Thrill List: Soccer

Thursday July 9th, 2009

These lists are not mere compilations of all-time bests in their respective sports but all-time bests at quickening the pulse and evoking a visceral response from those fortunate enough to have witnessed their artistry.

10. René Higuita Nobody would put this Colombian on the list of all-time greatest goalkeepers, but none was more fun to watch. The Jheri-curled Higuita would dare opponents by ranging far out of his box with the ball, sometimes with disastrous results (see Cameroon's Roger Milla in the 1990 World Cup). Then there was Higuita's famed "scorpion kick," in which he would parry an incoming shot by falling forward in the manner of a break-dancer doing the centipede and flick his legs up in the air behind him to strike the ball. Genius! (I finally got to see Higuita do a scorpion kick live at Buenos Aires' Estadio Monumental in a 1995 Copa Libertadores game, and it was worth the price of admission.)

9. Eusébio The Mozambican-born "Black Panther" was a force of nature, as anyone could tell by watching the video from the 1966 World Cup. Eusébio scored nine goals in that tournament for semifinalist Portugal, and he did so with a bull-charge flair that calls to mind the style of the player two spots in front of him on this list.

8. Marta No joke: What Marta did against the U.S. in the 2007 Women's World Cup semifinal was one of the most remarkable achievements I've ever seen on a soccer field. Check this out.

7. Ronaldo The pre-knee-injury Ronaldo of the mid- to late-1990s was soccer's version of the human highlight reel, a devastating mix of speed, power and skill. The first time I saw him live was at the 1996 Olympics, but Ronaldo's most famous highlight is this goal with Barcelona. It says so much of Il Fenomeno's ability that he was able to resurrect his career amid crippling injuries, become the top player of World Cup 2002 and set the all-time record for goals scored in the World Cup.

6. Lionel Messi The finest dribbler of the modern game, the small but unstoppable Argentine is able to perform remarkable feats of control at ridiculous speeds. Messi's did-you-see-that goal against Getafe confirmed he's the true heir to Diego Armando Maradona in Argentine soccer lore.

5. Johann Cruyff Maybe it's the Cruyff Turn, or maybe it's just the stylish way Cruyff did everything on the soccer field -- and capped it off with a smoke at the end of the game. Pure 1970s. Pure class.

4. Garrincha If you ask most Brazilians, they'll tell you that this guy (not Pelé) was the most exciting Brazilian dribbler of all time.

3. Zinédine Zidane Forget the head-butt. Zidane's vision, class and technical ability made him not just the finest player of his generation but a Nureyev on the soccer field. The guy scored three goals in two World Cup finals, but this is my favorite one from the big stage.

2. Pelé "O Rei" is a victim of his era -- not enough people saw his prime years on TV and highlight shows -- and yet many people still call him the greatest athlete of all-time. There used to be a 10-minute long clip of his best goals on YouTube, but unfortunately it got taken down. Try and track down the film Undefeatable and you'll see the clip. It's mesmerizing.

1. Diego Maradona In soccer, you're either a Pelé guy or a Maradona guy, and I am an unapologetic Maradona guy -- at least Maradona, circa 1986 World Cup. No player has ever taken over a World Cup like that, and the goals he scored were insane.

Agree or disagree with Wahl's selections? Weigh in here.

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