Ranked! The 100 best football players of all time

Ranked! The 100 best football players of all time
(Image credit: Future)

Of the 100 best football players of all time, fewer and fewer are still galloping at full tilt in the glare of the European game. In fact, two of our top 10 have left the continent in the last 12 months. 

With Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo riding off into the sunset of warmer climes, it's easy to become misty-eyed about the good old days; of how we'll never see another pair quite like those again. But when they do eventually call it a day, their absence will leave no void: it's just the turning of a page. Football is cyclical: nothing is new and in a century and a half of the beautiful game, we've seen just about everything possible. The rise of dynasties, the fall of gods, the unexpected and scripts we all saw coming. 

This is the complete compendium of characters who played the heroes and villains along the way. Every man who held GOAT status in the eye of any beholder: the definitive century of the greatest footballers to ever grace the grass. Don't agree? Of course, you don't!

The 100 best football players of all time

100. Gheorghe Hagi

Gheorghe Hagi of Romania during the FIFA World Cup 1990 Round of 16 match between Republic of Ireland and Romania at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa, Italy

Gheorghe Hagi of Romania during the 1990 World Cup (Image credit: Ray McManus/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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

Mario Kempes in action for Argentina at the World Cup

Mario Kempes in action for Argentina at the 1986 World Cup (Image credit: BONGARTS)

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.

98. Kaka

Midfielder Kaka #22 of AC Milan in action during the Serie A match between AC Milan v ACF Fiorentina held at Stadio San Siro on January 17, 2009 in Milan, Italy.

Kaka of AC Milan in action in Serie A against Fiorentina in 2009 (Image credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Kaka is the only player in the world I would pay money to watch. Some of the things I have seen him do on the pitch amaze me.

Frank Lampard

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

George Weah

George Weah while playing for PSG (Image credit: Getty)

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

Javier Zanetti

Javier Zanetti celebrates for Inter Milan (Image credit: Getty)

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

Three footballers of Brazil's national team - (from left to right) - Djalma Santos, Zito and Pele - at their hotel at Selsdon Park. The players have recovered from injuries received in a road accident at Hamburg and are in training for a forthcoming match against England.

Djalma Santos (left), Zito (centre) and Pele (right) at their hotel at Selsdon Park in training for a match against England. (Image credit: John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images))

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

Luis Figo

Luis Figo during Euro 2004 for Portugal (Image credit: Getty)

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

Hungarian forward Sandor Kocsis (L) celebrates as the ball rolls past Uruguayan goalkeeper Gaston Roque Maspoli into the net for a goal as defender Jose Santamaria looks on 30 June 1954 in Lausanne during the World Cup semifinal match between Hungary and Uruguay. Hungary advanced to the final with a 4-2 victory in extra time.

Sandor Kocsis (left) celebrates as the ball rolls past Uruguayan goalkeeper Gaston Roque Maspoli at the1954 World Cup (Image credit: STAFF/AFP via Getty Images)

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

Peter Schmeichel Denmark Euro 92 legend

Peter Schmeichel in action for Denmark at Euro 92 (Image credit: PA)

Of all the keepers I have played against, Peter was easily the best. You can't be a great by just being a good shot stopper, you have to have it all – and he did.

Michael Owen

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

Pele of Brazil shankes hands with Giacinto Facchetti of Italy during the Final Mexico World Cup 1970 match between Italy and Brazil in Citta Del Mexico on 21-06-1970. Mexico

Pele (left) shakes hands with Giacinto Facchetti of Italy before the 1970 World Cup final match between Italy and Brazil (Image credit: Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

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
Staff Writer

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.