The 1940’s was an unusual decade for football, marked by the lack of a World Cup due to the Second World War. It also gave birth to a national league in Germany, who went on to become a footballing powerhouse, a heated rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona - which is just as intense today - and many great players who we celebrate here.
Here are our 7 greatest footballers of the 1940’s:
7. Telmo Zarra
There are many great players who began their careers in the 1940’s, such as Alfredo di Stefano - or ended their careers in the 1940’s, like Giuseppe Meazza - but Telmo Zarra truly enjoyed his peak years throughout the entirety of the 1940’s. He broke through in the Segunda Division in 1939 as an 18-year-old, before joining Athletic Bilbao in the top flight. 335 goals in 354 games followed, the vast majority of which came in the 1940’s. Strong and aggressive, Zarra was a born goal scorer, and only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have scored more top flight goals in Spain to this day. Zarra won six trophies with Bilbao, as well as scoring 20 goals from 20 caps for Spain, including one against England at the 1950 World Cup.
6. Angel Labruna
The greatest club team of the 1940’s was almost undoubtedly the River Plate side known as the Machine, and you could make a case for five of their players making this seven. One who does just that is Angel Labruna in sixth place. A key man in that outstanding front five, Labruna was a really complete second striker who had fantastic movement and a clinical finish. He joined River Plate in 1939, and left the club 20 years later with a record of 317 goals in 515 games. He won nine league titles and bagged 17 goals from 37 caps for the Argentine national team.
5. Neil Franklin
It’s easy to pack these kind of lists full of attacking players, but the greatest defender of the 1940’s was almost certainly Neil Franklin. A defender decades before his time, Franklin was a technically gifted and highly intelligent centre-half who loved to bring the ball out from the back and pick passes out to the wings. He almost won a league title with Stoke City in the first post-war season, but was ostracised in England after turning down the chance to play for England at the 1950 World Cup in favour of making a lucrative move to Colombia. Franklin became the most expensive defender in the world in 1951, but injuries prevented him from reaching the heights his game had hit in the 1940’s.
Members of the England football team chat during a training session at Roehampton, London, the day before a match against Hungary, 24th November 1953. Left to right; Stanley Matthews (1915...
4. Adolfo Pedernera
Neil Franklin’s transfer to Colombia was largely facilitated by this man, Adolfo Pedernera. Regarded by many as the finest footballer in the world, he left Argentina at a time of footballer strikes and political upheaval to the FIFA-exiled Colombian league. His departure set the tone, and stars like Di Stefano and Franklin followed. Pedernera himself was a world class withdrawn forward who was hard working, brilliant on the ball and both a goal scoring and creating force.
3. Valentino Mazzola
When people talk about the game’s great number 10’s, Valentino Mazzola’s name should always get a mention. He played football as though it were a game of chess, and he was a Grandmaster. A really intelligent player, his understanding of the game was such that he could play in virtually any position. You’d want him through the middle though, where he could utilise his tirelessness, passing ability and skill on the ball to maximum effect. He was the star of the great Torino side of the 1940’s, joining the club in 1942 and having his career cut short along with those of his teammates at the age of 30 in the tragic Superga air disaster. His son Sandro Mazzola went on to be a top class professional himself, starring for Inter Milan and Italy.
2. Jose Manuel Moreno
We warned you that the great River Plate side of the 1940’s may crop up a few times, and the third and final player from that team to feature here is Jose Manuel Moreno. Of those few Argentines fortunate enough to have seen the three M’s; Moreno, Maradona and Messi all play, many maintain that Moreno is still the best of the three. A really gifted footballer, Moreno was a maverick. He had wonderous technique and vision, which he twinned with a real eye for goal. He spent eleven years in two separate spells with River Plate, later turning out for their great rivals Boca Juniors and Medellin of Colombia.
1. Stanley Matthews
England’s view of themselves as the best team in the world up until the 1950’s is often dismissed as mere arrogance, but that's probably not the way to look at it. They were certainly the best team in Europe - results against the World Cup winning Italians show that - and most likely the world. At the end of the 1940’s, England had by far and away their best ever team, with more talent and depth than Alf Ramsey’s 1966 side.
The jewel in England’s crown was Sir Stanley Matthews. A creative wide man the like of which has not been seen before - or since - Matthews was an expert in beating full-backs and supplying centre-forwards. A wonderful athlete whose diet and training was probably half a century ahead of his time, those who witnessed Matthews in action tended to be left with little doubt over who was the best player on the planet.
He began his career in 1932 and retired in 1965, at the age of 50, but the 1940’s represented the pinnacle of his talents, even if the war often prevented him from displaying them. In 1947, he assisted eight goals in two games, as England won 5-2 and 3-0 against Belgium and Wales, with Matthews setting up every goal.