Football is by far the most popular, played and watched sport in the world. Over the decades, the game has witnessed some of the greatest players leave the world amazed at their extra ordinary talent and mastery of the game. Each time a golden generation hangs up their boots a new breed comes in and lifts our hearts.
On top of the list is the all-time greatest, Pelé. It’s prudent to say, any list of football’s all-time greats begins and ends with Pelé, whose supernatural gifts raised the bar for what was possible on the pitch.
The game of football has been blessed with some phenomenal talents and takes a strong argument when it comes to choosing the top 10 greatest football players of all time. But, for what it is worth, the players below definitely make it to the top 10 list.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento (born 23 October 1940), is a Brazilian retired professional footballer who played as a forward. He is regarded by many in the sport, including football writers, players, and fans, as the greatest player of all time. In 1999, he was voted World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS), and was one of the two joint winners of the FIFA Player of the Century award. That same year, Pelé was elected Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee. According to the IFFHS, Pelé is the most successful league goal-scorer in the world, scoring 1281 goals in 1363 games, which included unofficial friendlies and tour games. During his playing days, Pelé was for a period the best-paid athlete in the world.
Pelé began playing for Santos at age 15 and the Brazil national team at 16. During his international career, he won three FIFA World Cups: 1958, 1962 and 1970, being the only player ever to do so. Pelé is the all-time leading goalscorer for Brazil with 77 goals in 92 games. At club level he is the record goalscorer for Santos, and led them to the 1962 and 1963 Copa Libertadores. Known for connecting the phrase “The Beautiful Game” with football, Pelé’s “electrifying play and penchant for spectacular goals” made him a star around the world, and his teams toured internationally in order to take full advantage of his popularity. Since retiring in 1977, Pelé has been a worldwide ambassador for football and has made many acting and commercial ventures. In 2010, he was named the Honorary President of the New York Cosmos.
Averaging almost a goal per game throughout his career, Pelé was adept at striking the ball with either foot in addition to anticipating his opponents’ movements on the field. While predominantly a striker, he could also drop deep and take on a playmaking role, providing assists with his vision and passing ability, and he would also use his dribbling skills to go past opponents. In Brazil, he is hailed as a national hero for his accomplishments in football and for his outspoken support of policies that improve the social conditions of the poor. Throughout his career and in his retirement, Pelé received several individual and team awards for his performance in the field, his record-breaking achievements, and legacy in the sport.
2. Lionel Messi
Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini (born 24 June 1987) is an Argentine professional footballer who plays as a forward and captains both Spanish club Barcelona and the Argentina national team. Often considered the best player in the world and regarded by many as one of the greatest players of all time, Messi has won a record-tying five Ballon d’Or awards, four of which he won consecutively, and a record five European Golden Shoes. He has spent his entire professional career with Barcelona, where he has won 33 trophies, including nine La Liga titles, four UEFA Champions League titles, and six Copas del Rey. Both a prolific goalscorer and a creative playmaker, Messi holds the records for most official goals scored in La Liga (392), a La Liga season (50), a club football season in Europe (73), a calendar year (91), El Clásico (26), as well as those for most assists in La Liga (153) and the Copa América (11). He has scored over 650 senior career goals for club and country.
Born and raised in central Argentina, Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency as a child. At age 13, he relocated to Spain to join Barcelona, who agreed to pay for his medical treatment. After a fast progression through Barcelona’s youth academy, Messi made his competitive debut aged 17 in October 2004. Despite being injury-prone during his early career, he established himself as an integral player for the club within the next three years, finishing 2007 as a finalist for both the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year award, a feat he repeated the following year. His first uninterrupted campaign came in the 2008–09 season, during which he helped Barcelona achieve the first treble in Spanish football. At 22 years old, Messi won the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year award by record voting margins.
Three successful seasons followed, with Messi winning three consecutive FIFA Ballons d’Or, including an unprecedented fourth. His best campaign statistically to date was the 2011–12 season, in which he set the La Liga and European records for most goals scored in a single season, while establishing himself as Barcelona’s all-time top scorer in official competitions in March 2012. The following two seasons, Messi finished twice second for the Ballon d’Or behind Cristiano Ronaldo, his perceived career rival. Messi regained his best form during the 2014–15 campaign, breaking the all-time goalscoring records in both La Liga and the Champions League in November 2014, and led Barcelona to a historic second treble.
An Argentine international, Messi is his country’s all-time leading goalscorer. At youth level, he won the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, finishing the tournament with both the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe, and an Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics. His style of play as a diminutive, left-footed dribbler drew comparisons with compatriot Diego Maradona, who declared the teenager his successor. After making his senior debut in August 2005, Messi became the youngest Argentine to play and score in a FIFA World Cup during the 2006 edition, and reached the final of the 2007 Copa América, where he was named young player of the tournament. As the squad’s captain from August 2011, he led Argentina to three consecutive finals: the 2014 World Cup, for which he won the Golden Ball, and the 2015 and 2016 Copas América. After announcing his international retirement in 2016, he reversed his decision and led his country to qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
3. Diego Maradona
Diego Armando Maradona (born 30 October 1960) is an Argentine retired professional footballer and current manager of Mexican second division club Dorados. Many in the sport, including football writers, players, and fans, regard him as one of the greatest football players of all time. He was joint FIFA Player of the 20th Century with Pelé. Maradona’s vision, passing, ball control and dribbling skills was combined with his small stature (1.65 m or 5 ft 5 in), giving him a low center of gravity which allowed him to maneuver better than most other football players; he would often dribble past multiple opposing players on a run. His presence and leadership on the field had a great effect on his team’s general performance, while he would often be singled out by the opposition. A precocious talent, Maradona was given the nickname “El Pibe de Oro” (“The Golden Boy”), a name that stuck with him throughout his career.
An advanced playmaker who operated in the classic number 10 position, Maradona was the first player in football history to set the world record transfer fee twice, first when he transferred to Barcelona for a then world record £5 million, and second, when he transferred to Napoli for another record fee £6.9 million. He played for Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla and Newell’s Old Boys during his club career, and is most famous for his time at Napoli and Barcelona where he won numerous accolades.
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. In the 1986 World Cup quarter final, he scored both goals in a 2–1 victory over England that entered football history for two different reasons. The first goal was an unpenalized handling foul known as the “Hand of God”, while the second goal followed a 60 m (66 yd) dribble past five England players, voted “Goal of the Century” by FIFA voters in 2002.
Maradona became coach of Argentina in November 2008. He was in charge of the team at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa before leaving at the end of the tournament. He coached Dubai-based club Al Wasl in the UAE Pro-League for the 2011–12 season. In 2017, Maradona became the coach of Fujairah before leaving at the end of the season. In May 2018, Maradona was announced as the new chairman of Belarusian club Dynamo Brest. He arrived in Brest and was presented by the club to start his duties in July. In September 2018 Maradona was appointed coach of Mexican club Dorados.
4. Johan Cruyff
Hendrik Johannes Cruijff (25 April 1947 – 24 March 2016) was a Dutch professional football player and coach. As a player, he won the Ballon d’Or three times, in 1971, 1973, and 1974. Cruyff was the most famous exponent of the football philosophy known as Total Football explored by Rinus Michels, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in football history. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dutch football rose from obscurity to become a powerhouse in the sport. Cruyff led the Netherlands to the final of the 1974 FIFA World Cup and received the Golden Ball as player of the tournament. At the 1974 finals, he executed a feint that subsequently was named after him, the “Cruyff Turn”, a move widely replicated in the modern game. Wearing the number 14 jersey, he set a trend for wearing shirt numbers outside the usual starting line-up numbers of one to eleven.
At club level, Cruyff started his career at Ajax, where he won eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups and one Intercontinental Cup. In 1973, he moved to Barcelona for a world record transfer fee, winning La Liga in his first season and was named European Footballer of the Year. After retiring from playing in 1984, Cruyff became highly successful as manager of Ajax and later Barcelona; he remained an influential advisor to both clubs. His son Jordi also played football professionally.
In 1999, Cruyff was voted European Player of the Century in an election held by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics, and came second behind Pelé in their World Player of the Century poll. He came third in a vote organised by the French magazine France Football consulting their former Ballon d’Or winners to elect their Football Player of the Century. He was chosen on the World Team of the 20th Century in 1998, the FIFA World Cup Dream Team in 2002, and in 2004 was named in the FIFA 100 list of the world’s greatest living players.
Considered to be one of the most influential figures in football history, Cruyff’s style of play and his football philosophy has influenced managers and players, including the likes of Arrigo Sacchi, Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger, Pep Guardiola, Frank Rijkaard, Michael Laudrup, Eric Cantona and Xavi. Ajax and Barcelona are among the clubs that have developed youth academies based on Cruyff’s coaching methods. His coaching philosophy helped lay the foundations for the revival of Ajax’s international successes in the 1990s. Spanish football’s successes at both club and international level during the years 2008 to 2012 have been cited by many as evidence of Cruyff’s impact on contemporary football.
5. Franz Beckenbauer
Franz Anton Beckenbauer ( born 11 September 1945) is a German former professional footballer and manager. Early in his playing career he was nicknamed Der Kaiser (“The Emperor”) because of his elegant style, dominance and leadership on the field, and also as his first name “Franz” is reminiscent of the Austrian emperors. He is widely regarded to be one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. A versatile player who started out as a midfielder, Beckenbauer made his name as a central defender. He is often credited as having invented the role of the modern sweeper or libero.
Twice named European Footballer of the Year, Beckenbauer appeared 103 times for West Germany and played in three FIFA World Cups. He is one of three men, along with Brazil’s Mário Zagallo and France’s Didier Deschamps to have won the World Cup as a player and as a manager; he lifted the World Cup trophy as captain in 1974, and repeated the feat as a manager in 1990. He was the first captain to lift the World Cup and European Championship at international level and the European Cup at club level. He was named in the World Team of the 20th Century in 1998, the FIFA World Cup Dream Team in 2002, and in 2004 was listed in the FIFA 100 of the world’s greatest living players.
At club level with Bayern Munich, Beckenbauer won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1967 and three consecutive European Cups from 1974 to 1976. The latter feat made him the first player to win three European Cups as captain of his club. He became team manager and later president of Bayern Munich. After two spells with the New York Cosmos he was inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Beckenbauer led Germany’s successful bid to host the 2006 FIFA World Cup and chaired the organizing committee. He worked as a pundit for Sky Germany, and for 34 years as a columnist for the tabloid Bild, both until year 2016. In August 2016, it was announced Beckenbauer was being investigated for fraud and money laundering as part of the 2006 World Cup.
6. Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro (born 5 February 1985) is a Portuguese professional footballer who plays as a forward for Italian club Juventus and the Portugal national team. Often considered the best player in the world and regarded by many as one of the greatest players of all time, Ronaldo has a record-tying five Ballon d’Or awards, the most for a European player, and is the first player to win four European Golden Shoes. He has won 26 trophies in his career, including five league titles, five UEFA Champions League titles and one UEFA European Championship. A prolific goalscorer, Ronaldo holds the records for most official goals scored in Europe’s top-five leagues (403), the UEFA Champions League (121), the UEFA European Championship (9), as well as those for most assists in the UEFA Champions League (34) and the UEFA European Championship (6). He has scored over 680 senior career goals for club and country.
Born and raised on the Portuguese island of Madeira, Ronaldo was diagnosed with a racing heart at age 15. He underwent an operation to treat his condition, and began his senior club career playing for Sporting CP, before signing with Manchester United at age 18 in 2003. After winning his first trophy, the FA Cup, during his first season in England, he helped United win three successive Premier League titles, a UEFA Champions League title, and a FIFA Club World Cup. By age 22, he had received Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year nominations and at age 23, he won his first Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards. In 2009, Ronaldo was the subject of the most expensive association football transfer when he moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid in a transfer worth €94 million (£80 million).
In Madrid, Ronaldo won 15 trophies, including two La Liga titles, two Copas del Rey, four UEFA Champions League titles, two UEFA Super Cups, and three FIFA Club World Cups. Real Madrid’s all-time top goalscorer, Ronaldo scored a record 34 La Liga hat-tricks, including a record-tying eight hat-tricks in the 2014–15 season and is the only player to reach 30 goals in six consecutive La Liga seasons. After joining Madrid, Ronaldo finished runner-up for the Ballon d’Or three times, behind Lionel Messi, his perceived career rival, before winning back-to-back Ballons d’Or in 2013 and 2014. After winning the 2016 and 2017 Champions Leagues, Ronaldo secured back-to-back Ballons d’Or again in 2016 and 2017. A historic third consecutive Champions League followed, making Ronaldo the first player to win the trophy five times. In 2018, he signed to Juventus in a transfer worth €100 million, the highest ever paid by an Italian club and the highest fee ever paid for a player over 30 years old.
A Portuguese international, Ronaldo was named the best Portuguese player of all time by the Portuguese Football Federation in 2015. He made his senior debut for Portugal in 2003 at age 18, and has since had over 150 caps, including appearing and scoring in eight major tournaments, becoming Portugal’s most capped player and his country’s all-time top goalscorer. He scored his first international goal at Euro 2004 and helped Portugal reach the final. He took over full captaincy in July 2008, leading Portugal to their first-ever triumph in a major tournament by winning Euro 2016, and received the Silver Boot as the second-highest goalscorer of the tournament, before becoming the highest European international goalscorer of all-time. One of the most marketable athletes in the world, he was ranked the world’s highest-paid athlete by Forbes in 2016 and 2017, as well as the world’s most famous athlete by ESPN in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
7. Michel Platini
Michel François Platini (born 21 June 1955) is a former French football player, manager and administrator. As the president of UEFA in 2015 he was banned from football, over ethics violations. Regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time, Platini won the Ballon d’Or three times, in 1983, 1984 and 1985, and came sixth in the FIFA Player of the Century vote. In recognition of his achievements, he was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1985 and became Officier in 1988.
During his career, Platini played for the clubs Nancy, Saint-Étienne, and Juventus. Nicknamed Le Roi (The King) for his ability and leadership. Despite primarily serving as an advanced midfield playmaker, he was a prolific goalscorer; he won the Serie A capocannoniere award three consecutive times between 1983 and 1985, and was the top scorer of Juventus’s victorious 1984–85 European Cup campaign. Platini was a key player of the France national team that won the 1984 European Championship, a tournament in which he was the top scorer and best player, and reached the semi-finals of the 1982 and 1986 World Cups. Together with the midfielders Alain Giresse, Luis Fernández and Jean Tigana, he formed the carré magique (magic square) of the French team in the 1980s. Platini was his country’s record goalscorer until 2007, and holds the record for most goals scored in the European Championship despite only appearing in the victorious 1984 edition.
Following his retirement as a player, Platini was the France national team coach for four years, and was the co-organizer of the 1998 World Cup in France. In 2007, he was elected as the president of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). He was the first former player to become UEFA President. He also held the positions of chairman of FIFA’s Technical and Development Committee and vice-president of the French Football Federation. In 2015, however, he was banned from football administration for conflict of interest by the FIFA Ethics Committee.
8. Alfredo Di Stéfano
Alfredo Stéfano Di Stéfano Laulhé (4 July 1926 – 7 July 2014) was an Argentine professional footballer and coach. He is regarded as one of the best footballers of all time, and is best known for his achievements with Real Madrid, where he was instrumental in the club’s domination of the European Cup and La Liga during the 1950s. Along with Francisco Gento and José María Zárraga, he was one of only three players to play a part in all five victories, scoring goals in each of the five finals. Di Stéfano played international football mostly for Spain after moving to Madrid, but he also played for Argentina and Colombia.
Di Stéfano, nicknamed “Saeta rubia” (“Blond Arrow”), was a powerful, quick, skillful, and prolific forward, with great stamina, tactical versatility, creativity, and vision, who could also play almost anywhere on the pitch. He is currently the sixth highest scorer in the history of Spain’s top division, and Real Madrid’s third highest league goalscorer of all time, with 216 goals in 282 league matches between 1953 and 1964. He is Madrid’s leading goalscorer in the history of El Clásico, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.
In November 2003, to celebrate UEFA’s Jubilee, he was selected as the Golden Player of Spain by the Royal Spanish Football Federation as their most outstanding player of the past 50 years. In 2004, he was named by Pelé in the FIFA 100 list of the world’s greatest living players (in September 2009, he said Di Stéfano was the best Argentinian player “ever”). He was voted fourth, behind Pelé, Diego Maradona, and Johan Cruyff, in a vote organized by France Football magazine which consulted their former Ballon d’Or winners to elect the Football Player of the Century.
In 2008 Di Stefano was honoured by both UEFA and Real Madrid with a special Presidents award issued by FIFA at a ceremony in Madrid, where a statue was also unveiled. Then UEFA President Michel Platini called Di Stefano “a great amongst the greats” while contemporaries Eusébio and Just Fontaine suggested that he was “the most complete footballer in the history of the game”.
9. Ferenc Puskás
Ferenc Puskás (2 April 1927– 17 November 2006) was a Hungarian footballer and manager, widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time. A prolific forward, he scored 84 goals in 85 international matches for Hungary, and 514 goals in 529 matches in the Hungarian and Spanish leagues. He became an Olympic champion in 1952 and led his nation to the final of the 1954 World Cup where he was named the tournament’s best player. He won three European Cups (1959, 1960, 1966), 10 national championships (5 Hungarian and 5 Spanish Primera División) and 8 top individual scoring honors. In 1995, he was recognized as the top scorer of the 20th century by the IFFHS.
Puskás started his career in Hungary playing for Kispest and Budapest Honvéd. He was the top scorer in the Hungarian League on four occasions, and in 1948, he was the top goal scorer in Europe. During the 1950s, he was both a prominent member and captain of the Hungarian national team, known as the Mighty Magyars. In 1958, two years after the Hungarian Revolution, he emigrated to Spain where he played for Real Madrid. While playing with Real Madrid, Puskás won four Pichichis and scored seven goals in two European Champions Cup finals.
After retiring as a player, he became a coach. The highlight of his coaching career came in 1971 when he guided Panathinaikos to the European Cup final, where they lost 2–0 to AFC Ajax. In 1993, he returned to Hungary and took temporary charge of the Hungarian national team. In 1998, he became one of the first ever FIFA/SOS Charity ambassadors. In 2002, the Népstadion in Budapest was renamed the Puskás Ferenc Stadion in his honor. He was also declared the best Hungarian player of the last 50 years by the Hungarian Football Federation in the UEFA Jubilee Awards in November 2003. In October 2009, FIFA announced the introduction of the FIFA Puskás Award, awarded to the player who has scored the “most beautiful goal” over the past year. He was also listed in Pelé’s FIFA 100.
Eusébio da Silva Ferreira (25 January 1942 – 5 January 2014) was a Portuguese footballer who played as a striker. Eusébio is considered by many as one of the greatest footballers of all time. During his professional career, he scored 733 goals in 745 matches (41 goals in 64 matches for Portugal). Nicknamed the Black Panther, the Black Pearl, or o Rei (the King), he was known for his speed, technique, athleticism and his ferocious right-footed shot, making him a prolific goalscorer. He is considered S.L. Benfica’s and the Portugal national team’s most renowned player and one of the first world-class African-born players.
Eusébio helped Portugal reach third place at the 1966 World Cup, being the top goalscorer of the tournament with nine goals (including four in one match against North Korea) and received the Bronze Ball award. He won the Ballon d’Or award for European footballer of the year in 1965 and was runner-up in 1962 and 1966. He played for Benfica for 15 out of his 22 years as a footballer, thus being mainly associated with the Portuguese club, and is the team’s all-time top scorer with 473 goals in 440 competitive matches. There, he won eleven Primeira Liga titles, five Taça de Portugal titles, a European Cup (1961–62) and helped them reach three additional European Cup finals (1963, 1965, 1968). He is the eighth-highest goalscorer in the history of the European Cup and the second-highest, behind Alfredo Di Stéfano, in the pre-Champions League era with 48 goals. He was the European Cup top scorer in 1964–65, 1965–66 and 1967–68. He also won the Bola de Prata (Primeira Liga top scorer award) a record seven times. He was the first ever player to win the European Golden Boot, in 1968, a feat he replicated in 1973.
Eusébio’s name often appears in best player of all time lists and polls by football critics and fans. He was elected the ninth-best footballer of the 20th century in a poll by the IFFHS and the tenth-best footballer of the 20th century in a poll by the World Soccer magazine. Pelé named Eusébio as one of the 125 best living footballers in his 2004 FIFA 100 list. He was seventh in the online poll for UEFA Golden Jubilee Poll. In November 2003, to celebrate UEFA’s Jubilee, he was selected as the Golden Player of Portugal by the Portuguese Football Federation as their most outstanding player of the past 50 years. He has been called “Africa’s first great footballer” and “Africa’s greatest-ever player”.
From his retirement until his death, Eusébio was an ambassador of football and was one of the most recognizable faces of his generation. Homages by FIFA, UEFA, the Portuguese Football Federation and Benfica have been held in his honour. Former Benfica and Portugal teammate and friend António Simões acknowledges his influence on Benfica and said: “With Eusébio maybe we could be European Champions, without him maybe we could win the league”. Shortly after Eusébio’s death, Alfredo Di Stéfano stated: “For me Eusébio will always be the best player of all time”.