Association football, or ‘soccer’, can be dated as far back as the late 1200s, but didn’t officially become codified until the FA did so in 1863. There is very little in the way of information on the very earliest founders and innovators of the game from centuries ago, meaning the earliest entries on this list can be dated to around the mid-1800s and the codification of football and the paving of the way for the modern game.
Football is the world’s most popular sport. It is a $600 billion industry, played by 250 million people in over 200 different countries and watched by billions. Given the sport’s quite incredible reach, influence and history, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have had gargantuan influences upon the sport, and sadly a very many miss out.
Notable omissions who simply have to be mentioned include Franz Beckenbauer for his influence upon German football, Nandor Hidegkuti who redefined/created the number 10 role, Zico for his influence upon football in Brazil, Japan and Asia, Herbert Kiplin who founded AC Milan, and legendary coaches and managers such as Rinus Michels, Gusztav Sebes and Vic Buckingham, all of whom made seismic contributions to the game. Here are the top 15 influencers in soccer history:
15. Nilton Santos
One of the greatest defenders of all time, every time you see a full-back marauding forward and into the opposition half, that is testament to the everlasting influence Nilton Santos had upon the game. Before Santos, a full-back job was to defend, as much as a center-half’s job was to do likewise. In the modern game, it is not unusual to see a full-back who is better offensively than defensively.
That was not the case with Santos, who was excellent both going forward and defensively, and was nicknamed ‘the Encyclopedia’ due to his knowledge of the game. He won two World Cups with Brazil and was named in the World Team of the Twentieth Century.
14. Santiago Bernabeu
Although his influence was predominantly only upon one club, namely Real Madrid, the colossal impact of Los Blancos, who are only the beast that they are because of Bernabeu. The man who Madrid’s great stadium is named after spent an incredible 67 years at the club. A one-club man as a player, after retirement he worked as Director of Football, Assistant Director and Club President, a role which he held until his death in 1978. He transformed Real Madrid from the second most successful club in Madrid to the most successful in Europe, and helped create the European Cup, which is now the Champions League.
13. Alexander Watson Hutton
When it comes to the great footballing nations, Argentina always rank near the top, and quite rightly so. The country has won two World Cups, and given the world stars such as Alfredo di Stefano, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, but none of that could have happened were it not for Alexander Watson Hutton, a school teacher from Glasgow, Scotland. Hutton founded the Argentine FA, league system and Buenos Aires English High School, and is widely regarded as the father of Argentine football.
12. Amadeo Carrizo
No player has had such great influence upon a single position as Amadeo Carrizo has had upon that of goalkeeping. Another great Argentine, Carrizo spent almost his entire career at River Plate, where he won five championships, and also won 20 caps with Argentina. A pioneer of the goalkeeping position, Carrizo was the first goalkeeper to wear gloves, the first to act as a sweeper keeper who was prepared to leave the six yard box regularly and the first to utilise distribution as a goalkeeper as a way of mounting an attack. Most of his techniques are now considered standard practice for a goalkeeper.
11. James Richardson Spensely
Given that the British invented the game of football, it is no surprise that a number of them exported the game and therefore make an appearance on this list and James Richardson Spensely is another. Spensely, a doctor, footballer, manager and scout leader from London traveled to Genoa in 1896. There he joined a cricket & athletics club founded by Brits, and opened a footballing section, believed to be Italy’s first football club. With Spensely at the helm Genoa won six Italian league championships.
10. Herbert Chapman
From Englishmen who had great influence on the game overseas to one who made a tremendous impact on home soil, Herbert Chapman had a fairly unremarkable playing career, but as a manager he redefined the English game. He created the WM formation which was considered the best formation around for the best part of half a century until England’s annihilation at the hands of Hungary in 1953. Chapman revolutionized tactics, training techniques, introduced floodlights, numbered shirts and helped create European competitions. He is a genuine titan of the game.
9. Jean-Marc Bosman
The unlikeliest of footballing influencers, Jean-Marc Bosman was a Belgian midfielder who played throughout the 1980s. A decent player, Bosman appeared for both Standard Liege and the Belgian youth team, but never won a full cap. His influence upon the sport came via a landmark 1995 European Court of Justice ruling in his favour, which completely altered how transfers, players movements and contracts worked. The Bosman ruling meant players could now leave one club for another without a transfer fee being paid providing their contract was up.
8. Jack Reynolds
Something of a recurring theme among hugely influential managers, Jack Reynolds was another who hardly had the most decorated career, playing most of his games for New Brompton (now known as Gillingham FC). After hanging up his boots Reynolds took charge of Ajax, who were not a great team at that time. In three spells spanning 14 years, Reynolds transformed Ajax into a magnificent club with a focus on youth development and Total Football, later adopted by Rinus Michels, he also briefly managed the Netherlands national team. Reynolds won eight league titles at Ajax.
7. Charles William Miller
England may be the traditional home of football, but Brazil has become something of its adopted home over the years. The most successful team in World Cup history with five wins to their name, Brazil have often played with a sensational and flamboyant style of play, as well as giving birth to sheer greats such as Pele, Garrincha, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo. Charles William Miller, whose father was a Scottish railwayman and his mother Brazilian but of English descent, brought two footballs and a Hampshire FA rulebook to Brazil in 1894 before helping create a league system in the country, which has led him to be widely considered the father of Brazilian football.
6. Jose Andrade
Jose Andrade is tragically overlooked in terms of the greatest players of all time, a topic in which his name deserves at the very least an honorable mention. Andrade, who was known as the ‘Black Marvel’, was the first genuine worldwide black football star. Having previously worked as a shoeshiner and carnival musician, when Andrade and Uruguay shook the world at the 1924 Olympic Games, he became a superstar in Europe. He has been described as being “responsible more than anybody else in the first third of the 20th century for putting football on the map of international sports.”
5. Matthias Sindelar
Football in the 1920s and 30s was a very different game to the one played today. There was a heavy influence on physical prowess, particularly size and power. Likewise, tactics tended to be very rigid, but all of this began to change with the arrival of Matthias Sindelar. The Austrian forward was the finest player of his generation, yet he was nicknamed ‘the Paper-man’ due to his slight build.
Sindelar was not big or strong but his technical abilities made him the best player on the planet and paved the way for a whole new type of footballer. He also essentially invented the number 10 role, playing as a withdrawn forward, which is almost universal today.
4. Jimmy Hogan
Jimmy Hogan is far from a household name and in his native England the vast majority of people are unaware of the quite incredible impact the man had upon footballing history. Born in 1882, Hogan had a respectable but not awe-inspiring career before moving into coaching. As a coach he was a pioneer almost without peer in the sport. He changed the way in which the game was played in Austria, Hungary, Switzerland and Germany, creating a philosophy of dynamic, fluid and attacking possession-based football.
He took Switzerland to the final of the 1924 Olympic Games, the greatest footballing achievement in the countries history, before teaming up with Hugo Meisl to lead the Austrian Wunderteam in the 1930s, one of the finest national teams ever assembled. When Hungary dismantled England 6-3 at Wembley and the inquest began, the English were surprised to hear it was one of their own who had pioneered this style of play. “We played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us. When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters,” said the Hungarian coach Gusztav Sebes.
3. Johan Cruyff
By far the most influential man in football of the ‘modern’ era, it is far more difficult to be a pioneer and an innovator in an age when everyone is aware of everybody else, making the achievements of Johan Cruyff even more impressive. One of the greatest players of al time, Cruyff had an extraordinary career. Despite still being a player, he and coach Rinus Michels created ‘Total Football’ together at Ajax and the Netherlands national team, now regarded as two of the most exciting teams to ever take to the field.
Following retirement, Cruyff carried this philosophy into his coaching career. Having already inspired a generation of footballers with his grace, skill and technique, Cruyff had a more direct impact at Ajax and Barcelona, where his focus on youth development led to golden generations at both clubs. The success of Ajax in the 1990s, Barcelona over the last two decades and Spain from 2008-2012 can all be traced back to Johan Cruyff.
2. Ebenezer Cobb Morley
The simplest entry on this list, Ebenezer Cobb Morley’s influence upon the game of football is undeniable. Born in Hull in 1831, Morley was a sportsman and a solicitor. He left Hull for Barnes at 27, where he formed Barnes Club, a founding member of the FA. It was Morley himself who was the pivotal figure in founding the Football Association (FA) in 1863, football’s first ever governing body. As such, Morley was tasked with penning the official rules and codifying the game of football. Over 150 years later and the basic principles by which the game is played across the world remain the same as those drawn up by Morley in 1863.
1. William McGregor & Charles W. Alcock
A combined entry at top spot, and they are both also of Morley’s era. While the Barnes captain Morley had founded the FA, McGregor and Alcock created the first league and first cup competitions in the history of the game. McGregor was a footballer and draper from Scotland, his work led him to become involved with Aston Villa. At the club, McGregor grew frustrated with the football program and the cancellation of games. His solution was to talk to England’s leading clubs and create a Football League, which came into existence in 1888.
Alcock meanwhile was a Sunderland-born center-forward and administrator. Educated at Harrow, Alcock gained a reputation as a fine sportsman, notably in football and cricket. He would go on to change the course of both sports forever. In football, our focus of course, Alcock was instrumental in arranging a game between England and Scotland in 1870, the first ever international match, as well as creating the FA Cup, the first ever cup competition.
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