Since when modern football originated in Europe in the 19th century, millions of people, known as footballers, have professionally played the game. These footballers have graced the beautiful game with their artistry, guile and technicality, prompting lovers of the game to describe some of them as the greatest footballers of all time.
Some of these footballers dazzled the spectators and viewing audience for years and have gone on to win the most considerable acclaim in both international and club football such as the World Cup, continental club and national competitions and domestic club competitions. They have also claimed the most prominent individual prizes on offer in football. Litter wonder that fellow players, fans, journalists, pundits and media analysts globally regularly argue about the individual merits of these players.
So, the big question is: who are the top 10 greatest footballers of all time? There is no definitive list or even criteria to determine the best players perpetually. Unlike individual sports such as tennis and table tennis, football, which is a team sport, does not have a system to determine the ranking of players. All the rankings for football awards are done on a subjective basis.
Subsequently, the top 10 best players in the world currently, as stated in this piece, were also picked subjectively, considering the footballer’s abilities and performances.
The greatest footballers of all time are listed below in no chronological order.
Country: Germany | Clubs played for: Bayern Munich, New York Cosmos, Hamburger SV
Franz Beckenbauer is regarded as the best central defender the world has ever witnessed to date. He started his career as a forward, then moved to the midfield before he made his name as a central defender.
Der Kaiser (“The Emperor”), as he is referred to, combined the techniques of dribbling, passing and all-around technical ability, which is rare for a central defender. He played as a sweeper (libero), intimidated his opponents and scored goals, another unusual feat for central defenders. He scored 111 goals in 776 appearances for Germany and Bayern Munich.
Beckenbauer lifted the World Cup trophy as captain in 1974 and won the competition as a manager in 1990. He is also the first captain to lift the World Cup and European Championship at the international level and the European Cup at the club level. He is the only person to captain a team to three consecutive European Cup championships, following his success in Bayern Munich.
He also won eight league titles during his club career. He returned to Hamburg after his exploits in the league with New York Cosmos and won the Bundesliga. He was named to the World Team of the 20th Century in 1998, the FIFA World Cup Dream Team in 2002, and the Ballon d’Or Dream Team in 2020.
Alfredo Di Stefano
Country: Argentina, Colombia, Spain | Clubs played for – River Plate, Huracain, Millonarios, Real Madrid, Espanyol
In the annals of Real Madrid, there is no player as great as Alfredo Di Stefano. Born as an Argentine but ended up having more caps for Spain, Di Stefano is regarded as one of the greatest strikers of all time.
The “Blond Arrow”, as he was nicknamed, began his career at River Plate at the age of 17. He also played for Club Atlético Huracán (Argentina) and Millonarios (Colombia), respectively. He won six league titles during the first 12 years of his career in Argentina and Colombia.
However, it was when he signed for Real Madrid in 1953 that di Stefano truly dazzled the world with his marksmanship and became a global figure of the game. He combined his goalscoring preciseness with a playmaker’s deftness, traits which were rarely possessed by a single player in his era. His prolific 11-year stint with Los Merengues included him scoring in five consecutive European Cup finals (now UEFA Champions League) for his triumphant club between 1956 and 1960 (a record he still holds).
He scored 216 league goals in 282 games for Real, which was then a club record. He was awarded the Ballon d’Or in 1957 and 1959, respectively. He made a last impact on Real to the extent that their training complex is wholly named after him.
On the international level, he never got the chance to play in the biggest competition, the World Cup, although he won a Copa America with Argentina. He, however, scored a staggering 511 goals in 702 games all through his career.
Country: France | Clubs played for – Nancy, Saint-Étienne, Juventus
Michel Platini is one of the most gifted players to have ever played football. Nicknamed Le Roi (The King) for his ability and leadership, Platini was a maestro in the centre of the midfield, which is where he did his business on the pitch of play.
As a central (attacking) midfielder, it was no surprise that he elegantly dominated the pitch and is considered one of the best passers and free-kick specialists the game has ever seen. He dazzled the spectators with his ball control, technical ability, dribbling skills and vision. He certainly did not limit his exploits to creativity while playing as he also had a keen eye for goals. He was a prolific goalscorer for his club sides: Nancy, Saint-Étienne and, especially, Juventus. He was renowned for scoring critical goals in big games.
Platini, despite being a midfielder, finished as the capocannoniere (top scorer) in Serie A for three consecutive seasons (1982–83, 1983–84, and 1984–85). He also the Serie A title with Juventus in 1984 and 1986, the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1984, the European Cup (now Champions League) in the 1984-1985 season (in which he scored the winning goal against Liverpool), and several other domestic and continental titles. He also won championships and titles with French clubs.
He was a key player for the French national team as he captained Les Blues to the European Championship victory on home soil in 1984. He scored nine goals in just five games during the tournament and ended up as the top scorer and best player. He was awarded the Ballon d’Or three times consecutively, in 1983, 1984 and 1985.
Country: The Netherlands | Clubs played for – Ajax, Barcelona, Los Angeles Aztecs, Washington Diplomats, Levante, Feyenoord
Johannes Cruijff, better known to the world as Johan Cruyff, was a total footballer player who combined sublime gracefulness with the clinical ability and calculating intelligence. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the game of football.
His imaginative playmaking, flexibility and goal-poaching deftness made Cruyff one of the most feared attacking midfielders/strikers to play against. He was an exponent of “Total Football”, a football philosophy birthed by Rinus Michels, his coach at Ajax. He served as the onfield conductor of the philosophy for his Ajax side and utilised his technical ability, speed, acceleration, dribbling skills and sublime passing range to create openings for his teammates and destroy opponents.
It was when he moved to Barcelona for an estimated $2 million, then a world record in 1973, that Cruyff gained a cult-hero status in the football fraternity. He was instrumental in helping the team win La Liga in his first season, their first domestic league title in 14 years. He scored many beautiful and memorable goals for the club, the most revered of them being Le but impossible de Cruyff (Cruyff’s impossible goal) which he scored against Atletico Madrid.
He won eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups, and one Intercontinental Cup as a player at Ajax. He scored a total of 85 goals in 227 games for Barcelona and won a La Liga Copa Del Rey title, respectively. He also won the Eredivisie and the KNVB Cup in his final season with Feyenoord.
Cruyff also rose to become an influential player for The Orange, as the Dutch national team is known. He played 48 matches, scoring 33 goals. Coincidentally, the Dutch team never lost a match in which Cruyff scored. He captained the Netherlands to the final of the 1974 World Cup, which they lost 1-2 to West Germany. Although he retired prematurely from football at first, the Dutch player won the Ballon d’Or in 1971, 1973 and 1974.
Country: Brazil | Clubs played for – Cruzeiro, PSV, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Corinthians
Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, simply known to the world as Ronaldo, electrified the football world with his pace and his incredible eye for and conversion of goals.
Regarded as one of the greatest and most complete forwards of all time, O Fenomeno (The Phenomenon) was a prolific goalscorer during his playing days. He was spectacular with both his left and right foot and his head, as well as had the perfect striker’s instinct for awareness, presence and goals. In addition, he was a delicate player on the ball as his dribbling skills and technical ability (ball control and movement) were superb, and he knew how to create space for himself in tight games. He was not the conventional “stay in the box” striker as he also operated outside the penalty area before running with the ball towards the goal.
The striker’s performance with Cruzeiro, where he scored 44 goals in 47 games, quickly attracted attention from big clubs in Europe and the national team selectors. He then moved to PSV Eindhoven after the 1994 World Cup and netted 54 goals in 58 games in his two seasons at the club. This was despite him the majority of the campaign in his second season at the club due to a knee injury, which became recurrent during his playing days. He won the Dutch Cup in 1996 and he was the Eredivisie top scorer in 1995.
Ronaldo joined Barcelona in 1996 for a then-world record transfer fee of $19.5 million and at 20 years old, he was named the 1996 FIFA World Player of the Year, making him the youngest recipient of the award. His one season at the Catalan club was fruitful as he finished as La Liga’s top scorer with 34 goals in 37 games and won the European Golden Shoe. The club won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, Copa Del Rey and Supercopa de Espana.
O Fenomeno left Barcelona in controversial circumstances and joined Inter Milan for another world record fee of $27 million, making him the first player since Diego Maradona to break the world transfer record twice. He spent six seasons at the club, scoring 59 goals in 99 appearances, won the UEFA Super Cup with the team and racked up individual honours.
However, a series of knee injuries severely ruined his four-year stint at Real Madrid, although he won La Liga twice with the club and the Pichichi Trophy in the 2003-2004 season. His stints at AC Milan and Corinthians were not so eventful either as he was plagued with injuries, although he won domestic titles with the Brazilian club.
At the international level, Ronaldo won the World Cup twice in 1994 (in which he did not play a single game) and 2002 (in which he won the Golden Shoe and the Silver Ball, and was voted the Most Valuable Player (MVP of the final). He scored the two goals recorded in the final for A Seleção against Germany. It was an atonement for the 1998 edition, in which Brazil finished as runners-up as Ronaldo could not deliver in the final due to fitness issues. He was, however, awarded the Golden Ball of the 1998 World Cup.
He won the Ballon d’Or in 1997 at the age of 21 (the youngest player to win the award to date) and in 2002. He also won the FIFA World Player of the Year award two more times in 1997 and 2002.
Country: France | Clubs played for – Cannes, PSV, Bordeaux, Juventus, Real Madrid
Zinedine Zidane is considered one of the game’s greatest players. He was a playmaker renowned for his elegance, vision, passing, ball control and technique. As a player, his ball retention and dribbling skills were unique and second to none, his close ball control was magnificent, particularly as he had an exceptional first touch; and he was an exponent of the signature La Roulette pirouette which he used to destroy defenders.
“Zizou”, as he is fondly known, was a creative genius on the pitch who was capable of using either foot, despite being naturally right-footed. A freekick and penalty kick specialist, his technique and coordination enabled him to execute shots and volleys with extreme power and precision.
He began his career at AS Cannes, but it was when he joined Bordeaux that he began to flourish and the world began to pay attention to his potential as a playmaker. After a series of stand-out performances for Bordeaux in his four seasons at the club, Zidane had offers to join Europe’s top clubs and he decided to join Juventus in 1996. He made an instant impact as he was crucial in ensuring the Turin-based club won the 1996–97 Serie A title and the 1996 Intercontinental Cup.
He was named Serie A Foreign Footballer of the Year in his first season. Zidane scored 32 goals in the 1997-1998 season as Juventus retained the Scudetto and reached the UEFA Champions League final for the third year in a row, but lost to Real Madrid.
He stayed in the Serie A until the 2001-2002 season when he moved to Real Madrid for €77.5 million, which was then a world record fee. In his first season at the Spanish club, Zidane scored a famous match-winning goal, a volley hit with his weaker left foot from the edge of the 18-yard box, in Madrid’s 2–1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 UEFA Champions League Final. He then helped Los Merengues to win La Liga in the 2002-2003 season. He played his last game for the club on 7 May 2006, just before the 2006 World Cup.
On the international stage, “Zizou” made his debut with the French national team in 1994. He was not yet a fully established player in the French team in Euro 96, as Les Blues bowed out of the competition in the semi-final. However, the following years were that of success for him with the national team. He played a crucial part in ensuring France became world champions on home soil in 1998, as he scored two goals in the final against Brazil. He also helped his country to win the Euro 2000.
He was appointed captain and led France to the 2006 World Cup and was influential in getting the team to the final. In the final against Italy, Zidane put France ahead with a Panenka-style penalty kick. He, however, lost his cool as he was sent off in extra time after headbutting Marco Materazzi and did not play in the penalty shootout, which France lost. He was still awarded the Golden Ball as the player of the tournament. He subsequently retired from professional football after the red card at the Mundial.
He won the Ballon d’Or in 1998 and was crowned the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1998, 2000 and 2003.
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Country: Portugal | Clubs played for – Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus
Still currently playing the beautiful game at the top-flight level at 37 years old shows the level of greatness and consistency of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese attacker began his career as a traditional right winger and later switched to the left wing, using his use his pace and acceleration, agility and array of dribbling skills, feints and tricks to take on opponents in one-on-one situations. But as he grew older and his game matured, he has undergone several evolutions throughout his career.
He currently functions as a target man, using his strength and jumping ability, combined with his elevation, heading accuracy and height to dominate aerial duels and be a goal threat in the penalty area. He also still relies on his now-dwindling pace to run at defenders and cause mayhem in the opposition’s box. He is also a set-piece specialist, renowned for his powerful freekicks and penalties.
Ronaldo began his career at Sporting Lisbon, his boyhood club and after just a season, he moved to Manchester United in 2003. The move to Old Trafford was largely influenced by his spectacular performance in Sporting’s 3-1 win over the English club in a friendly, which prompted United players to urge the manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, to sign him.
At United, he developed his became a superstar winger and also began to evolve his game into being a centre-forward. He scored a total of 42 goals in all competitions during the 2007–08 season, his most prolific campaign during his time in England. He racked up three Premier League titles, a UEFA Champions League title and other domestic and international club titles, as well as individual prizes.
After six successful seasons in England, Ronaldo joined Real Madrid for a then-world record of £80 million in 2009. He won 15 trophies at Madrid, including two La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey, and four Champions Leagues. He also became the club’s all-time top goalscorer, scoring 450 goals in 438 appearances. He was awarded the Pichichi Trophy three times and crowned the La Liga Best Player in the 2013-2014 season.
Nine seasons later, Ronaldo switched to join Juventus in the Serie A. His transfer was worth an initial £88 million. He won two Serie A titles, two Supercoppe Italiana, and a Coppa Italia with the Turin-based club. He also won the Capocannoniere in the 2020–2021 season and was crowned the Serie A Footballer of the Year in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
He returned to Manchester United in August 2021 and currently plays for the club. He finished as the club’s top scorer in the 2021/2022 season with 24 goals in 38 appearances.
On the international level, Ronaldo made his debut with the Portugal national team in 2003 and he is currently the team’s most-capped player with 139 appearances. Since he was made captain of Portugal in 2008, the forward has led his country to win the European Championship (2016) and the Nations League (2018/2019).
He holds the records for most appearances (183), goals (140), and assists (42) in the Champions League, goals in the European Championship (14), international goals (117), and international appearances by a European (191). He is one of the few players to have made over 1,100 professional career appearances and has scored over 800 official senior career goals for both club and country. He has won five Ballon d’Or awards, four European Golden Shoes, one FIFA World Player of the Year and two The Best FIFA Men’s Player awards.
Country: Argentina | Clubs played for – Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain
He may be advanced in age, but Lionel Messi continues to mesmerise the football world with his dazzling skills and terrorises opposing defenders. The diminutive Argentine is not only a creative playmaker, but he is also a prolific goalscorer for both club and country.
La Pulga Atómica (The Atomic Flea), as he is dubbed by the Spanish media, has greater agility due to his lower centre of gravity, which allows him to change direction more quickly and evade opposing tackles. A predominantly left-footed player, Messi has got pace, sublime technical ability and astonishing dribbling skills, and excels in a playmaking role courtesy of his vision and range of passing. He is regarded as one of the greatest dribblers of all time. He is aptly described as a magician because he has conjured goals and goal-scoring opportunities for teammates from virtually nowhere. He is a versatile player as he can play any position in attack and also dictates play in deeper areas of the pitch.
Messi joined Barcelona when he was 13 years old, made his professional debut in 2004 at the age of 17 and spent 17 years at the Catalan-based club. He established himself as an integral player for the club and won a club-record 35 trophies, including 10 La Liga titles, seven Copa del Rey titles and four UEFA Champions Leagues. holds the records for most goals in La Liga (474), most goals in a La Liga and European league season (50), most hat-tricks in La Liga (36) and the UEFA Champions League (8), and most assists in La Liga (192) and a La Liga season (21).
He signed for Paris Saint-Germain in August 2021 after he was out of contract at Barcelona. He helped PSG clinch their 10th Ligue 1 title in the 2021/2022 season, but failed to reach double-figure league goals for the first time since the 2005–06 season. He is, however, currently having a magnificent 2022/2023 season, netting 12 goals in 17 appearances and providing tons of assists, as of the time of writing this piece.
Messi made his Argentine debut in 2005 and he currently holds the national record for appearances, as well as being the country’s all-time leading goalscorer. At the youth level, he won the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, finishing the tournament with both the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe. At the senior level, he has, as the squad’s captain, since August 2011 led Argentina to three consecutive finals: the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2015 and 2016 Copa América, but lost them all.
He was, however, awarded the Golden Ball at the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America, respectively. Success eventually came his way after reversing his international retirement, which he announced in 2016, as he won the 2021 Copa América and clinched the Golden Ball and Golden Boot awards.
Messi has won a record seven Ballon d’Or awards, a record six European Golden Shoes and two FIFA Best Player/The Best Men Player awards.
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Country: Argentina | Clubs played for – Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys
Diego Maradona was very good and one of the best, if not the best, individual players the game has ever produced. He played his best football in one of the most defensive leagues at the pinnacle of his career and succeeded. Supremely talented and a magician with his feet, Maradona could do things with a football that mortals could not even dream of.
His dribbling ability was mesmerizing, his goal-scoring was unique and clinical, and his passing, ball control and crossing were precise, earning him many assists in his career. El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Boy) was a “classic number 10”, a traditional playmaker, who played in a free role, either as an attacking midfielder behind the forwards or as a second striker in a front–two. This helped him to unleash his creativity and allowed him to change the direction of the ball quickly. He was also a renowned TV specialist.
Maradona started his career at Argentinos Juniors just before he turned 16 years, and made an appreciable impact on the team. After winning the league with Boca Juniors, Maradona moved to Barcelona for a world-record £5 million fee in 1982. Although the legendary playmaker won only a Copa del Rey and Supercopa Espana during his time at Barcelona, he put in some miraculous performances, none more so than when he received a standing ovation from the famously hostile Santiago Bernabeu crowd.
He, however, had a difficult tenure in Barcelona due to illness and injury, as well as controversial incidents on the field. Although he scored 38 goals in 58 games, he had a difficult period at the Catalan club and demanded that he is allowed to leave the club. He left for Napoli in Italy’s Serie A for another world record fee, £6.9 million in 1984. It was in his seven seasons in Naples that Maradona confirmed his legendary status in world football, as he reached the peak of his professional career and won numerous accolades.
Maradona almost single-handedly dragged the team to two Serie A titles they won to date (the 1986/1987 and seasons). He elevated the club to the most successful era in its history as other honours came rolling in, including the Coppa Italia in 1987, the UEFA Cup in 1989, and the Italian Supercup in 1990.
Despite being a playmaker, Maradona was the top scorer in Serie A in 1987–88 with 15 goals and then went on to be Napoli’s all-time leading goalscorer for years until the record was broken. All these endeared him to the Napoli crowd, who adore him for life and he is still admired as Naples’ favourite son. The Napoli stadium is named after this icon of the game.
The “flawed genius”, however, left Napoli in disgrace in 1992 and his career spiralled down from there following the off-field issues he faced.
In his international career with Argentina, he earned 91 caps and scored 34 goals. Maradona played in four FIFA World Cups, including the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, where he captained Argentina and led them to victory over West Germany in the final, and won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. He is, however, remembered for two events that occurred during Argentina’s 2-1 quarter-final win against England in that competition.
He scored both goals for La Albiceleste in the game. The first goal was his infamous “Hand of God” goal, which became one of the biggest sports scandals of all time. It was an unpenalised handball by the diminutive forward. His second goal, which he scored four minutes later, saw him dribble past five English players after running unimpeded for 60 meters and put the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton. The goal has been described as the most awesome World Cup goal in the competition’s history. It was voted “Goal of the Century” by FIFA.com voters in 2002. He retired from international football in disgrace after he failed a drug test at the 1994 World Cup.
Country: Brazil | Clubs played for – Santos, New York Cosmos
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known to the world as Pele, was one of the greatest goal-scoring machines the world has ever seen on the field of play. He was the “classic number 10”, an inside forward and playmaker who dashed between the opposing lines, used his speed to cause maximum damage, utilised his dribbling skills to outmanoeuvre defenders and had a powerful shot wrapped around his feet, especially his right feet. He also anticipated opponents’ movements on the field and provided numerous assists with his vision and passing ability.
Pele was the focal point of attack for his club and country. He was a one-club man for much of his career, starting for Santos at the age of 15 and remaining for nearly two decades. Credited with connecting the phrase “The Beautiful Game” with football, Pele won 10 Paulista Championships, six Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, two Copa Libertadores and two Intercontinental Cups with Santos. He scored 643 goals in 659 appearances for his club, a feat yet to be matched to date.
He then moved on to New York Cosmos in 1975. Despite being past his prime, Pele led the American club to their second Soccer Bowl title in 1977 and scored 66 goals in 107 appearances during his three-year stint at the club.
“The King” made his debut for the Brazilian national team at the age of just 16 and played for his country for 14 years. He is the only player to have won three different World Cups and is one of two people to have scored in four different World Cup tournaments. He is A Seleção’s top scorer with 77 goals in 92 appearances. Pele cemented his legacy as one of the greatest players of all time at the 1970 World Cup. He dominated the tournament and was awarded the Golden Ball for his performance.
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