Who are the best footballers of all time? Who is the GOAT?
Here’s how I personally rank the top 10 footballers of all time.
Pele is widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time. He was a retired Brazilian professional footballer who played as a forward.
Pele is the only player to have won three World Cup titles (1958, 1962 and 1970), and is also the youngest ever winner of the competition, at the age of 17. Pele was honoured with many other awards, including the Ballon d’Or, three FIFA Player of the Year awards, the FIFA Player of the Century, the International Federation of Football History and Statistics Player of the Century. At club level he won two Copa Libertadores titles with Santos and a further two Intercontinental Cups.
Across his career, Pele scored 1281 goals in 1363 matches, with a rate of 0.94 goals per match, making him the most successful goal scorer ever, and the first player to reach the milestone of 1,000 goals. He is still the all-time leading scorer for Brazil with 77 goals in 91 appearances.
Pele was inducted into the Brazilian Football Museum Hall of Fame in 2002 as a testament to his brilliance and his dedication to the game. After retiring from football Pele was known for his charitable work and humanitarian efforts, and he was involved in numerous campaigns to help those in need. He became honorary member of the Brazilian Football Confederation, and an Ambassador for the World Cup, up until he passed away in late 2022.
2. Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi is an Argentine professional footballer who plays as a forward for Paris Saint-Germain and the Argentina national team. Known for his exceptional ball control, vision, and creativity, Messi is widely recognised as one of the greatest, and most gifted, 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 Boots. He won 34 trophies with Barcelona, including nine La Liga titles and four UEFA Champions League titles and six Copa del Reys. Messi holds the records for most goals scored in La Liga, a La Liga season, a calendar year, a Champions League match, and most hat-tricks in the UEFA Champions League, among others. He is the all-time top scorer for Barcelona and Argentina. He has scored over 700 senior career goals for club and country, and counting.
In 2022 Messi won the World Cup with Argentina and became the first player to score in three different World Cup tournaments.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo is, without a doubt, one of the greatest footballers of all time. He is a Portuguese professional footballer who plays as a forward and captains the Portugal national team.
Ronaldo is known for being an attacking all-rounder, with strong technical abilities, great acceleration, a strong physical presence, fast dribbling skills, as well as an above-average shot and crossing ability. He holds the record for most goals scored in the UEFA Champions League, and is the all-time leading goal scorer for both Real Madrid and the Portugal national team. He has scored over 700 goals in his career, making him one of the highest-scoring players in history.
Throughout his career, Ronaldo has won five Ballon d’Or awards, four European Golden Boots, and many other accolades such as the inaugural Best FIFA Men’s Player award. He has also won multiple league titles with both Real Madrid and Manchester United, where he was instrumental to the team’s success.
4. Diego Maradona
Diego Maradona is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most naturally gifted footballers of all time. He played for clubs in Argentina, Spain, Italy, and Mexico, and is most famous for his time with Argentina’s national team. He was a master of dribbling and passing, and his speed and agility on the pitch made him one of the most feared opponents of his generation.
Maradona led the Argentina national team to their second ever World Cup title in 1986, winning the Golden Ball as the tournament’s top scoring player. He is remembered for his iconic and controversial ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final.
Maradona won two Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, and a UEFA Cup with Italian club Napoli. He was awarded the South American Player of the Year in 1979, and the Argentine Primera División Player of the Year in 1979 and 1990. At the international level, Maradona was awarded FIFA Player of the Year in 1986 and was selected to the FIFA World Cup All-Star Team in 1986 and 1990. During his career, he scored a total of 312 goals in 587 appearances for club and country: 259 goals for club teams and 53 goals for the Argentine national team.
After retirement Maradona continued to remain an influential figure in the football world, becoming a manager and often appearing as a pundit.
5. Johan Cruyff
Johan Cruyff was a Dutch professional footballer who is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of football.
Cruyff began his career at Ajax where he won eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups and one Intercontinental Cup. He then moved to Barcelona, where he won La Liga on four occasions and the Copa del Rey twice. He also helped the Dutch national team reach the 1974 World Cup final. He was named European Footballer of the Year three times.
Throughout his career Cruyff was known for his skill, technique, and vision. He is remembered for his tactical innovations, such as the “Cruyff Turn”, and for his philosophy of “Total Football”. After retiring as a player, he went on to manage Ajax and Barcelona, where he won four league titles and the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
After retiring as a footballer, Cruyff went on to become a manager and is considered to be one of the greatest coaches of all time.
6. Franz Beckenbauer
Franz Beckenbauer is a German football legend and is considered one of the greatest players in the history of the sport.
Beckenbauer played for Bayern Munich, the New York Cosmos, and the German national team. He was a defender and midfielder and was known for his skill on the ball, tactical understanding and ability to read the game. He was skilful, creative and possessed great vision and technical ability. He was a leader on the field and was instrumental in helping Germany win the 1974 World Cup and the 1972 European Championship.
At club level Beckenbauer won three consecutive European Cups with Bayern Munich — a feat that has not been matched. He is the only player to have been named European Footballer of the Year twice. Beckenbauer was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
7. Alfredo Di Stefano
Alfredo Di Stefano was an Argentine-born Spanish footballer. He is widely considered one of the greatest players of all time.
Di Stefano was a powerful, complete, and versatile forward who could play anywhere on the pitch due to his technical ability, vision, and physical strength. He was mainly a deep-lying centre forward and a playmaker, but could also play as an attacking midfielder or winger.
He is famous for his time with Real Madrid, where he was a key member of their legendary team of the 1950s, a side often referred to as the “Galacticos”. He was an integral part of the team that won five consecutive European Cups between 1956 and 1960. During his time with Real Madrid, Di Stefano scored 216 goals in 282 games, winning eight La Liga titles and four Pichichi Trophies. He was also named European Footballer of the Year in 1957 and 1959.
After retiring from football, Di Stefano became a coach, managing clubs such as Valencia, River Plate and Boca Juniors. He also managed the Spanish national team between 1982 and 1984.
8. Zinedine Zidane
Zinedine Zidane is a retired French professional footballer. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest players of all time and is remembered for his ability to change the game with a single moment of brilliance.
Zidane was an outstanding technical player with excellent vision, passing, dribbling, and shooting abilities. He was a master of the “no look” pass and had an eye for finding space and creating chances. On top of that, he was also an excellent leader on the pitch, inspiring teammates with his determination and intelligence.
He was a key figure in the French team that won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship. He also won the Ballon d’Or in 1998 and was crowned the FIFA World Player of the Year three times. At club level he won the La Liga title twice and the Supercopa de Espana twice with Real Madrid. He also won the Serie A title once and the Supercoppa Italiana once with Juventus, and the French Ligue 1 title once with Cannes.
After retiring in 2006 Zidane became an assistant coach at Real Madrid. In January 2016, he took over as head coach and led the team to three consecutive Champions League titles.
9. Michel Platini
Michel Platini is a retired French football player and manager who is considered one of most successful footballers in history.
As a player, Platini was renowned for his technique, pace, passing, vision, and was considered one of the greatest playmakers of all time. He made his name as a dead ball specialist, with many of his goals coming from finely struck free-kicks.
In 1976 he became one of the youngest players to win the French footballer of the year award at only 21. He then repeated the feat as Nancy captain the next year. Platini went on to win three Ballon d’Or awards, the Serie A title with Juventus in 1984–85 and two French Ligue 1 titles with AS Nancy and Saint-Étienne. He was also a key member of the French team that won the European Championship in 1984, scoring two goals in the semi-final against Portugal and one in the final against Spain.
At the end of his playing career Platini was, and still is, widely regarded as one of the best French footballers of all time. He went on to manage the French national team and later became the president of UEFA.
10. Ferenc Puskas
Ferenc Puskas was a Hungarian footballer and manager who is considered to be one of the greatest players of all time.
Puskas won numerous honours during his career, including three European Cups, 10 domestic league titles, and 8 domestic cups. He was voted the European Footballer of the Year in 1954, and was also the top scorer in the 1954 World Cup. He also won an Olympic gold medal in 1952.
Puskas was also an important part of the ‘golden age’ of football in Hungary, contributing to the Magical Magyars’ domination over Europe in the 1950s. He was a key member of the Hungarian team that defeated England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953. For Hungary, he scored 84 goals in 85 international games, making him the highest–scoring international player ever.
At club level Puskas enjoyed success with Real Madrid, winning three European Cups and five La Liga titles. In 1995, he was voted the top European player of the past 50 years in the UEFA Golden Jubilee Poll. He was posthumously inducted into the FIFA World Cup Dream Team in 2002, named one of FIFA’s 125 best living players in 2004, and inducted into the FIFA Hall of Fame in 2009.
Can We Really Determine the GOAT?
There is no definitive answer to “who’s the GOAT?”. Ultimately it’s a matter of personal opinion.
To form an opinion on the GOAT, all we can do is compare player statistics, achievements, assess the impact they had in games, their playing style, mentality, and influence on the sport as a whole. But at the end of it, we’re still comparing players that existed in different eras, leagues and teams.
Furthermore, if we follow statistics too closely then we’ll under-value the unsung heroes of the sport: defenders, battling midfielders, goalkeepers and anyone else that’s uncredited for supporting some of the game’s greatest goal scorers in their ascent to the very top of the record books.
Who would you include in the top 10 greatest players of all time? What order would you place them?
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