30 Best International Players of All Time
Selecting the 30 greatest footballers from the long history of international football has resulted in a shortlist packed full of nothing but the most illustrious names.
Traditional powerhouses Brazil, Italy and Germany are heavily represented. World Cup success, though it is a major factor, is not the only criteria used in judging a player's impact at international level. Gabriel Batistuta, for example, the top goal scorer for his country and a consistently brilliant performer over a long period of time, edges out fellow Argentine Mario Kempes, who won a World Cup but played fewer games and scored 46 fewer goals.
To make this Top 30, players must be regarded as among the very best to have played for their own country, something which is usually, but not always, born out in statistics such as caps won or goals scored.
Club form and achievements are not considered, which has resulted in some major omissions (see the next slide), but every name who has made the final cut is an undoubted giant of the game.
Those Who Missed Out
The following list should be viewed with the understanding that some of the best footballers of all time have been omitted.
Though 30 names may seem like a large enough sample, bear in mind we are covering over a century of international football, involving hundreds of players who could be considered "great."
If it seems incomprehensible that a man who is considered by some to be the best defender of all time, Paolo Maldini, misses out, consider that if he had made the cut, then Franco Baresi or inspirational World Cup-winning captain Obdulio Varela would have to be omitted.
How could Alfredo Di Stefano, arguably one of the top three players ever to have graced the game, be left out? Simply because his international career (for three different teams) was a stop-start affair which did not reach the giddy heights of the other 30 players selected here.
Why no Roberto Baggio, Mario Kempes or Gordon Banks? Because Giuseppe Meazza, Gabriel Batistuta and Bobby Charlton made the cut instead.
In terms of current players, Lionel Messi has shown in the past 18 months that he could soon rival Diego Maradona as the finest international Argentina has ever had, but thus far he has not done enough in major tournaments to break into this list.
Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the best players Portugal has ever produced, but the likes of Eusebio and Luis Figo (who also missed out) performed with more consistency in national team colors.
Neymar is also on track to work his way up the rankings as his career progresses.
The imperial Lothar Matthaus was an omnipresent member of the powerful West German sides of the 1980s and '90s. He appeared in more World Cup games than any other player, with 25, as well as the most tournaments for an outfield player, at five.
Matthaus was the standout player of Italia '90, leading his team to the trophy as captain with a series of immense performances.
A multifaceted midfielder (who became a sweeper in the twilight of his career) with a tremendous positional sense, work rate and technical ability, "Loddar" would have thrived in any era.
Though a relative latecomer to the Italian national side, Franco Baresi became a leader at the back for the Azzurri following the retirement of coach Enzo Bearzot (the two didn't get along) in 1986.
When Baresi finally entered the national fold, he brought with him his phenomenal club form to confirm his status as the finest centre-back in the world. Italy reached semi-finals of the 1988 European Championships and the 1990 World Cup, then Baresi missed the final penalty as they went down to Brazil in the final of USA '94.
A brilliant reader of the game, "Il Capitano" commanded matches from his sweeping role in front of the goalkeeper. He is arguably the greatest defender of all time.
The magnificent midfielder Zinedine Zidane inspired his France team to the World Cup title on home soil in 1998, the European Championship in 2000 and another World Cup final in 2006.
For a softly spoken man, he possessed enormous on-field charisma. Few players in recent generations have had the ability of "Zizou" to inspire those around him through his remarkable talent and drive.
This sublime dribbler, outstanding passer and scorer of superb goals will be best remembered at international level for his double in the 1998 World Cup final, his flying headbutt on Marco Materazzi and subsequent red card in the 2006 edition, and truly amazing individual performances such as his showing against Brazil in the quarter-final match in Frankfurt in the same tournament.
A key component of the masterful Hungarian side of the 1950s, Nandor Hidegkuti was an unconventional centre-forward who would drop back into midfield to wreak havoc while his partner in crime, Ferenc Puskas, stayed up top and banged in the goals.
Hidegkuti was no mug himself when it came to scoring, notching 39 goals in 68 games for Hungary.
He famously orchestrated the 6-3 and 7-1 defeats of England in 1953 and 1954, won the Olympic gold medal in 1952 and fell agonizingly short of a World Cup triumph in 1954, as his attack-minded team went down 2-1 to West Germany.
One of the most incredible statistics in world football is central defender Daniel Passarella's record of 22 goals in 70 matches for Argentina, which puts him at sixth on the Albicelestes' all-time list.
Aside from the threat that the "Kaiser" posed from set pieces (both from heading home those delivered by others and smashing in his own), he was a rock at the back for his country for many years.
A ferocious yet disciplined defender and great leader, Passarella captained Argentina to their first World Cup triumph in 1978,
This Mozambique-born Portuguese genius Eusebio was an incredibly elusive dribbler and voracious goalscorer.
He hit nine goals at the 1966 World Cup, including a hat-trick in Portugal's astonishing comeback win against North Korea, and scored a total of 41 in 64 games for his adopted country during his illustrious career.
His elegance, agility and explosive pace earned him the very apt moniker, "The Black Panther."
Though slight of frame, Italian superstar Giuseppe Meazza possessed ball skills that could be matched by few others of his generation.
The glamour striker was switched from his usual central role to the right wing for the 1934 World Cup but shone bright nonetheless to guide Italy to overall victory.
By 1938, Meazza was captaining the Azzurri, who went on to win that tournament as well, with "La Billila" dazzling once again as the creative hub of the side.
This goalscoring trickster will forever be remembered as one of Italy's finest talents.
Regarded by some as the best there ever was, Diego Maradona was just as outstanding at international level as he was when playing for his various clubs.
This stocky product of the Buenos Aires ghetto was a phenomenon with the ball at his feet; one of those rare players who could draw gasps of astonishment with a single moment of improvisation.
"Dios" participated in four World Cups for his beloved Argentina, dominating the 1986 tournament like no single player has before or since to inspire his team to victory, before leading them to the final once again in 1990.
The Spain side which won Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 is rightly regarded as among the all-time elite national teams, and the player at the heart of every achievement has been Xavi.
This graceful pass master makes moving the ball around the pitch look like the most natural thing in the world, yet there are few others who can do it as well as he, and certainly none who can do it better.
His genius lies in his ability to do the simple things with unwavering consistency before then choosing the right moments to produce something special to unlock a game.
When he retires, he will likely be remembered as the best Spanish player of all time.
The feline-like agility and reflexes of Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff complemented his winning mentality and inspirational qualities to make him a formidable force at international level for many years.
He played for the Azzurri 112 times in all, the highlight being when he lifted the World Cup as captain at the age of 40 in 1982.
Blessed with a fluid, effortless playing style that belied his incredible technique, Didi participated in three World Cups for Brazil, including the successful 1958 and 1962 campaigns.
Like many players touched with other-worldly gifts, the man born Waldir Pereira often appeared to mere mortals to be drifting through games without fully committing to the cause. He was, however, completely aware of what he had to do and when he had to do it, and more often than not produced the goods when it mattered most.
In 1958, the laconic midfielder was Brazil's best player throughout the tournament as they cruised to the world title with a 5-2 win over hosts Sweden in the final.
In 1966, England stood at the summit of world football, and Bobby Charlton was the man who had played a huge part in getting them there.
Sir Bobby's combination of tremendous athleticism and surprising grace made him almost impossible to stop when he was in full flight, and his form remained consistently brilliant for the majority of his long career.
The World Cup triumph of '66 was the highlight of his 106 games for his country, though Charlton left England fans with an endless supply of fond memories when he finally retired in 1970.
The quintessential cultured defender, Gaetano Scirea set the template for future generations of Italian centre-backs.
He played at three World Cups for Italy, including the 1982 tournament which the Azzurri won, and managed to go through his entire career without receiving a single red card.
Though his passing skills and reading of the game would have allowed him to take up almost any role on the field, Scirea generally played in the position of sweeper, where he was a composed and elegant leader of the team.
When he retired in 1986, France Football (h/t goal.com) described him as "better than Pele, (Johan) Cruyff and (Alfred) Di Stefano."
Before the generation of Zidane and Thierry Henry, Michel Platini was the player who imbued the French national jersey with a sense of peerless class and prestige.
The No. 10 with balletic ball control was the catalyst for the re-emergence of France as a footballing power in the 1970s and '80s.
Aside from being a prolific goalscorer, Platini provided the vision and creativity for the team that reached two World Cup semi-finals.
He was at his sensational best when France won their first major tournament, the 1984 European Championship, scoring nine goals in five games.
The tubby goalscoring machine who formed the pointy end of the mythical Hungarian team of the 1950s, Ferenc Puskas netted an astonishing 84 times in 85 games for the "Mighty Magyars."
Though he never won a World Cup, missing out in the final to West Germany in 1954, Puskas played a major role in changing the way football was played.
Hungary went four years without losing a game until that final, and their sumptuous passing game set the benchmark for every other international side to aim for.
Had Puskas not been suffering from a hairline fracture in his ankle throughout the entire championship in '54, his team may have been able to overcome the Germans at the final hurdle. As it was, the "Galloping Major" scored one goal in that game but could not do enough to ensure victory.
Despite boasting an astonishing international record for Brazil, it could not be claimed that Pele's statistics flatter him. He was actually that good.
He played 92 games for his country, scored 72 goals and won no less than three world titles.
This glorious attacking ace, who possessed all the athletic ability and creative flair that a single body can contain, could do almost anything he desired on the football pitch.
The pinnacle of his Brazil career was perhaps the 1970 World Cup where, surrounded by a team of the highest quality, Pele dazzled in every game on the way to lifting the cup.
When Uruguay achieved one of the biggest upsets in sports history, downing Brazil in the final of the 1950 World Cup, they were led from midfield by their rugged and fearless captain, Obdulio Varela.
Though he played a total of 45 times for his country, "El Negro Jefe" is best remembered for rousing his troops in that famous final after they went a goal down, leading with his words and by example.
Tellingly, Uruguay never lost a World Cup finals match that Varela took part in.
The larger-than-life personality of Soviet shot-stopper Lev Yashin only augmented his prodigious talents between the posts to create a fearsome aura that was unmatched by any other goalkeeper in his day.
Yashin, dressed all in black, was the first custodian to truly take control of his own penalty area, dominating it with his massive frame and aggressive demeanor.
His 76 caps for the Soviet Union saw him appear in three World Cups (and travel with the squad to a fourth), while claiming an Olympic gold medal in 1956 and the European Championship in 1960.
The orchestrator of Brazil's first two world titles, in 1958 and 1962, Garrincha's small and crooked frame was capable of astonishing things on the football field.
Layth Yousif waxes lyrical about the singular Brazilian in World Soccer:
One of the most talented footballers the world has ever seen, the splendour of his intuitive imagination crystallising into outrageously joyous acts, sporting taunts on the pitch.
In games he would regularly fake to shoot. Sometimes he would even fake not to shoot, and score. But that was only after he had his fun.
Goals were the necessary climax but he much preferred the foreplay.
If you could, like Dr. Frankenstein, create the perfect example of a football striker from scratch, the end result would probably look a lot like Gabriel Batistuta.
The imperial majestic striker is the all-time top scorer for Argentina, having smashed 56 goals in 78 matches, and he led the line for the Albicelestes at three different World Cups.
Quick, powerful, agile, strong in the air and a ruthless finisher from inside or outside the box, opposing teams must have lined up at the start of matches with a sense of dread that they would inevitably see "Batigol's" famous machine gun goal celebration at some stage.
The astonishingly gifted attacking midfielder, Michael Laudrup, debuted for Denmark in 1982, at the age of 18, and would go on to play over 100 games for his country.
He may have been absent for Denmark's finest hour, the surprise Euro 1992 triumph, but he did appear at three European Championships and the 1998 World Cup, where he captained the Danes to the quarter-finals, in an international career spanning 16 years.
Laudrup's esteem in the game was matched by few others throughout the '80s and '90s. Brazilian great Romario, quoted here by Sarthak Dubey on goal.com, described him as, "The best player I have ever played with and the fifth best in the history of the game."
Before Raul, before Filippo Inzaghi, before Romario, there was perhaps the finest poacher of them all; Gerd Muller.
A tally of 68 goals in 62 games for West Germany, including 14 in two World Cups, gives some indication of the short, squat striker's impact during his time with the national team.
Muller had a healthy habit of being in the right place (mostly inside the box) at the right time and never stopped scoring despite what appeared to be a modest skill set.
He clocked up 10 goals at Mexico 1970, won the European Championship in 1972, then scored the winning goal in the 1974 World Cup final, before promptly retiring at the age of 28.
Ronaldo may have only reached his absolute peak for a brief few years, but what a devastating goal machine he was during that time. Even when he was somewhat restricted by injuries and weight issues later in his career, he was still a supreme hit man capable of winning matches on his own.
Possessing incredible pace, sensational close control and a fearsome shot, Ronaldo in his pomp was as close to unstoppable as any striker has ever been.
It was a mystery illness that eventually hobbled him in the 1998 World Cup final, after his goals and assists had played a large part in Brazil's run to the final. There were no such impediments in 2002, however, as the powerful No. 9 struck eight goals, including two in the final, as his team claimed the crown.
Has any player who never won a World Cup had such a profound impact on the game of football as Johan Cruyff?
The poster boy for Dutch Total Football, Cruyff's bagful of individual awards gives some reflection of his immense talent, even if he was never able to add the team trophies he wished for at international level.
The centre-forward come winger come playmaking midfielder was a true maestro with the ball at his feet, and he was just as proficient at scoring goals as assisting them.
He won the Ballon d'Or three times and was named the best player at the 1974 World Cup, where his team missed out in the final to West Germany.
The most accomplished defender England has ever produced, Bobby Moore is equally well remembered for being that country's grandest captain.
Of the 108 matches he played for the Three Lions, Moore was captain a remarkable 90 times, most memorably leading his side to a world title on home soil in 1966.
Opponents from all around the world soon learned that taking on Moore one-on-one was the utmost folly; the Englishman was a masterful exponent of the clean, effective tackle few defenders before or since have been able to produce so perfectly, and with such consistency.
This pale-faced assassin of the dominant Spain era is not a highly effective attacking weapon, he is also a joy to watch.
With mesmerizing close ball control, a sumptuous passing game and an advanced sense of tactical positioning, Andres Iniesta gives the Spanish team much of its bite.
The ultimate big-match performer, the midfielder played a massive role in Spain's successive triumphs at Euro 2008, South Africa 2010 and Euro 2012.
His finest moment came when he scored the winning goal against The Netherlands in the 2010 final, where he was voted the best player on the pitch, and he was also named man of the match in the 2012 European Championship final against Italy.
This exquisite midfielder Zico played 71 times for Brazil, scoring 48 goals and appearing in three World Cups.
Famous for his brilliant free-kicks, visionary passing and ability to accelerate past defenders using pace and skill, Zico hit his peak at the 1982 tournament, where he pulled the strings in a fabulous Brazilian side.
Marco Van Basten
Three-time European Footballer of the Year Marco van Basten was exceptional predatory striker of his era, but so much more as well.
He played with the finesse of a dancer, yet was ruthless when it came to dispatching goals, something he did 24 times for Holland in a career which came to a premature end due to persistent injuries.
His crowning achievement was the wonder strike which clinched Euro '88 for The Netherlands. The spectacular volley was his fifth goal of the championships, which were the first major tournament clinched by the Dutch team.
Brazil's 1970 World Cup-winning captain Carlos Alberto was a born leader and brilliant full-back who played 53 times for his country.
Injury shortened his career, but he was still able to make a huge impression as the forebear to today's marauding Brazilian right-backs.
He capped an immense 1970 tournament by scoring one of the all-time great goals in the final—whacking a low thunderbolt into the net following a fabulous team move.
What better way to finish out list than with the exalted West German sweeper, Franz Beckenbauer?
"Der Kaiser" played in three World Cups, winning the tournament as captain in 1974. A defender who could win games with his attacking prowess, Beckenbauer always performed with the utmost class and dignity, as well as composure, determination and bucket loads of skill.