A truly great athlete will not cruise through their careers without having a massively positive impact on their respective sport. Whether it’s through their eye-catching and often alien feats of physical and mental prowess, a long-lasting philosophy that changes the way people look at their sport or a radical persona in front of the cameras, the best of the best are often revolutionary in their aims. For these stars, it’s often not enough to stick to the confines of the laws and rules of their chosen code. They like to test the boundaries and see how far they can stretch their limits, and often look to outgrow the shackles that would restrain a lesser professional.

It’s the same in soccer. The most enthralling stars are usually the ones who bring the game to a new level, often short of reinventing it and bringing it to a new plain. It takes a special breed of player to elevate it to another tier but that’s precisely what these players attempt to do. Sometimes, their radical undertakings can rub people up the wrong way or they can irk those who prefer not to see sparks fly.

This list will attempt to compile the most revolutionary footballers, the ones who make us all question our understanding of the sport, who tick the boxes that don’t exist, who fight to make a difference to how the sport is perceived and celebrated. This list is for the radical stars, so don’t expect to see much everyday talent or ideals on display.

As usual, make sure you express your own views in the comments section. This isn’t a definitive short-list so if you feel we shouldn’t have included anybody or worse still that we’ve forgotten someone we shouldn’t have – let us know.

15. Carli Lloyd

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

In this day and age, it’s surprising and more than a little incensing that female professional soccer stars are not getting the same sort of pay as their male counterparts. They train just as hard, they perspire just as much, they create great memories for the fans and they achieve feats of fairy-tale ability just as often as the highest-paid players around. Yet still they find themselves second best in the eyes of the people with the money and the opportunity to level the playing field (and the paying field), as it were.

United States Women’s international Carli Lloyd, alongside many others, is championing the process of trying to create awareness for just how much inequality continues to reign in professional soccer. On the field, she is quite the game-changer too. Having won the World Cup back in 2015, she also became the first woman to ever score a hat-trick in the grand final, joining Sir Geoff Hurst in an exclusive club for two. Game-changer.

14. Stephanie Roche

Republic of Ireland women’s star Stephanie Roche captured the hearts of her nation when she scored one of the best goals ever caught on camera on the unlikely stage of a Women’s National League game. The wonder-strike earned her widespread recognition and she became not only the first Irish player, but the first woman, to make it to the final three of the prestigious Puskas award.

Alongside global icons Robin van Persie and James Rodriguez, Roche took her place as one of the most celebrated footballers in the weeks leading up to the announcement and, although she missed out on top spot, she managed to garner attention for the women’s game and became a sporting idol in her own right. A genuine trail-blazer, she has since earned a professional career and continues to dazzle with some great football.

13. David Beckham

shutterstock_Becks

Before David Beckham, there wasn’t a global football star attraction like him. Sure, there had been George Best who was a celebrity (and one of the best manipulators of a ball ever) but Beckham brought all of that to a whole new level with his camera-hogging and endorsement deals. Brylcreem, branded boots and a stand-out free kick technique – the English heartbeat catapulted himself into the stratosphere of world football.

Marrying Victoria Beckham certainly added to his appeal, but it was obviously his outrageous skill that allowed his star to continue burning brightly for so long. Winning six Premier League titles as well as a La Liga winners’ medal and the Champions League, he reached the pinnacles of club soccer time and again.

12. Geoff Hurst

via geoffhurst.com

via geoffhurst.com

As already mentioned, Carli Lloyd became the first woman to earn a hat-trick in a World Cup final, but it was Sir Geoff Hurst who managed it as a man back in the 1966 edition. The magnitude of his trio of strikes was apparent that day, but its importance and symbolic nature has grown with every passing tournament because no man has ever repeated the feat since. For that, Hurst is rightly recalled as a leading-edge character in football’s story. Not only this, but the West Ham United hero was the catalyst for England’s only World Cup triumph. He’s hardly been a trend-setter but he certainly revolutionized goal-scoring in his career and turned it into an art form.

11. Lev Yashin

via alamy.com

via alamy.com

Ask any casual football fan who the most influential goalkeeper has been and the likelihood is that they will mentioned Manuel Neuer…or Rene Higuita. However, despite how great those two have been as servants to the sport, it’s undeniably Lev Yashin, their predecessor by some few decades, who has perhaps the strongest claim to being a true re-inventor of the custodian’s position.

The archetypal sweeper-keeper if ever there was one, Yashin blew people’s minds when he re-imagined one of the most traditionally rigid positions on the pitch. Bringing an audacity to proceedings, he earned a Ballon d’Or award (the only ‘keeper to ever do so) and set the precedent in a way no-one had done before. Nicknamed ‘The Black Spider’, he stood out with his novel approach to guarding goal, but his pre-game ritual of a quick cigarette and a shot of alcohol probably wouldn’t inspire many today.

10. Leonidas

via thebotafogostar.com

via thebotafogostar.com

When it comes to delving into the uncertain history of world football, there are always some gems to be found and even though the answers and corresponding puzzles are not always so straight-forward, it makes for fascinating reading. With the story of one of the most eye-catching individual pieces of skill, the bicycle-kick, nothing could be more true. Conflicting theories exist about exactly who got there first to creating it but what’s more clear is that Leonidas’ incarnation is the best known of the early days.

Shot to fame thanks to a famous (albeit grainy) picture of the Brazilian performing the stunt, Leonidas helped revolutionize the game, even though he isn’t nailed-on as the initial inventor. His daring in performing the move no doubt helped it spread like wild-fire from being simply a South American phenomenon to a global one. Brave.

9. Ronaldinho

shutterstock_Ronaldinho

Arguably the first YouTube soccer sensation, Ronaldinho took the internet by storm with his eye-catching videos. Capitalizing on a whole new audience of potential fans, the former Barcelona star tapped into millions of football lovers by showcasing his insane skills and talent. Building on his exploits on the pitch, he made the most of his time at the pinnacle by delivering his ability to those who couldn’t see him in the flesh.

Nobody had really taken advantage of social media and the video-sharing generation the way Ronnie had, but it certainly helped that he had such phenomenal talent. His transfer from Paris Saint-Germain to Barca set in motion a transformation for the Catalan club which eventually saw them go on to re-establish themselves as the best team in Europe. Some will say his magic is no different to that conjured by Lionel Messi or Diego Maradona, but R10 was different because he combined it with an outward positivity and child-like exuberance. Refreshing.

8. Nandor Hidegkuti

via playbuzz.com

via playbuzz.com

An irreplaceable element of the Magical, Magnificent and Mighty Magyars of the 1950s, Nandor Hidegkuti is widely considered to be a true champion of innovation, who helped his national team conquer much of Europe throughout the 1950s. The great Ferenc Puskas will often get most of the plaudits for this great side, but it was Hidegkuti who set the tone, the tempo and the balance.

Most memorably for football historians, his quintessential performance in Hungary’s 6-3 victory over England at Wembley Stadium in 1953 encapsulated him as a player, thinker and avant-garde performer. Plundering a hat-trick, he took center stage with one of the performances of the century that had commentators, spectators and opponents alike all mystified. He continued this style throughout their 1954 World Cup campaign and deserves to be remembered as one of the game’s most creative, positive anarchists.

7. Franz Beckenbauer

shutterstock_Franz Beckenbauer

Franz Beckenbauer is a legend of the game. In the roll-call of famous performers, he is a rare breed and for a long time he has been in a category all of his own. The German legend became won the World Cup as captain and again as a manager when he completed the feat in 1990. Not only this, but the retiree also revamped the sweeper role in a remarkable way too.

If the Hungarians had fashioned a new type of deep-lying attacking midfielder role in a radical way that deserved praise in itself, Beckenbauer had decided to take it one step further by dropping even deeper as a sweeper who loved to bomb forward with the ball. Leaving an indelible mark on the game, the general consensus is that he brought a freshness to the game with his exquisite passing, excellent balance and desire to regenerate an important position.

6. Antonin Panenka

via alchetron.com

via alchetron.com

When it comes to penalty shootouts, the stakes are always high. Make a wrong move, lose your cool or let the occasion get to you and one can wind up looking quite foolish. All of this makes the steely nerve and devilish cheek of Antonin Panenka all the more admirable. Conjuring one of the most audacious and incredible techniques to take a spot-kick, the Czech star helped his country win the Euro 1976 by deftly chipping the ball into the goal from 12 yards out. It’s a move which has been copied over and over again down through the years, but Panenka was the man who originally came up with the lavishly simple idea and his adventurous nature proved a revelation as it sparked a revolution that has forever changed the act of taking a penalty kick. Gutsy.

5. Didier Drogba

shutterstock_Didier Drogba

Every good footballer loves to bring life to the pitch. Through their actions, commitment and talent they serve up the drama, excitement and flourishes that form a big chunk of what makes the theater of football so appealing. Whether it’s via a grandiose goal, a last-minute, leg-stretching ungraceful equalizer or a game-saving tackle, professional footballers are paid to fight for their team and create good memories for the fans. But what about when they go above and beyond their call to inject life to match-day?

That’s exactly what Didier Drogba did a decade ago when he single-handedly (albeit indirectly) ended a civil war in his native homeland of the Ivory Coast. After qualifying for their first ever World Cup, the ex-Chelsea man called on the warring factions to unite together. It worked. Now that’s a revolutionary footballer in action.

4. Ricardo Infante

via it.wikipedia.org

via it.wikipedia.org

The rabona, much like the previously discussed bicycle-kick and panenka, is one of those moves that is pulled out at the most breath-taking of moments. It’s the stuff of legend and yet it has a rather definite origin, and one that lies with Ricardo Infante who is credited with creating the maneuver. Many people still like to think Giovanni Roccotelli came up with the move, but it was in fact Infante.

The late Argentine played as a striker and his flair for the flamboyant cropped up most obviously when the Rosario Central marksman pounced on a loose clearance to fire the ball home in the most unorthodox of fashions. Realizing he could not hit the ball with his right foot, he wrapped it around his knee to rifle into the top corner. Fortunately, the image was captured by a photographer from the ‘El Argentino’ publication and even inspired a cartoon in ‘El Grafico’. Iconic.

3. Jaiyah Saelua

via america.aljazeera.com

via america.aljazeera.com

Few can claim to be as uniquely ground-breaking as Jaiyah Saelua and if you’ve not heard of the American Samoan international star, then you’re about to. The first transgender footballer to play in a FIFA World Cup qualifier, Saelua did not come by fame easily as there were quite a few barriers to overcome. But now she is one of her country’s most famous people and widely regarded as a key player for her team where she plays as an intelligent defender.

A star in the widely-acclaimed Next Goal Wins documentary, Saelua saw her dedication and passion enable her to break into the country’s starting XI under new coach Thomas Rongen, making history in the process. Indeed, a quote from that film which really sums up her achievement and personality is when she says the following: “I want to inspire people who are like me to just go out and do what they love to do, do it to the best of their ability, don’t let people stop them from going after their dreams and just keep pushing no matter what people say.” Powerful stuff.

2. Jean-Marc Bosman

via web.de

via web.de

For a footballer who is as far from people’s minds as one of the best of all time, it might seem a little strange to call him a revolutionary at first. However, when the circumstances, facts and intricacies of his story become clear, it’s undeniable that he was exactly that. Having fought to earn footballers more rights in the 1990s, he eventually won his court case against the Belgian FA and UEFA so that footballers could move as freely as other European citizens, thus giving them more power to negotiate better deals, in what is now known as a Bosman.

Simply put, before Jean-Marc Bosman players were powerless to look for better deals before their contract had run up and were often slaves to the club’s wishes. His career was ultimately destroyed by an elongated legal battle and although he helped today’s footballers earn a better living, he lost out. A martyr for the modern game who deserved to be treated better.

1. Johan Cruyff

via espnfc.com

via espnfc.com

A veritable visionary, the late Johan Cruyff changed the way we all think about and see the game perhaps more than anybody else. The defining image of the Dutch international legend for most people remains that of him conjuring a bamboozling move of ingenuity to navigate a way past Swedish defender Jan Olsson. In a move that often defies just description, he feinted a cross with his right foot before swivelling around in one fluid motion to knock the ball behind his standing leg to leave Olsson flabbergasted.

He performed so many more feats of extra-terrestrial genius throughout his silverware-laden career, but it wasn’t just his perfect skill and luxuriating play that defined him, it must be admitted. After all, he helped create Total Football, became a special coach and kick-started the famous La Masia academy which has produced some of Barcelona’s most outstanding players. An outstanding contributor who expanded the game into new frontiers and one who will also be recalled as a genuine genius.

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