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In Pictures: The top 50 footballers ever to face Northern Ireland

By Steven Beacom

Published 13/10/2012

<b>1. Johann Cruyff </b><br />
<b>Country:</b> Holland <br />
George Best may have famously nutmegged Cruyff in an international in Rotterdam in 1976, but it was the Dutchman who spent most of his career making others look silly. What a gifted player. Was at the heart of the 'Total Football' played by Holland in the 70s and invented the ‘Cruyff turn'. Pure genius.
1. Johann Cruyff
Country: Holland
George Best may have famously nutmegged Cruyff in an international in Rotterdam in 1976, but it was the Dutchman who spent most of his career making others look silly. What a gifted player. Was at the heart of the 'Total Football' played by Holland in the 70s and invented the ‘Cruyff turn'. Pure genius.
2. Franz Beckenbauer
Country: West Germany
Der Kaiser. Has there ever been a better footballing defender? Answer: No. Beckenbauer played against Northern Ireland as a kid in 1966, just before the World Cup finals in England. Even then, the man who would go on to become a World Cup winner as a player and coach, looked a genuine class act.
3. Alfredo Di Stefano
Country: Spain
Pele once described him as the “most complete footballer in the history of the game”. Best known for his time with Real Madrid, Di Stefano played for Argentina, Colombia and Spain. He inspired Spain at the Bernabeu to a 6-2 win over a Northern Ireland team who months before had shone in the 1958 World Cup.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo
Country: Portugal
Remarkably averages over a goal per game. The Real Madrid star will fancy an even better ratio than that when he faces Northern Ireland on Tuesday in Porto’s Dragao Stadium. Played at Windsor in 2005 but is 10 times the player now. If he continues to improve he could be the number one on this list when he retires.
Uefa President Michel Platini
6. Duncan Edwards
Country: England
Many respected judges say Edwards could have been the finest of them all, but sadly he died at the age of 21, perishing with so many others in the Munich air disaster in 1958. Manchester United team-mate Bobby Charlton said he was the best he played with. Edwards first faced Northern Ireland as a teenager.
7. Bobby Moore
Country: England
Remains the only English player to lift the World Cup as captain and didn't he do it in style? Older readers may recall the Northern Ireland players giving England a guard of honour at Windsor in 1966 with Moore leading the visitors out, Jules Rimet trophy in hand. Moore was a genuinely great defender.
8. Zico
Country: Brazil
Before Diego Maradona emerged, Brazilian hero Zico was considered the best player in the world. Known as the ‘White Pele’ Zico scored stunning goals and his creative powers were just as breathtaking. Came on as a sub against Northern Ireland in the 1986 World Cup in the last international for Pat Jennings.
9. Peter Schmeichel
Country: Denmark
Forget Joe Hart, the best goalkeeper ever to play in Manchester remains this great Dane. Indeed he is the finest number one of all time, taking his art to new levels when he was at Old Trafford with United. For all his prowess and presence though, David Healy scored an absolute cracker against him at Windsor in 2000.
10. Andres Iniesta
Country: Spain
A tough call to select Iniesta over his Barcelona team-mate Xavi but the man who scored the winner in the 2010 World Cup final gets the nod. Iniesta was an unused substitute when Northern Ireland famously beat Spain at Windsor in 2006, but a year later in Las Palmas ran the show as Espana gained revenge.
And 40 others in no particular order who make up 50 greats to face Northern Ireland
Socrates (Brazil)
Michael Laudrup (Denmark)
Andrea Pirlo (Italy)
Paolo Maldini (Italy)
Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)
Alessandro del Piero (Italy)
Stanley Matthews (England)
Tom Finney (England)
Bobby Charlton (England)
Jimmy Greaves (England)
Gordon Banks (England)
Gary Lineker (England)
Bryan Robson (England)
Steven Gerrard (England)
Nobby Stiles (England)
Jean Tigana (France)
Marcel Desailly (France)
Ruud Krol (right) - Holland
Johann Neeskens (Holland)
Eusebio (Portugal)
Luis Figo (Portugal)
Liam Brady (Republic of Ireland)
Johnny Giles (left) - Republic of Ireland
Paul McGrath (right) - Republic of Ireland
Roy Keane (Republic of Ireland)
Gheorge Hagi (Romania)
Denis Law (Scotland)
Kenny Dalglish (Scotland)
Graeme Souness (Scotland)
Xavi (Spain)
Raul (Spain)
John Charles (Wales)
Ryan Giggs (Wales)
Ian Rush (Wales)
Uwe Seeler (West Germany)
Lothar Matthaus (West Germany)
Karl Heinz Rummenigge (West Germany)
Berti Voghts (West Germany)
Jurgen Klinsmann (West Germany)
Andreas Brehme (West Germany)

The debate rages in world football today about who is the best player on the planet — Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi?

^^Click 'More Pictures' to launch gallery^^

Given their astonishing talent, the remarkable goals that they score and their ability to produce on big occasions, you could make a strong argument either way.

Most go with Barcelona's breathtaking Messi, which frustrates the Real Madrid superstar who will be out to enhance his glowing reputation when, as Portugal skipper, he faces Russia in tomorrow's World Cup qualifier in Moscow before taking on Northern Ireland in Porto next Tuesday.

Ronaldo v Northern Ireland. How scary is that?

Ronaldo has faced our wee country before in 2005 when, as a young Manchester United player, he was jeered during a friendly at Windsor Park.

It finished 1-1 with Northern Ireland players and fans still on a high after beating England 1-0 in Belfast two months before.

The match in Porto will be a massive departure from seven years ago because while Northern Ireland have gone backwards since, Ronaldo has improved out of sight, so much so that he is rightly regarded as one of the greatest ever to play the beautiful game.

But is he the greatest to play against Northern Ireland?

Now, there's a question.

Legendary footballing figures Pele and Diego Maradona never took on our national team, so they are ruled out.

George Best, of course, played FOR us, not against, so he is not in the equation either.

And while Messi still has time, he has yet to experience the delights of facing the Green and White Army.

Many other players, at one time or another labelled the best in the world, have, however, opposed Northern Ireland.

Take a look through the team sheets and the names that hit you throw images of artistry and magic into your mind and recollections of stories of glorious feats in days gone by filter through the brain.

Down the years Northern Ireland teams have come up against so many fantastic footballers it is tougher than stopping Ronaldo or Messi to choose which one deserves to be named the best, especially when you are comparing players from different eras, but then isn't that part of the reason why we love the sport so much?

Debate, conjecture — football fans live for this kind of stuff as much as seeing their favourite team score a goal.

And never afraid to voice an opinion, the Belfast Telegraph Sportsdesk are attempting this monumental task.

Elsewhere in these pages, you will see our top 10 and 40 other outstanding stars who make up 50 greats who have faced Northern Ireland.

Current Manchester United pair Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie miss out along with priceless performers from yesteryear like France's Patrick Vieira, Dutch hero Johnny Rep, Germany goalkeeper Sepp Maier and Scotland's Jimmy Johnstone.

From those included in the shortlist of 50, Paolo Maldini, Socrates, Bobby Charlton, Kenny Dalglish, Roy Keane and Xavi could have made the top 10.

Those who were chosen are amongst some of the most iconic figures ever to play the sport — men who have taken football to places we never knew existed and in many ways change the face of the beautiful game.

Ronaldo is included, but ahead of playing Northern Ireland next week, he does not earn top spot in this illustrious list.

Apart from Portugal's finest there are two Englishmen, two Spanish, one French, one Dutch, one Brazilian, a German and a great Dane in the top 10.

The two England players are Bobby Moore and Duncan Edwards, one who was able to fulfil his destiny and sadly one who wasn't.

The Spanish influence is provided by the past and present, the mercurial Alfredo Di Stefano and the mesmerising Andres Iniesta.

Zico and Michel Platini, who bent the ball way before and far better than David Beckham, ensure that Brazil and France are represented while the pride of Denmark, Peter Schmeichel, merits his place for being the best opposition goalkeeper ever seen at Windsor Park.

And that leaves the supreme Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer from those old rivals Holland and Germany.

Cruyff, who faced Northern Ireland in the 70s, and Beckenbauer who took us on in the 60s, are giants of the game, dripping with greatness that will forever stand the test of time.

They are one and two in our list. Beckenbauer was and is the best ever in his position. Crafty, cool, classy Cruyff simply had it all.

Belfast Telegraph

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