Goal-hungry foxes facing extinction
© AFP

The life of a modern striker seems to involve more and more thankless tasks as the seasons go by, with defensive duties such as tracking back being tacked on to the traditional job description. Hard-working forwards are an evolving breed, and share little in common with a type of predator once so prevalent in the game, the so-called ‘fox in the box’, renowned for disappearing from matches only to pop up and punish the slightest defensive slip or pounce on a goalkeeping error.

Supreme finishers they may have been, but the ‘fox in the box’ now looks to be disappearing from football altogether – or at least until the role becomes fashionable once again. FIFA.com pays homage to some of the greatest goal poachers of recent years, marksmen whose unwavering instincts from close range earned them a lasting place in the hearts of supporters.

King of the foxes
The undisputed leader of the pack has to be Filippo Inzaghi, SuperPippo himself. Now 37, the AC Milan stalwart has prospered by honing his gifts over the years, setting the standard for play off the ball and timing runs, not to mention positioning and anticipation. As his former club-mate Vikash Dhorasoo put it: “Pippo is the kind of guy who could get an assist from a post.”

While he has always been quick to seek an advantage and celebrates each goal as if his life depended on it, Inzaghi has nonetheless come in for plenty of unfair criticism. Above all, he has never been less than fair on the pitch and his track record of rubbing opponents up the wrong way merely reflects his habit of leaving defensive plans in tatters. Even Sir Alex Ferguson had to concede a large dose of respect when he quipped that “Inzaghi was born offside.”

The former Juventus striker’s two goals against Liverpool in the 2007 UEFA Champions League final remain his career highlight, but he has also won every trophy going along the way. In addition, he has had to keep proving himself after a string of major injuries, revealing huge reserves of mental strength that he must unfortunately be calling on again now. Days after plundering a double against Real Madrid on 3 November, the veteran goalscorer fell victim to a serious knee injury that ended his season, but he has already announced his intention to bounce back as soon as possible. “My secret is passion,” he said recently. “I enjoy myself like a teenager and I still have the same desire to play. All the affection I feel around me helps me to keep working harder.”

The legends
Gerd Muller’s name looms almost as large in the history of Bayern Munich and German football as that of a certain Franz Beckenbauer. For all his scoring feats, however, Der Bomber had to put up with an altogether less intimidating moniker in his youth. His sturdy thighs and tall shoulders left many thinking he was a clumsy operator, and he was saddled with the nickname Kleines dickes Müller (Big fat Muller) until his incredible talent for turning and hitting the target left supporters speechless. His winning effort in West Germany’s 1974 FIFA World Cup™ Final victory against the Netherlands showed him at his instinctive and decisive best, and his tally of 68 goals in 62 international appearances remains a German record.

I have the best job in the world.
AC Milan's Filippo Inzaghi

Italian-born Argentinian forward Delio Onnis was just as opportunistic but had the misfortune of sharing his prime with the likes of Mario Kempes, Carlos Bianchi and Diego Maradona. Considered a foreigner both in Argentina and the nation of his birth, he failed to win a single cap for either country and spent the majority of his club career in France during the 1970s and 1980s. An iconic figure as he patrolled the opposition area with his socks rolled down and shins unprotected, he became the highest scorer in the history of the French top flight thanks to 299 strikes in 15 seasons.

Clinical finishers
With his 14 goals putting him second on the all-time list of FIFA World Cup final tournament scorers, 32-year-old Miroslav Klose has proved a fine successor to some of Germany’s most illustrious attacking talents. Overall, he has found the net 58 times for his country in 105 outings, relying above all on his aerial prowess and innate nose for goal. He can likewise lay claim to a fully rounded technique, while his style of play has been described as “often disconcerting” for defenders by no less revered a figure than Rudi Voller.

More reminiscent of Gerd Muller, meanwhile, was Ulf Kirsten, who racked up noteworthy statistics without winning anything like the same acclaim as his predecessor. Kirsten struck 14 times in 49 games for East Germany and 20 in 51 appearances for the united Germany team to earn a mention among the country’s most accurate poachers, a category that must also feature Karlheinz Riedle, Horst Hrubesch and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge among others.

Versatile talents
“Losing is not in my vocabulary,” is one of the more notable claims Ruud van Nistelrooy has made, but the Dutch striker has backed his words up many times over, burying dozens of goals with his right foot, left foot, head and even knee when required. His pedigree in and around the box has helped land him the reputation of a player reluctant to shoot from distance, but either way he was able to notch up 34 goals in 67 appearances for the Oranje over the space of 12 years.

After spending his playing career waiting for the ball in order to finish moves instead of chasing after it himself, Rudi Voller became a gifted coach renowned for taking a hard line with his squad. “I’m no different from other coaches and I’m certainly not perfect,” said the former Germany ace, who helped himself to 47 strikes in 90 international assignments. “That’s maybe why people appreciate me.”

Pedro Pauleta’s figures are strikingly similar, the former Portugual player having surpassed Eusebio’s national benchmark with a haul of 47 goals in 88 encounters. The ‘Eagle of the Azores’ lived up to his handle by diving on every chance with the reflexes of a bird of prey before almost always sending the ball where he intended.

The supersubs
David Trezeguet has long enjoyed a curious knack for making defenders forget he is close by and lurking. Indeed, he possibly touches the ball less than any other contemporary forward, which perhaps explains why he has so often had to prove his worth coming off the bench. It was as a substitute that he half-volleyed in France’s golden-goal winner against Italy during the final of UEFA EURO 2000, and both the quality and importance of that strike said much about a player who has now amassed 275 efforts in 534 matches. “Scoring goals is what I’ve wanted to do since the first time I kicked a ball,” he said a few years ago. “Life is about goals. I’ve always known that.”

At any other club, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have been a certain starter, but the Norway international had to contend with fierce competition in the Manchester United ranks between 1996 and 2007. That left him needing to shine in the latter stages of games and the Baby-faced Assassin did exactly that, racing to 261 goals in 453 outings as his tendency to prowl close to the target brought him an average of 0.74 strikes per game.

Never was he more devastating, of course, than when he stabbed in the added-time winner during the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich. “No matter how many goals I scored for Manchester United, whether it was 50 or 500, that one will always have a special place,” he told FIFA.com after his retirement. “It was the goal which won us the Champions League, and in such a dramatic way.”

Shooting stars
Top marksman at the 1982 FIFA World Cup with six strikes, Paolo Rossi was another forward at home working his magic in the area. The ‘man who made Brazil cry’ according to the title of his autobiography, he nonetheless proved unable to hit the same heights again, injuries taking their toll as he gradually left the game after spending Mexico 1986 on the bench.

Rossi can still boast a longer stint in the limelight than Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci, however, his compatriot having done little more of note in his career than take the scoring plaudits at Italy 1990 with six goals. After that, little was heard from him again. “In a sense, my career only lasted three weeks,” he wrote afterwards. “But I wouldn’t swap those weeks with titles for anything in the world.”

He surely cherishes each and every one of his goals as well, whether he had to toe poke the ball in, divert it over the line with a knee or possibly even use his backside to make the difference.

Any goal is priceless to a ‘fox in the box’ and, while the creatures themselves may be an endangered species, what is certain is that they will never lose their appetite for more. “I have the best job in the world,” Inzaghi has said. “Because of that, I’m trying to make the most of it and enjoy it until the end.”