10. George Best
Best’s extraordinary natural talent not only made him one of the most iconic and entertaining players there has been, but the finest from the British Isles.
“If I’d been ugly,” he once said, “You’d never have heard of Pele.” Although that may be a stretch, it was an acknowledgement that, for all of his ability, his womanising stopped him from achieving even more.
It was in 1968 that, aged 22 – his pace, belief, technical ability, balance and creativity in perfect symmetry – Best deservedly followed the other two of United's ‘Holy Trinity’ (Bobby Charlton and Denis Law) in winning the Ballon d’Or.
Best had made his debut for United in 1963 - a boyhood Wolves fan, the Belfast boy was rejected by local club Glentoran for being too small. That didn’t look like a great decision, as the wide man soon began to take British football by storm.
“My best performance was for Northern Ireland against Scotland,” he once told FFT. “We were expected to get slaughtered, but we won 1-0. Everything I tried came off - I would have had about four goals, but for the keeper. For United, it was our win against Benfica in 1966 - I scored twice in 12 minutes.”
That European Cup performance in Lisbon prompted the Portuguese media to label him ‘The Fifth Beatle’ - two years later, he bagged the winner in the semi final first leg at home to Real Madrid, then laid on the assist for Bill Foulkes to clinch the tie at the Bernabeu.
In the final, against Benfica once more, it was Best who brilliantly rounded the goalkeeper to put United on course for victory. Not only did he win the Ballon d’Or, he also became the youngest ever recipient of the Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year award, after a season in which he’d scored 32 goals in 53 games.
United’s top scorer in the league for five successive campaigns, he netted a record double hat-trick at Northampton in the FA Cup in 1970, but the team declined around him, as off-field distractions began to take their toll on Best himself.
His last appearance for the club came at the age of 27, before he turned out for a random assortment of clubs - among them Dunstable, South African club Jewish Guild, Stockport, Cork Celtic, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fulham, Hibernian, Hong Kong club Sea Bee, Bournemouth, and Brisbane Lions.
“I was the one who took football off the back pages and put it on to page one,” was how he reflected on his career. Best had enough star quality to dominate both.
Career highlight: His performance in the 1968 European Cup Final against Benfica inspired the 4-1 victory that made United the first English winners of the competition.
The bald-headed, gap-toothed kid’s place in the pantheon of modern greats is now secure. He won his first FIFA World Player of the Year award at the tender age of 20 in 1996, went on to become the second footballer to be honoured three times, claimed the Ballon d'Or twice and became the World Cup’s greatest scorer in 2006 with his 15th strike (since surpassed by Miroslav Klose in 2014).
Has there ever been a more impressive debut season for a club anywhere in the world than R9 managed in Barcelona? The Brazilian scored 47 goals in 51 matches as the Catalans won the Copa del Rey and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, and narrowly missed out on La Liga – but Barça couldn't hang on to him for long, as the forward signed for Inter in 1997 and was the star attraction at the 1998 World Cup, where he won the Golden Ball and finished with four goals.
Yet the last chapter infamously didn't go as planned: he suffered a fit before the final against France and failed to perform after he was eventually named in the starting line-up, as Brazil lost 3-0 to the hosts. He later signed for Real Madrid and showed tantalising glimpses of his best form as one of the galacticos. Yet Ronaldo was never quite the same again and retired in 2011 – still scoring goals, but with his game necessarily reinvented thanks to his loose lifestyle and dodgy knees.
Career highlight: Back from injury woes, his brace in the final won the 2002 World Cup for Brazil, and clinched the Golden Boot.
8. Alfredo Di Stefano
“Who is this man? Wherever he is on the field he is in a position to take the ball. You can see his influence on everything that’s happening,” wrote Bobby Charlton after seeing Di Stefano play for Real Madrid in 1957.
The Blond Arrow may not have boasted the natural gifts of players like George Best or Diego Maradona, but Charlton and Franz Beckenbauer, among others, have both stated that Di Stefano was probably the best all-round player to grace football.
Real Madrid fought tooth and nail with bitter rivals Barcelona for his signature. In the midst of an acrimonious battle between the giants, the Spanish Football Federation suggested both clubs share the player, but controversially awarded Madrid the first bite at him. Barcelona officials claimed that Francoist influence was the root cause of the federation’s decision, but were later persuaded to sell their rights to the player anyway.
Throughout the next 11 campaigns, Di Stefano won eight Spanish titles, plundered 218 goals in 282 matches and won five consecutive European Cups. Naturally, he scored in all five finals. On the final day of the league season in 1958/59, with both players level on goals scored, Ferenc Puskas passed to his team-mate rather than score himself. Nonetheless, the Hungarian said of him: “Di Stefano is the best there has been, or is ever likely to be.”
Career highlight: Di Stefano netted a breathtaking hat-trick in Real Madrid’s astonishing 7-3 annihilation of Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in the 1960 European Cup Final.
7. Franz Beckenbauer
ike many great players, Beckenbauer was adept at playing in several positions. Originally a centre-forward, he actually made his Bayern debut in the Regionalliga Sud as a left winger, and in his first full season, Bayern won promotion to the recently formed Bundesliga. As Bayern’s youth team products blossomed, Bayern gradually became the dominant force in West German football.
There are two versions of the story about how Beckenbauer was given the 'Kaiser' moniker. Beckenbauer claims it was because, in 1968, he posed alongside a bust of former Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, and the media referred to him as Fussball Kaiser afterwards. Alternatively, it was because in the 1969 German Cup Final he fouled Schalke’s Reinhard Libuda, often known as Konig von Westfalen (King of Westphalia), and the press believed that Beckenbauer had now trumped him.
Either way, the exalted moniker was entirely befitting: Bayern won a hat-trick of Bundesliga titles between 1972 and 1974, and did likewise in the European Cup between 1974 and 1976. On the international stage, Beckenbauer captained West Germany to triumph in the 1972 European Championship and 1974 World Cup.
Like Bayern, Beckenbauer wasn’t universally loved, and often expressed shock at the aggression displayed towards his team at Bundesliga away games. Aged 18, he was banned from the West German youth team for refusing to marry his pregnant girlfriend, and – controversially - he was no longer selected for international matches after joining the New York Cosmos in 1977 for a hugely successful four-year spell.
Der Kaiser returned to the Bundesliga in the early 1980s, when he led Hamburg to the league title. Naturally. He was a born winner.
Career highlight: At Hampden Park in 1976, Beckenbauer captained Bayern on the night they completed a hat-trick of European Cup victories, defeating Saint-Etienne. “I still have a huge feeling of pride about that one,” he later recalled.
6. Zinedine Zidane
There's a common conception in football that the most creative talents also tend to be the least efficient; that style comes at the expense of steel. It’s what constitutes the idea of the luxury player. Zidane was the most luxurious player possible and yet combined it with towering levels of competitive resolve: a heady cocktail of technique, grace, competitiveness and the uncanny ability to pick his moments with aplomb.
For a player whose basic function was to facilitate and create, and who was far from a prolific scorer, he was remarkably decisive – as evidenced by goals in two separate World Cup finals and an astonishing winner in a Champions League final for Real Madrid in 2002.
But as productive as he may have been, the sense was always that you were watching an artist at work.
Most sportspeople gear their game around what is most likely to bring them success, sacrificing aesthetics and extravagance at the altar of shiny medals. For Zidane, such a compromise was heresy: success was simply the inevitable result of his on-pitch beauty.
Career highlight: It takes a lot to top the Leverkusen volley - two goals in the 1998 World Cup final, as France conquered the globe for the first time, might just do it.
5. Johan Cruyff
Two months after making his first-team debut, Cruyff met former PE teacher Rinus Michels. Together, the pair invented Total Football. Wingers and overlapping full-backs kept the pitch wide, defenders were encouraged to bring the ball out from the back (if a midfielder dropped to cover the space) and the centre-forward – usually Cruyff – could roam free as Michels’ on-field conductor.
It worked. Cruyff won 20 major honours – including three successive European Cups from 1971 to 1973 – before a player revolt had him banished to Barcelona. Not content with revolutionising one club, El Salvador (the saviour) did so again, winning the Catalans’ first Liga title for 14 years. Nobody could match his speed, vision or eye for goal.
Part of arguably the best team never to win the World Cup in 1974 – the Netherlands lost 2-1 to West Germany in the final, having gone 1-0 up without the hosts touching the ball – Cruyff may not have reached his peak with his national team, but that only adds to his allure.
He retired in 1978, aged 31, and refused to go that summer’s World Cup. The following year, however, he was back, having lost the vast majority of his fortune in a pig farm venture in Catalonia. Spells in America for the Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats followed, as did a trophy-laden return to Ajax and even a season at their bitter rivals Feyenoord.
“Cruyff always seemed to be in control. He made things happen,” said Rudi van Dantzig, a long-time collaborator of the great ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, himself a close friend of Cruyff’s. “There was something very dramatic about him, like a Greek drama – life or death, almost, even when they played ordinary Dutch League games.”
Career highlight: Getting a turn named after him, after confusing the hell out of Jan Olsson against Sweden at the 1974 World Cup.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo
When Ronaldo became the first player ever to score in five World Cups, two days after Argentina opened their 2022 campaign with a shock defeat to Saudi Arabia, he hoped it would be the start of his bid to stand above Lionel Messi forever. Instead, things unravelled irreparably in just a few weeks.
While Messi went on to win the World Cup, Ronaldo found himself dropped by Portugal, eliminated by Morocco, then seemingly unwanted by Europe’s top clubs after not so much burning his bridges at Manchester United, as blowing them to pieces with a barrage of Piers Morgan-loaded HIMARS missiles.
“It’s not the end of my career to come to South Africa,” CR7 insisted upon his arrival at, er, Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr, with a classic Robinho gaffe that probably gave away he wasn’t entirely thrilled to be at his new club, with average gates of just 8,000 last season. “In Europe, my work is done,” he continued, flexing as a self-defence mechanism. It was hard to escape the suspicion that Europe had decided it was done with him, rather than the other way around.
All careers come to a close eventually, and not all of them have the perfect ending - Zinedine Zidane literally bowed out with a red card; Diego Maradona had drugs bans in his final years. At 37, Ronaldo has done an extraordinary job of holding back the ageing process, scoring 66 goals for Portugal after his 30th birthday to set a new international goalscoring record, and taking his Champions League tally to a record 140.
Recent months have seen a man whose mobility no longer matched his monumental motivation, frustrated that things weren’t what they used to be, and never could be again. When you’ve been so great for so long, letting go of the dream of recapturing old glories was never going to be easy.
This is a player who’s won both the Ballon d’Or and the Champions League five times, captained Portugal to their only international trophy, won four European Golden Shoes and become Real Madrid’s record scorer, netting at least 50 goals in six successive seasons - not even Messi did that at Barcelona.
Right now, it’s hard not to view Ronaldo through the prism of Qatar - that long tearful walk back to the dressing room, while his greatest rival lifted the trophy and secured supremacy forevermore.
But for more than half of his life, Ronaldo has been a superstar, one of the very finest footballers of all time. No player has ever spent so long at the top.
Career highlight: In 2008, a towering Ronaldo header helped Manchester United to the Champions League title, leading him to his life-long goal of being voted the best player in the world. He had reached the pinnacle at 23 - and yet it was just the start.
3. Diego Maradona
How do you separate the three greatest footballers of all time? Any of them would have been worthy winners, but we can only pick one.
Longevity, goals and trophies are where Lionel Messi and Pele arguably have the slight edge but, boy, Maradona was exciting. The Argentine was the rebel who produced possibly the most iconic individual goal ever scored, on the way to maybe the greatest World Cup triumph of all in 1986. A man who’s been deified in both his homeland and the Italian city of Naples.
Just 5ft 5in tall, El Pibe de Oro’s dribbling skills enthralled a generation, from the moment he made his Argentinos Juniors debut as a 15-year-old, and nutmegged an opponent with his first touch. He scored 116 goals in 166 games then joined Boca, winning the league title after a solo goal against rivals River Plate.
Barcelona paid £5m a year later - within months, he’d taken Real Madrid apart at the Bernabeu, before injury and illness struck him down. He moved to Napoli for £6.9m in 1984, the first player transferred for a world record fee on two separate occasions. There came his finest days - inspiring his new club to the only two league titles of their history, after World Cup glory in Mexico. He captained Argentina to another final in 1990.
Yes, he never won the European Cup, or progressed beyond even the last 16, but Maradona was about so much more than mere trophies.
Career highlight: Dominating the 1986 World Cup with five goals and five assists, scoring the Goal of the Century against England. The one he scored with his foot…
At the age of 17, in 1958, Pele became the youngest player to feature in a World Cup final. He scored six times in Sweden, including a semi-final hat-trick and two more in the final. It was to be the first of three World Cup trophies he brought back home as an answer to those tears he saw running down his dad’s face.
His contribution in 1962 was minimised by injury, while the persistent fouling of him in 1966 made him swear that it would be his last World Cup. He didn’t stick to it. He was convinced into returning for a fourth tournament in 1970 and became part of one of the best attacks ever compiled – alongside Tostao, Jairzinho, Rivellino, Clodoaldo and Gerson. While Jairzinho top-scored, Pele added four more to his World Cup tally.
In the 1960s and '70s, Pele travelled the world with his club team Santos. In Nigeria, a two-day truce was declared in the war with Biafra as a way for both sides to watch him play. His impact on the Nigerian football psyche is so huge that when he predicted an African nation would win the World Cup before the noughties, local fans already saw it coming.
“In some countries they wanted to touch him, in some they wanted to kiss him. In others they even kissed the ground he walked on,” said his former team-mate Clodoaldo.
The Brazilian played his last game for Santos in 1974 and postponed his retirement plans to sign for the New York Cosmos. He was in debt and desperate to recover his finances, so chose to move to the North American Soccer League. After leading the Cosmos to the NASL title in 1977, he played his farewell game on a rainy New York day. But how many days he'd brightened before that.
Career highlight: On November 19, 1969, Pele scored his 1,000th goal from a penalty in a match against Vasco da Gama at the Maracana stadium.
1. Lionel Messi
The history books will laud Messi, and yet their limitations will do him a disservice. In 20 years, young football fans will read about a messianic figure whose brilliance stunned the world, shattered a litany of records and started an era of dominance… but not until they watch the videos will they get an idea of what they have missed.
The quantity of his goals pale in comparison with their beauty. The goal of the month may not even make his top 20, be it a solo run, a bending free-kick, a cheeky lob, a golf putt finish or a thunderous missile.
By now most know his story: how expensive medicine for a growth hormone deficiency led him from his home town Rosario to Barcelona, where his 2004 debut started an era of brilliance. He has been voted into the world's top three players for 10 years, and in the top two for nine.
It’s one thing to reach the top, quite another to stay there. There are fans well into their 20s who have never known a world in which Messi is not spellbinding us on a weekly basis.
Only by evolution has Messi managed to maintain his level. The livewire dribbler has become a mature playmaker who now dictates play while still proving decisive in the final third. Never has Messi, now in his 30s, better balanced playmaking, dribbling and goalscoring.
As Javier Mascherano has said, he is three players in one. You could argue that one of the greatest goalscorers of all time is also the best passer, and you would not lack evidence to support your claim.
In the meantime, pundits, fans and writers will try to express his greatness with words and metaphors. They will all fail, as will the article you are reading now. The best we can do is listen to Pep Guardiola, who said: “Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him. Just watch him.”
Career highlight: Completing the set in Qatar and winning the World Cup with Argentina.
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