At club level, it simply doesn’t get any bigger than the UEFA Champions League.
And, depending on who you ask, it might even be more prestigious than the FIFA World Cup.
“[The Champions League] is the most important in the world,” stated Jose Mourinho in the days before his Inter Milan side kicked off against Bayern Munich in the 2010 Final (via ESPNFC). “It is even bigger than the World Cup, because the teams in it are at a higher level than national teams, who can’t buy the best players. If you hold it to be important, you have to transmit that to the players.”
We hold it to be important, indeed. Which is why, over the following slideshow, we will rank the 20 best players in the history of the competition that replaced the old European Cup in 1992.
You’ll no doubt recognize many, if not all of the names included, but if you think we’ve missed some, feel free to add them in the comments below.
In any event, we’ve got a galaxy of stars to read about. Let’s get to it.
He is the only player on our list to have never won the Champions League, but from 1998 until 2009, there was hardly a more-feared striker in the competition than Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Now retired, he hasn’t even played in club football’s most prestigious tournament in four years, but he remains its second-highest goalscorer with 60—11 back of Real Madrid legend Raul.
In 2002-03, the Dutchman scored an impressive 14 Champions League goals, although his Manchester United side were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage by Real Madrid.
It’s somehow hard to believe the Juventus icon won just a single European Cup over an illustrious 19 years with the Bianconeri.
That title came in 1996, and his six goals were second only to Ajax attacker Jari Litmanen.
Juventus finished runners-up in each of the next two seasons and again in 2003, and after he left European football for good last spring, Del Piero sat 10th on the all-time goalscorers list (Champions League and European Cup) with 44, only three adrift of the great Eusebio.
Only five players have appeared in more Champions League matches than Paul Scholes (all of them are on this list), and his European career lasted an incredible 19 years.
At 33 years of age, he played in his first Champions League final, having been suspended for the 1999 centrepiece in Barcelona, and ended up winning his second European Cup as Manchester United triumphed over Chelsea on penalties.
His 25 goals in the competition also have him well above fellow midfielders Clarence Seedorf, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Only Raul, van Nistelrooy and Lionel Messi have managed more goals in the Champions League than Andriy Shevchenko, and what’s particularly impressive about the Ukrainian’s record in the competition is that 23 of his 59 tallies came while he was with Dynamo Kiev.
But it was with AC Milan that he finally got to lift Ol’ Big Ears, and he scored six goals in 10 matches in 2004-05 as the Rossoneri finished runners-up to Liverpool.
A move to Chelsea put the brakes on what had been a storied career, and he managed only four European goals for the London club.
Doesn’t do it in the big games, huh?
Not only did Cristiano Ronaldo score for Manchester United in the 2008 Champions League Final against Chelsea, but he has also tallied 51 times in the competition overall (good for fifth on the all-time ledger).
And of those 51 goals, an impressive 27 have come in the knockout round. Only Lionel Messi, on 29, has scored more often at crunch time than the Portugal captain.
During his six seasons at AC Milan, Kaka played in 63 Champions League matches, scoring 24 goals and contributing 15 assists.
That’s 39 goals he was involved in for the Rossoneri, and he lifted the European Cup in 2007 after finishing second to Liverpool two years prior.
Unfortunately, his career has taken a downturn since moving to Real Madrid in 2009, and he has scored only five Champions League goals over the past four years.
He narrowly missed out on next season’s Champions League after current club Anzhi Makhachkala finished behind CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg in the Russian Premier League, but Samuel Eto’o won a pair of European Cups at Barcelona and another at Inter Milan over an illustrious career at continental level.
In total, he has so far scored 28 Champions League goals, but what’s truly impressive about the Cameroon international is that he scored in a pair of finals—in 2006 against Arsenal and in 2009 against Manchester United.
He will likely retire without a Premier League winners’ medal, but in the 2004-05 season Steven Gerrard delivered one of the most inspired Champions League performances in the tournament’s history.
With Liverpool trailing 3-0 to AC Milan in Istanbul, the club captain began the comeback with a goal nine minutes after the restart and then won the penalty for Xabi Alonso’s equaliser just six minutes later. The Reds went on to lift a fifth European Cup on penalties.
Two years later, Gerrard took Liverpool to another Champions League Final, although this time Milan got the better of them, winning 2-1 in Athens.
Alessandro Nesta’s European CV is impressive.
During his time at Lazio, the defender won the UEFA Cup, Winners’ Cup and Super Cup and finished runners-up to Inter Milan in the 1998 UEFA Cup.
But it was at AC Milan that he tasted Champions League glory, helping the Rossoneri to titles in 2003 and 2007.
In 1994-95, Edwin van der Sar kept eight clean sheets from 11 matches as Ajax won the European Cup for a fourth time.
He won another Champions League crown with Manchester United in 2008, defeating Chelsea on penalties, and appeared in two other finals—in 2009 and 2011.
In the 2011 match against Barcelona, he became the second-oldest player to contest a Champions League final, next to Dino Zoff.
You get the feeling Andrea Pirlo’s Champions League exploits are far from over.
A European Cup winner with AC Milan in 2003 and 2005, the Italy international seems to have only gotten better with age, and at 34, he remains the most important player at Antonio Conte’s Juventus.
This spring, he won a second successive Scudetto with the Bianconeri, meaning he’ll be part of a Champions League favourite again next season.
From Sporting Lisbon to Barcelona to Real Madrid to Inter Milan, Luis Figo won trophies wherever he went.
But he lifted the European Cup just once over the course of a legendary 20-year career—in 2002 with Real Madrid.
The previous January, he had been named FIFA World Footballer of the Year, and at Hampden Park in Glasgow that May, he capped off the most memorable spell of his career with a win over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League Final.
By the time he turned 29, Andres Iniesta had appeared in 91 Champions League matches and won the competition on three occasions—in 2006, 2009 and 2011.
As part of a Barcelona team that is favoured to win the tournament each season, the Spain international is one-third of club football’s most electrifying trio, along with Xavi and Lionel Messi.
Last season, even though Barcelona went out to eventual winners Chelsea at the semifinal stage, he was named Champions League Best Player.
In 2001-02, during his first season at Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane was named La Liga Best Foreign Player, UEFA Club Footballer of the Year and UEFA Champions League Final Man of the Match.
He scored the winner in that 2002 centrepiece, against Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow, but it was the one and only time he’d lift the European Cup.
That said, during the 10 seasons he competed in European football’s most prestigious club competition, he was one of its main attractions, making 89 appearances during his time at Juventus and Real Madrid.
When he eventually hangs up his boots, Ryan Giggs will have played in more Champions League matches than any player in history.
The 39-year-old is currently on 142 matches—level with Raul—but has a new one-year contract under his belt and will no doubt make a handful of appearances in the competition next season.
A European Cup winner in 1999 and 2008, he has appeared in four finals, scoring 29 goals over 20 seasons in the competition.
With 131 Champions League appearances, Clarence Seedorf is fifth on the all-time list, behind only Xavi, Paolo Maldini, Giggs and Raul.
A member of the Ajax side that won the European Cup in 1995, he also lifted club football’s most prestigious prize in 1998 with Real Madrid and in 2003 and 2007 with AC Milan.
In 2007, at 31 years of age, he was named Best Midfielder in the competition.
Ryan Giggs’ Champions League appearance record will only last about a year, because Barcelona playmaker Xavi is nipping at his heels with 136 matches in the competition.
Although it sometimes seems as though he’s been around forever, Xavi is still only 33 and absolutely integral to the ongoing success at Barcelona.
A European Cup winner in 2006, 2009 and 2011, he has found individual awards rather fleeting. But there is no denying his place among the top midfielders in Champions League history.
Raul, perhaps more than any other name, is synonymous with the Champions League.
After making his tournament debut in 1995, the Real Madrid legend made a record 142 appearances in the competition, scoring a record 71 goals.
Three times he won the European Cup (1998, 2000 and 2002), and he scored in each of the 2000 and 2002 finals.
Paolo Maldini scored only three times at European club football’s highest level, but after making his debut in the old European Cup in 1985, he went on to play 140 matches in the competition—all in the Rossoneri shirt of AC Milan.
In 1989 and 1990, he was part of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan juggernaut that also included Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, and he added titles in the new Champions League in 1994, 2003 and 2007 as well.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the now-44-year-old stands as the best defender to have ever played in the tournament.
At 25 years of age, Lionel Messi is joint-third with Andriy Shevchenko on the tournament goal-scoring list, and his 29 tallies in knockout round play is a competition record.
Despite making his Champions League debut just nine years ago, the Argentine maestro has already established himself as its greatest-ever player, and by the time he calls it a day, it’s likely he will have added to the three European Cups he already has in his cabinet.
On two occasions, in 2009 and 2011, Messi scored against Manchester United in the final as Barcelona went on to lift the trophy.