If footballers were like fine wine, maturing with age, then the prestigious Toulon Tournament award for the best player would represent a who’s who list of world football’s best players, both past and present.
The tournament has been running since 1967 and has been limited to national teams since 1974, hosting the likes of France, Brazil, England and Portugal. Although there are no strict rulings around age squads usually consist of under-20s, providing a tantalising glimpse into the future.
This is simply not the case, however, and in the last 48 years the list lurches from the sublime to the ridiculous – via the inconspicuous – with players from 16 countries comprising a list that makes for compelling reading and, in some cases, a prime example that talent is only half the battle for professional footballers.
The inaugural winner of the award was Belgian forward Jacques Teugels, who was part of the victorious Rode Duivels side that won their one and only Toulon Tournament in 1967. Teugels played for the majestically named but now dissolved Racing White Daring Molenbeek and earned 13 caps for Belgium as part of the team that came third at Euro 1972.
The award stayed in Europe via players such as Hungary striker Tibor Nyilasi and French pair Gérard Soler and José Touré, who all had successful careers and appeared for their national sides at senior level.
Brazilian midfielder Luvanor ended this run in 1983 becoming the first South American to pick up the award. Luvanor moved from Goiás in his native Brazil to Italy with Catania on the back of the tournament, but returned to Santos after three years.
Further spells with Flamengo, Internacional, Vila Nova, Sporting Barranquilla, Atlético Goianiense and Bahia followed although Luvanor never made the step up to full international level, which is hardly surprising given he was competing against Sócrates, Zico and Falcão.
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Two years later François Omam-Biyik became the first African player to lift the award as Cameroon finished fourth. Omam-Biyik went on to represent Cameroon 63 times in a career that took him to France, Mexico and Italy. The 49-year-old can now be found managing Gabonese side US Bitam.
France won the tournament for a third time in four years in 1987, with a fresh-faced David Ginola named as the best player; a particularly popular choice given the winger was playing for Toulon at the time. Ginola is fondly remembered in England for spells with Newcastle, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Everton, although there will always be a nagging doubt that his maverick ability held him back from gaining more than the 17 caps he picked up for France.
The 1990s saw the start of a period of domination for England, who won four tournaments in a row between 1990 and 1994. Despite this, the only Englishman to pick up the top award during the cycle was Alan Shearer in 1991, who also top scored with seven goals. Shearer went on to captain England during his 63 caps and remains the all-time top scorer in the Premier League on 260 goals.
Over the next two seasons the top player award stayed with the top goalscorer; Portugal’s Rui Costa in 1992 and France’s Maurice in 1993. Maurice, touted as the successor to Jean-Pierre Papin, only managed six appearances for France despite playing for Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille.
In contrast, Rui Costa comprised a vital part of Portugal’s golden generation, winning 94 caps for his country. In a glittering club career spent with Benfica, Fiorentina and Milan, Costa won the Champions League, as well as picking up both league and cup titles in Italy and Portugal.
In 1994 Régis Geneux became the second Belgian to pick up the award, although sadly his life was cut short at the age of 35 after heart failure. The right-back was deemed one of the most talented players of his generation but was held back by injury, retiring aged 29.
The years 1995 and 1997 would see two French players crowned best player, although their careers went down very different paths. Vikash Dhorasoo was the recipient in 1995 while Thierry Henry got the nod in 1997 after finishing as joint top scorer.
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Dhorasoo, a player with undoubted technical ability, found his route into the France team blocked by a certain Zinedine Zidane, although he did play 18 times for Les Bleus. Dhorasoo was never afraid to speak his mind, which resulted in his contracts being rescinded at PSG and Livorno.
Henry had no such problems breaking into the France first-team, playing 123 times and scoring a record 51 goals, winning the World Cup and Euros in 1998 and 2000, respectively.
The next two years belonged to two very different Argentine midfielders, Juan Román Riquelme in 1998 – incidentally the same year Emile Heskey was joint top scorer – and Guillermo Pereyra in 1999.
Riquelme, a languid playmaker for whom time stopped on the pitch, couldn’t have been more contrasted to Pereyra, a tough and rugged defensive midfielder. Four major titles with River Plate was the pinnacle of the uncapped Pereyra’s career, although he spent time in Spain, Russia and Switzerland.
Riquelme built an enormous reputation with Boca Juniors before moving to Barcelona, although the Camp Nou never saw the best of the playmaker under Louis van Gaal. A move to Villarreal, initially on loan, reignited his career before he headed back to Boca. A sole Olympic gold is a poor return for one of the last truly enigmatic playmakers in world football, but he will forever be a hero in Argentina, for whom he gained 51 caps.
The top player award stayed with South American players for the next four years, the highlight of which being Javier Mascherano in 2003. His potential was there for all to see as the tenacious midfielder had already been capped by Argentina in 2001 despite not playing a senior game for River Plate.
French players dominated the next four years with Rio Mavuba, Arnold Mvuemba, Ricardo Faty and Kevin Gameiro picking up the award. Of the quartet, only Mavuba and Gameiro have gone on to represent France, with Mvuemba making a solitary appearance for DR Congo and Faty playing three times for Senegal.
Read | Juan Román Riquelme: the dream comes first
The years 2008 and 2009 belonged to diminutive forwards, neither of which has gone on to fulfil their potential, for very different reasons. Italian Sebastian Giovinco briefly threatened to be a top player during spells at Juventus and on loan to Empoli and Parma. Injuries and a lack of adaptability to Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2 formation put an end to his time in Juventus. With blistering pace and dribbling ability the Italians had high hopes for the 29-year-old but now, at Toronto FC, it remains to be seen whether he can add to his 21 Italian caps.
Argentine Diego Buonanotte was forced to carry the ‘next Lionel Messi’ moniker after his showing in Toulon. A move from River Plate to Málaga failed to ignite the 27-year-old’s career, as did a transfer to Granada. However, the biggest event in Buonanotte’s career took place off the pitch in 2009 when he lost control of his car at high speed resulting in the death of three of his friends who were also in the car.
James Rodríguez was named the top player in the 2011 tournament, three years before starring for Colombia at the World Cup. His performances earned the 23-year-old a move from Porto to Real Madrid in the most expensive Colombian transfer ever.
A year later James’ one-time Porto team-mate Héctor Herrera became the first North American to lift the award. The midfielder has become an integral cog in both Mexico and Porto’s engine room and is highly tipped to be the Dragões’ next expensive sale.
Brazilian duo Yuri Mamute and Rodrigo Caio, winners in 2013 and 2014 respectively, have yet to crack the big time in Europe, despite Mamute heading to Panathinaikos on loan. Mamute has broken into the first-team at Grêmio while Rodrigo Caio has impressed at São Paulo, so much so that Atlético Madrid are rumoured to be in negotiations to sign the centre-back.
And so, after 44 editions, the current incumbent of the top player award is English midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who plays for Chelsea but has yet to make his mark on the London club’s first team. It is too early to tell whether Loftus-Cheek will make it to the top tier of world football because, as this feature shows, the award is anything but a guarantee of success at the highest level.
By James Robinson. Follow @JvmesJournalist