There have been countless great footballers over the years, and picking the top few can be tricky. Here, in no particular order, are 20 of those who rose above the great and became legends.
Players One to Five
Diego Maradona was nicknamed The Golden Boy for his early promise, and became infamous for the Hand of God ‘goal’ scored against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final that he won for Argentina. Small in size but long on talent, Maradona was a wily player, a little man casting a long shadow on the pitch.
Pelé is often considered the finest player of the 20th century, and the leading domestic league goal scorer in history, with well over 1,200 goals in more than 1,300 matches. More than that, he’s the only man to have won three World Cups, the first in 1958 and the last in 1970, and has got a legacy second to none.
David Beckham is one of the recent football greats, having played for Manchester United during their golden age, Real Madrid, and Paris Saint-Germain. He’s won league titles in four countries, and the Champions League, and for England was seen as something of a talisman.
Bobby Moore is remembered first and foremost for captaining England to its only World Cup, in 1966, but there’s more than that achievement to his name. He also led West Ham for over a decade, and was named by no less than Pelé as the best defender he ever faced.
Another 1966 England player is Bobby Charlton, but like Moore there’s more than one string to his bow. In the same year he won the Ballon d’Or, and during his career, almost all of which was spent at Manchester United, he won the European Cup and the First Division on numerous occasions.
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Players Six to 10
George Best was a Northern Irish star who formed part of Manchester United’s core during its 1960s glory days. Technically adept and blessed with great goal scoring talent, it’s a crying shame that he’s probably the best player never to have played at a World Cup.
Zinedine Zidane was an attacking midfielder during his playing days, and now manages Real Madrid. As a player he won the Ballon d’Or, Champions League, and World Cup, combining foresight with excellent technical abilities.
The first Portuguese player on our list is the original Black Panther: Eusébio. Scoring almost a goal a match (more than 700 for both), he won the Ballon d’Or and spent a decade and a half at Benfica, racking up eleven Primeira Liga titles.
A rare current player to make the list, Lionel Messi is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest players of his generation. Captain of both Argentina and Barcelona, Messi has a record six Ballon d’Ors and six European Golden Shoes. He’s spent his whole career at Barcelona, and his unsurpassed skills have allowed him to win four Champions Leagues and 10 La Liga titles with the club.
Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the few footballers on this list who’s still playing. Never accused of an excess of modesty, the Portuguese superstar’s undoubtedly brimming with talent and has scored more than 700 goals during his career. During his time (to date), he’s been named the best Portuguese player of all time, and won multiple Ballon d’Ors, Champions League titles, Premier League titles, and Serie A titles. And he’s still going.
Players 11 to 15
Patrick Vieira captained Arsenal during their Invincibles season of 2003-4, when the English club became the first in a century to go a whole domestic league season undefeated. A powerful player, Vieira dominated the midfield, winning numerous league titles, Euro 2020, and the World Cup.
Playing his entire career at Manchester United, Ryan Giggs was also, briefly, player-manager of the side. During his more than 600 appearances he won 13 Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues, and has assisted more goals in the Premier League than anyone else.
Andrea Pirlo’s early career was up and down, guiding Brescia to promotion to Serie A, but struggling at Inter Milan. However, when his role changed at AC Milan to orchestrating attacks he developed into a world class player, amassing two Champions League titles, two Serie A titles, and a World Cup.
Ronaldinho is considered by many to be the greatest footballer of them all. Winner of two FIFA Player of the Year Awards and a Ballon d’Or, he combined creative innovation with technical brilliance to light up any game.
Sócrates is another renowned Brazilian, whose talents on pitch and sharp mind earned him the nickname Doctor Socrates. Widely considered one of the best midfielders ever to play the game, he captained Brazil in the 1982 World Cup, a team some say is the best the football-mad nation has ever produced.
Players 16 to 20
A great striker and adored by the fans of Arsenal, where he played for many years, Thierry Henry won just about every trophy he could. From being part of the Arsenal Invincibles to taking the World Cup with France, and the Champions League with Barcelona, Henry had great pace, and a great scoring record.
Michael Ballack is amongst the best footballers that have come from Germany, a country with more than its share of international success. A powerful presence both physically and psychologically, Ballack was a strong midfielder who could also score, and was named captain of Germany in 2004.
Jürgen Klinsmann is an icon of German football, winning the World Cup with West Germany and (post-reunification after the Berlin Wall fell) claiming the European Championship for Germany.
The versatile Roberto Baggio was capable of various positions, from striker to attacking midfielder. Creatively talented and a master of the set piece, Baggio won the Ballon d’Or and led Italy to the World Cup final.
Dennis Bergkamp began as a midfielder and ended as a striker, but was talented throughout. A year after his début for Ajax the Dutchman was called up to the national side, going on to join Arsenal and rack up three Premier League titles and four FA Cups.