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Former Northern Ireland stars remember the best they played against

If Cristiano Ronaldo is handed his 100th cap for Portugal on Tuesday night the Northern Ireland defence should be afraid — very afraid.

The Real Madrid superstar has rocketed into football’s hall of fame and at 27 years of age he will produce many more moments that will take our breath away.

Football is about winning, but it is also about entertainment and fans, regardless of where their devotion lies, will stand up and applaud genius when they see it.

For Michael O’Neill’s players in the lion’s den in Porto, the golden boy from Madeira could become the greatest player they have ever had the misfortune to encounter in a competitive fixture.

Yet the Northern Ireland story has always had a David v Goliath theme in every glorious chapter.

Affectionately known as ‘Our Wee Country’, the great Northern Ireland squads — particularly the terrific trio that chartered a course to the World Cup Finals in 1958, 1982 and 1986 — have needed to fight against the odds and show bravery and courage against some of the game’s greats.

But if you thought sitting at home and watching the likes of Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Johan Cruyff, Zinedine Zidane, Diego Maradona, Pele and Franz Beckenbauer was a terrifying enough prospect, imagine trying to man-mark them!

Northern Ireland players have often come up against some of the game’s most gifted talents and they aren’t likely to forget it.

Burnley legend Jimmy McIlroy, a member of the legendary 1958 World Cup side, recalls the lethal finishing power of Germany’s post-war hero Fritz Walter.

Walter was a goal hungry playmaker who appeared 379 times for Kaiserslautern, scoring an astonishing 306 goals from midfield. He consistently found the target at international level too, scoring 33 times in 61 games for Germany.

“Scotland’s Jimmy Scoular was a tough opponent but Walter was a class apart and his goal-scoring record was phenomenal,” said McIlroy.

“Northern Ireland couldn’t have lived with these guys unless they had a strong team packed with talented players and we did. We weren’t afraid of anyone and we stood up to them despite being from a country which was just a tiny dot on the world map.

“Walter was a really hard worker and stand out player. The German fans loved him.”

Former Northern Ireland international Nigel Worthington, who was part of the 1986 World Cup squad, is still bewildered by the mesmerising tricks of Portugal legend Luis Figo.

“As a left-back I came up against some dangerous wingers like Ryan Giggs, but Figo was the stand out class act, a real top quality performer,” said Worthington who won 66 caps.

“We played Portugal in the mid-1990s when Bryan Hamilton was in charge and they were a team packed with big name stars. They beat us 1-0 and Figo was a different class, it was just very difficult to try to get to grips with a player like that.”

Former Northern Ireland manager Bryan Hamilton can recall the great British battles with star England names like Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore but he was left in awe of the Dutch master Johan Cruyff.

Cruyff was at the heart of the Holland team that earned a reputation of playing Total Football in the 1970s, and the pioneer of the style that earned the Dutch the reputation of being a joy to watch.

“He was simply fantastic,” said Hamilton. “Here was a total footballer, someone who has done it at the highest level. He won a hat-trick of European Cups with Ajax, the World Clubs’ Cup and was three times European Footballer of the Year.

“They don’t come much tougher than him.”

Michael Hughes, who won 71 caps, will never forget the big haired maestro from Colombia — Carlos Valderrama.

“We played Colombia on a US tour and I will never forget this man with the big hair who seemed to do things so effortlessly,” said the Carrick Rangers boss.

“He rarely moved out of the centre circle yet he dictated the game.

“He barely moved from a radius of 10 yards but his team-mates looked for him and he absolutely ran the show. He made everything tick. We lost 2-0, I think, and we couldn’t stop him.”

Belfast Telegraph