15 Most Influential Players in Soccer History
Football is a huge game, watched by millions the world over, and it has an enormous sporting and social impact.
From kids cheering on their favourite players in the hopes of trophy glory to those who are inspired to take up the sport to escape the poverty or poor conditions they live in, players who take to the field on a professional basis have a big effect on viewers.
It's not always the very best players who are the most inspirational. Some players have their moment, which might not last longer than 90 minutes in some cases, but their actions echo through the ages.
Some influence the game because of their actions on the pitch, others because of their lives off it. Some combine the two—but everyone on this list has had an influence on the game of football we know today.
We'll begin with the Dutch master, Johan Cruyff.
The attacker was a key member of Holland's Total Football movement. A fine example of how many believed the game should be played, Cruyff's tactical appreciation of the game is sometimes overlooked because of his magnificent technical attributes.
That now, decades later, teams still try to model their methods on the style of play, if not the complete interchangeability, on the great Dutch teams he was a part of tells just how important his ability was.
Cruyff was also at least in part responsible for the great success in style, formation and teaching that Barcelona have been so successful with.
Zambian football has been in the news recently because of Godfrey Chitalu's goalscoring exploits coming to light, but the country owes a great debt in terms of their footballing identity to one man more than any other: Kalusha Bwalya.
Bwalya was arguably the greatest ever player for Zambia and was the 1988 African Player of the Year.
Following the tragic crash in 1993 that took the lives of most of his international teammates and coaches, which Bwalya survived as he was not on board, he helped to rebuild the team and take it all the way to the runners up place at the following year's African Cup of Nations tournament.
Bwalya has since coached the national team and now serves as the head of the Football Association of Zambia.
He is one of the most notable men ever to be involved in African football.
One for the rule books.
Jean-Marc Bosman was the man who changed transfer dealings and contracts between players and clubs during the mid 1990s when he challenged his ability to switch clubs after his deal with Standard Liege had expired.
After a lengthy process, the courts ruled in favour of the player and from then onwards, players have been able to negotiate new deals with rival clubs as time winds down on their existing contracts.
It has given players more power, clubs the option to sign players on free transfers—Markus Babbel, Michael Ballack and Sol Campbell being examples—and agents an awful lot more scope to make money.
There have been far-reaching consequences for all involved in the game since Bosman's victory.
Time for a man now who was most influential on the pitch itself, and none fit that description better than Diego Maradona.
The Argentine was a footballing phenomenon, perhaps the greatest the world has ever seen.
He single-handedly helped his team win the title at the club level and his country win the World Cup on the international stage.
Citizens of Argentina revere him, generations of would-be stars are compared to him and still to this day many consider Maradona to be the scorer of the greatest goal in football history.
Another footballing great, George Weah became the first African footballer to be awarded the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995.
He is also a three-time winner of the African Player of the Year award and spent five years playing for AC Milan, as well as clubs in France and England, winning significant trophies in all three countries.
In Liberia, his home country, Weah has done an extraordinary amount of work to help underprivileged children, and his current career as a politician aims to bring further relief to the country.
The former striker is looked upon as a hero in sporting and social terms by many and is certainly an influential figure.
There are many ways to wield influence, and marketability is certainly one of them.
The mind boggles at just how many people have followed David Beckham throughout his career at one stage or another. Through his reputation, his name, his success on the pitch and his experience of playing for huge teams, he has had an enormous influence on the game.
Whether or not he has a lasting effect on Americans watching the sport in their home country will only be determined in future years, but David Beckham has undeniably influenced many people around the world.
Both on and off the pitch he has been an ambassador, and a successful one, to an entire range of organisations.
If Maradona has half the world convinced that he is the greatest player of all time, then part of the rest of the planet is firmly encamped in the corner of Pele.
Regardless of where you place the former World Cup winner in the grand scheme of things, Pele's influence on the game and on the Brazilian people, even decades later, cannot be denied. He is constantly referred to when potential greats burst onto the scene, and his exploits in scoring goals remain great.
Pele is maybe the most famous footballing name of all.
Viv Anderson was a steady and reliable full-back who played in England mainly in the 1970s and 80s, enjoying good success with Nottingham Forest in particular.
He travelled to three international tournaments with his national team but never managed to feature in any of the matches there—but he did win 30 caps for England.
For much of those decades, racism was rife on the terraces in English football, and Anderson suffered a torrent of abuse with regularity yet maintained his place in the top tier. Due to his good form, he became the first black player to play for England.
Many have followed in his wake since then and, thankfully, behaviour in the game with regards to racism has changed drastically, despite the recent spate of headline-making occurrences.
One of the most iconic players of the early 2000s, Hidetoshi Nakata brought European football to the Asian community in a massive way.
The Japanese superstar was a big hit in Italy where he featured for the likes of Perugia and Roma, and though his career quickly dwindled—he retired before he hit 30 years of age—Nakata opened up the continent to viewers in Asia who followed his moves rather than any particular team he played for.
Winning 77 caps for Japan and playing at three World Cups, he was an experienced and excellent player at his peak who encouraged many more of his countrymen to make the move to Europe in the years after.
Much like George Weah before him, Didier Drobga has used his status as a sporting icon and legend in his own country to try and better the lives of those less fortunate.
The Ivory Coast is host to 20 million inhabitants and Drogba's every word is heard by them.
Along with his own foundation charity work, Drogba is credited with having a valuable role in the peace process of his country.
His sporting achievements are none too shabby either, with his Champions League victory at Chelsea last season still fresh in the mind.
If you've ever admired the attacking full-back play of Dani Alves, Michel Salgado, Cafu, Roberto Carlos or Ashley Cole down the years then now you know who to thank.
Giacinto Facchetti was an Italian defender who was widely regarded as being the first and finest full-back capable of making bursting runs down the flank and contributing to the attack without ignoring his defensive responsibilities.
Wing-backs might be a favourite tactical ploy of Juventus these days, but Facchetti was doing the business in an Inter Milan shirt long before Mauricio Isla or Kwadwo Asamoah got the chance to shine.
In the fledgling years of the Premier League, before it became the billion-pound industry it is now, the top flight in English football was still swamped with bad shirt designs, scruffy pitches and tree trunk-legged midfielders whose role was to clear the ball as high and as hard as possible.
Not that there was an entire absence of flair players or those who were more about the beauty of the game than the beast, of course. But it was certainly not the false nine-laden trove it is turning into these days.
Signings such as Gianfranco Zola started to quickly change the approach of managers and chairmen in the transfer market as they sought technical excellence and cheap fees, and so began a rather large influx of foreign players into the Premier League.
Debate still rages over whether this has ended up being good or bad for the English game, but it has certainly raised the standard and the entertainment of play.
In truth, this slide could have gone to either of Dennis Bergkamp or Gianfranco Zola.
As football has changed down the years, so has the role of the central midfielder.
With an increase in pace and tempo that the game takes place at becoming more apparent with each passing decade, so somewhere along the line did physicality become seen as the most important aspect of a player.
In some places, at least.
Xavi Hernandez stands out as maybe the biggest example going contrary to the notion that, as all men love to hear, size doesn't matter.
Standing just 1.70 metres tall, the Spaniard is one of the very best players in the world, let alone one of the best central midfielders. He dominates game with his technical ability, capacity to read a game and diligent work on the training field.
He is an inspiration to younger players everywhere that a lack of stature on the pitch will not indicate a lack of success.
Maybe the original libero, Franz Beckenbauer was a FIFA World Cup winner in 1974 and played the role of an attacking, creative sweeper to perfection for Bayern Munich.
He won pretty much everything the game had to offer, including three European Cups, four Bundesliga titles and two Ballon d'Or awards while he was with the Bavarian side.
More than his trophies though, his ability to read a game and defend from behind the centre-backs and yet be an attack-minded asset as his team progressed up the field revolutionised the way the sweeper role was played.
Beckenbauer of course also later won the World Cup as a manager and remains an influential name in the world of football today.
We finish up with one of the first goalkeepers to embrace the notion that their role did not begin and end with making saves from shots, something perhaps plenty of today's keepers still need to learn.
Lev Yashin was a goalkeeper for the old Soviet Union during the 1950s and 60s, making 75 appearances for the national team and playing his entire club career with Dynamo Moscow.
Yashin excelled not only at pure goalkeeping, but also in dominating the entire penalty area and defensive zones, being happy to run out of his goal and actually play with the ball at his feet.
His willingness to be the earliest of the sweeper keepers has established the role as one of the most important for many teams in modern-day football.
Back on his goal line, he was equally impressive, with the FIFA website noting he is estimated to have saved around 150 penalties during his career.