Ranked! The 20 best South American players of all time

Ranked! The 20 best South American players of all time
(Image credit: Future)

Football lives in South America. Sure, it may have been invented centuries ago in China; the laws which we bicker over may have been scribed in England in the Victorian age.

But no continent has defined the global game quite like those 12 countries: principally, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. The three South American nations to have won the World Cup have come to shape football as we know it through brilliance and brute force alike, taking home 10 titles between them.

And they've provided some of the greatest footballers to have ever graced the planet, while they're at it. It's not just those three countries, either. 

The 20 best South American players of all time: 20. Jose Andrade

Jose Andrade on the far left of the Uruguay team photo

Jose Andrade on the far left of the Uruguay team photo (Image credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Although skinny and slight, the defensive midfielder dominated with his athleticism as Uruguay impressed in the late 1920s at the Olympics and at the 1930 World Cup.

As football wasn't yet professional in his native country, Andrade also worked as a street musician and shoe-shiner while turning out for Nacional and Penarol. The ‘Black Pearl’ gained notoriety at the 1924 Olympics for daring to throw rocks back at hostile Argentina fans, who'd pelted the visitors with them before the match. Uruguay's victory in the 1930 World Cup Final over their South American rivals gave him a huge sense of pleasure.

19. Dani Alves

Dani Alves and Lionel Messi celebrate a goal during their time together at Barcelona.

Dani Alves and Lionel Messi celebrate a goal during their time together at Barcelona (Image credit: Getty Images)

Having Dani Alves as a right-back was a cheat code. He was an extra midfielder when needed; a world-class attacker, too. 

Having him in Barcelona's side alongside Xavi, Iniesta and Messi just wasn't fair. Alves the strength and tenacity of a champion and won just about everything in his career with a fantastic engine and a truly elite final product. Some say he's still the greatest right-back in the history of the game.

18. Teofilo Cubillas

Teofilo Cubillas

Teofilo Cubillas in action for Peru (Image credit: Getty)

The greatest Peruvian player in history, Cubillas is remarkably the only non-German to have scored at least five goals at two different World Cup tournaments, in 1970 and 1978 (he scored five in both).

Blessed with outstanding vision and a powerful shot, he was a phenomenal set-piece specialist, usually striking the ball with the inside of his foot. Having scored at will for his beloved Allianza Lima, he was also successful at Porto and later played at Fort Lauderdale Strikers alongside George Best.

17. Daniel Passarella

Argentine's national soccer team captain Daniel Passarella holds the World Cup trophy as he is carried on the shoulders of fans after Argentina defeated the Netherlands 3-1 in extra time, 25 June 1978 in Buenos Aires, during the World Cup soccer final. It is Argentina's first-ever World Cup title.

Daniel Passarella with the World Cup trophy (Image credit: STAFF/AFP via Getty Images))

Widely considered one of the best centre-backs of all time, Passarella is remembered for his range of qualities. The Argentine was a ferocious defender, strong in the tackle and extremely good positionally. His heading abilities were absolutely extraordinary given the fact that he was just 5ft 8in tall.

His attacking contribution was incredible, with 175 goals scored in all competitions. Passarella was also known for building the attacks from behind with his immaculate passing. His leadership qualities were second to none, and he was nicknamed the Great Captain. He won titles, too – six of them with River Plate before moving to play for Fiorentina and Inter in Serie A.

16. Juan Alberto Schiaffino

Juan Schiaffino scores the first goal against Brazil, during the1950 World Cup.

Juan Schiaffino scores the first goal against Brazil, during the 1950 World Cup (Image credit: STAFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Tall and slender, Schiaffino possessed a deft touch and sublime technical skills which made him frustratingly unpredictable for opponents. He was one of the most dominant attacking players of his era, winning four championship titles in Uruguay with Penarol, then moving to Italy and helping Milan to win three titles in five years.

His greatest achievement was undoubtedly at the 1950 World Cup – the tournament won by Uruguay against all odds, where he scored in the de-facto final.

15. Jairzinho


Jairzinho after scoring against Italy (Image credit: Getty)

His devastating bursts of speed and lethal shooting secured him a place in history after the 1970 World Cup. That Brazil side inspired a generation of footballers and had in Jairzinho one of their biggest stars, despite him being relegated to the outside positions by Pele and Tostao.

He’s still the only player to have won the World Cup while scoring in every game in the tournament. If it wasn’t enough, the former winger would later show an eye for talentspotting, taking a then-skinny Ronaldo to Cruzeiro and recommending him to the Brazil youth team.

14. Jose Manuel Moreno

Jose Manuel Moreno (left) and Alfredo Di Stefano

Jose Manuel Moreno (left) and Alfredo Di Stefano (Image credit: Avalado por ley 11723 )

A striker of incredible talent, Moreno was the lynchpin of the so-called La Maquina (The Machine), the great River Plate team of the 1940s that was hugely important to the tactical development of South American and world football. The team were the first to frequently exchange positions in attack.

Moreno seemingly had no weaknesses as a player, showing sublime technical skills, physical strength and vision to lead his team to six championship titles. Later on, he won league titles in Mexico, Chile and Colombia as well – becoming the first ever footballer to do so in four countries.

13. Didi

Brazilian player Didi struggling with a Hungarian back. Hungaria beat Brazil by 4-2 in Berne.

Brazilian player Didi struggling with a Hungarian defender (Image credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

“I’m nothing compared to Didi. I’ll never be anywhere near as good as he is,” Pele once said.

Dubbed the Ethiopian Prince because of his elegant style, the midfielder won the World Cup with Brazil in 1958 and 1962, and even had a stint with Real Madrid. In 1958, he beat Pele and 13-goal Just Fontaine to player of the tournament

12. Romario


Romario celebrates beating Sweden in 1994 (Image credit: Chris Cole/ALLSPORT)

The king of the toe poke, the Brazilian had dazzling close control and nerveless finishing abilities - when he was through on goal, the keeper was basically doomed. Prolific for Vasco da Gama, PSV and Flamengo, he was the first player to net 100 goals for three different clubs.

He was the player of the tournament at the 1994 World Cup, as Romario led Brazil to glory.

11. Rivaldo


Rivaldo scores against England in 2002 (Image credit: Getty)

Possessing one of the deadliest left feet in football history, the Brazilian won the Ballon d’Or after guiding Barcelona to a second successive title, then helped his country to glory in 2002. “Ronaldo was our most talented player, but Rivaldo was even better at that World Cup,” Edmilson said.

The scorer of the greatest World Cup ever? Probably. A stunning overhead kick against Valencia completed his treble and rescued Barcelona’s Champions League qualification in 2001: it's still lauded over two decades later.

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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.