The greatest players to ever kick a ball
Ask those who religiously attend the Church of Maradona in Naples who the greatest player in the history of the game is, and the answer will be obvious. Speak to those of a certain age in Brazil and the answer will be very different. Step forward into the modern era and many will find it difficult to comprehend that there has ever been a player capable of doing the things a certain Barcelona player does.
Ascertaining the greatest individual in a team sport seems a futile discussion but it hasn't prevented football fans from debating just that. Whittling down every man to ever kick a ball into the 50 best - and then to put them in order - is something of a thankless task but here it is nonetheless. The 50 greatest footballers in the history of the game.
An era-defining midfielder who was integral to two dominant sides: FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team. At the very heart of the midfield for both club and country, Xavi won everything in the game but his influence on the position he played speaks more of the player he was than the incredible haul of trophies.
His measured, cutting distribution redefined the deep midfield role from one of purely prosaic defensive cover to a more creative, important function as the hub in a more forward-thinking teams.
Career highlight: 2010. A World Cup and La Liga double, but also a place in UEFA’s Team of the Year and third place in the Ballon d’Or voting.
49. Nilton Santos
His knowledge of the game's minutae earned him the nickname 'Enciclopedia do Futebol', but on the field Santos revolutionised his position, demonstrating with devastating ability that the full back could be utilised as both an attacking and defensive outlet.
He was an intrinsic part of one of the greatest ever Brazilian teams when at Botafogo alongside best mate Garrincha and played in no fewer than four World Cups, winning it twice and being named in the All Star Team of the Tournament in ’58.
Career highlight: Take your pick from those World Cup wins in 1958 and 1962.
48. Michael Laudrup
The greatest Danish player of all time, Laudrup was the consummate playmaker. An integral part of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team that won four successive league titles in the 1990s, he turned threaded through-balls into something approaching an art form.
When he upped sticks and made the brave move to Real Madrid, Barcelona’s golden age came to an abrupt halt. He was part of the Barça side that beat Real Madrid 5-0 in January 1993; a year later, following his transfer between the two clubs, Madrid beat Barcelona by the same scoreline with Laudrup pulling the strings. Andres Iniesta reckons he’s “the best player in history”; Raul calls him “the best I’ve ever played with”. Think about that for a minute.
Career highlight: Lifting the European Cup at Wembley in 1992, the zenith of the Dream Team’s four-year spell of dominance.
The inventor of the Elastico (flip-flap) and wearer of the most famous moustache in Brazilian football, Roberto Rivellino was a key part of arguably the greatest team of all time – the Brazil side of 1970. En route to winning the World Cup, Rivelino scored three goals, including a thunderbolt of a free kick against Czechoslovakia that earned him the nickname ‘Atomic Kick’ from the enamoured Mexican supporters. He was named in the All Star Team of the Tournament alongside the likes of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Bobby Charlton. He went on to represent Brazil at two more World Cups in 1974 and ’78.
Career highlight: That 1970 World Cup win, and particularly that stunning goal against Czechoslovakia.
46. Juan Alberto Schiaffino
Slender and technical with a beautiful touch, ‘Pepe’ joined AC Milan for a then world record fee in 1954 following eight successful years with Penarol in his native Montevideo. That summer he helped Uruguay to fourth place in the World Cup before going on to represent the Italian national team under an early grandparent ruling.
However, the defining moment of his career came at the 1950 World Cup. Having scored a couple for Uruguay in the 8-0 drubbing of fellow South Americans Bolivia in the first group stage, Schiaffino netted the equaliser in the tournament's final game – against Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. With the unheralded visitors going on to win, the game became known as the Maracanazo and still sends a shudder down Brazilian spines, nearly seven decades on.
Career highlight: Despite four Uruguayan league titles and three Scudetti with Milan, Schiaffino goes down in history for his part in Brazil’s downfall – and tiny Uruguay's second global triumph.
45. Oleg Blokhin
Winner of the 1975 Ballon d’Or, Blokhin was a prolific striker who won six league titles with Dynamo Kiev and was capped 112 times by the USSR. Fast and skillful, he was unstoppable when running at defenders at full speed and his combination of those physical attributes with brilliant positional play made him a prolific goalscorer for club and country.
He made his debut at 17 and became a star under Valeri Lobanovsky at Dynamo, scoring 266 goals in all competitions for his hometown club. Those goals helped Dynamo become the first Soviet club to win a European trophy (the Cup Winners’ Cup) in 1975 – a feat they repeated 11 years later. Blokhin scored in both finals.
Career highlight: Blokhin was absolutely supreme in the 1975 European Super Cup, scoring all three goals as the Ukrainians won 1-0 away and 2-0 at home against a Bayern Munich side stuffed with World Cup winners who were on a run of three successive European Cup triumphs.
“I'm nothing compared to Didi. I'll never be anywhere near as good as he is. He's my idol; he's the guy I look up to. The very first picture cards I bought were of him,” said Pele – high praise indeed from another of the game’s true greats. The 'Ethiopian Prince' was a key part of the squads that won two World Cups, winning the Golden Ball as the best player as Brazil took their first ever title in Sweden in 1958.
Didi was a free-kick specialist and pioneer of the ‘folha seca’ (English, ‘dry leaf’) style of striking a dead ball – where the ball is struck in such a manner than it dips late – emulated since by the likes of Juninho Pernambucano and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Career highlight: Of his two World Cup wins, he was most influential in the 1958 tournament for which he was retrospectively named Best Player.
43. Fritz Walter
Walter was a one-club man, playing his entire career with his beloved Kaiserslautern where he averaged almost a goal a game – an astonishing record considering he played mostly as a midfielder. He stayed with his hometown club despite receiving tempting and lucrative offers from abroad.
He made his debut for the national team in 1940 – scoring a hat-trick against Romania in a 9-3 win – before being called up for military service. Following the end of hostilities and resumption of international football, Walter captained the West Germany team that beat the Magical Magyars in the World Cup Final in 1954, a remarkable result considering Hungary had beaten the Germans 8-3 in the group stage just two weeks before.
Career highlight: Walter was magnificent in West Germany's sensational 3-2 win over Hungary in the 1954 World Cup Final, and had a hand in two goals.
42. Matthias Sindelar
The heartbeat of the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s, Sindelar was nicknamed the Mozart of Football. Imaginative, inventive and supremely skillful, he was the creative force and captain of that wonderful Austria team coached by Hugo Meisl, scoring 26 goals in 43 matches.
He was equally important at club level, leading Austria Vienna to a league title and lifting five cups as captain. Sindelar made his political views known too, wildly celebrating his goal for Austria against Germany in 1938, in the 2-0 win right before Anschluss (the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany). His mysterious death at the age of 35 only added to the myth around the man.
Career highlight: Sindelar captained Austria as they reached the semi-finals of the 1934 World Cup in Italy, where the hosts controversially beat them.
41. Gianluigi Buffon
Some players wind down toward the end of their careers. Buffon, who turned 40 in January, has captained Juventus to five Scudetti and two Champions League finals in the last five seasons. Not only has the World Cup-winning ‘keeper managed to continue playing long after most goalkeepers have hung up their gloves, he has been able to do so with little discernible drop in quality.
Touted as the heir to the great Dino Zoff as a youngster, he has fulfilled that potential and even surpassed expectations – those two stand alone as the only goalkeepers to feature on the Ballon d’Or podium in the last half-century.
Career highlight: That World Cup win in Germany in 2006 – earning the best goalkeeper award in the process.
40. Kenny Dalglish
By the time ‘King Kenny’ headed south to join Bob Paisley’s Liverpool, his legacy in Scotland was already secure. His 167 goals in little over 300 matches for the Bhoys fired Celtic to four league titles (including three Doubles) before he replaced Kevin Keegan – even taking his No.7 shirt – at Anfield in the summer of 1977.
His fondness for silverware continued in England. He joined the Reds near the beginning of their greatest ever spell, quickly amassing six league titles, three European Cups and a whole bevvy of other trophies – before adding another three First Division titles as manager. On top of the team honours, he became the first player to score 100 goals in both the English and Scottish leagues.
Career highlight: Dalglish’s calm chip to win the 1978 European Cup Final against Bruges demonstrated there was no more composed finisher in the game.
39. Nandor Hidegkuti
Part of the Magical Magyar side of the 1950s, Hidegkuti was a pioneering footballer of rare qualities. One of the first ‘false nines’ in history, Hidegkuti was a prolific goalscorer and a creative force at the same time, able to organise the game and play delightful through-balls to his team-mates.
As part of the golden Hungarian team that boasted the likes of Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Zoltan Czibor, Hidegkuti was one of the more influential players in the run to the World Cup final of 1954 – a game they should have won.
Career highlight: Hidegkuti scored within the first minute and went on to complete a hat-trick in the so-called Match of the Century – Hungary's 6-3 win over England at Wembley in November 1953.
38. Gianni Rivera
Ahead of Mexico 70, the normally reticent Alf Ramsey’s response to being asked to name Italy’s four best players was ‘Rivera, Rivera, Rivera, Rivera’. The World Cup-winning coach’s reaction spoke volumes about the aura surrounding Milan’s ‘Golden Boy’, who racked up an incredible 501 appearances for the Rossoneri between 1960 and 1979.
Not that he was universally loved in Italy; controversial writer Gianni Brera labelled him abatino (young priest), implying that he was a luxury player with an aversion to physical battles. That didn't prevent a string of Milan managers building their teams around him.
Career highlight: "It was as easy for him as if he were serving me tea," gushed Milan striker Jose Altafini after Rivera had provided him with assists in Milan's triumphant 1963 European Cup Final against Benfica.
37. Ruud Gullit
Gullit had it all. The Dutchman was a supreme technician, impossibly elegant, physically superior and as tactically versatile as they come. Early in his career he played as a sweeper for Feyenoord before moving to PSV where he scored 46 goals in 68 league appearances from midfield. At Milan he was used on the right of a front three and in the hole. At Chelsea, he was named runner-up in the player of the year awards as a box-to-box midfielder or roving sweeper.
He is most remembered as an integral part of Arrigo Sacchi’s history-making Milan side of the late 80s and early 90s, helping the Rossoneri to three Serie A titles and back-to-back European Cups alongside Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Franco Baresi and a host of other wonderful players.
Career highlight: Winning the 1987 Ballon d’Or – and the European Championships the following summer.
36. Paco Gento
Left winger Gento departed local club Racing Santander for the capital in 1953 as a 19-year-old after just a handful of matches. When he retired from the game in 1971, he had won a record 12 La Liga titles and six European Cups with Real Madrid, going down in history as one of the game’s greatest players.
A lightning-quick and fleet-footed creative force, he scored his fair share of goals at club and international level too, winning 43 caps for the national side.
Career highlight: A veteran Gento captained Madrid to victory against Partizan Belgrade in the 1966 European Cup Final. Even the normally hostile Catalan paper La Vanguardia gushed: “Paco Gento embodies the old guard, the glory days.”
35. Luis Suarez
Nicknamed ‘the Architecht’, Suarez is still considered by many as the greatest player Spain has ever produced. The only Spanish-born player to win the Ballon d’Or, Luisito was unfathomably booed by the Camp Nou for taking the place of crowd favourite Ladislao Kubala. After legendary coach Helenio Herrera moved from the Catalan side to Inter, Suarez joined the Nerazzurri for a then world-record fee in 1961.
Their partnership blossomed and it was at the San Siro where Suarez confirmed his legend, winning back-to-back European Cups in 1964 and 1965, plus Euro 64 with Spain.
Career highlight: In 1964, Suarez became the first Spaniard to win the European Cup and European Championship in the same summer. Juan Mata and Fernando Torres joined him in 2012.
34. Stanley Matthews
Sir Stanley remains arguably the most entertaining footballer England has ever produced. ‘The Wizard of Dribble’ enjoyed a 30-year professional career with hometown club Stoke City and Blackpool, and was knighted for his services to the game. Matthews made nearly 800 appearances at club level and was capped 54 times by England over 23 years either side of World War Two.
He won the inaugural Ballon d’Or in 1956 and remains the oldest player to play top-division football in England, retiring at the age of 50 in 1965.
Career highlight: The 1953 FA Cup showpiece wasn't known for long as the ‘Coronation Cup Final’; after the winger's showstopping display earned him his only career medal, it became forever the Matthews Final.
33. Gunter Netzer
A playmaker of supreme elegance, Netzer was known for his pinpoint passing. He led the brilliant Borussia Monchengladbach side of the early-70s to two Bundesliga titles and the final of the UEFA Cup before controversially moving to Real Madrid in 1973, where he picked up two more league championship trophies.
His move to the Spanish giants wasn’t without its downside, though. Netzer saw his chances with the national team limited: despite making the Euro 72 team of the tournament, he only played 21 tournament minutes during the World Cup win two years later.
Netzer was the star of the show as West Germany were crowned European champions in 1972, and was especially brilliant in the 3-1 win over England at Wembley. That year he was Franz Beckenbauer's runner-up in the Ballon d'Or.
32. Paolo Rossi
Rossi’s career, like his World Cup in 1982, started slowing before building to an incredible, trophy-laden conclusion. He struggled to break into the first team at Juventus in his first spell with the Old Lady, and made his name with Vicenza and Perugia before moving back to Turin in 1981. Diminutive in stature, Rossi was a ruthless finisher and intelligent striker adept at finding space where there seemingly was none.
Despite missing out on Euro 80 while serving a ban for his alleged involvement in a betting scandal at Perugia, he was happily signed by Juventus – and repaid them with goals, firing them to two Scudetti, a Cup Winners’ Cup and the European Cup.
Career highlight: The Spain 82 triumph, including a hat-trick in a 3-2 win over favourites Brazil.
31. Juan Manuel Moreno
Moreno was the first footballer to win a league title in four different countries – and the last until Jiri Jarosik 50 years later. He was the complete forward, boasting excellent technique, physical strength and great vision – and led River Plate to six national titles before going on to win league championships in Mexico, Chile and Colombia.
A striker of supreme talent, Moreno was linchpin of the fabled La Maquina. This great River side of the 1940s were hugely important to the tactical development of the game in South America and beyond: they were the first team to frequently exchange positions in attack.
Career highlight: Moreno represented Argentina at four Copas America, leading them glory in 1941 and 1947.
30. Lothar Matthaus
Matthaus was a midfielder of rare talent, able to combine ferocity and finesse without compromising on either. With 150 caps, he is Germany’s all-time most-capped footballer and lifted the World Cup as captain, beating Argentina in the Italia 90 final. His opposite skipper that day, Diego Maradona, described him as the toughest opponent he ever faced.
His heyday was as the poster-boy of the Germanic domination of European football in the late 1980s and early '90s, during which time he helped himself to 13 major club trophies, World Cup and European Championship medals, plus – to cap it all off – the Ballon d’Or in 1990.
Career highlight: Captaining an unstoppable West Germany side to victory at Italia 90, getting the ball rolling himself with two sumptuous individual goals against Yugoslavia in the opening game.
29. Raymond Kopa
Kopa spent three seasons at Real Madrid – winning three European Cups and two league titles playing alongside Puskas, Di Stefano and Gento. Remarkably, he was on the podium for the Ballon d’Or in each of those seasons, winning it in 1958.
Either side of that spell with the Spanish giants, the agile and lithe playmaker with an eye for goal enjoyed two trophy-laden spells with Stade de Reims, winning four league titles playing with Just Fontaine and Roger Piantoni.
Career highlight: Kopa had the honour of becoming the first Frenchman to ever lift the European Cup when Real defeated Fiorentina in the 1957 final.
In addition to being a freethinking footballing icon, Socrates was a paediatrician and co-founded the Corinthian Democracy movement in direct opposition to the ruling military junta in Brazil.
Such was his skill at back-heeling a ball, Pele once said that Socrates was better going backwards than most players were going forwards. He was incredibly gifted, capable of reading the game quicker than anyone else on the pitch and captained one of the greatest international sides in history – the Brazil of 1982.
Career highlight: This intellectual footballer defined an entire generation in Brazil with his performances at 1982 and 1986 World Cups.
27. Bobby Moore
The ultimate icon of English football, Sir Bobby Moore continues to stand proud outside Wembley Stadium 25 years after his death. He captained West Ham for over a decade, lifting the FA Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup in the two seasons prior to his – and English football’s – greatest moment, lifting the Jules Rimet trophy at the home of football in 1966.
A classy centre-back referred to by Pele as the best defender he ever faced, Moore was also renowned as a gentleman of the game and remains the gauge by which all England defenders are measured. It is to Moore’s immense credit that those who knew him speak of him as a man above all else.
Career highlight: Collecting the World Cup from Her Majesty the Queen in 1966 (having wiped his hands first on the velvet tablecloth, naturally).
26. Valentino Mazzola
The captain of the fabled Grande Torino side that perished in the 1949 Superga air disaster, he led Il Toro to five consecutive championships scoring 102 goals from central midfield along the way. Italian journalist Nino Nutrizio described Mazzola as “Captain Valentino… inspired, eccentric, spoilt, talkative, surly."
An intensely private man but well aware of his own value, Mazzola frequently asked for more money and fell out regularly with team-mates, but the club president invariably backed his captain – basically because he was priceless. In return, Mazzola named his second son Ferruccio after the president.
Career highlight: Using his prodigious heading ability to great effect, he scored an outstanding 29 goals from central midfield in 1946/47, eight more than anyone else.
25. Carlos Alberto
Carlos Alberto was named in the preliminary squad for the 1966 World Cup but didn’t make the final 22. Following Brazil’s elimination in the group stage in England, new boss Joao Saldanha made him captain. He further developed – perfected, even – the tradition of the attacking full-back started by Nilton Santos a generation before as Brazil went on to lift the World Cup in 1970, finishing arguably the best goal the tournament has ever seen in the final against Italy.
Carlos Alberto also enjoyed success along with Pele at Santos, where he spent eight years and celebrated two Brazilian championships with five Sao Paulo State titles, and enjoyed further success in the NASL with New York Cosmos, playing alongside his friend, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia.
Career highlight: His triumphant finish to the closing goal of Mexico 70 – a superb team goal from perhaps the greatest side ever assembled.
Ronaldinho was the best player on the planet in the mid-2000s and routinely made the outrageous look easy. He was twice named FIFA World Player of the Year and led Barcelona to a couple of league titles and a Champions League victory in the five seasons he spent in Catalonia – all while Real Madrid were at the height of the Galactico era.
Possibly even more impressive than his enviable trophy haul was the smile he wore whilst playing – a man for whom football was a game to be enjoyed above all else. He would later emulate his best days at Atletico Mineiro in their victorious Copa Libertadores campaign.
Won the 2002 World Cup as part a formidable trio with Ronaldo and Rivaldo dubbed by Brazilian commentator Galvao Bueno as ‘the three Rs’.
A prolific goalscorer who possessed blistering speed and incredible athleticism, Eusebio was a player well ahead of his time and is universally acclaimed as the greatest African-born footballer in the history of the sport. Leaving his native Mozambique in the late 1950s to join Benfica, between 1960 and 1975 he won a European Cup and 11 Primeira Liga championships, averaging more than a goal per game over six different seasons.
He won the Golden Boot at the 1966 World Cup and was undoubtedly the national team’s greatest ever player until the ascension of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Career highlight: Winning the Ballon d’Or in 1965 ahead of Inter greats Giacinto Facchetti and Luis Suarez.
22. Lev Yashin
Yashin spent his entire 20-year career with Dynamo Moscow and, so legend has it, saved more than 150 penalties. He led Dynamo to five Soviet titles and three Cups, won gold at the 1956 Olympic Games and lifted the inaugural European Championship title in 1960.
To this day, he is still the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or and was universally admired even at the height of the Cold War. Dressed head to toe in black, Yashin was the most imposing and controlled of goalkeepers, rushing off his line to intercept marauding forwards, heading the ball away and barking instructions at his defenders.
Career highlight: Yashin played in three World Cups for the Soviet Union, but he also had the honour of helping them to win the inaugural European Championship in 1960.
Romario was prolific wherever he played. Such was his supreme self-confidence, Louis van Gaal once said, “If he saw I was a bit more nervous than usual ahead of a big game, he’d come to me and say, ‘take it easy, coach, I’m going to score and we’re going to win.’” According to the Dutchman, eight times out of 10 it happened the way Romario said it would.
The Brazilian was utterly ruthless in front of goal, combining dazzling skill and almost magnetic close control; when one-on-one with the goalkeeper there was only one winner. His record for Brazil is superb – his 55 goals in just 70 games puts him behind only Pele and Ronaldo in the list of the Selecao’s highest scorers.
Career highlight: Player of the tournament at USA 94, Romario bagged five in seven for a Brazil side who relied upon his cutting edge.
20. Paolo Maldini
The only defensive position Maldini hardly ever occupied was right-back – despite it being where he started out playing. Having broken into the Milan side at 16 years old in January 1985, Maldini hung up his boots in May 2009 following more than 1000 matches for club and country in his near 25-year career.
He won seven Scudetti and a remarkable five European Cup/Champions League trophies. When he retired, Milan retired his No.3 shirt – which will only ever be worn again if one of his sons plays for the Rossoneri.
Career highlight: Maldini was part of not just one but two of the all-time great defensive partnerships, with Franco Baresi and then Alessandro Nesta. It was his achievements alongside the former with an unbeaten title-winning campaign, that arguably rank at the top of a remarkable CV.
19. Bobby Charlton
Charlton will forever be remembered for two Wembley wins: the 1966 World Cup with England and the 1968 European Cup with Manchester United. Having survived the Munich air disaster that took the lives of so many of his team-mates and friends, Charlton’s achievements in the game feel even more special.
England badly needed his two goals in their semi-final against a Eusebio-inspired Portugal, and his 49 international strikes remained the benchmark for almost half a century. As for United, he's still there, watching every game.
As proud an Englishman as he was, Charlton would be most pleased with United's European Cup final triumph – in which he played a typically pivotal role.
18. Giuseppe Meazza
The bloke after whom the San Siro is officially named. Italy coach Vittorio Pozzo said of Meazza, "To have him in your team meant to start 1-0 up". Rejected by Milan at the age of 13 for being too skinny, he was picked up by cross-city rivals Inter. He repaid them by delivering three national titles and played a key role in two World Cup wins for the Italian national side, including the controversial 1934 tournament hosted by Mussolini’s fascist regime.
Inter fans who'd worshipped him between 1927 and 1940 were furious when he briefly played for deadly rivals Milan during the Second World War; some never forgave him despite his return to remain a part of Inter until his death in 1979.
Career highlight: Meazza scored twice in four minutes against England in the infamous ‘Battle of Highbury’ just after the 1934 World Cup. For the rest of his life, he regretted not completing his hat-trick.
17. Gerd Muller
All he did was score goals. Muller wasn’t particularly quick or physically imposing, nor was he the best technician the game has ever seen, but he was blessed with one of those uncoachable talents – instinct. He scored an astonishing 365 goals in 427 Bundesliga matches, including 40 in 1971/72. He followed that prolific season by notching an incredible 67 goals in 49 games in all competitions the next. He won four Bundesliga titles and found the net in two of the three European Cup finals Bayern won between 1974 and 1976.
He was even more deadly at international level, winning the European Championship in 1972 and the World Cup two years later. When he retired from the national team in 1974, he’d scored 68 goals in 62 matches.
Career highlight: Holland clearly deserved to lift the 1974 World Cup, but Muller was the man who scored the only goal from open play in the final to win it for West Germany.
The greatest Brazilian never to win a World Cup. “The one player that came closest to me in playing style was Zico,” enthused Pele. Zico was the heartbeat of one of history's most entertaining teams when he captained his country at Spain 82.
He scored 333 goals at the famous Maracana stadium alone and guided Flamengo to three league titles, one Copa Libertadores and an Intercontinental Cup in 1981. He was named man of the match following a sensational individual performance helping Flamengo to annihilate Liverpool 3-0 in Tokyo.
Career highlight: Zico is regarded as the first Brazilian ace to have moved to European football, when he signed for Udinese in 1983 despite offers from Roma and Milan.
15. Franco Baresi
Baresi won six Serie A titles – his first at 18 years old and his last at 36. He captained Arrigo Sacchi’s magnificent side of the late 80s and early 90s that won consecutive European Cups and another four years later. At one of European football’s greatest clubs, the supporters voted him as their player of the century in 1999. He wore Milan's armband for no fewer than 15 seasons.
His ability to nullify the world’s best attackers and switch from defence to attack in an instant drew comparisons with Franz Beckenbauer. He was the most important part of arguably the best defence the game has ever seen – Baresi, Maldini, Costacurta and Tassotti.
Career highlight: In the November 1989 Milan derby, Baresi played over an hour with a broken arm after a kick from Jurgen Klinsmann of Inter. Milan won 3-0.
14. George Best
Pele once described Belfast boy Best as "the greatest footballer in the world", but his irrefutable talents were tempered by his well-documented vices. "If I'd been ugly," he once said, "you'd never have heard of Pele.” Although that may be a stretch, it was an acknowledgment that his career wasn’t quite the success it could have been due to his carousing and womanising.
The greatest achievements of his career all came before his 23rd birthday, with his 32 goals in 53 games in the 1967/68 helping United to with the European Cup and Best the Ballon d’Or – joining the other two of United’s ‘Holy Trinity’, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, who won it in 1964 and 1966 respectively.
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.
13. Marco van Basten
Van Basten was a supreme striker, perhaps the most complete in the history of the game. He scored 301 goals and won two European Cups, 14 domestic trophies and three Ballons d’Or. It's an incredibly impressive haul, but doubly so considering that injury curtailed his career – he played his last game at just 28 years old.
He averaged almost a goal a game in his first six seasons at Ajax and, following his move to Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, scored the goals that saw the Rossoneri win the European Cup in successive seasons as they dominated at home and abroad.
Career highlight: There’s no debate. That magisterial swing of his right boot in Munich to send the ball arcing perfectly over Rinat Dasayev, delivering the Netherlands’ one and only international trophy at Euro 88.
12. Michel Platini
Playing between the lines decades before it was de rigueur, Platini was an elegant, graceful second striker or attacking midfielder with an eye for goal and a winning mentality that ensured he excelled wherever he played. He was absolutely sensational at Euro 84, where his nine goals in five matches – including hat-tricks against Yugoslavia and Belgium – delivered the trophy for France on home soil.
He was peerless in the mid-1980s, winning the Ballon d’Or three times while at Juventus and scoring the winner in the tragic 1985 European Cup Final against Liverpool.
Career highlight: Platini considered France’s 3-2 semi-final win against Portugal at Euro 84 as the best game he played in. He scored the dramatic extra-time winner after 119 minutes.
Following an injury to Pele against Czechoslovakia in the 1962 World Cup second round, Brazil's hopes seemed all but gone. Fifteen days later, they retained their title and Garrincha had been awarded the Golden Ball for best player, the Golden Boot for top goalscorer and was named in the team of the tournament.
If Pele was the best player Brazil ever produced, Garrincha – born with a bent spine and his left leg 6cm longer than his right – was his countrymen’s favourite. Named Alegria do Povo (the Joy of the People), his life was cut short at the age of 49 following a long struggle with alcoholism – but he will never be forgotten.
Career highlight: He won World Cups in 1958 and 1962 but it was at the latter tournament in Chile where he played his best football and was at his most influential.
Blisteringly quick, physically brutish but technically superior, Ronaldo was one of the most complete and devastating attackers in the history of football. His solitary season at Barcelona was astonishing. 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. He was just 19 when he joined the Barca.
He won the Golden Ball as best player at the World Cup in France in 1998 but a seizure before the final saw him ‘sleepwalk’ through the match as France won 3-0. Serious injuries followed while at Inter but he came back to lead Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002.
Career highlight: His brace in the 2002 World Cup Final for Brazil against Germany sealed one of the game’s greatest comeback tales.
9. Ferenc Puskas
The Galloping Major enjoyed a career playing for one of the greatest club sides and one of the all-time great national teams the game has ever produced. At club level he starred for the all-conquering Real Madrid side of the 1950s, winning the three European Cups – scoring four goals in the final at Hampden Park against Frankfurt – and five La Liga titles.
Internationally he starred for the Hungary team that won Olympic gold at the 1952 Games, stunned England 6-3 at Wembley and reached the final of the World Cup in 1954, where they were controversially beaten by West Germany in the game that became known as the Miracle of Bern. Puskas was awarded the Golden Ball for best player at the tournament.
Career highlight: In his only European Cup final, at Hampden Park in 1960, Puskas scored four goals as Madrid crushed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3.
8. Zinedine Zidane
As artistic as any luxury player but with a ruthless efficiency, ‘Zizou’ was equal parts throwback No.10 and modern midfield creator. With impeccable vision, elegance, control and technique, he shone for both club and country.
When France won the 1998 World Cup, he scored two in the final; when they won Euro 2000, he scored the extra-time semi-final winner and was named player of the tournament. His club career was summarised by the Champions League-winning goal in 2002: other-worldly awareness combined with breathtaking ability.
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7. Franz Beckenbauer
Der Kaiser, like many of the truly greatest footballers ever, was capable of playing in multiple positions. He started out as a forward, made his debut at Bayern on the wing but really shone at centre-back, where he is credited with reinventing the sweeper role.
He was renowned for his elegance and leadership on the pitch and entirely nullified Bobby Charlton in the 1966 World Cup Final. He lost that day but Beckenbauer lifted the trophy eight years later in what was arguably his most successful season, having led Bayern to a Bundesliga and European Cup double.
Following his retirement from playing he coached Germany to another World Cup win in 1990, joining Brazilian great Mario Zagallo as the only men to do so.
Career highlight: At Hampden Park in 1976, Beckenbauer captained Bayern on the night they completed a hat-trick of European Cup victories.
6. Alfredo Di Stefano
The Blond Arrow can count Ferenc Puskas, Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Charlton among his biggest fans – with the latter two saying he was the best all-round player they’d ever seen. Di Stefano started out in his native Buenos Aires with River, leading them to a couple of league titles before moving to Millonarios in Colombia, where he helped the club to three championships.
He arrived in Europe with Real Madrid in 1953 at the beginning of the greatest spell in their history. Before he left the Spanish capital for Espanyol in 1964, he’d won five European Cups (scoring in all five finals) and eight Liga titles, picking up a couple of Ballons d’Or along the way. In 1989 France Football awarded him the Super Ballon d’Or, beating Cruyff and Platini to the honour.
Career highlight: Di Stefano netted a hat-trick in Real Madrid’s astonishing 7-3 annihilation of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup Final.
5. Cristiano Ronaldo
Europe’s greatest ever goalscorer and a five-time Ballon d’Or winner, Ronaldo isn’t close to being finished yet. Along with Lionel Messi, his goalscoring exploits have made a mockery of those who have come before, and he's set enough career records to fill a book: all-time top scorer for Real Madrid and Portugal, all-time top scorer in the Champions League and across all five top European leagues – records that he will be determined to extende.
Sir Alex Ferguson said he had never coached a more talented player, but talent alone isn’t what makes Ronaldo worthy of his position in this list. His mental strength, discipline, instinctive finishing, dead-ball prowess and unrivalled focus elevate him above and beyond the vast majority.
Career highlight: In 2008, a towering Ronaldo header helped Manchester United to the Champions League title, leading him to his lifelong goal of being voted the best player in the world.
4. Johan Cruyff
Cruyff’s exploits on the pitch tell only half the story of his influence on the game of football. It was Cruyff’s ideas on the game that changed the sport as we know it. With Rinus Michels, he invented Total Football and his legacy is still visible in the sensational Barcelona team of recent seasons and the sides of his disciples around the world, most notably Pep Guardiola.
As a player, Cruyff led Ajax to eight league titles and three European Cups in two spells with his hometown club. He briefly retired at 31-years-old but came back to play in the NASL and returned to Ajax – duly delivering a league and cup Double. Irked by the Amsterdammers’ decision not to extend his contract, Cruyff signed for Feyenoord and won the Double there, too.
Career highlight: That turn, at the 1974 World Cup against Sweden.
Pele signed professional terms with Santos in June 1956 and made his debut that September, immediately scoring the first of 1283 career goals. Within 10 months he had been called up for the national team, and at the age of 17 he'd scored a hat-trick in the World Cup semi-finals and twice in the final as Brazil lifted their first Jules Rimet trophy.
The most complete footballer the world has ever produced won a further two World Cups in a glittering career that saw him find the net for Brazil 77 times in 92 internationals. As Johan Cruyff enthused, “Pele was the only player who surpassed the boundaries of logic.”
Career highlight: On 19 November 1969 at the Maracana, Pele scored his 1,000th goal from a penalty – despite often giving team-mates the chance to take them, saying they were “a cowardly way to score”.
2. Lionel Messi
Messi is the top scorer in La Liga history, for the Argentinian national team and for Barcelona. He scored 91 goals in a calendar year in 2012. He’s won a joint-record five Ballons d’Or. To date, he has won no fewer than 30 club trophies. This incredible haul is testament to Messi’s greatness but at the same time an entirely unsatisfactory method of trying to sum up his enormity.
He has taken goalscoring to new levels, making a mockery of the old ‘one-in-two’ yardstick of judging whether a striker is prolific. But, again, this isn’t enough. His jaw-dropping goals tally pales in comparison to the beauty with which he scores them, to the mesmerising ability he displays with unrelenting consistency and to the breath-taking way he controls the game.
Career highlight: Days after criticism of his aerial game, Messi steered a looping header over Edwin van der Sar that sealed Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League Final.
1. Diego Maradona
Maradona made his debut for Argentinos Juniors 10 days before his 16th birthday. Five years and 115 goals later, he joined the club he always wanted to play for, Boca Juniors, leading the Xeneizes to the title in the one season he played at the Bombonera before departing for Barcelona after the 1982 World Cup.
A tumultuous two-year spell in Catalonia punctuated by illness and injury – and a mass brawl in his final game – ended with another record move, this time to Serie A side Napoli. The Partenopei had never come close to being champions of Italy but such was Maradona’s brilliance that he led them to two Scudetti and a UEFA Cup in his seven years in Naples.
Just as he inspired Napoli to greatness beyond their natural level, he did so with Argentina at the World Cup in 1986. In retrospect and in truth, most of his team-mates were merely adequate. Never again has one man dragged a team to such an important triumph through individual brilliance – and it may never happen again.
Career highlight: Scoring the Goal of the Century en route to World Cup glory in 1986. Mortals just shouldn’t be able to do that.