Best soccer players of all time? Most discussions about the greatest players of all time tend to ruffle feathers, but in soccer the choice is fairly obvious. We have omitted a few great players from this list (hi Baggio, Bergkamp, Henry, Ronaldinho), but we ended up with a nice multiple of five.
There are 15 men who truly stand above the rest when it comes to men’s sport. We have decided not to rank them, but rather to bask in their glory and marvel at their individual greatness.
Best Soccer Players of All Time
Ronaldo and Messi scored a ton of goals, yeah.
The Brazilian forward Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, scored 1,279 goals in 1,363 appearances (including friendly matches). That’s a Guinness World Record. His competitive tally stands at 775 in 840 appearances. Ronaldo and Messi are closing in on this, but they aren’t there yet, and they are doing it in more games.
Pelé debuted at club level at just 15 years old and the Brazilian National Team at 16. He was adept with both feet, a dribbler, a goal scorer, an ambassador for the game.
His impact cannot be understated. He was voted World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics and boasts similar accolades from both the International Olympic Committee (Athlete of the Century) and FIFA.
It was his deft flicks and passes around opponents, or the most audacious of juggles beyond defenders, or a stutter-step shot that left so many defenders sliding to nothing while he wound up an unstoppable follow-up shot.
If you’re too young to remember, imagine a dribbler with Messi’s skills but Ronaldo’s solo drive. He wasn’t known for setting up teammates, he was known for creating pure magic himself.
A joint winner of FIFA’s Player of the Century Award with Pelé, Argentinian midfielder Diego Maradona is among the greatest midfielders of all time.
And that he was – on the pitch he had the propensity to pick out the punishing pass, the skill to swivel the hips and dip beyond defenders. In his iconic goal of the century against England, he didn’t fear taking on entire teams. However, he was also not afraid to set up teammates or to shoot from long range.
On and off the field, he was a star. He’d send you one way, then chip your goalkeeper while heading the other. He was a world record transfer when he went to Napoli in Italy’s Serie A and nearly single-handedly made the side a European powerhouse. Oh, and he could kick a free-kick, too.
It was not just his ability to beat his mark or score impressive goals that made him great. He was also consistent in lifting the sides he played for – Argentina and Napoli – beyond their fiercest opponents. This set him apart.
His statistics and his accolades do most of the talking, but not all of the talking.
Lionel Messi is a player with a touch, a dribble, a dance, a turn, a way of playing that is otherworldly. Whenever he receives the ball, you hold your breath and wait for its greatness.
In addition to replicating Maradona’s goal of the century and Hand of God, he has set records, set the game to new heights, and mesmerized at every turn.
A player who has accomplished the unthinkable, the unbelievable, the magisterial. He’s won everything he’s had the opportunity to win and he’s not just done it, but he’s done it in style. With class, verve, skill, and absurd audacity.
Lionel Messi has 743 goals (total) and 226 club-level assists (at time of writing), 48 hat tricks, and 47 goals from free kicks. Only he has scored in 16 consecutive Champions League seasons and 17 consecutive La Liga seasons. He’s been named to the FIFA World XI 14 times, become the only player to score consecutively against all teams in a professional league (La Liga), and he’s the only man to have scored in six different club competitions in a single season – and he did it twice.
His low center of gravity means the ball will stick to his feet. He somehow manages to break goalscoring records while being an unselfish assist provider at the same time. Despite his left-footed curler, he scored a decisive goal in the UEFA Champions League with his head. He is a free-kick specialist, a finisher, a dribbler, a team player, a mastermind, maestro, among others.
Cristiano Ronaldo is remarkable for so many reasons. His athleticism, his pace, his power, his sheer force of will, all combined to turn him into a superstar. This drove him to and beyond the upper echelons of the sport of soccer. The man is simply setting a new standard for play.
He’s evolved, too. Originally using his pace, footwork, and driving runs from wide to wreak havoc, as his age progressed, so did his game. He became closer and closer to the finish line in the latter stages of his career due to his ability to jump. This is when calling him a false nine was just ignorant – he became a true number nine, scoring solo and poacher’s goals alike. Almost for fun.
In roughly 1,000 appearances (at time of writing), he’s scored over 720 times, 56 of those as hat tricks.
He became the most expensive transfer in history when he moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid (since eclipsed by Neymar to PSG), where he made 438 appearances, collecting four of his 5 Ballon d’Or, three Golden Shoes, and two FIFA “The Best” awards.
All over Europe, from England to Spain, to Italy, to all of Europe, he has dominated the game. He has won both the UEFA Champions League and the European Championships and the UEFA Nations League.
Success in three countries, and at the club and international level. Throughout his career, he has never been able to be stopped or even slowed down. The man has transcended greatness.