3. Frank Rijkaard
While Johan Cruyff led the first era of “Total Football”, Frank Rijkaard, along with Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten brought it back. This Dutch triumvirate became the dominant force in both international and club football.
His time at AC Milan brought him to worldwide acclaim as he fast became regarded as one of the best players on the planet. A midfielder by trade, he played center back in the Euro 1988 final alongside Ronald Koeman.
Rijkaard helped lead the Dutch past all the disappointing finishes in their past to the Euro 88 title—the country’s first and only major title.
He won the Dutch Golden Shoe in 1985 and 1987 and was named to Pele’s FIFA 100 list. He’s one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time.
During his club career he won five Dutch league titles, three Dutch Cups, two Serie A titles, a Cup Winners’ Cup, and three Champions League titles. He made 73 caps for Holland, including playing an integral part in the triumphant 1988 European Championships.
2. Jozsef Bozsik
Arguably the finest deep lying playmaker in football history was Hungary’s stellar right-half, Jozsef Bozsik. He was a key member of the legendary Mighty Magyars as he represented Hungary in various international tournaments.
When the Magical Magyars are fondly remembered, it is often for the goalscoring exploits of Sandor Kocsis, the tactical innovations of Peter Palotas and Nandor Hidegkuti, and the all round brilliance of Ferenc Puskas. The result is that the metronomic qualities of Bozsik are frequently overlooked.
Born in the Kispest area of Budapest, Bozsik developed a life-long friendship with Ferenc Puskas from the age of five and the two would go on to form arguably the most fruitful footballing partnership in history. At 11 years old Bozsik was selected by Nandor Szucs to join the junior section of the Kispest Football Club, a team he would never leave.
Bozsik made his debut for Kispest against Vasas at the age of just 17, but following the game was dropped and it took him some time to get back into the team. By the end of 1943 Puskas had made his debut for Kispest, and soon Bozsik was back in the team. From then on he never relinquished his place.
At the beginning of his career in Hungary few appreciated what Bozsik brought to the game. Lacking pace, many considered him to be ponderous on the ball and too slow to play for the national team. With time though observers began to realise that rather than make a wrong decision quickly, Bozsik took his time to get it right.
By the stage that he made his debut for the national team it was apparent that Bozsik’s decision making was one of the central strengths to his game. Not only was he able to spot the right pass at the right moment, his technique was impeccable.
Given his lack of goalscoring prowess and the limited availability of footage it is perhaps inevitable that the name of Bozsik has largely been forgotten. Yet there are few historical players who would have been more valued in the modern game. For Bozsik possessed the gift that is the most valued in contemporary football and the hardest to find, that of time. He had the ability and composure to wait for the right option and to execute what few others could even see. In an era where such qualities are at a premium, Bozsik would have been peerless.
1. Lothar Matthaus
Lothar Matthaus had it all: scoring goals with his right foot, left foot, or direct from free-kicks, and combined a wide range of passing with the ability to glide past a defender. He was the ”best rival” Diego Maradona ever had, and developed an impressive knack of continuously adapting and improving his game. He is, after all, remembered simultaneously as one of the best box-to-box midfielders, deep-lying playmakers and most intelligent sweepers to ever play the game.
Following his rise as a talented teen at Borussia Monchengladbach – a club for whom he played for five years between 1979 and 1984 – Matthäus signed for Bavarian giants Bayern Munich in the summer of 1984, making an immediate impact.
The midfielder won his first career trophy in his debut season at the club, helping his side to the Bundesliga crown in 1984/85 with 16 goals in 33 league appearances. Matthäus would go on to make 33 goal contributions over the following two Bundesliga campaigns as Bayern won back-to-back-to-back Meisterschales.
By the time he switched Bavaria for Milan in 1988, Matthäus had already established himself as an inspirational leader, a captain fronting others into battle. In 1987 he’d skippered Bayern to the European Cup final – only to lose 2-1 late on to Porto – and the summer before his Inter move, he led West Germany at Euro ’88 – already Matthäus’ fourth major tournament for Die Mannschaft after being part of the Euro-winning squad in 1980.
Matthäus’ move to the Nerazzurri came during the golden age of Italian football, when Serie A was home to the crème de la crème of players, coaches and teams in Europe. The challenge of Italy’s top flight, the ultimate proving ground, was too enticing for him to turn down. He led Inter to their first Scudetto in eight years by a hefty 11-point margin over Napoli.
Matthäus, who started his career as a midfielder and finished it as a sweeper, played in a record five World Cups and was capped a German-record 150 times.
Matthäus won the Ballon d’Or for European footballer of the year in 1990, FIFA World Player of the Year in 1991 and German Footballer of the Year in 1990 and 1999 (the second time at age 38). He’s also on Pele’s list of 100 greatest footballers.
There’s no doubt about it. Matthäus is the best defensive midfielder of all time.