The playmaker is arguably the most important player in any football team. They are the men who turn defense into attack, can control the tempo of a game and create chance after chance for their team. The most important attributes for a playmaker are passing and vision, although many of the greats on this list also possess or possessed incredible grace, technique, balance, flair, poise, and had the ability to score goals themselves.
There is something of misconception held by some that the terms ‘playmaker’ and ‘attacking midfielder’ are interchangeable. This is most assuredly not the case. An attacking midfielder is an assigned position, whilst playmakers can play in an array of different positions; from deep-lying playmakers, to wide playmakers to those who play in a withdrawn role just off the strikers, often termed the ‘false number 9’ or ‘free role’, and even sweepers.
Some of the greatest players in the history of the game have been playmakers, and as such, there was a plethora of choice and narrowing it down to 25 was by no means easy. The likes of Johnny Haynes, Martin Peters, Andres Iniesta, Rivaldo, Paul Gascoigne, Lakhdar Belloumi, Cesc Fabregas and Rui Costa all miss out, highlighting the sheer class of those included. Here are the top 25 greatest playmakers ever:
25. Gheorghe Hagi
Romania’s greatest contribution to the world of football, Gheorghe Hagi was an exceptional talent who featured for Real Madrid and Barcelona, among others, in what was a glittering career. A genius with the ball at his feet, Hagi was one of the greatest entertainers the game has ever seen, but had an occasional tendency to lash out and was sent off a number of times, particularly towards the end of his career. Hagi won over 10 titles in 19 years of professional football, as well as playing 124 times for his country.
24. Dennis Bergkamp
An artist as much as a footballer, Bergkamp had as good a technique as almost any player before or after him. For both Ian Wright and Thierry Henry he provided the perfect foil as an unselfish but incredibly talented strike partner. One of the game’s true assist kings, Bergkamp has 94 Premier League assists to his name. Only Frank Lampard and Ryan Giggs have more, both of whom played almost twice as many games. Like so many great Dutch stars, Bergkamp made his name at Ajax, before joining Inter Milan and finally Arsenal, where he spent 11 years putting chances on a plate for others, and managing to score over 100 goals himself, some of them absolute blinders.
23. Franz Beckenbauer
By far the most defensive minded player of this list, some would argue that Beckenbauer played too deep to ever be considered a ‘playmaker’. Probably the greatest defender of all-time, Beckenbauer almost created the ‘sweeper’ role, and played it better than anyone else in the world. With both Germany and Bayern Munich he had quite incredible success, winning every honor going on a club, international and individual level. An all-rounder, Beckenbauer often brought the ball out from the back and was instrumental in starting moves off and creating chances, as well as carrying out his defensive duties.
22. Roberto Baggio
Roberto Baggio will be forever tainted by that penalty miss in the 1994 World Cup final, but the only reason it was so shocking was because the Italian playmaker was the star of that tournament. The Italians, perhaps more so than any other nation, love a no. 10, and Baggio is arguably the most iconic of them all. He caused controversy when he left Fiorentina for Juventus and ended up playing for both Milan rivals as well. Technically superb and a free-kick specialist, Baggio was the best player in the world at the height of his fame, and he has the 1993 Ballon d’Or to prove it.
21. Francesco Totti
No player is as celebrated in a city as Francesco Totti is in Rome. The adoration for the ageing no. 10 can only be compared to that of a religion or cult, as his face is plastered upon walls across the city and fans gather outside the Stadio Olimpico every year to celebrate his birthday. ‘The King of Rome’, as he is known, has spent his entire 23-year career with Roma and is still going strong as he approaches his 39th birthday. Totti is renowned for playing the ‘trequartista’ role which requires little physically but a lot technically. He plays a narrow game in between the lines of the oppositions defense and midfield. The Roma legend currently has an incredible 187 assists and 299 goals to his name.
20. Paul Scholes
Paul Scholes is arguably the greatest player of the Premier League era. His range of passing was extraordinary and his vision and understanding of the game were as good as anyone’s. His list of admirers include Socrates, Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids, Andrea Pirlo, Thierry Henry, Xavi and Pep Guardiola. Most who played with or against him cite him as one of, if not the, greatest player they ever played with/against. He spent his entire career at Manchester United, in two spells, playing 718 times, scoring 155 goals and controlling countless games as the club won 11 Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups and two Champions Leagues whilst Scholes was at the club.
In his prime, in the early-mid 2000s, Ronaldinho was simply unplayable. Given a free role at Barcelona, the Brazilian was absolutely majestic. At times, he did things with a football that others could only dream of. Unlike many on this list, Ronaldinho is not best remembered for his passing ability, but rather his skill, flair, technique and trickery, but that is not to say his passing was not sublime. At his scintillating best, Ronaldinho seemed five seconds ahead of everyone else and could see and play wild passes, creating and converting chances at a whim. He was FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005, and won the Ballon d’Or in 2005. His form tailed off in his late 20s, but those who saw Ronaldinho at his best will always remember him as one of the game’s greats.
Brazilian Socrates was not your typical footballer. With a doctorate in medicine, he practiced medicine following his retirement, as well as being heavily politically involved and a chain-smoking heavy drinker. Doctor Socrates, as he became known, became one of the most distinctive figures in football because of his incredible ability and his trademark headband. Two-footed and with an unerring ability to read the game, he along with Zico, were the stars of the 1982 Brazil team. Socrates spent his best years with Botafogo and Corinthians, as well as his ability to control games and create goals, he scored 300 goals across his career.
17. Juan Schiaffino
Juan Schiaffino was ranked as Uruguay’s greatest ever player, that from a country who have an incredible passion for the sport and have had very many exceptional stars of the game. Schiaffino was of Italian-Uruguayan descent and joined Uruguayan giants Penarol as a youngster. He spent 11 years at the club before joining AC Milan and finally Roma. Playing as both an inside forward and attacking midfielder, Schiaffino was renowned for prolifically assisting others. Schiaffino scored the first of Uruguay’s two goals when they beat Brazil 2-1 in the 1950 World Cup final, one of the greatest upsets in football history.
Diego Maradona once cited Rivellino as his greatest inspiration when growing up, and it is not difficult to see why. Short in stature, Rivellino had incredible accuracy when passing a ball, particularly over large distances. He was also the man who perfected the “flip flap” move which is used regularly by many top players today. Through his close control, free-kick expertise, range of passing and distinctive mustache, Rivellino became one of the most well-known and best loved players of his generation. He was an integral part of the legendary 1970 Brazil World Cup squad, which some consider the greatest of all time.
Xavi left Barcelona this summer after 18 years of tremendous service to the Catalan giants. The midfield maestro was a product of La Masia youth academy, and it has been said that no player epitomizes the Barcelona way of playing football better than Xavi. He rarely carries the ball, preferring to present himself, receive the ball, take a touch, and move it on again. It was Xavi who ensured that Barcelona dominated possession in every game they played for around a decade. He has won eight La Liga titles, three Copa del Rey’s, four Champions League’ s, a World Cup and two European Championship’s, as well as an array of individual awards. In 18 years Xavi has rarely lost possession of the ball and will be remembered as one of the greatest midfield players ever due to his ability to find space and make pinpoint passes.
14. Gianni Rivera
A genius of the game, Gianni Rivera is best remembered for his footballing intelligence. As well as his vision and reading of the game, Rivera also had the skill and technique to capitalize upon what he could see and other could not. He spent almost his entire career with AC Milan, where he won the league three time, the Coppa Italia four times and the European Cup twice. With Italy, he won the European Championships and reached the final of the 1970 World Cup, where Italy lost to Brazil. He won the Ballon d’Or in 1969 and was even Serie A top scorer in 1973, despite being a central midfielder.
13. Enzo Francescoli
Zinedine Zidane has described Enzo Francescoli as his greatest inspiration in the football world when he was growing up, and even went as far as naming one of his sons ‘Enzo’ after the Uruguayan legend. Nicknamed ‘The Prince’, Francescoli began his career with Wanderers in Uruguay and despite being heralded as one of the nation’s greatest ever players, he felt he was undervalued in his native land, and moved instead to neighboring Argentina, where he still lives today. In between his two spells with River Plate, Francescoli played for RC Paris, Marseille, Cagliari and Torino. Despite retiring in 1997, Francescoli appears to have not lost it, having scored four goals in Ariel Ortega’s testimonial in 2012.
12. Andrea Pirlo
What is there left to say about Italian legend Andrea Pirlo? Like a fine wine he has grown better with age, and how foolish must AC Milan feel after letting him go on a free transfer in 2011. Unlike most on this list who play quite far up the pitch, Pirlo has spent most of his career as a deep-lying playmaker. He often takes up a position just in front of the defense where he can see the whole pitch and control the game with his exceptional range of passing. In Italy, he has become known as the architect as he is instrumental in building play. Pirlo is also a world class free-kick specialist and has won six Serie A titles, two Champions Leagues and one World Cup.
FIFA named Zico the eighth greatest footballer in history, although first placed on that list thought he should have come higher; Pele once said, “throughout the years, the one player who came closest to me was Zico”. He picked up the nickname the ‘white Pele’ over his career, and was best known for his technique, vision, passing and finishing. As an attacking midfielder, Zico spent the vast majority of his career at Flamengo, playing just over 800 times and scoring 539 goals, a quite incredible achievement from midfield. The latter stages of his career involved spells with Udinese and the Kashima Antlers. He is now the manager of FC Goa in the Indian Super League.
10. Jose Manuel Moreno
Along with Lionel Messi, Alfredo di Stefano and Diego Maradona, Jose Manuel Moreno is probably among the finest footballers to emerge from Argentina. Best known for his vision and technique, Moreno was the first ever player to win league titles in four different countries. The bulk of his career was spent with the legendary River Plate team of the late 1930s and early 1940s, which became known as ‘the Machine’. Moreno was a heavy drinker and smoker who rarely attended training sessions, but allowances were made for the star such was his ability.
Legendary central midfielder Didi is undoubtedly one of the greatest midfield players in football history. He was the complete midfielder, possessing technique, vision and superb stamina. He played for Brazil in three World Cups, winning two and being named player of the tournament in one. He played for eight different club sides; having been the best player at the 1958 World Cup he joined Real Madrid, but departed shortly after, due to disagreements with Alfredo di Stefano. Didi invented the ‘dry leaf’ free-kick technique which was regularly used by Juninho and more recently Cristiano Ronaldo.
8. Michel Platini
President of UEFA and potential future FIFA president Michel Platini, is one of the finest midfield players that the game has ever seen. He was named the sixth greatest player of all-time in the FIFA Player of the Century vote, and won the Ballon d’Or three times. Platini spread his career evenly between Nancy, Saint-Etienne and Juventus, finding particular success with the Italian side. One of the best passers of the ball that the game has ever seen, Platini also had exquisite technique and remarkable ability from dead ball situations. Platini won titles in France and Italy, as well as a European Cup, but his finest achievement came in 1984 when he was named ‘Player of the Tournament’ as he guided France to victory in the European Championships.
7. Luis Suarez Miramontes
Luis Suarez, or ‘Luisito’, is considered by many as Spain’s greatest ever footballer. He is considered a legend at both Barcelona and Inter Milan, where he spent the majority of his footballing career. With Barcelona, Suarez played as an attacking midfielder and as an inside forward, where his link up play and explosive shooting ability saw him score 61 goals in 122 games. However, like so many players, Suarez adapted his game with age.
When he joined Inter Milan, he began to drop deeper and deeper, before he eventually became a deep-lying playmaker, where he was arguably even better than when deployed further forward. His goal scoring stats weren’t as impressive, but his contribution was. Nicknamed ‘the Architect’, he won multiple titles in Italy and Spain, two European Cups, one European Championship with Spain, and won one Ballon d’Or, finishing second on two further occasions.
6. Zinedine Zidane
Zinedine Zidane is, without doubt, one of the greatest footballers in the history of the game. In the UEFA Golden Jubilee Poll he was named the greatest player of the last 50 years, and whilst the voting may have been biased, with Zidane still fresh in the minds unlike some of the other candidates, he certainly deserves consideration in any such list. One of the most elegant players to have graced a football pitch, Zidane had balance, composure, technique and wonderful vision.
He played for Cannes, Bordeaux, Juventus and Real Madrid, setting a record transfer fee when he joined the latter. Zidane won 14 trophies in total, the most memorable being the 1998 World Cup, 2000 European Championship and the 2002 Champions League, of which Zidane was outstanding in all three. He was three-time FIFA World Player of the Year, a joint record with Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
5. Michael Laudrup
The key playmaker in Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ was always likely to be a world class talent, and Michael Laudrup certainly was just that. He has been named Denmark’s greatest ever player, the best foreign player in Spanish football over the last 25 years and named in Real Madrid’s greatest foreign XI. Laudrup played for eight different teams in a glittering career, but his best days came with Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Regarded by most as the best player of the 1990s; Raul, Iniesta and Guardiola have all described him as the best player of all-time, whilst Romario, Stoichkov and Figo all consider him the best player they played with or against. Often questioned about his work-ethic and application, there were never any doubts about his ability. He won titles in Italy, Spain and Holland, and is now managing in Qatar.
4. Lionel Messi
When football aficionados look back in 50 years time, one suspects they will consider Lionel Messi as the greatest of all time. At Barcelona, he has practically re-written the record books. He became the club’s all-time top scorer at the age of 24, he has the most goals in a single season, the most goals in a calendar year, the most goals in La Liga history, the most goals in Champions League history, the most goals in El Clasico history, the most goals in Catalan Derby history and the most Golden Ball awards in history.
Just as remarkable as all the above though, is the fact that Messi also holds the record for the most La Liga assists in history, exemplifying what a wonderful playmaker he is. Although he spent many years as the focal point of Barca’s attack, he has always had a tendency to drop deep, collect the ball, move it on, or drive with it, and make things happen. He has won four Ballon d’Ors, but perhaps most remarkably of all, he is still only 28.
3. Alfredo di Stefano
Alfredo di Stefano is regarded by many as the most complete player in football history. Just like Messi, di Stefano was deployed as a forward, but whilst strike partner Ferenc Puskas would always play high up the pitch, di Stefano was not afraid to drop so deep he would regularly pick the ball up off the defenders before carrying the team forward. He is best remembered for his time at Real Madrid, where the club achieved unparalleled success, winning fiveEuropean Cup competitions.
Pele, Eusebio, Suarez, Mazzola and John Charles have all described him as the most complete player they ever saw. He scored 376 goals in 522 games as well as providing a wealth of opportunities and chances for his teammates, which were more often than not converted by the great Ferenc Puskas. Di Stefano won the Ballon d’Or twice and has since been named in the World XI of the Twentieth Century.
2. Johan Cruyff
Few would argue that Johan Cruyff was one of the finest players in football history, and his influence upon the game as a player is probably greater than any other players. The ‘Total Football’ of Ajax and Holland probably wouldn’t have been possible without its star pupil, Cruyff. Immortalized by the ‘Cruyff turn’, he won three Ballon d’Ors and countless trophies. The IFFHS named him the European Player of the Century, whilst he finished second to Pele in FIFA’s World Player of the Century vote and third in a later poll.
Cruyff was a genius at finding space, he would roam from forward positions, into the midfield, out on the wing and all the way back to the defensive line to pick the ball up and confuse his markers. Cruyff famously said, “Football is a game you play with your brain,” and as a creative playmaker, there have been few as effective as the Dutch legend.
1. Diego Maradona
A quite incredible talent, El Diego will forever be remembered as one of the great figures of the beautiful game. He came joint top with Pele in the FIFA Player of the Twentieth Century award. Only 5-foot-5, Maradona had a very low center of gravity which allowed for his incredible maneuverability, turn of pace and ability to skip past the best defenders in the world as if they weren’t there. He is the only player to set world record fees twice, and is adored at all six of the club’s that he played for.
He is most adored in his home land of Argentina though, where ‘the Golden Boy’ has almost god-like status. Never has a team won a World Cup being so dependent on the performance of one man as Argentina in the 1986 tournament, where Maradona was simply unplayable. A classic number 10, Maradona’s greatest attributes were his dribbling, close control, vision, burst of acceleration and his passing. Michel Platini once said, “the things I can do with a football, he [Maradona] could do with an orange.”
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