It’s a question that sparks a debate like no other in the sport.
In this current generation, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo dominate the dialogue, with players like Neymar Jr. trailing close behind and Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland flipping the page for the next era.
But if we go back to further generations, the number of iconic players the sport has produced is a prestigious goldmine of talent and artistry that has paved the way for the modern game.
As the 2022 FIFA World Cup gets ready to kick off in Qatar, let’s take a look back at 10 of the best soccer players of all time – in no particular order – with two hoping to win the quadrennial tournament for the first time ever:
We don’t see many players like this anymore, but Ronaldinho was truly one of a kind. His ball progression as a dribbler or passer was unrivaled, his feet and the ball humming on the pitch in sync to deliver some of the best touches any player can make. The versatile Brazilian attacker finished his career with a 2002 World Cup title, a 2005 Ballon d’Or, a 2005-06 Champions League title, three domestic league titles and two FIFA Best Player of the Year awards, among other accolades. You probably won’t see Ronaldinho cracking the top 10 often in similar rankings, but in terms of winning with style, very few did it like him.
There had to be at least one goalkeeper worthy of a mention in this list, so it makes perfect sense that Lev Yashin made the cut. Often regarded as the best goalkeeper of all time, the “Black Spider” could literally do anything needed of him between the sticks. He was an elite shot stopper thanks to his positioning, handling and athleticism. Scoring past him was equal to winning a $1 billion lottery – your odds were extremely low. Yashin won nine European Goalkeeper of the Year awards from 1956 to 1966. Utter dominance.
What makes a good No. 9? Do they have elite ball striking and passing in the final third? Are they fast and can control the ball in tight spaces? Can they score headers when the opportunity arrives? We can keep going, but Ronaldo truly could do it all and deserves the shouts of being the best pure No. 9 of all time. He was simply a goal-scoring machine, netting 280 times in 384 games in domestic league competitions. The Brazilian won two World Cups (1994, 2002), two Ballon d’Ors (1997, 2002), three FIFA World Player of the Years (1996, 1997, 2002) and so much more.
Speaking of goal-scoring machines, next up is one of Portugal’s greatest. Eusébio most notably dominated at the club level for S.L. Benfica in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, the top-flight league in the country. He scored 317 goals in 301 games in the league for Benfica and is widely considered the club’s best ever player. He helped the club win 12 league titles in 15 years from 1960 to 1975 and, in total for his career, scored 733 times in 745 professional matches. He won the Ballon d’Or in 1965 and helped Portugal finish third in the 1966 World Cup, the country’s best ever placement in the tournament.
Switching gears from attacking to defense, there wasn’t a player who commanded a backline better than Paolo Maldini. He could shift between a center-back and left-back with no drop off in quality, and opposing attackers had to move mountains to overtake him on the way to getting a shot off. The Italian defender became an AC Milan club legend as he helped the club win seven Serie A titles and five European Cups/UEFA Champions Leagues from 1985 to 2009. Yes, you read that right. He made 647 appearances in the league spanning 24 years.
Both as a player and as a coach, Johan Cruyff’s playstyle and philosophy are still a major part of modern football. The Dutch maestro had the ball on a string anytime it came his way. His final touches and the stealth of his moves of not revealing what he’d do next are just some reasons he became an icon. As a player, Cruyff won nine Eredivisie titles, one La Liga with Barcelona and three Ballon d’Ors (1971, 1973, 1974). As a manager with Barcelona, he won four La Liga titles and a European Cup in 1991-92. Cruyff was one of the popularizers of “Total Football”, a system in which any player can move around and step into any other position and play it flawlessly, bar the goalkeeper.
Considered the best left winger of all time, it’s not surprising that Cristiano Ronaldo has also popularized the “CR7” phrase as the No. 7 position and jersey number is now often associated with him. The Portuguese star has been a prolific scorer and playmaker throughout his lengthy career for both club and country. He’s won multiple league titles with Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus along with the 2016 UEFA European Championship. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner (2008, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017) will be looking to win the 2022 World Cup to add to his stacked resume.
Moving to the other wing, Lionel Messi is considered the best right winger of all time. The Argentine forward became a legend with Barcelona, scoring 474 times in 520 league appearances to go with 10 La Liga titles, four Champions League wins and six Ballon d’Or wins (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2019). Since joining Paris Saint-Germain in 2021, he has won the Ligue 1 title in his debut season and the Ballon d’Or award in the same season. That year, he also won the Copa América with Argentina and will look to add a World Cup to round out his long list of accomplishments – with a potential move to Major League Soccer looming.
Speaking of Argentine legends, Diego Maradona is up next. Often operating as No. 10 who had no trouble finding the back of the net as if he were a full-time striker, Maradona made waves with clubs in Argentina before making big moves in Europe, most notably with Italian side Napoli. With Napoli, he won two Serie A titles (1986-87, 1989-90) to transform the club up the European ladder and into a well-known giant. He also won two Ballon d’Ors (1986, 1990) along with a World Cup win in 1986. Of course, you can’t mention that triumph without bringing up the infamous “Hand of God” goal scored by none other than Maradona himself.
Rounding out this list is Pelé, who even FIFA has deemed the greatest of them all. The Brazilian forward, who operated as a second striker, is recognized by Guinness World Records with the most goals scored of all time with 1,279 in 1,363 games for both club and country, including friendlies. With Brazil, Pelé won three World Cups (1957, 1962, 1970) which marks the most all time by one player. He also would’ve had seven Ballon d’Ors to his name, France Football acknowledged, but the esteemed award was only given to European players until 1994. He and Messi then would have been tied with the most all time.