How do you judge the best player of all time? FourFourTwo's writers make their picks

Diego Maradona

What’s your process for judging the best players that football has ever seen? Here’s some alternative takes on the all-time greatest

FourFourTwo counted down the 100 greatest footballers ever this summer, but we appreciate there’s huge room for debate and difference of opinion - especially when comparing players across eras and positions.

Why you’ve made your choice is as intriguing as who you’ve picked. Do you look at the impact a player had on the game in their era, their influence on the sport and how they altered it? Is it about what they’ve won in an attempt at an empirical comparison? Or is it simply an ‘eye test’ of how great a footballer looks to you as you watch them play?

Most people probably factor in all of the above to some extent - but results are still going to be mixed. There certainly wasn’t widespread agreement across the FFT team or our global network of experts and freelancers - and nor should there be. As a small sample of the views we canvassed, here’s some of the personal choices of a few FourFourTwo staff.

Do you think any of them are better than our eventual top five (see here for the full list)? How do they compare to - and do any match exactly - your own top five? Let us know @FourFourTwo, as we’re always eager to hear from you.

Top fives from FourFourTwo staff

Cruyff (right) and Beckenbauer: about brains as well as boots

1. Johan Cruyff
2. Lionel Messi
3. Pele
4. Zinedine Zidane
5. Franz Beckenbauer

Gary Parkinson, FFT Global Digital Editor

Football is a game you play with your brain. So said Cruyff of the world’s greatest sport, but he was aware of the physicality that separates it from, say, chess. Not just self-defence against the slings and arrows of outrageous tacklers but spatial awareness, hard-running implementation of tactics and organisation of team-mates.

Take Pele out of Brazil and they’d still have been Brazil, but Ajax, Barcelona and Holland were all rendered unrecognisable by Cruyff’s input. Others on this list may have had more natural talent – whatever that means – but Cruyff, despite being Pythagoras in Boots, held his genius above the neck as well as below the ankle.

Messi

Should Barcelona's current No.10 be No.1?

1. Lionel Messi
2. Pele
3. Johan Cruyff
4. Zinedine ZIdane
5. Cristiano Ronaldo
Richard Farley, FFT USA Deputy Editor

It's easy to talk yourself out of Messi, arguing he's a merely a product of his time, and that predecessors would do the same with the virtues of 21st-century professionalism. Yet on the other side of football's greatest rivalry, in the white-on-white which offsets the Blaugrana, we see the sculpted reality of this era - a reality that can't quite match its rivals.

In becoming the emblem of the fastest, most technical era in football history, Messi has become transcendent. Where Pele, Cruyff, Zidane and Maradona pushed the game's limits, Messi has exceeded them, pushing even Ronaldo to find new, unimagined levels.

Maradona

What would Napoli in the '80s have been without Maradona?

1. Diego Maradona
2. Johan Cruyff
3. Alfredo Di Stefano
4. Pele
5. Franz Beckenbauer

Andy Murray, FFT Staff Writer

Football is a team game. Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest won successive European Cups in 1979 and 1980 as the ultimate better-than-the-sum-of-their-parts side. Yes, Leo Messi's individual brilliance is crucial to Barcelona, but Los Cules' late-noughties apogee was predicated on Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets' midfield dominance.

As such, incongruous as it might be in a team sport, when choosing the greatest player of all time you must consider an individual's effect on the team. It's impossible that Argentina would have won the 1986 World Cup - or Napoli the 1987, 1990 Serie A or 1989 UEFA Cup - without Diego Maradona. El Pibe de Oro (the Golden Boy) was simply from another planet. That he was able to single-handedly transform two teams, all while in the grip of cocaine addiction, speaks volumes for just how good he was. "Maradona offered to the Argentines a way out of their collective frustration, and that's why people love him," his Argentina team-mate Jorge Valdano once said. "He is a divine figure."

There may not be an 'I' in team, but there is a 'ME'. Diego Armando Maradona knew that better than most. Read why we ended up deciding so too

Pele

Pele's joy for the game was unmatched

1. Pele
2. Lionel Messi
3. Johan Cruyff
4. Zinedine Zidane
5. Cristiano Ronaldo

Jeff Kassouf, FFT USA Editor

Pele’s legend lives on, and no matter who I try to justify putting in front of him, I can’t quite do it. His brilliance on the field was coupled with a joy for the game which remains so rare.

The toughest omission for me is Maradona. Messi and Cruyff represent such technical beauty, and the utter dominance of Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo was and is remarkable.

1. Diego Maradona
2. Pele
3. Cristiano Ronaldo
4. Lionel Messi
5. Johan Cruyff
Chris Flanagan, FFT Staff Writer

Argentina shouldn't have been good enough to win the 1986 World Cup - but with Maradona, they did. Napoli hadn't won Serie A before, they've never won it since - but with Maradona, they won it twice. One player with extraordinary ability helped not one but two teams win trophies they couldn't possibly have achieved without him.

It's Mexico '86 that still gives Maradona the edge over Ronaldo and Messi, his solo goal against England a reminder of the kind of individual genius that perhaps puts him the tiniest fraction ahead of Pele. Plus he was a bit mad, which always helps.

Johan Cruyff

Cruyff set the template for the modern-day Barcelona

1. Johan Cruyff
2. Pele
3. Diego Maradona
4. Lionel Messi
5. Zinedine Zidane
Scott French, FFT USA Writer

The best football is played by the brain, and there isn't another brain in the game to equal Cruyff's. The Dutch master understood the game's elements and how best to utilise them like none other, and his work as an architect of Total Football, plus building the foundation of what Barcelona was to become, vaults him atop this impressive list.

His only demerit: the Dutch never won a meaningful trophy with him, although they triumphed, at least in the public's imagination, in 1974. The others here were also transcendent, the brightest lights for the world's finest sides – Messi more so with Barcelona than Argentina.

Pele

Pele scores his third World Cup final goal in 1970

1. Pele
2. Lionel Messi
3. Diego Maradona
4. Johan Cruyff
5. Ronaldo (Brazil)
Paul Tenorio, FFT USA Reporter

It was tempting to elevate the modern greats to the highest of peaks. Messi is, after all, the player I’ve been able to enjoy most through his prime. But I cannot ignore the stories I heard from my father and my abuelo about watching Pele transform the game in his prime. Nor can I pretend the three World Cup titles can somehow be outweighed by influence on a single team, or even two.

Pele’s impact on the sport was too great, his dominance over the course of two decades to influential to ignore. No one has matched his complete dominance, and I won’t punish him for playing on great teams, just as I won’t punish Messi for playing with the likes of Xavi and Iniesta.

Maradona

Does the 1986 World Cup edge it for Maradona?

FourFourTwo's 100 Greatest Footballers EVER

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