Ranked! The 25 best World Cup players EVER

Zinedine Zidane World Cup 2006
We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

8. Just Fontaine

Unless Mo Salah carries his Liverpool form into this summer’s World Cup – and assuming the injury gods are kind – Fontaine’s record looks pretty safe for the time being. At the 1958 World Cup, the Morocco-born French forward scored 13 goals in six games, including four against defending champions West Germany.

That single tournament – at which he formed an effective partnership with Poland-born Stade de Reims colleague Raymond Kopa – is enough to put him fourth on the all-time scorers list. He scored in every game he played but, thanks to a strange voting system, still didn’t make it into the team of the tournament.

7. Garrincha

When Pele limped off in the early stages of the 1962 World Cup, Garrincha – the ‘Little Wren’ stepped into the fold. They were polar opposites. While fans nicknamed Pele ‘The King,’ Garrincha was ‘The Joy of the People’ for the carefree way he played, twisting and tormenting defenders with the help of a genetic trait that left him with crooked legs.

At 25, the 1962 World Cup was the peak of his playing career – he scored four to help Brazil win the tournament, but burned out soon after due to alcoholism and a life of excess.

6. Cafu

With Dani Alves out for the 2018 World Cup, Brazil are facing their biggest dilemma at right-back since 1994. Back then, relatively untested right-back called Cafu came on as a substitute for the injured Jorginho early on in the World Cup final. He went on to become his country’s most-capped player, steering them to two more World Cup finals over a 16-year international career that saw many shifts in Brazil’s playing style.

Regardless of what he was asked to do by various managers, Cafu was energetic and dynamic going forward, and – unlike the free-kick-smashing lunatic on the other wing – he could actually defend a bit, too.

5. Franz Beckenbauer

Der Kaiser played in three World Cups, and never finished lower than third. A classy, cultured sweeper in an era when pitches and permissive refereeing made that a lot harder (John Stones would have been eaten alive) – Beckenbauer first came to prominence in 1966, scoring five times as West Germany reached the final.

He possessed a powerful strike from distance, which he demonstrated four years later when the Germans enacted a measure of revenge by sending England home early with a suitcase full of nicked jewellery. By 1974 he was captain, and finally got his hands on the trophy by keeping Johan Cruyff’s Dutch side at bay in the final. Well deserved.

4. Ronaldo

If not for the strange happenings on the night before the final in 1998, Original Ronaldo could have three World Cup winner's medals. The striker went to the World Cup in 1994 without playing a single minute – his presence would certainly have improved a tournament that was light on goals. Four years later he was the best player in the world – pacey, powerful, frightening to play against.

He was brilliant – scoring four and making three as Brazil zoomed to the final, but they lost 3-0 to hosts France with the striker a shadow of his usual self. A serious cruciate injury kept him out of Brazil’s entire qualification campaign for 2002, but he arrived in Asia with some wrongs to right, and a haircut you'd expect to wake up with after falling asleep drunk at a house party (earlier this year he said the haircut was a deliberate ploy to distract people from his injury – it worked so well we wonder if other players have been doing this). Only England managed to keep him out – Ronaldo scored in every other game, including two in the final against Germany.

3. Miroslav Klose

He’ll be there. Sure, Klose may technically be 'retired', but FFT remains convinced that he’ll find a way onto the pitch in Russia – probably when Germany are on the hunt for a late goal in the semi-final, to poke the ball home from two yards. They might call Ronaldo O Fenomeno, but it’s Klose who is the real phenomenon – he’s the World Cup’s leading goalscorer, with 16 goals (from a combined distance of about 12 yards), and the only player in tournament history to appear in four consecutive semi-finals.

There was nothing particularly remarkable about the former Lazio and Bayern Munich striker’s play, but the tournament stage seemed to make him come alive.

2. Pele

He scored eight million goals for Santos, but Pele’s global reputation is built on his performances in the World Cup. His first was in 1958, as a 17-year-old, when he was the youngest player in the tournament. His exploits during that showpiece included a semi-final hat-trick and two goals in a romping victory against the hosts Sweden in the final. Injuries kept him from contributing fully to Brazil’s next two World Cup outings, so it was 1970 – his fourth World Cup, where the Brazilian really cemented his status as one of the greatest players ever to grace football’s premier competition.

He was powerful, clinical and imaginative – during the 1970 World Cup he almost scored from the halfway line, and produced a memorable moment of quick thinking against Uruguay when he allowed a through-ball to run past the onrushing goalkeeper to the left, as he ambled around to the right.

Unbefitting, for someone who scored 12 World Cup goals, his two most iconic moments are both misses – he dragged that chance against Uruguay wide after rounding the goalkeeper without touching the ball, and then saw that header famously saved by Gordon Banks. If you watch it back now, it doesn’t seem that remarkable – but its enduring appeal shows how good Pele was – it was if Banks had performed a miracle by stopping him.

1. Diego Maradona

In 2000, FIFA conducted a public poll to determine the best player of the 20th century. Diego Maradona won more than 60 per cent of the votes, but someone in Geneva clearly thought crowning an overweight former cocaine addict with a penchant for trickery was a bit too on-brand for FIFA. So they cooked up another award, decided by journalists – and split the prize between Maradona and Pele.

They are difficult to split, but most polls seem to come to the same decision in the end. It’s an old argument, but here it is again: Pele might have won more World Cups than Maradona, but he never single-handedly dragged, dribbled and punched a team all the way to glory like the little Argentine did in 1986. Sure, the Brazilian also never got sent home for failing a drugs test - although in 2008, Wada did consider adding Viagra to the list of banned substances, so maybe his timing was just better.

World Cup Wonderland: stories, interviews and more

New features you'd love on