Soccer's 10 Greatest Goalscorers of the Last 20 Years
In a game which is beautiful for its subtleties and complexity, goal-scoring is one of the few tangible statistics we can use to rank players in world football.
This is my list of the 10 greatest goalscorers of the last 20 years. To compile this list I first drew up a shortlist of the players with the best goals per game ratio over the last two decades. Then came the fun bit as I gave added consideration to other factors.
Longevity was the first of these. Over what length of time has a player provided a consistent threat in front of goal?
Great players such as Marco Van Basten miss out because of this. He had an incredible career, but he only played two seasons out of the last 20.
I've also accounted for the quality of the league a player competes in. For example, Henrik Larsson holds a superb record and was a top class striker but spent his prime years playing in the relatively weak SPL.
Finally, keep in mind this is NOT a list of the 10 greatest forwards. Players make the cut purely on the basis of their goal-scoring prowess, as opposed to overall talent as a footballer.
Keep in mind also that international goals as well as club performance is considered.
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Rivaldo: Brazil's sixth highest goalscorer averaged just under a goal every other game for his country and just over that for Barcelona in his heyday.
A better player than some on this list, but not a better goalscorer.
David Villa: Averages around a goal every other game for his club and even better than that for his country. Spain's all-time highest goalscorer.
10. Gabriel Batistuta
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I'd forgotten just how good Batistuta was until I did my research for this article.
He scored 207 goals in 332 games for Fiorentina and a fantastic 56 goals in 78 games for Argentina. He was pretty successful in Roma too, scoring 20 goals in his first season before age caught up with him.
He would probably have ranked higher on this list, but he didn't get to prove himself in the Champions League, playing with Fiorentina throughout his prime (even staying with them through relegation to Serie B).
He finished up as the all time leading scorer for both Fiorentina and Argentina and is 10th all time in Serie A goalscorers.
9. Andriy Shevchenko
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An infamous transfer to Chelsea blighted the career of a player who was once one of Europe's most feared strikers.
In 1999, AC Milan paid a record transfer fee for his services after a blistering 66 goals in two seasons at Dynamo Kyiv and were duly rewarded when Shevchenko was crowned the "Capocannoniere" for Serie A's top scorer in his very first season.
He would be Capocannoniere once again in 2004 as well as European Player of the Year, and by the time he left for Chelsea he was Milan's second highest goalscorer of all time with 175 goals in 322 games.
The next four seasons were largely fruitless, but he made a successful return to Kyiv and is currently their all time fourth highest goalscorer.
He also ranks third all-time in the list of Champions League goalscorers with 58.
Internationally, he is Ukraine's all-time leading goalscorer with 45 goals in 101 appearances.
8. Samuel Eto'o
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Arguably Africa's greatest ever player, Eto'o is a goalscorer who always seems to come up with the goods when the occasion demands it.
Pacy and accurate, the Cameroonian made a name for himself at Mallorca, becoming the club's all-time highest scorer in La Liga with 54 goals over five seasons.
A transfer to Barcelona followed, where he was an instant success with 62 goals in his first two seasons, including the equalizer in the 2006 Champions League final. Injury marred his next two years, but he returned with aplomb in '08/'09, where he had his most successful season with 36 goals including the vital opening goal in the Champions League final.
He currently terrorizes goalkeepers at Internazionale, where he is coming off the back of his most successful season yet having scored 37 goals in 2010-2011.
He is 12th all-time in La Liga scorers, eighth all-time top scorer for Barcelona and 12th all-time in the Champions League with 35—just three goals outside the top 10.
He is also Cameroon's top scorer with 50 goals in 105 appearances.
7. Thierry Henry
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Henry is one of the most spectacular and intelligent players ever to grace the game.
After stints with Monaco and Juventus, he lit up the Premiership with Arsenal scoring 226 goals in 370 games for the Gunners before a transfer to Barcelona. Blessed with abundant pace and skill, in his pomp he was the most feared player in the league and arguably in Europe.
He is Arsenal's top all-time leading scorer, a four-time Premier League Golden Boot winner and a two-time European Golden Boot winner.
He is France's all-time leading goalscorer, with 51 goals in 123 appearances and ranks fourth all-time in the list of Champions League goalscorers with 51 in 114 appearances.
6. Cristiano Ronaldo
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Where to start with the Cristiano? Three seasons into his United career and he'd made a name for himself as a tricky winger who was big on skill but a bit short on brains.
Twenty-three goals in 2006-2007 silenced some doubters, but many of his critics remained. Then in 2007-2008 Ronaldo erupted to the tune of 42 goals in just 49 games, making him the first winger to ever win the European Golden Shoe—a prize he won again last season.
Twenty-six more goals and a world record transfer fee later, Ronaldo is currently banging in the goals at an absolutely prodigious rate, with 86 goals in 89 games over two seasons with Real Madrid.
I found it difficult to place Ronaldo—his scoring rate over the last four years has been simply off the charts, with 158 goals in 191 games equating to a goal every .83 matches.
Not only that but the manner in which he scores is incredible. He's brilliant in the air and capable of scorching long range efforts off either foot to match deadly power and accuracy in the box.
The only thing holding him back is his international record—26 goals in 80 games is good but not great— and his relatively short time in the top flight.
If he continues at this rate, he'll go down as one of the greatest goalscorers of all time.
5. Lionel Messi
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The world's best player is a nightmare for anyone faced with defending against his low centre of gravity and acceleration, combined with vision and dribbling skill which is unmatched in soccer.
His goal-scoring record will always be compared with that of Cristiano Ronaldo after the pair emerged as the two biggest stars in soccer playing on teams which share one of the game's biggest rivalries.
I've got Messi higher here because whilst his international rate—at 17 goals in 60 games—is poorer, his career averages for Barcelona are superior to Ronaldo's at Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Messi averages two goals every three games for Barcelona, and over the last three years he's scored 138 goals in 159 games for a whopping goal every 0.88 games.
He's currently third all-time among Barcelona goalscorers, and 10th all time in the Champions League. Messi—at just 24—is even younger than Ronaldo, and like Ronaldo, if he continues like this he'll go down as one of the greatest goalscorers of all time as well as one of the greatest players of all time.
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It's hard to put Romário so low on this list because his goalscoring record is so good—and I mean crazy good.
He holds a personal count of over 1,000 goals, and over the last 20 years has maintained an astonishingly high goals per game ratio despite staying with a club for more than two years only once since leaving PSV Eindhoven for Barcelona in 1993.
By his own count, he's scored 1,002 goals in 1,256 games, officially it's more along the lines of 691 in 888 games, but either way it's a scoring rate which is better than three goals every four games. The only thing which hinders Romário is his lack of football in a top flight league.
In the last 20 years he's played one fantastic season for PSV (32 goals in 37 games) and one full season for Barcelona, where he finished with 32 goals in 42 games. After that, he flitted between clubs in Brazil and played seasons here and there in the US, Australia and Qatar.
His international record goes someway towards remedying this - he was Brazil's most important goalscorer and player when they won the World Cup in 1994, and with 55 goals in 70 games, he is their third highest all-time goalscorer.
Some will argue that he should be higher—and there is no doubt he had the talent to be higher—but given his lack of football in top leagues since 1994, I have to put him fourth.
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His goals per game ration may not be as impressive as some on this list—in fact it's one of the worst of all —but for sheer longevity I've opted to give Raúl the nod here at No. 3.
He seems to have been around forever having broken into the Real Madrid setup way back in 1994, and he's still going strong. He holds the title of Real Madrid's all-time top scorer with 323 in 741 games.
This record includes 228 in La Liga—good for third in the history of the league—and 71 in the Champions League. Top scorer all-time and a full 15 ahead of his nearest rival. He's also second all-time internationally for Spain with 44 and just last season finished up with 19 goals for new club Schalke 04.
Not bad for a man entering his 18th year of top flight football.
2. Ruud Van Nistelrooy
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You probably expected to see him here, but did you expect him to be so high?
Van the Man has been one of the world's best strikers ever since his days with PSV Eindhoven. Seventy-five goals in 91 games with the Dutch club brought him to the attention of Alex Ferguson, who took him to Manchester United for £19 million despite concerns over his fitness.
He was more than well rewarded, as Van Nistelrooy scored 150 goals in just 219 games—a record of a goal every 0.68 games.
A move to Real Madrid followed where he continued to notch up the goals, with 64 goals in 96 outings— two goals for every three games. Ruud also has 35 goals in 70 international outings, fourth overall for the Netherlands.
Ruud's record in Europe is what really pushes him up to the No. 2 spot, however. His 60 goals in 81 games is good for second all time in the Champions League, and his goals per games ratio of 0.74 is the second highest in the top 20 all-time for European Cup competition, bested only by Gerd Müller's ridiculous goal a game average.
In his prime, there was no more deadly striker in Europe, as demonstrated by him being the top scorer in the UEFA Champions League three times in four years between 2001 and 2005.
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Who else did you expect? Ronaldo's first six seasons are among the most remarkable ever seen in soccer.
He was blessed with incredible speed, power, dribbling ability and finishing. When he was unleashed on the world the effect was deadly; 44 goals in 47 games for Cruzeiro, 54 goals in 57 games for PSV Eindhoven, 47 goals in 49 games for Barcelona, and 34 goals in 47 games for Internazionale.
All told it amounted to 180 goals in 200 games—or a goal every 0.9 games.
Then came the injuries, robbing the Brazilian of much of his pace. Yet even a hobbled Ronaldo was the best in the world, returning in 2002 to score the two goals which won the tournament for Brazil and walking away with the Golden Boot.
He moved to Real Madrid, scoring 104 times in 177 games over the next five seasons before winding down his career at AC Milan and then Corinthians.
He scored 352 club goals in 518 games and 62 international goals in 98 outings. Good for Brazil's second highest tally behind only Pelé and making Ronaldo the greatest goalscorer of the last 20 years.