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10 greatest Brazilian footballers of all time

Brazil
Brazil's FIFA World Cup winning squad in 2002
ritabratadobe
ANALYST
Modified 28 Apr 2020
Top 5 / Top 10
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Football is ‘the beautiful game’ for several reasons. If one were to make a list as to which aspects football trumps other sports in, the list would be endless. Since the inception of FIFA, the world has been given many moments of pure unadulterated joy coupled with moments of heartbreak thanks to the sport.

Brazil has been the reason behind most of the beauty in the beautiful game. While they might have fallen on hard times recently, Brazil still commands a sizeable fan following across the globe because of the players they have produced over the ages.

Here we take a look at the top 10 players to have worn the canary yellow over the years.


10. Jairzinho

The Hurricane of the 70’s
The Hurricane of the 70’s

Nicknamed ‘The Hurricane’ Jairzinho terrorised defenders down the right flank, during the Brazilian national team’s heyday in 1970. The legendary all-conquering Brazil team, which played in the 1970 World Cup, is widely regarded by many as the greatest international football team to have graced the game.

Jairzinho was an integral part of that team, and he also created a unique record during the tournament, having scored in every match Brazil played in the tournament. This is a unique record shared by him with Alcides Ghiggia. World Soccer Magazine’s list of 100 greatest players of the 20th Century put him at number 27, one ahead of Zinedine Zidane.

He idolised Garrincha during his youth, and emulated the iconic winger’s career graph. He was, in many ways, a direct replacement for Garrincha in the national team as well as at Botafogo, where he played for 11 years.

‘The Hurricane’ made his professional debut aged just 15, as a striker. His idol Garrincha was mesmerizing crowds down the right wing for Botafogo, and that meant Jairzinho had to play as a striker or down the left. However, once Garrincha stopped playing, Jairzinho took over the mantle and destroyed many a defence with his phenomenal speed and ball control.

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Jairzinho was the supply line for Pele for many years in the Brazilian setup, and his speed and guile was a significant factor that contributed to Brazil’s success in the 1970 World Cup.


9. Ronaldinho

Ronaldinho never really matched his club form in international colours
Ronaldinho never really matched his club form in international colours

For many, the period from 2005-2008 was the period during which Ronaldinho was the king of football. There was nothing he could do wrong on the football pitch. His performances for Barcelona during that time is the stuff of footballing folklore, and he had the world at his feet with his mesmerizing ball control and dribbling ability.

However, his performances for Brazil were quite a few notches below his performances for Barcelona, and that is why he turns up at number 8 on our list.

Ronaldinho burst into the limelight during the 2002 World Cup, which Brazil won quite emphatically. The last Brazilian team which stayed true to the ideals of Samba football, the team boasting the likes of Rivaldo, Juninho, Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho cruised to the trophy.

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Ronaldinho was a relatively unknown entity till then, and he went under the radar during the initial stages of the tournament. However, a sublime free-kick during the quarter-finals against England, where he caught the England custodian David Seaman off his line from the halfway mark, propelled Ronaldinho into the limelight and he didn’t look back ever since.

His greatest regret will be a sub-par finish at the 2006 World Cup, where he was tipped to be the star of the showpiece.


8. Rivelino

The pioneer of the modern-day ‘elastico.’
The pioneer of the modern-day ‘elastico.’

Riyad Mahrez, won the best player in the English Premier League award last year on the back of a string of superb performances, of which his ‘elastico’ dribbling move was an integral part. However much before Mahrez, Rivellino was the original king and pioneer of the ‘elastico’ or flip-flop, and used it to torment and twist defenders inside out.

Another entrant in our list from the team of 1970, Rivelino had hips of rubber apparently and could turn on a sixpence, leaving defenders dumbfounded.

The son of Italian immigrants who fled Fascist Mussolini’s reign of terror, Rivelino, had a problematic childhood trying to settle into an alien culture. Football was Rivelino’s way of blending in with his surroundings and endearing himself with Brazilians.

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Easily identifiable thanks to his large and bushy moustache, Rivelino was the set-piece specialist in the legendary Brazilian team of the 1970s. Coupled with deadly accuracy from free-kicks, he was also renowned for long-range shooting and passing and close control. Rivelino was the midfield lynchpin around whom the stars in attack weaved their magic.

The link between defence and offense, Rivelino was the one who got attacks started from the back.


7. Carlos Alberto

Carlos Alberto captained the all-conquering side of 1970
Carlos Alberto captained the all-conquering side of 1970

Another entrant on this list from the team that played in the 1970 World Cup, Carlos Alberto was captain and a worthy leader of that extremely talented team. Despite playing at right-back, which was not a very lucrative position back then, Alberto managed to cement his place as one of the greatest defenders of all time and was the pioneer of the attacking full-back role.

All successful players have highlights, moments in which time stood still and they seized their opportunity to write their names indelibly in the history of football. His moment came in the final of the 1970 World Cup. Brazil had already scored 3 goals and were comfortably cruising towards the Jules Rimet trophy.

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In a move that involved all 11 players, Brazil toyed around with their opponents Italy with Pele and Tostao particularly tormenting them. After a string of passes across the pitch the ball was finally passed to the right of the penalty box after a feint by Pele.

Carlos Alberto came bombarding up from right-back, to blast the ball into the back of the net, thus sealing the cup for his side. His exploits for Brazil led him to be named in the U.S. soccer hall of fame, Brazilian Museum Football Hall of Fame and he was inducted into Pele’s list of 100 greatest players.


6. Roberto Carlos

Roberto Carlos was blessed with a cannon for a left foot
Roberto Carlos was blessed with a cannon for a left foot

The 2nd defender on our list, the greatness of Roberto Carlos, can quite aptly be described by the fact that his club team Real Madrid did not bother to keep a backup left-back during his time at the club. The diminutive Brazilian rarely got injured, and could play more than 50 games in a season with the same intensity, a rarity in modern footballers.

Roberto Carlos was blessed with a dominant left foot, with which he would let fly missile-like shots that would bamboozle goalkeepers across the globe. Such was the power he unleashed, that the football defied the normal laws of physics and would dip and swerve in a manner that could unnerve any goalkeeper.

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His moment in the limelight will forever be his goal from a free-kick against France. Having been beaten by France in the 1998 World Cup final, Brazil were hungry for revenge. A polished performance was capped off by Roberto Carlos unleashing a piledriver that took the French custodian Fabian Barthez by surprise.

Carlos kicked the ball away from goal, but the power he unleashed swerved the ball within the far post. His proficient tackling and accurate crossing made him an integral member of the 2002 World Cup squad for Brazil, which emerged champions.


5. Ronaldo Nazario de Lima 

The greatest striker of the modern era
The greatest striker of the modern era

Ronaldo was the main reason people who started watching football in the late nineties supported Brazil. The one true proponent of Samba football in the modern era, Ronaldo was one of the most lethal finishers the world has ever seen. He was god’s idea of a perfect forward.

‘El Phenomenon’ had everything, be it pace, power, skill, and lethal finishing ability with both feet. The respect he commands transcends club affiliations, and he is one of the very few players to have turned out for arch-rivals like Barcelona and Real Madrid, Internazionale, and A.C. Milan and yet is loved by fans of all the clubs mentioned above.

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Ronaldo burst into the limelight in 1994, when he won the World Cup with Brazil aged just 17. His nickname, ‘The Phenomenon,’ was apt as he had a phenomenal rise to prominence. He had made his professional debut aged 16, the year before, for Cruzeiro. He scored 44 goals in 47 matches for Cruzeiro, including 5 in a match against Bahia, leading them to the Copa Do Brasil.

His goalscoring exploits catapulted him into the national team soon after. 1998 was the first World Cup Ronaldo played a significant role in, spearheading the Brazil attack. His displays left opponents shell-shocked, and fans purring in admiration. It remains a matter of speculation as to what occurred Ronaldo on the eve of the final, but one thing is for sure, the result may well have been different had he turned up fully fit on the night.

The 2002 World Cup was Ronaldo’s World Cup, in short. He won the Golden Boot en route to guiding Brazil to their 5th World Cup title and scored both goals in the final against Germany. 2006 was his swansong, and despite possessing vast riches in attack, the likes of Kaka and Ronaldinho could not combine with Ronaldo to retain the trophy.

Ronaldo retired as one of the greatest players the World Cup has witnessed, and as top scorer at the World Cups. 


4. Zico

Zico was one of the greatest playmakers the world has ever seen
Zico was one of the greatest playmakers the world has ever seen
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One from the dream team of 1982 this time, Zico makes it to the list because of his unmatched vision and passing ability in the final third of the pitch. While Brazil’s team of 1982 remains one of the top contenders amongst most talented squads never to have won the World Cup, alongside the likes of the Dutch of the 1970s, there can be no doubt about the world-beaters this team possessed.

Forming an integral partnership with captain Socrates in the heart of midfield, Zico was a blend of the best of both worlds: The passing with vision and guile of the Europeans and silky skills on the ball and deft control coupled with a direct running ability, characteristic of South Americans.

Probably the easiest on the eye from the team of 1982, Zico is no stranger to accolades, having finished eighth in the Fifa Player of the Century Grand Jury vote in 1999. The ‘White Pele’ scored 48 goals in 71 matches for Brazil, a phenomenal return for a midfielder.

Despite being part of 3 World Cup squads, Zico failed to lift the coveted trophy, and he is considered to be one of the greatest players who failed to win the World Cup.


3. Socrates

Socrates was one of the best holding midfielders Brazil produced
Socrates was one of the best holding midfielders Brazil produced
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The Doctor who became an icon for an entire generation, Socrates, comes in at number 3 for his leadership ability coupled with his skill. Easily recognisable on the football pitch thanks to his enormous moustache and his headband, Socrates earned the nickname of ‘Doctor’ thanks to his degree in medicine and his concern for the people of his country.

He was the lynchpin of the deadly midfield quadruplet of Zico, Socrates, Falcao and Eder, which ran amok amongst opposition defences.

The 1982 World Cup was supposed to be Socrates’ highlight. The poster boy for Brazil was leading his nation into the tournament with one of the most talented squads ever assembled. Having breezed through the group stage and the first round, a second-round showdown between the Brazilian attack and Italian defence ensued.

Socrates put in one of his most memorable displays for a losing cause as Italy triumphed 3-2 thanks to a Paolo Rossi hat-trick. The Doctor had scored in the match to level the match at 1-1 and was taking the Italian midfielders for a ride. However, resolute defending from Gentile and co. and inspired goalkeeping by Dino Zoff kept the Brazilians at bay.

Socrates made his last appearance as a 50-year-old player-manager for Garforth Town in England.


2. Garrincha

Garrincha is the greatest dribbler of all time
Garrincha is the greatest dribbler of all time
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While Pele is considered to be a global ambassador for football and received praise across the globe, back home in Brazil, a teammate of his was loved more. Mane ‘Garrincha’ made his debut with Pele in the 1958 World Cup against Russia and quickly forged his reputation as the best dribbler in the world.

When Pele and Garrincha played together, Brazil never lost. While Pele earned the acolytes for scoring all the goals, Garrincha was the main provider, ripping up opposition defences down the right flank.

Such was his talent that opposition teams would sometimes deploy three markers specifically for Garrincha, but he would still find a way past them. He possessed an innocent desire to entertain, and that is what endeared him to the masses. Such was his simplicity; he often did not know who he was playing against, and would just play for fun.

Born with a physical deformity, Garrincha was rejected by a host of Brazil’s top clubs before Botafogo offered him a trial. The captain of the Brazilian national team, Nilton Santos, was playing left-back.

Garrincha turned him inside out on several occasions, so much so that after the game, Santos caught hold of him, took him to the director and asked him to sign Garrincha so that he would not have to play against him. Having lost a significant amount of playing time due to alcoholism, memories of him still bring a tear to the eyes of the Brazilian faithful. 


1. Pele

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The greatest goalscorer in football history
The greatest goalscorer in football history

Easily the most recognisable face amongst all Brazilian footballers, Pele has been an icon for Brazilian football since 1958, when he made his mark on the international stage. While the debate rages on regarding who was better between Pele and Maradona, the fact that Pele was one of the best cannot be doubted.

Despite being a footballer, he was chosen as the athlete of the Century by the International Olympics Committee, a standing tribute to his legacy.

Statistics might not always provide a real insight into the nature of events, but they can certainly give one a perspective. The fact that Pele scored 541 league goals making him the most successful league goalscorer in the world, to date, is testament to his undoubted marksmanship.

Taking into account all matches, including tour games and unofficial friendlies, he scored 1281 goals in 1363 games, a world record again. Having made his debut for the Brazilian side aged 16, Pele burst onto the scene in the 1958 World Cup against the fearsome Russians.

Using his proficiency in ‘Ginga,’ an ancient martial arts technique, Pele quickly established himself as a deadly marksman in front of goal. Pele played a crucial role in 3 of Brazil’s 5 World Cup conquests, in 1958, 1962 and 1970.


Published 04 Oct 2016, 16:17 IST
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