Zico is number 17 in 90min's Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time series


There are a handful of truly generational players in history who, due to the evolving landscape of football, don't quite fit into the modern standard of greatness. 


Nowadays, the balance of power between Europe and South America has shifted to such an extent that a player could never be considered one of the greatest on the planet, without hitting their peak in the money leagues. 


But in the 1970s and the early part of the 80s, it was a different story. Though finances were by this point establishing Europe as the go-to destination, the playing field was much more even. 

The Intercontinental Cup, in many ways the predecessor to the modern Club World Cup, was not seen as a sideshow. It was typically a battle for dominance between the two continents, and until the late 80s, it was won, more often than not, by the South American contingent. 


It's equally true that international accomplishments held much more weight in a time when club football wasn't the be-all and end-all. Nowadays, with the top clubs sometimes playing more than 60 games per season, international football can be treated as an after-thought, but this has not always been the case.


It was in this climate, when true greatness could be accomplished without ever leaving Brazil, when achievements for your country were as significant as significant as those for your club and when ​Lionel Messi and ​Cristiano Ronaldo were yet to raise the bar immeasurably with their 50 goals per season each, that Zico came to prominence as one of the best on the planet. 

The biggest tragedy of his sporting career is that he never lifted the World Cup, having had to settle for worldwide renown as the greatest player never to do so. 


But that wasn't for the want of trying. 


He would try his hand in Europe in the latter part of his career, but it was his accomplishments on his native continent that set him aside as a true footballing pioneer. 


Though he was an attacking midfielder by trade, his direct style and unparalleled set-piece ability meant his strike rate was little short of freakish. The best four years of his career, prior to his move to Udinese from Flamengo, saw him hit the back of the net for Brazil at a rate of almost a goal per game. 

He scored 27 goals in 33 international games between 1979-82, culminating in one of the most celebrated glorious failures in football history. The Seleção, coached by Tele Santana and boasting the immortal Socrates and Falcao among the 12 players they used at the tournament, crashed out to eventual champions Italy in the second group stage.


Despite the failure to deliver the expected success, Brazil delighted the world with their performances in Spain, with Zico at the heart of it all - famously becoming the only player to be directly involved in eight consecutive goals at a World Cup finals. 


He scored four and assisted five of their 15 goals as part of one of the last true 'Samba' generation, laying the ground work for ​Romario and co. to go on and restore the country to footballing immortality in the early 90s.

At club level, he wasn't too bad either. 378 goals in 506 appearances in his first spell with Flamengo helped the club to the most successful period in their history, winning three Serie A titles, one Copa Libertadores, and that famous Intercontinental Cup win over European champions Liverpool in 1981 that remains the most celebrated success in the club's existence. 


Zico, typically, was named man of the match in that one. 


Things would wind down for Zico after his big money move to Udinese. By this point in 1983, he was the wrong side of 30, with injuries beginning to play catchup. Still, 30 goals in 53 appearances followed for the Italian side before returning to Brazil in 1985, where he would play out the remainder of his career before a jaunt to Japan. 

Zico's career trajectory might not fit the mould of a modern day great, but when someone is named by Pele as the player who came closest to matching his accomplishments, you know you've got a real one on your hands. 


Unlike Pele, he never lifted a World Cup. But it speaks to his ability that, despite this, he remains just as well-remembered. 


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90min's 'Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time' can be found here.


Number 50: Luka Modric

Number 49: John Charles

Number 48: Hugo Sanchez

Number 47: Jairzinho

Number 46: Omar Sivori

Number 45: Paolo Rossi

Number 44: Paul Breitner

Number 43: George Weah

Number 42: Kaka

Number 41: Lev Yashin

Number 40: Gunnar Nordahl

Number 39: Kevin Keegan

Number 38: Hristo Stoichkov

Number 37: Gianluigi Buffon

Number 36: Johan Neeskens

Number 35: Xavi Hernandez

Number 34: Luis Suarez

Number 33: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge

Number 32: Andres Iniesta

Number 31: Rivelino

Number 30: Bobby Moore

Number 29: Socrates

Number 28: Sandor Kocsis

Number 27: Lothar Matthaus

Number 26: Ronaldinho

Number 25: Ruud Gullit

Number 24: Bobby Charlton

Number 23: Giuseppe Meazza

Number 22: Raymond Kopa

Number 21: Romario

Number 20: Eusebio

Number 19: Marco van Basten

Number 18: ​George Best