Heaven’s Eleven: The very greatest lost footballers

Date published: Tuesday 30th October 2018 1:29 - Sarah Winterburn

Halloween, let’s face it, is just about the only time of year when the dead get anything approaching a fair shout. October 31st and the days prior to it are certainly cadaver-friendly, but for the rest of the year the departed are wholly unrepresented. Especially in the media. Unless you count Most Haunted. Which you really mustn’t.

This under-representation of the former inhabitants of this mortal coil is shameful. Especially considering the calibre of some of the folk, you know, up there, what with your Einsteins and your Dianas and your George Michaels.

And that is doubly true when it comes to late footballers. There are a lot of very, very useful players in Paradise. And they want respect. They want to be remembered for their glories. Most of all, I’d imagine, they want to play football.

So let’s imagine for a moment that they do. Where would they play? On proper pitches, in flash stadiums, with TV rights and balti pies and 45,000 angels? Or is it more five-a-sidey; low-key… an ad-hoc kickabout on some flat-ish cloud with vestments for goalposts and no sliding tackles?

No way. We’ve all seen what ex-pros are like. They’re still kicking every ball! Still living it. Are you telling me when these adulation-addled narcissists get up to Heaven they’re going to be satisfied with a Sunday league approach? No, they’re going to want it like it used to be. When they were young and alive.

The only question is: which dead footballers get into Heaven’s Eleven? Which dead legends get to pull on that glowing, all-white kit and jog onto the pitch at Pure of Heart Lane? Assuming it’s finished in time, of course. The team’s trillionaire owner, God, the enigmatic founder of, well, everything, had promised fans that the new arena would be ready for the start of the season, but there is always the possibility that, if work on the new venue is not completed soon, Heaven’s Eleven may have to play their home games in the infernal surroundings of Badison Park, home of their arch rivals, Hell City. And Heavenly manager Bill Shankly would not be happy with that. How his opposite number, ‘Big’ Saddam Hussein may react, is open to speculation.

So, who would make the starting line-up of Heaven’s Eleven… and who would be left strumming a harp on his cloud, pissed off and agitating for a big-money move to RIPSG?

Between the sticks would have to be Lev Yashin. Signed from the living on March 20th 1990, the Muscovite is still the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or and was so good when he was alive that, during his early years, when he was struggling to break back into the Dynamo Moscow first team after a poor first few games, he volunteered to play for Dynamo’s ice hockey side and went on to anchor them to a Soviet cup. Despite being dead, Yashin remains in possession of one of the top five coolest nicknames in football history – ‘Black Spider’. He actually played in dark blue, but that’s old telly for you.

Both full-backs are Brazilian, with Nilton Santos occupying the left and Carlos Alberto the right. Santos, who won the 1958 and 1962 World Cups with the Seleção, played for only one club, Botafogo, and their stadium in Rio is, as you might expect, named after him. Santos won global fame for a memorable solo goal in the 1958 tournament against Austria, where he dribbled past pretty much every opposition player before drilling home an unstoppable shot.

Of course, if no heavenly team had ever existed, they would have to invent one, just to see Carlos Alberto undulate his way past some flummoxed cherubims. Close your eyes and think of his colossal finish from Pele’s assist against Italy in the 1970 World Cup Final and you really are in footballing heaven. Aside from gracing the turf of Flamengo, Santos and Fluminense, Carlos took time out from his stint with the New York Cosmos in the late seventies to play a season with the, like, totally awesomely titled California Surf. Can’t imagine their training regime would have been too taxing.

Our blessed centre-backs are Bobby Moore (obvs) and Gaetano Scirea. Mooro probably had a head start on any other player when it came to making the team, given that he already looked a dead ringer for the Archangel Gabriel. His praises have already been sung in other quarters by far finer writers than I, honouring his calm, danger-snuffing presence at the heart of the West Ham and England defences. However, my favourite description of his class came from another footballing deity, Jock Stein, who described Moore thus: “There should be a law against him. He knows what’s happening 20 minutes before everyone else.”

So, how good was Juve’s Scirea? Well, you’ll have heard of master destroyer Franco Baresi. Despite knocking at the international door for four years, Baresi only managed to establish himself with the Azzuri when Scirea retired. Voted into the all-time greatest Juventus XI.. and who are we to argue with that sort of validation? May have gone on to a stellar coaching career, but died in a car crash in 1989 at the preposterous age of 36.

On to Heaven’s right-side attacking midfielder, George Best. Already in possession of the kind of knicker-bewitching beauty which would have been enough of a gift from God for anyone, on Earth George was also sanctified with a dribbling ability which would leave Georgi Kinkladze’s chin resting on the floor. Ally that to the balance of a tightrope walker, a boxer’s courage, prodigious ability in the air, vast strength in the tackle and an unshakeable belief in his abilities and you have a player who eclipses all others when it comes to the misty-eyed reminiscences of football fans of a certain age.

His midfield companion is Didi. The so-called Egyptian Prince (way before Mo) sold peanuts as a kid to feed his family, but went on to win the golden ball as Best Player at the 1958 World Cup. Credited with coining the phrase The Beautiful Game, his heroics at Sweden ’58 saw him signed by Real Madrid, but his appearances were limited due to Alfredo di Stefano getting the hump that Didi was annexing a fair proportion of his adoration from the fans.

Out on the right flank we find Garrincha, the mis-shapen little Brazilian who embodied everything we love about dribblers. With a left leg 6cm longer than his right, he was always going to cut an unusual figure on the pitch. But what a figure. And what joy he transmitted, often beating his man and then waiting for the player to steady himself, just so he could beat him again. At the World Cup in Chile in 1962, following an injury to Pele, he did what Diego Maradona did in Mexico in 1986, energising his teammates’ waning belief and single-handedly dragging them across the grass and up the stairs to receive the Jules Rimet trophy. Like Best, it was the drink that got him. Nothing else could catch him.

On the other flank from ‘the Little Bird’, we find Glasgow Rangers’ oft-eulogised Davie Cooper. Struck down by a brain haemorrhage at just 39, Cooper was always a winger with Heavenly chalk on his boots. Indeed, appreciation of him on both sides of a divided Glasgow was such that it was accepted apocryphally that Cooper could not only cook breakfast with his left foot, but serve it up without spilling a baked bean. His range of passing was also extraordinary. Indeed, former Rangers and England captain Terry Butcher places him above David Beckham when it comes to an unmatched expertise in striking a dead ball. Granted, he had no pace, but he could befuddle the highest of the high with his close control. Witness Ruud Gullit, who recently named Cooper in his All-Time XI.

Up front, God’s strike partnership could hardly be more choice, with twin icons Eusebio and Ferenc Puskas providing the righteous firepower. Mozambique-born Eusebio played for Benfica 301 times, managing to find the net a quite mystifying 317 times. A vastly effective goal scorer, his powerful runs and cannon of a drive, combined with a noble vein of fair play and post-career efforts to elevate his countrymen, saw him command the status of the first great African football superstar.

In 1995, the International Federation of Football History & Statistics ranked Ferenc Puskas as the greatest goalscorer of the 20th century. That’s the kind of no-arguments label you get when you score 84 times in 85 internationals for your country (Hungary). And while he only played for two senior clubs – Honved of Budapest and Real Madrid – he managed to amass a goal tally of 514 goals in 529 matches. To put that in perspective, it’s a shit load. A thrice winner of the European Cup, Puskas also gives his name to FIFA’s annual award of the most beautiful goal scored that year. Thus his name will always be synonymous with beauty. And such beauty surely belongs with the other immortals, in Heaven’s Eleven.

Donald MacInnes

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