With less than a decade to go before the FIFA World Cup celebrates its centenary year, the game continues to evolve and entertain. The very first edition of the tournament back in 1930 saw just 13 teams compete in Uruguay. Today, FIFA has 211 member associations, and football has consolidated its status as the most popular sport in the world.
From Maradona to Messi: ranking football's greatest players
Ranking the greatest footballers of all time is no easy matter, and there are a lot of factors to consider. Goals are obviously the most important aspect of the game. But there are other metrics such as influence and competitiveness across different eras, which cannot be measured through numbers.
With Lionel Messi winning a record-breaking seventh Ballon d'Or award on Monday, it's time to revisit a familiar question: who is the greatest footballer of all time? While some stars such as Ronaldinho burned brightly but briefly, others like Lev Yashin were only truly appreciated after their retirement from the game.
Honourable mentions: Paolo Maldini (Italy), Ferenc Puskas (Hungary), Garrincha (Brazil), Bobby Charlton (England), Gerd Muller (Germany)
Without further ado, here are our ten greatest footballers of all time.
#10 Michel Platini (France) - three-time Ballon d'Or winner
Michel Platini has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent years, in what has been a sad downfall for France's Player of the Century. For all his reported off-field wrongs with UEFA, Platini remains arguably the greatest goalscoring midfielder in the game's history.
He scored nine goals in five games to lead France to Euro' 84 glory, their first-ever triumph at an international football tournament. Platini was named the Player of the Tournament. That triumph came during a wonderful run that also saw Platini win three consecutive Ballon d'Or titles (1983-85).
The two-time French Player of the Year's club career was just as successful as his stint with Les Bleus. Platini's scoring record of 104 goals in 223 appearances with Juventus put many strikers of his era to shame.
He remarkably won three straight Capocannoniere awards with Juventus,at a time when the Italian top flight boasted the toughest defenders in the game. If that wasn't enough, Platini scored the winner in the 1985 European Cup final against Liverpool. He drew the curtains on his club career with two Serie A titles, a Ligue 1 triumph with St-Etienne and an Intercontinental Cup win.
Zinedine Zidane, who finished just behind Michel Platini in the voting for France's Player of the Century, had this to say about the Juventus legend:
"When I was a kid and played with my friends, I always chose to be Platini. I let my friends share the names of my other idols between themselves."
#9 Ronaldo Nazario (Brazil) - two-time Ballon d'Or winner
Ronaldo Nazario's career is one of football's biggest 'what ifs'. If not for knee injuries and hypothyroidism, the Brazilian striker could very well have established himself as the undisputed greatest player of all time.
Ronaldo's CV is stacked with trophies. He is a two-time FIFA World Cup winner with Brazil. He also has two Copa America wins, two La Liga titles, a Copa del Rey and a UEFA Cup. However, the UEFA Champions League is conspicuous by its absence from his glittering trophy cabinet.
His personal accolades are even more impressive. In his career, Ronaldo clinched two Ballon d'Or titles (1997 and 2002), three FIFA World Player of the Year titles, the Golden Ball at the 1998 World Cup, the Golden Boot at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the 1996-97 European Golden Boot, Serie A Footballer of the Year in 1998 and two Pichichi trophies.
Il Fenomeno, as Ronaldo was known, received high praise from Lionel Messi, who said:
"Ronaldo was my hero. He was the best striker I’ve ever seen. He was so fast he could score from nothing, and could shoot the ball better than anyone."
Ronaldo also scored 15 FIFA World Cup goals in 19 games, only one behind all-time top scorer Miroslav Klose. His best season in club football was his solitary year with Barcelona in 1996-97. Ronaldo scored a stunning 47 goals, and provided 12 assists in just 51 appearances. He is third in Brazil's all-time scoring list with 62 goals, behind Pele and Neymar.
Despite bridging bitter club rivalries while playing for Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan, Ronaldo remains one of football's most beloved figures.
#8 Alfredo Di Stefano (Spain) - two-time Ballon d'Or winner
Ferenc Puskas narrowly misses out on our list. But his Real Madrid teammate Alfredo Di Stefano remains a staple in debates about the greatest players of all time.
Born in Argentina, the Blond Arrow only played a handful of games for his country of birth. He chose to represent Spain, where he spent most of his club career. Di Stefano arrived in Madrid in 1953 at the start of the most successful period in Los Blancos' history. A decade later, he departed as the greatest player to have represented the iconic club.
Di Stefano and Real Madrid won an astonishing five European Cups before his exit from the Spanish capital in 1964. The Blond Arrow scored in all five finals.
They also won eight La Liga titles, with Di Stefano clinching five Pichichi awards. Two Ballon d'Or awards followed, in 1957 and 1959, as Di Stefano ended with 267 goals in 348 appearances for Real Madrid.
Legendary football coach Sir Alex Ferguson hailed Di Stefano, saying:
"The great question which always comes up is ‘who are the greatest footballers?’ There is a phalanx of great ones – Cruyff, Maradona, Pele, Puskas and Di Stefano. Di Stefano was one of the greatest in my mind."
#7 Zinedine Zidane (France) - 1998 Ballon d'Or winner
Zinedine Zidane is the bridge between modern football and eras gone by. Silky and languid in possession yet powerful and efficient, Zizou was a complete midfielder. Despite Platini's undeniable quality, Zidane gets the edge because of his long, decorated career and his 1998 FIFA World Cup triumph.
Zidane famously led France to their first World Cup trophy, scoring twice in a 3-0 demolition of Brazil in the 1998 Paris final. Two years later, France were Euro 2000 champions, with Zidane being named the Player of the Tournament.
He then led them on a surprise run to the 2006 FIFA World Cup final, putting in a Man of the Match performance against Brazil in the quarter-final. Despite the heartbreak and controversy in the final, Zidane was awarded the Golden Ball for Best Player of the Tournament.
Zizou's club career was equally successful. After making his name with Bordeaux, Zidane truly established himself as a global superstar with Juventus. He made 212 appearances for the Bianconeri, scoring 31 goals and assisting 38 times, and winning two Serie A titles. The highlight of Zidane's time in Italy was winning the 1998 Ballon d'Or award. He was also named the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1998 and 2000.
He then completed a blockbuster transfer to Real Madrid ahead of the 2001-02 season for an enormous €76 million, a record fee at that time. The Frenchman made 227 appearances for Los Blancos, scoring 49 goals and assisting 67 strikes. Zidane was named FIFA Player of the Year again in 2003; Real Madrid won the 2002 Champions League and the 2003 La Liga title with the Frenchman.
Zidane was the only player in history to be named Player of the Year in three of Europe's top five domestic leagues before Cristiano Ronaldo emulated the feat in 2019. L'Equipe later named Zidane the Best French Player of All Time.
Ronaldinho, who got a close-up view of Zidane's greatness while playing for Brazil and Barcelona, said:
“Zidane is one of the best footballers of all time, one of my idols. He had such elegance and grace, a wonderful touch and superb vision.”
#6 Franz Beckenbauer (Germany) - two-time Ballon d'Or winner
Der Kaiser was the embodiment of German football: simple, ruthless, effective and immensely successful. But more importantly, Franz Beckenbauer is one of the most influential players to have graced the game. Credited with inventing the role of a sweeper, the German star showed that defenders could do so much more than stop opposition attacks and clear the ball into the stands.
Before Beckenbauer's innovation, defenders were content to sit back deep, hold their position and hoof the ball out of play after breaking up attacks. Der Kaiser redefined the role by winning the ball back and carrying it up the pitch or playing quick forward passes to launch counter-attacks.
The German national team is acknowledged as one of the most consistent in history, and Franz Beckenbauer deserves enormous credit for that. The inspirational captain led West Germany to glory at the 1972 FIFA World Cup and the 1974 Euros. Der Kaiser was also named German Footballer of the Year four times.
Beckenbauer is also undisputedly the greatest player in Bayern Munich history. He made 546 appearances for the Bavarian giants, scoring 58 times and assisting 74 goals. Bayern were the greatest team in Europe during Beckenbauer's time at the club. He won three consecutive European Cups between 1974 and 1976, along with five Bundesliga titles and four DFB Pokal trophies.
Beckenbauer won Ballon d'Or awards in 1972 and 1976. But he is best remembered as the most complete player in the game's history, one who could play as a centre-back, winger or up front.
French legend Eric Cantona applauded Franz Beckenbauer by saying:
“He was a leader of men, a dominant presence who could bring the ball out with grace and skill. But I tell you this: he broke my heart. As an eight-year-old, I watched the 1974 World Cup final between West Germany and Holland, and I was supporting the Dutch. I cried my eyes out when they lost. I was very sad, but now I understand all about the brilliance of the Kaiser.”
#5 Johan Cryuff (Netherlands) - three-time Ballon d'Or winner
Ajax and Barcelona legend Johan Cryuff remains the most influential player in history. Despite a list of individual accolades as long as your arm, Cryuff is also the greatest player never to win an international trophy.
However, his club career was as dazzling as it was revolutionary. Cryuff powered Ajax to elite status, winning eight Eredivisie titles in his two spells with the club, along with three straight European Cups. His numbers for the Dutch giants were absolutely staggering; he notched up 194 goals and 140 assists in 287 appearances.
Sandwiched between his two stints with Ajax was a successful spell with Barcelona, where Cryuff won a La Liga title as well as the Copa del Rey. He played 176 games for the Blaugrana, scoring 59 goals and providing five assists. Cryuff even won another Eredivisie title with Ajax's rivals Feyenoord towards the end of his career. He won the Ballon d'Or award three times in his decorated career (1971,1973,1975).
Cryuff's Dutch national team is widely accepted as the greatest international side that failed to win a major trophy. He famously led the Oranje to the 1974 FIFA World Cup final, where they were stunned by Franz Beckenbauer's West Germany. Despite the heartbreak, Cryuff was awarded the Golden Ball for the best player in the tournament. Remarkably, the Netherlands never lost a game in which Cryuff scored.
The reason Cryuff is placed above the likes of Beckenbauer and Zidane on this list is because of his contribution towards the creation of 'total football'.
Together with Rinus Michels, Cryuff pioneered the style of football based on passing and possession that dominates the modern era. The greatest club sides of all time, such as Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi's Barcelona, were inspired by Cryuff's philosophy.
Almost every game today is a product of Johan Cryuff's ideas, which were way ahead of his time. Franz Beckenbauer, Cryuff's greatest rival during his playing career, hailed the Dutch star:
“He was certainly the best footballer Europe has produced.”
#4 Pele (Brazil) - three-time FIFA World Cup winner
It would not be a stretch to label Pele the most important player of all time. Time magazine named him on their list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. For an entire generation, the Brazilian legend remains the face of the sport.
Pele is also the greatest player to have graced the FIFA World Cup, and by some distance. He led Brazil to three World Cup triumphs, in 1958, 1962 and 1970. The first win made him the youngest player ever to win football's biggest trophy; he was also named the Best Young Player at the tournament. He ended with the Golden Ball at the 1970 edition. Pele still holds the record for the most assists in FIFA World Cup history, with ten.
Of all the supremely talented players Brazil has produced, Pele remains unmatched. With 77 strikes, he is the Selecao's all-time top scorer, ahead of Neymar and Ronaldo Nazario.
It is Pele's club career, despite all its glorious heights, that sees him placed fourth on our list. The Brazilian legend is the only player in the top ten who did not ply his trade in any of Europe's top leagues at any point in his career.
The striker's scoring record has come under the scanner in recent times. In years gone by, Pele's goal tally stood at 1281 (according to FIFA), but a significant number of those goals came in unofficial games and tour fixtures. His count in official fixtures stands at 757 goals in 812 games. It is still a stunning number for a player who is acknowledged as Santos' all-time record goalscorer.
Pele won two Copa Libertadores titles, six Campeonato Brasilerio Serie A titles and two Intercontinental Cups in his time with Santos, scoring 643 goals. The Brazilian was named the joint-winner of FIFA's Player of the Century award, along with Argentina legend Diego Maradona.
The legendary Johan Cryuff elegantly summed up Pele's unique genius, saying:
"Pele was the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic."
#3 Diego Maradona (Argentina)
Football's greatest maverick and entertainer, Diego Maradona, was hated and adored in equal measure, but his brilliance was undeniable. He stole the spotlight as a teenager, making his debut for Argentinos Juniors before turning 16. Five years and 115 goals later, he fulfilled his dream of playing for Boca Juniors, leading them to the league title.
Maradona only spent a solitary season with Boca Juniors before arriving on European shores with Barcelona in 1982. His transfer fee of £5 million was a world record at the time.
The Argentinean's time in Spain was a mixed bag, playing 49 games for the Blaugrana across two seasons. He scored 33 times and provided 18 assists while winning the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup. Maradona also became one of the first players to receive a standing ovation from the Santiago Bernabeu. Real Madrid fans applauded the Argentine after he scored and led Barcelona to a win.
Unfortunately, Maradona's spell with Barcelona was tainted by injuries, racist abuse at the hands of opposition fans and bone-breaking tackles. After an infamous brawl at the Bernabeu while playing against Atheltic Bilbao, Maradona's stint with the club was over. The incident remains one of the most chaotic and violent fights witnessed on a football pitch.
Maradona shocked the world by joining unfancied Napoli in Italy. What followed next was nothing short of legendary. He became club captain, and led the club to their first-ever Serie A title in 1986-87. Triumphs in the 1987 Copa Italia and 1989 UEFA Cup followed before another Serie A title arrived in 1989-90.
He was revered like a God across Naples after changing the fortunes of the club. With 115 goals and 58 assists in 257 appearances, Maradona was Napoli's record scorer until Marek Hamsik surpassed him in 2017. The club's home stadium was renamed Stadio Diego Amando Maradona in December 2020, nine days after the legend's demise.
For all his numerous achievements in club football, Maradona's greatest feat was leading Argentina to FIFA World Cup glory in 1986. It is considered the biggest 'carry job' in football history, as Maradona single-handedly dragged his nation all the way to the very end.
He ended with ten goal involvements (five goals and as many assists) in seven appearances. Maradona was awarded the Golden Ball, and scored an outrageous solo effort against England, which would later be named FIFA's Goal of the Century.
French World Cup-winner Marcel Desailly waxed lyrical about Maradona, saying:
“The best player I’ve seen in my life. He did things that didn’t seem humanly possible. When he was on top of his game, and even without training that much, he was always in form, he was simply impossible to control. He decided matches alone, carrying average teams like Napoli and Argentina in 1986, to glorious achievements. A genius.”
#2 Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) - five-time Ballon d'Or winner
Nearly 37, Cristiano Ronaldo's longevity is unlike anything we've seen in football, and is only matched by his eternal rival Lionel Messi (more on him later). Love him or hate him, the Portuguese superstar's statistical superiority cannot be denied. CR7 is the greatest goalscorer in the game's history, and the terrifying bit is that he's not finished yet.
Since making his debut for Manchester United in 2003 as an 18-year-old, Ronaldo has performed at the highest level for almost two decades. In that span, he has rewritten virtually every goalscoring record, and has won every individual accolade in his grasp.
By the time he hangs up his boots, Ronaldo may very well be considered Real Madrid's greatest player, and why not? His Los Blancos record of 450 goals and 132 assists in 438 appearances is beyond belief, and is the best in club history by a country mile.
His Manchester United record is also exceptional. That is even more impressive when one considers that the Premier League was arguably the best domestic top-flight league in the game in the 2000s. Even his 'relatively disappointing' spell at Juventus yielded a staggering 101 goals in 134 games.
The Portuguese superstar is the best player in the history of the Champions League, which is European club football's biggest and toughest competition. He leads all players with 141 goals, and has registered the most assists in the tournament as well (42). If that isn't enough, Ronaldo has won the competition a record five times, including a stunning hat-trick of titles between 2016 and 2018.
With Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo has become the greatest goalscorer in men's international football history. His record of 115 goals with the national team is unparalleled. He captained them to their first major trophy in the country's history at Euro 2016, netting three crucial strikes.
Ronaldo is already football's all-time leading scorer, with 799 goals in official competitive fixtures for club and country. Listing out his individual accolades is anything but short and simple.
He has five Ballon d'Or, three FIFA World Player of the Year and three UEFA Player of the Year awards. The forward has also won three Pichichi trophies. He also held the Premier League record for most goals in a season before it was broken by Mohamed Salah.
Ronaldo is a four-time European Golden Boot winner. He is the only player apart from Zinedine Zidane to be named the Player of the Year in three of Europe's top five leagues.
Most importantly, Ronaldo is the epitome of hard work and dedication. While not the most naturally gifted player of all time, the Portuguese superstar developed into arguably the greatest athlete in the game. The once skinny teenager from Madeira showed that with the right attitude and work ethic, anything is possible.
Lionel Messi, Ronaldo's greatest rival, had high praise for the Portuguese superstar, saying:
“(Ronaldo) is always there scoring goals in all the games and taking part in his club and national side. He has been doing that for many years and whether he is at his peak or a bit below, it makes no difference.”
#1 Lionel Messi (Argentina) - seven-time Ballon d'Or winner
Lionel Messi has enjoyed a fulfilling 2021 calendar year. The 2021 Copa America triumph was the final piece of the puzzle, and a seventh Ballon d'Or crown is now the icing on the cake. But it feels like a formality at this point, as the Argentine legend has already cemented his place as the best player of all time.
The diminutive playmaker is undeniably the greatest attacking force to have stepped onto a football pitch. Whether it is gliding past players, unlocking defences with pinpoint passing or putting the ball into the back of the net, the 34-year-old continues to do it all at an elite level.
Like Cristiano Ronaldo, there is little use in dissecting Messi's rich haul of trophies. The duo have won everything there is to win apart from the elusive FIFA World Cup.
The little magician spent 17 glorious years with Barcelona after his debut in 2004, scoring 672 goals and providing 305 assists in 778 appearances. The Argentine is inarguably the greatest player in Barcelona and La Liga history. He is also the all-time top scorer for the Spanish club and the division as well.
Together with Pep Guardiola, Messi was at the heart of the greatest club football team in history - Barcelona's treble-winning team of 2009. Astonishingly, the best was yet to come. He followed that up with 91 goals in the 2012 calendar year, a frankly ridiculous record that is likely to stand for a very, very long time indeed.
In fact, Lionel Messi's 2011-12 campaign saw him score 73 goals and provide 48 assists in 61 appearances (as per Transfermarkt). It is arguably the greatest individual season in football history.
With seven Ballon d'Or wins, the 2009 FIFA World Player of the Year award, eight Pichichi trophies, two UEFA Men's Player of the year titles, seven La Liga Player of the Year crowns and five European Golden Boots, Messi has won every accolade possible during his club career.
During his time with the club, Barcelona became one of the most feared teams in world football. The Blaugrana and Messi won an incredible 35 trophies together, including ten La Liga titles, eight Spanish Super Cups, seven Copa del Rey trophies and four Champions League wins.
The only real criticism of Lionel Messi in the past was his failure to win an international trophy with Argentina. He finally conquered that frontier earlier this year, and in some style. Messi captained his country to Copa America glory, and was named Player of the Tournament as well.
It was sweet redemption for Messi after the heartbreak of the 2014 FIFA World Cup final. He did win the Golden Ball for best player at the tournament that year, though. Messi is Argentina's all-time record scorer, with 80 goals in 158 appearances. He also led them to gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The only question for Messi is what's next? Now on a new adventure in Paris, the Argentine superstar continues to dazzle and entertain fans, who may never see anyone quite like him again.
“I think about the great players with whom I have shared a pitch: Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane, Pirlo, Xavi, Ronaldo and the greatest of them all is Messi,” said Paul Scholes while discussing the Argentinean superstar.
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