakers today. “Guys of the quality of [Mesut] Özil or James Rodríguez no longer interest coaches,” he said. “These players are capable of unlocking a match with a brilliant pass, but now the coaches prefer to have a stable structure.”

Back in Miami, as an absorbing discussion goes on, Zidane offers his own thoughts on the evolution of the role, telling Messi: “The No10 has to have a bit of magic, just like you. Because he is the leader of the team and the leader has to create. It’s what you had and what you have that is different from the rest – you see things before others do. I was one second ahead, you were three. That for me is what makes you different from the rest.”

In short, he adds, Messi is a purveyor of “pure magic”, a mix of anticipation, vision and execution. “Before receiving the ball, he already knew what had to be done.” And, as fans of Inter Miami will vouch, he still does. For that, Zidane is glad. “At least you’re still playing, so the No10 still exists.”

It’s a stark truth that, depending on when you were born, you may not have a cherished, warm little nook, or even a cranny, in your football bosom for the fabled No10. Worse, to some modern fans that term might only evoke the number of your favourite dish on a local takeaway menu, a cricket ‘nightwatchman’ or perhaps the recently retired bus route from Hammersmith to King’s Cross. 

But, on behalf of those a little longer in the tooth, a little bit more romantic or those who watched – wait, make that gazed lovingly – at continental football in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, these next ten minutes of your reading will be an unashamed love letter to an endangered breed: football’s No10s. 

The single most iconic No10s, conceptually, are the players who roamed their own personal territory, between midfield and attack, a Bermuda Triangle where rugged defenders and limpet man-to-man markers entered but mysteriously vanished. With the number ten emblazoned on the back of their shirt, they seemed to hear Miles Davis jazz in their heads while opponents around them performed to an internal soundtrack of dull, repetitive, hotel-lobby muzak. 

Juan Román Riquelme, Roberto Baggio, Dejan Savićević, Michel Platini, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Mancini…

Those around them saw narrow paths and brick walls. The true No10s envisioned wide, verdant meadows, blue skies… liberty. Because being a genuine No10 isn’t just about position and shirt number – it’s a state of mind, a philosophy which informs every decision you make on the ball. It’s your very essence distilled into elegant actions. 

Paul Weller, English music’s ‘Modfather’, always says about being a Mod that, “It’s timeless, it’s ever-expanding, it’s a way of looking at things, a way of adapting to your environment.” So is being a No10. 

It’s such an effervescent, buoyant concept that, just as the Inuit supposedly have over 50 words for snow and Scots have about 3,000 ways of saying “It’s raining,” football has found a myriad of ways to describe this position, this playing mentality. 

Playmaker (spielmacher in German and meneur de jeu in French); trequartista (Italian for someone who plays three-quarters of the way up the pitch); fantasista (self-explanatory); enganche (Spain and South America: to link up or attach things); someone who ‘plays in the hole’; mediapunta (Spanish for half-striker); volante de creación (South American: creative steering wheel)… and there are more out there should you want to go looking. 

If you haven’t had the joy of seeing a fantasista in full flow, there are other ways of evoking what that kind of football attitude truly means. For example, have you ever seen the movie Oliver! and thrilled to the brilliant character the Artful Dodger? Ragamuffin, small and unthreatening to look at – but impossible to resist, cocky, cheeky, tricksy, not hidebound by ordinary rules. Loveable. If the Artful Dodger played football, he’d be a No10. 

Equally, imagine you arrive at a new job. The office, indeed the company, gives you the feeling that you’ll never catch on, that there are hundreds of rules, codicils and unspoken laws. But a new colleague, unspeakably cool, knows the shortcuts and will show you them, knows how to charm the canteen staff into ladling out an extra portion of sticky toffee pudding at lunch and will tell you which of the bosses to trust and which not. 

There are No10s everywhere in life. You’ve seen them, you’ve envied them, you’ve walked taller when they bestow their charm, wit and savvy on you. 

Now, armed with those descriptions, does your mind stray to… Karim Benzema, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Scholes, Michael Laudrup, Xavi Hernández, David Silva, Lionel Messi, Jari Litmanen, Cesc Fàbregas, Isco, Ronaldinho, Wayne Rooney, Juan Sebastián Verón, Wesley Sneijder, Pablo Aimar, Paulo Dybala, Deco, Andy Möller, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Andrés Iniesta, Zinédine Zidane, Rui Costa, Paulo Sousa, Gianfranco Zola, Teddy Sheringham, Andrea Pirlo, Dennis Bergkamp, Antoine Griezmann and Kevin De Bruyne, or any of your own personal favourites?

It should. These men, not all of whom are equally iconic No10s as Riquelme, Maradona or Platini, have playmaking and fantasy in their soul. They brought a ‘10’ mentality to work every day. 

Whether or not they wear the number on their back, whether or not they play ‘in the hole’, whether or not the terminology changes irrevocably, the spirit, defiance, wit, vision and importance of the true No10 will never die, never disappear. 

Absolutely no chance. But, as with all important conservation issues, there’s an ongoing debate. Two of the all-time great No10s feel pessimistic, even bleak, about how that brand of football, the role which made them both famous and adored in equal measure, is under threat of extinction. 

Totti recently told Spanish football daily Marca, “I’m not going to say that it’s extinct, but the No10, now, is almost considered just like any other number in the team – it’s lost its relevance.”

More optimistically – albeit Roberto Mancini wrote this thesis over 20 years ago to earn a coaching badge – the Sampdoria and Lazio legend noted how, “The role has undergone a strong evolutionary process: Zidane, Rivaldo, Rui Costa and others are very different to their counterparts from the past. They combine undisputed technical qualities with good physical skills that allow them to participate more actively in the ball-recovery phase. 

“The different physical make-up of the ‘new  trequartisti’ permits them to compensate for the reductions of space and time to play the ball. The fantasisti have also had to adapt to a more athletic football in which technique is no longer enough to emerge at certain levels if not supported by good physical and character traits. For all these reasons, it’s increasingly difficult for the trequartista to ‘make a difference’ as used to happen. This explains the choice to give up on the trequartista, especially by mid and low-table teams.”

Any conservationist will tell you that when something valuable becomes threatened to the brink of extinction, it’s never down to one single cause. It’s by no means just because 4-3-1-2 and 4-2-1-3 are now rarely used formations that the No10 position can require binoculars and months of trekking, following a local guide through green foliage, in order to spot. 

The athletic pace of modern football. The ubiquitous notion that teams should ‘defend all over the pitch’, rather than trying to impose two banks of four impenetrable, defensively minded footballers, thus requiring a cat burglar No10 to unlock goals. The overwhelming popularity of pressing… There is a wide range of factors which explain the shrinking population of old-style trequartisti who play in a defined pocket of space between midfield and attack, all the while wearing the storied number on their shirt.

But, believe me, despite any tactical, athletic or strategic evolutions in our beautiful game, the ethos, the soul, the Artful Dodging all live on in a plethora of elite players. Just take the brilliance of De Bruyne. Pep Guardiola used him in a variety of positions last season as Manchester City soared to the first treble won by an English club in over 20 years, but did the exceptional Belgian display the same velvet first touch and scintillating instinct for passing, use of space and spectator entertainment as any of the timeless No10s? 

You betcha. 

Likewise, consider Lionel Messi. He has played wide on the right, as a false nine and later in his career as a deeper-lying playmaker, but he continues to stand out as a true No10, simply because every gesture, every exquisite skill and trick represent a cumulation of how Baggio, Platini, Maradona, Laudrup et al once managed to enchant us. Indeed, the list of Champions League nights when the former Barcelona genius produced the best fantasista football anyone has ever seen is almost endless.

Even so, I’d prefer to pick out a couple of slightly under-venerated, corner-of-your-mind examples of when a No10 made magic happen. 

First up, a Champions League semi-final back on 19 April 1995: Ajax 5-2 Bayern. The eventual European champions thumped Germany’s behemoth and their No10, Litmanen, scored twice. See if you can find footage of Litmanen’s ‘Artful’ dummy which   preceded Finidi George’s goal or the delicious feint via which the Finland ace left Mehmet Scholl on the ground, having lunged at thin air, before finishing into the top corner off his left foot. 

Bayern midfielder Dietmar Hamann was left flabbergasted. “We went to Amsterdam thinking, ‘There’s always a chance…’” he told me. “But they just rolled us over. They played a different game. You could put each of them, Jari included, in the team of the century. These were young lads, but they were in a different league. It was a procession and at times you felt like applauding them.” 

Louis van Gaal, Ajax coach that night, was similarly enthralled. “Jari had great vision,” he explained to The Athletic. “He was always free. You could always give him a pass. Not so fast but always right on time.”

Arguably the most exciting No10 super-show I ever reported on live, Messi notwithstanding, was the 2006 World Cup semi-final between Germany and Italy in Dortmund. The hosts were allergic to losing at the Westfalenstadion (it had never happened), they enjoyed home advantage and their rivals had drawn with the United States in the group stage before needing a contentious penalty to defeat Australia 1-0 in the round of 16. 

But the Azzurri, historically the prototype of defensively minded teams, ended the match with three – count them, THREE – No10s on the pitch: Del Piero, Totti and Pirlo. Either take my word for it or go seek the highlights, but Pirlo’s little dribble and no-look pass for the first goal, Totti’s defence-splitting ball and Del Piero’s top-corner finish for the crucial second sealed it for the world champions-elect. 

Their coach Marcello Lippi once recalled to me how, as a Sampdoria libero, his job had been to defend behind the two centre-backs, and he was warned that if he ever got near enough to even see the halfway line, he’d be dropped. “I swore to myself back then,” he explained, “that when I was a coach, my teams would attack, would be thrilling, would play with joy – not fear.” 

No better testimony, really, from the man who also led Juventus to Champions League glory in 1995/96, as to what a true No10 should embody, regardless of system, regardless of the number on their back: thrills, joy and not a drop of fear. 

“The genuine No10 Is not Just about position and shirt number; it’s a state of mind, a philosophy”
Messi back in his Barcelona days

Lionel Messi 

Appearances 163  |  Goals 129

As a shy teen, Messi broke into Barcelona’s starting XI on the right wing, but injury curtailed his precocious participation in their 2005/06 Champions League triumph before the quarter-finals. Amid doubts he could handle 60 games a season and withstand brutal marking, La Pulga (the Flea) quit junk food and strengthened his body. Next, critics claimed the mesmeric dribbler didn’t score enough, but his goal in the victorious 2009 final opened the floodgates. And although some still felt his contribution wasn’t commensurate with his gifts, he moved into the centre to end all debate. Now everyone agreed: Messi was the complete No10. The perfectly balanced, impish genius was a European champion again in 2010/11 and 2014/15, and ultimately it wasn’t an opponent who stopped him winning more but Barça’s decline.

Thomas Müller 

Appearances 146  |  Goals 53

A little ungainly compared to many on this list, the Bayern stalwart has excelled thanks to his sense of anticipation and instinctive positional movement. Germany’s most decorated player labels himself a “raumdeuter” (space interpreter), and his canny off-the-ball runs between the lines have been stretching defences apart for 15 years.

Raúl González

Appearances 142  |  Goals 71

It’s the things Raúl wasn’t that render his achievements so notable. The Spaniard wasn’t a speed merchant, muscle man nor a trickster extraordinaire. Yet for many years he was the competition’s top scorer. How? Because he was unrivalled in intelligence and courage. Few have known where to find space or slip past their marker like Raúl. Comfortable on either foot, the deceptively tough ace relished duels with the world’s most rugged defenders. Having conquered Europe three times with Madrid (and scored in two finals), Raúl spent two seasons with Schalke, leading them to the 2010/11 semi-finals. No gym routine or YouTube skills tutorial could ever teach you what this humble assassin brought to the pitch.

Paul Scholes

Appearances 124  |  Goals 24

The Manchester United great morphed from deep striker into “probably the best English midfielder since Bobby Charlton”, according to Sir Alex Ferguson, citing his “brain for the passing game”. As well as laser-guided passes, Scholes had a ferocious shot – witness the strike that beat Barcelona in the 2007/08 Champions League semi-finals.

Luka Modrić

Appearances 121  |  Goals 9

Dismissed as too frail in his youth, the Real Madrid and Croatia linchpin is still having the last laugh at the age of 38. Not just a master of ball retention, Modrić is a diligent dispossessor himself, combining defensive and attacking qualities to control matches, though his trademark long-range, curling passes invariably draw the loudest applause.

Andrea Pirlo

Appearances 108  |  Goals 8

“Don’t shout,” Pirlo once told AC Milan team-mate Kevin-Prince Boateng. “Opponents will know you’re free. I’ll see you.” That summarises the Italian: supreme vision and perfect passes from deep. Add set pieces, free-kick goals and underrated defensive ability and you get one of the most complete midfielders of his generation. A Champions League winner in 2002/03 and 2006/07.

Alessandro Del Piero

Appearances 89  |  Goals 42

Juventus’s all-time top scorer had his own speciality goal in Europe: a curler with the inside of the right boot that drops into the far corner, first glimpsed at Dortmund on his Champions League debut in 1995/96. After lifting the trophy that season, he buried a mind-blowing, back-heeled effort in Juve’s final loss a year later.

Kaká

Appearances 86  |  Goals 30

Football is a team sport but many believe Milan’s Kaká won the 2006/07 Champions League on his own. The graceful Brazilian ended the stalemate against Celtic in the round of 16 and dominated both semi-final legs against Manchester United. Elegant with a winner’s edge, ‘Ricky’ was comparable to peak Roger Federer.

Wayne Rooney

Appearances 85  |  Goals 30

Arrived at Old Trafford from Everton as “a remarkable raw talent”, to quote Sir Alex. A raging bullock who combined power, energy and intuition, the then 18-year-old duly hit a hat-trick on his Champions League debut against Fenerbahçe, before helping United reach three finals – winning in 2008 and scoring in the 2011 loss to Barcelona. 

Neymar

Appearances 81  |  Goals 43

The closest thing to a contemporary Ronaldinho and the purest dribbler of his generation. The ball-juggling skills go without saying, but Neymar also boasts outstanding vision and eye-popping stats, averaging almost one goal contribution (goal or assist) in over 80 Champions League games, including a late effort in Barcelona’s 2015 final victory.

Zinédine Zidane

Appearances 80  |  Goals 14

An Italian newspaper once described Zidane as possessing the “body of a bear and mind of a fox”. Balletic grace and the subtlest of touches don’t usually find a home in such an imposing frame. After losing two finals with Juventus, Zizou finally struck gold when his outrageous waist-high volley won the 2002 decider for Madrid.

Pavel Nedvěd

Appearances 79  |  Goals 15

This mop-topped maestro climbed the ladder thanks to a training regime more akin to a decathlete than a footballer, driving Juventus to the Champions League final and lifting the Ballon d’Or in 2003. His refusal to give in made him an idol to fans. At times irascible, he missed the 2003 decider through suspension.

Wesley Sneijder

Appearances 76  |  Goals 12

Short in stature but a towering talent, the Ajax academy graduate could unlock defences or find the net with both feet. Capped a record 134 times by the Netherlands, he provided the creative spark as Inter conquered Europe in 2009/10, delivering the pass for Diego Milito’s opener in the final – his sixth assist of the campaign.

Deco

Appearances 75  |  Goals 13

The Brazilian-born conjurer carried the creative burden when José Mourinho’s Porto side lifted the Champions League trophy in 2003/04 (scoring a brilliantly cheeky goal in the final). Then he flew to Barcelona, taking a deeper role feeding megastars Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o. Winners’ medal number two arrived in 2005/06.

Rivaldo

Appearances 73  |  Goals 27

Rivaldo embodied the effortlessness of samba football. His lean body, bowed legs and gaunt face were remnants of a tough, malnourished childhood, but the Brazilian spread joy with his acrobatics and pinpoint shooting. Having piled up ten Champions League goals for Barcelona in 1999/2000, he won the trophy with Milan in 2002/03.

Kevin De Bruyne

Appearances 70  |  Goals 14

Whether playing as an attacking midfielder or a false nine, the Belgian has lit up numerous Champions League nights with his tactical intelligence, driving forward runs and ability to deliver a through ball or cross with perfect pace and precision. Pivotal to Manchester City’s runs to the 2021 and 2023 finals.

David Silva

Appearances 70  |  Goals 10

Across ten years, David Silva – aka ‘Merlin’ – helped Manchester City build an era of dizzying success with his immaculate touch, balance and vision. As Pep Guardiola said of the Spanish World Cup winner, “When we have to find space, he’s the best I’ve seen. I’ve never seen anyone move between the lines like he does.”

Kenny Dalglish

Appearances 68  |  Goals 15

Combining world-class technique, spatial awareness and peripheral vision, the Scot thrived in a second-striker role at Liverpool, notably in tandem with Ian Rush. He became an instant hero with 31 goals in his first season after a British-record transfer from Celtic, including his 1978 final winner against Club Brugge, the first of three European Cups.

Rui Costa

Appearances 60  |  Goals 1

The Portuguese schemer seemed slow, and his long hair and half-pulled-up socks made him appear positively leisurely, but he was the business. An assist king, his exquisite pass for Andriy Shevchenko’s winner at home to Real Madrid in 2002/03 (en route to Milan lifting the cup) dissected Los Blancos’ midfield and rearguard.

Jari Litmanen 

Appearances 59  |  Goals 23

Finland’s most-capped player exploded onto the scene at Ajax, replacing Dennis Bergkamp and steering the Dutch outsiders to Champions League glory in 1994/95 and to the final the following season, hitting 15 goals across the two campaigns. Injuries later hobbled his career, but the languid schemer remains revered in Amsterdam.

Juninho

Appearances 59  |  Goals 18

The set-piece sorcerer has a strong claim to being the greatest dead-ball specialist of all time, with 44 of his 100 goals for Lyon coming from free-kicks. Hard-working and technically superb, Juninho offered plenty more besides, but those infamous set pieces – all swerve and wobble in the air – truly took the breath away.

Francesco Totti

Appearances 57  |  Goals 17

“I hoped to die before this,” read a banner in the crowd during the Roma skipper’s farewell in 2017. Nobody epitomises a one-club player better. The home-town hero was a No10, a winger, a false nine, a goalscorer and goal maker, and he was still scoring in the Champions League aged 38, 13 years after his competition debut.

Gheorghe Hagi 

Appearances 51  |  Goals 15

The ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’ lived up to the comparison thanks to his left-footed brilliance, surging runs, dead-ball prowess, stocky build and fiery temperament. Hagi’s rare gifts took him to both Real Madrid and Barcelona, but it was at Galatasaray that he left the most indelible mark, lifting the UEFA Cup in 1999/2000.

Johan Cruyff

Appearances 49  |  Goals 19

The brilliant, brooding prince of Dutch football simply oozed with cool. Cruyff was the perfect player for the Total Football revolution that swept Ajax to three European Cups from 1970/71 to 1972/73, his supercomputer mind analysing space, team shapes and angles at blistering speeds and his pace, dribbling and extraterrestrial technique allowing him to exploit the data. He took that potent mix to Barcelona in 1973 and later transformed the club as coach, laying down the same philosophy with which he had once reigned on the pitch – the need to play with your brain and the importance of winning with style. From tiki-taka to the Cruyff turn and countless stadiums, fields, academies and even an asteroid named in his honour, his prodigious legacy endures.

Ronaldinho

Appearances 47  |  Goals 18

Pelé was born in 1940, Maradona 1960 and Ronaldinho in 1980. The Brazilian continued the sequence of a genius every two decades with his inventiveness and unpredictability, even if all too briefly. But he did lead Barcelona to the European title in 2005/06, his samba
skills and perma-smile making him a joy to watch.

Luis Suárez

Appearances 45  |  Goals 8

A model of precision at Barcelona, where he won the Ballon d’Or in 1960, El Arquitecto (the Architect) truly blossomed with Inter after reuniting with former Barça coach Helenio Herrera in 1961. Redeployed in a deeper playmaking role, Suárez was essential to the counterattacking zip that brought back-to-back European Cup triumphs in 1963/64 and 1964/65.

Oleh Blokhin

Appearances 43  |  Goals 11

Turbocharged with a sprinter’s speed and lethal with either foot, the ‘Ukrainian arrow’ spearheaded Dynamo Kyiv to European Cup Winners’ Cup glory in 1974/75 – and then pipped Franz Beckenbauer to the Ballon d’Or. A decade later, he inspired Dynamo to a second Cup Winners’ Cup in 1985/86 and the 1986/87 European Cup semi-finals.

Ferenc Puskás 

Appearances 41  |  Goals 36

Army colonel Puskás led the Hungary team which obliterated dusty old philosophies in the early 1950s. But the star with the friendly face and slicked-back hair shone at club level too. On his arrival at European champions Real Madrid as an out-of-shape 31-year-old, many questioned what he could add to a forward line including Alfredo Di Stéfano, Paco Gento, Raymond Kopa and Héctor Rial. No10s come in different forms, however: more an attacker than a playmaker, he provided the penetrating runs as Di Stéfano dropped deep, and his versatility, agility (despite a sturdy frame) and goals helped deliver three European Cups. Known as the ‘Little Cannon’ for his monstrous left foot, Puskás scored four in Madrid’s 1960 final victory and three in the 1962 showpiece loss to Benfica. 

Michael Laudrup

Appearances 41  |  Goals 10

A beautifully graceful footballer who was instrumental to Barcelona’s first European Cup success in 1991/92. Laudrup credits his short legs for his dribbling panache and ability to change direction; his party piece was la croqueta – not the Spanish tapa but the way he shifted the ball from one foot to the other to start a dribble.

Dennis Bergkamp

Appearances 40  |  Goals 7

To watch a highlights reel of Bergkamp’s best goals is to witness impeccable technique in the hands of an artist. Even so, the Dutch master derived as much joy from assists (“It’s like solving a puzzle”) and the erstwhile Ajax goal machine eventually settled into a deeper role at Arsenal, delivering gems for Thierry Henry and Co.

Sandro Mazzola

Appearances 38  |  Goals 17

A one-club man devoted to the Inter cause, Mazzola was slightly less refined but quicker and more physical than Gianni Rivera, his great crosstown rival. Immaculately balanced, he was a regular supplier of goals too, scoring twice as the Nerazzurri downed Real Madrid 3-1 to clinch their maiden European Cup in 1964. 

Pablo Aimar

Appearances 37  |  Goals 5

Singled out by Diego Maradona as “the only current footballer I’d pay to watch”, the flamboyant entertainer was a purist. “I live for beautiful football” was his motto, backed up by a jaw-dropping array of tricks, but Aimar’s abilities yielded results too – notably, two Liga crowns, a UEFA Cup and a Champions League final with Valencia.

Zvonimir Boban

Appearances 37  |  Goals 3

Born leader Boban had the intelligence and technique to flourish in every midfield role. The consistent Croatian demonstrated his team-first credo in Milan’s 1994 Champions League final victory, when he helped turn the defensive screws on Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola. Even so, his trademark feints and dashing style were what thrilled supporters – hence his ‘Zorro’ sobriquet.

Bobby Murdoch

Appearances 35  |  Goals 4

Jock Stein considered Murdoch the best of Celtic’s 1967 Lisbon Lions for his subtlety and strength, while team-mate Bobby Lennox lauded his ability to feint a right-footed pass, “turn on a sixpence” and deliver with his left. Injury restricted Murdoch to his ‘weaker’ left in the final, but it was his shot that brought Steve Chalmers’ winning deflection.

Dejan Savićević

Appearances 34  |  Goals 11

Known as Il Genio (the Genius), the Montenegrin (below) was a European champion with Crvena zvezda in 1990/91 and Milan in 1993/94. Never a monument to consistency or needless running, the exquisitely gifted trequartista burst into life for big matches. His audacious lobbed goal against Barcelona in the 1994 final demonstrated his wicked, playful talent.

Andreas Möller

Appearances 32  |  Goals 8

Remembered by many for his strutting Wembley celebration at EURO ’96, the bustling force of nature had plenty to strut about: a glittering array of trophies, including Champions League victory with Dortmund in 1996/97, but also his irrepressible talent, his pace and power supplemented by dribbling finesse, passing prowess and
a terrifying shot.

Yıldıray Baştürk

Appearances 32  |  Goals 1

“A model professional,” according to his Leverkusen coach Klaus Toppmöller, the Türkiye star allied tenacity and combativeness to his more artful qualities. He took command of Bayer Leverkusen’s attack aged just 21 but performed wonders on their journey to the 2002 Champions League final, notching two assists in the semi-final against Manchester United.

Michel Platini

Appearances 30  |  Goals 17

Described by Pelé as “the European footballer of the 1980s”, the elegant Frenchman was a visionary passer, devilish dribbler and free-kick magician. He buried the winning penalty for Juventus in the 1985 European Cup final, though his greatest feat was racking up a remarkable nine goals in five games as France won the 1984 European Championship.

Teddy Sheringham

Appearances 30  |  Goals 9

Scorer of the equaliser in Manchester United’s dramatic 1999 Champions League final victory, Sheringham was a bridge between two worlds. He learned how to scrap and handle burly defenders in his early days with Millwall, giving him a hard edge. As part of an all-star cast at United, he let his refined technique take centre stage.

Bobby Charlton

Appearances 28  |  Goals 10

Ballon d’Or winner in 1966, the graceful, playmaking midfielder with the thunderclap shot helped Manchester United become England’s first European champions with two goals in the 1968 final against Benfica – a moment of joy but also deep poignancy for this survivor of the Munich air disaster a decade before.

Abedi Pele

Appearances 22  |  Goals 6

No less a defensive icon than Paolo Maldini counts Pele as one of the few players who really gave him problems. Marseille’s Ghanaian livewire tortured the Milan thoroughbred in the 1993 final. A runner-up in 1990/91 and winner two years later, the diminutive Pele was a quicksilver, mobile menace, pulling his markers all over the pitch.

Bernd Schuster 

Appearances 21  |  Goals 1

It takes a strong character to play for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid – and Schuster was certainly that. As well as penetrating passing, he offered perceptive positional play and excelled at ghosting into the box to score. Lost a European Cup final with Barcelona but did conquer Europe with West Germany.

Juan Román Riquelme

Appearances 20  |  Goals 3

“A footballer from another galaxy” in the words of former team-mate Alessio Tacchinardi, Riquelme also seemed to belong to another era – an age of poise and patient move construction. A selfless, methodical engineer of goals, he was a player teams were built around, not least the Villarreal side that reached the semi-finals in 2005/06.

Wim van Hanegem 

Appearances 19  |  Goals 10

Rated as a rival talent to Johan Cruyff in his native Netherlands, Van Hanegem scored four goals in Feyenoord’s triumphant 1969/70 European Cup campaign – including the second-round winner against holders Milan. Nicknamed De Kromme (the Crooked One) for both his bandy-legged posture and ball-curving ability, his passing range was even more impressive given his limited eyesight.

Gianni Rivera

Appearances 19  |  Goals 6

Italy’s ‘Golden boy’ was just 19 when he inspired Milan to their first European title in 1962/63, creating both goals for José Altafini in the 2-1 final defeat of Benfica. Rivera made over 600 appearances for the Rossoneri, his delectable control and vision earning him free reign in Nereo Rocco’s otherwise rigid catenaccio system. 

Roberto Mancini

Appearances 18  |  Goals 4

Mancini helped Sampdoria clinch their only Scudetto and then, with Gianluca Vialli, marched them to the 1992 European Cup final. Club president Paolo Mantovani would often telephone coach Sven-Göran Eriksson to ask, “Is Mancini playing?” When Vialli enquired, “President, why don’t you ask about me?” Mantovani replied, “You only run and score goals – Roberto makes art!” 

Nils Liedholm

Appearances 17  |  Goals 2

This fitness fanatic with an air of nobility was the fulcrum of the Milan side that almost dethroned Real Madrid in the 1958 final. Nicknamed Il Barone (the Baron) for his elegance on and off the pitch, the Swede supposedly went two years without misplacing a pass at San Siro, receiving a standing ovation when he eventually lost the ball.

Günter Netzer  

Appearances 16  |  Goals 3

Mönchengladbach’s maverick genius was renowned for his playboy lifestyle and love of fast cars, but his true claims to fame were his uncanny passing acumen and ability to put the ball wherever he wanted. The fact that Real Madrid snapped up Germany’s ‘Rebel on the ball’ in response to Johan Cruyff joining Barcelona said it all.

Roberto Baggio  

Appearances  9  |  Goals 4

To many the best Italian footballer ever, Il Divin Codino (the Divine Ponytail) is loved like no other on the peninsular. Injuries held him back, but he had his moment of Champions League brilliance with a double against Real Madrid in 1998. “Since Baggio stopped playing, it’s no longer Sunday,” sang cult Italian pop star Cesare Cremonini.

Diego Maradona

Appearances 6  |  Goals 2

Last by dint of fewest European Cup appearances, but far from least, perhaps the No10 by which all others are judged, so much so that he was known simply as El Diez – ‘the Ten’. Both hero and anti-hero, and a footballing deity either side of the Atlantic, Maradona has evolved into a quasi-mythical figure, his complex aura transcending the sport itself. To some, his is the story of a Buenos Aires urchin rising from slum life to stardom thanks to divine inspiration and Latin American cunning. To others, it’s a cautionary tale of excess. What remains unquestionable is the talent that dragged Napoli and Argentina to unforgettable successes, those stocky legs ablur as Maradona carved through the opposition, either finding the net himself or pulling defenders towards him like a magnet before releasing a team-mate.

Interview
When Messi met Zizou

Two of football’s greatest playmakers were brought together by adidas recently to discuss the No10 role. Here is what they had to say

WORDS Simon Hart

“For us Argentinians, ten is a very special number. Automatically, Maradona comes to mind.”

When Lionel Messi speaks, it pays to listen. Even more so when the topic is No10s. As one of the greatest exponents in football history – many would say the greatest – the Barcelona legend’s reflections on the role are stamped with significance.

For Messi and his childhood pals growing up in Rosario, Diego Maradona was the man to aspire to, and that meant wearing the same shirt number. “We all wanted to be like him,” says the record eight-time Ballon d’Or winner. “We all wanted to be that different player we all thought we were. And even if we weren’t, we all wanted to have the No10. Today, I don’t know if it’s the same.”

Messi’s ruminations can be heard during a fascinating encounter with another of the finest playmakers of the last quarter-century, Zinédine Zidane. The pair – Champions League winners with Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively – were recently brought together in Miami by adidas, and the No10 shirt and its meaning dominated their conversation.

“El Diez” is how Zidane describes Messi in the film of their tête-à-tête, echoing one of Maradona’s own nicknames. However, it was another South American who inspired the teenage Zizou – namely, Enzo Francescoli. “He was playing for Marseille and I was around 13,” recounts Zidane, who even named one of his sons after the Uruguayan. “When I saw him, I said, ‘I want to be him.’ He was very elegant: the way he played, the way he moved the ball as well. He did things with the ball and I thought, ‘He’s a magician.’ I wanted to do the same.”

For Zidane, like Messi, the No10 shirt was the dream, even if he ended up sporting No5 at Madrid. “All of us, when we were little, we wanted to have the No10. In the team, that was the leader.” Now, he too sees fewer players of that same mould amid a greater emphasis on systems: “Today, it’s not as important as it was.”

Messi, who names his own boyhood favourite as Pablo Aimar, expands on the theme. “Today, it’s more inside-forwards or false wingers who are the No10s. It’s true that the player who always typified the Argentinian No10 – the creative midfielder, the link player like [Juan Román] Riquelme or Aimar – there are few of those left, if any.

“I think football itself has changed a lot. When I was a boy, it was 4-3-3. Now, they often use a line of three or five at the back and the No10 we were talking about doesn’t fit, or is hard to fit, into the system.”

These observations chime with recent comments by Messi’s former Barcelona colleague and close friend Cesc Fàbregas, who reiterated the view that fewer possibilities exist for pure playmakers today. “Guys of the quality of [Mesut] Özil or James Rodríguez no longer interest coaches,” he said. “These players are capable of unlocking a match with a brilliant pass, but now the coaches prefer to have a stable structure.”

Back in Miami, as an absorbing discussion goes on, Zidane offers his own thoughts on the evolution of the role, telling Messi: “The No10 has to have a bit of magic, just like you. Because he is the leader of the team and the leader has to create. It’s what you had and what you have that is different from the rest – you see things before others do. I was one second ahead, you were three. That for me is what makes you different from the rest.”

In short, he adds, Messi is a purveyor of “pure magic”, a mix of anticipation, vision and execution. “Before receiving the ball, he already knew what had to be done.” And, as fans of Inter Miami will vouch, he still does. For that, Zidane is glad. “At least you’re still playing, so the No10 still exists.”

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