The 21 Best Soccer Players of All Time

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Soccer is one of the most interesting sports. With numerous tournaments, matches and awards, there are numerous ways to rate the top football players that the world has ever seen. 

Still, there are certain players who have shaped the game to be what it has become today. Pelé had a special aura and is one of the greatest goalscorers of all-time. On the flip side, there was Paolo Maldini who made a great impact on the defensive side of the field. 

This list takes a look at the greatest soccer players who piled up award after award and momentous wins along the way. They also made an impact in inspiring the next generation of footballers with memorable moments. There are many great soccer players, but there can only be 21. Here are the 21 best soccer players of all time.

1. Pelé

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The OG of it all, Pelé began his soccer career at the age of 15.  A joint winner of the FIFA Player of the Century award, Pelé had a whirlwind of a career. Playing in 21 seasons Brazilian club Santos and the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos, Pelé scored 650 career goals in 694 career matches. His club career was great, but his international play track record is special. Pelé won three FIFA World Cups with the Brazil national team. In international play, he is the all-time leading goalscorer for Brazil with 77 goals in 92 games. Pelé had the complete package.

2. Diego Maradona

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An international superstar, Diego Maradona had the goal of the century. Enough said. Despite being diminutive in stature, Maradona made up for it with great vision, passing, and dribbling skills. He was the first player in soccer history to set the world record transfer fee on two separate occasions. There’s a reason why he was such a hot commodity. Maradona had 310 career goals in 492 matches during his 22-year run at the club level. A leader, Maradona was a captain a World Cup record 16 times for his national team.

3. Lionel Messi

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The 32-year old Messi still has some career left, but he’s already cemented a legacy as one of the greatest footballers of all-time. From Argentina, Messi has racked up numerous awards and accomplishments. La Liga’s all-time leading scorer, Messi has a record six Ballon d’Or awards. Spending all of his time with FC Barcelona, Messi has 438 career goals with the senior club. A great playmaker and passer, Messi is an international superstar with endorsements and fame rivaling any other professional athlete. He won the Golden Ball at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

4. Johan Cruyff

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A three-time Ballon d'Or winner, there weren’t many players as skilled as Johan Cruyff. The attacking midfielder was dominant throughout his run with Dutch team Ajax. With Ajax, he won three European Cups, eight Eredivisie titles, and one Intercontinental Cup. His play put Dutch football on the map. 

Cruyff was inventive on the field. He brought new moves that no one had ever seen. The Cruyff turn was a game-changer. Not many players can claim a move and have it eternally stick with their name. The move lives on in FIFA.

5. Ronaldo

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One of the best strikers of all-time, Ronaldo accumulated a vast amount of awards for his goal-scoring frenzies. In the late-90s and early-aughts, Ronaldo was dominant, winning the FIFA World Player of the Year three times and the Ballon d’Or on two separate occasions. Ronaldo won two World Cups with Brazil. Though he did lose in the Final of the 1998 World Cup, Ronaldo earned the Golden Ball for his performance throughout the tournament.

6. Cristiano Ronaldo

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Ronaldo holds the record for the most goals scored in the UEFA Champions League with 128. Born in Portugal, the 35-year old has been a dominant forward. Playing for Sporting CP, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus for 18 years, Ronaldo has racked up 441 career goals in club play. Known as the best Portuguese player of all-time, Ronaldo’s won every award that you can think of and is one of the top goalscorers in the history of the sport. With his great play, Ronaldo has established himself as one of the most famous and successful professional athletes in the world today.

7. Franz Beckenbauer

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Going by the nickname Der Kauer which is German for “The Emperor,” Franz Beckenbauer established himself as one of the best defenders in the history of soccer. A World Cup winner in 1974, Beckenbauer was a captain of Bayern Munich, leading the club to three European Champions Clubs’ Cups and four national titles. 

A unique and versatile footballer, the German captain essentially revolutionized the position, establishing himself as an attacking sweeper with 60 goals in 427 matches with Bayern. The moment that might stand out most in his career is playing in the 1970 World Cup with a broken collarbone and an arm in a sling. Though his team West Germany lost to Italy 4-3, the performance cemented Beckenbauer as one of the toughest players ever.

8. Zinedine Zidane

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Zinedine Zidane is a part of an exclusive list. He’s just one of eight players to have won the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA Champions League and the Ballon d'Or. Nicknamed Zizou, Zidane scored two of France’s three goals in their 1998 World Cup win over Brazil. Currently a head coach with Real Madrid, Zidane was so crafty with the ball, leaving the opposition in the dust. Also, he was a tough customer that opponents knew not to mess around with. If you got on his bad side, you knew the consequences.

9. Michel Platini

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The French-born Platini dominated the 1984 European World Cup, leading France to a title while topping the club in goal scoring. The attacking midfielder holds the honor of being the player with the highest amount of goals for the French national team. Platini won the Ballon d’Or three consecutive years (1983-85).

Known as Le Roi which is french for The King, Platini was the ultimate playmaker wherever he played with the ability to strike and pass as well as any of his peers. There weren’t many players who could match up to Platini’s beautiful style of play.

10. Jürgen Klinsmann

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In his 18-year professional career. Klinsmann was the first player to score at least three goals in three consecutive World Cups. The German striker was downright prolific when it came to finding a way to get the ball into the net. He scored in every international competition that he participated in from 1988 to 1998. This included a 1990 FIFA World Cup win for his West Germany team. Klinsmann won a UEFA Cup with Bayern Munich and scored 232 goals throughout his club career.

11. Mané Garrincha

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If you're given the nickname “The King of the Dribble,” you’re probably really good at dribbling the football. Mané Garrincha was just that. Born bow-legged, the right-winger had defenders looking foolish with a vast array of moves complemented by super quick reflexes. His highlight reel remains undefeated.

The Brazilian born Mané was pivotal in Brazil’s two World Cup victories in 1958 and 1962. 1962 was special because after Pelé was injured, Garrincha took over, becoming the first player to win the Golden Ball, Golden Boot and the World Cup in the same tournament.

12. Alfredo di Stefano

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The ability to play anywhere on the pitch was probably Alfredo di Stefano’s best quality. His flexibility as an all-around player with the ability to defend and score were what made him such a successful player in a soccer run that started in 1945. 

A forward throughout his professional career, Di Stefano was a part of one of the most dominant runs in soccer with Real Madrid. He led his squad to five consecutive European World Cups in the 1950s. His 216 career goals in 282 matches with Real Madrid certified him as an elite marksman.

13. Paolo Maldini

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A left back and a central defender for A.C. Milan and the Italian national team, Paolo Maldini had a long and fruitful football career. He spent 25 years in Serie A with Milan where he picked up seven Serie A titles, five European Super Cups and the UEFA League Championship five times. One of the greatest defenders of all-time in soccer history and a general nuisance for the opposition, Maldini was the runner-up for the 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year.

14. Roberto Baggio

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1993 was a magical year for Baggio. He won the FIFA World Player of the Year and won the Ballon d'Or in the same year. A forward and an attacking midfielder with the ability to score with a flair for creative finishes. Though he is remembered for his penalty miss in the 1994 World Cup Final, Baggio has done enough to earn a spot on this list. With over 300 career goals, the Italian Baggio was able to achieve and excel more than his peers in his time on the pitch.

15. Gerd Müller

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The Bomber, Gerd Müller was a goal-getter throughout his career as a striker. Though he wasn’t the most athletically gifted scorer, he got the job done in an 18-year club career. A 15-year run with Bayern Munich, Müller scored 398 career goals with Bayern. In international play, Müller was equally fantastic, receiving the Golden Boot in the 1970 FIFA World Cup after he scored ten goals in the tournament. In 1974, Müller played a key part in West Germany’s title win in the World Cup.

16. Ferenc Puskas

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You know you’re a pretty big deal when you are named player of the century. Ferenc Puskas was named European Player of the 20th Century and that’s just one of many awards the forward accumulated throughout his 23-year career as a soccer player. 

The Hungarian born Puskas is best known for his run at Real Madrid, where he teamed with Alfredo Di Stefano to form a dominant scoring tandem. Puskas scored an astounding 512 goals in 528 matches and helped power Real Madrid to five consecutive league championships and three European Cup titles.

17. Marco van Basten

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One of the better strikers in soccer history, Marco van Basten scored over 300 goals in his career with 277 coming at the club level. A FIFA 1992 World Player of the Year and a three-time Ballon d’Or winner, Van Basten’s volley against the Soviet Union in the 1988 UEFA European Championship Final remains a classic highlight.

Even with all of his success, it felt as if there was more Van Basten could have achieved. His career was cut short at the age of 28 when he suffered a series of ankle injuries. Van Basten was forced to have a few surgeries over a period of a few years and could never return again for a lengthy run.

18. Franco Baresi

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One of the most consistently great players, Franco Baresi was a human wrecking ball on the pitch. A defender, Baresi has highlights for days from a 20-year run with Milan that saw him derail the offensive attacks of many opponents. Throughout his time with Milan, Baresi won three UEFA Champions League titles and six Serie A titles. A 1982 FIFA World Cup winner with Italy, Baresi was voted as Milan’s Player of the Century in 1999.

19. Zico

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One of the best players in history to never win a World Cup, Zico was an amazing soccer player for Flamengo. The 1981 and 1983 player of the year, the Brazilian midfielder scored 476 career goals in a professional career that saw him play in Brazil, Italy and Japan. He was given the name White Pelé, and came pretty close to reaching the greatness that is Pelé. A brilliant passer, Zico had all the tools to dominate the 1970s into the 1980s. In fact, he was so good that he got his own video game, Zico Soccer in 1994 on SNES.

20. Eusebio

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There were many nicknames for Eusebio. Black Panther and Black Pearl were just a couple of the aliases that Portuguese superstar had during his playing career. Playing the striker position with lightning-quick speed, Eusebio racked up goals on a regular basis. Throughout his professional career, Eusebio managed to score 733 goals in 745 matches. A two-time European Golden Boot winner, Eusebio spent much of his career with Benfica in Portugal, where he is still the all-time leading scorer in the club’s history with 473 career goals.

21. George Best

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A winger and attacking midfielder, George Best had some legendary dribbling skills. A young soccer player’s introduction to the game should start with the wondrous skills of the Northern Ireland star. Considered one of the best players to never participate in the finals of a major tournament, Best’s career has the biggest what-ifs. What if Manchester United would have built the right team around him? What if he would’ve stayed in shape?

Still, it’s easy to include Best as one of the best players ever. A 1968 Ballon d’Or winner, Best was also the youngest player ever to win the Football Writers’ Player of the Year in England, and European Player of the Year awards.

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