Introduction

Who is the greatest soccer player of all time?  It’s an age old question, but one that fascinates the fans of the world’s game. If you ask fans of the 1970’s it could be Pelé, if you pose the same question to fans of the 80’s they might tell you Diego Maradona. Fast forward to today, if you ask the same question, the general opinion might split between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. 

In this article we will try to answer who are the top 10 best soccer players of all time! This list was made taking into account each player’s individual prowess and the accomplishments they reached with every team they played for and throughout their careers.

10. Neymar Junior, Brazil

The 30-year-old Brazilian forward has slowly begun to make a strong case for himself as his career has progressed. Neymar began his ascent to the top of world soccer at Santos, ironically Pelé’s longtime club, and the comparisons began straight away. Neymar burst onto the scene with excellent dribbling technique and lethal shooting abilities. 

At Santos, Ney as he is known, won six titles including the Copa Libertadores (2011) and Recopa Sudamericana (2012). His numbers at Santos were an impressive 136 goals in 225 games. 

A €57.1 million transfer to Barcelona of the Spanish league (LaLiga) would follow and the Brazilian quickly got his feet wet with, at the time, the world’s biggest club, partnering with Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez to form the MSN connection. At Barcelona the championships came in bunches as Neymar was instrumental for 8 of them. And while at times playing third and fourth fiddle, the Brazilian proved that he could be very effective when not having the pressures of being “the star”. 

After 186 games and 105 goals, Neymar moved to PSG in France. There, while at times questioned by the Paris club supporters, he still managed to continue his winning streak of 11 championships in 5 seasons. Although the Champions League has eluded the Brazilian at PSG during his spell there. 

For his national team, Neymar is one of the greatest players ever to put on the Canarinho, having 71 goals in 117 caps and winning the 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic gold medal for Brazil. Neymar is also Brazil’s second all-time leading scorer ahead of greats such as Ronaldo and Romario.

9. Zinedine Zidane, France

The elegant attacking midfielder from France, Zinedine Zidane defined the romance of the number 10 playmaker during the 1990’s and 2000’s. Zidane was the last of a dying breed, a classic elegant creative number 10. From his early beginnings at Cannes and Bordeaux one could see his unquestionable talent on the ball, but it was not until his move to Juventus in 1996 that the world really saw his talents. 

Zidane had incredible ball control, vision, passing, free-kick, and shooting abilities. One of his most iconic goals was a half volley strike against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League final in 2002, playing for Real Madrid where he eventually moved in 2001 and became a champion of Europe. 

At Real Madrid, Zidane took it to another level being the centerpiece of the Galáctico era and winning six championships for the club. At the height of his career, the Frenchman shocked the world by announcing his retirement after the 2006 World Cup, and left Real Madrid after 5 seasons, 230 games and 49 goals. 

With France, Zizou was the man for the nation’s first ever FIFA World Cup triumph in 1998, scoring 2 goals in the final against Brazil and completely dominating the tournament with his play. Although in 2006 the French team would also make the final, they’d lose to Italy on penalty kicks -and Zidane was sent off famously for headbutting Marco Materazzi. 

When it was all said and done the great French number 10 won a total of 15 titles in his career and was one of the most respected players of his generation. Zidane won the 1998 Ballon d’Or and was named to the UEFA Team of the Year three times in a row (2001, 2002 and 2003).

8. Michel Platini, France

Michel Platini was also a mix of elegance and perfect finishing on a soccer pitch. Although recognized as a talented player, Platini was a part of a French side that, while winners of the 1984 Euros, had not earned the respect that the Zidane generation was able to garnered. 

Like Zidane, Platini played for a few clubs. His rise to global fame came during his time at Juventus, where in 5 seasons the midfielder won 7 championships. During his spell in Serie A, without question the best league in the world at that time, the Frenchman won three Ballon d’Or (1983, 1984 and 1985) and would eventually win French Player of the Century.

For France the midfielder played 72 times and scored 41 goals, and is still the nation’s fourth all-time leading scorer. 

Unfortunately, Platini’s time as UEFA president after his retirement was marred by accusations of corruption, and he is a “person of interest” in the whole “FIFA Gate” scandal that rocked global soccer. Due to said scandal the former great midfielder has been banned from participating in any capacity in the sport until 2023 and his public image has been damaged tremendously. 

Michel Platini played in the Intercontinental cup final in 1985 against Copa Libertadores champions Argentinos Juniors, which is regarded as the best Intercontinental cup game ever. Juventus won on penalty kicks after drawing the match 2-2.

7. Alfredo Di Stefano, Argentina

Don Alfredo Di Stefano came before Maradona or Pelé. To many, the greatest player of all-time was Di Stefano. The Argentine showed his grace from an early age and played on the famed River Plate side known as La Máquina. In 66 games he scored 49 goals and showed all his elegance and class, and made a shock move to Colombia to play for Millonarios.

By the time he joined Millonarios in 1949, Colombia was becoming a place of destination for some of the top players in the world. And Alfredo Di Stefano did not disappoint, being a top scorer scoring 90 goals in 101 games! 

In 1953 “La Saeta rubia” moved to Real Madrid and the romance began, for 11 seasons Di Stefano was the unquestionable star of the Real Madrid teams of that decade. Winner of 8 league titles, 5 European Cups (the early version of the Champions League), and one Intercontinental Cup, Di Stefano was Real Madrid. 

Alfredo Di Stefano was a player that defined the game from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s until the arrival of Pelé. The sports first true pin up star, the world over knew the name Di Stefano. 

The Argentine would eventually become a manager and would coach such clubs as Boca Juniors, Valencia, River Plate, and Real Madrid winning 7 titles from the bench. He is the only player to ever be awarded a Super Ballon d'Or.

6. Franz Beckenbauer, Germany

Sweeper Franz Beckenbauer is considered by many to be the greatest defender of all-time: the German was legendary for his unique playing style. Beckenbauer was known for pushing up field, clearly dominating the ball past the opposition, and for being the essence of  “in control” as a captain. Beckenbauer always seemed in control, whether he was winning 4-0 or losing 0-4. 

At Bayern Munich the German defender played over 500 games and scored 75 goals in 14 seasons. He also won 14 titles with the club. When he made a shock move to the NASL and the New York Cosmos in 1977 many wondered what the German sweeper was doing, but Beckenbauer wanted a new challenge. 

In New York, Beckenbauer was a pioneer in helping the sport grow in the United States and for four seasons, Franz Beckenbauer was one of the main faces of the Cosmos and the new NASL league. 

On the national team side the 2-time Ballon d’Or winner won the 1974 World Cup with West Germany and was capped 103 times and scored 14 goals, 5 of which were World Cup goals. 

Franz Beckenbauer would take up coaching in 1984, coaching the West Germany national team and winning the 1990 World Cup. He’s one of the three managers who have won the title as players and as coaches.

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5. Johan Cruyff, Netherlands

Johan Cruyff was a part of some of the great Netherlands teams that changed soccer forever during the 1970s. The attacking midfielder was the face of “total football” and would lead the Netherlands to the 1974 FIFA World Cup final, however falling short to West Germany. 

At the club level, Cruyff was a superstar at Ajax and Barcelona, where he spent most of his career—winning 20 titles between both clubs. Known for shattering opponents with great dribbling skill and movements that left fans and defenders spell bound, Johan Cruyff is considered one of the most influential players ever in soccer.

Johan Cruyff would eventually play in the North American Soccer League (NASL) and again in Spain and the Netherlands. When it was all said and done, he had 402 goals in over 700 games. As a manager he transformed Barcelona into a global power by winning 11 championships at the helm and installing a specific style of play. 

Johan Cruyff won three Ballon d’Ors and a FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, and was a true pioneer of soccer. Cruyff missed out on the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina due to there being a kidnapping attempt on his family in Barcelona. In total, Cruyff played 48 times and scored 33 goals for the Netherlands.

4. Pelé, Brazil‍

Pelé or Edson Arantes do Nascimento should be number 1 on this list, but he’s in fourth place because he never made that big European Soccer leap. Pelé was a goal machine and the player that many modern fans most associate with the sport. 

Pelé won three FIFA World Cups, being a part of the famed 1970 Brazil team that won the World Cup and dazzled the world in Mexico 1970. Many consider that team to be the best in FIFA World Cup history. 

Pelé was a top tier goalscorer who could score using both feet, he had tremendous heading abilities despite his short frame and would eventually score 655 goals in 700 club soccer matches. 

According to Pelé he scored over 1279 goals in 1363 appearances for Santos, Brazil, and the New York Cosmos.  In the latter part of his career Pelé used his notoriety to bring legitimacy to soccer in the United States. Crowds of over 70,000 would go to matches of the old NASL to watch the soccer icon play. 

Some of Pelé’s accolades include six Brazilian Serie A titles, two Copa Libertadores, participating in four FIFA World Cups, Ballon d’Or Player of the Century, Brazilian Player of the Century and World Player of the Century. He was also inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

3. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal

CR7 or Cristiano Ronaldo is still going strong at the end of his career. The Manchester United forward has dazzled world soccer fans for 22 seasons. Be it in the Premier League with Manchester United, LaLiga with Real Madrid, Serie A with Juventus, or for Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo delivers championships and goals. 

A perfectionist by nature, Cristiano Ronaldo spends his whole time training and eating properly to maintain his physical condition. It has paid dividends, as Cristiano Ronaldo has over 600 goals in nearly 1,000 club matches.

For Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo is the world’s all-time national team leading scorer with 115. Many have said that Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest striker of all time! The Portuguese’s finishing abilities are exceptional, he can strike a dead ball with perfection, head a ball, and score at a fast pace. 

Cristiano Ronaldo has won five Ballon d’Or and 32 championships counting club and country. Without question, Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest soccer players of his generation and of all time.

2. Diego Maradona, Argentina

Diego Maradona is without question soccer’s greatest fallen star. The Argentine number 10 was one of the greatest dribblers and finishers the game ever saw. Maradona had a powerful left foot, but an even more powerful body that took a lot of abuse on and off the field. 

Diego Maradona may be forever known for the 1986 FIFA World Cup which he virtually single-handedly won for Argentina, and his “Hand of God” and “Goal of the Century” goals against England in the quarter finals will always be remembered as the world saw both sides of Diego, the cheat and the master. 

In the first goal Maradona would use his fist to push the ball in the net when going up to “head” the ball in a duel with English goalkeeper Peter Shilton. The second goal was a work of art, Maradona gained the ball in the middle of the field and dribbled past half the England team to score a goal considered the greatest World Cup goal of all time. 

Diego Maradona was born from immense poverty and would wow the world with his skill at Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys, and the Argentinian national team. At Napoli he turned Serie A on its head winning two Serie A titles for the club, and then would win an UEFA Cup as well. 

Unfortunately, Diego Maradona’s drug addiction hindered the rest of his career after 1990, when he began a life of extreme excess and near-death experiences. Diego lived a rollercoaster ride until he retired in 1997. After battling cocaine addiction for most of his life, Maradona still had an amazing ability to reinvent himself: first as a television host and later head coach of the Argentina national team in the 2010 World Cup. 

When Maradona passed away from a heart attack in November 2020, the world mourned the loss of soccer’s ultimate revolutionary. A man who was never shy of speaking his mind, a man who was a living legend and even a God to millions around the world. Had it not been for his drug problems, Diego Maradona would have been the greatest soccer player of all-time.

1. Lionel Messi, Argentina

No player embodies the drive of today’s athlete combined with the romance of yesterday’s dribblers like Lionel Messi. The small but lethal Argentine is a mix of the explosion of Cristiano Ronaldo and the dribbling talents of Diego Maradona. Messi also has an incredible soccer brain that works at full speed, being able to spot a play quicker than even his teammates. 

Lionel Messi was a human highlight reel at Barcelona from 2004 to 2021. Along with other players, he turned Barcelona into the world power it is today. Messi scored 672 goals in 778 games for Barcelona, winning 34 championships. 

When Lionel Messi moved to PSG to partner with Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, his first season did not go as expected. However, the small Argentine still managed to win the French league. Now, at the tail end of his career, Messi has only one goal in sight, the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Despite an at times unhealthy relationship with Argentina, Lionel Messi is his national team's all time leading goal scorer with 81 goals in 160 caps. Argentina won the 2021 Copa America with Lionel Messi as the captain and after a lot of talk about Messi not winning anything with Argentina, he can put the Copa America next to his 2008 Olympic gold.

Some of Lionel Messi’s accomplishments: Most Ballon d’Or (6), most European Golden boots (6). FIFA World Cup Golden Ball, Copa América Golden Ball, FIFA “The Best” Men’s Player of the Year, 12-time Argentinian Player of the Year, 6-time LaLiga Best Player and 14-time FIFAPro World XI inclusions.

Conclusions

These are the top 10 greatest soccer players of all time, while other great players may not be on the list, these 10 defined their generation and truly crossed over to all corners of the globe. Watch the latest sports moments with The Highlights app. Sign up to the waitlist to be the first to know when the app is available.

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Written by
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Daniel Benchimol
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Jee Lee
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