When a manager has to choose between two excellent players in the same position, the Big Book of Football Cliches says we must always refer to this "selection headache" as a "good problem to have".
Having weeks trying to narrow down every male footballer ever into a list of 100, we at FourFourTwo now realise just what nonsense that is. Selection becomes near-impossible conundrum as you realise just how many outstanding footballers there have been, across continents and across decades.
Frankly, we could do another list of 100 great players not to even make the cut. But in the end, we're had to pick the players we feel were the most influential in their particular era, the most memorable, the players who awed us with their talent and their achievements. In short, the 100 greatest footballers ever. Feel free to let us know your thoughts @FourFourTwo (opens in new tab)…
The 100 best football players of all time
100. Gheorghe Hagi
With one of the odder career trajectories among modern-day greats, Hagi spent the best part of a decade as an impossibly prolific attacking midfielder in Romania’s top flight, before two hit-and-miss years at Real Madrid and later a similar spell at Barcelona.
Sandwiched between his time at the two Spanish giants was a heartwarming two years in Italy, where he was part of Mircea Lucescu’s ‘Little Romania’ contingent at Brescia. He endured relegation in his first season but stayed loyal to the club despite better offers, and fired them back into Serie A.
Aged 30 and supposedly winding down towards retirement, he joined Galatasaray, where he spent a laughably fruitful half-decade cementing living-legend status and hoovering up another 10 medals.
Career highlight: USA 94, when Romania reached the quarter-final of the World Cup (knocking out Argentina on the way), inspired by Hagi and his magical left foot.
99. Mario Kempes
Only four Argentines have been crowned as top scorer in La Liga, and Kempes is one of them. He was feared as a burly and effective striker for Valencia, scoring at will, especially in 1976/77 and 1977/78. Kempes also led the club to a European Cup Winners' Cup triumph in 1980.
However, he is best known for his explosive finishes during the 1978 World Cup on home soil. He nabbed six goals and was top scorer of the tournament.
Career highlight: How about scoring two goals in a World Cup final for a highlight? Kempes netted twice against Holland, including the all-important winner in extra time.
The baby of Brazil's last World Cup-winning squad without getting onto the pitch, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite grew up in the shadows of samba superstars before emulating them on his own path. He won the final Ballon d'Or before the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly dominated football and dazzled with his unbelievable vision and typically South American dribbling skills.
Milan fans adored him. There was nothing that Kaka couldn't do with the ball at his feet, as he danced his way through defences and led this great club to summits. Injuries ravaged his time at Real Madrid but the mystique of this man is clear: he's simply one of the most talented footballers of the modern age, with iconic moments across his career.
Career highlight: An era-defining display against Manchester United in the Champions League semi-finals, with the whole world watching. Tearing apart one of the greatest-ever England sides singlehandedly was as shocking as it was captivating.
97. George Weah
So far, Africa's only Ballon d'Or recipient, George Weah is now president of Liberia. He's always led from the front.
King George was a tornado of a footballer and one of the most thrilling footballers in full pelt ever to play the game. He could take on swathes of defenders and blast past them with electric pace, while his finishing, technical ability and creativity were all superb. He lit up Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan, winning titles and plaudits a plenty to become one of the most influential and beloved African footballers ever to play the game.
Career highlight: A fabulous solo goal against Verona in which Weah barely looked like he was breaking a sweat while frolicking through the entire opposition backline. It typified his class, bluster and frightening individual ability: do you know how difficult that was to do in 1990s Italy?
96. Javier Zanetti
If he's not the finest right-back the world has seen, he may have remained a world-class performer for longer than any other individual on this list.
During 19 years at Inter, which followed his early club career in Argentina and came amid some of the Milan side’s most volatile years, he made a club-record 858 appearances and won 16 trophies before retiring aged 40. The stamina and footballing brain that made him such an outstanding full-back were complemented by a technical ability that meant he also later excelled in midfield.
Career highlight: Captaining Inter to the Treble in 2010, which ended their 45-year wait to regain the European Cup.
95. Djalma Santos
Nominated by former team-mate and compatriot Pele in his list of the 125 greatest footballers, the two-time World Cup champion was the first Brazilian to collect 100 international caps. He started just one game in the 1958 World Cup but was still chosen as the best full-back of the tournament. So that must have been some display.
Along with left-back Nilton Santos, Djalma Santos rarely held back, starting the Brazilian tradition of attacking defenders and providing a template for the position's future.
Career highlight: In the final of the 1962 World Cup against Czechoslovakia, Santos set up the final goal scored by Vava for Brazil.
94. Luis Figo
One of the most idolised and despised players in history – even by the same set of fans at different points in his timeline.
Luis Figo was the archetype of what a Galactico should be, so it shouldn't be a surprise that Real Madrid moved heaven, Earth and the laws of nature to acquire him. Deft, delicate and graceful, while capable of unpredictability – as England found out from his long-range stunner at Euro 2000 – Figo was a player of brilliance and consistency. His 106 assists are the second-most in La Liga history, behind Lionel Messi.
Career highlight: Landing the 2002 Champions League alongside his star-studded mates against Bayern Munich. See: paying big money for your rivals' players works.
93. Sandor Kocsis
Arguably the greatest header of a ball ever, Kocsis scored at incredible rate. He found the net 75 times in 68 games for his national side, winning the Olympic tournament in 1952, and averaged more than a goal-per-game in his seven seasons at Honved, winning three league championship titles.
Kocsis moved to Barcelona in 1958 and won La Liga in his first two seasons in Catalonia, although his spell there was sadly interrupted by injuries.
Career highlight: Kocsis was the top scorer with 11 goals at the 1954 World Cup, where a majestic Hungarian team should have won the trophy, but lost to West Germany in the final.
92. Peter Schmeichel
Before new-fangled tactics compelled goalkeepers to dash towards the halfway line and behave as ersatz playmakers, Schmeichel was the king of the keepers, the prototypical elite-level goalie. Everything that contributed to preventing a goal he had in abundance: size, presence, aggression and the unyielding ability to bellow his back four into shape.
Most of all, though, he was just so hard to score past. His ‘starfish’ method became famous and was responsible for countless point-blank chances going inexplicably unconverted. As well as simply being huge, his reflexes were astoundingly quick – and not just once a shot had been taken but before, too: he’d smother the ball at a striker’s feet before the player had even realised he was through on goal.
Career highlight: Hoovered up medals as a stalwart of Alex Ferguson’s first great Manchester United side, but none will have meant as much or been as spectacularly improbable as his European Championship win with a hastily assembled Denmark side in 1992.
91. Giacinto Facchetti
In the 1970 World Cup Final, Brazil saw the future. He was playing at left-back for the opposition, who O Canarinho were busy beating 4-1 at the time.
Italy’s Giacinto Facchetti invented the modern full-back. Converted by Inter coach Helenio Herrera from a centre-forward into a right-footed left-back, Facchetti provided the deep-lying attacking thrust in a defence-first catenaccio system which dominated Italian football from the mid-1960s for three decades.
“Those who copied me copied me wrongly,” Herrera later said of his Inter side. “I had Picchi as a sweeper, yes, but I also had Facchetti, the first full-back to score as many goals as a forward.”
In an 18-season career comprising 629 Nerazzurri appearances and 75 goals, Facchetti won four Serie A titles, two European Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and Euro 68 with Italy. Forget Carlos Alberto, Roberto Carlos or any other buccaneering Brazilian: this is where the full-back as a weapon began.
Career highlight: Being part of the first Italian side to defend the European Cup in 1965.
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Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. An encyclopedia of football shirts and boots knowledge – both past and present – Mark has also been to the FA Cup and League Cup finals for FFT and has written pieces for the mag ranging on subjects from Bobby Robson's season at Barcelona to Robinho's career. He once saw Tyrone Mings at a petrol station in Bournemouth but felt far too short to ask for a photo.
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