One of the most debated topics in football is who are the best players of all time? Everybody will have their own views and prejudices, formed in part by their age, and who they grew up watching, either live or on television. People who are in their twenties who have grown-up with the Champions League will immediately think of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, whilst their fathers or grandfathers may talk about Pelé or Maradona. And, those who are older still may posit some of the names from the 1950s and 1960s, such as di Stéfano, Puskás or Garrincha.
There can be no definitive list. However, here are ten suggestions for players that would, at least, make the shortlist for many.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento also known as Pelé is widely regarded as the greatest ever player to grace a football field.
He began his professional career with Santos aged just 15 but, within a year, he had become the top scorer in the Brazilian league and was playing for his country. A year later he helped Santos win their first ever major title and then burst onto the international scene as one of the stars of the Brazil team that won the World Cup for the first time, scoring a hat-trick in the semi-final and then two in the final as his side beat Sweden 5 – 2.
Back in Brazil, he helped Santos win five successive league championships between 1961 and 1965, and then a sixth three years later, as well as the Copa Libertadores twice. In 1962 and 1963 Santos also won the Intercontinental Cup, the unofficial world championship played between the champions of South America and Europe.
On the international stage, although he scored and was part of the team that retained the World Cup in Chile in 1962 he was injured for the latter stages of the tournament, whilst four years later in England, he was literally kicked out of the tournament by Bulgarian and Portuguese defenders. However, he returned in triumph in 1970 as part of the Brazil team reckoned by many to be the finest international side ever assembled as the reclaimed the World Cup in scintillating style, beating Italy 4 – 1 in the final with Pelé putting them ahead with a thumping header.
In later years Santos would often tour Europe to play exhibition games and friendlies, the football equivalent of the Harlem Globe Trotters, with Pelé as the main draw. He later went on to play for the New York Cosmos, where, despite being well past his best, he is credited with significantly increasing awareness for the sport in North America.
Pelé scored well over a thousand goals in his career, although the exact number is hard to tell as a many came in exhibition or semi-official matches.
He could score with either foot and was good in the air, despite not being a tall man. He had excellent vision and control, as well, like balance, flair and superb dribbling ability. He could also feint and change direction in a heartbeat, with an unparalleled ability to improvise, surprising both opponents and, sometimes, teammates.
Since retiring from football, he has been a United Nations ambassador as well as briefly a film star – he featured as himself in the 1981 film “Escape to Victory”.
Despite all the goals he scored, it was a header that did not go in that reminds everybody of his talent and humanity. Playing in a group game in the 1970 World Cup against England, he produced a trademark header that seemed destined for the net with Pelé mouthing goal, only for the English goalkeeper to produce one of the greatest saves of all time to keep it out. The two men became lifelong friends after that game and when Banks recently died, it was Pelé who was the first to lead the tributes.
Regarded as the greatest ever player to play club football in Europe, Diego Maradona was a small stature genius who had incomparable dribbling skills and passing ability, aligned with the superb vision and unerring ball control. His low center of gravity and robust physique enabled him to beat several players at a time, leaving opponents trailing in his wake. Probably his most famous goal of all was scored for Argentina against England in the World Cup quarter-final of 1986 when he ran from his own half-way line to beat six men before sliding the ball home. Yet, in England, he is best remembered for his first “Hand of God” goal where he tipped the ball over Peter Shilton with his hand. Throughout his life Maradona and controversy have gone hand-in-hand.
Already regarded as a prodigy, Maradona, after an initial early career with Boca Juniors back in his native country moved to Barcelona in 1982 for what was then a world record fee. However, injury and illness blighted his time at the Camp Nou, and despite helping them win the Copa del Rey in 1983, he moved to Napoli for another world record fee.
It was what he did at the Serie A side that has made him a legend in Italy, dragging them, almost single-handedly, to their first ever Scudetto title in 1986-87, and then repeating the feat three years later. He also delivered the Italian Cup, and the UEFA Cup, Napoli’s only European honor to date.
Unfortunately, his time in Napoli ended in disgrace. A functioning cocaine addict, he was handed a 15-month ban after failing a drug test and was only to feature intermittently for the rest of his career, which featured spells with Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors.
Maradona played in 4 World Cups for Argentina, captaining his country in 1986 and 1990. In 1986 it was his goals and assists that largely helped them win in, whilst he was able to guide them to another final in 1990 when they lost to West Germany. Four years later though he provided a memory for his legion of fans to forget. Scoring against Greece, his bug-eyed celebration suggested the use of drugs to the watching world, and he was subsequently thrown out of the tournament for doping.
Never one to shun the limelight, Maradona has continued to grab headlines since his retirement. He has been variously a manager, talk show host, TV pundit and more, and is never shy to express his opinions or political views. He has left a string of relationships and illegitimate relationships in his wake, whilst his links with the Camorra – the Italian Mafia – during his time in Italy have yet to be fully explored. In 2000 Napoli retired the number 10 shirt in his honor.
Alfredo Di Stéfano is considered by some to be the best player of all time, and many consider that he should be ranked above fellow Argentines Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. Indelibly associated with the Real Madrid side that won 5 European Cups between 1956 and 1960, remarkably Di Stéfano did not even come to Europe until he was in his late 20s, having spent the earlier part of his career first with home town club River Plate, and then, after a player’s strike in Argentina, he moved to Colombia to play with Millonarios of Colombia.
However, although he had already won 12 Championships during his South American career, it was during his time in Spain with Real that created his legend. In 11 seasons, in addition to the European Cup triumphs, he helped them win 8 league titles and the Copa del Rey, scoring 308 goals in 396 appearances for Los Blancos. His partnership with Ferenc Puskás became legendary, exemplified by the 1960 European Cup Final, where Di Stéfano scored a hat-trick, and the Hungarian four in the 7 – 3 defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt, still spoken of, nearly 60 years later, as one of the finest games of club football ever played.
Known as “The Blond Arrow”, as a forward, Di Stéfano had it all – with great mobility in the box, the ability to track back, powerful heading ability, and tremendous shooting prowess, as well as the ability to spot and play a killer pass.
Johann Cruyff was a visionary, both as a player and later a manager. The exemplary of the concept of “Total Football” championed by his manager at Ajax, Rinus Michel, he led the Dutch team to 6 league championships between 1966 and 1973, and the Dutch Cup three times. They also achieved the feat, unparalleled at the time, of winning the European Cup three years in succession.
Moving to Barcelona in 1973, he helped them to lift their first league title in 14 years, but also gave them an identity and style of play that helped the club establish itself as one of the strongest in Europe.
He was part of the Dutch national side that came to be known as the best team never to win a World Cup. Their brand of fluid, attacking and innovative football took them to the final in 1974 but, despite Cruyff winning a first-minute penalty, they later succumbed to the pragmatism of West Germany.
Still, in the course of that tournament, the Dutch superstar introduced the world to a move “The Cruyff Turn” that still bears his name to this day.
The three-time Ballon d'Or winner moved back to Holland at the end of his career to win more league trophies with Ajax and then bitter rivals Feyenoord, before a successful move into management, particularly with Barcelona, where he helped them win their first ever European Cup in 1992. More importantly, he laid the blueprint for the short, fluid attacking style of football that later became known as tiki-taka, and which is the hallmark of the Catalan club to this day.
A man with a strong and distinct personality, when Cruyff died in 2016, he was mourned as somebody, who both as a player and a manager had strived to make football “beautiful”.
Despite the fact that Lionel Messi still has three or four years of top-level football left in him, his place in the pantheon of all-time greats is already assured.
The 31-year old Argentine has won the Ballon d'Or 5 times and been the top goal scorer in Europe on five occasions. He has scored nearly 600 goals for Barcelona in a career spanning 14 years, and his hat-trick against Sevilla in February 2019 was the 50th of his career. He also achieved the remarkable feat in 2012 of scoring 91 goals in a calendar year.
Yet when he joined the Barcelona youth academy, he was so quiet that his teammates initially thought he was mute, whilst he had to be given growth hormone treatment to help him develop physically. Like Diego Maradona, he is short with a low center of gravity, but like him, he has supreme dribbling ability and unerring close control enabling him to beat several opponents, one after the other, often through driving runs from the right side of the pitch. He is also a superb passer of the ball, with the vision and technique to find angles and options that eludes lesser players, and is an excellent dead-ball specialist.
A one-club man all his life, he has helped Barcelona to a degree of success unequaled in their history, winning 9 league titles (and they are well on their way to a tenth), 6 Copa del Reys, and the Champions League on four occasions. He was part of the Pep Guardiola side in 2009 that won the treble and, adopting the “Tiki-Taka” style of play. Since their retirement, Barcelona has been less dominant, and have come to rely on Messi even more, and his seemingly limitless ability to pull games out of the fire for them.
The one blemish on his record as a player is his relative failure at international level with Argentina. Not as beloved in his home country as he is in the rest of the world because he has played all his club football in Spain, he helped guide them to three successive finals – the World Cup of 2014, and the Copa América of 2015 and 2016 – but they lost them all. He briefly retired from the international game, only to return and almost single-handedly drag them to qualification for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia. However, they underperformed again and were knocked out early in the round of 16, having just scraped through the Group stage.
The reasons why he has underperformed in international tournaments may be because they are always played in the summer months when he is tired after a long European season, and also because his Argentinian teammates are not as good as those he plays with for Barcelona every week.
Luckily we still have time to enjoy a few more years of Messi as he writes new pages in the record books.
Mozambique is not known as a hotbed of football. However, in sporting terms, one of its most famous sons, Eusébio, became its greatest ever export.
Born in what is now Maputo in 1942, Eusébio was so poor as child growing-up that he had to play with a rolled-up newspaper as a makeshift ball. However, he was good enough to be signed-up by local team Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques, and from there, made his way to Portugal, and Benfica.
From the outset, he made an impression because of his speed, elusive movement, and fearsome shooting ability, earned the soubriquet “The Black Panther”.
Within a year of his debut, he had helped Benfica win the European Cup, scoring twice in the final against Real Madrid. He won the Ballon D’Or in 1965, and was twice winner of the Golden Boot for the top scorer in Europe, as he helped his side win 11 league titles.
On the international side, he is best remembered for the 1966 World Cup finals when he scored 9 goals in Portugal’s run to the semi-finals, including four when they overcame a 3 goal deficit to North Korea in the Quarter-Finals.
The legend, who died in 2014, is commemorated by a statue outside the Benfica stadium.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been vying with his great rival Lionel Messi for the accolade of the best current player in world football for almost a decade.
The nine years he spent at Real Madrid saw him and Messi vie for the honor of being top dog in domestic and European football year after year, and, at one stage, each seemed determined to match the other for goals scored and a man of the match performances.
Like Messi, a five-time Ballon d'Or winner, Ronaldo began his career with Sporting Lisbon before moving to Manchester United where he won the first of his five Champions League medals. The four-time European Golden Shoe winner then moved to Madrid in 2009 for what was then a world record fee and then proceeded to repay that in full as he helped deliver two league titles, the Copa del Rey on both occasions, and the Champions League in four of the last five seasons.
During his time in Spain, he averaged more than a goal a game, and he holds the record for the most goals scored in the Champions League at 121 – 15 more than Messi, and 50 greater than that achieved by the next man on the list, Raúl.
He began his career as a winger and gifted with pace, and great technical ability, he earned the reputation as a “show pony” in his early days because of his tendency to do too many tricks and fall to ground too easily.
However, over the years he has evolved into a complete forward, capable of playing on either wing, as well as through the center. He can score with either foot, is a powerful header of a ball, and can hit wicked, swerving free kicks. The stepovers and feints are still there, but he has learned when to produce them to maximum effect. Always in top physical condition, he is capable of moments of sheer brilliance – his overhead kick for Real away to Juventus in the 2018 Champions League Quarter-Final was so good that it earned him a standing ovation from the home fans.
In fact, so impressed were Juventus with his talents that they paid €100 million for the 33-year-old in the summer of 2018 to sign him. He is already the top scorer in Serie A this season but acquired principally to help them win the Champions League, their hopes, for this campaign at least, are hanging by a thread at the time of writing, after a two-goal defeat to Atlético Madrid in the first leg of their last-16 tie.
Where Ronaldo does have the edge over Messi lies in the fact that he has achieved success at international level, having captained Portugal to triumph in Euro 2016, although he was forced off by injury after just 25 minutes of the final, and spent the remainder of the match as a virtual manager, exhorting his teammates on from the sidelines.
No less a judge than Pelé called George Best the “greatest player in the world”. The skinny kid from Northern Ireland with the Beatle haircut and shy good looks appeared to have the world at his feet in 1968. Making his debut as a 17-year-old he twice helped his side Manchester United win the League title, and then, in 1968, the European Cup, with Best scoring a brilliant goal in extra-time in the final that helped defeat Benfica.
Best had pace, fantastic technical skill, the ability to score with both feet or to embark on dribbles that would leave opponents trailing in his wake. He was named Ballon d'Or winner in 1968, but then things began to spiral out of control, as his chaotic private life, gambling addiction, and increasing drink problem began to affect his ability to play football. He last played for United in 1974 before embarking on a somewhat itinerant tour of clubs, marked, when he could be bothered to play, and was in the right shape, by occasional shafts of genius.
He sadly died from the effects of alcoholism aged just 59 but even if he played for just a few short years, has left a record of great memories.
Known as the “Galloping Major” – somewhat ironically as the pace was not his main asset – Ferenc Puskás is revered as one of the greatest players of all time, despite missing three years of what should have been the peak of his career.
Born in Budapest, he became part of the local Honvéd team that won 5 league titles between 1948 and 1955 and became the top goal scorer in Europe in 1948. Called up to the national side, he became part of the Mighty Magyars who won the Olympic Gold medal in 1952, before coming to the attention of the wider world when they humiliated England at Wembley the following year, the first time the English national side had ever lost at home. Puskás scored twice that day and repeated the feat a year later when the English were thrashed 7 – 1 in the return fixture. Favorites to win the 1954 World Cup, Hungary powered their way to the final, but eventually went down to West Germany, with Puskás playing the entire match with a fracture.
Stranded on an overseas tour with Honvéd when the Hungarian Revolution broke out, Puskás refused to return to Budapest and was handed a two-year ban by UEFA. In 1958 though, aged 31, fat and out of shape, he signed for Real Madrid and enjoyed a career renaissance, helping the club to win 3 European Cups and 5 league titles.
Famed for his left foot, he was renowned for his vision and the ability to see options on the pitch that none of his teammates could envisage. He will always be remembered for the 1960 European Cup Final where he scored four goals, and his striking part Alfrédo Di Stéfano a hat-trick as Real beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7 – 3.
10. Zinedine Zidane
Zinedine Zidane had the ability to produce his best on the biggest stages of all, whether it was a World Cup or Champions League final.
The Marseille-born player first made his name playing with local club Cannes, before moving to Bordeaux in 1992. By the time it came time for him to leave the Girondins in 1996, so good was the reputation he had acquitted that he had the pick of clubs in Europe from which to choose, electing to join Juventus, with whom he won two Serie A titles and a number of cup competitions.
He signed for Real Madrid for a world record fee in 2001, and, despite struggling in his first season in Spain, repaid the amount that was spent on him by producing one of the greatest goals of all time, a stunning left-foot volley, that won Real their 9th Champions League title as they beat Bayer Leverkusen in the final in Glasgow. He went on to help them win La Liga the following season, in a side full of Galácticos, that included the likes of Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, and David Beckham, as well as the Intercontinental Cup, before his premature retirement from football at the age of 34.
On the international front, Zidane played 108 times for France, and was instrumental in their 1998 World Cup success, scoring two headed goals in the 3 – 0 Final defeat of Brazil. He also played a large part in them reaching a second final in Germany four years later, although it became infamous for his last moments in a football shirt, sent off for head-butting Marco Materazzi after the Italian insulted his sister.
Despite this, he is fondly remembered as one of the finest players ever to grace the game, with a beautiful left-foot and the ability to dictate the tempo and flow of a game from midfield. He was by no means a prolific goal scorer but invariably came up with the goods in front of goal in the big matches.
And, unlike many great players, he went on to achieve major success as a manager, guiding Real Madrid to three successive Champions League titles before dramatically resigning as manager just four days after their last triumph in Kiev last June. At the time of writing, he is being linked with the Chelsea job.
Like any low scoring sport, goals are what win soccer matches. Everybody has their own criteria when it comes to defining what makes a great goal. For some it can be a moment of individual brilliance by a gifted player, whilst, for others, it is the aesthetic of a team move that inspires them.
The context of a soccer match also counts. Whilst a great goal scored in a regular league can be memorable in its own right, one scored in a vital cup game, or in a championship decider has more weight because of its significance.