A Federation once asked a great man to compile a list of the 100 best players of the last century. Most people would have scoffed at such a foolish idea. But being a great man he tried to please everybody and agreed he would – and ended up pleasing nobody. A number of footballers complained, moaned and bitched about being left off the list. Others whined about the order they were placed in. While even more complained about colleagues who did make the roll-call.
Even the Federation objected to the list. Which was kind of funny because irony was never one of their strengths. A Belgian number 10 straight from the old school didn’t. He could have lamented his luck at being left out. All he said was: “I am happy with my career. I wouldn’t change a thing.” Why would he? After all he played in four World Cups. He also scored one of the best goals ever to be forgotten in a tournament. Shamefully even the Federation who asked the great man for the list did not recall it.
Belgium, Les Diables Rouges, had been semi-finalists four years previously. Only for the King of the Gods, Jupiter to hurl a thunderbolt at the footballing world in the shape of a dirt poor urchin from Villa Fiorito, a shantytown on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires, who made people laugh and weep in equal measure. The Red Devils lost 2-0 to one man, Diego Maradona.
“Mexico 1986 was a wonderful adventure” says Enzo Scifo. “The players really clicked and there was a real desire to do well. And above all we had a lot of strong personalities who pushed the national team to the top. You need that kind of spirit if you’re going to succeed in football.”
Even now old men toast their losing semi-finalists with finely brewed beer. They also toast a goal scored by our man with Sicilian blood raised in a region immortalised in Zola’s Germinal. In the rough mining belt of La Louvière, Wallonia.
“It was a tough area. It doesn’t matter how old you are when you start; the important thing is to be ready for it. Even back then I wanted to be involved and was mature for my age. That helped me make my mark. I was lucky enough to spend my formative years in a big team, though you have to be mentally strong, which is not always the case when you’re that young. All I had to do then was show that I deserved an opportunity.”
17 June 1990. Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi, Verona. 33,759 souls watch the Red Devils play La Celeste. 22 minutes: Jan Ceulemans receives the ball.
“I had my head screwed on and winning things didn’t change that. In fact winning was something that never changed me. That was my strength. I was a competitor and being ambitious and wanting to win things was normal for me.”
After a succession of one touch passes van der Elst plays the ball out to the left flank.
“If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would do things exactly the same way. Arsene Wenger once said that every player should go through a bad patch in their careers so they can learn how to handle disappointment. In my opinion you should come face to face with it as early as possible in your career, and I can honestly say that I don’t have any regrets.”
The ball comes back inside to van der Elst again.
“After 14 years abroad and a lot of sacrifices I had this desire to go back to the club where I started out and to achieve something. And it paid off when I won my last league title with Anderlecht.”
Who then lays a slide rule pass across the midfield to an onrushing Enzo Scifo.
“1990, was a great year for me, first with Auxerre and then with the national side.”
Scifo imperceptibly skips to adjust his stride and body angle before riffling in a preposterous 40 yard goal to the utter joy of his team-mates and assembled crowd.
“1990 was the best Belgium team we’ve ever had.”
The Federation judged the goal to be one of the best ever scored at a tournament run by them. They called it a divine goal by a player with a divine gift. Then promptly forgot all about it. Years later the great man had his list published and many said it was a wonderful compilation. Even if Enzo Scifo, old school playmaker and his divine gifts did not feature. “A professor once wondered how I could have played for so long with a hip in such a state,” Scifo recalled after he retired. “He said that with such a long term injury – I couldn’t have been a very good player.” The Professor must have been a friend of the great man who produced the list.
This article appeared in Issue 1 of the Póg mo Goal Magazine
Journalist and author Layth Yousif is an Arsenal fan and cricket lover. Published in Arsenal Magazine, Evening Standard, Four-Four Two among many others. Follow on Twitter: @laythy29