Football a hundred years ago was very different to the sport we watch today; beamed around the world, captivating millions. There were similarities though, and one of the most notable was the presence of iconic individuals, famed and beloved by the fans of the era.

So who were the Lionel Messis and Cristiano Ronaldos of 1912? Here, looks over a few of the players who were thrilling supporters a century ago.

Manchester’s miners and marvels
Britain, as the birthplace of the game, had a thriving professional scene by the early stages of the 20th century and was already producing players of great renown. In England, where the FA Cup had been running for over 40 years, 1912 began – just as 2012 has – with Manchester United as champions.

Their captain in those days was Charlie Roberts, a strong, speedy and skilful centre-half who served the Red Devils and England with distinction, leading United to the first two of their record 19 league titles. He was also known as something of a rebel, having been instrumental in forming the players’ trade union in 1907 and in openly flouting FA rules by wearing his shorts above the knee. Such disregard for authority did not, however, dissuade Oldham Athletic from paying £1,500 for his services in 1913, setting a new transfer record in the process.

Roberts might have been commanding big money, but even he struggled to compete in the superstar stakes with a team-mate and fellow founder member of the players’ union. Billy Meredith was United’s Welsh wizard long before Ryan Giggs ever strutted his stuff at Old Trafford, and he also had the rare distinction of being adored on both sides of the Manchester divide. Yet amazing as it may now seem, this gifted outside-right turned down professional terms with City to sign as an amateur, in order that he could return home to the Welsh mining village of Chick and continue to work in the coal pit, a job he had held since the age of 12.

Meredith's second match for City, in November 1894, happened to be the first-ever Manchester derby – and he marked the occasion in style, scoring twice in a 5-2 win for City. A couple of months later, Meredith finally succumbed to the temptations of professionalism and quickly became a star of the English game, finishing top scorer in his first season at the club. By the time City won the FA Cup, the club’s first major honour, in 1904, Meredith was captain. Within two years, however, he had made the switch to United, and though 38 by the time 1912 came around, his skill and trickery remained crucial to the then English champions.

Indeed, Meredith – famed for playing with a toothpick in his mouth – went on to play a further nine years at United before returning to City to wind down his career, making his final appearance at the age of 49 years and 245 days to set an FA Cup record that stands to this day.

Groundbreaking goalscorers
Another record-breaker of that time was Vivian Woodward. A star centre-forward for Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, the Londoner scored 29 times in just 23 appearances for England, setting a benchmark that took 47 years to surpass. Woodword was also captain of the victorious Great Britain teams at the 1908 and 1912 Olympic Football Tournaments before his top-level career was ended by a wound he picked up while serving in the First World War.

These, of course, were the days long before overseas imports became the norm in Europe’s top leagues, but that didn’t stop one foreigner from making his mark in England. Nils Middelboe was the scorer of Denmark’s first-ever goal in international football, and he went on to represent his country in the 1908, 1912 and 1920 Olympics, winning silver in the first two. However, the 6ft 2ins centre-forward –nicknamed ‘The Great Dane’ - also made history by becoming the first foreigner to represent and captain Chelsea, although he also insisted on playing football part-time while, in his case, working in a London bank.

North of the border, Jimmy Quinn was the darling of the Celtic and Scotland support of that era. A rampaging centre-forward, Quinn scored 216 goals in 331 appearances for the Bhoys, including a hat-trick against Rangers in the 1904 Scottish Cup final, and was similarly prolific for the national team, famously inspiring a 2-0 win over England that led to him being hailed as the best player in Britain. Willie Maley, his manager, lauded him as “the keystone in the greatest team Celtic ever had."

With the first FIFA World Cup™ still 18 years away, the Olympics provided the greatest international stage of the time, and it was at the 1912 games that German Gottfried Fuchs became an overnight sensation. The tall striker, a German champion with Karlsruher in 1910, finished top scorer in Stockholm with ten goals. What was truly remarkable about the achievement was that all ten were scored in a single match – Germany’s 16-0 thrashing of Russia. Fuchs retired with an average 2.17 goals per match from his six international appearances, a scoring ratio unmatched by any German before or since.

Stars emerge in Spain, Brazil
While Fuchs dazzled in Stockholm, two of Spanish football’s most prolific goalscorers were just starting out in their careers. Last month, marked the 100th anniversary of Paulino Alcantara’s legendary Barcelona debut, which he marked with a hat-trick at the tender age of 15. The Filipino frontman would go on to score 357 goals for the Catalans, and it is only because some of these came in friendlies that Messi was able to claim the club’s scoring record earlier this week.

Around the same time as Alcantara was exploding on to the scene at Barça, Athletic Bilbao were bringing through a young striker by the name of Rafael Moreno Aranzadi. He would become better known by his moniker, ‘Pichichi’, which - due to Aranzadi’s incredible scoring feats – is the name by which Spain’s top scorer prize is known to this day. Renowned as a complete striker – dominant in the air, with a powerful shot and elusive dribbling skills – he averaged more than a goal per game for Athletic, and later inspired Spain to reach the final of the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. Tragically, Pichichi passed away at the age of just 29 from typhus, although his legend lives on at Athletic’s San Mames stadium and throughout Spain.

Another all-time great from this era who amassed more goals than appearances is the Hungarian, Imre Schlosser. A national hero long before the likes of Ferenc Puskas came along, this prolific forward scored over 400 times during spells with Ferencvaros and MTK Hungaria, as well as finding the net on 59 occasions during a 20-year international career.

Though such footballing superstars were to be found throughout Europe by this stage, the game was still a developing force in South America and elsewhere in 1912. Indeed, it would be another two years before Brazil would play their first international match. Nonetheless, one of A Seleção’s first stars was already making a name for himself at club level, and was breaking down barriers in the process. Arthur Friedenreich was, after all, the country’s first-ever black professional player, and he went on to become its first football icon too, winning two Copa Americas and being feted as ‘The King of Football’ during a tour of Europe in 1925.

And though Friedenreich, like all these latter-day legends, never enjoyed the same worldwide status as their modern equivalents, their contribution to the game’s early development was vital in making football the game we all know and love.