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10 Most prolific midfield goalscorers in football history

  • While midfielders are not typically expected to be great goalscorers, some of the best in history have been prolific.
  • This list includes the likes of Kaka, Frank Lampard, and Lothar Matthäus.
ANALYST
Top 5 / Top 10
Modified 21 May 2020, 16:59 IST

Kaka and Lampard: the modern generation
Kaka and Lampard: the modern generation's prolific midfielders. Image source: dantri.com

The nervous system of the human body is a thing of beauty. Millions of years of evolution have fine-tuned an assorted variety of chemical compounds within our otherwise banal anatomies to build the houses we live in today.

The movement of our feet, on and off the pitch, would have been a figment of our imagination if it was not for the amalgamation of some uniquely unusual concoctions in our head.

What does all this have to do with football? Everything.

The midfielder, unassuming as he might be, is the central nervous system of the football field. The players belonging to this diverse category influence every single passage of play for the entirety of the game.

Needless to say, the position and the multitude of roles it encompasses are arguably the most important in the sport.

Football has also evolved in over a hundred years of its well-recorded history. Over decades of disintegration and reconstruction, the role of the midfielder has transformed into a complex combination of ability and decision-making prowess.

Multiple distinct types emerged from the quintessential midfielder, and comparisons between apples and oranges are, as fans usually refuse to acknowledge, unfair.

There is, however, only one parameter that is purely statistical in nature: goals. A comparative study based on goals scored only paints a minuscule dot on a massive canvas.

It can in no way be expected to yield definitive results, but it does bring out some interesting shades within the game. Midfielders technically aren't expected to be the most prolific goalscorers, which means that those that are have had particularly special careers.

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Players like Gheorghe Hagi and Diego Maradona were exceptional goalscorers in their prime but spent a majority of their careers as second strikers in a relatively free role.

The same can be said of the likes of Wayne Rooney and the legendary Uruguayan Enzo Francescoli. It would also be really absurd to include Lionel Messi, Francesco Totti, and Johan Cruyff included in the list, given that the 'false nine' is a role so unique it forms a category in itself.

The list also excludes midfielders like the legendary Rivellino who predominantly worked their magic on either flank.

The players on this list often played in teams with lethal strikers and were often able to outscore them. While football's single best midfielder in history is a question that will likely never be answered, a statistical ranking based on the number of goals that these exceptional individuals have scored makes for a fine list.

Honourable mentions: Steven Gerrard, Michael Laudrup, Safet Susic, Alain Giresse, Michael Ballack, Wesley Sneijder


#10 Lothar Matthäus - 227 goals

England v West Germany 1990 FIFA World up Semi-Final
England v West Germany 1990 FIFA World up Semi-Final

Regularly described as one of the most complete midfielders to have ever graced the beautiful game, Lothar Matthäus established a niche for himself in the West Germany team of the 1980s and 1990s. The German captain's unique style of play also set a template for many of his successors in Die Mannschaft's midfield, including the likes of Michael Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Lothar Matthäus was a central midfielder by trade but operated at his best when given the freedom to roam across the pitch. In an era where football, in general, was being accused of becoming far too defensive for its own good, Matthäus injected sparks of life into his team. He was capable of scoring blinders from the middle of the pitch.

The German midfielder was a born leader and his exploits with Bayern Munich and Inter Milan made him captain of the national team for Euro 1988. Germany narrowly lost out to an excellent Netherlands side in the semi-final of the competition though. Matthäus continued to captain the side in a victorious 1990 FIFA World Cup campaign, scoring four goals in the process.

In addition to the ability to mark the best dribblers out of the game and pick out a brilliant pass with ease, Matthäus ended his career with a stellar tally of 227 official goals. This outstanding record made him one of the most effective midfielders of all time.


#9 Jan Ceulemans - 230 goals

Jan Ceulemans in action for Belgium, Image source: fifa.com
Jan Ceulemans in action for Belgium, Image source: fifa.com

Jan Ceulemans holds the distinction of being one of a handful of Belgian players to take the field for his country for over three decades. He was named by Pele in his famous list of the '125 greatest living footballers'.

Ceulemans was a magician with the ball at his feet, and his height and imposing physique did not prevent him from surfing through the Belgian midfield with consummate ease.

Ceulemans was appointed captain of his national side for the 1986 World Cup. He was Belgium's star performer as Europe's perennial underdogs secured a semi-final finish at the showpiece event. His stunning diving header, à la Robin van Persie against Spain, is still considered one of the best goals ever scored in the Belgian national team's history.

The Club Brugge talisman played for his country 96 times and found the back of the net on 22 occasions. Arguably one of the best players ever to take the field for Belgium, Ceulemans' 230 goals made him as great a goalscorer as he was a creative force.


#8 Ricardo Kaka - 237 goals

Club Atletico de Madrid v AC Milan - UEFA Champions League Round of 16
Club Atletico de Madrid v AC Milan - UEFA Champions League Round of 16

Ricardo Kaka is to football what a rainbow is to a toddler: sheer magic. The Brazilian may not have had the longest of careers but at the absolute peak of his powers, Kaka was virtually unplayable.

His goal against Manchester United that sent Darren Fletcher and Gabriel Heinze tumbling over each other in the 2007 UEFA Champions League was a sight to behold. The Brazilian was a traditional number 10, recycling possession and orchestrating attacks with finesse and poise.

His most spectacular moments, however, are indebted to his otherworldly dribbling skills.

The AC Milan of 2007 was a team of superstars, and Kaka was their best player by a country mile. The Brazilian midfielder was known for his unique dribbling style and could effortlessly float past the opposition with astonishing regularity.

Kaka was feared for his ability to score from a considerable distance, and his impressive shooting technique earned him several plaudits from the best strikers in the Serie A.

The former AC Milan midfielder is one of only eight players in history to win the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA Champions League, and the Ballon d'Or.

Kaka finished his career with an impressive 237 goals, and it is widely accepted that the aura that he brought to the football field will likely never be seen again.


#7 Socrates - 258 goals

Socrates of Brazil kicks the ball during the World Cup match against Argentina
Socrates of Brazil kicks the ball during the World Cup match against Argentina

A magician with the ball at his feet as you would expect most South Americans to be, Socrates is arguably one of the best Brazilians to never lift the World Cup. Known for his ability to pick out the perfect through-ball, Socrates was both engine and control system of a talented Brazilian side at the 1982 World Cup.

Socrates also captained the team and had the ability to lead from the front, inspiring his world-class teammates to some very memorable moments on the pitch.

The Brazilian midfielder was famous for his intelligence both on and off the pitch. His cerebral and pedantic personality earned him the moniker "Doctor Socrates". It resonated with a country that was and still is crazy about the beautiful game. Socrates' presence of mind translated into highly effective decision-making skills on the pitch. And the midfielder's positioning skills and understanding game bought him plenty of goals throughout his career.

The central midfielder ended his career with 258 official goals and is a bonafide Brazilian legend.


#6 Frank Lampard - 303 goals

Bolton Wanderers v Chelsea - Premier League
Bolton Wanderers v Chelsea - Premier League

While some players play the game with bravado and menace, Frank Lampard's idea of the game was clear right from the get-go. If the best midfielders in the history of the game were to be ranked exclusively on efficiency, Frank Lampard would top that list in his sleep.

The Chelsea midfielder was known for his intelligence on the pitch. And his ability to almost always be in the right place at the right time won the Blues several crucial encounters. Lampard's ability to turn the game on its head for his side earned him a place in Chelsea's starting lineup for over a decade.

The former England international started his career with West Ham before moving to Chelsea in 2001. Lampard's consistent performances for the Blues earned him legendary status over the years.

Lampard hit his peak under Jose Mourinho and formed formidable partnerships with the likes of Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba. While he was never the most effervescent player on the pitch, Lampard's name would be found on the scoresheet more often than not.

While the midfielder stands sixth on this list from a statistical point of view, Lampard's career tally of 303 goals is arguably the most impressive of the lot. This is because he played the majority of his career in central midfield behind several attacking players.


#5 Bobby Charlton

Charlton In Action
Charlton In Action

England's national team has not had much to celebrate in the past couple of decades but in the 1960s, they were the team to beat. With the likes of Bobby Moore, Roger Hunt, and Geoff Hurst in the side, England had an intimidating presence on the pitch. Bobby Charlton was the icing on the cake.

Manchester United's legendary attacking midfielder was the solution to all of England's problems in the 1966 World Cup. England's national team adopted a traditional 4-4-2 setup, with Bobby Charlton taking up a creative role behind the lethal strike partnership of Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt.

With the combative Nobby Stiles behind him, Charlton had the creative license to unleash his full repertoire of skills. The midfielder was virtually unplayable during the tournament and led England to their only World Cup triumph. Charlton also won the Ballon d'Or in the same year.

Arguably the only thing more impressive than Bobby Charlton's trophy count is his goal tally. Known for his ferocious strikes from well outside the penalty area, the Manchester United legend racked up a career total of 309 goals. He is widely considered one of the best players in the club's history.


#4 Teofilo Cubillas - 340 goals

Teofilo Cubillas Fort Lauderdale Strikers
Teofilo Cubillas Fort Lauderdale Strikers

Teofilo Cubillas is regarded as Peru's greatest ever player, and rightly so. The attacking midfielder is a legend in his home country and was a part of the best Peruvian team to take the pitch in football history.

Teofilo Cubillas was the best player in Peru's incredible national team in the 1970s and 1980s and was known for his goalscoring prowess. The midfielder was renowned for outscoring the strikers in his team for both club and country, and statistics are a fair reflection of his incredible abilities.

Cubillas ended his career with an incredible 340 official goals, including 26 strikes for his country. The Peruvian hit his peak at the 1978 World Cup, scoring five goals and finishing second in the Golden Shoe race behind Mario Kempes.

Teofilo Cubillas was a phenomenon at his peak and his exploits led Pele himself to nominate the midfielder as his successor. The Peruvian's incredible performances on football's biggest stage earned him legendary status in his country, where he is still revered as a footballing God to this day.


#3 Michel Platini - 353 goals

Michel Platini AS Roma v Juventus 1986
Michel Platini AS Roma v Juventus 1986

Before Michel Platini dragged his own name through the dirt with scandal after scandal as UEFA's president, he was a phenomenal player. The French attacking midfielder was the heart and soul of the all-conquering Juventus side of the 1980s.

While the team had stalwarts like Gaetano Scirea and Claudio Gentile in defence, Michel Platini was the team's primary creative influence in the final third.

Playing behind a potent attacking trident of Paolo Rossi, Zbigniew Boniek, and Roberto Bettega as a traditional number 10, Platini was known for his dead-ball technique and regularly matched the three forwards in goalscoring statistics.

In addition to being prolific in front of goal, the Frenchman was an exquisite passer of the ball and created innumerable chances for his illustrious teammates.

Platini won Serie A titles with Juventus in 1984 and 1986 and led the French national team to victory in the Euro 1984 with an astonishing nine goals in five games. The attacking midfielder also played an important role in Juventus' 1985 European Cup triumph and finished his career with 353 official goals in all competitions.


#2 Fritz Walter - 390 goals

Fritz Walter at the 1954 World Cup. Image Credits: thesefootballtimes.co
Fritz Walter at the 1954 World Cup. Image Credits: thesefootballtimes.co

There have been several moments in football history that are enveloped in a shroud of immortality. These are the moments that form the soul of the beautiful game and yet, the memories inevitably fade with time.

While the moments themselves are etched in football folklore, the emotions experienced by the illustrious individuals that spawned these great moments trickle down to mere statistics.

Fritz Walter was one such individual. The late German midfielder can consider himself one of the lucky few from his era to be immortalised in name at least, with German club FC Kaiserslautern's stadium being named after him. It was the least that Germany could do for the legendary midfielder.

Fritz Walter was the main creative influence in Germany's triumphant 1954 World Cup campaign. Playing behind his brother Ottmar Walter and the likes of Max Morlock as an attacking midfielder, Fritz Walter's ability to pull the strings in midfield led to a famous victory against the mighty Hungarians.

The 1954 World Cup victory is widely believed to have united Germany as a country after a tumultuous decade.

Fritz Walter was a prolific goalscorer and relied on his superior understanding of the game to take advantage of specific situations. The midfielder scored a total of 390 goals in his storied career.


#1 Zico - 476 goals

Wojcicki of Poland and Zico of Brazil
Wojcicki of Poland and Zico of Brazil

The FIFA World Cup trophy is every footballer's dream. It is the trophy that makes all the sweat and blood worth it. It is, in its very essence, the holy grail. And yet, it has managed to evade the finest players to have ever taken to the football pitch and enriched our lives with their magic.

Lionel Messi, to today's generation, is the perfect example. The 20th century has seen the likes of Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Eusebio, and Johan Cruyff spend their entire careers trying to lift the coveted trophy. However, they could only watch as it slipped through their fingers every single time.

That Zico was never able to lift a World Cup trophy is the very definition of misfortune.

At his prime, Zico was the greatest player in the history of the game. Ask a Flamengo fan to throw caution to the wind, and you will be convinced that the legendary midfielder's talent makes even Pele and Maradona seem secondary at best.

Zico may not have been the origin story of Brazil's samba football, but his exploits on the pitch eternally imprinted Brazil's trademark style on the beautiful game.

Playing alongside the likes of Socrates and Falcao in Brazil's best-ever midfield combination, the Flamengo star was a complete midfielder. Playing in a 4-2-2-2 formation, Zico served as the quintessential Mr Hyde to Socrates' Dr Jekyll. He mesmerised fans and opponents alike as he casually went about destroying every fragment of the opposition's defence.

The 1982 World Cup should have been the crown on Zico's head - the achievement that finally confirmed his right to Pele's throne. The attacking midfielder scored four goals in the tournament as the Brazilian juggernaut was defeated in the second group round. They were undone by a famous Paolo Rossi masterclass as the Italians ensured that Brazil finished the tournament in fifth place for the second time in history.

Zico ended his career with an astonishing 477 goals, and his goalscoring numbers will likely never be matched by another midfielder. Of all the great creative midfielders and Brazilians to have ever played the game, the seldom-mentioned Zico is arguably the most underrated.

Very few odes are sung of the Flamengo legend, but those that remember his abilities know that a player as unique as Zico comes only once a millennium.


Published 20 May 2020, 19:47 IST
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