Since soccer is the world’s most popular sport there have literally been millions of players who have kicked a ball over the years. This makes the choosing of the 20 best soccer players ever a difficult task. Before the invention of the internet and YouTube, fans either had to watch their heroes in action live by showing up at the stadium or by tuning in to their local TV channels once or twice a week. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of existing film footage of some of the former greats and younger supporters will never be able to witness their magic.
Along with the rest of the world, the game itself has also changed over the course of time. Instead of seeing five forwards lined up on the pitch along with a trio of midfielders and two defenders in a 2-3-5 formation, many fans are now subject to defensive tactics and formations such as 4-5-1. In fact, there have even been occasions when managers didn’t even bother to play one single forward. The offensive way of thinking generally led to more goals and scoring chances in past decades and that’s why most of the world’s top players are known for their scoring exploits. Of course, the goaltenders saw a lot more shots in that bygone era and some of them stood out for their extraordinary agility while pulling off the most remarkable saves.
Just four of the top 20 players are still active and two of the list are goaltenders. There are three Brazilian and German players along with two each from Argentina, England, France, Germany and Portugal. There is also one player from each of Holland, Hungary, Italy, Northern Ireland, the Soviet Union and Spain.
20 Lev Yashin - Soviet Union
The first of two goaltenders to make the list is former Soviet Union great Lev Yashin, who starred for club and country during a career which spanned from 1950 to 1970. Yashin spent his entire club career with Dynamo Moscow where he appeared in 326 contests and also managed to score a goal for his side. Yashin played 78 times for the Russian/Soviet Union national team. Yashin played in four World Cups and posted 270 clean sheets during his career and saved more than 150 penalty shots.
19 Gordon Banks - England
England’s Gordon Banks will go down in history as arguably the best goaltender ever in the sport. His brilliant performances led England to the World Cup in 1966 and his famous save in the 1970 tournament off of Pele may never be matched. Banks played 73 games for England and also appeared for several club sides beginning in 1958 including Leicester City and Stoke City. Unfortunately, Banks lost the sight in one of his eyes in a car crash in 1972. FIFA named Banks the goalie of the year six times and he finished his career in 1977 after playing 679 club games with almost 50 of them coming with just one good eye.
18 George Best - Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland bad boy George Best made a name for himself at Manchester United during the Swinging Sixties. Best was well known in some circles as being some sort of international playboy, but the man possessed some of the most amazing dribbling skills ever seen on a soccer pitch. The attacking midfielder played from 1963 to 1983 with numerous teams in several different countries after leaving Manchester in 1974. Best scored nine goals in 37 outings for his homeland and 181 in 474 contests with Man United. Best finished his career with 253 goals in 709 career club games. He won the European Cup with United in 1968 and was also named Europe’s player of the year that season.
17 Zico - Brazil
There are numerous Brazilian legends to choose from when making a best-of list and Zico was certainly one of the most skilled players South America’s biggest country has ever produced. His given name was Arthur Antunes Coimbra and he played as an attacking midfielder between 1971 and 1994. Zico scored 48 times in 71 international appearances and added 476 more in 697 club games. He played in three World Cups and was known as an excellent passer and free-kick specialist. Zico was named player of the year twice in the early 1980s and went on to manage after hanging up his boots.
16 Xavi Hernandez - Spain
While Spain has become a soccer powerhouse over the past decade or so, the nation wasn’t always considered to be a breeding ground for great players. However, defending midfielder Xavi Hernandez has played consistently at the Grade A level with Barcelona since 1997 and has 84 goals in 766 career club appearances. He’s also scored a dozen times in 133 outings with Spain. Hernandez has won a Spanish record 25 club trophies and has also earned dozens of personal awards over the years including major world and European accolades. Even though he’s now 35, Hernandez plans on playing club football in Qatar for the next three seasons.
15 Bobby Charlton - England
After all these years, attacking midfielder Bobby Charlton is still England’s all-time national team scoring leader with 49 goals in 106 games. Charlton starred for Manchester United from 1956 to 1973 before moving to Preston North End and ending his career with Waterford United in 1976. Charlton scored 260 times in 807 club appearances with many of his goals coming from ferocious long-range shots. Charlton won both the World Cup and the Ballon D’or in 1966. He played in four World Cups and incredibly, received just two yellow cards during his entire professional career.
14 Ferenc Puskas - Hungary
From 1944 to 1966 the world witnessed one of soccer’s greatest goal scorers in Ferenc Puskas of Hungary. He scored 84 times in 85 appearances for his homeland and had another 514 in 529 club appearances in Spain and Hungary. Puskas starred with Real Madrid and led the Spanish league in scoring on four occasions. He also hammered in seven goals in a pair of European Cup finals. Overall, Puskas won five league championships at Budapest Honved and another five with Real Madrid after joining them in 1958. In addition, he also owns a trio of European Cup medals.
13 Michel Platini - France
Before he became head of UEFA, Michel Platini of France enjoyed a pretty good career from 1973 to 1987 with the likes of Juventus, Nancy and St-Etienne. He helped France capture the European Championships in 1984 and then guided Juventus to the Italian Serie A title the next year. The attacking midfielder scored 41 goals in 72 games for France and took home the Ballon d'Or on three different occasions. Platini knew where the back of the net was and finished his career with 312 club goals in 580 fixtures.
12 Zinedine Zidane - France
Former French international attacking midfielder Zinedine Zidane was named the top player in the world on three occasions by FIFA and also took home a Ballon d’Or award. For some fans, he’ll always be remembered for head butting Marco Materazzi of Italy in the 2006 World Cup Final and his subsequent red card. Still, he makes the top 20 on his consistent fine play and for leading France to the World Cup at home with a 3-0 win over Brazil in 1998. He starred for Cannes, Bordeaux, Juventus and Real Madrid and had 31 goals in 108 games with France along with 126 club goals.
11 Alfredo Di Stefano - Italy
Alfredo Di Stefano actually played for three different international squads during his career as he was born in Argentina and then moved to Europe with his Italian parents. Because of his heritage, Di Stefano suited up for Argentina, Colombia, and Spain. He scored six goals in six games for both Colombia and Argentina and then chipped in 23 more in 31 matches with Spain. His career lasted from 1943 to 1966 with his best years coming at Real Madrid in Spain. Di Stefano banged in 484 goals in 665 club outings. The striker helped Madrid win five straight European Cups and scored in each of the five finals.
10 Lothar Matthaus - Germany
German international midfielder/sweeper Lothar Matthaus played 150 times for his country and represented it in a world record five World Cups. He scored 23 international goals and added 204 more in 782 club matches between 1979 and 2000. He captained his squad to the World Cup title in 1990 and captured the European Footballer of the Year award. A year later, Matthaus took home the first ever World Player of the Year award handed out by FIFA. Matthaus was named the German Footballer of the Year in 1999 at the age of 38. Her also won the award back in 1990. He’s Germany’s most capped player ever and holds the record for World Cup appearances at 25.
9 Johan Cruyff - Holland
Dutchman Johan Cruyff became a hometown star for Amsterdam Ajax during the 1960s and then excelled with Spain’s Barcelona in the following decade. He’s one of the best ever European-born players and is right at home on this list. FIFA named him to World Team of the 20th Century back in 1998 as well as the organization’s World Cup Dream Team. Cruyff captured a trio of Ballon D’Or awards and led Ajax to three European Cups and eight Dutch championships. However, he never managed to win a World Cup during his career which ran from 1964 to 1984.
8 Franz Beckenbauer - Germany
German defender Franz Beckenbauer was considered a bit too robotic by some, but as a footballing genius by most. The two-time winner of the European player of the year award played between 1964 and 1984. The midfielder turned sweeper won the World Cup in 1974 along with five German Bundesliga crowns and three European titles at Bayern Munich. When he was finished in Europe he briefly played with Pele for at the New York Cosmos. Beckenbauer wasn’t a big scorer with 14 goals in 113 games for Germany, but became the first player to reach the century mark in international appearances.
7 Ronaldo - Brazil
Before Cristiano Ronaldo there was just Ronaldo of Brazil. He starred for several teams from 1993 to 2011, including Barcelona, Real Madrid and AC Milan. Ronaldo won FIFA’s Player of the Year award three times and scored 62 times in 98 international games. The forward ended his career with 352 goals in 518 contests. Ronaldo was just 17 when he won his first World Cup in 1994 and added another in 2002. Ronaldo won the World Cup Golden Boot and Golden Ball during his career and scored 15 goals in World Cup games, which is the second-most in history. He’s also Brazil’s second leading international goalscorer.
6 Eusebio - Portugal
Eusebio, also known as the Black Panther and his full name Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, was born in Mozambique in 1942, but starred for Portugal. He was at his peak during the 1966 World Cup in England, when he scored nine goals to lead the tournament. Sadly, Eusebio passed away last year, but will always be remembered for his thrilling play between 1957 and 1978. Benfica fans will always remember his Eusebio also scored 53 goals in European club competitions. The former two-time European Golden Boot winner scored 41 times in 64 appearances with Portugal and added 580 club goals in 575 matches.
5 Gerd Muller - Germany
Gerd Muller of Germany was one of the best strikers the game has ever known. He won the Golden Boot at the 1970 World Cup with 10 goals and was also named the European Footballer of the Year for that 12 month period. The IFFHS ranks Muller as the 13th best world player in history and the ninth best to ever come out of Europe. Muller played from 1963 to 1981 and scored a remarkable 68 goals in 62 encounters for West Germany. He added 66 goals in 74 European club competitions and finished his career with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in America with 655 goals under his belt in 709 club games.
4 Diego Maradona - Argentina
Argentine midfielder Diego Maradona will always be known for the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal he scored against England at the 1986 World Cup, but he’ll also go down in history as one of the sport’s greatest performers. FIFA named him and Pele as co-winners of the top player of the 20th century award. Maradona entertained fans between 1976 and 1997, but his red card at the 1982 World Cup and his expulsion from the 1994 tournament for drug use tarnish his image. He led Argentina to the World Cup in 1986 and also helped Italian side Napoli to a pair of Serie A championships. Maradona retired with 34 goals to his name in 91 games for Argentina.
3 Lionel Messi-Argentina
Argentine international striker Lionel Messi has made his claim to fame playing with Spanish La Liga giants Barcelona. The 27-year-old has been named the FIFA player of the year four times during his career, which sets a new record, and captured the award four years in a row. He holds numerous Spanish La Liga scoring records including being the youngest player to score 200 goals in the competition. Messi is the league’s and Barcelona’s all-time top scorer. The superb striker also set a record in 2012 with 91 goals during the calendar year.
2 Cristiano Ronaldo - Portugal
Portuguese international forward Cristiano Ronaldo of Madeira Island became a household name after joining Manchester United from Sporting Lisbon back in 2003. Since then, he moved on to Real Madrid in Spain in 2009 and has arguably become the best player on the planet. The 30-year-old had 400 goals to his name by the time he was 28 and has been named the best player in the world by FIFA three times. Ronaldo has already represented his country 119 times and has 52 goals to his name and has another 426 goals in 623 club contests along with numerous other pieces of silverware.
1 Pele - Brazil
Since Pele was born in October of 1940, his brilliance will be lost on most of today’s younger fans. However, most people who saw him play regard the Brazilian named Edson Arantes do Nascimento to be the best player to ever lace up a pair of football boots. The International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) voted Pele as the player of the century. He played professionally between 1956 and 1977 with Santos and the New York Cosmos and helped Brazil win the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970. This makes him the only player in history to play for three World Cup winners. Pele scored a reported 1,281 goals during his career with 77 of them coming in 91 games for Brazil.