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Which 2018 Stars Are Doing The Best Impressions Of Pele, Maradona And Zidane?

By analyzing the statistical fingerprints of every performance by every player to appear in a World Cup since 1966,1 FiveThirtyEight’s new interactive tool — 50 Years Of World Cup Doppelgangers — can give a realistic sense of how great or lousy each performance in Russia this month is by comparing them to how other players have done in the past. The best comparison for how teenaged French sensation Kylian Mbappé is performing so far, for instance, is the way Brazilian Ronaldinho played in the 2002 World Cup.

Some matches are far less obvious: The performance of Croatian captain Luka Modric through three games is most similar to that of Kuwait’s Abdullah Al Buloushi in 1982 … naturally.

But what if we reverse engineered things? Which players in Russia are doing the best impressions of iconic World Cup performances of years past? Some player and tournament combinations do not have particularly close analogues in 2018, including Ronaldo (the single-name one, not Cristiano) in 2002 or Xavi in 2010, but we found eight iconic World Cup displays that have a reasonably close counterpart in Russia this summer:

Bobby Moore 1966

Cedric Soares 2018 (12th most similar), Santiago Arias 2018 (17th most similar)

England is one of the World Cup’s greatest under-performers since the tournament began, but the Three Lions have managed to get their hands on the trophy once. Bobby Moore captained the side to victory when his country hosted in 1966.

Though he was technically a center-back, soccer’s most defensive outfield position, Moore was an all-rounder — he got two assists in the final and completed more passes than anyone on the pitch that day. It’s somewhat unsurprising, then, that his closest 2018 analogue is an offensive right-back — Cedric Soares of Portugal, who maraudes down the right wing and is characterised by progressive passes and dribbles (those that advance the ball at least 10 yards toward the opponent’s goal or into their box) and defensive involvement.

Eusebio 1966

Cristiano Ronaldo 2018 (21st most similar)

Though Portugal lost to England in the semifinals in 1966, Eusebio, the dazzlingly fast striker, took home the Golden Boot with nine goals. He owed his impressive offensive display in large part to the number of good scoring chances he got and to his progressive dribbling skills.

This pairing of goal-scoring skills and canny dribbling ability is similar to that of James Rodriguez, whose breakthrough 2014 World Cup performance for Colombia was the second most similar to Eusebio’s in 1966, while Ronaldo’s 2002 performance for the Brazilian team is the sixth most similar. Eusebio’s closest 2018 peer? The hero of Portugal’s modern era: Cristiano Ronaldo, who is very much the focal point of their attack in Russia, with four goals already.

Pele 1970

Edinson Cavani 2018 (9th most similar)

Brazil’s 1970 team have gone down in legend as one of the best teams of all time, captivatingly winning their third trophy in Mexico and cementing the beginning of a soccer dynasty. In the process, Pelé became the only player in history to have won three World Cups, and he took home FIFA’s Golden Ball award for being the best player in the tournament.

The Pelé that led Brazil’s front-line in Mexico was less dynamic and sprightly than the 17-year-old who burst onto the international scene in the 1958 tournament in Sweden. He was more of a dedicated goal-scorer than he had ever been, contributing four at the tournament. His closest 2018 equivalent is Edinson Cavani, the tireless Uruguayan forward who specialises in getting high quality goal-scoring chances.

Johan Cruyff 1974

Isco 2018 (5th most similar); Neymar 2018 (9th most similar)

Though Johan Cruyff’s contributions to soccer went far beyond his playing career, his performance at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany remains one of his greatest gifts to the sport. In a team playing revolutionary “Total Football,” the playmaker was granted a free role that allowed him to roam the pitch as he pleased.

His electric dribbling ability was complemented by supernatural passing vision, and it is these characteristics in particular that have made his closest 2018 peer, Spain’s Isco, his team’s most important player so far in Russia.

Franz Beckenbauer 1974

Marcelo 2018 (12th most similar); Sergio Ramos 2018 (17th most similar)

While Cruyff may have been the best attacking player on the planet in 1974, Franz Beckenbauer, who captained West Germany, was the best defender. His performances were characterised by high defensive involvement, but also an extremely impressive ability to advance the ball, which was demonstrated by the number of progressive passes and dribbles he made.

Poetically, the most similar performance to Beckenbauer’s in 1974 is Philipp Lahm’s in 2014 — Lahm also captained Germany to the trophy. Meanwhile, his closest 2018 counterparts are teammates for Real Madrid: Marcelo, who is known for terrorising opposition down the left wing, and Sergio Ramos, an aggressive center-back who is also extremely competent with the ball at his feet.

Paolo Rossi 1982

Diego Costa 2018 (18th most similar)

Paolo Rossi is one of few players who is remembered more for his World Cup performances than his club ones. He inspired Italy to their third World Cup title in 1982, taking home the Golden Boot with six goals, including an iconic hat trick against Brazil in the quarterfinals.

This summer, Diego Costa’s work with Spain is the most similar to Rossi’s 1982 performance; in each case, the players were dedicated goal-scorers who didn’t tend to dribble or create much.

Diego Maradona 1986

Lionel Messi 2018 (second most similar); Neymar 2018 (fifth most similar)

Diego Maradona’s heroics at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico have gone down in soccer folklore as the legend of a star player dragging his team to success by any means possible. Arguably the most gifted dribbler of all time, the diminutive Argentine could tear defenses apart single-handedly, as England learned all too well.

Unsurprisingly, fellow diminutive Argentine Lionel Messi, who will only sink deeper into Maradona’s shadow if he doesn’t triumph in Russia, has put in performances that are among the most similar to Maradona’s in 1986. Messi’s 2018 performance ranks second, while his 2014 and 2010 incarnations rank ninth and 10th, respectively. The 2018 performance by Neymar, who is equally talismanic for Brazil, ranks fifth.

Zinedine Zidane 1998

Xherdan Shaqiri 2018 (18th most similar)

Zinedine Zidane has been both the hero and villain for France on the world stage. In 1998, though, when they were the hosts in one of the most fondly remembered World Cups in the modern era, he was very much the former.

He scored twice before halftime in the final as France beat Brazil, while his performances at the tournament in general typified being a creative playmaker. In Russia this year, the performance most similar to Zidane’s 1998 showing is from Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri, who is the star player in a surprisingly dangerous Swiss outfit that is hoping to advance past Sweden in the round of 16.

Footnotes

  1. Excluding players with less than 30 minutes of playing time.

Bobby Gardiner is a product manager at Football Whispers. He writes about soccer through an analytical lens, with a particular interest in team tactics.

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