Warning: the following article will annoy you. The following article will trigger you. The following will make you think ‘how in under God did he get this SO wrong? This is ridiculous!!!!!’
But maybe, just maybe, it’s not SO wrong.
Maybe this list ranking the 50 greatest footballers to ever lace up a pair of boots and do some weirdly wonderful things with a ball, is actually 100% correct.
Because there was method in the following madness. The following list was carefully collated with each of the following footballers’ ‘peaks’ in mind.
This list is not just the ‘Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time’, it’s a ranking of the highest peaks each of these ‘Greatest Footballers of All Time’ reached.
So before you angrily tweet me or angrily WhatsApp your friends your disgust, please bear the aforementioned in mind and TRY (all I’m asking is you try) and enjoy reading 90min’s top 50 footballers of all time.
Luka Modric starred at the 2018 World Cup / Pixsell/MB Media/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 2018 Ballon d’Or, 2018 UEFA Men’s Best Player of the Year, 2018 the Best FIFA Men’s Player, FIFA World Cup Golden Ball 2018, four UEFA Champions Leagues.
We start off with a man who did the impossible in 2018: in the Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo-era, he won the Ballon d’Or.
Luka Modric’s ending of the decade of dominance of football’s greatest individual was more than deserved. At the very peak of his powers, Modric led an unfancied Croatian outfit to the 2018 FIFA World Cup final AND won approximately a billion (well, four) UEFA Champions League titles with Real Madrid.
John Charles is one of Juve’s greatest ever players / Keystone/GettyImages
Major Achievements: Third place Ballon d’Or, 1956/57 Serie A top scorer, three Scudetti & two Coppa Italia.
Aaron Ramsey – weirdly – isn’t the first Wales international that Italian giants Juventus have signed in their trophy-laden history. The first was a man who was not only a forward capable of scoring 28 goals in a single Serie A season (1957/58 season to be exact), but could also do a more than admirable job at centre-back when necessary.
As one of the most versatile and talented British footballers of all time, John Charles is now rightfully remembered as THE greatest Welsh player ever. Yes, he was better than Ryan Giggs and Gareth Bale. Yes, he was better than David Vaughan…everyone was.
Lewandowski celebrating yet another goal / Pool/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 2020 The Best’s FIFA Men’s Player, UEFA Men’s Player of the Year 2019/20, five-time Torjägerkanone, two-time Bundesliga Player of the Season, nine Bundesliga titles, one UEFA Champions League, four DFB-Pokals.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Robert Lewandowski is the worst Tik Toker in the history of the world. The man has zero rhythm. Zero.
What he does have, however, is a knack for scoring goals. A lot of them.
In fact, Lewa bagged 40+ goals six seasons in a row and is the third highest goalscorer of the last decade (the two player who’ve scored more are obvious, and are obviously on this list too). And when he finally hangs up his boots, Lewa will likely be the highest goalscorer in Bayern’s history, Bundesliga history and German footballing history.
He’ll also probably have a Ballon d’Or to his name too.
Brazilian forward Jairzinho at the 1970 World Cup / STAFF/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1970 World Cup, only player to score in every game of a World Cup, ‘Best Body on the Planet’ FIFA award (not sure what this is but it sounds great).
You read that major achievement right.
No, not the ‘Best Body on the Planet’ one – something which you can probably see on Google images, feel free to check it out.
Jairzinho is the only player in FIFA World Cup history to score in every single game of the tournament.
He did so while guiding the greatest football team of all time to a FIFA World Cup triumph. Decent.
Omar Sivori dodging a leg-breaker of a tackle / Keystone/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1961 Ballon d’Or, 1959/60 Capocannoniere, three Scudetti, two Coppa Italia titles.
Before there was a Lionel Messi.
Before there was a Diego Maradona.
Before there was a Mario Kempes.
There was an Omar Sivori.
An Argentine (and Italian for a while) forward who led Juventus during their formative years as a European powerhouse under the stewardship of the great Umberto Agnelli.
With Sivori in the famous number ten jersey, La Vecchia Signora won three Scudetti and two Coppa Italia titles.
Rossi was the best footballer in the world in 1982 / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1982 Ballon d’Or, 1982 World Cup, FIFA World Cup Golden Ball 2018, 1977/78 Capocannoniere, two Scudetti, one Coppa Italia title, one European Cup.
Paolo Rossi’s one year peak was so astounding that he has more than earned his place among the 50 greatest footballers of all time.
Rossi emerged from the depths of a lengthy ban for his ‘alleged’ involvement in Totonero, to become the iconic figure of Gli Azzurri’s 1982 World Cup triumph.
A hat-trick against a seemingly unbeatable Brazil team, two against an oddly good Poland team, and a goal in the final against an always exceptional West Germany team; it’s fair to say that Rossi had a good tournament…a really, really, really good tournament.
Paul Breitner at the 1982 World Cup / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1981 Ballon d’Or runner-up, 1974 World Cup, 1972 UEFA European Championships, FIFA World Cup All-Time Team, five Bundesliga titles, two DFB-Pokal titles, one European Cup.
One of the top 50 footballers of all time with one of the top five afros of all time.
Paul Breitner could do it all.
Name something, and he could probably do it.
‘Score in a World Cup final?’
Yeah. Easy work.
‘Man mark the best wingers in the world?’
Yeah, of course.
‘Make a souffle?’
George Weah in his pomp bodying Giuseppe Iachini / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1995 Ballon d’Or, three-time African Footballer of the Year, two Scudetti, one Ligue 1 title, two Coupe de France, one FA Cup.
Ok, so in most other ‘Greatest Footballers of All Time’ lists, George Weah probably wouldn’t make the cut, because there was a period of time in which he was at Chelsea and Manchester City and was, well, pretty terrible.
However, with this being a list of the GOATs at their peaks, Weah makes the cut.
At his best, Weah was unstoppable. A rare combination of physical prowess and unbelievable technical ability, the now Liberian president (yes, LIBERIAN PRESIDENT) was the most complete forward of the 1990s.
If you don’t believe me, just watch his goal against Hellas Verona. It’s a face melter.
Kaka was ridiculously good during his first stint in Milan / CARLO BARONCINI/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 2007 Ballon d’Or, 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year, two-time Serie A Footballer of the Year, two-time Time 100 list member, 2002 FIFA World Cup, one Scudetti, one UEFA Champions League, one La Liga, one Copa del Rey.
Ok, so in most other ‘Greatest Footballers of All Time’ lists, Kaka probably wouldn’t make the cut, because there was a period of time in which he was at Real Madrid and was, well, pretty terrible.
However, with this being a list of the GOATs at their peaks, Kaka makes the cut.
At his best, Kaka was unstoppable. A rare combination of physical prowess and unbelievable technical ability, the former Brazil international was the most complete attacking midfielders of the 2000s.
If you don’t believe me, just watch his goal against Manchester United. It’s a face melter.
Yashin at the 1966 World Cup / Keystone/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1963 Ballon d’Or, Olympic gold medal, 1960 UEFA European Football Championship, FIFA World Cup All-Time Team, five Soviet Top League titles, Order of Lenin.
Lev Yashin is one of the most important footballers of all time, as he basically invented goalkeeping.
A leader, an innovator, and a ‘spider’ (which is a compliment – swear), the greatest testament to Yashin’s talent is the fact that he is the only goalkeeper to ever win the Ballon d’Or. Ever.
#BOTD a legend of #ACMilan #GunnarNordahl in the pic he scores winning goal of #DerbydellaMadonnina 1951 ACMilan #InterMilan #DerbyMilano @facciacalcio @contrasti_sport @Pippoevai @PaoloCond @PIERPARDO @thecentretunnel @SuperbFootyPics @FootballArchive @CucchiRiccardo @FBiasin pic.twitter.com/qOSkjFbtpy
— Fútbolismo ⚽️???⚽️ (@ftblsm) October 19, 2018
Major Achievements: Olympic gold medal, five-time Capocannoniere, two Scudetti.
There’s one thing that defines Gunnar Nordahl’s career: goals.
Gunnar Nordahl scored goals. A lot of them.
The Swedish forward scored so many goals between 1950 and 1955 that he won the Capocannoniere in four of these seasons, and became AC Milan’s all-time record goalscorer.
He also held the record for most goals scored in a single Serie A season for 66 years…until a certain Gonzalo Higuain came along.
Sandor Kocsis scoring his billionth goal / STAFF/Getty Images
Major Achievements: Olympic gold medal, 1954 FIFA World Cup Golden Boot, 1954 FIFA World Cup runner-up, 75 goals in 68 caps for Hungary, two La Liga titles, four Hungarian titles.
– Sandor Kocsis scored 75 goals in 68 international appearances for Hungary.
– In 1954, Sandor Kocsis scored 23 goals in 14 international appearances for Hungary.
– At the 1954 FIFA World Cup, Sandor Kocsis scored 11 goals in five games.
All of the aforementioned facts exemplify one simple thing: Sandor Kocsis scored goals. A shocking amount of goals.
Kevin Keegan was a superstar in the late 70s / Evening Standard/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1978 & 1979 Ballon d’Or, 1981/82 PFA Players’ Player of the Year, three Football League First Division titles, one FA Cup, one European Cup, two UEFA Cup titles, one Bundesliga.
“I tell ya, honestly, I’d love it if we beat them! Love it!”
When you read Kevin Keegan’s name that interview is what came to mind isn’t it?
Don’t lie, of course it is.
But if you can, just for a moment, put aside the aforementioned rage induced rant and the subsequent bottling of the Premier League title race, you’ll see just how incredible a footballer Keegan really was.
In fact, Kevin Keegan was one of the greatest English footballers of all time.
He won the Ballon d’Or twice. TWICE.
Keegan also became English football’s undisputed greatest ever export during his time a Hamburger SV; where he was lauded as a ‘saviour’ for winning the Bundesliga title in 1979.
Hristo Stoichkov at the 1994 World Cup / Rick Stewart/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1994 Ballon d’Or, 1990 European Golden Shoe, five-time Bulgarian Footballer of the Year, one UEFA Champions League, five La Liga titles, one Copa del Rey.
Imagine being so good at football that you could single handedly drag Bulgaria to a World Cup semi final.
Imagine being THAT good at football.
Well, that’s how good Hristo Stoichkov was in 1994.
Scoring six goals in the the 1994 FIFA World Cup – including one in each of the knockout rounds – Stoichkov came within touching distance of taking an eternally unfancied Bulgarian outfit to the final; earning himself the Ballon d’Or in the process.
On top of this incredible international achievement, Stoichkov – particularly between 1990 and 1994 – enjoyed a pretty impressive club career too.
Teaming up with Romario at Barcelona in his prime, Stoichkov became one of the most feared forwards in Europe, and helped the ‘Dream Team’ to a UEFA Champions League triumph in 1991/92.
2006 – when football was fun / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 2006 Ballon d’Or runner-up, 2006 FIFA World Cup, 12-time Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year, 2002/03 UEFA Club Footballer of the Year, two-time Pallone Azzurro, 2016/17 Serie A Footballer of the Year, 11 Scudetti, five Coppa Italia titles, one UEFA Cup.
The greatest goalkeeper of all time? According to 90min, he is.
Put simply, no goalkeeper has ever been better for longer than Gianluigi Buffon. And no one ever will.
At his best, he would only concede two goals (one a freak Cristian Zaccardo own goal, the other a Zinedine Zidane penalty) on route to a World Cup triumph, at his worst he was one of the top three goalkeepers in Europe.
There will never be another Gianluigi Buffon.
What. A. Kit. / VI-Images/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1974 & 1978 FIFA World Cup runner-up, 1974 FIFA World Cup Silver Boot, three European Cups, two Eredivisie, two KNVB Cups, one Intercontinental Cup, one Copa del Rey.
The ‘two guard’ for the great Netherlands, Ajax and Barcelona teams of the 1970s, Johan Neeskens may have always been in the shadow of Johan Cruyff, but his talent cannot be underestimated.
Neeskens was the brutally hard working ying to Cruyff’s beautifully artistic yang, and it’s more than fair to say that without one Johan, there couldn’t have been the other.
Xavi roasting someone / Jasper Juinen/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 2010 FIFA World Cup, 2008 & 2012 UEFA European Championship, 2008 UEFA European Championship Player of the Tournament, 2005 La Liga Spanish Player of the Year, four UEFA Champions Leagues, eight La Liga titles, three Copa del Rey.
The fulcrum of two of the greatest football teams of all time.
A winner of literally every single trophy that has ever existed.
A player that ‘changed football’.
Yeah, Xavi Hernandez was pretty good.
Luis Suarez in training / Central Press/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1960 Ballon d’Or, two European Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, three Scudetti, two La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey.
No, not that Luis Suarez. Don’t be silly.
This isn’t the Uruguayan Luis Suarez who may end up being remembered more for biting people than being a great goalscorer.
This is the Spanish Luis Suarez who, during the first half of the 1960s, dominated European football with a revolutionary Inter side.
In this fruitful period the real Suarez won the Ballon d’Or, three Scudetti and a whopping two consecutive European Cups.
Oh, and he didn’t bite a single person (that we know of). Good guy.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge looking typically angry / Bongarts/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1980 & 1981 Ballon d’Or, 1980 German Footballer of the Year, three-time Torjägerkanone, 1980 UEFA European Championship, two European Cups, two Bundesliga titles, two DFB-Pokal.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge may better known as one of the scarier members of the Bayern Munich board to younger readers of this article; to the older readers however, the German is remembered for being one of the most fearsome forwards of the 1980s.
Always the bridesmaid and never the bride at the World Cup – he was a beaten finalist on two occasions – but a winner in literally every other competition he ever played in.
A scarily good forward, a scarily good leader and…actually, just a downright scary man.
Iniesta scoring the winner in a World Cup final / ROBERTO SCHMIDT/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 2010 FIFA World Cup, 2008 & 2012 UEFA European Championships, four UEFA Champions Leagues, nine La Liga titles, six Copa del Rey, 2012 UEFA Men’s Player of the Year Award.
Is Andres Iniesta the most likeable footballer on this list?
Yes, yes he is.
Is he also the most successful footballer on this list?
Well, he’s certainly right up there.
Andres Iniesta won everything. Everything.
– The World Cup: check.
– UEFA European Championships: check.
– UEFA Champions League: check.
– Great Spanish Bake-Off: probably check.
He did with style too, as one of the most skilful footballers of his generation in fact.
Rivelino looking annoyed / Getty Images/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1970 FIFA World Cup, 1970 FIFA World Cup All-Star Team, two Campeonato Carioca titles.
We’ve all seen the words ‘Joga Bonito’, and we all enjoyed those Nike ads, but it’s fair to say that none of us really understood what ‘Joga Bonito’ actually means (unless you speak Portuguese).
But if you take the time to watch some YouTube highlights of Rivelino or find some full game tapes from the 1970 FIFA World Cup (they’re out there, believe me, illegally so, but they’re out there), you’ll understand just what ‘Joga Bonito’ really is.
It’s the beautiful game; something that no one has ever personified quite like Rivelino did.
Moore kissing the World Cup / Keystone/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1966 FIFA World Cup, 1970 Ballon d’Or runner-up, 1964 FA Cup, PFA Player of the Century, FIFA World Cup All-Time Team.
I don’t know if you know this but England won the World Cup in 1966.
Oh, you know that already? Because English people shoehorn the fact that their country won the World Cup into every single conversation ever? Yeah, it is annoying.
To be fair though, winning the World Cup is an incredible achievement, and it’s one that would not have been possible without one of the greatest defenders and leaders of all time: Bobby Moore.
A class act both on and off the pitch, Moore has been rightfully immortalised in statue form outside of Wembley Stadium.
Socrates in a top notch Brazil kit / Bongarts/GettyImages
Major Achievements: Three Campeonato Paulista, 1983 South American Footballer of the Year, 1980 Bola de Prata, 1976 Campeonato Paulista top scorer.
The Che Guevara of football.
A man as important off the field the as he was on it – he democratised Corinthians, creating a voting system for the club’s decision making process – the ‘Doctor’ is one of the most significant figures in Brazilian football history.
He was also bloody brilliant with a ball at his feet…despite being a chain smoker. A rare mix of elegance and power, Socrates was the perfect all-round midfielder.
I mean, look at this goal. Stunning.
FILE. West German midfielder Lothar Matthaeus (L) / STAFF/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1990 Ballon d’Or, 1991 FIFA World Player of the Year, 1990 FIFA World Cup, 1980 UEFA European Football Championship, two UEFA Cups, seven Bundesliga titles, one Scudetto, three DFB-Pokal titles.
Lothar Matthaus has the biggest ego on this list: that really is saying something.
But the size of his ego is almost justifiable. Put simply, Matthaus was the most complete player of his generation – a generation that just so happened to spawn the likes of Michel Platini, Diego Maradona, Zico etc.
A natural born winner, and a natural born world shaker (his goal against Yugoslavia at the 1990 FIFA World Cup definitely registered on the richter scale), Matthaus could, and did, do it all.
Ronaldinho telling the opposition how many rabonas he’s going to do / CESAR RANGEL/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 2005 Ballon d’Or, 2004 & 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year, 2005/06 UEFA Club Footballer of the Year, 2004 & 2005 FIFPro World Player of the Year, one UEFA Champions League, two La Liga titles, one Scudetto.
“The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long” is a quote that perfectly encapsulates Ronaldinho’s career.
Between 2004 and 2006, the world bore witness to something truly special: a footballer who played the beautiful game with genuine joy.
The flicks, the tricks, the gold boots, the smile, the faked Nike ad, Ronaldinho was a walking advertisement for everything good about football.
Ruud Gullitt being really cool / Simon Bruty/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1987 Ballon d’Or, two-time Dutch Footballer of the Year, 1988 UEFA European Championship, two European Cups, three Scudetti, three Eredivisie titles, one Coppa Italia, one KNVB Cup.
At this very moment in time, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the most dominant force in sport. Before the ‘Greek Freak’, that title was held by Shaquille O’Neill. And before ‘Big Shaq’, it was held by AC Milan legend Ruud Gullit.
In the late 80s, Gullit was the unstoppable force that led an unstoppable AC Milan juggernaut that dominated European football.
Deservedly winning football’s equivalent of the MVP award (1987 Ballon d’Or), the Dutch international was football’s equivalent to a triple-double machine.
He. Could. Not. Be. Stopped.
Charlton on a muddy old pitch / A. Jones/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1966 Ballon d’Or, 1966 FIFA World Cup, 1966 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, 1967/68 European Cup, three Football League First Division titles, 1962/63 FA Cup.
Remember how good Frank Lampard was?
Bobby Charlton was like Frank Lampard, only 100x better.
The best player in the best England team of all time, Charlton was good – really, really, really good.
?? | 53 #Italy appearances⚽️ | 33 goals ? | 1934 and 1938 #WorldCup winner
⭐️ ⭐️ Giuseppe #Meazza was born on 23/08/1910!⭐️ ⭐️ pic.twitter.com/DRmo3mlT7o
— Italy ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (@azzurri) August 23, 2017
Major Achievements: 1934 & 1938 FIFA World Cup, 1934 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, three Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, three Capocannoniere.
So good they named the most famous stadium in the world after him, Giuseppe Meazza is the first – the OG – legend of Italian football.
A mythical figure on the peninsula, those who know say Meazza is the greatest Italian footballer of all time; those who don’t say he’s the 23rd best player of all time.
Raymond Kopa darting down the wing / STRINGER/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1958 Ballon d’Or, 1961 French Player of the Year, 1958 FIFA World Cup All-Star Team, three European Cups, two La Liga titles, four Ligue 1 titles.
Raymond Kopa is one of three geniuses of French football…you’ll read more about the other two soon, bear with me.
A proverbial name in the top three of Ballon d’Or voting throughout his peak years, Kopa was the creative force that enabled Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano (you’ll read more about those two soon as well, bear with me) to score a boatload of goals for Real Madrid in the 1950s and 60s.
He also helped guide Real Madrid to three European Cup triumphs.
So yeah, by all accounts, a good footballer.
Romario at the 1994 World Cup / Mike Powell/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1994 FIFA World Player of the Year, 1994 FIFA World Cup, 1994 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, 1994 World Cup All-Star Team, 1989 & 1997 Copa America, one La Liga, three time Eredivisie, 1993/94 Pichichi winner.
According to Romario, Romario scored over 1,000 goals.
That’s a lot of goals.
And while that might not actually be true, there’s no doubting the fact Romario was an incredible talent.
The ‘King of the Lob’ was one of the most composed and clinical goalscorers of the 1990s, who was also – most importantly – a big game player.
A 1994 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball award here, a Clasico hat trick there, Romario was a man for the big occasion.
Eusebio banging in a goal at the 1966 World Cup / Hulton Archive/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1965 Ballon d’Or, 1966 European Golden Boot, 1968 & 1973 European Golden Boot, 1962 European Cup, 11 Primeira Liga titles, five Taca de Portugal titles.
Like Romario, Eusebio was a supreme goalscorer. Unlike Romario, Eusebio didn’t exclaim that he’d scored over 1,000 career goals; but he came pretty close to doing so.
For the perfect exemplification of the ‘Black Panther’s’ talent, see his four goals in Portugal’s come-from-behind win over North Korea in the 1966 FIFA World Cup.
And before you brush it off as ‘only North Korea’:
1) Bear in mind the implications of thinking that. Things could get scary for you and your family.
2) Remember that North Korea – back in 1966 – were actually really good. This game was in the World Cup quarter finals, and North Korea were coming off the back of a famous win over Italy. Oh, and North Korea were actually three goals to the good before Eusebio decided to beat them single handedly.
Van Basten scored a wonder goal in the Euro 88 final / VI-Images/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1988, 1989 & 1992 Ballon d’Or, 1992 FIFA World Player of the Year, 1989, 1990 & 1992 UEFA Best Player of the Year, 1984/85 Dutch Footballer of the Year, two Capocannoniere, 1988 UEFA European Championship, two European Cups, three Scudetti, three Eredivisie, three KNVB Cups.
It’s a testament to Marco van Basten that he won three Ballons d’Or, and is (due to injuries) still considered to be a ‘what could’ve been’ story. That’s how good Marco van Basten was.
Both technically sublime and extremely powerful in equal measure, Van Basten was the perfect number nine.
He could, and did, score every sort of goal you can imagine.
Oh. My. God. YES.
George Best wearing a big massive hat / Keystone/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1968 Ballon d’Or, 1967/68 FWA Footballer of the Year, 1967/68 Football League First Division top scorer, 1968 European Cup, two Football League First Division titles.
Without doubt, the coolest footballer on this list. Hands down. It’s a non-contest.
Affectionately known as the ‘fifth Beatle’, George Best is perhaps remembered more for his off-the-field antics as opposed to his on-the-pitch achievements. However, that’s not to say he wasn’t an extraordinary talent.
Because he 100% was. In fact, he’s the most naturally gifted footballer the British and Irish Isles have ever produced. EVER.
A Ballon d’Or and European Cup winner, Best peaked early in his career, but what a peak it was.
“Pelé called me the greatest footballer in the world. That is the ultimate salute to my life.”
Zico hitting a free kick while being watched by Maradona – no pressure mate / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
Major Achievements: Five-time Bola de Prata winner, three-time South American Footballer of the Year, top scorer in Flamengo’s history, 1981 Copa Libertadores Best Player, 1981 Copa Libertadores, 1981 Intercontinental Cup, three Campeonato Brasilerio Serie A titles.
Zico latches onto the ball near the halfway line, and loops a seemingly aimless pass into the left hand side of the penalty area. To normal humans, such a pass looked aimless, but Zico saw an opportunity. Moments later Flamengo were 1-0 up against the greatest Liverpool team of all time.
30 minutes later, Flamengo were three goals to the good courtesy of another two Zico assists.
An hour later, they were world champions.
That’s who Zico was. A genius who saw the game in a different way. A genius who could conjure something from absolutely nothing. A genius that made everyone around him better.
Flamengo’s greatest ever goalscorer.
Flamengo’s greatest ever playmaker.
Flamengo’s greatest ever player.
Baresi was the main man during Milan’s best years / Getty Images/GettyImages
Major Achievements: AC Milan Player of the Century, Serie A Player of the Century, 1982 FIFA World Cup, six Scudetti, three European Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, 1989 Ballon d’Or runner-up.
Unlike a lot of the players on this list, the ‘peak’ criteria means that we’ve had to drop Baresi down a few places. After all, what stands out about the Italian is his incredible consistency throughout his 20 year career.
Nevertheless, Baresi still makes it into 90min’s top 20 footballers of all time, because if you look at the years in which the defender was at the ‘peak’ of his powers he was impossible to get past.
It couldn’t be done.
And what such defensive dominance led to, was a metric f**kton of trophies.
Ferenc Puskas scoring at Wembley / Central Press/Getty Images
Major Achievements: European Player of the 20th Century, Olympic gold medal, 1954 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, 1960 Ballon d’Or runner-up, 1954 FIFA World Cup runner-up, four-time Pichichi winner, four-time Hungarian league top scorer, two-time European Cup top scorer, three European Cups, one Intercontinental Cup, five La Liga titles, one Copa del Rey, five Hungarian League titles.
If you’ve seen any footage of Ferenc Puskas, you probably seen a few blurry clips of a rather fat fella scoring an obscene amount of goals for Real Madrid and thought:
“Jeez, is that how long ago Gonzalo Higuain played for Real Madrid?”
I can assure that, despite Puskas finding the net scarily frequently at Los Blancos, his peak came much before that. He wasn’t always that stocky.
In the early 1950s, he was at the peak of his physical powers, and leading the one of the most exceptional football teams of all time.
The Magical Magyars’ star man was, in many ways, the perfect footballer. Strong, skilful, a goalscorer and, maybe most importantly a leader.
Want to actually see how good Puskas was?
Check out his goal against England in the ‘Match of the Century’. After latching onto the ball on the edge of the six-yard box, the forward dragged the ball back, leaving Billy Wright for dead, before firing into the roof of the net. That goal is how good Puskas was: absolutely exceptional.
Paolo Maldini chilling out, catching some rays / TORU YAMANAKA/GettyImages
Major Achievements: Most Serie A appearances of all time, most AC Milan appearances of all time, five European Cups, seven Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, two Intercontinental Cup, 1994 FIFA World Cup runner-up, 2000 UEFA European Football Championship runner-up.
If you were to make the perfect footballer in some sort of lab (like Manchester City seemingly do) – go full Gene Wilder in ‘Young Frankenstein’ and scream “IT’S ALIIIVEEEE” when the footballer showed signs of life – you’d probably create Paolo Maldini.
And, let’s be honest, you’d probably call him Paolo Maldini too, because, well, WHAT A NAME.
Maldini is most complete footballer of the past 30 years. At the very least, a 9/10 in every single position he could be played in, and a 10/10 week in, week out as a defender.
When Nike ran the ad campaign:
“Italy’s Goalkeeper: Easiest Job in the World.”
They were right. Maldini made it the easiest job in the world. He made every single one of his teammates’ jobs the easiest in the world.
Muller scoring in the World Cup final / STAFF/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1970 Ballon d’Or, 1974 FIFA World Cup, 1972 UEFA European Championship, 1970 FIFA World Cup Golden Boot, two-time German Footballer of the Year, two-time European Golden Shoe winner, seven-time Torjägerkanone, thee European Cups, one Intercontinental Cup, four Bundesliga titles, four DFB-Pokals.
Gerd Muller = the best goalscorer of all time.
Don’t @ me with any alternatives.
The sky is blue. Grass is green. And Gerd Muller is the best goalscorer of all time.
These are all facts of life.
68 goals in 62 international appearances for West Germany.
The man once scored 67 goals in a single season, in just 49 appearances.
He also scored a goal that won West Germany the 1974 FIFA World Cup.
A goalscorer for the big moments, the small moments, and every moment in between.
The incomparable ‘Little Bird’ ?
??Garrincha was one of the greatest dribblers to ever have the ball at his feet, dazzling as he snapped up two #WorldCup winner’s medals ??
He passed away #onthisday in 1983. pic.twitter.com/PscUFCnwnM
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) January 20, 2019
Major Achievements: 1958 & 1962 FIFA World Cup, 1962 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, 1962 FIFA World Cup Golden Boot, three State Championships.
“Garrincha is the most amateur footballer professional football ever produced. He never trained. He had no agent, didn’t bother reading his contracts, and usually signed them before the figures had been filled in.”
And yet, despite being an ‘amateur’, despite never training (preferring to go to the beach and play football with his mates instead), and despite having ‘bent legs’, Mane Garrincha is one of the greatest players of all time.
Garrincha is the original Samba soccer star; someone who brought the game played in the streets of Brasilia, Rio De Janeiro, Sao Paulo to the international stage, and utilised it to win two FIFA World Cups.
? | FACTS | Di Stefano agreed to join both Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Alfredo Di Stefano appeared in a friendly match in Spain in 1953 and was so impressive Barcelona reached a deal with his Argentine club to sign him. pic.twitter.com/kIBmfUim2E
— BarçaTimes (@BarcaTimes) September 1, 2018
Major Achievements: 1957 & 1959 Ballon d’Or, five European Cups, one Intercontinental Cup, eight La Liga titles, five-time Pichichi winner, World Team of the 20th Century, one Copa del Rey.
“People argue between Pele or Maradona. Di Stéfano is the best, much more complete.” (Pele)
“Di Stéfano was one of the greatest footballers ever. He had such great balance.” (Alex Ferguson)
“The most complete footballer in the history of the game.” (Eusebio)
“He was simply the most intelligent football player I ever saw. If I had one player to choose, out of all of them, to save my life, he’d be the one.” (Bobby Charlton)
After reading the aforementioned praise of Alfredo di Stefano, do you really need me to say anything about him? So, moving on…
Baggio with the Ballon d’Or / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1993 Ballon d’Or, 1993 FIFA World Player of the Year, Italy’s Player of the Century, 1994 FIFA World Cup Silver Ball, 1994 FIFA World Cup runner-up, two Scudetti, one UEFA Cup, one Coppa Italia.
Football’s most consistent vessel for the elusive daemon of genius.
Wait, you don’t know what that means…? So you haven’t read the article I wrote about Roberto Baggio…? Go read my article about Roberto Baggio!
Spoke of almost exclusively using biblical allusions, the Divine Ponytail who had the angels singing in his legs (according to Aldo Agroppi), for calcio fans, Roberto Baggio was a glimpse of God.
A player divinely inspired to conjure the impossible on a football pitch, and change Italian football fans’ perception of the beautiful game forever.
Platini was the best goalscoring midfielder ever / PASCAL GEORGE/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1983, 1984, 1985 Ballon d’Or, French Player of the Century, two-time French Player of the Year, three-time Capocannoniere, 1984 UEFA European Championship Player of the Tournament, 1984 UEFA European Championship, one European Cup, two Scudetti, one Ligue 1 title, one Coppa Italia, one Intercontinental Cup.
Michel Platini is now better known by the footballing world as a disgraced former UEFA president, but, for the purpose of this list, we’re going to pretend that never happened.
So take a minute to put thoughts of “Platini is a disgrace!” and “Platini is a criminal!” to one side.
Remember when I said earlier that Bobby Charlton was like Frank Lampard, only 100x better? Well, Platini was like Frank Lampard, only 200x better.
Michel Platini is undoubtedly the greatest goalscoring midfielder of all time.
In three consecutive seasons in his prime, Platini won the Golden Boot award in a league which boasted the best defenders of all time; scratch that, the best footballers of all time.
Platini was similarly potent for France, guiding the nation to their first ever major football success by scoring nine (yes, NINE) goals in five games at the 1984 UEFA European Championships. Decent.
Zidane scored two goals in the 1998 World Cup final / PIERRE VERDY/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1998 Ballon d’Or, 1998, 2000 & 2003 FIFA World Player of the Year, 2002 UEFA Club Footballer of the Year, 2000/01 Serie A Footballer of the Year, UEFA Champions League Best Player of the Past 20 Years, L’Equipe Best French Player of All Time, 2006 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, only player to be named Player of the Year in three of the top five leagues, most goals in FIFA World Cup finals, 1998 FIFA World Cup, 2000 UEFA European Championships, one Champions League, two Scudetti, one La Liga title, one Intercontinental Cup.
Zinedine Zidane was one beautiful b**tard with a ball at his feet.
Headbutts aside (and even then, the headbutt was technically superb), Zizou was the most elegant football of all time, pirouetting his way around Europe; usually winning while doing so.
Zidane won A LOT.
When he won, it was usually after he’d scored one of the most memorable goals of all time.
Three World Cup final goals and the best goal in UEFA Champions League history in the 2002 final, it’s fair to say that Zidane wasn’t just one of the most entertaining footballers of all time, but also one of the most ‘clutch’.
Plus the headbutt was amazing. Super Saiyan level power from the France legend.
Ronaldo is still scoring a weird amount of goals / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
Major Achievements: Highest scoring footballer of all time, leading scorer in men’s international football history, 2008, 2013, 2014, 2016 & 2017 Ballon d’Or, 2008, 2016 & 2017 FIFA World Player of the Year, 2014, 2016 & 2017 UEFA Best Player in Europe Award, four-time European Golden Shoe winner, two-time PFA Players’ Player of the Year, UEFA Champions League all time top goalscorer, Real Madrid’s all time top goalscorer, five UEFA Champions Leagues, two La Liga titles, three Premier League titles, two Scudetti, two Copa del Rey, one FA Cup, one UEFA European Championship.
Right, let’s get this out of the way: Lionel Messi is, was, will always be, a better footballer than Cristiano Ronaldo. That’s just a fact.
However, in saying that you can’t deny how astonishingly brilliant Ronaldo has been throughout the course of his career.
I mean, look at his ‘major achievements’. Just look at them.
He’s won absolutely everything (except for the World Cup) at least 20 times, and he’s scored more goals than anyone else ever. EVER!!!!!!
Ronaldo was unstoppable at his peak / Claudio Villa/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1997 & 2002 Ballon d’Or, 1996, 1997 & 2002 FIFA World Player of the Year, 1998 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, 2002 FIFA World Cup Golden Shoe, 1996/97 European Golden Shoe, 1994 & 2002 FIFA World Cup, 1997 & 1999 Copa America, two-time Pichichi winner, 1998 Serie A Footballer of the Year, two La Liga titles, one Copa del Rey, one KNVB Cup, one UEFA Cup, one Intercontinental Cup.
Are Ronaldo’s knee injuries the only things that stopped the Brazilian from being the number one, undisputed, greatest footballer of all time? Quite possibly.
Pre-knee injury – the first one, 23rd November 1999 – R9 was well on his way to becoming the best to ever lace up a pair of boots.
In short, he was the perfect forward.
As quick as peak PED Justin Gatlin, as powerful as peak PED Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson and as skilful as Garrincha, Pele, Zico etc.
Ronaldo was perfect.
The perfect exemplification of R9’s mastery is his goal against Compostela. Sir Bobby Robson’s reaction says it all. Mind blowing.
Johan Cruyff changed the game / R. Powell/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 1971, 1973 & 1975 Ballon d’Or, 1974 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, FIFA World Cup All-Time Team, three-time Dutch Footballer of the Year, two-time Dutch Sportsman of the Year, three European Cups, one La Liga title, nine Eredivisie titles, one Copa del Rey, six KNVB Cup, one Intercontinental Cup.
It takes a special type of footballer to invent his own skill move – Aiden McGeady aside, obviously.
Johan Cruyff did both.
A now mythical figure, Cruyff is arguably the most influential footballer of all time; and one of the most talented too.
The centrepiece of the ‘Total Football’ era (shoutout to Parquet Courts), Cruyff made beautiful teams successful; a feat so incredible that we still see its effects to this day.
Franz Beckenbauer was a leader / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 1972 & 1976 Ballon d’Or, FIFA World Cup All-Time Team, 1966 FIFA World Cup Best Young Player Award, four-time German Footballer of the Year, 1974 FIFA World Cup, 1972 UEFA European Championships, three European Cups, five Bundesliga titles, four DFB-Pokals, one Intercontinental Cup.
While Paolo Maldini was the most complete footballer of the past 30 years, Franz Beckenbauer was the most complete footballer EVER.
Put simply, anything you could possibly want a footballer to be able to do, Beckenbauer could – and did – do it.
A goalscorer: yes.
An incredible defender: yes.
A great athlete: yes.
A consummate professional: yes.
A leader: yes. In a big, big, way.
A winner: yes.
Known as Der Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer was the man behind the majority of Germany’s footballing triumphs over the years…which you probably already know, was a lot of triumphs.
Oh, he’s also one of two defenders to EVER win the Ballon d’Or. Oh and yes, of course he won it TWICE.
Messi has enjoyed an astonishingly good career / Soccrates Images/Getty Images
Major Achievements: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015 & 2019 Ballon d’Or, 2009 FIFA World Player of the Year, Barcelona all time top goalscorer, La Liga all time top goalscorer, six-time Pichichi winner, Argentina’s all time top goalscorer, most goals scored in a calendar year, 2011 & 2015 UEFA Men’s Player of the Year, seven-time La Liga Player of the Year, 2014 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, 2005 Young European Footballer of the Year, five-time European Golden Shoe winner, four Champions Leagues, nine La Liga titles, six Copa del Rey, one Copa America.
You’ve read it a million times on Twitter.
Someone is probably tweeting it this very second:
“Lionel Messi is the GOAT!!! THE GOAT!!! If you disagree you know nothing about football!!! Nothing!!!”
While these Tweets are incredibly grating, the do kind of have a point. Because let’s face it, Messi is one of the greatest footballers of all time.
He’s extraordinary. Truly extraordinary.
At his peak he scored 91 goals in a calendar year, won six Ballons d’Or, and a boatload of club honours; in his relative (relative) decline, he’s still the best footballer in the world.
The reason why he’s only third on this list of the Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time, is because of the FIFA World Cup. It’s a competition he’s never won, and it’s a competition in which he’s never scored a goal in any knockout round games.
Pele loving the craic / -/GettyImages
Major Achievements: FIFA Player of the Century, France Football’s greatest FIFA World Cup player, TIME 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century list, Brazil’s all-time leading goalscorer, Santos’ all-time leading goalscorer, youngest FIFA World Cup winner, most assists in FIFA World Cup history, 1958, 1962 & 1970 FIFA World Cup, top goalscorer in FIFA World Cup finals, two Copa Libertadores titles, six Campeonato Brasilerio Serie A titles, two Intercontinental Cups, 1970 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, 1958 FIFA World Cup Best Young Player, 1970 Bola de Prata.
It’s the one word that encapsulates Pele.
Pele is important.
One of the 100 most important people of the 20th century according to TIME.
The most important footballer of all time.
Bursting onto the scene as a 17-year-old looking to avenge the tears of his father when Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup final, Pele would go on to win the World Cup on three separate occasions and make Brazil the football nation.
The Brazilian’s peak is fable at this point, possibly because the world didn’t really get to see it due to his injury at the 1962 World Cup, but more aptly because between 1958 and 1962, he scored an astonishing number of goals.
His great achievement was leading the most incredible football team of all time to 1970 FIFA World Cup glory, but it’s his peak years of the early 1960s which make Pele one of the very best.
Maradona won the 1986 World Cup basically on his own / Bongarts/GettyImages
Major Achievements: 90min’s Greatest Footballer of All Time, Corriere dello Sport’s Best Athlete in History, 1986 FIFA World Cup, 1986 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, 1985 Serie A Footballer of the Year, FIFA World Cup All-Time Team, FIFA Goal of the Century, Argentine Sports Writers’ Sportsman of the Century, two-time South American Footballer of the Year, four-time Argentine Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year, two Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, one Copa del Rey, one UEFA Cup.
So what makes Diego Armando Maradona 90min’s greatest footballer of all time?
Is it the fact that he won the FIFA World Cup in a way that no one else has ever been capable of doing – single handedly?
Is it the fact that he scored the two most significant goals in footballing history?
Is it the fact that one of these goals was the greatest goal of all time? The impossible made possible by a true genius?
Is it the fact that he joined SSC Napoli – a downtrodden, unwanted, unfancied team – and made them the best team in the strongest league Europe has ever seen?
Is it the fact that in his native land he is considered to be a God? A working class hero that empowered a nation through his messianic talent?
It’s all of the above.
Diego Maradona, at his very best, is the greatest footballer we have, and will ever see. Effective and exceptional in equal measure.
The best of the best.
For more (if you can stomach it), follow Jack Gallagher on Twitter.