World Football: The 100 Greatest World Cup Players of All Time
There can be no logical argument against the World Cup as the greatest competition in all of sport, and through the years there have been legions of great players to grace the world’s biggest stage.
From the American who scored the first hat trick in World Cup history, Bert Patenaude, all the way to the best players the world has ever seen like Pele and Maradona, so many luminaries in the pantheon of world football have cast their glow on the World Cup that any attempt to collect the 100 greatest of all time seems infinitely daunting and almost foolhardy in nature.
Nonetheless, that is precisely the thing I shall endeavor to accomplish with the following collection of slides.
I think all will agree that ranking that many players from that many different eras would essentially be meaningless at face value, simply because I am 31 and obviously didn’t see many of these men play at all. I can’t compare Lato to Eusebio. Not in any meaningful kind of way, at least.
So I won’t try.
I’ll rank the top 20 performers, the way I see them, and then just list the rest of the hallowed hundo in a loose, merit-based order.
Hey, if you don’t like it, just write a better list. That’s all. That’s the beauty of the whole thing.
So without any further mindless hemming and hawing, here is my list of the 100 greatest players in World Cup history.
Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, West Germany (1958, 62, 66, 70)
As one of the best defenders of the 1960s, Schnellinger was nicknamed “The Volkswagen” for his consistent and workman-like performances. He appeared 17 times at the World Cup for West Germany, and scored one goal.
Renowned for his physical power and pace, he is one of the few players to appear in four World Cups. His goal came in the classic 1970 semifinal against Italy, in the closing moments, to pull level at 1-1. Italy went on to win 4-3 in extra time.
Jorge Burruchaga, Argentina (1986, 90)
The Argentine midfielder is best remembered for scoring the winning goal in the 1986 World Cup final as Argentina beat West Germany, 3-2. He also played in all of his country’s matches at the 1990 World Cup.
All told, “Burru” made 14 appearances at the World Cup and returned three goals—albeit, none as famous as his winner in 1986.
Giacinto Facchetti, Italy (1966, 70, 74)
Facchetti was one of the best left backs to ever play the game and made 12 World Cup appearances for Italy in three tournaments. In 1970, he figured prominently for the Azzurri as they finished second to Brazil. Facchetti also competed in the 1966 and 1974 World Cups.
Oscar Ruggeri, Argentina (1986, 90, 94)
Ruggeri was one of the best defenders to ever come out of Argentina and made 16 appearances at the World Cup for the Albiceleste. A key cog in the 1986 World Cup Champion Argentinian side, as well as the 1990 runners-up, Ruggeri also captained his nation for the first two games of the 1994 World Cup following Diego Maradona’s expulsion. Argentina bowed out against Romania.
Lennart Skoglund, Sweden (1950, 58)
Skoglund starred for Sweden at the 1950 World Cup as a 20-year-old, and helped his nation to a third place finish. In 1958 Sweden again made a deep run, and Skoglund scored his first and only World Cup goal in 11 appearances during the 3-1 semifinal victory over West Germany. Sweden finished runners-up to Brazil.
“Nacka” was a true entertainer, and presided over the greatest period in the history of the Swedish national team.
Oldrich Nejedly, Czechoslovakia (1934, 38)
Nejedly scored seven goals in six World Cup appearances and was the top scorer at the 1934 World Cup with five goals. He also scored two more in 1938. Nejedly was named to the 1934 World Cup All-Star Team. A dangerous striker, Nejedly appeared 43 times for Czechoslovakia and scored 29 goals.
Alain Giresse, France (1982, 86)
The French midfielder was a staple of the national team set up in the mid-1980s and ended up with 12 World Cup appearances for Les Bleus, scoring three times. Giresse—currently the head coach of Mali’s national side—helped France to a third place finish in 1986. Giresse also played at the 1982 World Cup as France finished fourth.
Tomas Brolin, Sweden (1990, 94)
Sweden qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1978 when they sealed entry to the 1990 tournament. But with only nine goals in six qualifying matches, they needed a forward to lead the attack. The task fell to the 19-year-old Brolin. Sweden left the World Cup without recording a win, but Brolin scored against Brazil in group play.
In 1994, Brolin scored three goals as Sweden shocked the footballing world by finishing third. He was named to the 1994 World Cup All-Star Team.
Rinat Dasayev, USSR (1982, 86, 90)
Nicknamed “The Iron Curtain” in the West, Dasayev was one of the best goalkeepers of the 1980s and usually mentioned directly behind Lev Yashin in the discussion of the greatest Russian netminders of all time.
Dasayev conceded 11 times in nine World Cup matches with the USSR. All in all, Dasayev—of Tatar ethnicity—was capped 91 times for the Soviet Union.
Michael Ballack, Germany (2002, 06)
Ballack has made 11 appearances for Germany in the World Cup, scoring three goals. The midfielder became a national hero in 2002, when he scored back-to-back game-winning goals in the quarterfinals and semifinals, helping Germany to the finals, where they lost to Brazil, 2-0.
Ballack was named to the World Cup All-Star Team. In 2006, Germany bowed out in the semis, but Ballack was twice named man of the match and was again an All-Star.
Diego Forlan, Uruguay (2002, 10)
The Uruguayan striker has appeared eight times at the World Cup and scored six goals. Forlan brought home the Golden Ball from South Africa in 2010 after scoring five goals and taking Uruguay all the way to the semis where they were felled by eventual runner-up Holland, 3-2.
Forlan scored three long-range goals from beyond the penalty area in South Africa, becoming the first player since Lothar Matthaus in 1990 to accomplish the feat at the World Cup.
His father, Pablo Forlan, played for Uruguay in the 1966 and 1974 World Cups.
Hristo Stoichkov, Bulgaria (1994, 98)
“The Dagger” made 10 appearances for Bulgaria at the World Cup and scored six times. Stoichkov was awarded the Golden Boot at the 1994 World Cup as the tournament’s co-top scorer. He led Bulgaria to the semis that year, where they fell to Italy. Stoichkov also competed at the 1998 World Cup, but Bulgaria was eliminated in the first round.
Davor Suker, Croatia (1998, 02)
Suker made eight World Cup appearances for Croatia and returned six goals—all of which came at the 1998 tournament. Suker led Croatia to the semifinals that year and appeared for them again in 2002 as Croatia fell from the ranks early. He was also called up for the 1990 Yugoslavia World Cup side but didn’t see the field.
Michael Laudrup, Denmark (1986, 98)
A supremely skillful and elegant player, Laudrup was a playmaking midfielder on two Danish World Cup squads. The first came in 1986 in Mexico, and the next would be 12 years later in 1998, when Laudrup captained Denmark to the quarterfinals. He appeared nine times at the World Cup and scored two goals.
Robert Prosinecki, Yugoslavia/Croatia (1990, 98, 02)
Prosinecki was a midfielder in three World Cups and is generally regarded as the best Croatian ever at the position. He played for Yugoslavia at the 1990 World Cup and Croatia at the 1998 and 2002 tournaments. In 1998, Prosinecki scored twice as Croatia surprised many a pundit and finished third. All told, Prosinecki appeared nine times at the World Cup and scored three times.
Dragan Stojkovic, Yugoslavia (1990, 98)
“Piksi” was one of the best Serbian/Yugoslavian footballers of all time. He scored three times in nine World Cup appearances for the SFR Yugoslavian team (1990) and the FR Yugoslavian side (1998). Stojkovic was a highly skilled attacking midfielder, who currently manages Japanese side Nagoya Grampus.
Antonio Cabrini, Italy (1978, 82, 86)
A World Cup winner with Italy in 1982, Cabrini is widely considered to be one of the greatest Italian left backs in history. He was called up to the 1978 World Cup squad as an uncapped youngster and became an international fixture for Italy during the next nine years. Cabrini appeared in every game at the 1978, 1982 and 1986 World Cups. All told, he made 18 World Cup appearances and even score a goal.
Landon Donovan, United States (2002, 06, 10)
Making his World Cup debut in 2002, Donovan would be named the tournament’s Best Young Player, scoring two goals as the US made a surprising run to the quarterfinals only to lose to Germany, 1-0. In 2010, Donovan played in all four games for the US and scored three goals, including a dramatic late winner against Algeria.
Donovan is the US leader in international goals and assists and generally considered the best American player. He plays for Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS, despite strong annual interest from Europe.
Ubaldo Fillol, Argentina (1974, 78, 82)
Fillol, nicknamed “El Pato” or “The Duck,” manned the net for the Albiceleste in three World Cups and was named the tournament's best goalie in 1978 as Argentina won its first World Cup title. In 13 World Cup appearances, Fillol conceded 12 goals. He also played at the 1974 and 1982 tournaments for Argentina.
Gaetano Scirea, Italy (1978, 82, 86)
A sweeper on three Italian World Cup teams, Scirea helped lift the Azzurri to the championship in 1982. Known for his quiet effectiveness on the pitch and his quiet demeanor off, Scirea made 18 appearances for Italy and was a mainstay of one of the strongest periods in the post-war history of the Italian national team.
Georghe Hagi, Romania (1990, 94, 98)
“The Maradona of the Carpathians” is considered a hero in his native Romania. In 12 World Cup appearances, Hagi returned three goals. He led Romania to its best-ever finish at the World Cup in 1994, as they advanced to the quarterfinals before being eliminated by Sweden.
Hagi remains the leading scorer in the history of the Romanian national team.
Jan Ceulemans, Belgium (1982, 86, 90)
In 16 World Cup matches, Ceulemans scored four goals for Belgium. He captained the Belgians to fourth place at the 1986 World Cup and scored three times. His performances earned him the nickname “Captain Courageous,” and he also led Belgium to the round of 16 at the 1990 World Cup.
Ronnie Hellstrom, Sweden (1970, 74, 78)
The Swedish netminder appeared 10 times at the World Cup and allowed a like number of goals. Hellstrom’s tidy play between the sticks was a key factor in Sweden’s fifth place finish at the 1974 World Cup.
Hellstrom was considered one of the world’s top goalies, and at the 1978 World Cup, he was the only player who took part in the demonstrations of the Mothers of Plaza De Mayo.
Roger Milla, Cameroon (1982, 90, 94)
Milla appeared in 10 World Cup games for Cameroon and scored five goals. Milla was a pioneer of African football, and one of the first major international stars from the continent. Playing in three World Cups with the Indomitable Lions, Milla played in the 1994 World Cup at the age of 42 and scored a goal, becoming the oldest player to appear at the tournament and the oldest to score.
Milla’s domestic career spanned an astounding 32 seasons, and perhaps his most famous World Cup moment was when he dispossessed flamboyant Colombian keeper Rene Higuita—he of the scorpion kick—35 yards from goal and scored past him. Cameroon went on the quarterfinals, still the best run by an African team.
Thierry Henry, France (1998, 02, 06, 10)
Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer also had a successful career with the French national team, appearing 17 times at the World Cup and scoring six goals. As a largely unknown entity, Henry earned a call up for Les Bleus ahead of the 1998 World Cup and ended the tourney as France’s top scorer with three goals as they won the cup, beating Brazil 3-0 in the final.
Henry also featured prominently for France in 2002, 2006 and 2010. He currently plays for Red Bull New York of Major League Soccer.
Ademir, Brazil (1950)
Despite only appearing in one World Cup for Brazil, Ademir made the most of his time, scoring nine times in six games. The center forward won the Golden Boot as Brazil fell to Uruguay ay home in what came to be known as the Maracanazo. Ademir was a powerful and quick striker, equally adept with either foot.
Geoff Hurst, England (1966, 70)
Hurst appeared in six World Cup matches for Three Lions and produced five goals. The West Ham legend remains the only player to have scored a hat trick in a World Cup final. Hurst famously achieved this feat against West Germany in 1966, lifting England to its first and only World Cup title. He also played in the 1970 World Cup as England was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
Josef Masopust, Czechoslovakia (1958, 62)
Perhaps the greatest player in the history of what was then called Czechoslovakia, Masopust was a tremendous midfielder and captained his nation to the final at the 1962 World Cup, where they would ultimately lost to Brazil. He was named European Footballer of the Year for 1962 based largely upon his performance at the World Cup.
Masopust appeared 10 times in the World Cup and scored one goal.
Oliver Kahn, Germany (2002, 06)
Called up for both the 1994 and 98 World Cups as a backup, Kahn had to wait until 2002 for his chance in the limelight. He took full advantage leading Germany to the final, while only allowing three goals—two of which came in the final. Germany lost to Brazil after a rare Kahn gaffe.
“There is no consolation...,” he said following the game. “It was the only mistake I made in seven games, and it was brutally punished.”
Kahn was the first goaltender to ever win the World Cup’s Golden Ball award.
Marco Tardelli, Italy (1978, 82)
Tardelli made 13 appearances for Italy at the World Cup and scored two goals. A relentless midfielder, Tardelli was known for his stamina and mental toughness, as much as for his ruthless tackling. Tardelli also had fine technical ability and could also score goals. He scored both of his WC goals in 1982, as Italy won the whole thing. He also figured prominently for the Azzurri in 1978.
Kazimierz Deyna, Poland (1974, 78)
Deyna was one of the most lethal marksmen in Polish history and made 14 World Cup appearances, scoring four goals. He helped Poland win the bronze at the 1974 World Cup and captained the White Eagles at the 1978 World Cup.
After emigrating from then communist Poland to the USA to play in the North American Soccer League, Deyna was tragically killed in a car accident in San Diego. He was 41 years old.
Dennis Bergkamp, Netherlands (1994, 98)
Arsenal legend Bergkamp scored six goals in 10 appearances for Holland at the World Cup. Making his debut in 1994, Bergkamp played in all the Oranje’s matches and even scored against Brazil in a match the Dutch would lose 3-2. He was instrumental as Holland reached the semifinals in 1998 and scored a magnificent winning goal in the quarterfinals.
Osvaldo Ardiles, Argentina (1978, 82)
Ardiles was a key part of Argentina’s midfield during the successful World Cup campaign of 1978 and again during the 1982 tournament. Ardiles was a competitive and skilled midfielder and made 11 World Cup appearances, scoring one goal for the Albiceleste.
Rudi Voeller, West Germany/Germany (1986, 90, 94)
Voeller made 15 appearances at the World Cup for Germany and returned eight goals. He spent the majority of the 1986 tournament on the bench but came on as a substitute in the final and scored the equalizing goal before Argentina went on to win. In 1990, Voeller scored three goals as Germany won the World Cup, this time beating Argentina.
Voeller scored his final two goals in the 1994 World Cup in the USA, despite again spending a lot of time on the bench.
Giuseppe Bergomi, Italy (1982, 86, 90, 98)
With his first and final World Cups coming 16 years apart, Bergomi is a legend based solely upon longevity. But the Italian defender was a staple at the back line for the Azzurri squads of the 1980s.
In 1982, he started the tournament on the bench but soon wound up in the starting XI and effectively neutralized Karl-Heinze Rumenigge in the final against West Germany as Italy lifted the cup. In 1998, after a lengthy absence from the Italy setup, Bergomi made the World Cup side against the odds and made his final three appearances.
Nilton Santos, Brazil (1954, 58, 62)
Known as “The Encyclopedia” because of his vast knowledge of the game, Santos appeared 15 times for Brazil at three World Cups. He was named to the 1950 squad but failed to get himself on the pitch. He scored one World Cup goal. Santos was a key member of the Brazilian defense during a very good period in the nation’s footballing history.
Paul Breitner, West Germany (1974, 82)
The outspoken Breitner was one of Germany’s more controversial players and earned four goals in 14 World Cup appearances. After helping West Germany win the cup in 1974 and beat the mighty Dutch side, Breitner retired from international competition until he was lured back to the squad by Jupp Derwall in time for the 1982 World Cup.
Breitner has the honor of being one of just four players to score in two World Cup finals—the others being Pele, Vava and Zinedine Zidane.
Leonidas, Brazil (1934, 38)
Leonidas da Silva was one of the most important footballers of the first half of the 20th century. Credited by many with inventing the bicycle kick, he represented Brazil at two World Cups and scored eight goals. Leonidas led the 1938 World Cup with seven goals as Brazil lost in the semis against Italy. He was known as “The Rubber Man” for his renowned elasticity.
Ruud Krol, Netherlands (1974, 78)
Krol was a superb defender who could play virtually anywhere he was needed. A left back with the famous 1974 Dutch side, often spoke of amongst the greatest that never won a World Cup. Krol played every minute of every game and even scored his lone World Cup goal in his 14 appearances. In 1978, he was equally successful as a sweeper, as Holland again fell short of World Cup glory.
Dunga, Brazil (1990, 94, 98)
Dunga played as defensive midfielder on three Brazil teams including the World Cup champion 1994 edition. He appeared 18 times at the World Cup for Brazil and went on to coach the national team for a spell after his retirement—including at the 2010 World Cup.
Dunga was a terrific player, albeit a controversial one. Many fans felt he was the embodiment of what was wrong with the team following the poor showing in 1990. He didn’t even begin the 1994 World Cup as captain but took over mid-tournament and led Brazil to glory.
Andreas Brehme, West Germany/Germany (1986, 90, 94)
A great left back, Brehme played in three World Cups for Germany, winning it with them in 1990. He made 16 World Cup appearances and scored four goals. Making his debut in 1986, Brehme was instantly a staple of the German squad through his completeness at the left back position. He played his final World Cup match in 1994 against Bulgaria.
Helmut Rahn, West Germany (1954, 58)
Rahn is best remembered as the hero of West Germany’s shock win over the mighty Hungarians at the 1954 World Cup. The Magic Magyars hadn’t lost a match in four years, so when they went up 2-0 on the West Germans things looked bleak. Germany came back on the strength of a goal and an assist from Rahn, and he went on to break the hearts of Hungarians everywhere with his second goal that gave West Germany the Jules Rimet trophy with a 3-2 win.
Rahn scored 10 times in as many World Cup matches.
Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina (1994, 98 02)
Batistuta scored 10 goals in 12 appearances for Argentina at the World Cup. Despite the disappointing end to Argentina’s 1994 World Cup following Maradona’s doping suspension, Batistuta scored four goals in four games before the Albiceleste bowed out against Romania in the round of 16, including a hat trick against Greece.
In 1998, Batistuta recorded another hat trick, becoming the fourth player to score two hat tricks at the World Cup. The others being Sandor Kocsis, Just Fontaine and Gerd Muller. Batistuta was the first player to net hat tricks at two separate World Cups.
Johann Neeskens, Netherlands (1974, 78)
Neeskens was instrumental as Holland dazzled their way into the final and a 2-1 defeat against West Germany. He scored five goals at the tournament and was in great form. In 1978 the Dutch again made the final, and although Neeskens failed to score, his contributions from the midfield were invaluable.
Neeskens made 13 appearances at the World Cup for the Nethelands.
Roberto Carlos, Brazil (1998, 02, 06)
Roberto Carlos played in three World Cups for Brazil and helped to hoist the cup in 2002. All told he’s made 17 appearances for Brazil at the World Cup at left back—a position he dominated during his tenure. He scored his lone World Cup goal against China at the 2002 tournament in group play.
Djalma Santos, Brazil (1954, 58, 62, 66)
Santos is considered to be one of the greatest right backs of all time and started for Brazil at four World Cups, winning two in 1958 and 1962. Santos and Franz Beckenbauer are the only two players to be included in three World Cup All-Star teams.
In 1954, he played in every one of Brazil’s matches. In 1958, he only played in the final but played so well that he made the All-Star Team. All told, Djalma Santos appeared 12 times at the World Cup for Brazil.
David Villa, Spain (2006, 10)
Villa was included in Spain’s squad for the 2006 World Cup and the Barcelona striker returned three goals. In 2010, he took home the Silver Shoe from South Africa along with the winner’s medal, as he led Spain with five goals, raising his all-time mark at the tournament to eight goals in 11 appearances.
Zbigniew Boniek, Poland (1978, 82, 86)
Boniek is one of the best Eastern European players ever, and was called up to Poland’s 1978 World Cup squad as a 22-year-old. He would make 16 appearances at the World Cup overall and return six goals. Boniek was in good form at the 1982 tournament and helped Poland to the bronze medal, scoring four goals.
Roberto Rivelino, Brazil (1970, 1974, 1978)
Known for his cannon-like free kicks, Rivelino played 15 times for Brazil in the World Cup and scored six goals. The man with the giant mustache was one of the best players in the Brazil setup during the 1970s, and this includes the 1970 side, considered by most to be one of the best ever fielded.
Rivelino’s magical ball skills are still imitated today, and he left many an opponent in awe as Brazil captured the cup in 1970.
Gianluigi Buffon, Italy (2002, 06, 10)
“Gigi” was called up to the Italy squad for the 1998 World Cup but failed to appear in a single game. From 2002 on, however, the Juventus netminder made 12 appearances at the World Cup and conceded just eight goals.
Helping the Azzurri lift the cup in 2006, Buffon allowed a mere two goals while recording five clean sheets. He also posted a 453-minute scoreless streak. The two goals that slipped by the Italian backstop were an own goal by Cristian Zaccardo against the US and a penalty by Zinedine Zidane in the final against France.
Gary Lineker, England (1986, 1990)
Lineker is one of the most famous strikers in England’s football history, and the nation’s all-time leader in World Cup goals with 10 goals in 12 appearances. Lineker, currently a sports broadcaster with the BBC, among others, won the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup with six goals—he remains the only English player to have done so.
He helped the Three Lions to the semis at the 1990 World Cup, scoring three goals as England lost in a heartbreaking penalty shootout against eventual champions West Germany.
Raymond Kopa, France (1954, 58)
Kopa made eight appearances at the World Cup for Les Bleus, scoring four goals. The son of Polish immigrants helped France finish third at the 1958 World Cup and is one of the best attackers in the history of French football. Overall, Kopa netted 18 times in 45 appearances with the national team.
Fabio Cannavaro, Italy (1998, 02, 06, 10)
The legendary Italian center back made 18 World Cup appearances for Italy over four tournaments and is widely regarded as one of the best defenders of the modern era. After taking the captain’s armband from Paolo Maldini after the 2002 World Cup, Cannavaro led the Azzurri to a World Cup win in 2006.
He also captained Italy at the 2010 World Cup, but they surprisingly crashed out of the competition in the group stage.
Jurgen Klinsmann, West Germany, Germany (1990, 94, 98)
Klinsmann was one of the best German strikers of all time and appeared in 17 matches at the World Cup and scored 11 goals. Helping West Germany to lift the cup in 1990 with three goals, Klinsmann netted five times in 1994, but the Germans had aged since the glory of the previous tourney and failed to recreate it.
At the 1998 World Cup, Klinsmann scored three times at his final tournament.
Franco Baresi, Italy (1990, 94)
Although he was selected for the 1982 Italy squad that won the cup, Baresi never played a minute, which made him quite angry. He declined to appear for the Azzurri as long as Enzo Bearzot was the coach, causing him to miss the 1986 World Cup entirely.
Finally making his debut for Italy at the world’s highest level in 1990, Baresi helped Italy reach the semifinal with his typically stalwart play at sweeper. In 1994, he played the game of his life in the final against Brazil, although Italy lost on penalties, and Baresi missed one in the shootout.
Zico, Brazil (1978, 82, 86)
Making his World Cup debut for Brazil in 1978, Zico disliked the defensive approach favored that year by coach Claudio Coutinho, even though the Brazilians took down the bronze. In 1982, the approach was more suited to his attacking style, and he scored four goals in Spain despite his nation’s early exit.
The 1982 edition is considered one of the finest ever fielded in Brazil’s illustrious history at the World Cup, despite their early exit at the hands of eventual champions Italy and a late Paolo Rossi strike. In 14 World Cup appearances, Zico netted five goals.
Sandor Kocsis, Hungary (1954)
Known as “The Man with the Golden Head,” Kocsis was a key ingredient to the “Magic” of the Magic Magyars, as the Hungarians were known, and despite only competing in the 1954 World Cup for Hungary, he returned a stellar 11 goals in only five games. The high scorer at the 1954 tournament, Kocsis is one of the greatest strikers in the history of the World Cup, and his 2.2 goals per game average in a single tournament is still the gold standard as of 2011.
Kocsis was the first player to ever score two hat tricks at a single World Cup, and only Just Fontaine has scored more goals in one tournament.
Fritz Walter, West Germany (1954, 58)
One of the true beacons of German football and one of the nation’s greatest sporting heroes, Walter lost much of his international career to the turmoil of the Second World War and didn’t make his World Cup debut until he was 33 years old in 1954—the still fledgling West Germany’s first post-war entry.
Walter captained the West Germans as they traveled to Switzerland and advanced to the final against the Magic Magyars of Hungary, a side which hadn’t lost a match in four years. Walter and company went down two only 10 minutes in but battled back and took home West Germany’s first World Cup.
Wolfgang Overath, West Germany (1966, 70, 74)
Only 22 when he made his World Cup debut in 1966, Overath played an important role in West Germany’s run to the finals, were they would ultimately fall to England in extra time. Named the tournament’s best midfield player at the 1970 World Cup by the international media after West Germany placed third in Mexico, Overath was known as a big game player with a powerful left foot.
He remains—along with teammate Franz Beckenbauer—one of only two players to ever win the gold, silver and bronze at the World Cup.
Obdulio Varela, Uruguay (1950, 54)
The legendary Uruguayan captain was instrumental in leading his nation to an odds-defying victory over Brazil at the Maracana in 1950, and many people say Uruguay could have beaten Hungary’s Magic Magyars in the 1954 semifinals had the then 37-year-old Varela been fit. In seven World Cup matches, Varela returned two goals and was always a commanding presence on the pitch.
Varela will perhaps forever be an immortal in the eyes of the Uruguayan people for helping to orchestrate the miracle win of 1950.
Daniel Passarella, Argentina (1978, 82)
Passarella was one of the most dominant defenders in World Cup history, and despite his diminutive stature (174cm) was known for his aerial ability. Appearing in 12 World Cup matches for the Albiceleste, Passarella captained Argentina to the title in 1978.
Also known to be a superior scorer for a back line player, Passarella scored 22 goals in his 70 appearances for Argentina and bagged three in World Cup play as well.
Xavi, Spain (2002, 06, 10)
With 14 World Cup appearances under his belt, the Spanish midfield wizard finally felt the joy of lifting the cup in 2010 as Spain powered its way to glory. Without question one of the best midfielders in the world, Xavi finished with an 89 percent pass completion rate at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Lilian Thuram, France (1998, 02, 06)
Playing in three World Cups for France, Thuram was a part of the side that captured the top prize at the 1998 tournament. The Frenchman made 16 appearances for France at the World Cup and is the most capped player in the history of the French National Team.
Along with Marcel Desailly, Bixente Lizarazu and Laurent Blanc, Thuram formed the steel spine of a France sided that conceded just two goals in seven games during the 1998 World Cup.
Vava, Brazil (1958, 62)
Scoring nine goals for Brazil in 10 World Cup appearances, Vava was known as one of the best strikers of his generation, and he earned the nickname “Steel Chest.” Vava was an integral part of the Brazilian squads that won the cup in 1958 and 1962—where he scored five and four goals respectively—and was the co-winner of the Golden Boot at the 1962 tournament.
Vava was the first player to ever score in the final of two World Cups, and to this day remains just one of four players to ever accomplish the feat (Pele, Paul Breitner, Zinedine Zidane).
Mario Kempes, Argentina (1974, 78, 82)
The Argentinian sharpshooter was the leading scorer at the 1978 World Cup with six goals, as the Albiceleste took home the Cup. Also representing Argentina in 1974 and 1982, Kempes was a feared striker during his time with the national team setup.
Kempes bagged a brace in the ’78 final against the Netherlands during Argentina’s 3-1 victory.
Bert Patenaude, United States (1930)
A member of the US Soccer Hall of Fame and a sadly all-but forgotten historical footnote, Patenaude scored the first hat trick in the history of the World Cup. Yes, an American did that.
That aside, the native of Fall River, Massachusetts made his only four appearances for the US National Team at the 1930 World Cup, but he returned a remarkable four goals and led the US to the semifinals were they fell to Argentina.
Patenaude’s four goals in one World Cup remains the standard for a US player.
Photo courtesy of tdifh.blogspot.com
Teofilo Cubillas, Peru (1970, 78, 82)
Known as Peru’s greatest player, Cubillas is one of only two players to ever score five goals in two different World Cups, the other being Miroslav Klose. He led Peru to the quarterfinals at the 1970 World Cup and again at the 1978 edition.
A midfielder of excellent technical ability, Cubillas could also score like a forward. His 10 goals in 13 World Cup appearances places him seventh all time on the list of the tournament’s most prolific marksmen.
Juan Schiaffino, Uruguay (1950, 54)
Schiaffino played for the Uruguay squad nine times at the World Cup and netted five goals. An inside forward on Uruguay’s 1950 World Cup Champion side, Schiaffino also made four appearances for Italy’s national team.
He scored a goal in the famous 1950 final, known as the “Maracanazo,” between Uruguay and Brazil.
Cafu, Brazil (1994, 98, 02, 06)
One of the best and speediest right backs of all time, Cafu was twice a World Cup champions with Brazil (1994, 2002) and is the nation’s most capped player at 143, including 21 appearances at the World Cup. He is also one of only two players to ever appear in three consecutive World Cup finals (Lothar Matthaus).
Cafu’s pace and ability was an integral part of four tournament squads for the Brazilians.
Uwe Seeler, West Germany (1958, 62, 66, 70)
Seeler had the same problem as many of his fellow attack-minded internationals from his generation: Playing in the biggest shadow of them all, that cast by Pele. Playing in the same four tournaments as the Brazilian legend, Seeler returned nine goals in 21 appearances and led West Germany to the 1966 final, where they fell to England.
The striker was the first player ever to appear in 20 World Cup games, the first to play in four World Cups—beating Pele by a matter of minutes—and ranks third all time in World Cup minutes played.
Miroslav Klose, Germany (2002, 06, 10)
The Polish-born striker is Germany’s best post-reunification goalscorer bar none. He is also a lethal touch when it matters the most, as his 14 goals in 19 World Cup appearances demonstrates and tied for second all time on FIFA’s list of World Cup scorers trailing only Ronaldo and even with Gerd Muller.
The German side has never lost when Klose has scored, and as he shows no signs of slowing down, it’s not out of the question that he makes one more trip to the big show.
Lev Yashin, USSR (1958, 62, 66)
Known as “The Black Spider,” Yashin is generally regarded as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, and appeared in three World Cups for the USSR. The Russian netminder appeared 13 times in the greatest competition in sport, conceding 18 goals.
Known for his athleticism, imposing stature and quick reflexes, Yashin helped Russia-USSR finish as high as fourth in 1966. The legendary keeper even made a fourth trip to the WC in 1970 as a third-choice backup and assistant coach. He is credited with four clean sheets in World Cup play.
Gordon Banks, England (1966, 70)
Banks manned the goal as England won the 1966 World Cup on home soil. In nine appearances on the world’s biggest stage, Banks conceded just four times. Despite hoisting the cup with Three Lions in ’66, “The Banks of England” is best remembered for a save on Pele during the 1970 final that practically rewrote the laws of physics. Pele called it the greatest save he ever saw.
Karl-Heinze Rummenigge, West Germany (1978, 82, 86)
A dangerous forward, Rummenigge made 19 World Cup appearances for West Germany and scored nine goals during the 1978, 1982 and 1986 tournaments. While the Germans exited during the first knockout round in ’78, Rummenigge was instrumental in helping them to consecutive finals in ’82 and ’86 and even scored against Argentina in 1986.
The striker bagged three goals in 1978, five in 1982 and the aforementioned strike at the 1986 final.
Roberto Baggio, Italy (1990, 94, 98)
“The Divine Ponytail” is the only Italian player to have scored in three World Cups, collecting a total of nine goals during the 1990, 94 and 98 tournaments—including five during the knockout phase of the 1994 World Cup.
He is tied with Paolo Rossi and Christian Vieri for the most World Cup goals by an Italian.
Rivaldo, Brazil (1998, 2002)
The Brazilian was one of the most dangerous players in the world when he was at his peak and scored eight World Cup goals in 14 games in 1998 and 2002.
Never actually retiring from international football, Rivaldo’s exclusion from Brazil’s national team setup is seen as largely a product of the emergence of players such as Kaka.
After moving to Olympiacos in 2004, the writing was pretty much on the wall, and Rivaldo’s national team days were behind him. The player is still active with Sao Paulo, where he is on loan from Mogi Mirim.
Luis Monti Argentina/Italy (1930, 34)
Monti has the distinction of having played in two successive World Cup final matches for two separate countries, Argentina and Italy in 1930 and 1934.
While his native Argentina fell to Uruguay in 1930, Monti helped Italy win the cup in 1934. The defender made 16 appearances for Argentina and 18 for Italy between 1924 and 1936.
Monti made a combined nine appearances in World Cup play and scored twice.
Dino Zoff, Italy (1974, 78, 82)
The Italian keeper made 17 appearances at the World Cup for the Azzurri and allowed 16 goals. Competing in 1974, 1978 and 1982—the year Italy won it all—Zoff was a stalwart presence between the woodwork for the Italians.
Zoff captained Italy to the World Cup win in 1982 at age 40, the oldest player to ever lift the trophy.
Eusebio, Portugal (1966)
Playing in his only World Cup in 1966, the Portuguese legend didn’t fail to make an impression. In fact, his performance is legendary. Eusebio netted nine times in just six games, as Portugal finished third in England.
Eusebio is remembered as one of the finest footballers the world has ever seen, and his stellar performance in ’66 is ample testament to that fact.
Jairzinho, Brazil (1966, 70, 74)
Playing in three World Cups for Brazil, the quick and powerful winger scored in every game played by the legendary 1970 Samba squad. In 16 World Cup matches, Jairzinho netted nine goals.
He played in the 1966, 1970 and 1974 tournaments and was the key reason Brazil’s national side scarcely missed a beat when Garrincha’s time was over.
After his exploits at the 1970 World Cup, Jairzinho received the moniker, “Furacao da Copa” or “World Cup Hurricane.”
20. PAOLO MALDINI, Italy (1994, 98, 02)
Italy’s most capped player somehow missed out on the big prize while with the Azzurri, but this scarcely diminishes his impact at the four World Cups in which he played, 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002.
Maldini captained Italy a record 74 times, including throughout the 1994 World Cup, where the Azzurri were edged by Brazil in the final.
19. LOTHAR MATTHAUS, West Germany (1982, 86, 90, 94, 98)
Matthaus led Germany to the World Cup title in 1990, after being victimized by Maradona in the 1986 edition.
He scored four goals from the midfield position, as the Germans proved unstoppable in Italy. Matthaus also played in the 1994 World Cup, supposed to be his last but in a story doubtlessly fresh in the mind of men like David Beckham, turned up as a replacement in the 1998 German setup and finished his career with 25 World Cup appearances.
18. BOBBY CHARLTON, England (1962, 66, 70)
Charlton is one of the true legends of the England national team. He was selected for four World Cup squads, although to this day, it is worth wondering why he didn’t see any action in 1958, his first tournament.
The midfielder figured more prominently in 1962, bagging a goal but truly became an international star at the 1966 World Cup, where he was a key figure in Three Lions win on home soil, scoring twice. Charlton also took part in the 1970 World Cup and ended his international career shortly after.
17. GIUSEPPE MEAZZA, Italy (1934, 38)
Meazza led Italy to victory in the 1934 and 1938 World Cups and was the catalyst for both wins.
“Il Balilla” scored five goals in 1934 and four in 1938, including his famous penalty against Brazil in the semis. Meazza stepped up to take the kick against Brazilian stopper Walter, who was renowned in Brazil for saving penalties, and his shorts fell to his ankles, having been ripped previously by a defender.
Without missing a beat, Meazza lifted his trousers with one hand and ripped the ball past Walter, who was apparently confused and still laughing. The goal sent the Italians into the final and, poetically enough, was Meazza’s final strike for Italy.
16. GRZEGORZ LATO, Poland (1974, 78, 82)
Without question the most famous Polish footballer of all time, Lato was the leading scorer at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, scoring seven goals and is the only Pole to ever win the tournament’s Golden Boot award.
Lato, who would go on to become a senator in Poland, before being elected President of the nation’s FA in 2008, also took part in the 1978 and 1982 World Cups and was a key figure in what is known as the golden age of Polish football.
His exploits at the ’74 WC are all the more glorious when it is recalled that Wlodzimierz Lubanski, Poland’s all-time leading scorer, missed the proceedings in West Germany through an injury sustained in the qualifying rounds.
Lato is one of the most underrated players in football history, and his pace and uncanny awareness on the pitch allowed him to lead the White Eagles to great heights.
15. PAOLO ROSSI, Italy (1978, 82)
After making the squad in 1978, Rossi led the Azzurri to glory in 1982. However, his return came in the wake of the 1980 Totonero betting scandal that rocked Serie A, and Rossi received a three-year ban for actions he allegedly undertook while at Perugia.
Rossi showed up to the World Cup out of shape, leading some journalists to refer to him as a ghost aimlessly wandering over the field.
Nonetheless, Rossi scored a hat trick in a memorable 3-2 win over a Brazil side that featured such names as Socrates and Zico, then his brace was enough to see off Poland in the semis. Rossi would score again in the final and Italy would be crowned kings of the football world, besting West Germany, 3-1.
14. MICHEL PLATINI, France (1978, 82, 86)
Platini was an attacking midfielder on three World Cup squads for France, in 1978, 1982 and 1986, reaching the semifinals in the latter two. Regarded as one of the best passers and best free-kick takers in football history, Platini was a member of France’s “Magic Square” midfield of the 1980s
Despite being a midfielder, Platini’s 40 national team goals stood as a French record until it was surpassed by Thierry Henry.
13. ROMARIO, Brazil (1990, 94)
Romario collected five goals at the 1994 World Cup and was named player of the tournament as Brazil went on to glory. He also played in the 1990 World Cup.
Romario formed a lethal strike partnership known as the “Ro-Ro Duo” with Ronaldo during his time with Brazil.
12. DIDI, Brazil (1954, 58, 62)
Didi played a vital role on two Cup winning Brazil sides in 1958 and 1962 and played in the 1954 tournament as well. Didi Scored 20 goals in 68 appearances with Brazil, including two at the 1958 edition.
His play in the middle for Brazil was instrumental in their success during this time.
11. BOBBY MOORE, England (1962, 66, 70)
Played in a trio of World Cups for The Three Lions and led England to glory on home ground in 1966. Moore was one of the finest defenders who ever played the game and was a stalwart on the back line for the England National side.
An entire generation of English soccer fans were weaned on images of Sir Bobby wiping the mud and sweat from his hands on the blue velvet tablecloth before shaking the hand of Queen Elizabeth II as the monarch presented him with the Jules Rimet trophy.
10. FRANZ BECKENBAUER, West Germany (1966, 1970, 1974)
“Der Kaiser” won the World Cup as a player in 1974 and as a manager in 1990. He played in three tournaments with West Germany and is widely regarded as one of the finest defenders to ever play the game.
Beckenbauer scored four goals at the 1966 World Cup, despite West Germany being defeated in the final by England. He finished tied for third in scoring—as a defender.
9. JOHANN CRUYFF, Netherlands (1974)
Probably the greatest player to never win the World Cup, Cruyff scored four goals in his lone appearance on the world’s biggest stage in 1974, as he led the Oranje to second place and was named the tournament's most outstanding player.
He led Dutch sides that played the style of Total Football, as practiced by the legendary Rinus Michels.
8. JUST FONTAINE, France (1958)
With Perhaps the best goals per game average of any player ever, the Moroccan born Fontaine scored 30 goals for France in only 21 appearances. He scored a record 13 goals in the 1958 World Cup in just six matches and won the tournament’s Golden Boot Award.
Fontaine also holds the record for most consecutive matches with a goal at the World Cup with six.
7. FERENC PUSKAS, Hungary, Spain (1954, 1962)
With each passing year, the memory of the “Magic Magyars” grows more and more remote to the football consciousness of the average fan. That’s a shame, because the 1954 Hungarian team was one of the finest ever fielded in the history of the World Cup.
While Hungary failed to capture the trophy that year, Puskas netted four goals in the tournament.
Sadly, 1954 would be the only World Cup that Puskas would appear in. He scored an incredible 84 goals in 85 appearances for Hungary, and in the waning moments of the 3-2 loss in the final to West Germany, he seemed to have scored the equalizer, but it was waved off due to an offsides call.
6. ZINEDINE ZIDANE, France (1998, 02, 06)
Although the final memory for many of Zidane is the unfortunate head-butt incident of the 2006 tournament, it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t belong near the top of any list of best World Cup performers ever.
Zidane played in three World Cups for Les Bleus and helped France lift the cup in 1998. He scored two goals in the final and was arguably the best player in Europe between 1998 and 2002.
Zizou, as he is affectionately known by many French and Algerians, was snubbed in the victorious 1998 World Cup for best player, as the Golden Boot went to Ronaldo but finally won the hardware in 2006 after captaining France back into the final.
5. GERD MULLER, West Germany (1970, 74)
“Der Bomber” scored 10 goals at the 1970 World Cup for West Germany and another four during the victorious 1974 tournament, giving him 14 all-time strikes at the tournament, a record that stood for 32 years until Ronaldo eclipsed it at the 2006 World Cup.
Muller netted 68 times in 62 appearances for West Germany from 1966 to 1974 and led one of the finest German sides of all time.
4. RONALDO, Brazil (1998, 02, 06)
Long before the scourge of all you can eat buffet owners everywhere stalked the eateries of the world, Ronaldo was one of the most feared strikers in world football at the club and international levels.
Playing in four World Cup tournaments with Brazil and winning two, Ronaldo certainly deserves his place amongst the greats of the competition’s history.
Posting 62 goals in 97 appearances for the Samba Boys, Ronaldo also owns the FIFA World Cup record for the most all-time goals scored in the competition with 15, and the mark for most matches with at least one goal scored at 11.
He helped Brazil win the Cup in 2002 and was with the squad in the United States in 1994 but did not play.
He is one of only three players to have ever scored three goals in three separate tournaments. Miroslav Klose and Jurgen Klinsmann are the other two.
3. GARRINCHA, Brazil (1958, 62, 66)
The “Little Bird” took center stage after Pele was injured in the second game at the 1962 World Cup, and was instrumental as Brazil hoisted a second consecutive Jules Rimet Trophy. A sleek and devastating right winger, Garrincha is still revered throughout Brazil and around the globe.
Playing in total of 50 matches for Brazil between 1955 and 1966, Garrincha netted 12 goals.
Without question, Garrincha is the player on this list whose backstory makes one want to propel him to the top. He was born in Pau Grande, Brazil and was partially crippled and poorly educated. Tormented by other peasants before gaining fame as a wonder maker on the wing for Brazil, the Little Bird’s flight was partially ended by his own hand because of struggles with alcoholism and other off-the-field issues.
Nonetheless, Brazil never lost an international match with Garrincha and Pele in the lineup.
2. DIEGO MARADONA, Argentina (1982, 86, 90, 94)
Pele’s only real competitor for the title of best of all time, Maradona played on four World Cup sides for the Albiceleste and won the Rimet Trophy on one occasion.
Maradona scored 34 goals in 91 appearances for Argentina from 1977-1994, including eight goals and eight assists in 21 World Cup games.
Maradona led Argentina to victory in the 1986 tournament and led himself into infamy with his notorious unpenalized handball known to history as “the hand of God” against England in the quarterfinal, during a 2-1 win. Maradona scored both goals in the game and went on to captain the side to victory of West Germany in final.
His other goal in the quarterfinal, to be fair, consisted of weaving majestically though five England players and going the length of the pitch to beat goalkeeper Peter Shilton. The strike was voted “Goal of the Century” in an online poll conducted by FIFA in 2002.
1. PELE, Brazil (1958, 62, 66, 70)
Edison “Edson” Arantes do Nascimento, better known to the world as Pele, was quite simply the best player the planet has ever seen. With all due respect to Diego Maradona, Pele was the most beautiful practitioner of the beautiful game bar none. End of story.
Playing an integral role on four World Cup teams with Brazil, Pele led the Selecao to three wins during that span and did arguably as much as anyone before or since to elevate the prestige of football to the level it currently enjoys around the globe.
Currently one of the best international ambassadors for the game, Pele scored a remarkable 77 goals in 92 appearances for Brazil. Lifting the cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970, Pele and Brazil retained the Jules Rimet trophy permanently after 1970 for winning three times. No other team has ever done so.
Pele scored his first World Cup goal against Wales in the 1958 quarterfinals as the youngest player to ever play in the tournament up to that time. His last goal came against Italy in the 1970 final.
Said Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich, who marked the “Black Pearl” during the final, “I told myself before the game, he’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else—but I was wrong.”