Below is our list of the all-time Top 25 Premier Players of Soccer. Who’s No. 1? Some will disagree but we give a brief reason why he’s our No. 1 guy on this list. Counting down from No 25 is:
25. Jimmy Greaves
Greaves is a hard one to place on a list like this because of his sheer lack of silverware at the top level of the game. The top goal scorer in Tottenham history with 266 goals, Greaves scored 357 goals in 516 matches during his career. He was supposed to be the player spearheading the line for England at the 1966 World Cup before injury in a group stage game took that opportunity away. Even so, Greaves was once described by Pele as the most naturally gifted player he had ever seen.
24. Roberto Baggio
The divine ponytail is another player whose career is remembered more for one mistake than for his achievements. Baggio may have blasted the crucial penalty over the bar in the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil, but his legacy is so much more than that. A gifted dribbler and passer from attacking midfield, Baggio completely changed the role of midfielders, and creative players in general, in Italy. He opened the door for creative players to succeed in the national team and he won the Ballon d’Or in 1993.
23. Thierry Henry
Henry is another player that had a hand in redefining how a position was played. When he arrived at Arsenal, playing as a striker in England was for big, powerful brutes. By the time he left the position it was one that managers were trying to fill with graceful artists on the ball. Henry had the ability to cut in off of the left wing and score into the far corner with amazing regularity. He was the key piece for Arsenal in their invincible season where they went the entire season without losing a game. Henry won two Premier Leagues, a Ligue 1 title, two La Liga crowns and the Champions League with Barcelona in 2009. Internationally, Henry won the World Cup in 1998 and the Euros in 2000.
22. Roberto Carlos
Roberto Carlos is the greatest fullback in the history of the game. While he is mostly known for his free kicks, it’s worth noting he missed far more than he scored. It is his longevity at the top of the game in the professional era that is impressive. He made 500 appearances locking down the left wing-back spot for Los Blancos, winning four league titles and three Champions League trophies. Also, when his free kicks were good they were mind blowing with the best example being his outside of the foot effort against France at la Tournoi in 1997.
21. Gerd Muller
Muller was a lethal goal scorer for West Germany in the 1970s. It was his goal that stole the 1974 World Cup from perhaps the best Dutch to ever play the game. Muller scored a stunning 68 goals in 62 appearances for West Germany to go along with almost 400 for Bayern Munich. He won the German Golden Boot on seven occasions out of the 11 years he played in the league along with topping the goal scoring rankings at the 1970 World Cup and at Euro 1972. Muller basically invented the ‘fox in the box’ style of striker, seemingly always being in the right place to poke the ball over the line.
20. Paolo Maldini
Maldini is another Italian defender of astonishing ability. The son of a former club legend, the younger Maldini outstripped his father as he played for a quarter of a century in the famous red and black of AC Milan. Amazingly, Maldini was able to play internationally for almost as long as his club career. Making his debut in 1986, Maldini last played for Italy in 2002. Along the way he picked up seven Serie A titles and five Champions Leagues trophies with the Rossoneri.
19. Bobby Charlton
Charlton was a driving force behind the Manchester United and England sides of the 1960s and he remains a legendary figure within the game to this day. Charlton was a rampaging midfielder who could always be counted on to drive his team forward and get them on the front foot when needed. After almost dying in the Munich air disaster, Charlton collected the 1966 World Cup Trophy in the same year he was announced as the European Footballer of the Year and the tournament’s Golden Ball winner.
18. Lothar Matthaus
Matthaus started his career as an attacking midfielder playing with pace and skill as he pushed Germany forwards. Over the course of five World Cups, in which he played a record 25 games, Matthaus gracefully slid down the pitch until he was playing as the best sweeper in the world. He captained his side to the 1990 World Cup, being named World Footballer of the Year at a position so technically different from the one he started playing in that the achievement is remarkable.
17. Franco Baresi
In the 1980s and early 90s the Italian league was unquestionably the best league in the world. It was where all the best foreign talent played and it was where Italian defenders of incomparable aggression and talent plied their trade. Baresi only knew one way to play the game. He was tough, powerful, aggressive, and ruthless. He wore the AC Milan shirt for 20 seasons, winning the league title six times, the European Cup three times, and the UEFA Super Cup twice. He also was handed the captaincy of his country at the age of just 22 due to his outstanding physical and mental attributes.
Garrincha was a player who was never meant to be as good as he became. Declared a cripple at birth it is hard to believe that the winger would, for a time, be considered the equal of Pele. His disability meant that Garrincha had to play with a unique bow legged style that defenders simply could never seem to figure out. He had an uncanny ability to glide past players before delivering perfect crosses into the box as he played as a pure winger who just wanted to beat his man every time he touched the ball. Garrincha was simply a joy to watch at a time when soccer could be tedious viewing.
15. Bobby Moore
Booby Moore is still the only player to captain England to a World Cup win. One of the greatest defenders in the history of the game, Moore had an innate ability to know exactly what was going to happen and was always in the right place at the right time to stop an attack. The captain of his country at 22, Moore played 108 times for England and was so valuable that he played every minute of every one of those games. Pele once called him the greatest defender ever, which Scottish manager Jock Stein called for a law against Moore playing because ‘He knows what’s happening 20 minutes before anyone else.”
14. George Best
Best only played at the top of the game for around six years but what glorious and skillful years they were. Winning a pair of league titles and a European Cup with Manchester United, Best was a tricky and skillful Northern Irish winger who could get a crowd on their feet with his electric dribbling and control of the ball. He was a strong player, one with fast twitch muscles allowing him to do anything he wanted on the pitch. Off the pitch, however, he lived too hard and he flamed out of the game quicker than he should have given his immeasurable talent.
13. Ferenc Puskas
One of the greatest strikers to ever play the game, the legendary Puskas averaged almost a goal a game for his career at both club and international level. He was the key member of the Hungarian national team in the 1950s that was known as the Mighty Magyars, a team that only lost one game in six years between 1950 and 1956 and that is considered the greatest international team to ever play the game. After moving to Real Madrid, Puskas was the top scorer in La Liga four times and won 10 league titles across his time in Hungary and Spain.
Before Cristiano Ronaldo there was Eusebio. The Black Panther was a prolific scorer and attacking threat, scoring nine goals at the 1966 World Cup in England. Averaging more than a goal a game (320 goals in 312 appearences) when playing for Benfica at the peak of his career, Eusebio had devastating pace at a time where speed in the game was uncommon. When this was combined with his ability to beat a defender on the dribble it is easy to see why he scored so many goals against terrified defenses.
11. Marco van Basten
The Dutch striker is another who could have been higher on this list had injuries not all but ended his playing days at the tender age of 28. The scorer of one of the most famous goals of all time, a wildly crazy volley against the Soviet Union at Euro 1988, van Basten was part of a Dutch side that oozed class. Winning everything in the Netherlands while at Ajax, including leading the scoring charts on four consecutive occasions, van Basten moved to Italy and won three Serie A titles, two European Cups, and three Ball d’Ors before injuries forced him out of the game.
10. Zinedine Zidane
A three-time FIFA World Player of the year winner, it is hard to shake the image of Zidane blasting Italian Marco Materazzi with a headbutt in the 2006 World Cup final from your mind. Getting past that legendary moment of hotheadedness, however, it is easy to see why Zidane is regarded as one of the greatest to ever lace up his cleats. The winner of a pair of Serie A titles with Juventus, Zidane was also successful at Real Madrid and on the international stage with France where he won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championship.
9. Michel Platini
A player who tends to get overlooked on these lists, Platini was a midfielder for France in the 1980s who could do it all. Winning three consecutive Ballon d’Ors while leading first Saint-Etienne and then Juventus to league titles, Platini was famous for his first touch and composure on the ball. Playing for a French team that historically underperformed in major tournaments, Platini scored nine goals in five games from midfield at the 1984 European Championships to almost win that title.
8. Alfredo Di Stefano
There are fewer and fewer people alive to talk about the early days of Di Stefano’s career which began back in the mid-1940s. Di Stefano was the first Real Madrid player to define what the team was about, bringing an Argentine flair to the Spanish league the likes of which had never been seen. Di Stefano, a rampaging attacker full of goals, played international soccer for three different countries. His most notable achievement is scoring in five consecutive European Cup finals as Real Madrid won the trophy an astonishing five years in a row.
7. Franz Beckenbauer
The midfielder known as “Der Kaiser” was the first man to both captain and manage his nation to World Cup title wins. Winning five Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich in his native Germany, Beckenbauer created his own position on the team in a role that had never been seen before. A tall, strong figure, Beckenbauer would routinely pick the ball up at the back and drive forward to start attacks as sort of an attacking sweeper. It is a role we see used by every major team in the game today, some 40 years after it was pioneered in Germany.
6. Johan Cruyff
Cruyff invented the brand of total football in the 1970s that we see at every level of the game today. That “tiki-taka” passing style that is based on possession and movement to wear down a team and probe for openings was developed by Cruyff (and Rinus Michels) with Cruyff being the advocate on the pitch with his technical style. Cruyff won three Ballon d’Ors between 1971 and 1974 and he made one style turn on the ball so famous that it is now named after him. Eight Eredivise and three European Cups in a row with Ajax show that “Pythagoras in Boots” was a genius.
Ronaldo is a player that could have topped this list had his career not been destroyed by injury when he was supposed to be in his prime. R9 was a complete player, one who was deadly with either foot and who had a finishing ability the likes of which has never been seen before or since. He is the youngest player to ever win the FIFA World Player of the Year award when he picked up the honor at the age of 20. Ronaldo scored 247 goals in 343 appearances at club level and he is cemented in as the best pure goal scorer of all time.
4. Diego Maradona
Maradona was the first real challenger to the crown of Pele and some will argue that the diminutive Argentine is actually the greatest to ever play the game. A playmaker of unmatched skill, Maradona had a short stature that led him to play with a balance and skillset that at times seemed to be inhuman in its effectiveness. Leading unfashionable Napoli to a pair of Italian league titles, Maradona also led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, scoring perhaps the greatest goal the game has ever seen against England in the process. Controversy cut his career short, but this was a flame that burned bright at its peak.
Pele was heralded as the greatest player in the history of the game before this new crop of players came through to usurp the king from his throne. Playing in a different era, one where defenders were basically allowed to get away with murder to stop an attack, Pele was still able to stand out with his mix of skill and athleticism. Winning the World Cup as just a 17-year-old in 1958, Pele was the hero of the 1970 World Cup as Brazil won their third title in four attempts. His 1,283 career goal total is mind blowing (though many came in semi-formal and exhibition games).
2. Lionel Messi
The all-time leading scorer in the history of the Spanish La Liga, Lionel Messi has been a phenom since birth. The winner of five Ballon d’Or trophies while building Barcelona into a dynasty, Messi has a level of ball control and vision that is unmatched in history. What knocks the little Argentine down from No. 1 on this list is that he just hasn’t been able to inspire his country to the same level that he has taken the Catalan giants. That being said, his record of 91 goals in a single calendar year may never be beaten.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo
The debate between Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will continue for generations but it is the Portuguese star who is No. 1 on this list. Ronaldo has been successful in three of the toughest leagues in the world, morphing from the creative young genius at Manchester United to a goal-scoring machine at Real Madrid and Juventus. He is the ultimate big game player, a force of nature who can will a team to a victory with no help, as he did when he led an underpowered Portugal team to the 2016 European Championship title.