Football has been blessed with some of the most brilliant athletes in sport. Over the years, followers of the game will frequently argue as to who has been the greatest player of all time. It’s a debate that’s almost impossible to resolve just because each individual has brought something different to the game.
We can, however, easily identify a crop of the world’s best across the decades. Readers will have their own opinion as to who was the best of them all, but each player fully deserves their place on this list.
In terms of achievements on the biggest stages of all, it may be hard to argue against Pele’s claims to be the greatest footballer of them all. A member of some of the greatest Brazilian teams of all time, Pele won three World Cups while setting a number of exceptional milestones during his career.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in 1940, Pele made his professional debut for Santos at the age of just 15. Two years later, he was announcing himself on the international stage as Brazil won the World Cup in Sweden. Incredibly, the teenager scored two goals in the final as the Brazilians beat the hosts by a 5-2 scoreline.
Further global success came with the great Brazilian sides of 1962 and 1970, and Pele would ultimately finish his professional career with 77 international goals from just 92 appearances. Domestically, he stayed with Santos until 1974 before finishing with a three-year stint with New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League.
Official statistics show that Pele scored 643 goals for Santos and 64 for the Cosmos in New York. He won multiple domestic and international titles, and that's one reason why many observers would put Pele at the top of their list.
Johan Cruyff: The Netherlands
In contrast to Pele, Dutch international footballer Johan Cruyff didn’t win a major international tournament in his career. In fact, he only appeared at one World Cup, but his contributions to the competition in Germany in 1974 left an indelible mark on the game.
In truth, Cruyff was already known to serious followers of the game due to his efforts with his club side. Ajax, with Cruyff in a prominent role, had won three European Cups in succession from 1971 through to 1973.
Playing with the philosophy of Total Football, the Dutch team of 1974 were expected to make their mark when they arrived at the World Cup in West Germany. Cruyff, ably supported by the likes of Johan Neeskens, Johnny Rep, Arie Haan and Ruud Krol, produced some stunning displays in the earlier rounds. The Dutch overcame the mighty Brazil and breezed past Uruguay and Argentina. Sadly, despite opening the scoring in the final, they couldn’t get past the hosts.
Cruyff’s dazzling skills lit up the tournament and, while he retired from international football before the 1978 World Cup, he continued to claim a host of domestic honours. His skills were sublime and were the epitome of that beautiful total football style that the Dutch had adopted.
George Best: Northern Ireland
Sometimes, the careers of the greatest footballers can be defined by simple statistics. Those numbers in isolation don’t, however, really encapsulate the brilliance of the individual. That’s certainly the case with the brilliant George Best, whose talents didn’t always get the medals and silverware that they deserved.
The only way to fully appreciate the genius of a player such as Best is to watch them in action. Fortunately, in the modern era, there are hours and hours of footage that can be enjoyed digitally, and all football fans are urged to tune it to watch the man in action. Quite simply, George Best could do things with a ball that were almost beyond human understanding, and he liked nothing more than to make defenders and goalkeepers look foolish.
Unlike the other names on this list, George Best didn’t even appear at a World Cup as his Northern Ireland team failed to qualify for the finals while he was in the squad. At domestic level, the player is best known for his time with Manchester United, where he won a number of trophies. While with United, Best won the First Division title three times, and he scored as his team beat Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final.
In that golden year of 1968, George Best also won the recognition of his peers as he was awarded the prestigious Ballon d'Or.
Lionel Messi: Argentina
Lionel Messi’s career is far from finished at the time of writing, but he’s already done enough to ensure a place on the list of world greats. Detractors may argue that he’s yet to win a World Cup and that time is starting to run out, but, in all other aspects, he’s up there with the best.
Born in Rosario, Messi has been with Barcelona in Spain for his entire professional career, and he’s won most honours in the game during that time. Included in that list of medals and awards are ten La Liga titles, six wins in the Copa Del Rey, and four Champions League wins.
The Argentine international has also won the Ballon d’Or on no fewer than six occasions and, even as he reaches his mid-30s, there’s a chance that he will go on and claim even more individual awards.
Lionel Messi is another player whose skills have to be viewed in order for him to be fully appreciated, but his talent is fully backed up by impressive stats. In the 2020/21 domestic Spanish football season, the Argentine attacker broke the record for the most goals scored by one player at a single club. During that campaign, he passed the 750-goal mark for both club and country and in many seasons, he’s averaged more than a goal every game.
Football fans will always have split opinions as to who is the greatest player of all time but, when we look at Lionel Messi’s incredible statistics, it’s hard to argue with his claims.
Cristiano Ronaldo: Portugal
Although the two men appear to be friends rather than enemies, the media makes a lot about a supposed rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese international is three years older than his Argentine counterpart, but he’s also still playing the game at the time of writing and hopefully will do so for many years to come.
The man known as CR7 joined his fourth professional club when he made the move from Real Madrid to Juventus in 2018. Prior to that, Ronaldo had started his career with Sporting Lisbon before joining up with Manchester United in 2003. Unlike Messi, he hasn’t been a one-club man, but he’s still managed to break a number of records on his travels.
With 134 goals at the end of Juventus’ 2020/21 Champions League campaign, Ronaldo holds the record for the most goals scored in the UCL. He’s also a record-breaker at international level too, and his current mark of 103 goals for Portugal from 173 matches is one that may never be overtaken. While he’s still playing, football fans are urged to follow and enjoy the talents of one of the greatest players to ever grace the game.
Jimmy Greaves: England
England centre forward Jimmy Greaves is, perhaps, the greatest natural goal scorer that the football world has ever seen. While he didn’t play in the 1966 World Cup final following an injury picked up in the earlier rounds, Greaves was part of England’s winning squad, and he did finally receive a medal many years after the tournament.
Because he missed out on that final, Greaves is rather unkindly remembered as a ‘nearly man’. He nearly played in World Cup final, and, with 44 international goals, he came close to breaking Bobby Charlton’s then record of 49. That’s a very unfair assessment as Greaves was one of the most prolific players ever, and his tallies on the domestic scene are incredible.
Jimmy Greaves played for four professional clubs in his career, and he is known for scoring on his debut for all of those sides. He began with Chelsea before moving to Italy with AC Milan, but he is most remembered for his exploits with Tottenham Hotspur. During his nine years at Spurs from 1961 to 1970, Greaves scored 266 goals, and this remains a club record over 50 years later.
Including those 44 goals for England from 57 internationals. Jimmy Greaves scored 466 senior goals in 659 games. That’s a phenomenal ratio in any era and one that makes the Englishman a worthy addition to this list.
Franz Beckenbauer: West Germany
Nicknamed ‘The Kaiser’ because of his natural leadership, West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer played in three World Cups. As a young centre half, he appeared in the 1966 final against England before finally winning the top prize on home soil in 1974.
Beckenbauer was certainly a solid defender, but he became known for being comfortable with the ball and his ability to dribble out of defence and set up attacks. In an era when defenders largely wanted to clear their lines and get the ball upfield as quickly as possible, he was something of a groundbreaker.
Along with that World Cup winners medal from 1974, Franz Beckenbauer claimed a host of domestic league and cup trophies with Bayern Munich. He also won the Ballon d’Or in 1972 and 1976, which was a notable achievement for a defender. Later, he would become only the second man to win a World Cup as a player and a manager. While in charge of the German national side, he steered them to the World Cup triumph at Italia 1990.
Dino Zoff: Italy
Many of the players on this list are here because of their goal-scoring exploits or their flair for setting up teammates in front of goal. That’s not the case with Dino Zoff, but we’re not just adding a goalkeeper here for the sake of balance.
Zoff’s brilliance between the posts made him Italy’s first choice keeper for many years. He made his international debut in 1968 and, 15 years later, in 1983, he won the last of his 112 caps. The amazing longevity that he displayed earned him a world record that may never be beaten. When Italy won the World Cup in 1982, Zoff became the oldest man to ever claim a winner’s medal at 40 years, four months and 14 days.
Domestically, Zoff won a host of titles, mostly with Juventus, where he made his name. As a goalkeeper, it’s almost impossible to claim the coveted Ballon d’Or, but he came close to achieving this, finishing as runner up in the 1973 poll.
Alfredo di Stefano
The emergence of Cristiano Ronaldo has led to much debate as to who is Real Madrid’s greatest player of all time. Modern-day supporters may well get behind CR7, but historians of the club suggest that the accolade belongs to a man who played in another golden era.
Alfredo di Stefano was a part of the Real side that won the first-ever European Cup in 1956, and he would play an important role as they dominated the early years of that competition. Goal scoring was his business, and he supplied plenty of firepower as his Madrid side won silverware both at home and on the European stage.
Born in Argentina, Di Stefano joined up at the Bernabeu from Colombian side Millionarios in 1953. He would stay at Real Madrid for the next 11 years, and in that time, he scored 308 goals from 396 games.
Born in Buenos Aires, Alfredo Di Stefano played international football for both Argentina and Spain. He won no fewer than 18 trophies while with Real and was awarded the Ballon D’Or in 1957 and 1959.