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By ESPN Staff

Player of the decade

As part of Soccernet's continuing celebrations marking a decade online we asked you to vote for the greatest player of our lifetime. We short-listed ten fantastic players from the last ten years for your consideration.

Close to 100,000 of you voted with almost a third of you plumping for three-time FIFA World Player of the Year Zinedine Zidane. Strutting majestically into second-place is another Frenchman, Eric Cantona, while in third place is Ronaldo, one of the most explosive and exciting players of a generation.

1, Zinedine Zidane

As the very best player of the last decade Zinedine Zidane rightly tops our poll. In fact, Zidane deserves a place alongside the very greatest in football's pantheon.

When he retires, which will most likely be in 2007 when his current Real Madrid contract expires, a third name will reinvigorate the now hackneyed question; Who was the greatest player of all time? Zidane will take his place alongside Pele and Maradona.

Unquestionably Zidane is the player of the modern era, so complete and astonishing are his abilities that he is certain to transcend generations and become a legend.

His career began back in 1988 with Cannes, and included four years with Bordeaux, but it was not until 1996 that the mercurial Frenchman's class became evident to the wider footballing world following a move to Italy and Juventus.

In his first season with 'La Vecchia Signora' Zidane lifted both the European Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup; a modest haul of ultimately inconsequential baubles, perhaps, but greater honours, both individual and collective, were to follow.

In the five years before his £45.6 million world record move to Madrid in 2001 Zidane beguiled the world time and again, his mastery of the game leaving supporters, team-mates and opponents spellbound.

Zidane was instrumental in Juve's dominance in the late 1990s, helping the Turin club to back-to-back Italian Championships in 1997 and 1998, as well as the Italian Super in 1997, the runners-up position in the 1997 and 1998 UEFA Champions League, and the runners-up spot in Serie A in 2000 and 2001.

One quality marking great players apart from good players is the ability to turn in their best performances under pressure and on the highest stage. Zidane did just that in Paris' Stade de France in 1998.

In the biggest, and arguably best game of his career Zidane illuminated the World Cup Final, scoring twice against defending world champions Brazil and inspiring the host nation to famous 3-0 triumph.

Final results.
Final results.

Later that year Zidane received the first of his FIFA World Player of the Year awards; the second followed in 2000 after he had played a pivotal role in Les Bleus' European Championship success, a competition in which he was named player of the tournament.

In 2001 when the Real Madrid regime demanded a new 'Galactico', as the best player in the world, Zidane was the obvious choice. Ever since he has been an integral part of Real's domestic and European ambitions; proving his worth by scoring an exquisite volleyed goal to win the 2002 Champions League final in his debut season.

While awards and trophies are the accoutrements of a successful career, a list of achievements cannot do justice to Zidane as a player; it serves only to highlight his value to a team, but it fails to sum up the essence of a magical player.

In each of the most important disciplines for a forward-minded midfielder Zidane excels.

His strength and vision, his feints and dummies, his touch and dribbling, his guile and craft, his range of passing and, of course, his vicious shot and unerring accuracy; Zizou offers a master class in all.

Not since Diego Maradona has one player mastered every facet of the game so completely. That Zidane is still plying his trade is a gift for every football fan; enjoy him while you can.

2, Eric Cantona

Does Eric Cantona find himself in the runners-up place in our poll by virtue of Manchester United's legions of fans, or is he finally benefiting from historical revisionism?

In truth it is probably a little of both.

Zinedine Zidane: All time great
Zinedine Zidane: All time great

Second only to George Best in United fans' affections, Cantona is part of Old Trafford folklore thanks to his role in the clubs success in the 1990s, his enigmatic persona and his belligerent ability. That supporters would vote for him is not a surprise.

That Cantona has benefited from the votes of non-United fans' is notable given that during his playing career he was almost universally loathed.

The strutting, barrel-chested striker displayed an arrogance which even into the middle phase of his career manifested itself in acts of petulance and violence; it was not until the autumn of his playing days that it was channeled solely into displays of sublime skill and leadership.

Perhaps time has allowed Cantona's detractors to reconcile their distaste for his arrogance (and somewhat tarnished disciplinary record) with an appreciation for the flair and skill he brought to the Premiership.

That he only played during two of Soccernet's 10 years matters not, play he did, and his impact on a young Manchester United team cannot be ignored.

His career began in 1983 with Auxerre, and included spells of varying degrees of tempestuousness with Martigues, Marseille, Bordeaux, Montpellier and Nimes before the quintessential enfant terrible quit the game after a catalogue of run-ins with the French authorities.

Soon he was persuaded to resurrect his career in England. When Sheffield Wednesday refused to take a punt on the relative unknown, Leeds United stepped in and were rewarded; Cantona swiftly established himself as a cult hero after helping the Elland Road club secure the 1992 League Championship as well as bagging a hat-trick in the Charity Shield against Liverpool.

However, with Cantona failing to hold a regular place in the Leeds team, Alex Ferguson swooped and signed the Frenchman for a mere £1 million. It was Ferguson's best ever signing.

Cantona became the fulcrum of the Manchester United side that dominated the Premiership in the mid-1990s. He was instrumental not only in ending United's 26-year wait for a league title in 1993, but also in the league and cup doubles of 1994 and 1996 as well as in his final Premiership title triumph in 1997.

Quite simply, without Cantona's influence and inspiration it is unlikely Manchester United would have developed into the on and off-field force they did.

3, Ronaldo

Would Ronaldo's position in our poll have been higher had injury not truncated his career? There is no disrespect in placing behind Zidane and Cantona, but in his prime Ronaldo was incontrovertibly the most exciting player on the planet.

Ronaldo had everything a football fan hopes to see in a Brazilian superstar. A player with outrageous skill and flair, the pace of an Olympic sprinter and a range of finishing from deft six-yard tap-ins, to rapier-like shots and bending efforts from distance. Ronaldo was the complete striker.

Cantona: United's talisman and unlikely leader
Cantona: United's talisman and unlikely leader

After moving from Brazilian outfit Cruzeiro to join Bobby Robson's PSV Eindhoven Ronaldo caught the attention of Europe's top clubs by scoring 42 goals in 46 league games. A move to Barcelona followed in 1996 where he continued his extraordinary goal-scoring, bagging 47 goals in all competitions in his sole season with the Catalan side.

By now a valuable commodity, Ronaldo was next acquired by Inter Milan for the 1997/98 campaign where he continued his goal plundering with 25 Serie A strikes.

And his achievements did not go unnoticed as he was named FIFA World Player of the Year in 1996 and 1997, but just as Ronaldo looked set to dominate the game for years to come fate was to deal him a cruel hand.

He started the 1998 World Cup brightly, scoring four goals before being struck down by a mystery illness and suffering a fit of some kind just hours before the final. Rightly or wrongly Ronaldo played, but, clearly unwell, the world's finest player struggled and Brazil succumbed to France.

The following four years were a catastrophe for Ronaldo; two major knee injuries and a series of operations severely limited his appearances for Inter, with the entire 2000/01 season written-off.

But recovery and redemption came at the 2002 World Cup where a fully-fit and rejuvenated Ronaldo fired eight goals to secure the Golden Boot as Brazil won their fifth World Cup.

In 2002 as Real Madrid searched for the next 'Galactico', just as with Zidane a year earlier, Ronaldo was the only choice.

Today, older and less svelte than in his youth, Ronaldo remains a formidable striker, still capable of dazzling drives, and with 21 goals in La Liga last season, still deadly in front goal.

But it is his early days in Europe ahead of the 1998 World Cup that Ronaldo trully excited and mesmerised.


  • Any thoughts? Then you can email Phil Holland.