There are many soccer competitions across the world, countless fans, and millions of players with different goals and dreams. But it’s safe to say everyone’s biggest dream is to play in and win a FIFA World Cup. Time has proved, however, how elusive this trophy can be—even for the best players.
This tournament is not only the ultimate stage for a national team, it’s also where players really get to leave their mark in the sport. Winning it is a challenging task, let alone doing so on multiple occasions. Let’s take a look at the winningest players in World Cup history.
The answer is simple: the player that has won the most World Cups in history is Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, popularly known as Pele. The Brazil legend is the only player who has won the tournament on three occasions (1958, 1962 and 1970). Apart from the titles themselves, what’s more impressive is how O Rei achieved those championships.
In his first World Cup triumph, Pele recorded a staggering six goals. The most interesting fact about his 1958 success, however, is that he was only 17 years old. Brazil were already aware of the gem they had in their hands, and didn’t hesitate to let him see the field. Pelé didn’t let them down.
After providing an assist in his only group stage appearance, Pele was instrumental in the knockout phase. Not only did he score the only goal in the quarterfinal win over Wales, the Santos star also bagged a hat trick against France in the semifinals. Far from slowing down, the teenage star recorded a brace to help Brazil beat host nation Sweden 5-2 in the final.
Though he couldn’t play such a pivotal role in his second World Cup success, Pele still contributed to Brazil’s 1962 title. He had a hand in two goals (goal, assist) in their victory against Mexico in the inaugural game, but an injury in the second game left him out for the remainder of the tournament.
The 1966 event was less memorable for Pelé, who promised not to play in another World Cup after receiving a terrible challenge in that tournament. However, he came back for a memorable final appearance four years later.
O Rei cemented his legacy at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, winning his third and final trophy with Brazil. Though West Germany’s Gerd Muller won the Golden Boot after finishing as the tournament’s top scorer with 10 goals, Pele’s sensational tournament earned him the Player of the Tournament award.
To give a better dimension to Pele’s incredible accomplishment, only two teams other than Brazil have won the World Cup as many times as he did. The best other players have been able to do is win the trophy twice.
Apart from the Brazilian legend, only 20 players managed to win the FIFA World Cup more than once—but not three times like O Rei did. While 13 of them were his teammates in 1958 and 1962, eight of the players who were two-time World Cup winners won one of those trophies without playing a single minute. These are the great soccer players that won two World Cups:
Who said that a right-back couldn’t be one of the all-time greats? Cafu has been a one-of-a-kind defender, and his résumé is one of the most impressive in soccer history. The Brazilian legend is only one of two players (Carlos Tévez) who won UEFA Champions League, Copa Libertadores, Intercontinental, and Club World Cup titles. Though he couldn’t match Pelé in World Cup triumphs, he got pretty close.
Cafú is the only player to have taken part in three consecutive World Cup finals (Lothar Matthäus also reached three straight finals but only played in two). Though he wasn’t a regular starter in 1994, Cafu ended up playing much of the final vs. Italy, coming on after 21 minutes.
In the 1998 World Cup he started in every game except the semifinal (due to yellow card accumulation), but his side lost to France in the decider. Four years later, Cafú was instrumental in Brazil’s fifth title in Korea/Japan 2002. Not only did he play every single minute, but Cafú also lifted the trophy with the captain’s armband.
Daniel Passarella may have left a bad impression in Argentina’s recent memory for being River Plate’s president when the local giants were relegated for the first time. However, his contribution to the national team should never be forgotten. Back in the day, he was one of the best and most complete central defenders on Earth.
His winning mentality and leadership skills were crucial for Argentina’s successes. He also scored a lot of goals for a defender, and was dominating in the air despite not being tall. Passarella lifted La Albiceleste’s first World Cup at home in 1978, when Argentina beat the Netherlands in a hard-fought final.
It was Diego Maradona who took all the limelight in 1986, shining in the iconic quarterfinal against England as well as in the final vs. West Germany, but Passarella still took home his second World Cup medal then.
Manoel Francisco dos Santos, popularly known as Garrincha, was one of the greatest players who won multiple World Cups. Things could have been very different, though, since he almost missed the 1958 World Cup. The team’s psychologist Joao de Carvalhales considered Garrincha was “mentally weak,” and in a psychophysical test for the Sweden World Cup he got only 38 points out of the required 123. His teammates pushed hard to get him in the plane, and they didn’t regret it.
Garrincha sat in the first two games, but started in all the next games, from the final group stage fixture to the grand final. He contributed with one assist in the semifinal vs. France, and set up two more goals against host country Sweden in the final.
But it was in Chile 1962 when Garrincha completely stole the show and left his mark on the tournament. With Pele out due to injury in the second game, Garrincha stepped up. He netted a brace against England in the quarterfinals before recording another double vs. Chile in the semis, eventually winning the Player of the Tournament award—he was also joint top goalscorer with five other players (four goals each).
Eraldo Monzeglio was a fine, athletic right-back who was crucial for Italy’s early success in World Cup history. In 1934, he was a key member of the team that took down the US, Spain, Austria, and Czechoslovakia to win the title in Rome.
Things were different in France 1938, when he only played in the opening game against Norway as younger players started to emerge. He later watched on the sidelines as Italy went on to win their second consecutive World Cup against Hungary.
Giovanni Ferrari was an icon of Italian soccer in the 1930s. He won eight Serie A titles with three different clubs, but he’s mostly remembered for being one of only four players who won two World Cups with Italy. A versatile attacking midfielder who could also play up front, Ferrari forged a reputation for being the ultimate team player. He could find the net as many times as he wanted, but he also cared about creating chances for his teammates.
He was a key player in the 1934 World Cup-winning team, scoring against the USA before netting a crucial equalizer in the quarterfinals against Spain. Four years later, Ferrari was once again important for his national team, helping Italy in their win over Hungary in the 1938 World Cup final.
Nowadays, it’s normal for soccer stars to have fame and admirers. Giuseppe Meazza deserves credit for starting that trend. One of the greatest players Italy has ever seen, Meazza rose to stardom playing for Inter Milan, where he became a legend. He cemented a legacy as one of the most prolific strikers in Italian soccer history, being the national team’s top scorer for a long time until Gigi Riva surpassed his 33 goals in 1973.
Meazza, widely regarded as one of, if not the best player of his generation, was an iconic member of Italy’s first World Cup winning teams. He played in every match in the 1934 event, racking up two goals throughout the campaign to win the Golden Ball. In 1938, Meazza captained Italy to their second straight World Cup, lifting the trophy after the 4-2 victory against Hungary.
An elegant midfielder praised for his technique and signature dead ball free kicks, Didi was another Brazilian player who won the World Cup on two occasions. He’s mostly remembered for his performance in the 1958 event, though, given that he was named Player of the Tournament.
One of, if not the best striker the beautiful game has ever seen. Ronaldo Nazario was unstoppable between the 90s and early 2000s, wreaking havoc in opposing teams’ defenses. At only 17, he was part of Brazil’s World Cup winning squad in the USA in 1994—though he was an unused substitute.
Ronaldo was already untouchable in the starting lineup by the 1998 World Cup, where Brazil finished as runner-up after losing to host nation France in the final. Four years later, the prolific striker finally got his redemption in the best possible way. Ronaldo suffered two serious knee injuries before the 2002 World Cup in South Korea/Japan, but he fought hard to be on time and it paid off.
Ronaldo was the absolute star of that World Cup tournament, scoring a brace against Germany in the final to help Brazil win a record fifth title. After watching from the sidelines in 1994 and falling short in 1998, contributing to a World Cup title was something he was looking forward to.
In an interview with FIFA Magazine after the Korea/Japan 2002 World Cup, Ronaldo explained what it meant for him to play such an important role in Brazil’s fifth success.
“I used to visualize the trophy in front of my eyes and imagine what a wonderful feeling it must be to hold it up in the air,” Ronaldo told FIFA Magazine in 2002. “And it really was a fabulous feeling to hold it in my hands and kiss it.”
“I was overjoyed even then (when he was a substitute in 1994]. But it is a completely different feeling if you become a world champion as a substitute or as a leading player. In any case, all the 23 Brazilian players who won the title in 2002 are delighted with the win. Each and every one of them played a part in the outstanding triumph and all of them can be proud of it. It wasn't Rivaldo, Ronaldinho or Ronaldo that became world champion, but a group of Brazilians who played brilliant football and harmonized well both on and off the field.
Many players have left their mark in FIFA World Cup history, but it’s safe to say that Pele is its most iconic star. In fact, his World Cup success is what makes him stand out from the other all-time greats. While the ultimate glory was quite elusive for most, it didn’t look that complicated for O Rei.
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