The 100 Best Footballers of All Time
Who is the greatest soccer player of all time?
Fans, pundits and players have hotly debated the question since the game's inception, arranging and rearranging the hierarchies with every generation of exhausted talent. But besides the insuperable subjectivity of the query itself (meaning that everyone will have there own opinion, thank you very much), several factors further complicate the question—of the vast span of time in which professional soccer has been played, the degree of global exposure between, say, Real Madrid and Penarol and the lack of concrete evidence from soccer's early era. One cannot honestly compare the '30's player of which there is no video evidence with a star like Cantona, living from first to last in front of the camera. That said, there are a few benchmarks that do make such distinctions possible.
On my scale, three factors matter. First, pure ability—easy. Second, length of career. Three—and this is usually for tiebreakers—permanence of contribution to sport. World Cups, Continental Cups, championships, Golden Balls, etc. also play a part. I should also note that their are no players listed who still play in Europe—so no Messi etc. There are a few who are still active-in less challenging or at least less prestigious leagues-whose contributions to soccer history are essentially finished.
So that's that. I'm sure this list will either omit or misplace your favorite player, but that's how it is. Please forgive the liberal use of superlatives and feel free to comment should the urge strike you.
And now, in your correspondent's humble opinion, the 100 greatest players of all time.
100. Davor Suker
Croatia’s top scorer, Davor Suker was one of La Liga’s most consecutive goal scorers, breaking out with Sevilla as one of the Liga’s top scorers, Suker transferred to Real Madrid after five years and would go onto to win La Liga and Champions League. He would truly establish hime at the ’98 World Cup, where’d he win the Golden Boot, scoring six goals out of seven.
99. Julio Cesar Romero
Romero, Paraguay's foremost contribution to the game, was a creative playmaker known for his speed and accuracy of the pass. He was elected the best player in South America in 1985. Romero is considered the best player in the history of Rio’s Fluminese, where he won the club’s only title. He is also credited with dragging the Paraguay national team single-handedly to its second and last major trophy, the Copa America.
98. Patrick Kluivert
The “Dutch Ronaldo,” for his speed and a nimbleness at odds with his stature Kluivert, leads the Netherlands in most goals scored at 40. While at Ajax, he cam of the bench in the Champions League Final to score and seal the club’s win over Milan. He would enjoy the heart of his success at Barcelona, winning La Liga and score 90 goals out of 180 appearances.
97. Bruno Conti
The archetypical winger par excellence, Bruno Conti was and is a hero of Rome, where he played 16 seasons as part of the historic nucleus of talent that included Falcao, Agostin Di Bartolomei and Roberto Pruzzo, winning the Scudetto and the Champions Cup in ’83 and ’84, respectively. He was instrumental in Italy conquest of the ’82 World Cup, creating two of the three goals that knocked out title pretenders Germany. Pele would deem him the best player of the tournament
96. Hector Scarone
Playing 52 games for Uruguay, Hector Scarone’s 31 goals still stands as the most ever, despite having retired over 80 years ago. Nicknamed the “Gardel del futbol”—after gardel, the king of the tango—Scarone remains one of the pre-war and absolute greats. With Nacional, Scarone would win eight Uruguayan championships when that actually meant something. More importantly, Scarone would win four South American Championships and the first-ever edition of the World Cup, lighting up the tournament with a style and substance hitherto unknown.
95. Gabriel Batistuta
Gabriel Batistuta has a slimmer CV than most on this list, but the paucity of trophies understates “Batigols” prolific talent in front of goal. Argentina’s leading goal scorer of all time (56) and ninth in the Serie A(184) Batistuta was capable of the incredible as well as the inspiring, having stayed with club Fiorentina through relegation. He would win his lone trophy with AS Roma a few years later.
94. Elias Figueroa
A centerback averse to violence, Elias Figuero excelled in the heart of the defense with an elegant tactically awareness and constant interception of the opposition’s passes. The best player to ever emerge from the nation of Chile, he represented his country 47 time throughout his career and through three different World Cups. He played for several clubs during his long career, notably his hometown club Santiago Wanderers, Brazilian club Internacional and Uruguayan club Penarol. Despite playing an underappreciated defensive position, he was twice awarded the Brazilian Player of the year whilst playing for as well as the South American Footballer of the Year three times in a row.
93. Enzo Francescoli
“El Principe” (the Prince), Enzo Francescoli, was a graceful, fluid dribbler and goal scorer whom Zidane cites as his primary footballing inspiration. The most capped outfield player for the Uruguayan national team (72 appearance), he made his impact most with River Plate in Buenos Aires, winning five titles and the Copa Libertadores. In Europe he played for Marseille, Cagliari and Torino, winning the Ligue with Marseille
92. Edgar Davids
Hands down the greatest midfield boss ever. Nicknamed “The Pitbull” by Louis van Gaal, Davids combined daring ball skills with a take-no-prisoners manhandling of the field. Davids won three Eredivisie with Ajax, three Scudetti with Juventus and a Champions league trophy in 1995. Also, the most visually arresting player, given his Predator-like dreads and those goggles (to protect his eyes after glaucoma surgery).
91. Claudio Taffarel
Brazil’s best goalkeeper ever, Taffarel has distinguished himself as the ultimate stopper in the land of plenty (of goals). Domestically, Taffarel played at Internacional, Parma, Reggianoa and Atletico Mineiro, but it would be at Galatasary that he would enjoy his greatest club successes, part of a team that dominated Turkish football for three years in row, won the UEFA Cup-beating out Arsenal, where Taffarel was decreed the man of the match and defeated Real Madrid in the Super Cup. Internationally, Taffarel remains Brazil’s most capped goalie, having played in three World Cup tournaments. In the ’94 WC, which Brazil would go on to win, Taffarel would allow a meager three goals from open play throughout the tournament. Finally, with Brazile, Taffarel would also win the Copa America twice.
90. Luigi Riva
A pure attacking force, Luigi Riva is the the all-time leading scorer for the Italian national team and is regarded as one of the best forwards of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. Nicknamed “the Roll of Thunder”, physical enough to contest a loose ball, unbeatable in the short burst of speed and with a dry technical ability on the ball, Riva’s composure in front of goal earned Cagliari its only scudetto and Italy the 1968 European Championship.
89. Paul Gascoigne
Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne was a judicious midfielder, reckless, tenacious and hell-bent on winning. Constantly hamstrung by injuries, Gascoigne nevertheless was capable of deft passes and defense-splitting runs and, when on his game, could singularly be the difference-maker for his side. Gascoigne won the FA Cup with Tottenham, though in the process, he would bust the cruciate ligaments that would hinder him for the rests of his career.
88. Pavel Nedved
Nedved squeaks in this list, having retired just last year. A left-sided midfielder of grit and grace, the flaxen-haired nedved broke out at Lazio won the Ballon d’Or at Juventus in 2003 after dragging the Piemontese side to the UCL final, a final which the “furia ceca” was forced to miss through suspension and which Juventus duly lost to AC Milan. Nedved was also one of the few “senator” players to stick with Juventus through scandal and relegation, and now sits on the board of the club.
At his best, Rui Costa was capable of doing it all—the feints, the unseaming pass behind the defense, the vicious long range booter—and he did it with style. The epitome of a number 10, Costa was a catalyst for team action, constantly roaming the pitch, dictating the tempo. At Fiorentina, combed with the legendary Batistuta, Costa played the best football of his career, the two of them upholding a sagging and rather mediocre team.
86. Abedi Pelè
A consistent deliverer of the spectacular, Abedi Pele is Africa’s most famous, talented and decorated player of all time. An attacking midfielder/winger, he combined superlative dribbling ability with a penchant for ludicrous, near impossible goals. With Marseille, he would win the French side’s only Champions League trophy, being voted man of the match in the final against Milan. He has played for Ghana 73 times and remains its top goal scorer for Ghana's Black Stars, despite never having played as a striker.
85. Ruud Gullit
Captain of of the Netherlands national team that was victorious at Euro 88, Gullit was a versatile player, bulky but balanced, with a poise that rendered him unerring in the penalty box. He broke out at PSV, scoring 46 goals in 68 league appearances and earning his first World Player of the Year award. Silvio Berlusconi shelled out a then world record price to bring Gullit to AC Milan where he, Van Basten and Rijkaard would lead the rossoneri to a half-decade of dominance at home and abroad, collecting three Scudetti and two European championships.
84. Alan Shearer
Perhaps the greatest player ever to don the Three Lions kit, Alan shearer was the most “straight-forward”, as Laurie McMenemy described it, of strikers. Aggression, endurance, the ability to be everywhere on the pitch. Scoring a hat trick on his debut at Southampton, Shearer would go on to score 283 in England’s top flight, winning the Premier League with Blackburn in 1995 after knocking in 34 goals.
83. John Charles
Nicknamed “The Gentle Giant” for his stature and mellow attitude—Charles never received a yellow card in his entire career—John Charles became one of the few British imports to thrive in the Serie A. Given his world-class ability and range as both a center forward and a center back, Charles would win three Scudetti for Juventus, paired against the mercurial Omar Sivori, and cemented his status as one of the all-time great Welsh players.
82. Oleg Blohkin
Blohkin could be defined as the most successful product of the Soviet footballing system. An unstoppable force at Dinamo Kiev where he won the Ballon D’Or as well as eight Russian Championships, Speedy, a nickname given to dribbling and a potent but precise left foot, Blohkin is Russia’s all-time leading goal scorer with 42 goals, besides having appeared 112 times (also the record). Blokhin helmed the Dynamo side that won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1975 and 1986, scoring a goal in each final.
81. Josè Altafini
An attacker of potent physicality, Altafini possessed an astute eye for goal coupled with an impressive heading ability. Besides being one of very few to represent two different nations at the World Cup Finals (Brazil and Italy) Altafini was part of the '63 Milan side that won the rossoneri's first European title. He won two Scudetti with MIlan and two with Juventus, playing 459 games in Serie A and scoring 216 goals.
80. Jean-Pierre Papin
Jean-Pierre Papin may not have been the fastest, not the prettiest player on the pitch, but the man could score almost at will. At Marseille, Papin began a phenomenal goal record that enable the team to win four French titles in a row and was the league’s top scorer for five consecutive seasons. Transferred to AC Milan for a record breaking 10 million pounds, with whom Papin would win two Scudetti and finish top scorer his first year. He would win the UEFA cup with Bayern Munich in ’96, though, playing a less pivotal role.
79. Paolo Rossi
World champion in 1982 with the Italian national team, Paolo Rossi sealed his place in the history books with his sixth goal that won Italy the competition (and himself the Golden Ball). Only he, Mario Kempes and Ronaldo have won been World Cup winners, top scorers and Golden Ball recipients in the same year. His poacher's hat-trick against Brazil and the goal against West Germany in the final particularly stand out. At the club level with Juventus, he would win two Scudetti and the Champions Cup. In other news, he also participated in the most recent edition of the Italian version of Dancing with the Stars.
78. Zbigniew Boniek
Nicknamed "Dark Beauty," as he would play better in late-night European competition than domestic, Boniek was a thin, agile rocket of a midfielder. Notorious for rapid incursion from the wings, he was equally powerful with his left as his right foot. In the 1985 European Cup final against Liverpool, Boniek's incursion into the area drew the penalty that won Juventus the title.
77. Mario Kempes
Confusingly named both “The Bull” and “The Matador“ Kempes was nicknamed El toro and El Matador. An energetic whirlwind, Kempes would bewilder defenders by staying high and out of the box before surging forward at an opportune moment. Scoring 85 out of 105 appearances at local outfit Rosario Central, Kempes then moved to Valencia, where he won two consecutive Pichichi’s.
At Valencia, he won the Copa del Rey, the European Cup Winners' Cup and the UEFA Super Cup. For Argentina, he scored 43 caps for Argentina and scored 20 times, representing his country in three World Cups in 1974, 1978 and 1982 and winning the competition in 1978. He was the leading goal scorer in the 1978 tournament, scoring six goals, including two in the final itself. In ’78, he was voted South American Footballer of the year.
76. Giampiero Boniperti
One third of the “Magical Trio” that included John Charles and Omar Sivori, Boniperti is a standard-bearer and hero among Juventus ultras. Having scored 182 goals among all competitions, Boniperti had enjoyed the club’s record until a certain Del Piero cam along. A flexible forward, Boniperti could play anywhere in the final third of the pitch. At just 20 years of age, he scored 27 goals and won the league's top scorer award. In all, he won five championships with Juve.
75. Emilio Butragueno
Known as the Vulture for his tendency to hover at the edge of the offside trap Emilio Butragueno epitomized an era of Real Madrid football. Quietly industrious on the field and off, Butrageuno was content to let his lay speak for itself. With La Quinta del Buitre (The Vulture’s Cohort) at his side, Butragueno won six league titles, two Spanish Cups, two Spanish Super Cups, two UEFA Cups and a Spanish League Cup and topped it all of with the Pichichi trophy in 1990/91 season as the top scorer in La Liga. In all, he played 341 games and 123 goals for his main club.
74. Dino Zoff
The oldest winner of the world cup (’82, age of 40), Zoff was was a goalie of outstanding reflex, who holds the record for longest clean sheet (1142 minutes, from September '72 to June '74). Capped 112 times, he is thirdin the all-time list after Maldini and Cannavaro). With Juventus, he won five titles and the UEFA cup over 11 years.
73. Fernando Hierro
Hierro scored a century of goals with real Madrid over 439 appearances, a sum even more astonishing given he played as a central defender (though equally comfortably as a defensive midfielder) who knew how to bring the ball up the field and restart the attack. Combining passing vision with solid defense, Hierro would assume the mantle of the best sweeper in Europe left vacant by a retiring Baresi. With Real Madrid, Hierro would win three Champions League trophies and four La Ligas over 15 years.
72. Stanley Matthews
A vegetarian before it was cool, Stanley Matthews’ diet and lifestyle enabled him to play top-level until he was 50 years old. He is the oldest person to play in the top-division and represent England at the International. “The Wizard of the Dribble” Matthews is the only player to have been knighted while still playing. For good measure, he was the first winner of the European Footballer of the Year trophy as well as the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award.
71. George Weah
A forward of exceptional pace and talent, Weah is the only African to have to win FIFA World Player of the Year, an award accompanied by the Ballon D’Or, European Footballer of the Year and African Footballer of the Year. He won the French league with PSG and two scudetti with Milan.
70. Gordon Banks
Gordon Banks was the goalie for the England national team that won the World Cup, playing so well that the goal was deemed as “Safe as the Banks of England." Originally an apprentice bricklayer, Banks possessed an agility and prescient positional sense that made him capable of brilliant saves, most notably the save of Pelè’s header in the 1970 World Cup, now deemed the greatest save ever.
Nicknamed “Patada Atòmica” for his his concussive free kicks, passing, trickery (he invented the elasticò move made famous by Ronaldinho) and a moustache that would put Super Mario to shame, Rivelino is, among many other things, credited with the fastest goal in football, scoring directly from kick-off when he noticed the opposing goalie still on his knees in pre-match prayer. Rivelino was one of the greatest offensive midfielders in the world in his prime and spent most of his career in Corinthians, scoring 141. He was an integral component to the WC-winning ’70 side, scoring a three, including the free-kick missile against the Czechs that got him his sobriquet.
68. Cesar Rodriguez Alvarez
Cesar Rodriguez Alvarez, Catalan by birth, played 17 seasons in a blaugrana shirt and remains the club’s top scorer with a total of 235 goals. A top class striker noted for his quickness, his ability to shoot with both feet, his scoring and his powerful header, Alvarez helped Barcelona win five League championships and two Spanish Cups. Today, he is buried in Catalonia.
67. Johann Neeskens
Johann Neeskens, aka “Johann the Second” (Cruyff beinG number one), was a Dutch midfielder, proponent of Total football and part of the greatest team to never win the World Cup, the ’74 and ’78 Dutch Squad. After winning a hat-trick of UEFA cups with Ajax when the club was at the pinnacle of its success, Neeskens transferred to Barcelona with mentor Cruyff; their appearance is creditied with infusing the Catalan side with its attack-minded “tiki-taka” style for which they are now so famous. Check his goal against Brazil in the ’74 WC if you remain unimpressed.
66. Oliver Kahn
A formidable, intimidating goalie, Kahn boasts an incredible record of success, having won eight German championships, six German cups, the UEFA Cup, the UEFA Champions League and the Intercontinental Cup. He would be designated the best European goalie for four consecutive seasons, three IFFHS World's Best Goalkeeper of the Year awards the Golden Ball at the 2002 FIFA World Cup and two German Footballer of the Year trophies. King Kahn would make 429 appearances for Bayern in all.
65. Lillian Thuram
A versatile man-marker and the most-capped French player ever, Thuram could play on the right as well as the center of the back four. For France, he won the '98 World Cup, quickly followed by the 2000 European title, being part of the first team to ever do so. He made his name at Parma, winning the UEFA cup, before sold to Juventus following the sale of Zinedine Zidane. He won four Scudetti with Juventus (two revoked) before moving on to Barcelona in the wake of Calciopoli. Now, Thuram fights racism and helps with volunteer efforts.
64. Kevin Keegan
Winner of three league titles for Liverpool, as well as the European Cup and UEFA Cup, Kevin Keegan was one of the first English players to assume the mantle of global superstar. Originally a midfielder, his talents on the ball prompted the Liverpool manager to move him up front, where he began a fruitful partnership with John Toshack that netted Liverpool one of its most successful eras ever.
63. Steve Bloomer
It takes a special person to organize a football match in the middle of a German internment camp. But that is exactly what “The Pride of Derby” did: When taken prisoner at the outbreak of WWI—Bloomer was coaching a German team—he set up a league among the 5,000 prisoners and guards that would attract up to 1,000 spectators. A legend at Derby County—his bust sits outside the stadium, and the anthem “Steve Bloomer’s Watchin’” is played before every home game—he would score 317 goals in 536 First Division games, many of them off his trademark “daisy-cutter”. He remains the second-highest goal-scorer of all-time in England.
A member of the legendary 1970 Brazil side considered the best attacking squad in footballing history, Jairzinho was a winger of brutal quickness and fantastic technical ability. He is one of three players to have scored in every game of the tournament. Though he would play most of his career in Brazil, his exploits on the international stage earned him a place on this list.
61. Fabio Cannavaro
Captain of a World Cup winning side, winner of two Scudetti (later revoked) and two La Ligas, and one of the few defenders to win the Ballon D'or, Fabio Cannavaro is one of the greatest soccer players in recent memory. Prescient in his positioning, immaculate in his tackles, his virtuoso displays at the 2006 World Cup remain one of the most stupefying performances in modern memory. Heck, he even made Materazzi look like a decent player.
60. Uwe Seeler
A talented forward celebrated for his audacity and overhead kicks, Seeler would score 137 goals in the Bundesliga with his team Hamburg, where he’d win the ’60 Championshp. Winner of German Footballer of the year three times, and the top striker in Germany in the Bundesliga’s inaugural season, Seeler also contributed to the national team, becoming the first player to score in four different World Cups, beating Pele by mere minutes. Tied for third in terms of both WC matches and playing times, Seeler scored 43 times out of 72 appearances for Germany.
A roaming midfielder, excellent juggler and finisher with a powerful and extremely accurate shot, with a talent for the vertical ball and the author of the back heel, Socrates played for, and captained, Brazil in the 1982 World Cup as one of the best teams to have never won the World Cup. A bastion of Corinthians, Socrates leveraged his popularity and the club's to promote social change against the military dictatorship then in power.
58. Dennis Bergkamp
A product of Ajax’s famed youth system, Bergkamp played his best as a second striker or playmaker with delightful result. In Amsterdam, he would score 122 goals out of 239 appearances before transferring to Arsenal. Significant in that he was one of the first premier players to come to England after the Heysel disaster, Bergkamp relieved an Arsenal team in the depths of an unforeseen medioctiry. He would add three leagues to the Highbury trophy case as well as personal FWA and PFA awards.
57. Luis Suarez
Not the homonymous player from Uruguay known for the errant hand. “Luisito” was the first Spanish player to win the European Player of the Year award, given for his contributions to Barcelona, where he won two leagues. Suarez excelled on the inside left of midfield, where he would collect the ball at the back and through invention and fleetness of foot would work it up to the attacker. At Inter—where he became the most expensive transfer in history, to that point—Suarez would win three Scudetti. He remains the only non-naturalized Spaniard to win the European Player of the Year award.
56. Hans Krankl
Winner of the European Golden shoe with the little-pond outfit of Rapid Wien, Krankl went on to win the UEFA Cup Winner’s cup in 1979 with Barcelona, scoring 31 out of 39 appearances, the top in the Primera. In all, Krankl would score 392 goals in a career spanning 18 years. Today, Krankl serves as a commentator and apparently enjoys moderate success on the Austrian music charts. That..is a little strange.
55. Omar Sivori
His nickname “Big Head” says it all. Sivori came to fame as a member of Argentina’s “Trio of Death” that included Humberto Maschio and Antonio Angellini. Leaving River Plate one of the premier clubs in Argentina, Sivori transferred to a Juventus that would dominate the Italian league as well. A strutting, audaciously talented primadonna, Sivori formed a fearsome partnership with the Welshman John Charles and Giampiero Boniperti, leading the Turin side to three Scudetti. Sivori would win the Ballon D’Or while he was there and remains one of the team’s top scorers (he also holds the record for most goals in a single game, a staggering six).
54. Silvio Piola
A hero and co-founder of the fanatical calcio craze in Italy, Piola singlehandedly inspired a nation to start kicking the ball around. Some 60 years after his retirement, Piola still holds the record for most goals in Serie A, at an insuperably high 274; second place is 49 goals back. He remains the highest-scoring player for three different teams: Pro Vercelli, Lazio and Novara. He has scored the most open-play goals in a single game in Serie A (six), and for good measure, he remains the oldest goal scorer in Serie A at 40 years of age. He is also apocryphally credited with inventing the bicycle-kick, though the authorship is disputed. Piola won Italy’s first World Cup in 1938, scoring two goals in the final. He is also the fourth highest on all-time appearances for Italy.
The inventor of the “trivela” (a shot with the outside of the boot), participant in three World Cups, two of which he won, Didi had the endurance, passing accuracy and craftiness to establish himself as one of the best midfielder in history. The midfield maestro has scored 20 goals for Brazil, of which a dozen where from free kick. His passing at the '58 World Cup in particular was one of the greatest orchestrating performance of all time.
52. Josef Masopust
Lead Czechoslovakia to the final against Brazil in ’62, where he scored the opening goal of the game (which they lost 3-1). Won the Golden Ball the same year.
51. Karl-Heinze Rummenigge
Three times the top scorer of the Bundesliga, number 10 on the all-time list and second for Bayern (second after Muller), and a fantastically talented dribbler twice honored with European Footballer of the Year, Rummenigge a able to skirt defenders with an embarrassing ease. At Bayern, he would enjoy consistent success, as they won the Intercontinental Cup and the European Cup, as well as two league titles and two domestic cups. With Germany, he would finish runner-up twice in a row, in ’82 and ’86.
50. Gheorghe Hagi
Nicknamed “the Maradona of the carpathians” as well as "the commander", Hagi cemented a reputation as one of the best attacking midfielders of all time. Hagi could outdribble an opponent only to lash in a stunning, one in a million left footers as well as incredible ball control and passing abilities. Holds second most Romania caps and most goals. A wandering goal scorer, Hagi was one of the few to play for both Madrid and Barcelona (sandwiching a stint at brescia), scoring in all, a whopping 236 goals. He won four titles and the UEFA cup.
49. Lev Yashin
Lev Yashin was everything the Soviet Union could have wanted of an athlete proletarian. Born into the conflagration of world war, Yashin bulked up when he worked at a munitions depot. Following his stand-out play, he would be signed for Dinamo Moscow, the club he would stay at for his entire career. At Dinamo, Yashin would win the championship five times while personally being voted World’s Best Goalkeeper a record six times, keeping 270 clean sheets and putatively saving around 150 penalties in his career. To this day, he remains the only goalie to have won the “European Player of the Year” award.
48. Ronald Koeman
The rare defender with a sweet long shot and a rockin’ free kick. His goal from outside the area against Porto for Barcelona is one of the all-time great highlight reels. Scoring 192 goals as a defender! “
During his career, he won two UEFA European Cup titles, five Dutch championships, three Dutch Cups, four Spanish championships, one Spanish Cup and he was also in the winning Dutch national team at the UEFA Euro 1988. “Unfortunately, he was nicknamed “snowflake after the albino gorilla in Barcelona. Cant win ‘em all.
47. Giovanni Rivera
Giovanni Rivera, nicknamed “abatino” “little abbot” for his diminutive stature and pious appearance, was the first Italian to win the Ballon D’or, who played as a winger and playmaker for AC Milan. Winner of Euro ’68, Rivera militated in the red and black for 19 season, playing a staggering 658 games and scoring 164 goals despite his receded position. At AC, Rivera won three Scudetti and two European cups. Since 1987, Rivera has taken an active part in Italian politics and currently runs Italy’s Youth Federation. An idol of the Curva Sud, Rivera is named in at least four of Milan’s fight songs.
46. Carlos Alberto
Captain of the Brazil team that won the ’70 World Cup, Carlos Alberto redefined the role of center-back as one capable of both defense and offense. He is responsible for one of the greatest goals in World Cup history, calmly driving the ball up the wing to score a brilliant bullet against Italy in the final. With Santos, he would make 445 appearance and win four championships.
45. Giacinto Facchetti
In a footballing era defined by a defensive immobility, Facchetti would mold the position of right back in his own image, transforming an ancillary rearguard hold into the critical attacking outlet it has become. A smooth, domineering right-back Facchetti played his entire career in “La Grande Inter” (The Great Inter) that would dominate the Italian peninsula throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, making 643 appearances and scoring 75 goals. With Inter, Facchetti would win the European Cup twice in a row (‘64 and 65), a trophy that would not return to the nerazzuri until the arrival of a certain Portuguese loudmouth named Mourinho. Giacinto Facchetti would also play 94 times for Italy, 70 of which he would be captain.
44. Marcel Desailly
The second-highest capped player for France, Marcel Desailly was a superlative wingback for Les Blues, whom he captained after the retirement of Didier Deschamps. With France Desailly, he would win the World Cup in 1998 and then Euro 2000. He would become the first player to consecutively win two Champions League with two different teams: Marseille in ’93 and Milan in ’94. He would go on to win two Scudetti with Milan in ’94 and ’96.
43. Rafael "Pichichi" Aranzadi
A name unknown besides the eponymous trophy awarded to La Liga’s top scorer, Rafael Moreno Aranzadi, aka “Pichichi” (Little Duck), played a pivotal role in the explosive popularity of soccer at the turn of the 20th century , establishing the Basque club Athletic Bilbao’s relentless domination of the nascent Spanish league. Pichichi would score 200 goals out of 170 appearances at Bilbao, a fantastic sum cut short by a fatal bout of typhus at age 29. Today, his bust sits outside Bilbao’s San Mamés Stadium.
If Romario, Rio’s newest mayoral candidate, is as smooth a politician as he was a goalscorer, his opponents won’t stand a chance. The classic “have foot, will travel” goalscorer, Romario has played on no less five continents, scoring over 1000 goals in the process (Apocryphal. FIFA lists him at 929 goals). As that staggering number can attest, the man could put ‘em away- and in ‘94 he did it all year long. Spanish Cup, La Liga Top Scorer, World Player of the Year, Best Player of World Cup ‘94 and, of course, the World Cup itself...he probably pulled a muscle carrying all those awards. Unfortunately, the high water mark was just that- an all too temporary plateau. He would spend the better part of the next 13 years bouncing around the world, always consistent but never again tapping that magical vein of form that had captivated the world in US ‘94. That rollercoaster consistency-and the fact that he played a huge portion of his career in less competitive leagues- penalizes him in the hierarchy here, but there’s no denying how friggin’ good he was.
41. Gunnar Nordahl
Gunnar Nordahl was a Swedish forward famous in the ‘40s and 50’s who won the capocannoniere title five time. The second highest goal-scorer in Serie A (and the highest-scoring foreigner), Gunnar scored 225 in his Italian career, 210 of which he did with AC Milan, with who he won two Scudetti. He remains the highest scorer in Milan’s history.
Known as the "White Pelé" for his skill, finishing ability and passing quality, Zico’s direction of the ball remains legendary and quite possibly unsurpassed. Gifted with a curving free kick as well as a tactical genius, Zico lit up the early eighties and is often considered the greatest player of that era. Never imported to Europe, Zico remained in Brazil for his career (check). He would score 52 goals in 52 matches for Brazil, representing them at three different World Cups, none of which they won (though ’82 is considered one of the greatest Selecao sides ever). Given his lack of trophies, Zico is often considered one of the best players in football history to not have won the World Cup. In ’77, he was awarded South American Player of the Year, and in ’83, he would receive World Player of the Year.
39. Eric Cantona
A historic personality known for his exquisite goals as much as his short fuse and kung-fu kicks on unsuspecting fans. An inspired and talented striker, Eric Cantona employed finesse and an author’s view of the pitch to create opportunities and score. Considered one off the best players in the Premier League, Cantona rescued a middling Manchester Side and returned it to the pinnacle of international football. Such skill, combined with frequent bouts of madness, made him one of the most eminently watchable figures on the pitch.
38. Denis Law
Buoyed by a flair for the game, Denis Law is the only Scottish player to win the Eurpean Footballer award (while at Manchest United). Manchester’s second highest goal scorer behind Bobby Charlton, a statue at Stratford End commemorates “The King” and his contribution to the Red Devil. During his 11 years at Manchester, he scored 237 goals in 409 and won two leagues and a European Cup. He is also holds the Man Utd’s record for most goals in a season with 46. Law played for Scotland a total of 55 times and jointly holds the Scottish record for goals at 30.
Known as “The Witch,” the skill and speed of the winger Amancio startled and astonished foreigners unfamiliar with the Real Madrid’s sensational attacking force. With his 119 goals in 344 games, Real Madrid won nine Spanish leagues and European cup in ’65, while Amancio would win Euro ’64 with the Spanish national team.
A left-footed player equipped with exquisite technique, great dribbling ability, powerful shot and facility with the goal, Rivaldo was honored with FIFA World Player of the Year, Ballon d'Or winner and European Footballer of the Year, all within a year. With Barcelona, he won two Spanish a Copa del Rey in 1998, a European Supercup in 1998 and a Catalan Cup in 2000. In 2003, after a transfer to AC Milan, he won a Champions League and a Scudetto. In 2002, he captained the Brazil team to the World Cup.
35. Rudi Voller
The ultimate poacher, Rudi Voller scored 258 goals for his club sides, as well as 47 for the West Germans (eight of which in finals) and won the 1990 World Cup. Nicknamed "the Flying German" for speed and predatory instincts, Voller once scored mid-goalie punt. Today, Voller runs Bayer Leverkeusen’s transfer activity.
34. George Best
When standing and sober, George Best did everything in his power to live up to the standards of his last name. A sturdy winger who could seemingly do everything, Best won the European Cup with Manchester United in addition to two league titles and European Footballer of the year. Unfortunately, while Best could do no wrong on the field, it seemed he could do no right off it. Constantly awash in “booze and birds”(as he termed them), Best’s career lasted a fragile six years at the pinnacle of the game before his salacious exploits took their toll. Best would die at the age of 59, after a forced liver transplant caused an infection.
33. Jurgen Klinsmann
A legendary player and coach, Klinsmann led a rampant German side to the ’90 World Cup and the ’96 Euro championship. A dominant striker of the ‘90’s, Klinsmann has scored in every international competition he has entered, beginning with the Euro ’88 and climaxing with the ’98 World Cup. With Bayern, Klinsmann would win the UEFA Cup (in which he’d set the record for most goals in a season) as well as a Bundesliga title. In all, he’d score 232 at the club level and 47 internationally.
32. Claudio Gentile
In English, “gentile” means gentle. A misnomer if there ever was one. The Times listed Gentile as one of the roughest players ever, part of the deadly trio that included Bergomi and Tardelli. That said, Gentile was only sent off once in his career after receiving two yellow cards. A man-marking right’back, Gentile had perfect timing for the clean challenge and never refrained from the tough tackles. At Juventus he appeared almost 300 times, winning six national titles and two European titles. Gentile appeared for Italy in two World Cup tournaments and was on the field for the ’82 final won by the Italians. His marking of Maradona and Zico at that tournament remains legendary.
31. Luis Figo
There are few players who have worn both the merengue and the blaugrana. Fewer still are those who did so with some success. Luis Figo of Portugal was one of these.
One of Portugal’s Golden Generation (tangent: does every country have its own Golden Generation? Seems like it), Luis Figo was a stunningly fast winger, equipped with the whole nine-yards- fancy step-overs, phenomenal first touch and a bomb shot (including free-kicks). Over the course of a twenty year first-team career (good lord) and between four different clubs (Sporting CP, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter) he won more awards than you could shake a very shakeable stick at. In abridged form: two La Liga titles with both Barcelona and Real Madrid (four total), four Serie A titles, a Champions League and a Ballon D’Or. Whew. Also, his transfer from Barcelona to Madrid set the world record at 65 million pounds, though not getting knifed for doing so seems like a bigger deal.
30. Lothar Matthaus
When Maradona defines someone as “The best rival I’ve ever had," you listen.
Matthaus played in five World Cups, the most ever for an outfield player, and he holds the record for most WC matches ever played (25). Matthaus started his career as an attacking midfielder equipped with a positional clairvoyance and a watchmaker’s sense for timing; he pretty much could do anything.
As he aged, Matthaus gravitated further and further towards the bottom of the pitch, retaining a formidable influence over the run of play. In 1990, he captained West Germany to the 1990 World Cup, after which he was named European and World Footballer of the year. Besides the torrent of plaudits received at the international level, Matthaus won a scudetto with Inter Milan, four Bundesliga titles and two UEFA Championships. A harsh-spoken cankicker, Matthaus may not be the most personable of footballers, but his resume speaks for itself.
29. Hugo Sanchez
The second highest goal scorer in La Liga, Hugo Sanchez lit up the Bernabeu, winning the Pichchi trophy five times (four of which were consecutive) and five consecutive league titles with Madrid for a total of 207 out of 283 appearances. He was especially prolific in Europe, scoring 47 goals in 45 games, earning the European Golden Boot in ’89-’90. He also played for the Mexican national team for 17 years and through three World Cups.
28. Bobby Moore
One of the greatest English outfield players ever, Moore captained the England team that won their only World Cup in 1966. Second on the all-time caps list for England at 108, Moore also played every minute of every game he was capped for. The youngest man ever to captain England at the senior level (aged 22). Won the FA cup with West Ham as well as the UEFA Cup. Pele described him as the greatest defender he ever played, while Jock Stein, a famous Scottish manager said “There should be a law against him. He knows what's happening 20 minutes before everyone else.”
How the mighty have fallen. A supremely talented individual player in his youth, Ronaldinho was a joy to watch: quick, superlatively talented on the ball and with a penchant for the cheeky and the audacious that made him a true crowd-pleaser, talents for which he would be draped in individual awards. With Brazil, he won the 2002 edition of the World Cup in which he scored his now famous free-kick to England's damage. At the club level, he won two La Ligas and a Champions League with Barcelona. Add on top the two FIFA World Player of the Year awards, just for good measure.
Unfortunately, Ronaldinho did not age well, his predilections for rum and late-night sambas taking a heavy toll that saw his form spiral quickly into mediocrity at AC MIlan and now Flamengo.
Has won everything there is to win. Originally a midfielder, Cafu was moved to the wingback position he would dominate for decades. Nicknamed the “express train," Cafu won both the ’94 and ’02 editions of the World, two scudetti—one with Rome, one with Milan—Champions League in ’07 and the World Club Cup. Simply one of the best.
25. Raymond Kopa
Before Kopa was a footballing hero, he shoveled coal in the deep underground shafts of the newly industrialized Northern France. Practicing his dribbles between breaks, he learned to leverage his small stature (5'6"), which gave him great balance and acceleration necessary to embarrass his lankier opponents.
Following an impressive two year stint at SCO Angers, Kopa transferred to Reims, with whom he won two French Leagues and lost a European final against, prophetically, his future employer Real Madrid. Immediately afterwards, he transferred to the Spanish capital, where he would win three more European Cups and two La Ligas.
24. Paolo Maldini
Paolo Maldini, son of the manager Cesare Maldini, was the rare scion capable of eclipsing the glories of the father. Equally comfortable at the left and center of the defense, Maldini embodied the cool-headed, tactically astute defender at the forefront of an impregnable defense. A one-club man, Paolo spent 25 seasons in AC Milan’s black and red, winning five Champions Leagues, seven Serie A titles and a barrelful of personal accolades. Maldini holds the record for fastest goal in a UEFA club final (51 seconds), a goal that also made him the oldest player to score in a final. The second most capped player in Italian history (at 126), Paolo earned his first cap under his father in 1986 and played internationally until 2002. Paolo and Cesare are the only father son combo to have won the European Cub chapionship.
23. Roberto Carlos
An explosively fast left-wing back, Roberto Carlos has scored some of the most iconic goals in World Cup history, notably his reverse bender against France. With Brazil, he would reach the ’98 final and win the 2002 trophy, but it is with Real Madrid that the list gets a little mind-boggling. Through 11 years, Roberto Carlos would make 500 appearances, win four leagues, two Intercontinental Cups and three UEFA Champions Leagues, setting up the assist for Zidane’s incredible volley in the final.
22. Ian Rush
The name Ian Rush is synonymous with goals and Liverpool, having scored 346 in 660 wearing the famous red. At the Kop, Rush would inaugurate one of Liverpool’s golden eras, winning five leagues, five league cups, three FA cups and the European cup in 1984. Top goal scorer at home and in Europe, voted PFA player of the year, top Liverpool and Wales goalscorer…the list goes on. A legend.
21. Kenny Dalglish
Six league titles, three European Cups and five domestic cups. Record goals appearances for Scotland.YA bevvy of personal goals. And the holder of two hats—one of the only people to simultaneously be player and manager. Dalglsh’s exploits alongside the teenage Ian Rush expunged any memories of the departing Kevin Keegan. Within his first season, Dalglish had scored 31, including the winner of the ’78 European cup final. Over 13 years, that sum would grow to 118. Now Dalglish leads another Red resurgence, as Liverpooi strive to find their customary place at the top of the table once more.
20. Roberto Baggio
Nicknamed “il divino codino” (the divine ponytail) for his questionable taste in coiffure, Baggio could unlock the steeliest of defenses through his speed and technical ability (see his goal against Czechozlavkia, which one can watch on repeat), redefined the Italian club and national scene renowned for their steely defense rather than artful trickery. Winner of the Ballon d’or and world player of the year in 1993, Baggio has also scored in three world cups, the only Italian to do so. He has never collected a trophy internationally, having missed the crucial penalty against Brazil in 1994 (in the final).
19. Jimmy Greaves
357 goals in 516 matches. Do you really need anything more? Just in case: Pelè described Greaves as the most naturally gifted footballer he'd ever seen. Though he never won any silverware, he remains Tottenham's top scorer with 220 goals and is third for England with 44.
18. Matthias Sindelar
Considered an intellectual of the pitch, constantly analyzing the situation, Sindelar was nicknamed “the waif” and "The Paper Man" for his ability to slip in behind defenders unnoticed. One of the early greats, he was part of the Austrian Wunderteam and Rapid Wienne, the bohemian expression of athletic prowess. He would die under suspicious circumstances in Nazi Germany.
17. Gerd Muller
Tell a Dutchman your favorite player ever is Gerd Muller, and you will have lost a friend. But the goal that wrested the ‘74 World Cup from the best Netherlands side in history was one of very, very many. 398 for Bayern Munich and 68 for West Germany (out of only 62 appearances), to be exact. His tally stills stand as the highest in Germany; his competitor is 97 goals back.
Not the most physically imposing of players, Muller invented the penalty area predator mold that would serve Inzaghi and Raul so well and finessed it to such a degree that he won the German top scoring mark seven times out of 11 years. Add to that the Golden Boot at the ’70 World Cup, the Champions Cup top scorer four times, the Euro top scorer in ’72…It goes on.
Bayern would win four Bundesliga titles and three European Champions cups while he was there, cementing the place of Bayern in the international scene. No less than Franz Beckenbauer has proclaimed that “Everything that FC Bayern has become is due to Gerd Muller and his goals."
16. Telmo Zarra
A prolific scorer, Telmo Zarra is the leading scorer in the history of Spain's Primera Division with 252 goals and of Athletic Bilbao with 333 (including Cup goals). He has also holds the record for most Pichichi trophies won, having earned it six times. In keeping with the physicality of the Basque side, Zarra was notorious for his heading ability, scoring four of them in a Copa del Rey final.
15. Ferenc Puskàs
The player for whom the competition of most beautiful goal is named. And not by chance. The list of accomplishments is staggering. Scoring 84 goals from 85 appearances for Hungary, or the 157 out of 182 for real Madrid-despite signing for Madrid at the ripe age of 31, or winning the Pichichi four times out of five years, five Spanish leagues, five Hungarian championships,seven goals in two European championship finals, it keeps going on. In short, Puskas, along with Di Stefano, formed Real Madrid into the European juggernaut it is today. That makes Rea 35 out of 39. He was also an ex-Army Major who had to fend off an angry Brazilian squad that the Hungarians had just knocked out of the ’54 World Cup with a cleat and a bottle.
14. Franco Baresi
The name Baresi has become synonymous with the regal physicality of impregnable defenses. Francesco Baresi played with a singular style, powerful, imperious, ruthless. Gianni Brera said that he would attack a ball as the wolf attacks the lamb. An unparalleled libero roaming the itch, Baresi could intercept or interdict the opponent’s play and immediately command a counter-attack.
Throughout the whole of his career, he would only wear the colors of AC Milan—staying with them through double relegation—and Italy, with both of whom he would go onto win glory. Over 20 seasons at Milan, he would win six Scudetti, three Champions Cups, two International Cups, two European Supercups and four Italian Super Cups. He was included in the ’82 Italian squad that won the World Cup, though he didn’t play a minute. Immediately afterwards, he would captain the team at an unprecedented 22 years of age.
Best. Portuguese. player. Ever. I mean, his nickname was “the black panther”, for his slinky acceleration and ability to sink the ball. Eusebio’s name would became synonymous with hisclub of heart, Benfica, where he would score a mindboggling 320 goals out of 312 appearances.
Benfica would go on to win 11 Primeira Ligas and undo the imperious Real Madrid of the Di Stefano era to claim the European cup. Named European footballer of the year in ’65, he’d go on to win the European boot in ’68 and ’73 as well and was the top Portuguese goal scorer seven seasons out of nine. Crazy talk.
12. Zinedine Zidane
He was the iconic figure of a generation of French players that won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship. After a brief international retirement, he returned to the national team in 2005 and captained France to the 2006 World Cup Final, where he won the Golden Ball as the tournament's most outstanding player.
At club level, Zidane won the La Liga and the UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid, two Serie A league championships with Juventus, an Intercontinental Cup and a UEFA Super Cup each with both aforementioned sides. He is, alongside Brazilian striker Ronaldo, the only three-time FIFA World Player of the Year winner; he also won the Ballon d'Or in 1998. Inizia come terzino sinistro nel Cannes.
Divenuto poi centrocampista e trequartista, allo straordinario talento calcistico univa tecnica incredibile e una superiore intelligenza tattica. Zidane era famoso per i suoi dribbling funambolici e gli stop eleganti in cui riusciva con qualsiasi parte del corpo. Il colpo che può esser definito quale suo marchio di fabbrica è sicuramente la "ruleta", detta anche "veronica". Poteva inoltre ricoprire quasi tutti i ruoli offensivi, dal mediano al centrocampista, dal centrocampista di fascia al trequartista, suo ruolo prediletto; all'occorrenza poteva anche essere impiegato come seconda punta. Possedeva una straordinaria visione di gioco, un controllo di palla eccezionale con entrambi i piedi e precisione nei passaggi e nei lanci; ottima anche l'abilità nei calci piazzati. Tutte qualità grazie alle quali è considerato uno dei calciatori più forti di tutti i tempi. 2 scudetti, one liga, one champion league. One wc, euro. Best euro 00 player. Golden ball wc 2006. 95 out of 506. 31 out of 108 for france
11. Marco Van Basten
Another footballing career abruptly truncated through injury, in his prime, Marco Van Basten and his Milan played some of the most jaw-unhinging football ever recorded. Signed by Silvio Berlusconi thanks to his sublime volleys, velvet touch and torrent of goals, Van Basten would win the European Footballer of the Year three times (1988, '89 and '92) and FIFA World Player of the Year in 1992, scoring 277 goals in 11 pro years, in two of which he finished as the capocannoniere. He would become the first player to score four goals in a Champions League match, winning two European cups in a row.
10. Bobby Charlton
Had Bobby Charlton not survived the Munich air disaster, Manchester United would simply not be a team of the caliber they are today. Renowned for a keen offensive instinct and long-range bombshells, Charlton collected a World Cup trophy after a personal performance earned a European Footballer of the Year award and the Golden Ball. Charlton won the English league three times with the Red Devils, then captained the team to a European cup in 1968. He has scored more goals for England and United than any other player. He is also second behind Ryan Giggs with most appearances for United.
In Brazil, Pelè may have been “O Roi” (the king), but Garrincha was “O alegria de povo” (the Joy of the People). A winger of talent in abundance, equal to if not exceeding (fleetingly) that of his more famous and enduring compatriot, Garrincha was the most naturally gifted of players, though declared crippled at birth. Looking back at his footage, it appears his bowed legs somehow contributed, abetted his wholly idiosyncratic, mesmerizing style of play. It was said that Garrincha would beat a defender easily, wait for him to catch up, then do it all over again, just for the fun of it.
After winning the World Cup in ’58 along the eternal talisman Pelè, Garrincha dragged the Selecao to an immediate second despite losing his more celebrated companion to injury. In ’62, Garrincha won the World Cup, personally scoring six and winning the World Footballer of the Year award. Unfortunately, a dissolute and lackadaisical regard to training, combined with a heavy drinking problem, withered one of the greatest talents of all time.
8. Giuseppe Meazza
Perhaps the greatest Italian soccer player of all time, Giuseppe Meazza was a jack-of-all trades forward, capable of playing as an out and out striker or as a trequartista. Gifted with exceptional shooting and dribbling skill, he scored a mindboggling 216 goals in Serie A (mostly for Inter Milan), which compensated for accusations of wanton drinking and rakish behavior (points!). A charismatic leader, he captained Italy to two consecutive World Cup titles in 1934 and 1938, providing assists in both finals.
7. Alfredo Di Stefano
Alfredo Di Stefano made Real Madrid the merengues, a team whose all-white kit and untouchable quality of play defined an era of Spanish and continental football. Argentine by birth, Spaniard by choice and attacker by trade, “The Blonde Arrow” unleashed the balletic technique that characterized the South American game on a sluggish, dormant Europe.
Besides the finesse shot, he brought the playmaker’s omniscience to a continent occluded and obsessed with the long ball. Madrid would win the European Cup a staggering five times in a row playing a spectacular, squeaky clean game. The backheel goal against Manchester United remains a paragon of skill and sheer nerve, while the terrifying trident of Puskas, Di Stefano and Kopa are memorialized as one of the most potent front lines in history. Recognized as the greatest Spanish player of the 20th century, he is truly one of the best and most influential players to strap on cleats.
Love him or hate him, there is no defining the phenomenon that was “The Phenomenon”—the original Ronaldo. A complete player, at ease with either foot, and a truly unparalleled ability to finish from every angle possible, Ronaldo has carved himself a place in the history books as the most effective pure goal scorer of the last 50 years, if not of all time.
The awards won, both personal and collectively are mindboggling. The youngest player to receive FIFA’s World Player award—his first of three, age 20—Ronaldo also won two Ballon D’Or’s, two World Cups and holds the record for most goals scored in the World Cup. At a club level, he scored 247 goals out of 343 appearances for various clubs. In 96-’97, Ronaldo scored an absurd 47 goals in 49 games for Barça, then winning the La Liga top scorer award in 1997 with 34 goals in 37 games followed by a slew of international trophies. He would win the Pichichi again with Madrid and the UEFA Cup with Inter. Unbelievably talented.
5. Franz Beckenbauer
The defender of the century. Beckenbauer is the only man to have won the World Cup both playing and managing. Drawing on, then eclipsing, the free-roaming styles of Baresi and Facchetti, Beckenbauer could menace a team at any place on the pitch through a thoughtful, vivid reading of the game. Besides the WC and Euro championship earned on the field with Germany, Beckenbauer is also the only person to captain a team to three consecutive European Cup championships. “The Kaizer," besides dabbling in politics, went on to coach his alma mater Bayern Munich and then on to serve as its president. In 1999, IFFHS voted him the world’s third best player of the century.
4. Michel Platini
Before he was a bureaucrat, he was "Le Roi” (The King). Now the head of UEFA, Michel Platini was, in his day, the undisputed master of the pitch. He is considered one of the best passers and free-kick artists ever and, despite being a midfielder, has scored the second most goals for the French National team (after Henry).
Over the course of four short years at Juventus, he won two league championships, one European Cup (marred by the Heysel tragedy), one Cup winners Cup, one European Super Cup and one Intercontinental Cup title. Despite being a midfielder, he was Serie A's topscorer three times and was awarded three Ballon D'Ors back-to-back-to-back. For France, he won the '84 European Championship, a competition in which he finished top-scorer with nine goals, a sum as of yet unequaled.
He retired at the early age of 32 and now helms one of the most important sporting organizations in the world.
3. Diego Maradona
Wondering where this guy was going to slot in, eh?
All the Argentine and Napoli fans will likely hate me for not listing him as number one, but I stand by my decision. Yes, he was very, very, very good and one of the best, if not the best, individual players; there's no denying. That he played his best football in one of the most defensive leagues at the pinnacle of its prestige makes his accomplishments all the more impressive. El Pibe de Oro won Napoli their only two Serie A titles, but achieved his apotheosis by producing the most awesome World Cup goal in the competition's history—the Goal of the Century—striding, ducking and dodging through a statuesque English backline. In all, he scored 258 goals in a club career spanning three countries and six different clubs.
But for all his winding runs, delicate assists and trophy-winning hand balls, Maradona did not have the influence over the shape and philosophy of a team that would have lifted him to first place.
King of kings...the name synonymous with the joga bonita, with dauntless ability, with ingenious sleights of foot and with the greatest goal-scoring record in history: 1,281 goals in 1,363 games. Pelè had the kind of talent that didn't outshine those sharing the field but rather an entire generation of player. He was, and is, a remarkable athlete and ambassador of the game.
The classic number 10 (literally, the number 10 achieved its significance because it belonged to Pelè), he was an inside forward and playmaker that dashed between the opposing lines—gifted with a powerful shot, speed and grace to outdance defenders and tactically aware of his teammates on the pitch..
"The King" was a one-club man for much of his career, starting for Santos at the age of 16 and remaining for nearly two decades, over the course of which he won 10 Paulista Championships, two Copa Libertadores and two Intercontinental Cups (at the expense of Eusebio's Benfica and Gianni Rivera's AC Milan). He was the Brazilian League's top scorer 11 times—nine of which were consecutive
Brazil's top goal scorer of all-time (77 out of 92 appearance), Pelè is the only footballer to be part of three different World Cup winning squads (though he was awarded the '62 honor retroactively, having been injured early on in the competition). He is also only one of two people to have scored in four different World Cup tournaments.
Pelè played with an adolescent's infatuation his entire career—uncynical, inventive, incessantly accomplishing the impossible, the never-before-attempted. For this especially, he sits in at number two.
And introducing the number one...
1. Johan Cruyff
Whoa whoa whoa...all you Pelè and Maradona devotees, put down the axes and pitchforks and listen to me. The reasoning behind my choice for numero uno doesn't come down to purely technical abilities or international exploits: you can still safely say that both Pelè and Maradona were better (but just barely) individual players, but neither bequeathed anything as as revolutionary or enduring as Cruyff's vision of "Total Football": a style of play characterized by "tiki-taka" passing, commanding possession and the interchangeability of the outfield players now particularly in evidence at Barcelona.
"But!", you may cry, "What about Rinus Michels?!" Yes, Michels was the man who imparted the theory that was Totaalvoetbal. It was his big beautiful baby. But Cruyff became its high priest and practitioner and it was through Cruyff that Michel'sTotal Football flowed. To quote Star Wars, "The student has become the master".
Pelè may have won three World Cups, but he did so with the aid of players like Garrincha, Rivelino and Jairzinho. Admittedly, Maradona dragged a mediocre Argentina side to the '86 World Cup, but he did so through singular, physical ability bereft of any real tactical comprehension. When drugs and late-night partying finally got to Diego, he quickly atrophied into a husk of his former self.
Side note: Besides his tactical legacy, I'd like to point out that Cruyff was very, very good. Between 1971 and 1974, he won three Ballon D'Ors (a record shared with compatriot Van Basten and Platini) as well as the Golden Ball of World Cup '74. He employed a close control of the ball, which, combined with bursting acceleration, allowed him to dance through defensive lines. He is most famous for the eponymous "Cruyff Turn." Plus he is responsible for this masterpiece. And this one.
But he was called "Pythagoras in Boots" for his perception of teammates' movement. Though nominally a center-forward, he would often swap roles, dropping deep into his own half or out onto the wing to then exploit opponents' confusion.
With Ajax, he won eight Eredivise titles and three European Cups in a row, scoring a total of 190 goals. As a player his stint at Barcelona earned him a lonely La Liga title, a dearth he would later rectify as the club's manager, when he won four Liga's in a row as well as the European Cup.
In essence, Cruyff modernized the game of football.
And while Pelè and Maradona possessed unparalleled individual abilities (that even Cruyff could not measure up to) Johan had the rare ability to elevate the level of his teammates to his own. Cruyff was great because he could make others appear great.
For these titles, abilities and legacies, Cruyff deserves to be recognized as the greatest player of all time.
So there you have it, the top 100 players ever. Enjoy.