It’s the question always guaranteed to spark contentious debate amongst soccer fans. Who is the greatest player of all time? Given the ever-changing nature of the game, it’s perhaps an unanswerable one. How do you compare someone from the era of the pigskin ball, half-time oranges and legal backpass with the highly-trained, physically advanced multi-millionaires of today? Nevertheless, we’ve attempted to tackle it anyway, basing the results on a highly scientific combination of statistics, talent and overall impact on the sport. Here’s our verdict.
One of the first African-born players to make an impression on the international game, Eusebio steered Portugal to a third-place finish at the 1966 World Cup with a Golden Boot-winning nine goals. At club level, he scored 638 times in 614 appearances for Benfica, lifting eleven league titles, a European Cup and a Ballon d’Or during a prolific 15-year run. The ‘Black Panther’ also possessed a humility every bit as extraordinary as his athletic prowess, technical skill and phenomenal range of finishing. A firm believer in fair play, he once applauded Alex Stepney just seconds after the Manchester United keeper had denied him a late winner in the 1968 European Cup final.
Who knows what else George Best could have achieved had he not squandered his talent with his tabloid-baiting love of ‘booze, birds and fast cars?’ But despite quitting Manchester United, and essentially his top-flight career, at the age of just 27, the hard-partying winger still remains an iconic figure. Quite simply he was one of the most naturally gifted players the game has ever seen. Blessed with a magical dribbling ability, blistering pace and a sense of balance which one writer claimed ‘would have made Isaac Newton decide he might as well have eaten the apple,’ Best inspired awe every time he stepped onto the field. Hailing from the humble soccer nation of Northern Ireland, he never got the chance to showcase his talents on the world stage, but he did win two league titles and a European Cup as a pivotal member of Sir Matt Busby’s rebuilt United side.
Legendary Celtic manager Jock Stein once joked that there should have been a law against Bobby Moore for his ability to ‘know what’s happening 20 minutes before everyone else.’ It was this level of intuition which allowed the West Ham and Fulham hero to pull off the all-time greatest tackle with such astounding precision. Of course, Moore first shone on the international stage at the 1966 World Cup. There, his defensive skills were so masterful that he even managed to overshadow hattrick hero Geoff Hurst in the controversial final – the image of him being raised aloft with the trophy in hand remains one of the most iconic in English soccer history.
It’s hard to think of anything but that goal against Russia at the Euro 1988 final when it comes to Marco van Basten. But there was so much more to the Dutchman than impossibly tight-angled volleys. Equipped with a ballerina-esque agility, two-footed close control and an intelligent reading of the game, he was arguably the most graceful striker of his generation. His killer instinct in front of goal not only gave the Netherlands their first ever major international trophy, it also guided Ajax to three Eredivisie titles and a Cup Winners’ Cup, and Barcelona to four La Liga championships and three European Cups. Had his career not been cut short by a persistent ankle injury at the age of just 28, there’s no doubt that van Basten would have achieved even greater things with both club and country.
Nicknamed the Black Spider for his choice of dark head-to-toe attire, Lev Yashin not only revolutionised goalkeeping fashion, he also changed the role of the No.1 forever. Whereas keepers had previously been restricted to silently standing on the goalline, Yashin pioneered the practice of barking at defenders and rushing out of the six-yard box to intercept crosses and thwart oncoming attackers. It was an approach which made him a star of the first ever televised World Cup in 1958 and helped the Soviet Union pick up a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics and the inaugural European Championships in 1960. The only goalkeeper ever to win the Ballon d’Or, the Dynamo Moscow mainstay also kept over 270 clean sheets and saved an astonishing 150 penalties during a near-psychic 22-year career.
Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t make it easy to like him. Just ask the Iceland team he belittled after they had the gall to hold his team to a draw. Or the reporter whose microphone he tossed into a lake during an innocuous interview. Or the Portugal manager he tried to make redundant after hobbling off in the final. And all of this was at just one tournament. But you can’t fail to admire his achievements. Once the world’s costliest signing, the powerhouse forward is Real Madrid’s all-time leading goalscorer, the first ever player in a major league to score 50+ goals every season six consecutive times, and the only European to win four Ballon d’Or awards. Throw in three Premier League titles, a La Liga, a Champions League and a European Championship, not to mention a marketable quality second only to David Beckham, and you have the modern game’s most bankable star.
Nicknamed after Italy’s Pendolino express trains during his spells with Roma and Inter, attacking full-back Cafu possessed the kind of pace that would put many 100m sprinters to shame. The perpetually cheerful Brazilian used this relentless energy, as well as his strong passing accuracy, tactical nous and leadership skills, to guide his homeland to three consecutive World Cup finals. Cafu, who got to lift the trophy in 1994 and 2002, remains the only player to achieve such a feat, and with 142 appearances is still Brazil’s most capped player by quite some distance. Two Copa Americas, two Serie A titles, a Champions League, a Cup Winners’ Cup and eleven trophies with his first club, São Paulo, also saw him become one of the most decorated.
Forget a certain Mr. Beckham, no other player has ever been able to bend it like Zico. The Brazilian free-kick specialist was able to curve the ball round or over the defensive wall in a banana-like manner which defied the laws of gravity. He was also a clinical finisher, an exceptional dribbler and one of the most exquisite passers in the game’s history. Sadly, despite competing in three World Cups—including the 1982 Brazil side widely regarded as the greatest ever—Zico never lifted a major trophy at international level. However, he did pick up a bunch of silverware during his 16-year spell with club side Flamengo, including three league titles and the Copa Libertadores. The man nicknamed the White Pele also received the most glowing recommendation from the actual Pele, who described him as ‘the one player that came closest to me.’
Gerd Müller wasn’t the flashiest of strikers—the majority of his astonishing goal tally came from within the six-yard box—but he remains the deadliest. The Bayern Munich legend netted 556 times during his career including 365 in the Bundesliga and 68 for West Germany. He also did so when it mattered. He scored ten goals at the 1970 World Cup to win the Golden Boot, added another four at the 1974 tournament including the winner in the final, and also finished top scorer at the 1972 Euros that his homeland won convincingly. His unstoppable presence in front of goal was also instrumental in his club side’s trophy haul of four league titles and three European Cups in the 1970s, with teammate Franz Beckenbauer later acknowledging that ‘everything Bayern have become is due to Müller.’
Something of a tortured genius, Garrincha’s turbulent private life—14 children by five different women, reports of domestic abuse and financial troubles, the alcoholism which eventually led to his death in 1983—inevitably overshadowed his talents on the pitch. But the right winger dubbed the Bent Legged Angel (he was born with a deformed spine and curved legs) was responsible for some of the most joyous moments in Brazilian soccer history. His phenomenal dribbling skills were just as instrumental as Pele’s goalscoring prowess to the nation’s World Cup success in 1958. And after Pele got injured during their 1962 defence of the trophy, it was Garrincha who almost single-handedly steered the team to a second successive victory. With a strike rate of 232 goals in 581 appearances for club side Botafogo, it’s little wonder that even with his obvious shortcomings he still managed to attain heroic status.
His reputation in the boardroom may now lie in tatters, but that shouldn’t detract from Michel Platini’s genius on the field. The playmaker entered the pantheon of greats with one of the most dominant displays in international tournament history, scoring nine goals including two hattricks to guide France to their first ever major trophy, the 1984 European Championships. As a member of their famous carré magique (magic square) midfield, Platini also helped Les Bleus reach two successive World Cup semi-finals and remained their highest ever goalscorer for nearly two decades. His prowess in front of goal, intelligent passing technique and dead-ball skills were all routinely showcased at club level, too. He won league titles with Nancy, Saint-Étienne and Juventus, also lifting the European Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup and Coppa Italia with the latter, and scoring a remarkable 224 goals in the process. Even Zinedine Zidane admits that Platini was the man he chose to emulate in the playground.
They say that loyalty is an alien concept in the modern game. But tell that to Paolo Maldini, who spent 25 years at the heart of the A.C. Milan defence, winning just as many trophies in over 900 appearances. The versatile left back broke through to the Serie A giants’ first team aged just 17 and from then on remained a constant fixture until his retirement at 42, where his familiar No.3 shirt was permanently rested by the club. In fact, Maldini was so esteemed in the Italian game that even fans of Milan’s fiercest rivals, Inter, held up banners honoring his name during his final derby appearance. The man nicknamed Il Capitano was just as prevalent in the national side, appearing in three Euros and four World Cups including USA ’94 where, just like his defender father Cesare 32 years previously, he was named in the Team of the Tournament.
Few other playmakers have risen to the occasion as often as Zinedine Zidane. The Frenchman scored one of the greatest goals in UEFA Champions League history with a left-foot volleyed winner in the 2002 final, netted twice for his national side in their 3-0 1998 World Cup final win over Brazil and almost single-handedly guided them to victory in Euro 2000. Of course, the former Bordeaux, Juventus and Real Madrid midfielder was just as renowned for his temperament as his exquisite ball control, agility and exceptional vision. Who can forget the iconic image of him walking past the Jules Rimet trophy having been sent off for headbutting Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final? But even such a shameful end couldn’t detract from a career which included three FIFA Player of the Year awards, a Golden Ball and three domestic league titles.
Nicknamed Der Kaiser (The Emperor) due to his commanding attitude on the field, Franz Beckenbauer spearheaded West Germany to victory at the 1972 Euros and the 1974 World Cup, Bayern Munich to three European Cups and four Bundesliga titles and the all-star New York Cosmos to three Soccer Bowls. Although he initially began his career as a midfielder, he earned his high-ranking status when he moved to the back four and invented the role of the attacking sweeper. Renowned for his high quality passing and unmatched ability to read a game, the two-time European Footballer of the Year also went onto influence the game as a coach, lifting the World Cup again with West Germany in 1990. From a nation with such a rich soccer history, Beckenbauer still remains its finest exponent.
Goal machine Ferenc Puskás also had an imposing nickname, the Galloping Major, although as a member of the army team that later became Budapest Honvéd his was given to him by none other than the Hungarian Ministry of Defence. Puskás took his military rank seriously, marshalling his club teammates to five league titles and the national Mighty Magyars to Olympic gold and the 1954 World Cup final, averaging a goal a game in the process. Puskás’ career was deemed to be over when he was handed a two-year ban by UEFA for failing to return to Honvéd in the wake of the Hungarian Revolution. But despite such a lengthy absence from the game, not to mention his ballooning weight and advancing years, the 31-year-old was handed a lifeline by Real Madrid in 1958. He repaid their faith in him with another remarkable goal tally (242 in 262 games) which helped them win five La Liga titles and three European Cups. The fact he could only use his left foot, and famously enjoyed the odd drink or ten, makes his prolific strike rate all the more remarkable.
“We are all footballers, and as such should be able to perform competently in all 11 positions.” With the exception of the goalkeeper role, Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stéfano walked the walk as well as he talked the talk to become the sport’s first Total Soccer player. Nicknamed the Blond Arrow due to his quickfire pace and golden locks, the Argentinian showcased his creative genius all over the pitch, but made his name as a prolific forward. Di Stéfano was an instrumental figure in the Real team that lifted five consecutive European Cups in the 1950s, scoring in each and every final, and eight La Liga titles. Despite winning caps for three different countries (his native Argentina, his adopted Spain and an unrecognised-by-FIFA spell with Colombia), a run of bad luck cost him the chance to display his versatility on the World Cup stage. But he remains one of the most gifted all-rounders ever to step foot on a pitch.
Fellow Total Soccer player Johan Cruyff did manage to make it to the World Cup, and indeed the actual final, in 1974 where he received the Golden Ball and first executed Cruyff Turn. As well as inspiring a whole generation of schoolkids to practise the brilliantly deceptive move in the playground, Cruyff also influenced everyone from Eric Cantona to Xavi with his unrivalled skill, fluid movements and quick thinking, and transformed Holland’s reputation as a soccer force. Indeed, before Cruyff came along, no Dutch club had ever won a European competition. By the time he left Ajax in 1973 they had won three in a row. Cruyff then guided Barcelona to their first La Liga in 14 years during a spell in which he added the ‘Phantom Goal’ to his box of tricks. It’s difficult to think of any other player who has left such a lasting legacy.
‘A miracle from God.’ ‘The Mozart of soccer.’ ‘Is he real or a Playstation character?’ Lionel Messi may be somewhat vertically-challenged but he certainly isn’t short of total admiration from his peers. Teammate Luis Figo even compared watching him play to having an orgasm. The Argentinian forward has earned such respect thanks to a breathtaking technical ability and a record-breaking list of achievements unlikely to be surpassed by anyone in the near future. With Barcelona he’s lifted eight league titles, four Champions League trophies and five Ballon d’Or awards (four consecutive), and become the highest La Liga scorer of all time with an astonishing 337 goals. And having previously been accused of bottling it on the international stage, Messi then silenced his few remaining critics when he picked up the Golden Ball at the 2014 World Cup.
Like Zidane, Diego Maradona’s previously glittering career also ended in shame. Failed drug tests at Barcelona and the 1994 World Cup—the latter heavily foreshadowed by his famously wild-eyed celebration after scoring against Greece—ensured that there would always be a black mark against his name. But when the diminutive Argentinian was at his peak, he was literally untouchable. Just ask those England internationals he ran rings around during that astonishing ‘Hand of God’ game at the 1986 World Cup—a tournament which he dominated in a manner not seen since Pele in 1958. As well as lifting the sport’s most coveted trophy, Maradona also used his lightning pace, quick reflexes and astonishing precision to guide Napoli to two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup. Controversial and complicated as he may have been, the 20th Century game wouldn’t have been quite as beautiful without him.
The man born Edson Arantes de Nascimento became a name that rolled off everyone’s tongues when he lit up the 1958 World Cup at the tender age of 17. Pelé scored six goals at the tournament, including one of the all-time final greats, to help Brazil lift the coveted Jules Rimet for the first time in their history. Of course, it wouldn’t be theirs, or their star No.10’s last. Pelé also contributed to Brazil’s 1962 successful defence of the trophy, although injury in only their second match robbed him the chance of playing a far more instrumental role. But ‘The King’ got to make amends eight years later when he guided the host nation’s Golden Generation to a third World Cup with a Golden Ball-winning display that remains the stuff of legend. By the end of his career, the Santos forward had netted an unfathomable 1281 goals, making him the most prolific goalscorer in soccer history.