O jogo bonito; ‘the beautiful game’ beautifully described by Brazilians. Who else? There’s no better phrase to describe football and this is our list of the top 50 best footballers of all-time.
From the destruction and prevention of the defence, through craft and guile in midfield to the headline-grabbers, the goalscorers. Every aspect of the game is covered in our lists of the finest artists to bestride the football pitches of the world.
From every era as well. Football wasn’t invented with the Premier League in 1992 nor the Champions League a decade later but those were the pivotal times when it became the global game.
And Novibet’s betting markets embrace every league everywhere.
So sit back, relax and enjoy our list of footballing greats.
50. Uwe Seeler
Bar a single appearance for Cork Celtic in 1978 – naturally scoring twice – Uwe Seeler is the archetypal one-club man.
Seeler began as a youth player with Hamburger SV in 1946. He went on to make 404 goals in 472 appearances for Hamburger SV, finishing as the Bundesliga closed in on its first decade in existence in 1972.
Capped 72 times by West Germany, Seeler’s appearances came in the same four World Cups as Pele, which saw him earn a runners-up medal (1966) and third-place (1970). In 2004, Seeler was named in FIFA’s 125 greatest living players.
49. Gunnar Nordahl
When it comes to deciding the best Swedish footballer of all time, the names of Thomas Brolin, Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovich swirl around. But they are all chasing Gunnar Nordahl’s tail; Milan’s flying Swede and third-highest scorer in Serie A history.
Italy beckoned following the Swedes Olympic Gold medal in 1948 and in 1949 he moved to Milan, forming the ‘Gre-No-Li’ attacking triumvirate with Nils Liedholm and Gunnar Gren.
It was a move which ended his international career. Despite scoring 33 goals in 43 matches, the Swedish FA rules at the time forbade professionals from representing the Blågult, leaving Nordahl to focus on his club career.
210 goals in 257 matches for AC Milan and another 15 in 34 for Roma saw Nordahl score a career 442 goals in 504 club games.
Two Serie A titles seems scant reward for a decade in which he scored a goal every 116 minutes on average.
48. Giuseppe Meazza
The San Siro to the rest of the world is the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in Milan. A local boy made good, whose career saw him bag 4 scudetto, 3 times Capocannieri, as well as two World Cups.
Silvio Piola, double goalscorer in the 1938 World Cup final, told the world that “[Meazza] is, without a doubt, one of the greatest Italian footballers ever. He is a symbol to our great country and we should cherish him.” Many did, with some claiming his prowess on the pitch was matched by his prowess off it.
Spurned by Milan as a youth player, Meazza turned to Internazionale and spent thirteen seasons with the Nerazzurri, netting 284 goals in 408 appearances to add to 33 in 53 international appearances.
47. Roberto Carlos
It’s no stretch to claim that Roberto Carlos could lay claim to any of the spots in the top ten goals scored. The Brazilian left-back took the national trait of scoring spectacular free-kicks and raised it a level. Carlos rewrote the laws of physics, caressing and brutalising the football all at once.
Consecutive Campenato Brasileiro Série A titles with Palmeiros saw him to Internazionale for a season but it was as a Galactico that he made his name.
His 370 appearances are a record for Real Madrid by a foreign player and brought him four titles, as well as three Champions League, two Intercontinental Cups, and a European Super Cup.
But it was 2002 when he capped the golden phase of his career: South Korea/Japan saw Brazil lift the World Cup with a 2 – 0 win over Germany, the second in three tournaments.
46. Luis Suarez
Not the Uruguayan but Barcelona’s original: El Arquitecto, the first Spanish Balon d’Or winner – he also came second twice and third once – as well as a member of the 1964 European Nations Cup-winning team.
His six years at Barcelona were trophy-laden, Noah-esque as the silverware landed two by two: a pair of league titles, two Copa del Rey and a pair of Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.
That was the prelude to greater highs with Internazionale, a £100,000 deal which made him for a while the most expensive footballer in the world. It was money well spent; three Serie A titles, two Champions Cup and an Intercontinental Cup came in a glorious four-season blitz.
When his playing days ended in 1973, he remained in Italy, managing Inter and Sampdoria among others before becoming Spain manager in 1988. Two more spells with Inter, ending his football career in 1995.
45. Omar Sivori
The Times described Omar Sivori as “the most gifted and theatrical of all players” of his era.
It summed up the former Juve man to a tee; streetwise, artful and innovative, Sivori was a pivotal member of three-title winning sides in Turin as well as four domestic cups. A creative goalscorer, Sivori was a tormentor of opponents, never satisfied with simply beating them. It was imperative to include a flourish.
Dual Argentine and Italian nationality meant he represented both countries. He was one of the Angels with Dirty Faces which landed the 1957 South American championship while featuring for Italy in the 1962 World Cup finals. Nine caps and eight goals for the Azzurri included two in a friendly against his native Argentina, which Italy won 4 – 1.
His managerial career saw him lead Argentina to the 1974 World Cup finals.
44. Franco Baresi
When Franco Baresi retired, AC Milan retired the No. 6 shirt he wore with such distinction. One of only two shirt numbers retired and the only one without exception.
His name is synonymous with club loyalty. Twice Milan were relegated to Serie B; twice he stayed with the Rossoneri; 719 appearances in all competitions, yielding six Serie A titles, three Champions League as well as two Super Cups and Intercontinental Cups.
His peak came as Milan dominated European football, playing in some of the finest club XI’s ever seen. And Baresi wasn’t out of place. Unruffled, he led by example. A fine example of what can be achieved by reading the game and bringing the ball out of defence; he rarely ceded possession cheaply.
Imperious for club and country, Baresi inspired the Azzurri to World Cup glory, claiming glory as a squad member in 1982, a runner-up in 1994 and perhaps most disappointingly, third at Italia ’90.
Not bad for a player rejected by Internazionale for being “too slight”.
43. Gianluigi Buffon
One of football’s biggest crimes is that Gianluigi Buffon was never recognised as the best player in the world. He came close; second in the 2006 Balon d’Or – losing out to compatriot Fabio Cannavaro – but that isn’t enough.
Quite simply, Gigi Buffon is the finest goalkeeper of his generation.
— 433 (@official433) September 28, 2019
Still playing at the age of 41 and back with his beloved Juventus after a flirtation in Paris, in the first-team tells you that his standards haven’t slipped so far that retirement is on the cards.
And they are high standards. A commanding presence in the area, Buffon’s lithe frame enabled him to stop the low shots which, for a man of his height, seemed improbable.
Signed by Juventus from childhood club Parma for a fee of €52m and Lillian Thuram, Buffon moved to Turin in 2001 before going on to make an almost record-breaking 658 first XI appearances for La Vecchia Signora.
Buffon is the benchmark for Italian goalkeepers, wresting that title from Dino Zoff. His predecessor in the national team remarked that his debut for Parma in 1995 was incredible “for the personality and quality he showed” after Buffon kept a rampaging Milan – Baggio, Weah, et al – at bay.
A star was born and from to this day, shines brightly.
Waldyr Pereira is likely the most famous footballer you’ve never heard of. The Brazilian is widely credited with inventing Folha Seca, the ‘dry leaf’ style of free-kick so favoured by Cristiano Ronaldo in the modern game.
Pele eulogised over Didi’s influence during the 1958 World Cup finals:
”so cool, unruffled, and poised that many people compared him to a jazz musician”.
Future Seleccao boss Mario Zagalo credited Didi for calmly dismissing Sweden’s opening goal; “Calm down lad. We’re still a better team than they are. Don’t worry, we’ll turn this game around soon enough.”
Brazil went on to claim a famous 5 – 2 victory and Didi the Golden Ball. He featured four years later as the Brazilians successfully defended their crown. As well as domestic titles with Botafogo and Fluminese, Pereira spent an unsuccessful season with Real Madrid. Unsuccessful for falling foul of Alfredo di Stefano but he still left with a European Cup winners medal.
41. Hugo Sanchez
Fairy tales often include humble beginnings; Hugo Sanchez lived a fairy tale but there was nothing humble about the way he imposed himself on Mexican football.
Sanchez began quickly, top-scoring in the league during his second season with Pumas UNAM, netting 104 goals in 200 appearances. It earned him a move to Atletico de Madrid and a reputation as one of the finest goalscorers of his generation.
Golden Boot winner in 1990 and five consecutive seasons as La Liga’s leading goalscorer point to Sanchez’s lethal finishing. Is it incidental to mention he finished each of those Real Madrid seasons as a champion?
It’s the sheer agility of his finishing which makes Sanchez stand out from the crowd. No angle was too tight, no jump too high and there was always room for an overhead kick. All topped off with his trademark somersault celebration!
40. Nilton Santos
A Brazilian and Botafogo legend, Nilton Santos claimed two World Cup winner’s medals in a career which was anything that ordinary.
Nilton Santos played for the Rio club for the whole of his career which saw him play more than 700 games in league and cups. It brought him international recognition. A squad member of what is considered a disastrous World Cup in 1950, Santos was a regular for the Seleccao four years later.
It ended badly; Santos received his marching orders in the ‘Battle of Berne’ as Brazil lost 4 – 2 to Hungary’s Magnificent Magyars. Winning in 1958 and 1962 more than made up for those.
Santos formed a dynamic partnership with Djalma Santos at international level and the pair, it is claimed by Brazilians, invented the tactic of the overlapping full-back.
39. Valentino Mazzola
Il Grande Torino; the tragedy at the Superga Basilica which cost the lives of most of the all-conquering Torino team of the era. Among the dead was Valentino Mazzola, arguably one of the finest playmakers in football’s history.
His beginnings in life are the stuff of legend. Family tragedy inspiring one of Italy’s greatest footballers.
Three seasons with Venezia preceded a move to Torino. In his debut 1942-43 season, he won the first of five Scudetto in five official seasons, as well as the Coppa Italia.
Mazzola was the Capi, a frequent scorer including Capocanniere in 1946/47 as well as recorded the fastest-ever hat-trick in Italian football. All three goals against Vicenza came in a three-minute spell.
38. Raymond Kopa
Were it not for a mining accident, the world might not have heard of Raymond Kopa. Aged 16, he lost a finger and thus ended his career in northern France’s industrial heartland.
Two years later, Kopa signed for SCO Angers, quickly moving to Stade de Reims where he won two titles and a loser’s medal in the 1956 Champions Cup final. The victors, Real Madrid, signed him immediately after.
Three consecutive Champions Cup winner’s medals made up for that disappointment, including a 2 – 0 win over Reims, for whom he signed immediately after the final, to complete a nice circle.
Kopa, awarded the Legion d’honneur, enjoyed an illustrious career, crammed into ten trophy-laden years. Named by Pele as one of FIFA’s 125 greatest living footballers, we have no hesitation including one of France’s finest attacking midfielders in our best top 50 footballers of all-time.
37. Matthias Sindelar
Before the Magnificient Magyars, there was the Wunderteam. Austria’s international team of the 1930s, coached by Hugo Meisl, was the first to invoke the spirit of Total Football.
At its’ heart was Matthias Sindelar. Der Papierene – the Paper Man – identified his slight frame but misses the thrust of Sindelar’s abilities and influence.
In 1931, five years after his international debut, the Wunderteam demolished Scotland 5 – 0, beginning a run of big-scoring wins against some of football’s prominent nations of the time.
Just as with the Hungarians, Austria never won the World Cup their play merited. 1934 saw them lose to host’s Italy in the semi-finals while four years later, the Wunderteam ceased to exist as the Second World War loomed.
Matthias Sindelar would be dead within a year of those ill-fated events. Retired from football, questions remain whether it was as accidental as recorded…
36. Juan Manuel Moreno
Being rated the third-greatest Argentinean footballer of all-time is a hearty accolade and one Juan Manuel Moreno fully deserves.
When Michael Palin filmed Ripping Yarns, Moreno was the archetypal explorer; moustachioed, brazen and bold on the pitch, he lived life to the full off it. Unlike those who famously followed in his footsteps, he never let it interfere with the football. That was sacrosanct.
Moreno was a hell-raiser. Famously, he observed that his one bad game came after an early night.
“Yes, I like the nightlife…don’t tell me to drink milk. The time I drank milk I played badly.”
River Plate in the ’30s was Los Millionairos and Moreno fit the bill exactly. A prolific partnership with Bernabe Ferreyra drove River to trophies at the end of the decade.
La Maquina, as River’s illustrious side, was known, and Moreno was the lifeblood as titles continued into the 1940s.
Moreno though was burning out. He disappeared into Mexico for three years before returning to River. It began a period where his nomadic genes kicked in, filling in time with six clubs in the final decade of his career.
35. Paco Gento
When you mention the Real Madrid side which dominated the early years of the European Cup, Di Stefano and Puskas are the names which trip readily off the tongue.
However, Paco Gento was the driving force; the Blanco who starred in all the triumphs. In his 18 seasons at the Bernabeu, he won 12 league titles to go with the six European Cups – both records – and two Copa del Rey.
The outside left had pace in abundance, allegedly clocking Olympic speeds over 100 metres. His favoured move was to sprint and then “hit the brakes” watching “defenders run off into the advertising boarding”.
Despite what Ferenc Puskas calling a sometimes “wildly inaccurate” shot, Gento scored 178 goals in 606 games for Real. A hero in Chamartin, Gento became Honorary President of the club in 2016.
34. Sir Stanley Matthews
In one of Europe’s most physical leagues, Sir Stanley Matthews played in the English First Division for 25 years plus four in the second tier, as well as 54 England caps.
783 appearances and 80 goals for two clubs: Stoke City and Blackpool. Both those clubs and his nation recognised not only his skills and service but a strong ethos for winning the ‘right’ way.
The dedication on Sir Stanley’s statue at Stoke City’s stadium captures not just his career but also the man:
“His name is symbolic of the beauty of the game, his fame timeless and international, his sportsmanship and modesty universally acclaimed. A magical player, of the people, for the people.”
33. Roberto Rivelino
Roberto Rivelino; the unsung member of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning squad. Or less celebrated than Pele or Jairzinho
His spirit lives on to this day. The ‘elastico’ / ‘flip flap’ is a move Rivelino made famous, learned from Corinthians teammate Sergio Echigo. As Rivelino says, “[Echigo] invented it, I perfected it.”
Roberto Rivelino represented his country 92 times, scoring 26 goals. After missing out in 1966, he came of age in 1970.
Aged 24 at Mexico, Rivelino scored three times, one fewer than Pele. Four years later, he was one of the few Brazilians to come out with his reputation intact as the Seleccao danced on the grave of Jogo bonito.
32. Sandor Koscis
Perhaps the most understated of the Magnificent Magyars despite having a goalscoring record which stands par with the best in the world.
75 goals in 68 international appearances, 11 of which came in 1954 as Hungary won everything but the World Cup they richly deserved.
He scored almost as freely at club level in his homeland, finishing his time at Honved with 153 goals in 145 appearances.
The Hungarian Revolution meant that he and Ferenc Puskas among others sought refuge in Spain. The Galloping Major went to Real Madrid, Koscis to Barcelona. The goals didn’t dry up as he scored 287 goals in 265 appearances, a better scoring ratio than Lionel Messi.
And yet Sandor Koscis barely registers recognition…
31. Sir Bobby Charlton
Another footballing knight, Sir Bobby Charlton’s story reads straight from a Boys Own novel. 106 England caps, the leading goalscorer with 49 goals for decades, winner of almost every honour imaginable for club and country, and a survivor of the Munich Air Disaster.
With his famous comb-over hairstyle, Charlton bestrode English and European football fields like a giant. A keen footballing brain allied to a ferocious shot made him a formidable opponent.
He kick-started England’s successful 1966 campaign with the opening goal against Mexico with a trademark strike from distance. Against Portugal in the semi-final he scored both goals in England’s 2 – 1 win to set up his finest hour as football came home with him and his teammates.
— History Lovers Club (@historylvrsclub) August 20, 2019
Success continued for a few years longer as Manchester United won the league and European Cup, an occasion when Charlton scored twice and captained the side.
Sir Bobby Charlton. One of a kind.
30. Gianni Rivera
Before Andrea Pirlo and Roberto Baggio, there was Gianni Rivera. The AC Milan playmaker remains the benchmark against which all others are judged.
A goal every four games belie his reputation as the archetypal creator but he only reached double-figures in seven of his 19 seasons at Milan.
Balletic balance, fleet of foot in tight spaces and unparalleled vision; Rivera was a man who thrived in creating anarchy in the final third of the opposition half. Nereo Rocco observed Rivera didn’t run many kilometres during matches. He didn’t need to; “Rivera in all of this is a genius.”
Rivera, the darling of the San Siro, was adored across Italy. Absent from the final of the 1968 European Championships as the Azzurri lost to Yugoslavia but two years later, he drove Italy through to the World Cup final against Brazil.
Rivera retired in 1979 but didn’t settle for a managerial career or the usual boutique or bar. After a spell as an Italian MP, he continued his love affair with Europe; two Champions Cups, two Cup Winner’s Cups and now an MEP.
Following Garrincha in any side was a tall order. To do so with both club and country is either masochistic or supreme self-belief. Jair Ventura Filho was never lacking in self-confidence or talent and acquitted himself with some aplomb for both Botafogo and Brazil.
Jairzinho made his debut at 15 years of age in 1959 and within five years was in the national team. Ability and versatility took him to three World Cup finals, picking up a winner’s medal in 1970.
He scored in every game of those finals, including the third in the 4 – 1 win over Italy in the final itself. Jairzinho remains the only man to achieve that feat.
It wasn’t enough to claim the Golden Boot. Instead, his tongue-in-cheek claim that FIFA awarded him the “best body on the planet” was taken seriously, forcing FIFA to deny the claim.
After 15 years with Botafogo, he moved to Marseilles in 1974 for an unsuccessful season. It signalled a nomadic end to his playing days and a transient coaching career. It wasn’t entirely unsuccessful; as a youth coach, he recommended Ronaldo to Cruzeiro as a 14-year-old, sprinkling some of World Cup magic dust in the process.
28. Bobby Moore
England’s finest captain for England’s finest hour. It was entirely fitting that Bobby Moore, a gentleman defender, unharried, unfussed and completely composed, lifted the World Cup in 1966.
A brief moment as he walked up the steps at Wembley summed him up. As he approached the Queen to receive the trophy, he wiped his hands on his short ensuring they were clean. Moore would not dirty royal gloves.
Euro ’72 Group 3: Switzerland v England – Captains Karl Odermatt & Bobby Moore, Basle, 13 October 1971. (Photo: Keystone/Photopress-Archiv) pic.twitter.com/PC7XcYqg6K
— A Football Archive* (@FootballArchive) October 3, 2019
795 club appearances and 108 England caps barely scratch the surface. His loyalty to West Ham cost him trophies; it’s almost inconceivable that a player this good did not win a league title. As it is, he had to be content with the FA Cup in 1964 and a year later, the European Cup Winners Cup.
And a starring role in the seminal football film, Escape to Victory. Moore’s brilliance made Sylvester Stallone appear believable as a goalkeeper. Almost.
Some players encapsulate a tournament and 1982 belongs to Socrates. Paolo Rossi grabbed the goals, Marco Tardelli the maniacal celebration but amid the chaos, the Brazilian captain strode majestically across every pitch.
Famed as a chain-smoking doctor and philosopher remains the most elegant footballer, floating across the pitch to drive forward one of the finest-ever Brazilian teams.
If Zico was the flair of the 1982 squad, Socrates was the heartbeat, intellectually, spiritually and as a leader.
In an era of blandness, the his trademark headband and flowing locks stood as did his embracing of life. As for the smoking and beers, he observed that “I am an anti-athlete. I cannot deny myself certain lapses from the strict regime of a sportsman. You have to take me as I am.”
And we lapped him up.
An attacking midfielder, his roots as a centre-forward shine through in his goalscoring record, averaging a goal every game and a half for his clubs with one in every three internationals. 179 goals in 279 appearances, all told.
Pele describes Zico as:
“the one player that came closest to me”.
High praise indeed but richly deserved by Arthur Antunes Coimbra.
Zico possessed an astonishing array of tricks. Diminutive in stature, he used his low centre of gravity to maintain control of the ball and caressing it under his spell. A mesmeric range of feints swerves and an unrivalled vision made him the attacking fulcrum for clubs and country.
Emerging from the Rio de Janeiro streets, Zico debuted in 1971 winning the first of his seven Campeonato Carioca a year later. Success came a decade later as Flamengo claimed Serie A, Copa Libertadores, and an Intercontinental Cup in the early 1980s.
Having made his Brazil debut in 1976, he broke into the global consciousness during Espana ’82 as part of the phenomenal Brazil team, arguably the best to never win the World Cup.
Noted as a creative talent, Zico was a compulsive goalscorer grabbing 476 goals in 699 club games spanning from Brazil to Japan.
25. Ruud Gullit
For a decade, Ruud Gullit was the perfect epitome of a footballer. Tall, athletic but possessing perfect poise as well as guile, the striker cum midfielder dominated Europe with AC Milan and the Dutch national team.
Gullit broke through with Feyenoord but garnered more attention with a move to PSV Eindhoven in 1985. Two Eredivisie titles followed with performances at home and abroad sending scouts scurrying to watch the dreadlocked dynamo.
Milan won the race with a then-world record fee of just £6m, arguably the best money the club spent in the modern era. With Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten also in their ranks, I Rossoneri were Europe’s dominant force, culminating in the 4 – 0 demolition of Steaua Bucharest in the 1988 European Cup final. Gullit and Van Basten both scored twice.
It was a fairy tale year for Gullit. The leader of the Netherlands team which deservedly won Euro ’88, he broke the dreadlock in the 2 – 0 win over USSR in the final with a powerful close-range header.
His time in Milan was all too brief and bedevilled by injury. But for half-a-dozen years, Gullit was the star who shone brightest.
Ronaldinho Gaucho; a man whose ability to party almost exceeded his ability on the pitch. And he was phenomenal with the ball at his feet.
Just blessing the Timeline with one of my favourite goals of all time
Ronaldinho was a magician 🎩 pic.twitter.com/zL6uOJSnCX
— Chris™ (@MUnitedChris) October 1, 2019
The buck-toothed grin remained undiminished on the futsal pitches of India, as prominent prior to his retirement as it was when he burst into footballing consciousness in the late ’90s.
Whether it was shooting, passing or producing unbelievable moments of brilliance, it is no stretch to call Ronaldinho a footballing wizard. His control of the ball was magical, able to light up a game with a smile and a memorable instance, never to be forgotten.
And it was a smile which remained win, lose or draw.
From the streets of Porto Alegre through Gremio’s academy and first XI, Ronaldinho was a star which shone brightest. So brightly, Arsenal and Manchester United tried in vain to sign him.
PSG beckoned and a party lifestyle seduced him. Not before he outgrew the French champions. His swagger demanded a bigger stage and Barcelona gave him it.
A £25m move to Catalunya signalled a new era of success for the Blaugrana and Ronaldinho’s twinkle-toes decided the rhythm. 94 goals and 69 assists in a little over 200 games underline his contribution as the team claimed two league titles and a Champions League.
As David Beckham commented, for a while Ronaldinho was unplayable. He never recovered those powers as injuries bit, sending him for the Camp Nou to the San Siro.
But for Ronaldinho, the simple pleasure of football never stopped putting a smile on his – and our – face.
23. Lev Yashin
If Johnny Cash snagged the title “The Man in Black” in the entertainment industry, Lev Yashin did the same on the football pitch. The USSR’s legendary goalkeeper is readily recognised by his acrobatics as much as his trademark black kit.
In a sport where the goalscorers and creators are mythologised, Lev Yashin stands apart as a winner of the Balon d’Or. 1963 saw football break the mould, a recognition for goalkeepers noticeable by its’ absence since.
Despite offers to play abroad, Yashin was loyal to Dynamo Moscow, spending his entire playing days with the club.
But it was his ability to play as a ‘sweeper-keeper’, one of the first to perfect the technique, which brings him into the top 50 best footballers of all-time.
The things we take for granted now, Yashin did at time when they were extraordinary, as is his record of 160 clean sheets in 326 league matches.
22. Paolo Maldini
Milan’s prodigal son is etched indelibly into the club’s history. Paolo Maldini is unarguably the finest defender at a club with a history brimming with defensive talents.
As with Franco Baresi, the club retired Maldini’s shirt, an honour to be ‘undone’ only if one of his son’s make the grade at the San Siro. No pressure…
A commanding presence in the Milan defence, initially at full-back, Maldini never knew when he was beaten. If a forward had the temerity to pass him by, the opponent soon found the Italian snapping back at his ankles, invariably winning the ball.
He made defending seem effortless and took pride in his work. The piercing stare greeted friend and foe alike when standards dropped.
Seven Scudetto, 5 Champions League/Cup wins, innumerable others and the immovable object during Milan’s glory days of the late 20th century.
To sum Romario up with statistics isn’t enough but 734 goals in 956 first-class appearances is a very good starting point.
At his peak, there has been no finer finisher in football’s history. Romario had pace, balance and an unbreakable confidence in front of goal. He was calmness and serenity personified in the penalty area; the job in hand was to score and he was a master at work.
His stocky frame made him a defender’s worst dream; impossible to bundle off the ball and electrifyingly fleet of foot.
Once the ball was played into his path, everyone knew what was coming. A flash of lightning took Romario clear of the defenders and before goalkeepers could react, he toe-poked the ball into the net.
70 Brazil caps yielded 55 goals with his pinnacle coming in 1994 as he fired Brazil to their first World Cup in nearly a quarter of a century at USA ‘ 94.
20. Roberto Baggio
The Divine Ponytail.
If Swiss Tony were a footballer, he would be Roberto Baggio. He loved the ball, adored it. Watching him run with the ball at his feet was one of the great sights of the beautiful game; a man at one with his environment.
Baggio had poise, balance; lithe and graceful across the pitch with an eye for goal – 291 in 693 club games across Serie A – as well as 27 in 56 international appearances.
His timed his peak perfectly; Italia ’90 and the rise of televised Italian football in the rest of Europe gave us a perfect view of his career, from the Fiorentina years through Juventus.
There were spells in both Milanese colours after as well as a flirtation with Bologna before his reincarnation at Brescia. In total, he scored 205 Serie A goals, 96 of which earned a point or more for his clubs.
But as with all genius, there were flaws. Injuries affected his later career but not as much as missing a penalty in the 1994 World Cup final shootout. In his autobiography, he claimed, “Penalties are only missed by those who have the courage to take them.”
Courage is one thing Roberto Baggio never lacked.
19. Carlos Alberto
Not to be confused with his namesake who managed Brazil to two World Cups, winning one of them. This is Carlos Alberto Torres, captain of arguably the finest footballing side seen: Brazil, 1970.
His goal four minutes from time sums up the beautiful game.
It’s a testament to his leadership skills that he could bring together an immensely talented squad on the pitch. There was a sense of camaraderie in that moment, under his captaincy, aged just 25.
Carlos Alberto was a defender who had it all; technically gifted and a superb reader of the game. A cavalier attacking force but with anything but a cavalier approach to defending. A player adept at dribbling while strong in the tackle and quick to intercept.
If God designed the perfect defender, Carlos Alberto was surely his finest attempt.
18. Nandor Hidegkuti
Nandor Hidegkuti was the man who changed English football. On 25th November 1953, as a deep-lying centre-forward, he tormented the England defence, scoring a hat-trick as Hungary won 6 – 3 at Wembley.
England didn’t absorb those lessons immediately and were routed 7 – 1 in Budapest six months later. Hidegkuti once again ran the English defence ragged and capped off another fine performance with a goal.
It was a revolutionary footballing notion to see a central striker drop into midfield and in pulling the centre-back out of position to mark him, Hidegkuti left space for the likes of Puskas and Koscis to ruthlessly exploit.
He made his name in club football with MTK in its’ various guises where he scored 236 goals in 314 appearances, as well as 39 in 69 internationals for Hungary.
Unusually for a successful player, he went to enjoy success in his managerial career as well, including a Cup Winners Cup triumph with Fiorentina in 1961.
17. Dennis Bergkamp
When Dennis Bergkamp arrived at Arsenal in 1995, he had a point to prove. A burgeoning reputation with Ajax was stopped in its’ tracks with a disastrous spell with Internazionale.
It took him time to get started, but over a 10-year spell, Dennis Bergkamp was the finest foreign player to grace English football. Exquisite control and a fabulous range of passing were all surrounded by an impermeable layer; ice-cool under pressure, the Dutchman rarely failed to deliver.
There was a spikey side to him on the pitch, not averse to mixing it when the moment required.
Bergkamp claimed in his autobiography that his wonderful ball control stemmed from years of kicking a ball against a wall and watching how it bounced, repeating the trick against different surfaces.
It paid dividends. Bergkamp was a great goalscorer and the scorer of great goals, driving Arsenal to unparalleled success during the first decade of Arsene Wenger’s reign.
16. Michel Platini
Forget the disgraced administrator, savour the exquisite player. Three-time Balon d’Or winner, twice World Player of the Year. European champion for club and country.
Michel Platini put together swash and buckle, hypnotised opponents with his snake hips and unlocked the most stubborn of defences with passes no-one else saw. Or drifted a sumptuous free-kick in the bottom corner of the net as the goalkeeper looked on, helpless and rooted to the spot.
Platini began his professional career with AS Nancy from where he moved to Saint-Etienne, at the time the dominant force in French football.
A league title followed in 1981, followed by a Platini-dominated France were brutally denied glory by Toni Schumacher in the World Cup semi-final. His performances, however, brought him to the attention of Juventus. It heralded the beginning of peak-Platini.
ON THIS DAY
In 1982, Michel Platini scores these 2 goals on his debut for Juventuspic.twitter.com/yoE92THyCs
— Armchair Fan (@ArmchairFanUK) August 12, 2019
1984 proved his pinnacle as Juve claimed the Serie A title, Cup Winners Cup and Super Cup. To top off that season, Platini was imperious as France were crowned European Champions.
Le Roi’ steamrollered the opposition with nine goals in five games, including hat-tricks against Belgium and Yugoslavia. He topped off his charge for personal glory with the opening goal in the 2 – 0 win over Spain in the final.
15. Marco van Basten
Mention Marco van Basten and immediately the image of his stunning volley against USSR in the final of Euro ’88 springs to mind. Few players are fortunate enough to score such an iconic goal.
He scored 300 others at club and country, all of them bearing the hallmarks of a great goalscorer as well as the scorer of great goals.
The Dutch international was fearless, never afraid to put his head where boots were flying if it meant the ball ended up in the back of the net.
van Basten scored 128 goals in 133 games for Ajax, with Europe’s big clubs beating a path to the Amsterdam club’s door. A signature header to win the European Cup Winners Cup in 1987 saw him move to AC Milan.
An ankle injury sidelined him for most of his debut season in the San Siro but he soon made up for lost time. Three Scudetto, two Champion Cups as well as five other cups; all won in a four-season period, three of which brought van Basten personal glory in the shape of the Balon d’Or.
An injury ended his career prematurely but in 14 seasons at the top of the game, Marco van Basten redefined the role of the centre-forward.
14. Mané Garrincha.
If footballers had a theme song, Mane Garrincha’s would surely have been “Lust for Life”. The Brazilian winger’s love of football was matched only by his love of a party.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that he even played football, let alone carved a career as one of the finest wingers the game has ever seen. His left leg was several inches shorter than his right and he was born with a curved spine as well as warped knees.
Despite these physical impediments, Mane Garrincha possessed incredible balance as well as considerable strength; he was almost impossible to knock off the ball by fair means or foul.
With Pele, he kickstarted Brazil’s 1958 World Cup campaign before taking a pivotal role in the side which successfully defended the trophy in Chile.
Garrincha, an astonishing dribbler, favoured humiliating an opponent before letting them regain their poise so he could leave them stranded once again.
13. Gerd Muller
Dismissed early in his career as overweight, Der Bomber had the last laugh. 615 goals in 636 first-class German club matches underlines his phenomenal finishing abilities. Only once in 14 full seasons did he score fewer than 30 goals; a staggering level of consistency.
Muller’s stocky build led to him being underestimated by opponents but a willing trainer and eager learner, he fine-tuned his strengths, creating an astonishing array of finishes. Short, he was an outstanding header of the ball. Stocky yet acrobatic and agile; Muller was a mass of contradictions.
His goals were a major contribution to Bayern – a lowly second-tier team when he joined in 1964 – establishing themselves as a powerhouse in the Bundesliga.
He scored in two of Bayern’s three consecutive Champions Cup final wins, adding those medals to four Bundesliga titles as well as domestic, European and inter-continental trophies.
Not content with being a fearsome club striker, he scored an incredible 68 goals in 62 internationals, including 14 World Cup finals goals which was a record until Ronaldo and Miroslav Klose surpassed that tally.
His final goal for West Germany came in his last international: the 1974 World Cup final. Muller’s 43rd-minute strike deprived the Netherlands – and Johan Cruyff – of the glory many consider they deserved. It is the best example of signing off in style.
12. Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t deserve a chapter in football’s record books; he deserves his own tome.
From humble beginnings in Madeira, Ronaldo climbed to the very top of the game through mixing hard work with a modicum of talent. Single-minded in his pursuit of glory, his detractors decry him as selfish.
But the truth is, we would all pay money to watch Messi but Cristiano Ronaldo is the one we want in our team.
60 more goals for the extraterrestial Goat #ronaldo to displace Pele👑
— Khalipha.inc👑 (@salaudinabdulla) September 29, 2019
At Manchester United, his wizardry on the wing soon gave way to a desire to play centrally; to be the main man, to be the scorer of every goal.
At Real Madrid, he did just that. A staggering 450 goals in 438 appearances for Los Blancos. His goalscoring ratio of 1.07 goals per game makes him the most prolific there has ever been in Spanish football, far ahead of Messi.
But it is his international record which sums Ronaldo up. He has 93 goals in 160 appearances. In the 113 competitive internationals he has played, Ronaldo has 76 goals. Just 17 goals came in the near-50 meaningless friendlies. Goalscoring is a business for him.
And he doesn’t care how they go in. A ferocious striker of the ball for set-plays, he times runs exquisitely to make full use of his powerful neck muscles to head the ball as well as any 2-metre tall striker. No angle is too tight, no distant too near or too far. He knows where the goal is and how to put the ball into the net.
He is, in short, a phenomenon and one who time will judge more fairly than the present day.
11. George Best
The press labelled him:
The ‘Fifth Beatle’.
If ever there was a player for his time, George Best was it.
Handsome, chic, incredibly talented; Best, with charm and good humour, thrived in the chaos of English football as much as he loved to party. Never short of an astonishing goal or the company of beautiful women, there are times when it is hard to know which he is best remembered for.
But we’ll stick to the on the pitch activities.
Best was almost unplayable on his day. Perfect balance and immaculate ball control, he could waltz in and out of trouble, invariably ending a trademark mazy run with a goal or an assist.
His finest hour came in the 1968 European Cup final became the first English club to win Europe’s elite trophy. And in all honesty, from there on it was a downward spiral for the Belfast boy.
But few could carry off a decline with so much style and panache. He was truly one in a million.
10. Zinedine Zidane
Zinedine Zidane; Zizou. Few more graceful players ever floated across a football pitch. Zidane made everything seem effortless; the perfect pass, a magnificent volley or a simple flick.
He was strong, however, and incredibly difficult to dispossess. And he knew how to use his head.
Most of the time it was exercising his brain to dissect a defence but occasionally for nefarious means, as Marco Materazzi will attest. All geniuses are a mix of angels and demons; Zizou was no exception.
A three-time FIFA World Player of the Year yet only one Balon d’Or. An incredible contradiction, especially for a man who led France to successive international tournament success in 1998 and 2000.
And the small matter of the finest goal ever seen in a Champions League final…
9. Franz Beckenbauer
Der Kaiser; the Emporer. An entirely apposite nickname for one of football’s finest captains.
Not only was he an outstanding leader on the pitch, but Franz Beckenbauer is also the only man to win the World Cup as both player (1974) and coach (1990).
From the humble beginnings as a central midfielder, Beckenbauer went on to reinvent the role of the sweeper, bringing a more attacking dimension to the role.
Powerful runs from defence, deep into the opposition half, added the creative dimension which underpinned Bayern Munich and West Germany’s dominance of club and international football.
The world took notice of him during the 1966 World Cup finals. Beckenbauer scored three goals to send the West Germans into the final against hosts England. He didn’t have to wait long for revenge for that defeat, scoring at Mexico ’70 as West Germany knocked out the holders 3 – 2.
West Germany progressed relentlessly as did Bayern. European Championships (1972), World Cup (1974) were won, along with three consecutive Champions Cups (1974-76). It was a golden period with Beckenbauer at the fore.
8. Alfredo di Stefano
How different might modern football history be had Barcelona been smarter in transfer negotiations and the Irish FA been quick to claim one of their own. As it was, Real Madrid won the transfer battle and Alfred O’di Stefano never made it to the international stage.
A wrangle in which the RFEF decreed di Stefano would play one year for Real and the other for Barcelona was never going to fly. The Catalans, utterly humiliated, signed away their rights and he signed for Real. And being Spain in the Franco era, intrigue and rumours flew. No need for tin hats in this one: it’s Barca and Real Madrid.
Did we mention he was kidnapped during a pre-season tour in 1963? And played a friendly a day later!
Di Stefano rubbed salt into the wound, scoring four goals in his first Clasico as Real won 5 – 0.
La Saeta Rubia – the Blond Arrow – was one of the earliest proponents of Total Football. His was a style which embraced every aspect of football. He didn’t shirk defensive duties but when the ball came to him, his mind was already alive with flicks, tricks, passes or an explosive shot on goal.
And boy, could he shoot: 487 goals in 669 club matches with a further 29 in 37 internationals.
One of which, naturally enough, came in a 2 – 0 win over his native Argentina, for whom he’d already appeared 6 times, scoring 6 goals. He was also capped by Colombia and impressively, for someone who was capped by three nations, he never appeared at a World Cup finals.
Alfredo di Stefano declared “Eusébio will always be the best player of all-time.” Not for us; he’s seventh-best in our top 50 best players of all-time.
Born in Mozambique, he is, however, the greatest African footballer of all-time.
Eusebio was a supreme athlete, clocking 11 seconds for the 100 metres in 1959 (the World Record at the time was 10.1 seconds) underlining his lightning-quick pace on the pitch.
Almost exclusively right-footed, he possessed a ferocious shot as well as being excellent in the air. With 473 goals in 440 matches, his scoring record is bettered by few players.
Portugal were far from the footballing powerhouse they are today and consequently, Eusebio appeared only once at the World Cup finals. Naturally enough, he finished with nine goals and the Golden Boot in 1966.
Eusebio’s tears at the end of the 2 – 1 defeat to England in the semi-final earned the game the sobriquet Jogo das Lágrimas: the Game of Tears.
His most iconic moment came in the 1968 European Cup final. In the heat of battle, he found time to congratulate Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney for a great save. Few men would find time to do that on a park on a Sunday let alone in front of 100,000 supporters at Wembley Stadium.
The real Ronaldo. O Fenomeno.
Quite possibly the fastest striker in the history of the game. A player whose brain kept pace with his feet, perfectly poised and above all else, a clinical finisher.
Ronaldo rose to prominence with PSV Eindhoven, before taking his career into stratosphere with Barcelona, Internazionale, and finally Real Madrid. A player who played for both Spanish giants and remains held in high esteem by both sets of fans.
For Brazil, he netted 62 goals in 98 appearances, featuring in the 1998 and 2002 World Cup finals. The former remains mired in controversy after he suffered from a seizure in the days leading to the final. Brazil lost 3 – 0 and a patently unfit Ronaldo might as well have not been on the pitch.
Four years later, he claimed the Golden Boot in Korea/Japan in 2002 as Brazil beat Germany in the final. In 2006, he became one of three players to score in three World Cup finals. In the end, Ronaldo scored 15 goals in 19 World Cup finals.
5. Ferenc Puskas
“Look at that little fat chap. We’ll murder this lot.”
England weren’t the only team who underestimated Ferenc Puskas and certainly not unique in being ruthlessly exposed by an outstanding footballer.
Like Sandor Koscis, he was prolific in Hungary’s revolutionary side, scoring 83 goals in 84 matches. Stocky, weight was no issue for the ‘Galloping Major’.
His physique belied his deft touch and superb balance while his left foot contained a shot so powerful that the ball was frequently past goalkeepers before they moved.
The 1954 World Cup was supposed to be his crowning glory but injury neutered his impact in the final and West Germany beat the much-fancied Hungary.
Four years later, the Hungarian Revolution saw him defect with Puskas’ best performance yet to come.
31-years-old, he joined Real Madrid, already all-conquering.
With Alfredo di Stefano, Puskas formed a fearsome partnership and Los Meringues became invincible. Their finest hour came in the European Cup final against Eintracht Frankfurt.
Di Stefano grabbed a hat-trick and Puskas four as Real ran riot in what remains the biggest win in a Champions Cup or League final. It remains one of the finest exhibitions of football ever given.
4. Diego Maradona
Love him or loathe him, Diego Maradona remains one of the most skilful footballers ever.
The Argentinean, famed and abhorred for ‘The Hand of God’, proved minutes later why he is universally admired. His absurd dance through the England team remains an iconic World Cup goal and arguably the greatest ever scored.
He was inspirational, dragging Napoli to their first-ever scudetto as well as being the only reason Argentina reached the 1990 World Cup final.
Maradona possessed toes which twinkled. A low centre of gravity combined with a stocky build made him impossible to knock off the ball. With thighs like tree trunks, he was deceptively quick over short distances.
Inevitably, his drug problems took their toll as he tried to reach the heights he previously scaled. A failed drugs test at USA ’94 ended his international career.
As much as the England game is an iconic moment, so too is his drug-fuelled celebration against Greece.
Wembley Stadium, 1980
Phil Neal & Diego Maradona
(Photo: Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images) pic.twitter.com/U4ritIIcF7
— Football Past (@thecentretunnel) September 28, 2019
The bulging eyes created an indelible image but nothing can detract from Diego Maradona at the peak of his powers. A player who always found new ways to make you sit up and take notice.
3. Lionel Messi
Many consider Messi the most gifted footballer ever. Certainly few in the game’s history can match his mesmerising dribbling skills. Former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger compared him to a Playstation character such was his close control of the ball.
Quite simply, he is a player every fan would pay to watch. And when Messi plays, we all tune in.
A one-club man, Messi has – to date – 603 goals in 690 first-team appearances for Barcelona.
In each of the last ten full seasons, he has scored at least 40 goals in all competitions. In 2011-12, he produced an astonishing 73 goals in 50 club appearances. Inexplicably, that season saw Barcelona land just the Copa del Rey.
Like his nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo, he continually rewrites his own record books. Still playing, there is little prospect of him failing to claim a few more!
2. Johan Cruyff
If there was an award for the most influential footballer, Johan Cruyff would win hands down. The embodiment of Total Football on the pitch, his disciples – Pep Guardiola included – continue his interpretation of how football should be played from the touchlines.
From Ajax to Feyenoord via Barcelona and Washington, Cruyff lit up football pitches. His nonchalance in possession masked a fierce footballing brain, calculating permutations for passes or shots, far in advance of the play he was about to make.
“Football is a sport that you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late.”
Cruyff’s brain was a footballing supercomputer which knew 42 was the answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything long before Deep Thought.
His ball control was astonishing but not in the same mesmerising way it appears glued to Lionel Messi’s foot. For Cruyff, it was a tool to be valued and used efficiently; to score a goal by the simplest route. And simple was not always the most straightforward.
He could bend passes and shots from all angles, leave defenders for dead with a shift of his hips or slip of his shoulder. Most famously against Sweden in the 1974 World Cup finals, he introduced the world to the ‘Cruyff Turn’.
Innovatively for a player, he used tactics on the pitch, thinking as if we stood in front of a blackboard.
Everything came to him instinctively and he used the tools of his trade with supreme elegance.
Simply the best. Strong with the touch of an angel. Powerful in the air yet only 5’8 tall. Over 1,000 club goals; 77 in 92 for Brazil. One of a kind and never bettered.
And in our opinion, the pick of the best 50 footballers of all-time.