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Top 10 football players of all time

Top 10 football players of all time
© Reuters
Sports Mole ranks the top 10 football players of all time - does Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Pele or Diego Maradona make it as number one?

In the long and distinguished annals of football history, only a select few players can claim to have left a truly indelible mark on the game with their sheer ability on the field.

While some have flirted with the highest levels for a brief period, and others have had decades at the top without ever quite breaking into that elite group, every now and again an extra-special talent comes along that can couple exceptional quality with remarkable longevity.

The very best players can marry those two components with unforgettable moments and huge success too, and only then can they be regarded among football's true greats.

Ranking a top 10 list of those greats is a fool's errand, with some legends bound to miss out - no doubt inexplicably to some.

The honourable mentions in this particular countdown include luminaries such as Eusebio, Gerd Muller, Garrincha, George Best, Ronaldinho and Lev Yashin, and there are countless others who deserve acknowledgement too.

Nonetheless, Sports Mole has taken on the impossible task of whittling the history of the beautiful game down to its 10 greatest exponents, so sit back, enjoy and no doubt disagree with our top 10 footballers of all time.

10. Ferenc Puskas (Hungary)

Known as the 'Galloping Major', Ferenc Puskas remains one of the greatest goalscorers to have ever graced the sport, boasting a phenomenal record of 806 goals in just 793 official games for club and country.

No fewer than 84 of those came in just 85 outings for Hungary, who became the best international team in the world with Puskas leading the charge.

The Mighty Magyars went 32 games unbeaten, including winning gold at the 1952 Olympics and hammering England 6-3 away and 7-1 at home in two of the most famous results of all time, but somehow lost to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final - one of the biggest upsets in the history of football.

That match, which Puskas scored in despite playing with a hairline fracture in his ankle, ultimately denied him the the chance to win the biggest prize in the sport, as two years later he refused to return to communist Hungary and was subsequently blocked from appearing for the national team.

However, arguably the best years of his career were yet to come; Puskas joined European champions Real Madrid as a 31-year-old in 1958 and formed a devastating partnership with Alfredo Di Stefano to further strengthen Los Blancos' reputation as the greatest team on the continent.

Puskas went on to score 242 goals in just 262 games for Madrid, helping them to three more European Cups in addition to five La Liga titles - adding to the five league crowns he won in Hungary.

A four-time winner of the Pichichi Trophy for top scorer in Spain, Puskas now has FIFA's award for the best goal of each year named after him.

9. Ronaldo (Brazil)

Brazil's Ronaldo lifts the 2002 World Cup© Reuters

A curious mix of greatness and yet still unfulfilled potential, Ronaldo may well have been challenging towards the top of this list had he not suffered some debilitating knee injuries during his career.

Certainly, as a young player he seemed marked for greatness; by the age of 21, he had already broken the world-record transfer fee twice and become the youngest-ever winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d'Or awards - records which still stand today.

Ronaldo had a World Cup winners' medal by the age of 17 - albeit as an unused member of the 1994 Brazil squad - and was the star of the 1998 World Cup, winning the Golden Ball but suffering a fit hours before the final against France which led to an ineffective display after his 'will he, won't he' selection became one of the great World Cup mysteries.

It was at Inter Milan where things began to go wrong for perhaps the greatest young player there has ever been, with Ronaldo suffering back-to-back serious knee injuries - the second coming just six minutes after he returned to the field from his first.

Those effectively sidelined him for three years from 1999 to 2002, and the unknown of just how good he would have been without those injuries is one of the biggest 'what ifs' in football.

Even so, Ronaldo bounced back and enjoyed a hugely successful second half to his career too, winning the Golden Boot en route to helping Brazil to 2002 World Cup glory - his second winners' medal - and becoming the competition's all-time leading scorer four years later in Germany.

At club level, Real Madrid's Galacticos took something of a risk by signing a former Barcelona player with only 17 top-flight outings over the previous three seasons, but they reaped the rewards, with Ronaldo going on to score 104 goals in 177 games and helping them to two La Liga titles.

Individually, Ronaldo was a three-time FIFA World Player of the Year and two-time Ballon d'Or winner, while he ended his international career with 62 goals in 98 games for Brazil.

8. Alfredo di Stefano (Argentina)

Before Pele burst onto the scene at the 1958 World Cup, Alfredo Di Stefano was the benchmark for footballing greatness.

The Don of the great Real Madrid team which dominated football in the 1950s, Di Stefano is arguably the most complete footballer to have ever graced the game, often picking the ball up from his own goalkeeper on the edge of his own area to spark a sweeping team move which he would then finish.

Di Stefano was one of only three players to be part of each of Madrid's five successive European Cup triumphs from the inaugural edition of the tournament in 1955 to 1960, and remarkably scored in each of those finals, including a hat-trick in the last one as Real Madrid blew Eintracht Frankfurt away in what is still regarded as one of the greatest team performances ever.

The Argentine also won eight La Liga titles during his trophy-laden time in Spain, eventually leaving Real Madrid as the club's all-time leading goalscorer and the highest scorer in the European Cup too, although both marks have since been surpassed.

A Ballon d'Or winner in 1957 and 1959, perhaps the only thing missing from Di Stefano's list of accolades is success on the international stage; unusually, Di Stefano played for three different national teams during his career - Argentina, Colombia and Spain - but never made it to a World Cup for a variety of reasons.

7. Franz Beckenbauer (West Germany)

Franz Beckenbauer pictured with the World Cup trophy in 2000© Reuters

Strikers get all the glory in football, as proven by this list, so it takes a truly special defensive player to muscle his way into the conversation of the greatest ever.

Franz Beckenbauer certainly fits the bill, having achieved everything there was to achieve at both club and international level for Bayern Munich and West Germany respectively.

For Bayern, 'Der Kaiser' became the first captain to lift the European Cup three times when Bayern's great team of the mid-1970s won three in a row.

As unlikely as it seems today, Bayern were in the second tier of German football when Beckenbauer joined in 1963, but by the time he left some 14 years later he had won four Bundesliga titles, four DFB-Pokals and the European Cup Winners' Cup, in addition to those three European Cup triumphs, establishing Bayern as the dominant force in German football - a status they still enjoy today.

Incredibly, Beckenbauer's international record is perhaps even more impressive; in his five major tournaments with his country, West Germany reached the final in four of them and finished third in the other.

A young Beckenbauer marked England's star Sir Bobby Charlton out of the 1966 World Cup final, albeit in a losing effort, and scored to help knock the same opponents out four years later, before the semi-final of that 1970 World Cup saw him dislocate his shoulder and play on as Germany narrowly lost to Italy in the 'Game of the Century'.

Beckenbauer was handed the armband in 1971 and subsequently led Germany to the Euro 1972 title before adding the World Cup crown to his honours list two years later, nullifying Johan Cruyff in the final. Two years after that, Beckenbauer was named in the Euro 76 team of the tournament as his side lost in the final.

Indeed, Beckenbauer was named in the team of the tournament for all three of the World Cups he played in, and he remains the only defensive player to have won the Ballon d'Or twice - in 1972 and 1976.

For good measure - and like the two men who immediately follow him in this countdown - Beckenbauer then proved himself as a world-class manager too, leading Germany to World Cup glory in 1990.

6. Johan Cruyff (Netherlands)

Barcelona coach Johan Cruyff looks on as he is surrounded by photographers after his team defeated Dutch PSV Eindhoven in the second leg of the UEFA Cup quarter final match in Eindhoven, March 19 1996© Reuters

Perhaps the most influential single individual in football history, Johan Cruyff was not only a great player, coach and manager, but he also epitomised a style of play which quickly became - and remains - revered around the world.

'Total Football' was deployed by legendary manager Rinus Michels, and in Cruyff he had the total footballer, capable of playing anywhere and leading a Dutch revolution in football as Netherlands came from nowhere to become one of the great teams of all time.

Like Puskas and his 1954 Hungary team, Cruyff was denied the World Cup crown he so richly deserved by West Germany in 1974, although he still won the Golden Ball for his displays in that tournament.

The Dutchman prematurely retired from international duty in 1977 and so never had a second crack at a World Cup, ultimately ending his time in the famous orange shirt with 33 goals from 48 games.

In contrast to Beckenbauer, Cruyff's greatest success came at club level, where he steered Ajax to eight Eredivisie titles, five KNVB-Bekers and three successive European Cups from 1971 to 1973.

The icon also added a La Liga title and Copa del Rey to his cabinet with Barcelona, and another Dutch league and cup double with Feyenoord towards the end of his career.

Cruyff was the first player to win the Ballon d'Or three times - in 1971, 1973 and 1974 - and was named the best European player of the 20th century by IFFHS.

As a manager, he is also widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time, winning 14 trophies with Ajax and Barcelona including the 1992 European Cup, as well as acting as a mentor for many more top managers, most notably Pep Guardiola.

5. Zinedine Zidane (France)

Zinedine Zidane pictured with the World Cup trophy in 1998© Reuters

A midfielder who bore many similarities to Cruyff when it came to elegance, class, technique and ball control, Zinedine Zidane just about pips the Dutch master to fifth in this list by the narrowest of margins.

Zizou was almost balletic in his play - perhaps most notably of all when he taught defending champions Brazil a footballing lesson in the 2006 World Cup quarter-final - and his style was so similar to art that a film was released simply depicting him on the ball, with no narration or commentary over the top.

The Frenchman mixed that grace with some steel too, although that aggressiveness boiled over in his final game as a professional footballer as he was sent off for headbutting Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final.

It was an undignified and undeserving way for one of the greatest careers ever to end, having earlier scored in the final to put France on course for a potential dream departure, but it also does not overshadow all of the sensational things he did prior to that.

Indeed, eight years before becoming the villain for using his head, Zidane was a hero for doing the same as he scored two headers in the 1998 World Cup final to catapult France to victory over Brazil on home soil - a tournament which saw Les Bleus lift the trophy for the first time and Zidane become a national icon.

Zidane also helped his country to Euro 2000 glory in his 108 caps, while his club career is best remembered through his spells at Juventus and Real Madrid.

It was as a leading Galactico alongside the likes of Luis Figo and Ronaldo that Zidane produced arguably his finest moment at club level, scoring one of the greatest Champions League final goals of all time as Madrid won the 2001-02 tournament.

The midfielder ended his career with three FIFA World Player of the Year awards and one Ballon d'Or, while in 2004 he was voted UEFA's best European player of the last 50 years.

4. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo in action against Ghana at the World Cup on November 24, 2022© Reuters

A man who has evolved from a tricky, at times ineffective winger into arguably the greatest goalscorer of all time, Cristiano Ronaldo's combination of quality and longevity is rivalled by very few in the history of the sport.

Widely regarded as the leading scorer of all time in official matches having staggeringly netted more than 900 goals for club and country, Ronaldo also boasts over 1,200 career appearances and 33 trophies during that time.

The Portuguese icon has won seven league titles in three different countries, five Champions League crowns and led his country to success at Euro 2016 and the inaugural Nations League.

Speaking of his international record, Ronaldo also boasts the most goals on the world stage with 128 and the most international appearances of any player in history with 206 - the only male player to ever reach a double-century of caps for his country.

The Champions League's all-time record appearance-maker, goalscorer and assist-provider, Ronaldo has scored more than 100 goals for each of Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus during his career, but it is his time at Madrid which launched him into the debate for the greatest ever.

The attacker scored a scarcely-believable 450 goals in just 438 games for Los Blancos, surpassing the 30-goal mark in each of his nine seasons there, the 40-goal mark in eight of them, the 50-goal mark in six successive years and the 60-goal mark twice.

Ronaldo has won five Ballons d'Or and has finished as runner-up on a further six occasions, while he has also claimed four European Golden Shoes throughout his legendary career.

At 39, Ronaldo is still going strong more than two decades after starting his professional career as he continues to break records and set new marks for both Portugal and Al-Nassr.

3. Diego Maradona (Argentina)

Argentina's Diego Maradona lifts the World Cup trophy after helping his team to the 1986 title© Reuters

The top three in the GOAT debate are widely agreed upon aside from the order, and it is Diego Maradona who takes bronze for us, due largely to his inferior statistics, trophy haul and slightly shorter time at the very top of the game compared to the other two.

Of course, that does not take away from the genius that Maradona could produce on the pitch, something he most clearly demonstrated with Napoli at club level and at the 1986 World Cup with Argentina.

The diminutive forward is still idolised in Naples having dragged an unfashionable and unsuccessful team to two Serie A titles, dethroning the traditional northern powerhouses such as Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan - something the club had never done before, and took 33 years to do again post-Maradona.

There was less success during a combustible spell at Barcelona, although he still managed to help the Spanish outfit to three trophies, while he also won the Argentine title with Boca Juniors.

It was in the blue and white of Argentina that he will be most clearly remembered, though, and in particular his virtuoso performances that carried Argentina to their first World Cup triumph on foreign soil in 1986.

Maradona provided two of the most talked-about moments in football history in one game during that tournament - his 'Hand of God' followed by the 'Goal of the Century' against England - and then scored twice more in the semi-final against Belgium before providing the assist for the winner in the final.

Unsurprisingly, Maradona won the Golden Ball for his exploits, and his performances are still held up as the greatest example of one player dominating a World Cup.

Argentina were back in the final again four years later, but this time they were beaten by West Germany and, in keeping with his chaotic mix of genius on the pitch and trouble off it, he was then sent home from the 1994 World Cup after failing a drugs test - an incident which spelled the end of his international career after 91 caps and 34 goals.

2. Pele (Brazil)

Pele wheels away in celebration after scoring in the 1970 World Cup final against Italy© Reuters

Of the three players widely considered to be at the top of the table in football history, Pele is perhaps the most in danger of being overlooked by future generations, if only because of the relative lack of footage that exists.

However, there is still more than enough footage to prove that the Brazilian was every bit worthy of his moniker of the 'King of Football'.

While his claim to have scored 1,279 goals in 1,363 games is treated with some derision due to him including friendlies, it is important to remember that there was nothing friendly about many of those games, and that they came against the best teams around the world - the only way Pele's Santos could test themselves against Europe's finest in a lot of cases.

A first-teamer for his club at 15 and for his country at 16, Pele first announced himself on the global stage by stealing the show at the 1958 World Cup, scoring a hat-trick in the semi-final and a brace in the final at just 17 years old to inspire Brazil to their maiden title.

That sparked an era of dominance which saw Brazil become the most renowned international team in the world, with the Selecao helping themselves to three World Cup crowns in the next 12 years, Pele playing his part in all of them and still standing alone as the only player with three winners' medals to his name.

The only way for defenders to deal with him was to kick him, leading to premature ends to his 1962 and 1966 tournaments, but he made up for that with his star showing at the 1970 tournament as a Brazilian side widely regarded to be one of the best of all time triumphed in Mexico.

In addition to being one of the greatest goalscorers of all time, Pele was also a sensational dribbler - something often overlooked perhaps due to his comparisons with Maradona - passer and creator, equally capable of setting up one of his teammates as scoring himself.

At club level, Pele won 25 honours and scored 643 goals in 659 games during his legendary stint at Santos, while he ended his Brazil career with 77 goals in 92 appearances - a record which stood for more than 50 years before being surpassed by Neymar in September 2023.

Perhaps most telling are the tributes from other greats, with Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Puskas, Tostao, Bobby Moore, Zico, Alfredo Di Stefano and even Cristiano Ronaldo among those to have cited Pele as the greatest of all time.

1. Lionel Messi (Argentina)

Argentina's Lionel Messi kisses the World Cup trophy after collecting the Golden Ball award on December 18, 2022© Reuters

Having at long last got his hands on the elusive World Cup trophy in 2022, Lionel Messi can claim that he has completed football.

The list of records held and accolades earned by the Argentina captain is far too long to list in full, and the triumph in Qatar means that he has now won it all at both club level and international level.

Twelve top-flight league titles, four Champions Leagues, one Copa America and one World Cup are the highlights from a 43-trophy-long list of team honours which makes Messi the most decorated footballer of all time, in addition to the best.

The maestro has scored more than 850 goals and registered over 350 assists in a career spanning almost 1,100 appearances, meaning that he averages more than one direct goal involvement per game throughout a career spanning 20 years.

The iconic number 10's performances in Qatar saw him become the only player to have been named the best player at two separate World Cups, having also scooped the Golden Ball when helping Argentina to the 2014 final.

One of only three players to have scored a century of international goals, Messi can also lay claim to being perhaps the greatest passer, playmaker and dribbler in history too - he is at least in the conversation for those.

A record eight-time Ballon d'Or winner - most recently in 2023 at the age of 36 - and six-time European Golden Shoe winner, the vast majority of Messi's club career was spent at Barcelona, where he scored a staggering 672 goals in 778 appearances across all competitions before his emotional exit for Paris Saint-Germain in 2021.

Now at MLS side Inter Miami and still a key player for Argentina, Messi has time to add to his legacy even further, but already he stands alone as our greatest footballer of all time.

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