Ranked! The 25 best World Cup players EVER
16. Ferenc Puskas
Before Wayne Rooney and David Beckham’s metatarsals, there was Ferenc Puskas’s ankle – a tabloid obsession way back in 1954, when an injury to the Galloping Major threatened the supremacy of Hungary's Magical Magyars. Puskas was their star – although he short and slow, he had a ferocious shot and scored 84 goals in 85 games.
Hungary lost just one game between 1950 and 1956 – unfortunately for them, the World Cup final, when Puskas played through the pain in a shock 3-2 defeat to Germany.
15. Fabio Cannavaro
Paolo Maldini’s shoes are some pretty big ones to fill, but Fabio Cannavaro handled the role with aplomb after taking on the Italy captaincy after the 2002 World Cup. In fact, he outshone his former international teammate in both caps and international honors.
The 2006 World Cup showed the center back at his composed and committed best. Along with Gianluigi Buffon, he was one of only two players to play every minute as Italy went through the whole tournament with only two goals conceded: one an own goal, and the other a penalty. A bewildering stint as a BBC pundit only enhanced his reputation in our eyes.
14. Carlos Alberto
He was the captain of the 1970 Brazil side often called the greatest team in history, but right-back Carlos Alberto is most fondly remembered for one thing, and one thing only. The goal. There’s a tendency to romanticize footage of that era, and in a modern game, a wider camera angle would definitely lessen the impact of the Brazilian charging onto Pele’s languid lay-off to thunder the ball home.
Yet, no matter how many modern screamers we see in glorious high-definition, Carlos Alberto will always be there – thundering down the right wing of our collective memories.
13. Paolo Rossi
There was a lot of weight on Rossi’s shoulders going into the 1982 World Cup. He’d had his three-year ban for match-fixing cut to two years, thus returning conveniently in time to make the squad, but looked out of form and off the pace in the first group stage. Italy labored through, and then when they faced Brazil in the second group stage, everything changed. Rossi scored after five minutes.
“I felt liberated,” he wrote in his autobiography I Made Brazil Cry, “just like when one takes off soaking wet clothes.” Rossi’s eventual hat-trick helped Italy make the semi-finals, and he added two more against Poland, plus a goal in the final against West Germany. He won the Golden Ball, Golden Boot and the Ballon d’Or – not bad for a player who’d started the season with a ban.
12. Lev Yashin
The Russian goalkeeper was one of the stars of the 1958 World Cup; the first to be televised globally. Yashin's habit of dressing entirely in black earned him the nickname ‘The Black Panther’, and he certainly had a knack for pulling off heroic saves. His performance in a 2-0 defeat to eventual winners Brazil captured the world’s attention, and in 1966 he helped the Soviet Union finish fourth – their best ever performance.
He was ahead of his time when it came to organizing a defense, often barking out orders and rushing off his line to close down attacks. He's still the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or (in 1963).
11. Gerd Muller
Germany do a good line in goal-poaching forwards who come alive during tournaments. Before Miroslav Klose there was Gerd Muller, who scored 14 goals in 13 World Cup games and sits behind only Klose and Ronaldo in the all-time rankings. He was short and stocky, but possessed a prodigious leap and the instincts to finish from close range.
At the 1970 World Cup, he banged in two hat-tricks and 10 goals in total to win the Golden Boot. In 1974, he scored the winner to help an unfancied West German side overcome Johan Cruyff’s Holland in a shock final result.
10. Johan Cruyff
One of the few players on this list without a World Cup winner's medal, but that hasn’t tarnished Cruyff’s legacy. The Netherlands had a formidable squad in the Total Football era, but it all seemed to flow through Cruyff - the side’s beating heart. He was technically brilliant and full of imagination – as best evidenced by the eponymous turn with which he fooled Swedish defender Jan Olsson in the group stage (a 0-0 draw, in the end).
Holland romped to the final but got too cocky after going ahead in the second minute. According to football writer Brian Glanville, they were content to "roll the ball about in pretty patterns". That was Cruyff through and through. Although he captured the imagination with his playing style and outspokenness, he was unable to vindicate his brilliance with a World Cup medal – he didn’t appear at another, missing out on 1978 due to a kidnapping attempt on his family.
9. Zinedine Zidane
There’s a general rule of thumb with France in international tournaments: a promising performance where they fulfil their promise will, inevitably, be balanced out by an absolutely insane outing – usually culminating in Patrice Evra getting sent home for fighting. Zinedine Zidane is the living embodiment of that rule. They should name it after him.
In 1998 – after some early controversy and a red card against Saudi Arabia – he stayed cool under pressure and scored twice to help Les Bleus brush Brazil aside in the final. In 2006, he seemed set to repeat the feat: Zidane scored an ice-cold penalty to put the French 1-0 up against Italy, before instigating one of the most dramatic sporting moments of all time; that textbook headbutt on Marco Materazzi. Zizou really could do it all.