25. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
We often hear about unique athletes being billed as ‘unicorns’ for their ability to play the game at an extremely high level despite having an atypical appearance. Never did anyone believe that the son of a Bosnian man and a Croatian woman — growing up in the slums of Sweden — would idolize Brazilian footballers on grainy tapes en route to becoming one of the most prolific strikers in the history of the sport.
In that sense, the gruff Ibrahimović represents the global nature of the game which has taken a stranglehold in recent decades. The 6-foot-5 striker is not universally liked by peers, ex-teammates, current teammates, or those watching from home. He’s a polarizing figure, to be sure. However, based upon his talent and production levels, there’s no denying how special Ibrahimović has been throughout his career. You don’t see players at his height willing to take defenders on with pace, quickness, elite skill, and aggression. It’s as if you took the prototypical No. 9 from Scandinavia (tall, rugged, physical) and gave him the skill-set of a player from South America. You just don’t see guys like this very often — not to mention players who literally have succeeded in virtually every big league around the world (Serie A, La Liga, English Premier League, Eredivisie, Ligue 1).
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24. Bobby Charlton
No list of the top 25 footballers of all-time would be complete without Sir Bobby Charlton’s inclusion. The Man U legend was simply that — a legendary footballer who paved the way for many to follow in his footsteps. He was also the type of guy an entire nation could get behind. When England won the World Cup in 1966, Charlton won the Ballon d’Or for his prowess as one of the world’s biggest offensive threats.
The impact he had on English football is hard to exactly quantify. He was among the leading figures who aided in bringing English football to the forefront of the European game. Charlton was not only instrumental in helping to make Manchester United a global brand, but also in galvanizing The Three Lions into a very formidable side.
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23. Franco Baresi
Baresi played his entire 20-year career with famed Italian giant A.C. Milan. During this time, his record as a professional was marvelous. He was part and parcel in helping Milan win six Serie A titles, two European Super Cup trophies, and three Champions League titles. Oh yeah — and Baresi was a fixture in Italy winning the 1982 World Cup.
What made Baresi special was his ability to read the game. He couldn’t rely upon his physical talents. As a centre-back, he stood only 5-foot-9. Yet, he didn’t shy away from getting stuck in on challenges. His smaller frame enabled him to press relentlessly — as well as track back wonderfully well. Baresi’s ability to break lines and connect upfield with attacking teammates was also quite special. The chemistry he shared with Paolo Maldini was a big reason as to why both club and country were so utterly successful. If you’re wanting a comparison to a recent player, Franco Baresi was essentially Fabio Cannavaro before Cannavaro was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.
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The country of Brazil has a laundry list of elite footballers from which they’ve developed. Among the best scorers is the effervescent Romario. Starting in his native Brazil, Romario ended up all over the world — featuring for major clubs such as Valencia, FC Barcelona, and PSV Eindhoven. Romario was a handful on the pitch for a number of reasons. For one, he had terrific acceleration in small spaces. You couldn’t pin him down as a defender, and Romario would use a naturally stocky frame to garner separation if any defender did attempt to body him up.
Instinctually, he was class in terms of knowing just when to make the run behind the defense when inside the box. While not conventionally back in the day or in present times, Romario scored more than a handful of his goals with his famed toe-poke method.
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Some may say that Ronaldinho wasted years partying and being out of shape. Some of that may be true to an extent. He likely didn’t maximize the amount of years he could’ve had as a world class player. However, there’s no denying how brilliant of a footballer Ronaldinho was during his heyday.
The man did things on the pitch no one had ever seen before — such as letting long balls hit him squarely in the back before contorting his body as a way for the ball to find a teammate. In other words, a true ‘back pass’ of the highest order. Ronaldinho made the pitch his own personal futsal haven. Whenever isolated in a 1v1 situation, he took the time to not only get past the defender, but also embarrass him in the process. We talk about players operating with flair on the pitch. Ronaldinho — even as of 2021 — is unparalleled in that regard.
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20. Gianluigi Buffon
When you envision the perfect goalkeeper, there’s no better choice than one Gianluigi Buffon. He encompasses every single trait one would want collectively. In terms of positioning, Buffon is among the best. His long, flexible frame has made him an elite shot-stopper for decades. There’s a real sense of composure with the way Buffon performs. He’s never rushed, and this sort of cavalier behavior rubs off on his teammates in a very positive way. In short, there’s elite levels of leadership emanating from the GK spot whenever Buffon is on the pitch.
In terms of accomplishments, Buffon is highly decorated. Of course, he was a massive cog in Italy capturing the 2006 World Cup. He won 10 Serie A titles with Juventus, and won the Serie A GK of the Year Award on 12 separate occasions. Without a doubt, Buffon is a living legend.
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The straw that stirred the potent caipirinha. Zico came into the fold after the initial all-star group (Pele, Garrincha) became household names. Naturally, Zico drew comparisons to those who came before him based upon an exciting style of play. Setting up shop primarily as an attacking midfielder, he was utterly dynamic as a creator of goal-scoring chances. Few possessed his class on the ball — particularly when setting teammates up in dangerous spots on the pitch.
However, his most impressive trait stems from Zico’s ability to deliver on set pieces. Throughout his 20+ year career, Zico reportedly scored over 100 direct free kicks. Instead of Bending it Like Beckham, maybe we should revise the term to include Zico’s name somewhere.
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18. Gerd Muller
Strikers come in all different shapes and sizes. This also applies to the styles in which they utilize. Some are larger, target strikers who play with their back to goal — hoping to link with teammates before getting on the other end of service in the box aerially. You’ve got dynamic players who rely on pace and quickness to make life miserable for defenders. Often times, these players can start on the wings and tuck inside centrally before unleashing shots in and outside of the box. Then…you’ve got your classic poachers. This is where Gerd Muller comes into play.
Akin to a hound hunting for truffles, Muller was simply sensational in positioning himself in the right spots at the requisite time. Muller only needed a sliver of space for him to be a dangerous threat. The runs he made inside the box were both clinical and lethal. Muller knew exactly how to bait the defender into leaning one way before exploding the opposite direction — thus creating space for himself to finish with aplomb. Muller was elite in scoring goals on all levels (domestically, European Cups, World Cups). To this day, he still doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
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17. Dino Zoff
Before Gianluigi Buffon, there was Dino Zoff. It’s not overly easy to quantify the impact a goalkeeper may have on a club. So much of the success is dependent upon the team’s shape — as well as the personnel/effectiveness of its defense. With that said, Zoff — a short goalkeeper compared to the average netminder today — was utterly brilliant.
To this day, Zoff holds the distinction as being the oldest goalkeeper to win a World Cup. He was 40 years old when helping Italy achieve the feat in 1982. Zoff was also integral in helping his home country win the Euros more than a decade prior. He wasn’t the biggest keeper at roughly 6-feet tall. As such, he had to rely upon supreme positioning, cat-like reflexes, and the communication skills needed to organize his backline. Zoff also had the ability to play out of the back with his feet — something many keepers can’t even do in the modern game.
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Before Cristiano Ronaldo burst onto the scene, Portugal’s all-time best player had to have been considered Eusebio. Here is a man who played far larger than his 5-foot-9 frame would indicate. If we were to categorize him based upon one word, we’d offer up the term ‘hungry’ — as in hungry for goals. When playing for famed Portuguese club Benfica, he notched a whopping 317 goals in only 301 matches.
Eusebio helped his club win 11 league titles, and was a gigantic reason as to why Benfica was considered one of the best clubs in all of Europe throughout his prime. Despite being shorter in stature, Eusebio obliterated the competition with his ability to evade defenders courtesy of world-class pace. He had a nose for goal, and the technical ability to match. When looking at his profile as a player, he’s one of the few from the older generation who’d likely still star today in the modern game. Think Kylian Mbappe if he were to play centrally most of the time.
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We think of Brazilian footballers in the traditional sense as those who play the game with a free-flowing style. It’s the type of culture in which joy permeates through the entire pitch. You get on the ball — in stylish fashion — before undressing the opponent with step-overs, flair, pace, and everything innately learned from playing the game as a young boy. Representing this creativity perhaps better than anyone was Garrincha.
In a sense, the late footballer can be held responsible for cultivating the style of play we often associate with Brazil as a whole. His unconventional dribbling style (at the time) was something defenders had trouble adjusting to. Tricky and daring with the ball at his feet, Garrincha was a master at weaving in and out of traffic. All the while, he’d brilliantly exploit small pockets of space on the pitch en route to goal. Garrincha was also the primary reason for why Brazil won the 1962 World Cup.
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14. Michel Platini
Michel Platini was the archetype as it pertains to playing the No. 10 role. An orchestrator of the highest order, Platini was clinical when slipping through balls and weighted passes to teammates in threatening positions. As an attacking midfielder, he deftly sat behind the target man — picking his spots as to when he’d function as a facilitator or a goal scorer. This also included his prowess on set pieces, where the Frenchman excelled.
Platini tore up his domestic league with Nancy and Saint-Etienne before becoming arguably the most dynamic player in Serie A throughout the ’80s for Juventus. While he didn’t possess elite athletic ability, Platini was akin to a chess player in which he always thought one step ahead with his brilliant acumen for the game.
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13. Ferenc Puskas
Perhaps the most famous person to ever hail from Hungary is one Ferenc Puskas. His professional career stretched from the early 1940s until the mid-60s. Rarely — if ever — do you see a professional footballer enjoy a career upwards of 20 years. Puskas wasn’t merely just a ho-hum soldier who enjoyed a lengthy career. He was an elite player for an incredibly long stretch of time for both club and country.
Diminutive in stature, Puskas used a combination of elite balance coupled with sublime quickness when attacking the opposition. He played all over the pitch, and was incredibly dangerous when picking the ball up in a deeper spot before bombing up the pitch towards goal. In 85 career caps with Hungary’s national team, Puskas scored 84 goals. When combining his tenures with local club Budapest Honved and Real Madrid, he scored 514 goals in 530 appearances (including leading La Liga in goals on four separate occasions). In a word, wow.
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12. Marco Van Basten
There’s always that one athlete who we prompt the ‘What if?’ question to when it involves a shortened career. When it comes to football, Dutch striker Marco van Basten is that man. Here’s a guy who scored goals for fun during his time with Ajax, AC Milan, and the Dutch national team. A physically imposing man with terrific aerial skills, van Basten’s feet were also exceptionally gifted despite his large frame. He was the type of player who could score goals in a variety of ways — whether with unabated athleticism, high-end technical ability, from outside the box, inside the box as a poacher, and also in the air with his head.
The three-time Ballon d’Or winner had a combined 282 goals in only 379 appearances for club and country. Without a doubt, van Basten would’ve accumulated more had he not seen his career end at age 28. Just as he was hitting his prime, van Basten stopped playing due to repeated damage to his ankle.
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11. George Best
George Best is the greatest player in the history of storied club Manchester United. That statement alone is saying something considering the club’s illustrious history. Whether it was for Man U or his native Northern Ireland, Best was captivating with the ball at his feet. Tricky, elusive, quick and brazenly smart, Best often created goal-scoring chances out of nothing.
There were times in which he single-handedly tormented the opposition with his proverbial bag of tricks. You don’t debut for Manchester United at age 17 without legitimate talent, and Best most certainly possessed that…and more. Though his personal life turned out to become rather tragic in nature, we must not forget the footballing genius that was George Best.
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10. Paolo Maldini
When you think ‘defense’ in the world of football, the Italians come to mind. Disciplined, organized, and resolute, we’ve seen countless footballers from this country who’ve gone onto glory. The best of them all has to be Paolo Maldini. Maldini functioned as the fulcrum of Italy’s defense for over a decade. He could play both left back and right back at a world class level (and could fill in as a central defender without batting an eye).
Maldini had a willingness to get up the pitch — whether it was attacking players off the dribble or whipping in dangerous crosses. All the while, his dedication to the defensive end of the pitch was spectacular. He was seemingly never caught out of position. The tactical side of things — a hallmark of the Italian game — was his bread and butter. Whilst with A.C. Milan on the club level, Maldini won 26 trophies. He also participated in four World Cup tournaments.
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9. Alfredo di Stefano
Before Pele, Maradona and Messi, we had Di Stefano. The Argentine of Italian descent eventually transformed himself from a poor boy in the countryside into one of the world’s most prolific scorers. We today view River Plate as a historically gigantic club residing in South America. Di Stefano is a big reason for the worldwide recognition. Starting as a youth player, Di Stefano exploded onto the scene. In stops with clubs in Argentina and Colombia, Di Stefano helped his clubs win six league titles. From there, a move to Spanish giant Real Madrid materialized.
In 11 seasons with the club, Di Stefano led Real Madrid to eight La Liga titles. He scored over 300 goals in less than 400 matches — giving him a truly ridiculous goal-per-game average. What made Di Stefano so impactful is the fact that he literally could play anywhere on the pitch at an exceptionally high level. He’s known for his goal-scoring prowess — though he also had transcendent skills as both a central defender and as a central midfielder, as well.
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8. Franz Beckenbauer
When combing through the landscape of the world’s best defenders, Franz Beckenbauer stands out as perhaps the most complete center back. The German international starred at Bayern Munich for nearly 15 years. During this time period, Beckenbauer’s club won three-straight European Cups. Playing for West Germany, his national team also won the World Cup (with Beckenbauer captaining all the sides).
Essentially, he was among the first of his kind to be a ball-playing central defender. This stems from the fact that Beckenbauer was once a central midfielder. He retained many of those traits — yet also paired them with extreme bite and an elite awareness as it pertained to tracking opposing offensive players. Beckenbauer’s willingness to bring the ball up into the attack from his deep-lying spot was revolutionary for its time. Whether he realized it or not, this simple tactic changed the way the game is played from an offensive standpoint.
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No top-10 list would be complete without the dynamic striker out of Brazil. The O.G. Ronaldo (not to be confused with Cristiano Ronaldo) is one of the most lethal strikers in the history of the sport. We could talk about Ronaldo’s nose for the goal, along with his speed and elite instincts. However, it’s Ronaldo’s versatility which gave him an even further leg-up on the opposition.
He could occupy any space on the field in the final third, and would still be the most dangerous player on the pitch. Ronaldo was essentially ambidextrous with his feet — and we saw countless examples of moments in which he scored some absolute bangers with either foot. Harkening back to his days playing futsal in Rio de Janeiro, he retained many of the dribbling skills he cultivated as a young boy. Whenever Ronaldo got on the ball, you stopped to watch what he’d do next. In a sense, he epitomizes what millions around the world love about Brazilians and their association with football.
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6. Johan Cruyff
The late Johan Cruyff was an artist with the ball at his feet. He wasn’t a player relying so much on athletic ability — rather on unadulterated skill, inventiveness, confidence, and brains. This was emblematic both when Cruyff played and when he was a manager. Essentially, the simplistic aim at his style of play involved keeping the ball from the opposition. Shuttling it around neatly from teammate to teammate essentially functioned as a defensive tactic.
The opposition would get tired chasing after the ball — particularly if the other team were organized and pragmatic in the process. Cruyff himself was a legend with both Ajax and Barcelona. These two clubs are synonymous with attacking football (in large part to Cruyff). His influence on the game of football far exceeds his impact as solely a player. Many clubs to this day still employ Cruyff’s system in pressing to get the ball back by overloading the midfield and thus controlling with calculated aplomb.
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5. Cristiano Ronaldo
Elite footballers surely possess more than the ability to simply run fast and jump high. You have those raw athletes who lack the technical side of the game. Others are missing the tactical acumen needed to perform at the highest of levels. There are those rare players who possess elite capabilities both mentally and physically. The biggest outlier of them all — without question — is Cristiano Ronaldo.
While the latter stages of his career has turned Ronaldo into more of a poacher inside the box as opposed to a winger, we must not forget the time in which he was bar none the most threatening wide player we’ve ever seen. A true physical marvel, Ronaldo (in his prime) was faster than anyone — and could also jump higher than anyone. His aerial prowess (in addition to a complete skill-set) is a part in what makes him so special. Watching Ronaldo dance on the ball in space immediately brings joy to those who watch him — not to mention the footballers he has heavily influenced in the current climate (such as Kylian Mbappe).
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4. Zinedine Zidane
Zidane was class personified on the pitch. Patrolling the centre of the park, there literally was nothing he couldn’t do. If you wanted to see a demonstration of world class footwork — particularly when wiggling out of tight spaces — Zidane could give you that. If you needed a maestro in the middle with the ability to spray and ping the ball with pinpoint precision to teammates, Zidane could give you that.
A physical presence when it came to ball-winning? Look no further than Zidane. To this day, the French international still remains as the most complete midfielder to ever play the game. The elegance Zidane brought to the pitch is something rarely seen. There was a subtle sophistication seemingly always present — though the elements of aggression and high-level intuitiveness also shone brightly.
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3. Diego Maradona
Maradona will always be known as the prodigal son to the country of Argentina. In many ways, the late footballer epitomized the gritty, colorful, and volatile nature of those who grew up in the slums dreaming of World Cup glory. Maradona came from nothing, and in all actuality wasn’t supposed to ‘make it’ as a professional. Alas, he’s universally responsible for bringing his nation global glory (leading Argentina to a World Cup title).
Maradona’s performance at the 1986 World Cup was beyond sensational. The entire world got to see this diminutive yet stocky figure absolutely dominate the run of play. His low center of gravity made it nearly impossible to bully Maradona off the ball. His wizard-esque touch made him unguardable. In terms of getting on the ball and attacking the opposition, few struck fear into others the way Maradona did.
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There’s one man responsible for putting Brazil on the footballing map. We could even go as far to say that Pele himself is the reason that casual/non-fans of the sport often associate Brazil with football more so than any other country or region in the world. When Pele first emerged onto the scene, the style of play was somewhat systematic rather than individually expressive. Teams worked in cohesion to best nick the desired result.
Pele was a team player…though he also made it a point of emphasis to entertain the world with his otherworldly skill on the ball. He was a unicorn in the best sense of the term — unleashing the sort of joy, footwork, and creativity players only dreamed of. His influence on the game will continue to live on for generations and generations.
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1. Lionel Messi
There will be plenty of people rating Pele over Messi as the greatest footballer of all-time. The argument can be made respectfully. However, despite Pele’s transcendent nature, Messi is simply on another level as it pertains to the modern game. The conditioning/athletic ability of today’s average footballer has never been better. The same can be said for the tactical side of the game — where hours upon hours of footage can be meticulously digested. Simultaneously, analytics departments crunch numbers obsessively with the hopes of finding even the slightest of edges for their respective clubs to exploit. Messi has had to deal with this evolutionally approach to the sport virtually throughout his entire career. He’s always the focus of the opposition. Yet, Messi consistently dominates at the highest levels possible.
We could wax on and on about Messi’s resume from a statistical standpoint (both personally and collectively). However, it’s the player we’d rather focus on. Never have we seen such a force of nature packaged into a human who looks ordinarily average at first glance. The elite quickness, the sublime ball control, the brain of a footballing genius, the magisterial instincts, a left foot kissed by God himself…Messi simply has it all.
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