Every soccer fan remembers and loves the greats of their generation. For some it’s Diego Maradona – leading Argentina to the 1986 World Cup and Napoli to their first ever title that same year. But ask anyone younger than 40 and there’s no comparison – Lionel Messi rules the roost.
In many respects Messi is the successor to the Maradona throne. Both diminutive number 10s played for Barcelona and captained Argentina. Yet the couple of decades that separate each other’s careers are important because the two never followed each other’s paths directly. They each had to step in to fill a void left by other players on a domestic and international level.
These arguments don’t always boil down to pure statistics because they can be used to back up any opinion. Then again, the fans are the voice of the game and when the jury comes back to reach a verdict, it’s often unanimous.
Many of the great club sides around the world have legends from the black and white television era that lift the standard. So when someone like Peter Crouch leads the line for Liverpool or Fabien Barthez goes between the sticks for Manchester United, those in the grandstands know it’s only a matter of time before they get a serious upgrade.
Then there are the legends that emerge from out of nowhere. Real Madrid thought they never had it so good when Raul was scoring goals for fun, likewise Arsenal with Ian Wright. Then Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry come along to blow their achievements out of the water.
Supporters remember those that set the standard. They win the personal awards and have their faces on bronze statues. These are the top 15 soccer players who surpassed their predecessors.
16 Ruud van Nistelrooy / Dwight Yorke
When Sir Alex Ferguson bagged Dwight Yorke from Aston Villa in 1998, they struck gold. The Trinidad and Tobago front man netted 48 goals in 96 games for the Red Devils and was the most potent striker amongst a quartet of Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. That 4-year stint set the tone for the Ferguson regime, until Dutch forward Ruud van Nistelrooy came on the scene. Over 5 seasons at Old Trafford, van Nistelrooy managed a staggering 95 goals in 150 appearances to make his fee of $26.8 million from PSV look like the bargain of a lifetime. How Manchester United could with either Yorke or van Nistelrooy now.
15 Vincent Kompany / Richard Dunne
The purchase of Manchester City to Sheikh Mansur transformed the Citizens from also-rans to title contenders and big boys. That transitional period saw the standard of player follow a similar path, as was most evident by their switch from central defenders. Richard Dunne gave admirable service for 9 seasons from 2000-2009 then Belgian captain Vincent Kompany came along. With leadership in spades the tough defender has seen the club win 2 Premier League titles, an FA Cup trophy and League Cup success. More is sure to come.
14 Javier Mascherano / Dietmar Hamann
Liverpool throughout the late 1990s and 2000s could be deemed as the world’s best cup team. Whether it be the League Cup, FA Cup or UEFA Champions League, the Kop have excelled at the extras on the side of the Premier League. During that period there have been moments when they have unearthed real star quality. At one stage their holding midfielder was the workman Dietmar Hamann who gave admirable performances for 7 years. After the clubs purchase of Argentine dynamo Javier Mascherano from West Ham the complexion of the team changed. Ironically enough the team were more successful with Hamann, but Mascherano’s sale and subsequent success at Barcelona demonstrated what a superior player they had on their books. No wonder they haven’t won a league title in 26 years.
12 Clint Dempsey / Brian McBride
Team USA has had a lot of good moments to look back on in the last 20 years. From punching above their weight at the World Cup to almost shocking the world at the Confederations Cup, the United States soccer team remains a reliable outfit on the big stage. Throughout this period, stalwart striker Brian McBride had been the go-to man to keep defenses on their toes, tallying 30 goals in 95 games from 1993 to 2006. A few contenders have come along the way to fill the void, but none have done so to the level of Seattle Sounders star Clint Dempsey. 48 goals in 120 games tells its own story.
11 Didier Drogba / Eidur Gudjohnsen
One man changed the entire landscape of Chelsea and the Premier League in 2003 – Roman Abramovich. The Russian tycoon’s purchase of the West London club put down a marker as the owner went out the strengthen a team with promise, but nothing more. One of those upgrades came up front when Icelandic striker Eidur Gudjohnsen (54 goals in 186 games) was put on the outer while new acquisition Didier Drogba (100 goals in 226 games) was catapulted in legends status. Gudjohnsen was talented and a great foil, but Drogba was different class.
10 Alexis Sanchez / Andrey Arshavin
When the pressure was on for Arsene Wenger to upgrade his squad, few could have imagined that Alexis Sanchez would fall into his lap after departing Barcelona. With German superstar Mesut Ozil secured, Sanchez was transferred amid rumors Liverpool were chasing his services with the Luis Suarez money in the bank. But as soon as he arrived the Chilean hit the ground running, scoring and assisting goals for fun on the left-hand side. It made his Russian predecessor look like a lazy has-been. Which he was, because the diminutive playmaker’s career nosedived on his return to Zenit.
9 Yaya Toure / Joey Barton
If the Richard Dunne/Vincent Kompany divide wasn’t far enough to comprehend, then this will illustrate how far Manchester City has come as an organization. Bad boy Joey “Jailbird” Barton played as a box-to-box midfielder for City between 2002 to 2007 only managing the 15 goals across 130 appearances. Enter Ivory Coast playmaker Yaya Toure who, on top of winning 4 major trophies, has scored 53 goals in 181 games playing a very similar position since he joined the club in 2010. Barton speaks a big game but when it comes to delivering on the field he isn’t even worthy of cleaning Toure’s boots.
8 Fernando Torres / Peter Crouch
The fact Peter Crouch is begging Stoke City for more game time tells it’s own story right now. The lanky 34-year old English front man has fronted up for almost every club in the EPL, ranging from Tottenham to Portsmouth, QPR, Aston Villa, Norwich, Southampton and of course, Liverpool. His 22 goals in 85 games from 2005 to 2008 never set the world on fire, unlike Spanish superstar Fernando Torres. Before his career nosedived on way to Chelsea, Torres banged in 65 goals in 102 appearances at Liverpool, demonstrating how he was the most lethal striker in the game at one point.
7 Petr Cech / Carlo Cudicini
Goalkeepers are the most underrated position in soccer. The points they save across a season are easily forgotten, but ask any player in the game and they will tell you a reliable man between the sticks is often the difference between trophies won and trophies almost won. That Chelsea transition under Abramovich saw a number of key changes, one of them being Petr Cech in for Carlo Cudicini. The Italian stopper was decent, just not world class. Cech’s recent defection to Arsenal sees the Gunners leading the league and its any wonder the Czech goalie is the common denominator.
6 Diego Maradona / Oscar Damiani
Napoli’s ascension to the 1986 title didn’t happen overnight, but one key purchase turned their fortunes around dramatically. Throughout the 1980's the side from Naples were a competitive outfit and had some exciting players on the field at any given time. One of them was the pacey winger Oscar Damiani who enjoyed a 3-year spell from 1979-1982, racking up 10 goals in 72 matches. 2 seasons later they would secure the services of a certain Diego Maradona from Barcelona, going on to win the league title and score 81 goals in 188 games. It seems unfair to compare anyone to El Diego but this is simply a fact.
5 Edwin van der Sar / Fabien Barthez
When Peter Schmeichel was shown the door at Old Trafford, the huge void left by the Danish stopper was expected to be filled quickly under Ferguson. But somehow he got the selection wrong for Manchester United. French goalie Fabien Barthez was the number one choice for 4 patchy seasons, making some embarrassing howlers along the way from 2000 to 2004. Then the Scot decided to take a punt on aging Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar from lowly Fulham in 2005. 186 games, 4 Premier League titles, 2 League Cups and one Champions League victory later and there is no comparison.
4 Ronaldo / Romario
Whoever coined the phrase “Fat Ronaldo” should be thrown off the Empire State building. They don’t know soccer and they certainly don’t respect the greats of the game. The “original” Ronaldo surpassed a Brazilian legend in Romario when he netted 62 goals in 98 starts for his beloved national team from 1994 to 2011. He won 2 FIFA World Cups and 2 Copa America titles amid hundreds of personal awards. Romario’s 55 goals in 70 games is a better strike rate and a 1994 World Cup and 2 Copa America titles are nothing to sneeze at either, but it’s not at Ronaldo’s level. Picking between the best Brazilian footballers is like choosing a Miss Universe winner, but eventually someone has to make a choice.
3 Thierry Henry / Ian Wright
“Ian Wright Wright Wright” is still sung loud and proud at the Clock End at the Emirates Stadium, but the local London boy made good couldn’t prevent Thierry Henry from taking his crown at North London. Wright’s 128 goals in 221 games for Arsenal over a 7 season spell from 1991 to 1998 was a record at the time, then Thierry Henry arrived from Juventus in 1999 to amass 175 goals in 258 appearances to smash that statistic to smithereens. Both strikers are loved by the fans and feared by opposition defenses, yet the Frenchmen took his game and the club to another level altogether.
2 Cristiano Ronaldo / Raul
It’s difficult with Ronaldo to get passed the ego. He believes he is God’s gift to the world which is incredibly irritating, but if you take that out of the equation and analyze the player on the merit, boy does he make for impressive reading. Before his arrival at the Bernabeu, Spanish striker Raul held all the records by scoring 228 goals in 550 games. It felt like no one would ever touch that figure. When they splashed the cash for Portuguese superstar Cristiano from Manchester United in 2009, people knew they bought quality. But even they wouldn’t have expected 239 goals in 220 games quality. He hasn’t just made Raul’s record look easy, he’s made it look like child’s play. Simply outrageous.
1 Leo Messi / Ronaldinho
Fortunately for Barcelona they didn’t have to look too far to find the successor to Brazilian legend Ronaldinho – he was waiting in their backyard! The aging playmaker had all the flair in the world during his 5 years in Spain, scoring 70 goals in 145 games and became the best player on the planet in the process. During the transition, young Argentine Lionel Messi stepped in and started becoming a bigger influence as each season passed. When Ronaldinho left, Messi was the man. 295 goals in 328 games later and there is no question that he’s the man at Barcelona. If anyone passes his record in the future, we hope we’re alive long enough to see it!