Footballers today are often criticised for being bland, uninformed, media-trained robots, but it would be unfair to tar a whole profession with one brush.
Indeed, there have been plenty of personalities in the game down the years – including the 50 coolest footballers of all time (according to us) documented in this slideshow...
50. Benoit Assou-Ekotto
Assou-Ekotto certainly looked the part on and off the pitch, but it was his refreshing honesty that made him so cool. The former Tottenham left-back was never afraid to speak his mind.
"[Lens president Gervais] Martel said I go to England for the money but why do players come to his club?" he told the Guardian in 2010. "Because they look nice? All people, everyone, when they go to a job, it's for the money. So I don't understand why, when I said I play for the money, people were shocked."
49. Fabio Cannavaro
You might think that the only way a 5ft 9in centre-back could reach the pinnacle of the game would be by being extremely aggressive and combative.
Cannavaro chose a different path. A stylish performer for Napoli, Parma, Inter, Juventus, Real Madrid and (we assume) Al-Ahli, Cannavaro was exceptional when Italy won the World Cup in 2006.
48. Robert Prosinecki
Prosinecki played for the big three during his career: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Portsmouth. A technically gifted attacking midfielder, the Croatian wasn't shy in admitting that he had a weakness for tobacco and tracking back.
"He'd smoke before the game, at half-time in the showers and after the game as well. Red Marlboros, too. The real heavy stuff," Peter Crouch, a team-mate at Pompey, revealed in 2017.
47. Paul McGregor
Born in Liverpool, McGregor spent the bulk of his career with Nottingham Forest, although his eight years at the club yielded just 30 league appearances. The striker divided his time between playing football and singing with Britpop band Merc, appearing at a gig at Rock City in Nottingham city centre.
At 29 McGregor knocked football on the head, choosing instead to dedicate more of his time to music. Now 44, the ex-Plymouth frontman is currently lead singer of punk band Ulterior, operating under the stage name 'Honey'.
46. Chris Waddle
Waddle played more than 100 times for each of Newcastle, Tottenham and Sheffield Wednesday, but his most successful bout of employment came at Marseille.
The tricky winger remains hugely popular at the Velodrome today, with fans of a certain vintage recalling his tricky dribbling and blonde mullet. Few players in Europe were as fun to watch as Waddle in the early 1990s.
45. Gunter Netzer
Outsiders may have been more fascinated by Paul Breitner because he sported an Afro and quoted Chairman Mao, but Germans knew there was no substance there. Netzer, though, was the real deal: he was far better-looking than any of his peers, drove (and crashed) a Ferrari, and even though he didn’t do drugs or drink, he ran a hip nightclub called Lovers’ Lane.
Netzer didn’t have to sweat, toil or tackle; he had sidekicks for such mundane tasks. His specialty was his incredibly precise long-range passing. As the German writer Helmut Bottiger once put it: “His passes were breathing the spirit of utopia.”
44. Antonio Cassano
It's fair to say that Cassano did things his way. An exceptionally talented footballer, the Italian's fondness for cakes and women prevented him fulfilling his potential.
"In Madrid, I had a friend who was a hotel waiter," Cassano wrote in his autobiography. "His job was to bring me three or four pastries after I had sex." It's a mystery why the Ketchup-banning Fabio Capello didn't take to him.
43. Stan Bowles
Most young players looking to make their way in the game wouldn't dream of taking on a personality as big as Malcolm Allison, but Bowles did exactly that at Manchester City. The forward continued in a similar vein throughout his career, earning a reputation as one of English football's most unorthodox individuals.
A heavy boozer and womaniser, Bowles also liked to gamble - "if he could pass a betting shop like he can pass a football he’d be a rich man," Ernie Tagg, his manager at Crewe, once exclaimed. Born and raised in Manchester, Bowles was known to stay overnight whenever QPR played in the northwest, allowing him to turn out for his old pub team on Sunday mornings.
42. Robin Friday
Friday was a professional footballer for just four years, but that was sufficient time for the forward to establish himself as one of the game's great entertainers. A cult hero at both Reading and Cardiff, Friday possessed outstanding natural ability but was unable to make the most of his talents due to his fondness for alcohol, drugs and women.
A true maverick who was indulged at Reading for as long as he delivered on the pitch, Friday passed away at the age of 38 after suffering a heart attack that some suspect was caused by a heroin overdose.
41. Freddie Ljungberg
Manchester United dominated the early Premier League years until Arsene Wenger's Arsenal began to challenge them in the late 1990s. Around the same time, Ljungberg rivalled Beckham for the title of the division's preeminent pin-up.
A Calvin Klein underwear model who sported a red mohican, the Swede was once voted as the league's sexiest footballer by readers of The Sun. Sorry, Becks.
40. Billy Meredith
After Meredith (left) was banned for the entire 1905/06 season after allegedly trying to bribe an opponent, Manchester City refused to pay him and forced him out of the club.
The Welsh forward would have the last laugh, enacting his revenge by joining Manchester United and leading them to two First Division titles and an FA Cup. A man who knew his own mind, Meredith was largely responsible for the creation of the Players' Union in 1907.
39. Frank McAvennie
McAvennie, one of Scottish football’s greatest mavericks, was a busy boy in 1992. The Glasgow-born striker left West Ham in May, joined Aston Villa soon after and somehow also found the time to represent Cliftonville in Northern Ireland and South China in Hong Kong, before moving to Celtic in January 1993.
A heavy drinker and serial womaniser, McAvennie also admitted to taking drugs during his playing career. “I signed for West Ham and money and girls were thrown at me and, hey, who was I to say no?” he once said.
38. Henrik Larsson
Larsson was at his most stylish in his early Celtic years, before he swapped his glorious dreadlocks for a shaved head. He was still a cool customer thereafter, though, as evidenced by his famous celebration. No tongue has been seen as often in Scottish football history.
He later played for Barcelona and had a brief loan spell at Manchester United. “We acquired a real aristocrat," said Alex Ferguson. "On arrival at United, he was a cult figure with our players. They would say his name in awed tones."
37. Taribo West
Even David Beckham didn't try a hairstyle as daring as this. The Nigerian defender sported this unique look at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2000, and he was never averse to mixing things up on his bonce.
West played 42 times for his country, including at the 1998 World Cup. He admitted in 2019 that "sneak[ing] women into the camp" was the reason for the Super Eagles' 4-1 defeat by Denmark.
36. Paul Breitner
Some footballers like to keep their head down off the pitch, subscribing to the maxim that sport and politics don’t mix. Breitner was not one of those footballers.
The former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid man said that Che Guevara’s death had a “great impact” on him and once took a copy of Mao Zedone’s little red book to training, and scolded Bayern – the club for whom he made over 300 appearances across two spells – as a “nouveau riche, money-based aristocracy.”
35. Gabriel Batistuta
The sight of Batistuta performing his iconic machine-gun celebration in a Fiorentina shirt with ‘Nintendo’ written across the chest would be enough to make nostalgia fans weak at the knees.
The Argentinian striker’s long hair, explosive style and eye for goal made him one of the most watchable players of his time – and his astonishing strike rate proved he wasn’t just there to look good.
Batistuta netted double figures in each of his nine Serie A seasons in Florence, before firing in 20 in his debut Roma campaign to win the Scudetto.
34. Dennis Bergkamp
Whether it was plucking a 70-yard pass out of the sky or twisting his way past opposition challenges, Bergkamp made football look effortless. Known as the Iceman for his ability to remain superhumanly calm under pressure, the Arsenal legend was an unruffled genius who always had the ball under his command.
His fear of flying and resolute refusal to even countenance doing so added to the intrigue. “Behind every kick of the ball there has to be a thought,” he once said, neatly summing up his philosophical approach to the game.
33. Len Shackleton
Shackleton’s commitment to entertainment during his career earned him the nickname the “Clown Prince of Soccer”, a moniker the former inside forward wore with pride during the 1940s and 1950s.
The five-time England international was an individualist in a collective game, as demonstrated by antics which included playing one-twos with the corner flag and sitting on the ball after dribbling past defenders. In a match against Arsenal the Sunderland attacker enraged the opposition when he carried the ball into the penalty area, put his foot on top of it and proceeded to comb his hair and check his watch.
32. Frank Worthington
Worthington’s long hair and socks-around-the-ankles look made him one of the most stylish footballers of his era. A journeyman forward who represented no fewer than 24 clubs – including spells in the United States, South Africa and Sweden – Worthington was a great entertainer, all inspiration over perspiration.
The Yorkshireman made no secret of his love of alcohol and women, while his dress sense arguably cost him a more substantial international career. Called up to the England Under-23 squad in the early 1970s, Worthington was promptly sent home when he turned up at Heathrow donning cowboy boots, a silk shirt and a lime velvet jacket.
31. Hristo Stoichkov
Bulgaria’s greatest ever player and one of the most talented footballers to have ever pulled on a Barcelona shirt, the mercurial Stoichkov nonetheless sharply divided opinion due to his arrogance and sense of entitlement.
An unconventional thinker, the former forward later embarked on a coaching career despite professing that he didn’t believe in tactics shortly after taking charge of Celta Vigo. As Bulgaira boss he was known to employ a 2-4-4 formation, which unsurprisingly didn’t catch on.
30. Zvonimir Boban
Boban played for Milan for more than 10 years, won Serie A four times and was a member of the legendary side that demolished Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 Champions League Final. Four years later he was the captain of the Croatian side that came third at the World Cup in France. And yet the first thing everyone remembers about Boban is that he kicked a cop.
When Boban’s Dinamo Zagreb faced bitter rivals Red Star Belgrade in 1990, Yugoslavia was already a dying state, cracking under ethnic tensions. Police stormed the field when fans spilled onto the pitch after an eruption of violence in the stands; when Boban saw an officer hitting a Dynamo fan, he jumped up and kicked him in the chest.
29. Gheorghe Hagi
Romania's greatest ever player was also one of the most naturally gifted in the world in the 1990s. Yet the 'Maradona of the Carpathians' wasn't afraid to get involved in a physical battle: he was once sent off for punching Tony Adams and also enjoyed an early bath on his final appearance for his country.
A temperamental genius, Hagi frequently rebelled - against team-mates, managers, chairmen and (probably) tea ladies).
28. Roberto Baggio
Let’s start with the nickname. Anybody going by ‘the divine ponytail’ deserves your time and attention. But Baggio is much more than a memorable moniker.
A joy to watch, the Italian dragged his country to the final of USA ’94 almost single-handedly before his infamous penalty miss in the ill-fated shootout.
Capable of the spectacular at any moment, the free-scoring Buddhist attracted legions of dedicated followers in the 1990s. Since retiring, he's even won a ‘Man of Peace’ award from the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates for his human rights activism.
Pele was the undisputed star, Carlos Alberto the inspirational captain and Jairzinho the top scorer, but nobody summed up the effortless brilliance and style of Brazil 1970’s ‘Team of the Century’ like Rivellino. There was something about the combination of languid left foot, rolled-down socks and porn-star ’tache that screamed ‘cool’.
In scoring the Selecao’s opening goal of the tournament, a trademark free-kick, Rivellino earned the nickname Patada Atomica (Atomic Kick). Equally famous is his ‘Elastico’ against Italy in the final, a move invented by Corinthians team-mate Sergio Echigo and later popularised by Ronaldinho, but most stylishly done by Rivellino.
26. Craig Johnston
Born in South Africa and raised in Australia, Johnston moved to England to sign for Middlesbrough in his mid-teens, having recovered from a bone infection which almost cost him his leg. The former midfielder spent most of his playing career with Liverpool, where he won five league titles and the European Cup.
The man known as “Skippy” on Merseyside was not one for a shy and retiring life away from the pitch. It was Johnston who wrote Anfield Rap in the run-up to the 1988 FA Cup final, while he later created the prototype for Adidas’ famous Predator boot.
25. Clarence Seedorf
Some of the footballers listed here are known for their chain-smoking, drink-guzzling, womanising lifestyles. Others made the cut for their languid, laid-back style of play.
Seedorf was cool in another way. The former midfielder speaks six languages, including Sranan Tongo, and obtained a master's degree during his time at Milan. The Dutchman simply oozed authority both on and off the pitch.
24. Diego Maradona
There’s certainly a debate to be had as to which diminutive, left-footed Argentinian attacker was better at football. One thing’s for sure, though: Maradona has always been a much more interesting character than the clean-cut, well-behaved Lionel Messi.
Revered in Napoli for his on-field exploits and off-field association with the club’s supporters, Maradona was never far from the headlines, be it with the Hand of God at the 1986 World Cup or his 15-month ban for using cocaine a few years later.
23. Juan Roman Riquelme
Not many football shirts are cooler than a 1990s Boca Juniors effort with ‘Riquelme 10’ plastered across the back.
A classic Argentinian No.10, Riquelme possessed creativity and flair in bucketloads, and just enough inconsistency that you were never quite sure what came next – take note, Lionel.
22. Rene Higuita
Higuita is most famous for his remarkable scorpion kick save against England, but that wasn't the craziest thing he did on a football pitch. A goalkeeper in name only, Higuita took playing from the back to a new level, regularly charging forward to start attacks with some ludicrious dribbles which sometimes carried him all the way to the opposition penalty area.
His daring style proved costly on occasion, most notably when the Colombian was dispossessed by Cameroon's Roger Milla at the 1994 World Cup, but by then it was far too late for the free-kick-taking El Loco to change his ways.
21. Michael Laudrup
How cool was Laudrup? Well, let’s put it this way: he was too cool to play in one of the coolest teams ever, the Danish team that stunned the continent by winning Euro 92. Having fallen out with coach Richard Moller Nielsen during the qualifiers, the attacking midfielder refused the call when Denmark were reinstated as last-minute replacements for Yugoslavia.
The Danish sports writer Jan Kjeldtoft once said Denmark “probably wouldn’t have won the title with him”, because the team’s style was “defending and counter-attacking”. It was another way of saying that the silky-skilled playmaker would rather go down with all guns blazing than win with Nielsen’s defensive tactics.
20. Thierry Henry
Widely considered the greatest Premier League player of all time, Henry somehow managed to be utterly brilliant while making everything look effortless. The Arsenal legend routinely left defenders trailing in his wake without breaking sweat (just ask Jamie Carragher).
Stylish on and off the pitch, Henry oozed charisma and class. “I always said to myself," he said in 2012, "'you shouldn’t panic. You have the ball. Why should you panic? Everybody should panic. Not you.'”
Best known as Brazil's right winger during their triumphant 1970 World Cup campaign, Jairzinho's late club career featured spells in France, South Africa, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Naturally, he later managed in Greece and Gabon.
A quick, skilful and entertaining player, Jairzinho claimed that he was handed FIFA's "best body on the planet" award after Brazil's success in 1970. FIFA has no record of any such prize ever existing.
18. Alessandro Nesta
Nesta transformed defending into an art form. Watching him execute a perfectly-timed slide tackle could be as satisfying as seeing a 30-yard screamer hit the top corner.
What’s not to love? He won the Scudetto (among other things) with boyhood club Lazio, before lifting two Champions League trophies and two more league titles with an AC Milan side that boasted arguably one of the game’s greatest-ever back lines: Cafu, Nesta, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini.
He also lifted the World Cup in 2006, despite his tournament being ruined by injury at the group stage.
17. Zinedine Zidane
A player of style and substance, the French midfield artist perhaps showed a little too much of the latter when he ended his international career by planting his head in Marco Materazzi’s chest during the 2006 World Cup final.
Zidane’s class on the ball was second to none, though, with his creative spark and eye for goal helping France become world and European champions during his time, and his volley at Hampden Park in 2002 providing one of the greatest ever Champions League final goals.
16. Carlos Valderrama
No prizes for guessing what earned Valderrama a place on this list. The former Colombia international sported perhaps the most instantly recognisable hairstyle in footballing history, with his blonde afro and moustache forming a large part of his legend.
He was also a wonderfully gifted player who oozed creativity and was somewhat lacking in speed and stamina. “Often he would do things that most of us only dream about,” Laurent Blanc recalled of his ex-Montpellier team-mate.
15. Lev Yashin
Known variously as the ‘Black Spider’, ‘Black Octopus’ and ‘Black Panther’, it’s that common word, ‘black’, that made Yashin stand out. But the all-black kit, worn to intimidate opponents, was only one of many things that made the Soviet shot-stopper a pioneer. He was, quite simply, the first great modern goalkeeper.
So important was he to club and country, in fact, that the managers of both turned a blind eye to his bad habits, despite banning them among other players. Little wonder. In Yashin’s mind, it was the secret of his success. “The trick,” he once said, “is to smoke a cigarette to calm your nerves and then take a big swig of strong liquor to tone your muscles.” Of course it is.
14. Edgar Davids
With his flowing dreadlocks and protective goggles, Davids is perhaps one of the most recognisable footballers of all time. 'The Pitbull' played for some of the biggest clubs around, including Ajax, Juventus, Barcelona, Milan and Inter.
He also turned out as a left-back for Crystal Palace and, most bizarrely of all, as Barnet's player-manager. Davids certainly did things his way.
13. Ruud Gullit
Just look at those dreadlocks. Gullit wasn't only one of the best players of his generation, he was one of the coolest too. The former Milan midfielder excelled in all areas of the game, regularly running matches and making playing football look like one of the easiest things in the world.
The Dutchman provided the Premier League with a much-needed injection of glamour when he joined Chelsea in 1995. Gullit was initially deployed as a sweeper at Stamford Bridge and despaired when he realised his team-mates weren't on his wavelength. "I'd take a difficult ball, control it, make space and play a good ball in front of the right-back, except that he didn't want that pass," he said later.
Where do you start with Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira? The headband he wore at the 1986 World Cup in tandem with that unmistakable beard would be enough to earn him a place on this list, yet he was also as deep a thinker as the Greek philosopher he was named after; a Van Gogh-referencing, Machiavelli-quoting, John Lennon-loving one-off.
He studied medicine – hence the ‘Doctor’ nickname – yet was a chain smoker and heavy drinker. He campaigned for democracy and against dictatorships, yet named Fidel Castro among his childhood heroes and sympathised with Muammar Gaddafi. He was a devoted husband and father, yet also a self-confessed womaniser. He was simply a walking, talking paradox who always knew his own mind.
11. Xabi Alonso
One of modern football’s most stylish individuals, Alonso oozed class both on and off the pitch. An effortless tempo-setter in the Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich midfields, the Spaniard was always one step ahead of his opponents, breaking sweat even more irregularly than Prince Andrew.
A fan of Leonard Cohen and The Velvet Underground, it’s fair to say that Alonso didn’t share many of his contemporaries’ taste in music. Currently in charge of Real Sociedad’s B team, expect to see the 37-year-old looking extremely dapper on the touchline in the years to come.
Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano once wrote that "in the entire history of football no one made more people happy" than Garrincha. But no one exhibited more joy while playing the game than Garrincha's compatriot, Ronaldinho.
With his buck-toothed grin, baggy Barcelona shirt and long, curly hair, the Brazilian continually reminded fans why they fell in love with football in the first place. His extraordinary footwork and trickery made him the most entertaining player of his generation.
9. Ferenc Puskas
Dubbed ‘the Galloping Major’ due to his rank in the Hungarian Army, the beauty of Puskas (right) was that he rarely got beyond a canter, so good was his reading of the game. Winning trophies and breaking goal records galore for Honved, Real Madrid and his country didn’t get in the way of fondness for the good life, either. According to Scotland legend and drinking partner Jim Baxter, Puskas’ only two words of English were ‘vhisky’ and ‘jiggy-jig’.
This “fat little man” made a mockery of England’s remarks about him in 1953, when his drag-back and finish in Hungary’s seminal 6-3 victory prompted The Times’ Geoffrey Green to describe Three Lions captain Billy Wright as “rushing… like a fire engine going to the wrong fire”.
8. Dimitar Berbatov
Football fans hate lazy players. They want their heroes to leave the pitch drenched in sweat, having proven they’re willing to give their all for the club and the cause. But there's one exception – a moody, mercurial Bulgarian that the Guardian once said “doesn’t play football. He has no interest in it. He is above it.”
You could fill a book explaining Berbatov’s aesthetic appeal, from how nonchalantly he converts the hardest scoring chances (and wastes the most glaring ones) to the fact he looks like Andy Garcia and once admitted: “I’ve studied the way he smokes so I can hold my cigarette in the same way.”
7. Eric Cantona
As irascible as he was talented, run-ins with team-mates, managers and authority meant the fiery Cantona had six clubs between leaving Auxerre in 1988 and joining Manchester United in 1992, by which time his sporadically splendid international career was all but over. Old Trafford – and indeed English football – had never seen the like: the upturned collar, the Gallic swagger, the ability to inspire those around him.
“The place was a frenzy every time he touched the ball,” recalled Alex Ferguson, whose United side won four Premier League titles in five years with the Frenchman pulling the strings. Kung-fu kicks, seagulls, trawlers and a sudden retirement aged 30 seemed only to enhance Cantona’s mythical magnetism.
6. David Ginola
Ginola’s long, flowing locks and dreamy dribbling skills made him one of the Premier League’s great entertainers in the second half of the 1990s.
A footballer who transcended the sport, the Frenchman appeared in countless commercials – including for L’Oreal and Renault – and various TV shows during his playing days. He’s also a keen wine maker, finishing second at the 2008 International Wine Challenge for a product made at his own vineyard.
5. Jay-Jay Okocha
Long before Bolton’s fans had t-shirts made that read ‘Jay-Jay – so good they named him twice’, long before British kids raced onto playgrounds and tried to copy his dummies, flicks and turns, every German boy sat open-mouthed in front of the television and decided they wanted to be like the Nigerian.
Okocha’s Eintracht Frankfurt played Karlsruher in August 1993. With three minutes left the 20-year-old had only Karlsruher’s goalkeeper to beat. Okocha shimmied to his left, feinted to his right, then turned left. Now three defenders blocked his path. Okocha rode a tackle, turned left, feinted right, turned left again and knocked the ball in from 10 yards, through three pairs of legs and past the diving keeper. His name? Oliver Kahn.
4. George Best
There was something distinctly uncool about Best’s demise and passing as a result of alcoholism, but it wasn’t for nothing that he was known as O Quinto Beatle, a name given to him by the Portuguese press in 1966. The Belfast Boy was Britain’s first rock ’n’ roll footballer, combining “feet as sensitive as a pickpocket’s hands” (the Observer) with an unrivalled appetite for excess and variety.
This, after all, was a man who appeared on Top of the Pops, married models and dated Miss Worlds, owned nightclubs and fashion boutiques, went to prison, appeared drunk and lewd on the country’s most-watched chat show, had pop songs and films made in his honour, airports named after him and advertised sausages.
3. Johan Cruyff
Cruyff’s combination of skill, seriousness, smart-thinking and swagger underline why, while his contemporaries Pele and Franz Beckenbauer were merely immortal greats of the game, the Dutchman is iconic. There was an aura of mystery about him that signalled he not only played football much better than anyone else, but also knew more than anyone else.
Cruyff said things nobody had said before and did things nobody had done before – just think of that elegant little move that came to be known as ‘the Cruyff turn’. Being a brooding, enigmatic and groundbreaking genius is all very well, but to become a real icon you also have to look as effortlessly stylish as King Johan while doing it.
2. David Beckham
Beckham was a contradiction of sorts. A celebrity footballer who was widely known even among those without an interest in the game, the former Manchester United, Real Madrid and England midfielder was also one of the hardest workers in each of the teams he represented.
He was also a fashion icon throughout his playing days, with his marriage to Posh Spice and various hairstyles and tattoos ensuring he was a regular in the showbiz as well as sport section of the press.
1. Andrea Pirlo
“One part of my job I’ll never learn to love is the pre-match warm-up. I hate it with every fibre of my being. It actually disgusts me. It’s nothing but masturbation for conditioning coaches.”
So said Andrea Pirlo in his autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play. The Italian playmaker was never one for breaking into a sweat on the pitch, instead exuding effortless elegance as he pinged diagonal balls onto the foot of a team-mate and bent free-kicks into the top corner from 30 yards. Pirlo is one of the coolest players of his generation based on his playing style alone, but his luscious locks and beautiful beard complete the package.
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