Argentina is, without a doubt, one of the most successful football nations in history. Although heartbreak has outweighed success on the biggest stage, Argentina has won 16 Copa America, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, and 6 FIFA World Youth Championships.
Argentine Clubs have won more Copa Libertadores (22) than Brazilian sides (13), while also exporting some of the great players in the history of the game, including Alfredo Di Stefano, Omar Sivori, Mario Kempes, Daniel Passarella, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, and many more.
Making a list of the best 10 Argentine Players is a nearly impossible task, so I discarded all players who never represented Argentina in a World Cup, which is why Juventus legend Omar Sivori and Real Madrid man Alfredo Di Stefano are not on the list. Although both men had brilliant careers in Argentina with River Plate before crossing the pond, they missed out on the biggest stage before representing Italy and Spain respectively.
I have also discarded players who represented other countries, even if they played in a World Cup for Argentina. For that reason, Luis Monti, who was a runner up with Argentina at Uruguay 1930 before winning the World Cup four years later with Italy, was not included. It is unfair to include such players over those who showed loyalty to the Argentine shirt during their entire careers.
World Cup Experience: 1998, 2002, 2006
Clubs: River Plate, Parma, Lazio, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Milan, Genoa
The ultimate goal poacher, Crespo is the second highest scorer in the history of the Argentine National Team, netting 35 goals in just 64 games. Making his record all the more impressive is that the majority of his appearances came as a substitute while Gabriel Batistuta was Argenitna’s undisputed number nine.
After coming through the youth ranks at River Plate, Crespo debuted for the club under manager Daniel Passarella in 1993 and won three league titles (1993, 1994, and 1996). His greatest achievement for River came during the 1996 Copa Libertadores when he helped Los Millonarios to the title, scoring twice in the Final against Deportivo Cali of Colombia.
With Passarella then the manager of the National Team, Crespo won Silver at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta before moving to Parma in Italy, where he won the Coppa Italy, Italian Super Cup, and UEFA Cup all in 1999.
His success at Parma brought about a big money move to Lazio for what was then a world record of £35 million. In his first year at the club, he paid back the Roman side by being Serie A’s leading scorer with 26 goals.
On the international stage, Crespo was called up to the 1998 World Cup under Passarella and the 2002 World Cup under Marcelo Bielsa, although he only played a bit role, as both managers deemed that Crespo and Batistuta were too similar to play together, perhaps a move that cost Argentina greatly.
At Germany 2006, after bouncing around between Inter, AC Milan, and Chelsea, Crespo was finally given the chance to be a starter at a World Cup at 31 years of age. Although he picked up the Silver Shoe as the tournament’s second leading scorer, Crespo was disappointing for the majority of the time and was substituted as Argentina fell to hosts Germany on penalties.
Crespo then won the 2007 Serie A title with Inter, netting 20 goals, and took one last shot at winning a trophy with Argentina at the 2007 Copa America, where he walked off injured after converting a penalty against Colombia which allowed him to surpass Maradona into second place on Argentina’s scoring charts. With Crespo out for the rest of the tournament, Argentina again fell in the Final to Brazil and Crespo’s international career ended without major triumph.
World Cup Experience: 2006
Although just 22, Messi has put himself among the all-time greats, not only for Argentina, but in the history of world football.
Born in Rosario, Messi came up through the youth ranks of local side Newell’s Old Boys before a growth hormone deficiency carried him across the Atlantic to Barcelona, where he has become arguably the greatest player in the history of the storied Catalan outfit.
La Pulga burst onto the world stage at the age of 18, when he led Argentina to the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, winning the Golden Boot as top scorer and Golden Ball as best player. His success for Argentina carried over to his club side, where Messi became an important player in Barcelona’s run to the 2006 La Liga and Champions League double.
Jose Pekerman rewarded the 18 year old Messi with a call up to the Argentina squad for Germany 2006, where he scored a goal and added an assist in a 6-0 thrashing of Serbia and Montenegro. During Argentina’s elimination at the hands of the hosts, Pekerman made a series of puzzling substitutions including leaving Messi on the bench, causing uproar that eventually led to Pekerman’s resignation.
Back with Barcelona, Messi enjoyed a spectacular 2006-2007 season. Although Barcelona fell just short of the La Liga title, Leo had effectively replaced Ronaldinho as the club’s most important player, striking 16 goals in the league, including a hat trick against Real Madrid in El Clasico.
In the Copa del Rey, Messi scored a goal nearly identical to Maradona’s second against England, bringing about even more comparisons between the two stars. Later in the season, Messi also scored his own version of “the hand of god” against Espanyol.
At the 2007 Copa America, Messi was voted the Best Young Player, but Argentina were shocked by Brazil in the Final despite playing the best football of the tournament. The disappointment carried over to Barcelona, where Messi continued to be arguably the game’s best player, but a series of injuries cost Barcelona a chance at the La Liga title.
Finally, in 2008-2009, Messi put together a complete season, void of injuries. After leading Argentina to the 2008 Olympic Gold, he scored 38 goals for Barcelona, who won the “treble.” Messi finished as the top scorer in the Champions League and won the 2009 FIFA World Player of the Year.
The following season, Leo netted a remarkable 47 goals, winning the Club World Cup, Spanish Super Cup, UEFA Super Cup, and La Liga. He finished as the winner of the Pichichi, awarded to La Liga’s top scorer, the leading scorer of the Champions League, and the European Golden Boot.
Now, all eyes are on Messi to see if he can replicate his form for Barcelona at the highest level.
World Cup Experience: 1986
Ricardo Bochini is a rarity in today’s era: a one club man. For twenty years, El Bocha bled Independiente red and is considered one of the greatest playmakers of all time. Sadly, Bochini is not as well known outside of Argentine because he had a certain Diego Armando Maradona playing in his position, and coach Carlos Bilardo deemed the two plays “too similar” to be on the field at the same time.
Although he would always have to play second fiddle to Maradona at the international level, he was unmatched for Independiente during a sparkling 20 year career in which he won four league titles and four Copa Libertadores crowns. Although he never played in Europe, he proved his worth against the top European clubs, netting the winner against Juventus and legendary goalkeeper Dino Zoff in the Intercontinental Cup against Juventus in 1973 and leading his side to the Intercontinental crown again in 1984 against Liverpool. Bochini also won the Interamerica Cup twice in a match against the best clubs from North America.
Overall, he played a staggering 740 league games for Independiente and is the ultimate idol in the club's history.
Although only a substitute during the 1986 World Cup, he did get on the pitch during the semifinal victory over Belgium and participated in the 1983 Copa America as well.
World Cup Experience: 1958
Clubs: River Plate, Millonarios
"Tarzan" is considered one of the most innovative goalkeepers of all time and was even voted goalkeeper of the century. He debuted with River Plate at the age of 19, when River was by far the greatest side in the world with the likes of Angel Labruna and Alfredo Di Stefano.
He became famous for wearing gloves, but also for his convention of darting off his line to break up attacks. With River, Carrizo won league titles in 1945, ’47, ’52, ’53, ’55, ’56, and ’57.
Unfortunately, his international career did not see the kind of success as his domestic form, as Argentina refused to enter the World Cup in 1950 or 1954 due to political reasons. Carrizo finally got his chance to play in front of the world at Sweden 1958 but, after years of international isolation, Argentina were no match for the more physical and organized Europeans and were home after the group stage.
At the club level, Carrizo represented River Plate over 500 times and set a mark of 769 minutes without conceding a goal.
World Cup Experience: 1958
Clubs: River Plate, Rampla Juniors
No player is a better representation of Club Atletico River Plate than Angelito Labruna. Born in Buenos Aires, Labruna began his career for River in 1939 and played with the Nunez outfit until 1959.
During the 1940’s, Labruna formed part of La Maquina, along with Juan Carlos Muñoz, José Manuel Moreno, Adolfo Pedernera, and Félix Loustau, considered to be the greatest front line in history.
A young Alfredo Di Stefano could not even break into River’s vaunted attack and had to be loaned out to Huracan. Di Stefano called La Maquina the greatest team he ever saw play, even better than the famed Real Madrid sides of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.
Labruna led the Argentine Primera Division in goals in 1943 and 1945 and won a league title in nine of his 20 seasons (1941, 1942, 1945, 1947, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1957) a remarkable record.
To this day, Labruna has played more games for River Plate than anyone (515) and is the leading scorer in the history of the Argentine First Division, striking 293 goals. He also scored 16 times against Boca Juniors in El Superclasico, yet another record held by Angelito.
On the international stage, Labruna was robbed of playing in a World Cup during his prime, as the tournament was canceled due to World War II in 1942 and 1946, while Argentina refused to take part in 1950 and 1954. He did, however, lift the Copa America in 1946 and 1955 before finally playing in the World Cup at Sweden 1958 at the age of 40.
World Cup Experience: 1994, 1998, 2002
Clubs: Newell’s Old Boys, Deportivo Italia River Plate, Boca Juniors, Fiorentina, Roma, Inter Milan, Al Arabi
Gabriel “Batigol” Batistuta is the highest scorer in the history of the Argentine National, Team netting a remarkable 56 goals in 78 games, including 10 in World Cups.
Born in the Santa Fe Province, Bati started off at Newell’s Old Boys of Rosario before making the jump to River Plate, where he won the Argentine Primera Division in 1990. However, his less than stellar relationship with River manager Daniel Passarella saw him do the unthinkable: move to River’s arch-rivals Boca Juniors.
His stellar performances earned him a call up to the National Team under Alfio Basile for the 1991 Copa America in Chile, where he was the tournament’s leading scorer with six goals as Argentina claimed the title.
Two years later, Argentina won the Copa America again, thanks to a double from Batistuta in the Final against Mexico.
At USA 1994, Bati made his first appearance in a World Cup and Argentina began as one of the favorites, after Diego Maradona returned to the National Team. Batistuta scored a hat-trick in the opener against Greece and Argentina looked set to make a run deep into the tournament before Maradona’s doping test came out positive, crushing the spirit of the team and leading to a second round exit at the hands of Romania.
Four years later, Bati was again the main man for Argentina, smashing three goals against Jamaica, making him the only player to score a hat-trick in two different World Cups. He also added goals against Japan and England as Argentina reached the Quarterfinals, where they were undone by a brilliant strike from Dennis Bergkamp.
At the club level, Batistuta is the all time leading scorer for Fiorentina after showing loyalty by staying with the Tuscan outfit for nine seasons despite offers from bigger clubs.
Finally, in 2000, in search for the league title that had alluded him for so many years in Florence, he moved to the capital where he signed with Roma and scored 20 goals in leading the Giallorossi to the Scudetto.
At the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, Batistuta and Argentina were again amongst the favorites, but after Bati netted the only goal in a 1-0 over Nigeria, Argentina collapsed against England and Sweden and missed out on the Second Round, ending Bati’s international career in tears.
Although he never made it past the quarterfinals of the World Cup, Batistuta will always be remembered for his desire and passion when playing for Argentina and, of course, his record setting scoring record.
He now passes time as a polo player back in Argentina.
World Experience: 1974, 1978, 1982
Clubs: Quilmes, Racing, River Plate, Argentinos Juniors, Flamengo, Atletico Madrid, Velez Sarsfield
Fillol was born in the Buenos Aires Province and came up through the youth ranks at provincial club Quilmes, where he was quickly recognized as one of the top goalkeepers in Argentina, bringing about a move to Racing Club, one of Argentina’s traditional “Big Five Clubs.”
His success at Racing earned El Pato a call up to the National Team and a spot at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. Although Fillol was not the number one keeper, he started Argentina’s final match, a 1-1 draw against East Germany in the second group phase.
After Racing, Fillol moved to River Plate, the biggest club in the country. At the time of his transfer in 1974, River had not won the Argentine Primera Division since 1957, but with a squad that also featured Daniel Passarella and Norberto Alonso, River ended its long title drought by claiming both the Metropolitano and Nacional Titles in 1975.
In 1977, River won the title again as Fillol won the Olimpia de Plata award as the best Argentina player, the first goalkeeper to earn the distinction. However,it was in 1978, during Argentina’s first World Cup triumph that Fillol cemented his legacy as one of the greatest keepers of all time.
After beating out Boca Juniors legend Hugo Gatti for the number one jersey, Fillol did not disappoint coach Cesar Luis Menotti, helping Argentina beat Hungary and France in its first two matches before a defeat to Italy for La Seleccion to play their second round matches in Rosario, not in Buenos Aires.
Fillol kept a clean sheet in all three matches, pulling off a number of remarkable stops, including a penalty save against Poland.
Argentina advanced to the Final against the vaunted Dutch team and their Total Football. Although the goals of Mario Kempes stole the show, it was Fillol who kept his side in the match with a series of spectacular saves to keep his team in the match before Kempes and Daniel Bertoni sealed the victory in extra time. Fillol was rightfully voted the Best Goalkeeper at Argentina 1978.
After the World Cup, Fillol continued his brilliant club form at River, winning league titles in 1978, 1980, and 1981. Unfortunately, like the rest of his teammates, Fillol did not take his best form to Spain 1982 and Argentina, who had begun the tournament as favorites, crashed out in the second group phase after losses to Brazil and Italy.
Fillol rounded out his career with successful stints in Brazil with Flamengo and in Spain with Atletico Madrid before returning to Argentina and playing for Racing and Velez Sarsfield.
El Pato will always be remembered for his success with River, winning eight titles, and of course the 1978 World Cup, but his career can perhaps best be summed up by Maradona who called him: “Simply the greatest goalkeeper I’ve ever seen in my life.”
World Cup Experience: 1974, 1978, 1982
Clubs: Instituto, Rosario Central, Valencia, River Plate, Hercules, First Vienna, St. Polten, Kremser, Fernandez Vial
Born in the province of Cordoba, Kempes started his professional career with local club Instituto in 1970 before making the move to one of Argentina’s biggest clubs: Rosario Central.
After finishing as the Argentine Primera Division’s top scorer in 1974, he earned a call up to the National Team for West Germany 1974, a World Cup that ended in embarrassment at the hands of the Dutch and where Kempes failed to make the expected impact.
In 1976, Kempes again led the Argentine League in goals and earned a transfer to Spain, where he played for Valencia and continued his outstanding form, winning El Pichichi as the top scorer in Spain in 1977 and 1978. The brilliance of Kempes was such that manager Cesar Luis Menotti included him despite stating he would only bring players to the World Cup who plied their trade in Argentina. As teammate Osvaldo Ardiles put it: “Mario was the exception to this rule because he was deemed indispensable.”
After a disappointing first round at Argentina 1978, Menotti dropped Kempes into a more withdrawn position, allowing him to make runs from deep, a tactic that worked to perfection as El Matador carved up the Polish and Peruvians with two goals each before saving his best for last against Holland in the Final.
Mario opened the scoring in the final by taking a pass from Leopoldo Luque and finishing coolly past Jan Jongbloed in the Dutch goal. After the Europeans equalized and sent the game to extra time, Kempes gave Argentina the lead with a trademark run in which he skipped past two challenges before lifting the ball over Jongbloed and finishing before two Dutch defenders could clear.
Kempes finished with the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and Golden Ball as the top player.
After leading Valencia to the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup and UEFA Super Cup in 1980, he was the big money signing by River Plate in 1981 in order to counteract Boca Junior’s acquisition of Diego Maradona. The move paid off, and River Plate, inspired by 15 goals from Kempes, including a free kick against Boca Juniors in La Bombonera, won the title.
At Spain 1982, Kempes and Maradona were expected to form the most potent partnership in the World Cup, but it never came off and Argentina went home
too early despite having arguably the tournament’s most talented team.
World Cup Experience: 1978, 1982, 1986
Clubs: River Plate, Fiorentina, Inter Milan
Only one Argentine player can boast a place in both of the country’s World Cup winning sides and that man is Daniel Passarella, “El Kaiser.” Officially, Passarella is the second highest scoring defender of all time and is known well for his aerial ability and ferocious free kicks, but is perhaps best remembered for his leadership and the heart with which he played.
In Argentina, Passarella is the defender to which all young stoppers are compared, although no defender since has matched his intelligence or goalscoring prowess, netting a remarkable 24 goals in 1976 and a total of 99 for River Plate.
Passarella won four Argentine Championships with River Plate and was the heart and soul of Argentina’s successful 1978 World Cup winning campaign, commanding the penalty area and threatening the opposition’s goal with his runs forward, finding the back of the net via a penalty against France in the group stage. As the captain, Passarella was the first Argentine to lift the World Cup trophy, an iconic image for the country.
El Gran Capitan was one of the few bright spots during Argentina’s ill-fated attempt to repeat as World Champions at Spain 1982. The side entered the tournament as favorites with the bulk of the 1978 squad back and bolstered by the inclusion of Diego Maradona, but the weight and pressure of the war for Las Malvinas taking place back home was too much to handle and Argentina crashed out to Brazil and Italy during the second group stage, but not before El Kaiser smashed home a brilliant long range free kick against the eventual champions, Italy, and legendary goalkeeper Dino Zoff. He had managed a goal earlier in the tournament against El Salvador.
After the disappointment, Passarella moved to Italy, where he enjoyed an extremely successful spell at Fiorentina and later at Inter.
Before the 1986 tournament, new coach Carlos Bilardo took the captaincy from Passarella and gave it to Maradona, beginning what would become a long time feud between the two. Eventually, Passarella withdrew from the tournament due to “illness,” it has been well documented that the River Plate legend left due to his feud with El Diez.
Later, Passarella coached the Argentine National Team to the quarterfinals of France 1998, but has continued to butt heads with Maradona to this day. Despite their rocky relationship (to say the least), Maradona had this to say about Passarella in his autobiography: “The best defender I ever saw in my life…The best at heading the ball, and at both ends, something that Argentine football is missing these days. What goes on between us off the pitch has nothing to do with what I think of him as a footballer.”
World Cup Experience: 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994
Clubs: Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys
By the time Diego Maradona made his debut at the age of 15 for Buenos Aires side Argentinos Juniors in 1976, there were already rumors that something special was on the horizon at El Paternal, but nobody could have projected the sheer greatness that ensued.
At the age of just 16, El Pibe de Oro made his debut for the National Team, and at 17 he led the Argentina Primera with 22 goals in 1978. His sensational form earned him a call up to a preliminary list of 25 for Argentina’s 1978 World Cup side, but coach Cesar Luis Menotti decided that Maradona was too young, and the young Diego was one of the three players cut before the start of the tournament.
“At that point, when I was left out of the final squad of twenty-two, I realized that anger was a fuel for me. It really got me revved up. I played best when I was after revenge,” Maradona recounted years later.
Inspired by the disappointment of missing out on Argentina’s first World Cup title, Maradona led the Argentine First Division in scoring for five straight seasons, before making the move to Boca Juniors.
El Diez arrived at Boca and promptly lifted them to the title in his only season, netting 28 goals and securing a then world record transfer fee of 1 million dollars to FC Barcelona.
At Spain 1982, Maradona and Argentina succumbed to the pressure of having to deal with the label of favorites and the realization that their country was losing the war for Las Malvinas, as the government had reported that Argentina were indeed winning the war.
Although Maradona did play well and scored two goals in the group stage, he was man-marked by Claudio Gentile in a loss to Italy before losing his cool and kicking Batista in the groin, resulting in a red card and an abrupt end to his first World Cup.
At Barcelona, Maradona provided many highlights on the pitch, but off it he lived a wild life and clashed with club directors. A spell of hepatitis was followed by a broken leg thanks to a rash tackle at the hands of Andoni Goikoetxea, who Maradona dubbed the “Butcher of Bilbao.”
In 1984, Maradona left Barcelona to join Napoli for another world record transfer fee (he remains the only man to twice break the world record in transfer fees) where he found himself idling near the bottom of Serie A. Thanks to Maradona, Napoli became one of the giants of the European game.
What makes Maradona’s success at Napoli so remarkable is that the club has never come close to replicating its success under El Diez before or after his presence. This is all the more impressive because, at a time Serie A was the best league in the world, with the likes of Platini, Matthaus, Baggio, Maldini, Donadoni, Zenga and many more. But with Maradona, Napoli became the first club to win the “double” by claiming the Scudetto and Copa Italia in 1987, the first such trophies in club history.
In 1989, Maradona lifted the UEFA Cup knocking out Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Stuttgart on the way to the title. In 1990, Napoli won their second Scudetto and the Italian Super Cup, their last trophy to date.
As spectacular as Maradona was at Napoli, his greatest achievement came at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico where he tormented each opponent on the way to the title and won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. His two goals against England will live on in history as his defining moment and, arguably, the defining moment in World Cup history.
Four years later, Maradona and Argentina were far from their best but reached the Final thanks to a series of improbable results, including a win over hosts Italy in Napoli’s stadium and a victory over Brazil thanks to a trademark Maradona run and pass to Claudio Caniggia.
After Italia 1990, Maradona found himself suspended by FIFA after failing an anti-doping test and, although he made comebacks with Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys, and Boca, his best years were behind him.
That was until the 1994 World Cup in the USA, where Maradona and Argentina were the best team of the group stage, before El Diego failed another anti-doping test, prompting questions of a vendetta against him.
Now, 16 years after leaving the World Cup in disgrace, Maradona is back on the biggest stage as Argentina’s manager and can boast one of the tournament’s most talented teams with the likes of Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuain, and Diego Milito. No one will be surprised if Maradona is laughing, finally gaining revenge against FIFA for USA 1994 and Italia 1990, when he saw the Final stripped from him after a series of questionable calls in favor of the Germans.