Pele, Beckenbauer, Maradona, Cruyff, Zidane, Ronaldo, Messi; the greatest players of all time are household names, even to those who don't follow the beautiful game, or so you might think. The truth is, some of the greatest players that the world has ever seen have been reduced to mere footnotes in the grand history of soccer. This is a great shame given that some of the players on this list changed the game forever, even inventing new positions and styles of play.
Some of these players played before the dawn of the TV and in the days before millions across the globe watched soccer from the comfort of their own home; this was a phenomenon which largely occurred around the time of the 1966 World Cup. As such, the achievements of players before that time has been forgotten to a certain extend. Other players are heroes in the places in which they played, but for one reason or another never played on a major stage, and have thus been forgotten by the rest of the world.
Of course, you may have heard of some of the players on this list. Extreme soccer aficionados may have even heard of all these players, but the vast majority will only have heard of somewhere between none and a few of the great players on this list, who all deserve to have their stories and achievements known. Here are the top 25 greatest soccer players you've never heard of:
As far as strikers go, they don't come much more prolific than Josef Bican. The RSSSF have Bican down as scoring over 800 goals in officially recognized matches, more than any other soccer player in history. Whilst the IFFHS named Bican the greatest goal scorer of the last century. Bican was a member of the Austrian 'Wunderteam' of the 1930s, and played for eight teams over the course of his career, although his longest and greatest spell came with Slavia Prague, where he scored 395 goals in 217 games. Bican was known for his incredible speed; he could run the 100 meters in 10.8 seconds, as fast as some Olympic sprinters of that era.
Robin Friday was an incredibly gifted English forward who's career was cut short at the age of 25 due to his smoking, drinking and drug taking. Friday spent the vast majority of his career at Reading, where he has been named the clubs all-time greatest player. Friday's greatest attributes were his ability on the ball and his footballing intelligence. He scored 46 goals in 121 games for Reading before he was sold to Cardiff due to his growing drug problems. He retired at the age of 25 and died aged 38, following a heart attack.
Nicolae Dobrin is well-known within Romania, but has remained largely unknown to most. A majestic attacking midfielder, Dobrin is regarded by those who saw him as one of the finest dribblers the game has ever seen. Dobrin spent almost his entire career with Romanian side Arges Pitesti, making his debut in 1959 and leaving the club in 1981. Real Madrid tried to sign him after he scored against them at the Bernabeu, but after meetings with the Romanian leader, Dobrin was denied the move under the communist regime, things could have been very different had he been allowed to join Los Blancos.
Although not his birth name, Magico Gonzalez became known as 'Mago Gonzalez' from a young age and eventually 'Magico Gonzalez' after he moved to Spain. El Salvador's greatest ever footballer, Gonzalez attracted the attention of Spanish sides Atletico Madrid and Cadiz whilst playing in his native El Salavador, and it was the latter he joined. He helped the team to promotion and became a fan favorite for his incredible skill and goals. He is best known for his incredible goal against Barcelona, in which he dribbled the ball all the way from his own half before slotting past the goalkeeper.
They say you can prove anything with facts, and you can certainly prove that Fernando Peyroteo was a man who knew how to find the back of the net. 331 goals in 197 games makes Peyroteo the most clinical striker in the history of European football. He spent his entire 12 year career with Sporting Lisbon, where he won eleven major titles and was named the league's top scorer in six different seasons. Peyroteo also scored 14 goals in 20 caps for Portugal, before becoming the national team manager and handing the great Eusebio his international debut.
Kazimierz Deyna may be a familiar name to supporters of Manchester City, as he spent a season there, and also those who saw the San Diego Shockers in the early 1980s, but neither set of supporters saw Deyna at his epic best. A natural playmaker, Deyna was prolific in the creating and taking of chances. It was with Legia Warsaw that he played his best football, and the likes of Real Madrid, AC Milan, Inter Milan, AS Monaco and Bayern Munich all tried to acquire his services, but were denied by Poland's communist regime. He came third in the 1974 European Footballer of the Year vote to the great Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer. He died in a car crash at the age of 39.
If you have had of the name Dondinho, the odds are it was in relation to someone commenting on his far more famous son, Brazil legend Pele. Yet Dondinho was a great player in his own right. While he would never reach the heights of winning three World Cups like his son, or even earn a cap for the Brazilian national team, Dondinho was prolific for mostly lesser sides in Brazil. He had scored 859 goals in 786 games when he finally got his move to Atletico Mineiro, but he was injured on his debut and never played for the club again.
Cha Bum-Kun, or 'Tscha Bum', as he was nicknamed by the Germans, was a South Korean footballer who was capable of playing as both a striker or a winger. Having made a name for himself in South Korea and with the national team, Bum-Kun was keen to play in the Bundesliga, and he got his wish in 1978 when he joined SV Darmstadt. He later played for Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Lerkusen, becoming a huge fan favorite, winning the UEFA Cup with both teams; he is also South Korea's all-time leading scorer.
Zeki Riza Sporel is another man with an extraordinary goal scoring record. Regarded by many as Turkey's greatest ever striker, Sporel was born into the Ottoman Empire but was a young player when the empire collapsed, and it was Sporel who scored the first two goals for the Turkish national team, in their first ever game, a 2-2 draw against Romania. Sporel scored a total of 15 goals in 16 games for the newly-formed Turkish national team, but it was his record for Fenerbahce which really highlights his goal scoring prowess. Sporel spent his entire career with the Istanbul club, scoring 470 goals in 352 games.
Dragon Dzajic is undoubtedly one of Europe's most underrated footballers, largely down to the fact that he spent his prime years in Yugoslavia, a division which receives very little coverage. An exceptional crosser and dribbler of the ball, and also known as a free-kick specialist, Dzajic was named Player of the Tournament and Top Scorer at the 1968 European Championships, a year in which he finished third in the Ballon d'Or, behind George Best and Bobby Charlton. Dzajic won 17 trophies with Red Star Belgrade, including 5 league titles, and was named the greatest player to have hailed from Serbia & Montenegro in 2004 at the UEFA Jubilee Awards.
Almost unanimously regarded as China's greatest ever player, Lee Wai Tong, sometimes referred to as Li Huitang, was an incredibly successful striker in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Born in Hong Kong, he spent almost all of his career at South China AA, where he helped establish them as the nation's most successful club. In 1976 a German magazine set about creating a list of the greatest players of all time, the top 5 read; Pele, Puskas, Di Stefano, Stanley Matthews and Lee Wai Tong. He played at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, impressing enough to attract the interest of Arsenal and Red Star F.C., but neither side succeeded in signing Tong, who scored a reported 1,260 goals over his long career.
A tragic figure of the beautiful game, Gigi Meroni was considered Italy's answer to George Best as he made a name for himself in Serie A with Genoa and Torino. Meroni did not score ordinary goals, and there was no better example of this than his fine strike at the San Siro against Inter Milan in 1967. Having embarked upon one of his famous winding runs, Meroni lobbed the ball over the goalkeeper and into the top corner of the net. Inter had not lost a home game in three year prior to Meroni's winner. He died that year, after being hit by a car, he was only 24.
Arthur Friedenreich was arguably the first real star of the South American game, and certainly the first black player to reach international stardom. Yet for someone who was so highly regarded in his day, the modern football fan probably has very little knowledge of Arthur Friednreich. Half Brazilian and half German, brought up in Sao Paolo, Friedenreich's multi-ethnic background meant he was allowed to play the game when few players of Afro-Brazilian origin were given such an opportunity. When Brazil toured Europe in 1925, Fridenreich was referred to as the 'King of Football'.
In a line of players which includes the likes of Giuseppe Meazza, Paolo Maldini, Roberto Baggio, Franco Baresi and Andrea Pirlo, it is some mark of Valentino Mazzola that he is still regarded by many as the greatest Italian footballer of all time. An old-fashioned number 10, Mazzola was an incredibly complete player who was as hard-working as he was technically skilled, and also captained the great Torino team of the 1940s, known as 'Grande Torino'. Mazzola won the Serie A title five times, scoring 148 goals, but died in the Superga air disaster, along with all of his Torino teammates, at the age of 30.
Nicknamed the 'Wizard of Maghreb', Lakhdar Belloumi is one of Africa's greatest ever footballers. He is considered to have invented the 'blind pass' and has been named Algeria's greatest footballer on numerous occasions. Having only played in Algeria and Dubai, Belloumi's achievements at club level have been largely overlooked. Most who know of him do so only because of the 1982 World Cup, when a goal and assist by Belloumi resulted in a historic 2-1 victory for minnows Algeria over the much-fancied West German team. Both Barcelona and Juventus tried to sign Belloumi, but injury prevented his move to the latter, he was recently voted the fourth greatest African footballer of all time.
Mario de Castro is the most prolific goal scorer in soccer history. That is to say, his goals to game ratio is greater than that of any top flight professional footballer in recorded history. He scored a total of 195 goals in 100 games, giving him a goals to game ratio of 1.95. Castro played in a front three which has been described as the most deadly attack in the game's history. Made up of Castro, Said and Jairo, they formed the front three for Atletico Mineiro between 1926 and 1931, when Castro retired aged 26 after the club president shot an opposition fan.
Few countries can boast to having had more truly world class players throughout their history than Hungary. Relative footballing nobodies these days, Hungary have had a number of great players throughout the years, none more so than the golden era of the Magical Magyars of the 1950s. Imre Schlosser pre-dates that great team, playing his football between 1905 and 1928. Schlosser made his international debut at 16 and spent more than 20 years playing for his country. A gifted striker with a knack for scoring goals, Schlosser scored 417 goals in 320 games at club level, being named Hungarian top scorer on seven occasions and European top scorer on four.
Another Hungarian, and this time it is one of the Magical Magyars. Hidegkuti has been criminally underrated over the years, and his contribution to the game of football is immeasurable. He was the first post-war player to play as a deep-lying forward. This meant he was able to drop off the front man, finding space, confusing defenders and generally causing havoc for the opposition. Hidegkuti was so effective in this role that almost every team in the world now plays with some form of withdrawn forward. He won gold at the Olympics with Hungary in 1952 and reached the World Cup final in 1954.
When it comes to Bulgarian footballers, there is normally one man who comes to mind. For most football fans, Hristo Stoichkov is regarded as the symbol of Bulagria, and is widely acknowledged as the countries finest player. Yet, when the Bulgarians were asked to name their greatest player of all-time, they voted for Georgi Asparuhov. A great striker, Asparuhov's lack of acknowledgement is largely down to his playing career being spent entirely in Bulgaria. He became the first player to ever score twice away at Benfica in the 1965 European Cup, a year in which Benfica tried to sign him and he was nominated for the Ballon d'Or. He died in a car crash at the age of 28, over 550,000 people attended his funeral.
Possibly the greatest English defender of all time, with only Sir Bobby Moore running him close, Neil Franklin was as natural a footballer as they come. In the days of torn up and waterlogged pitches, Franklin represented a new breed of footballer, the ball playing defender. Not content with winning the ball and hoofing it clear, Franklin looked to bring the ball out of defense and make an accurate pass. He was arguably England's second best player to Stanley Matthews in the 1950s, before an ill-fated move to Colombia and the rejection of England for the 1950 World Cup saw his career come crashing down.
With nicknames like 'the footballing Nureyev' and 'the Greek Maradona', it is not difficult to realize what type of player Vasilis Hatzipanagis was. A gifted attacking midfielder, Hatzipanagis danced around defenders as if they weren't there. When New York Cosmos took on a World XI in 1984, the World XI included the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Mario Kempes, Peter Shilton, and none other than one Vasilis Hatzipanagis. Born in Tashkent, Hatzipanagis' only route out of the Soviet Union was a move to Greece.
He signed a horribly binding contract which essentially meant he could not leave his new club Iraklis, and despite interest from Arsenal, Lazio, Porto and others, he never got the chance to exhibit his skills on a major stage.
Paulino Alcantara was the first Asian player to play for a European club, and is still widely regarded as the greatest Asian footballer of all time. Half Spanish and half Filipino, he was born in the Philippines but moved to Barcelona at the age of 3. He would go on to spend all but two years of his 15 year career at the Catalan club. He made his Barcelona debut at 15, scoring a hat-trick, and remains the club's youngest ever goalscorer to this day. He scored 224 goals in 200 games but his legacy was tainted by his ties to the rise of fascism which was occurring in Europe at that time.
It is incredible to think that many people who hail from the country who gave us Alfredi di Stefano, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi could consider someone else their greatest ever player. However, Argentine fans of a certain vintage still maintain that Jose Manuel Moreno was the most complete player in the history of the game. He spent the vast majority of his career at the fine River Plate team of the 1940's who were so dominant that they were handed the nickname, 'The Machine'. He was the first man in history to win domestic titles in four different countries, and he achieved all this despite being a heavy drinker and chain smoker throughout his career.
The third and final Hungarian to make this list, Sandor Kocsis is arguably the greatest Hungarian footballer of all-time, and if not, he comes a very close second. Ferenc Puskas is one of the best known names in football history, certainly of his era, yet the name Sandor Kocsis does not seem to carry the same weight. This is unusual given that Kocsis' goal scoring record for Hungary was even better than that of the great Puskas, a record which included an incredible seven hat-tricks. Perhaps it is because Kocsis spent far more of his career in Hungary, only moving at 29, when he joined Barcelona, and only playing 75 games for the club.
Matthias Sindelar is a man whose story should be heard, even by those with no interest in football. Arguably the greatest of all the pre-war players, Sindelar played the game in an era where physical prowess was thought to be paramount. Yet Sindelar, who was nicknamed the 'paperman' due to his slight build, relied purely on technical excellence and footballing intelligence. He invented the withdrawn forward role which was never played so well until Hidegkuti mastered it in the 1950s.
It is said that people didn't only watch Austria Vienna games to watch the team, but rather to watch Sindelar, and learn how the game should be played. He was the star of the Austrian 'Wunderteam' and he scored goals against the greatest national teams of his day, including Hungary, Italy and England. He refused to play for Germany after Austria was annexed and died under very mysterious circumstances soon after making the decision. The Gestapo were known to have files on Sindelar and many believe they were responsible for his death.