25 Most Skilled Passers in World Football History

Max TowleAnalyst IMay 9, 2013

25 Most Skilled Passers in World Football History

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    When we are taught to play football as children, we first learn how to pass the ball.

    It is a simple skill—one that no professional footballer lacks. But very few have mastered the art.

    There have been some—Michael Laudrup, Xavi and Michel Platini, to name a few—who have taken passing to another level.

    They, along with 22 others in world football, are celebrated here.

    They are the most skilled passers in history.

Glenn Hoddle

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    We kick off the list with Tottenham Hotspur and England great Glenn Hoddle.

    The midfield playmaker was one of the most naturally gifted footballers to put on the England shirt, and a legend of his generation.

    His passing ability often defied belief—his close control and quick release was nearly unparalleled during his 20-year career between 1975 and 1995.

    Hoddle had it in him to create something from nothing with a single moment of magic.

Socrates

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    Attacking midfielder Socrates made 60 appearances for the Brazilian national team between 1979 and 1986.

    He was renowned for the ease with which he played free-flowing football and his creativity with the ball.

    He played with the likes of Rivelino and Walter Casagrande and captained his nation at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

    Upon his passing, Time magazine described him as an "artist" and the "Da Vinci" of the game.

Xavi

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    Barcelona's effervescent midfielder, Xavi, has had an incredible effect on the game.

    He is the archetypal diminutive playmaker—an agile threat capable of making more passes in a game than any of his peers.

    His passing—both the short and punchy, and the longer, searching balls—is exemplary. Rare is the occasion he relinquishes possession.

    This season, he has been the most accurate passer in La Liga, completing 94.9 percent per game (via WhoScored.com).

Gunter Netzer

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    You may not have heard of Gunter Netzer, but his legacy in the game is undeniable.

    Earlier this year, Goal.com named him one of 10 players who never won the Ballon D'Or during their careers but deserved to.

    The feature describes him as "the world's best midfielder" at one time, and the inspiration behind Germany's victory at the 1972 European Championships.

    A playmaker, naturally, Netzer was a conjurer with the ball at his feet.

Rui Costa

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    Portuguese legend Rui Costa is a worthy inclusion on this list.

    Over the course of his 18-year career, the central midfielder was named in Pele's greatest-100-players list, and made two appearances in UEFA's team of the European Championships (1996, 2000).

    The man's vision was superb, his range of passing immense.

    Michael Cox of FourFourTwo magazine describes him as having "an amazing ability to utterly dominate a game without finding himself in the headlines."

Gheorghe Hagi

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    Most consider Gheorghe Hagi to be the greatest Romanian footballer of all time.

    The attacking midfielder is one of a select group to have played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona, such was his transcendent talent.

    He may never have achieved his full potential in Spain, but his performances for his nation at both the 1990 and 1994 World Cups were exemplary.

    Over time, he earned the nickname the "Maradona of the Carpathians" (via ESPN).

Carlos Valderrama

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    Carlos Valderrama's bushy yellow Afro was unmistakable, but even without the fashion statement, his talent on the football pitch would still have stood him apart from his contemporaries.

    A classic No.10, the Colombian legend was an artist in the true meaning of the word.

    He could craft attacking sequences blindfolded—his technique flawless.

    Jon Carter of ESPN describes him as a "smooth, graceful and natural performer," and "one of the greats of the game."

Paul Scholes

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    It doesn't matter whether or not Paul Scholes retires this summer; he will forever be one of the most popular Manchester United players of all time.

    He started his career in an attacking midfield role, but as his speed disappeared, he transitioned into a classic deep-lying playmaker.

    His range of passing, and his sheer accuracy, has earned him the true respect of his peers.

    Xavi believes Scholes is "the best midfield player of the last 20 years" (via Daily Mail).

Didi

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    Brazil's Didi played in three World Cups for his homeland—1954, 1958 and 1962—winning the latter two tournaments.

    He was a composed central midfielder—the spine of a side that included Pele.

    According to Nelson Rodrigues, a respected Brazilian football writer, "Didi treats the ball lovingly. At his feet, it seems to become a rare and sensitive orchid, which must be looked after with affection and pleasure" (via FIFA.com).

    He was unflappable on the ball; a man whose passes always found their target.

Roberto Baggio

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    It is unfortunate that the defining image of Roberto Baggio's career will be him, head dropped in despair, having missed a decisive penalty in the final of the 1994 World Cup.

    The Italian was one of the greatest footballers to have played the game.

    He was a second forward who could score and create goals in equal measure. He was imaginative, capable of seeing passes no one else could.

    Many in Italy consider Baggio the finest player the nation has ever seen (via FourFourTwo).

Ronaldinho

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    Watching Ronaldinho is pure fantasy.

    The Brazilian has always seemed to know far more about the game than anyone else—as if the footballing Gods had confided in him their greatest secrets.

    He has an unending bag of tricks, but also has the ability to set up a teammate with a perfect assist.

    The attacking midfielder is brash and plays with the type of swagger that allows him to pull off the impossible.

David Beckham

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    It would be fair to suggest that David Beckham is the greatest crosser in the history of the game.

    The former Manchester United man made countless assists for the Red Devils during his time at Old Trafford, setting up the likes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Andy Cole and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

    He is a legend for England, too, having won well over 100 caps at international level.

    All prospective footballers should study his perfect technique striking a ball. 

Luis Figo

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    A Galactico in every sense of the word, Luis Figo is an easy selection for this list.

    The Portuguese attacking midfielder could make pinpoint passes from deep or the simple through balls to advancing teammates.

    When he made the controversial move from Barcelona to rivals Real Madrid, the fiery backlash from fans of the Catalan club was immense.

    "We hate you so much, because we loved you so much," they said (via TotalBarca.com).

Zico

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    Zico is rightly regarded as one of the best to have ever graced the game.

    A gifted playmaker, the Brazilian could make the ball move in any direction at his command.

    In 1983, Zico was named World Player of the Year by World Soccer magazine, ahead of the likes of Michel Platini, Diego Maradona and Bryan Robson.

    He has always been referred to as the "White Pele."

Zinedine Zidane

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    Zinedine Zidane oozed class—his dominant God-given talent sometimes made it seem as if he was the only man on the pitch.

    Only nine years ago, the French midfielder was named Europe's best player of the past 50 years, ahead of Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff.

    Former teammate David Beckham says, "To train with Zidane for three years was a dream" (via SoccerNews.com).

    For a big man, his technique, agility and ability to pick a pass through a congested crowd was extraordinary.

Lionel Messi

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    Lionel Messi is regarded as the best player in the world right now for a reason.

    He is world-class in so many aspects of his game, not least of all his passing ability.

    The way he is able to dish the ball off to a teammate while running at full tilt is incredible. This season, he has 12 assists to go with his 46 goals in La Liga.

    He is a playmaking forward—a false 9 asked to be equally creative as he is prolific.

Gianni Rivera

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    These names just roll off the tongue. Gianni Rivera, Italian God, is next.

    The creative midfielder played over 500 games for AC Milan and appeared in four World Cups for Italy (1962, 1966, 1970, and 1974).

    His tactical nous was superb, as were his vision and imagination in the middle of the pitch.

    He was an astute, intelligent presence in a game, capable of dictating its flow with the flick of his boot.

Michael Laudrup

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    It should come as no surprise that Swansea City manager Michael Laudrup is considered the "best player" in training (via The Guardian).

    The Dane is doing his best to get the Swans playing the kind of quick, cutting passing football he was known for as a player.

    He was an incredibly skillful attacking midfielder, a selfless playmaker capable of making stunning long-range passes.

    His creativity earned him the respect and admiration of both teammates and opponents.

Johnny Haynes

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    The fourth and final Englishman on this list is another name some may not have heard of.

    But how about this—Pele once called Johnny Haynes the best passer he had ever seen (via FourFourTwo).

    A true attack-minded player, Haynes once said, "One season we scored 100 goals and didn’t come top. We couldn’t work it out until someone pointed out we had conceded 100 goals" (via FourFourTwo).

    He could strike a ball 40 yards and have it land perfectly at the feet of a stunned teammate.

Juan Roman Riquelme

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    Though he hasn't played in Europe since 2007, Juan Roman Riquelme's legacy on the continent is assured.

    The Argentine is yet another pure playmaker—a visionary midfielder with a silky touch and a penchant for the spectacular pass.

    He has made over 50 appearances for his national team, though he hasn't played for La Albiceleste in five years.

    Riquelme is a legend at Boca Juniors, one who, in his youth, helped replace the aging Diego Maradona.

Ronald Koeman

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    Boy, Ronald Koeman could hit a ball.

    The Dutch full-back would send rockets across the pitch, his distribution holding no boundaries in terms of distance.

    He is a cult favourite—an unlikely hero for both his country and for Barcelona, with whom he won the European Cup in 1992.

    There are several video compilations on YouTube of the man hitting some stunning long passes upfield.

Andrea Pirlo

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    Andrea Pirlo is probably the best deep-lying playmaker in the game today.

    The Juventus man has only gotten better with age—like a fine wine or Rachel Weisz.

    He sprays the ball around with ease, controlling his team's shape and dictating the flow of a game.

    He is a cerebral player with such a fine reading of the game that every university in Italy should give him an honourary PhD.

Michel Platini

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    Michel Platini is currently known as the embattled president of UEFA, but in his heyday, there was no finer passer of the ball.

    He formed the legendary "magic square" with Alain Giresse, Luis Fernandez and Jean Tigana for the French national team between 1984 and 1986.

    Platini was the complete playmaker—a visionary graced with immaculate technique and skill.

    He was also a prolific goalscorer, striking 41 goals in 72 appearances for his country.

Gerson

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    Another Brazilian graces our list, and another playmaker, too—Gerson.

    The player was considered the creative mastermind behind the Selecao's stacked World Cup-winning team of 1970.

    SoccerLens.com describes him as "the link between defence and attack, a studious passer of the ball and a tactically astute player."

    If a football team were a human body, he'd be the brain.

Johan Cruyff

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    Last, but certainly not least, we have Dutch icon Johan Cruyff.

    Few have revolutionised the game more than the forward—his brand of "total football" is still considered a pinnacle in achievement in the sport.

    His team would play fluid, effortless football, with Cruyff at the heart of the action.

    According to FIFA.com, he had "an ability to time a pass that has hardly been equaled before or since."

     

    Who else in world football history might be worthy of inclusion on this list? Whom would you leave out in their place?