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Ranked! The 25 best World Cup players EVER

Zinedine Zidane World Cup 2006

The finest players in the world sometimes don’t quite manage to produce their best on the biggest stage of all. Others seem fired up by the global attention, playing in ways they never could for their club. Here are 25 of the tournament greats...

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25. Gary Lineker

The England striker was perhaps not as technically gifted as many of the others on this list, but in the World Cup it’s composure that counts. Lineker always seemed able to find space in the box to finish – no doubt aided by the blinding effect of that preposterous day-glo tan (making the most of his time at Barcelona).

He was the Golden Boot winner at Mexico 1986, and provided some of Italia 90’s most memorable moments – including an equaliser against West Germany in the semi-final... and that glance to the bench after Paul Gascoigne’s booking.

24. Roger Milla

According to his Wikipedia page, Milla holds the record for the longest penalty run-up, at 90 yards. Sadly that doesn’t seem to be true, but there are plenty of ridiculous stories that are real about a true World Cup icon.

Milla was playing on the Pacific island of Reunion when he was called up to the Cameroon squad for the 1990 World Cup. He did help his side advance further than any other African team before them with four goals. He did return in 1994 and become the oldest goalscorer in World Cup history at the age of 42. He did, after retiring, imprison a team of pygmies in the basement of Cameroon’s national stadium and force them to play in a novelty football tournament. Seriously. He should really be number one.

23. Rivaldo

It was hard to choose between Romario, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. We’ve opted for the latter, because he played well in more than one tournament. Romario was the star of USA ’94 but had been hampered by injury four years earlier. Ronaldinho was brilliant in 2002, as David Seaman will remember, but failed to impress four years later.

Rivaldo played a part in Brazil’s run to the 1998 final, and then starred the show in 2002 by scoring five goals – including a memorable strike against Belgium as Brazil won their fifth World Cup. His performance was made all the more remarkable given the close shave with death he endured during the opening game against Turkey. So brave.

22. Paolo Maldini

The Maldini family are blessed with considerable defensive skill, but not much luck when it comes to the old Jules Rimet trophy. Cesare Maldini played in the 1962 World Cup for Italy, and was named in the team of the tournament, but his team crashed out in the first round.

His son Paolo fared a little better. Despite being one of the most elegant, composed defenders of his era and winning five European Cups, the World Cup eluded him – his first three tournaments ended in penalty shootout defeats, and the fourth to a golden goal. Perhaps one of his sons will have better luck.

21. Jairzinho

After Garrincha retired from football following the 1966 World Cup to concentrate on fathering illegitimate children, Jairzinho stepped into his right-wing berth for the 1970 World Cup – although positions didn’t mean much in that free-flowing side. He was a formidable part of one of the greatest teams in World Cup history, combining speed, strength and skill.

Jairzinho scored in every single game of the tournament as Brazil romped to a famous victory. 

20. Eusebio

The Mozambique-born striker only played in one World Cup, but it was a good one. He scored nine goals in 1966, including four against North Korea as Portugal famously came back from 3-0 down to win. That added to two goals in his first three games for the striker, whose acceleration and powerful strike made him difficult to play against.

He scored again as Portugal lost 2-1 to England in the semi-final. A total of nine goals won him the Golden Boot, and the adoration of English fans – to the extent that Madame Tussauds made a waxwork likeness of him immediately. 

19. Lothar Matthaus

Maradona cites the German defender as the “best rival” he ever had; probably based on their clash in the 1986 World Cup Final, when Matthaus marked the Argentine out of the game – albeit not well enough to actually win the competition. The goalscoring midfielder played in five World Cups – a record for an outfield player, and captained his team to glory in 1990 when he was the driving force with dynamic, box-to-box runs.

18. Michel Platini

Platini joins the likes of Cruyff, Paolo Maldini and Roberto Baggio on the list of players who have shone at World Cups but have nothing to show for it. The future UEFA president made his World cup debut in 1978 but struggled to make an impact in a vital group game against Italy.

In 1982, he was part of France’s Magic Square alongside Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana and Luis Fernandez – a quarter of talented midfielders who reached the later stages of two World Cups and won the European Championship.

17. Xavi

The pint-sized playmaker was the metronome to Spain’s relentless tournament success, although the international brand of tiki-taka was, admittedly, a little less free-flowing than the Barcelona version. There were a lot of 1-0 wins, and long spells of possession, but Xavi was the man who helped make it all possible. He was expert at finding space in a packed midfield – setting up attacks with short, sharp passes.

In 2010, his third World Cup of four, Xavi completed more passes than any other player in the tournament and set up the winning goals in both the quarter-final and semi-final.