Lionel Messi or Diego Maradona? Is Pele the undisputed best from Brazil? Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan? What about the No. 1 from England? After asking our writers to nominate the most iconic players from around the world, we want you to vote as we try and settle some of the game’s biggest debates: Who is the greatest male player of all time from 13 key countries?
Coming up with shortlists was no easy task, as first we had to establish a clear criteria for G.O.A.T. candidacy. Our panel of writers took into account international and club accolades, as well as considerations such as historical significance and a player’s relationship/connection with fans.
For example, Hugo Sanchez makes Mexico’s list more due to his club accomplishments in Spain than his success with El Tri, and Alfredo Di Stefano, who played for three different countries, is in Argentina’s top three due to his contribution toward the game’s growth in South America.
Simply put, let the debates — and voting — begin …
Lionel Messi, FW (playing career 2004-)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup second place (1), World Cup Golden Ball (1), Ballon d’Or (6), FIFA World Player of the Year (1), The Best FIFA Men’s Player (1), World Cup Dream Team (1), Copa America Golden Ball (1), Argentine Player of the Year (11)
Making a case for Messi: Perhaps no player in the history of the game has been able to sustain such consistent excellence at the highest level for a decade and a half — and counting. With the ball tied to his left foot, Messi is a genius in tight spaces, and seems to be watching the game from the best seat in the house, aware of what is happening all over the pitch and making pivotal decisions in a fraction of a second. True, there are no senior titles with Argentina to add to all the silverware he has won with Barcelona — though he does have an Under-20 Cup title and an Olympic gold medal to his name. Even so, he has scored more goals for Argentina than anyone else and has carried them to four finals (one World Cup, three Copa Americas). With 640 goals for Barcelona, Messi needs only four more goals to break Pele’s one-club goal record of 643.
Diego Maradona, MF (1976-1997)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), World Cup Golden Ball (1), World Cup Silver Ball (1), World Cup Silver Shoe (1), World Cup All-Star Team (2), World Cup All-Time Team; FIFA Player of the Century; Serie A (2), South American Footballer of the Year (2), Argentine Footballer of the Year (4)
Making a case for Maradona: Maradona could be his own worst enemy, and his life and career followed a path as mazy as some of his low centre of gravity dribbles, with drug problems and plenty of controversy along the way. But it is doubtful that any player, before or since, has hit the heights in a World Cup that he reached in 1986. It came at a time when he was unstoppable, even for those who tried to foul him. Standing just 5-foot-5, he needed exceptional bravery to perform as he did so superbly in club football in Argentina and, most notably, in leading Napoli to a pair of Serie A titles. Maradona’s career featured various peaks and valleys, but his best stretches are among the best we’ve ever seen.
Alfredo Di Stefano, FW (1945-1966)
Notable accomplishments: South American championship (1), Ballon d’Or (2), World Team of the Century; European Cup (5), La Liga (8)
Making a case for Di Stefano: The last and greatest product of the 1940s golden age of Argentine football, Di Stefano helped Argentina win the 1947 Copa America, but that barely scratches the surface of his influence. He helped get professional football in Colombia up and running starring for Millonarios, but that was a mere warm-up for what he would do in Europe. When the European Cup (now Champions League) was launched in 1955, the continent was still recovering from war. It could have failed but thanks largely to Di Stefano, the heart and brains of Real Madrid, it was a stunning success. Nominally a striker, he dominated the field as Real won the first five versions of the competition, imposing his technique, intelligence and will on all around him. Those years changed football and, by helping improve the image of Spain, changed the course of post-war European history. No player has been more influential. — Tim Vickery
ESPN FC’s panel is unanimous in declaring Pele Brazil’s all-time best over Garrincha and Ronaldo.
Pele, FW (1956-1977)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (3), World Cup Golden Ball (1), Ballon d’Or (7), World Cup Silver Ball (1), FIFA Player of the Century, South American Footballer of the Year (1), Copa Libertadores (2), Brazilian league (6)
Making a case for Pele: Pele had it all: strength, speed, balance, vision, immaculate two-footed technique, aerial ability, cunningness, intelligence, a big match temperament, and a fearsome will to ensure he got the most out of his talent. Before Pele, Brazil were all potential. By the end of his playing career, they were the undisputed global power, both for the quantity of titles and for the audacious and joyful way in which they were achieved. From the exuberant skinny teenager of Sweden 1958 through to the outstanding wise old owl of Mexico 1970, Pele was the soul of the beautiful game.
Garrincha, RW (1951-1972)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (2), World Cup Golden Ball (1), World Cup Golden Boot (1), World Cup All-Star Team (2), Ballon d’Or (1), World Team of the Century, Brazilian Championship best player (1)
Making a case for Garrincha: Some Brazilians rate Garrincha higher than Pele. It is a stretch — not least because Garrincha’s peak only lasted from 1956 to his knee operation in 1962 — but it is hard to think of anyone who gave fans more pleasure. Garrincha turned football into a variation of bullfighting where no one died but hundreds of left-backs were humiliated, tormented and toyed with. Born with a rare abnormality — one of his legs was longer than the other — Garrincha feinted this way and that before beating defenders on the outside. Everyone knew what he was going to do, but no one seemed able to stop him.His finest hour came in the 1962 World Cup. With Pele injured, Garrincha scored four goals to carry an aging Brazil to the title.
Ronaldo, FW (1993-2011)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (2), World Cup runner-up (1), World Cup Golden Ball (1), World Cup Silver Ball (1), World Cup Golden Boot (1), World Cup All-Star Team (2), Ballon d’Or (2), FIFA World Player of the Year (3), Copa America (2), European Golden Shoe (1), La Liga (1), Serie A Player of the Year (1)
Making a case for Ronaldo: Football exploded in the late ’90s, becoming the world’s leading sports attraction — and the game’s poster boy during that era was one of its most explosive strikers of all-time. Few players, if any, have run with the ball at their feet with the pace and power of Brazil’s Ronaldo — attributes which came together with two-footed technique, subtlety and rare calm. In full flow, he was simply dazzling. Equally impressive was the way that he slowed down as he approached goal, kept his head still, and picked his spot. Who could stop him? Only his own physical limitations. It is possible that he bulked up too much — the quest for power meant that he did not long remain the skinny kid who first made a name for himself with Cruzeiro in Brazil. After two years with PSV in the Netherlands, he came alight in a golden season with Barcelona — and then onto Inter Milan, where the knee problems began to plague him. Twice he broke down in excruciating agony and many thought he would never play top-class football ever again. And so his triumphant comeback at the 2002 World Cup, where his goals fired Brazil to victory, is one of the most heartwarming stories in the history of the game. — Tim Vickery
Clint Dempsey, FW (2004-2018)
Notable accomplishments: Gold Cup (3), Gold Cup runners-up (1), Gold Cup top scorer (1), U.S. joint-record goal scorer; U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year (3), Confederations Cup Bronze Ball (1), MLS Cup (1), US Open Cup (1), MLS All-Star team (4)
Making a case for Dempsey: Dempsey’s career spanned 14 seasons, seven which were in the Premier League with Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur. Twice winning Fulham’s Player of the Season award, he also excelled in MLS with the New England Revolution and the Seattle Sounders. But it was with the U.S. national team that Dempsey endeared himself to American fans, scoring in three different World Cups and finishing tied with Landon Donovan as the U.S. team’s all-time leading scorer with 57 goals. More than anything, Dempsey brought a swagger to the field — and willingness to test himself overseas — to which U.S. fans could relate. Not bad at all for a kid from Nacogdoches, Texas.
Landon Donovan, FW (1999-2018)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup All-Star Team (1), World Cup Best Young Player (1), Gold Cup (4), Gold Cup MVP (1), Gold Cup top scorer (3), Gold Cup team of the tournament (4), U.S. joint-record goal scorer; U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year (4), USMNT Player of the Year (7), MLS Cup (6), MLS MVP (1), MLS Golden Boot (1), MLS Best XI (7), MLS All-Star team (14)
Making the case for Donovan: Donovan divided opinion among U.S. fans like perhaps no other. Aside from very brief stints with Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, and Everton, Donovan spent the bulk of his career in MLS. He was no doubt successful in that league — he retired as the league’s all-time leading scorer — winning six MLS Cups during his time with the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy. But there was a sense he could have done more in Europe against the world’s top talent. That said, his performances with the U.S. bolster his place among the country’s best. Not only is he tied with Dempsey for most U.S. goals (57) — five of which came in World Cups — but his 58 international assists are a U.S. record as well. And then there is the last-minute goal against Algeria, the most iconic moment in the history of the USMNT.
Tim Howard, GK (1997-)
Notable accomplishments: Gold Cup (2), U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year (2), CONCACAF Goalkeeper of the Year (3), CONCACAF Best XI (1), PFA Team of the Year (1), MLS All-Star team (3)
Making the case for Howard: When it comes to all-time U.S. greats, there are no shortage of keepers to pick from, with Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel among the contenders. But Howard’s contributions for both club and country edge out the other two. Howard began his professional career in the USL with the New Jersey Imperials, but he soon moved on to MLS with the MetroStars, where he parlayed his strong performances into a move to Manchester United. While he endured some inconsistent spells with the Red Devils, his subsequent 10 seasons at Everton saw him become a stalwart and fan favourite on Merseyside, where he made a total of over 400 appearances. He was just as vital for the U.S., appearing 121 times and starting at both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. It is that 2014 World Cup for which Howard will be most remembered, namely his tournament record 15 saves in a 2-1 extra-time defeat to Belgium.
Tab Ramos, MF (1988-2002)
Notable accomplishments: CONCACAF Player of the Year (1), U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year (1), U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame (1), MLS All-Star team (3), ASL All-Star team (1)
Making the case for Ramos: The first American to play in three World Cups, Ramos was among the most gifted U.S. players of his generation, a performer capable of hitting defense-splitting passes as well as popping up for big goals. He was part of the pioneering spirit that characterized players of the late 1980s and 90s, heading to Europe where he, spent two seasons with Figueres and later Real Betis. He then returned home to play for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars of MLS. But his most noteworthy exploits came in a U.S. shirt. His goal against Costa Rica in a 1-0 U.S. win clinched qualification to the 1998 World Cup, and he set up Earnie Stewart’s goal in the 2-1 win over Colombia at the 1994 World Cup. There is a sense of “What if?” about Ramos’ career as the fractured skull he suffered against Brazil in the ’94 World Cup sidelined him for an extended period. — Jeff Carlisle
The ESPN FC panel discusses which England legend is the greatest to ever play for the Three Lions.
Gordon Banks, GK (1958-78)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), European Championship third place (1), World Cup All-Star Team (1), FIFA Goalkeeper of the Year (6), FWA Footballer of the Year (1)
Making a case for Banks: When England won their first (and so far only) World Cup, in 1966, the contribution of goalkeeper Banks was just as important as that of Bobby Charlton and hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst. Banks kept clean sheets in England’s first four games in ’66 and conceded only two goals from open play in the entire tournament. Banks was widely regarded as the world’s best goalkeeper during the late-1960s and early 1970s, and his save from Pele during a World Cup clash against Brazil in 1970, when Banks somehow dived full-stretch to palm Pele’s goal-bound header over the bar, remains one of the sport’s most iconic moments. A car crash in October 1972, when splinters of glass cost him the sight in his right eye, prematurely ended Banks’s England career at age 34.
Bobby Charlton, MF (1956-75)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), European Championship third place (1), Ballon d’Or (1), Ballon d’Or second place (2), World Cup Golden Ball (1), World Cup All-Time Team, World Cup All-Star Team (2), FWA Footballer of the Year (1), European Cup (1), First Division (3)
Making a case for Charlton: Until Wayne Rooney became the first England player to score more than 50 international goals, Charlton had been the country’s all-time record goal scorer (49) for almost half a century. The Manchester United midfielder, who survived the 1958 Munich air disaster that killed eight of his club teammates, made 106 appearances for England, with the high point coming in the 1966 World Cup final win against West Germany at Wembley. Only six players have represented England more times. Charlton’s two-goal performance in the semifinal victory against Portugal was arguably his greatest on the international stage. In that game, Charlton showcased both his tireless energy in midfield, but his also goal-scoring prowess and ability to find the net from distance.
Jimmy Greaves, ST (1957-71)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), European Cup Winners Cup (1), Serie A (1), FA Cup (2)
Making a case for Greaves: Greaves was the most prolific goal scorer of his generation and a player regarded by many as England’s greatest-ever striker. The former Chelsea, AC Milan and Tottenham star scored 44 goals in 57 games for England, but his international career was defined by the injury that cost him his place in Sir Alf Ramsey’s team during the triumphant 1966 World Cup campaign. Greaves was the quickest England striker to 15, 20, 25, 30, 35 and 40 goals and still has the record of scoring the most hat tricks — six — for his country. His record of 357 goals in England’s top division is unlikely to ever be beaten, as he sits 43 clear of second place Steve Bloomer and a whopping 177 ahead of the active leader, Sergio Aguero.
Bobby Moore, DF (1958-83)
Notable accomplishments: FIFA World Cup (1), European Championship third place (1), Ballon d’Or second place (1), World Cup All-Time Team (1), World Cup All-Star Team (1), European Championship Team of the Tournament (1), FWA Footballer of the Year (1), European Cup Winners’ Cup (1)
Making a case for Moore: Widely regarded as England’s greatest-ever player, Moore was the man who lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy following the 1966 World Cup final victory over West Germany. The centre-half was not blessed with blistering pace, but his reading of the game and calm temperament combined to make him the outstanding defender of his generation. He captained England for 10 years, from the age of 23 until his final appearance in 1973 and won 108 caps. His commanding performance in a 1-0 defeat to Brazil at the 1970 World Cup is remembered as his greatest, with the postmatch shot of Moore being embraced by Pele proving to be one of the most iconic in World Cup history. — Mark Ogden
Cristiano Ronaldo, FW (2002-)
Notable accomplishments: European Championship (1), UEFA Nations League (1), Ballon d’Or (5), FIFA World Player of the Year (1), The Best FIFA Men’s Player (2), World Cup Dream Team (1). European Championship Silver Boot (1), European Golden Shoe (4), FIFA Puskas Award (1), FIFA FIFPro World XI (13), Champions League (5), FIFA Club World Cup (4), Premier League (3), La Liga (2), Serie A (2)
Making a case for Ronaldo: Ronaldo, alongside Lionel Messi, has dominated world football for almost two decades. One of the most dedicated athletes you will find in any sport, Ronaldo’s combination of speed, quality, power and unpredictability make him an absolute nightmare to defend against, previously as a left-winger with Sporting, Man United and his early years with Real Madrid, and lately as an adapted in-the-box goal scorer with Juventus. Having won five Ballon d’Ors, five Champions Leagues, three Premier Leagues, two La Ligas, and two Serie A titles, Ronaldo has won seemingly everything there is to win in club football. His Portugal career is nearly as decorated, as he led a surprising Portugal team to Euro 2016 glory and is one of two players ever to have scored 100 international goals (101 and counting). Ronaldo, now 35, is still going strong and is currently only nine goals short of besting Iran’s Ali Daei’s record of 109 international goals.
Eusebio, FW (1957-1980)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup third place (1), Ballon d’Or (1), FIFA XI (2), FIFA 100, World Cup Golden Boot (1), World Cup Bronze Ball (1), World Cup All-Star Team (1), European Golden Shoe (2), Portuguese Footballer of the Year (2), European Cup (1), Portuguese Primeira Liga (11)
Making a case for Eusebio: The “Black Panther” was one of football’s most prolific players, scoring 727 goals in 715 games for Benfica between 1960-1975 and another 41 in 64 games for Portugal. Devastatingly quick and blessed with a rocket of a right foot, Eusebio fittingly scored a hat trick in his first game for the Portuguese giants. Having risen above poverty in his native Mozambique, the striker is credited with being one of Africa’s first true superstars and would go on to win the European Cup with Benfica in 1962, the Ballon d’Or in 1965 and the European Golden Boot in both 1968 and 1973. That said, Eusebio’s brightest moment came at the 1966 World Cup, where he led Portugal all the way to what is still a national best, third-place finish, scoring nine goals to win the Golden Boot and Bronze ball along the way.
Luis Figo, FW (1989-2009)
Notable accomplishments: Ballon d’Or (1), FIFA World Player of the Year (1), FIFA 100, World Cup All-Star Team (1), European Championship Team of the Tournament (2), Portuguese Footballer of the Year (6), Champions League (1), La Liga (4), Serie A (4)
Making a case for Figo: While Cristiano Ronaldo and Eusebio were goal scorers, Figo was best known for his passing and role as a playmaker. In his early days, the Almada-born man was a dynamic and direct winger who could get down the flank and curl in crosses or cut in to create shooting opportunities. As his speed deteriorated, Figo dropped into midfield where he reinvented himself as a No.10 to great effect. Spending time at Sporting, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter, the 2000 Ballon d’Or winner, would go on to win 22 club trophies, including the Champions League with Madrid in 2002. While he never won a major tournament with Portugal, he appeared in three Euros and two World Cups, was selected six times as the Portuguese Player of the Year, and retired as Portugal’s all-time caps leader with 129 (since surpassed by Ronaldo). — Gus Elvin
Former France defender Frank Leboeuf reveals his top player to don the shirt of Les Bleus.
Thierry Henry, ST (1994-2014)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), European Championship (1), Ballon d’Or second place (1), World Cup All-Star Team (1), European Championship Team of the Tournament (1), French Player of the Year (5), Champions League (1), Club World Cup (1), Premier League (2), La Liga (2), Ligue 1 (1)
Making a case for Henry: The best striker France has ever seen, ahead of Just Fontaine. His record speaks for itself: 123 caps (second highest), 51 goals (highest), one World Cup triumph in 1998 at 20, one Euro title in 2000, played in four World Cups, and he scored some incredible goals for the national team, not to mention his clubs. He took Arsenal to the top of English football, leading “The Invincibles” to an unbeaten domestic season (03-04), and scoring 175 goals in 258 Premier League games over eight plus seasons with the Gunners. And when Henry left London in the summer of 2007, he joined Barcelona to finally win the Champions League, reinventing himself as a winger alongside Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o to help Barca win a treble under Pep Guardiola. It is a shame that the Parisian’s legacy was tarnished slightly by his infamous handball against the Republic of Ireland in 2009 that resulted in his country qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. He said it was a bad reflex and when the controversy raged on, he felt he was not supported enough by people in France. It was not his most glorious moment, nor was the 2010 World Cup which followed. That said, he indisputably remains one of the best strikers of modern times, who at times was simply unplayable.
Raymond Kopa, FW (1949-67)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup third place (1), Ballon d’Or (1), World Cup All-Star Team (1), French Player of the Year (1), European Cup (3), La Liga (2), Ligue 1 (4)
Making a case for Kopa: If you look up firsts for French football, Kopa is often times the answer. He was the first to win the Ballon d’Or, to move to the biggest club in the world when joining Real Madrid in 1956, to win the European Cup in 1957 (and in 1958 and 1959) and to become a big football star in France after he led Les Bleus to third place in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. He had great pace and wonderful skills with a flamboyant style.
Michel Platini, MF (1972-87)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup third place (1), European Championship (1), Ballon d’Or (3), World Cup All-Time Team, World Cup All-Star Team (2), European Championship Player of the Tournament (1), French Player of the Century, European Cup (1): Serie A (2), Ligue 1 (1)
Making a case for Platini: A No. 10 who was also a No. 9 and so many other things. He delivered the first football trophy to the country with a breathtaking 1984 European Championship (9 goals in 5 games). He was a wonderful captain, a great leader, with vision, intelligence and an eye for goal. He was also a free-kick master. His performances with Juventus also showed that he could do it abroad in the best league in the world at the time. He won the Ballon d’Or three times and came close to World Cup glory in 1982 and 1986.
Zinedine Zidane, MF (1989-2006)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), European Championship (1), Ballon d’Or (1), FIFA World Player of the Year (3), World Cup Golden Ball (1), World Cup All-Star Team (2), European Championship Player of the Tournament (1), FIFA XI (4), French Player of the Year (2), Champions League (1), La Liga (1), Serie A (2)
Making a case for Zidane: Poetry in motion. Watching him play live was always a spectacle, as he is surely the most technically gifted player France has ever produced. His football came from the streets of Marseille where his exquisite first touch was shaped. His vision and skills were amazing. He was quiet off the pitch but had a fiery temper on it and his last game will always be remembered for his red card in the 2006 World Cup final when he head-butted Marco Materazzi. Zidane’s exploits with his country in 1998, 2000 and 2006, as well as his achievements with Bordeaux, Juventus, and Real Madrid, alongside his 1998 Ballon d’Or, make him one of the world’s best ever, never mind in France. — Julien Laurens
Franz Beckenbauer, DF (1964-83)
|Franz Beckenbauer titles|
|Cup Winners’ Cup||1|
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), European Championship (1), Ballon d’Or (2), World Cup Silver Ball (1), World Cup All-Time Team, World Cup All-Star Team (3), German Footballer of the Year (4), European Cup (3), Bundesliga (5)
Making a case for Beckenbauer: Der Kaiser, which translates as “the Emperor”, invented the position of the libero, an attacking sweeper. With elegance, intelligence and style, he led the lines from behind the centre-backs with powerful long runs and classy passes. One of the few Germans to ever win the Ballon d’Or — and he did it twice.He led Germany to 1974 World Cup glory, and he played in the 1966 and 1970 editions as well as being part of the 1972 European Championship-winning side.
Philipp Lahm, DF (2001-17)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), World Cup All-Star Team (1), FIFA FIFPro World XI (2), Champions League (1), Club World Cup (1), Bundesliga (8)
Making a case for Lahm: The best defender of his generation, Lahm led Germany and Bayern Munich by example. Pep Guardiola said he was “the most intelligent player I ever coached.” He won eight Bundesliga titles, six DFB-Pokals and the 2013 Champions League with Bayern as they ran away from the rest of the Bundesliga in the early 2010s. Starting out at left-back, switching over to right-back, and then moving up into holding midfield, he was world class in several positions. A twist of fate, Shkodran Mustafi’s injury in the round-of-16 match against Algeria, saw Lahm return to the right-back position for Germany at the 2014 World Cup, a move regarded as essential for the Nationalmannschaft to win their fourth World Cup. Lahm captained the side and was the first to lift the trophy into the Rio de Janeiro night.
Gerd Muller, ST (1963-81)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), European Championship (1), Ballon d’Or (1), World Cup Golden Boot (1), World Cup All-Star Team (1), European Championship Top Scorer (1), German Footballer of the Year (2), European Cup (3), Bundesliga (4)
Making a case for Muller: Muller’s name stands for goals, goals, goals, and “Der Bomber” scored 365 of them in the Bundesliga. He was Germany’s all-time top scorer with 68 goals until Miroslav Klose eclipsed him, and he was also the all-time top scorer at World Cup finals until first the Brazilian Ronaldo and then, well, Klose scored more. He is deeply anchored in the German history as the scorer of the winning goal in the 1974 World Cup final as West Germany beat the Netherlands 2-1. Never a man to entertain the crowds with words, his goal stats to this very day are up there with Messi’s or Ronaldo’s. His scoring instincts and finishing ability remain unmatched. — Stephan Uersfeld
Roberto Baggio, FW (1982-2004)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup runner-up (1), Ballon d’Or (1), FIFA World Player of the Year (1), World Cup Silver Ball (1), World Cup All-Star Team (1), Serie A (2)
Making a case for Baggio: Known as the “Divine Ponytail,” Baggio was a classic No. 10 blessed with mesmerising dribbling skills and an eye for goal (he ranks seventh all time in Serie A goals). He won the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1993 and guided Italy to the 1994 World Cup final, and still stands as the fourth-leading scorer in the history of the national team. Played for and won titles with giants like Inter, Milan, and Juventus, but some of his best individual work at club level came early with the likes of Fiorentina and Brescia.
Franco Baresi, DF (1977-97)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), World Cup runner-up (1), Ballon d’Or second place (1), World Cup All-Star Team (1), European Cup (3), Serie A (6)
Making a case for Baresi: A technically gifted sweeper, his greatest assets were his timing and reading of the game. He was part of the Italy squad that won the 1982 World Cup and, 12 years later, helped them to another World Cup final. After being famously rejected by Inter at 15, where his older brother Beppe played, he joined Milan instead. He would end up captaining the side for many years, often in derbies against his brother, the captain of Inter. He was the leader of the great Milan side that won back-to-back European Cups in the late 1980s and, in 1994, added a third. Over his 20-year career, Baresi also won six league titles with the Rossoneri, spread over three different decades.
Paolo Maldini, DF (1984-2009)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup runner-up (1), European Championship runner-up (1), Ballon d’Or third place (2), FIFA World Player of the Year second place (1), World Cup All-Star Team (2), European Cup: (5), Club World Cup (1), Serie A (7)
Making a case for Maldini: He made some 900 appearances for Milan over a 26-year career, first at left-back and, later, as a central defender, while also winning 126 caps for Italy (placing him third in the all-time list). A pillar in defence for the national team, Maldini helped Italy reach the final of Euro 2000 and the 1994 World Cup. Tall, strong and elegant, he won five European Cups, as well as seven Serie A titles. Nobody has appeared in more Champions League finals or played more minutes in the World Cup or made more appearances in Serie A.
Giuseppe Meazza, ST (1927-47)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (2), Central European International Cup (2), World Cup Golden Ball (1), World Cup All-Star Team (1), Serie A (3)
Making a case for Meazza: Smooth, confident and flamboyant, he made headlines on the pitch and off it, dating a string of glamorous actresses. He led Italy to back-to-back World Cup success in 1934 and 1938 and sits second in the list of goal scorers for the national team. He won three Serie A titles with Inter, and is fourth in the all-time leading goal-scoring charts for Serie A, despite playing most of his career in attacking midfield. He probably would have scored even more if he hadn’t missed an entire season due to a foot injury and World War II hadn’t broken out just as he was turning 29. So good they named Italy’s greatest stadium after him. You may know it by its other name, the San Siro. — Gabriele Marcotti
Johan Cruyff, FW (1966-77)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup runner-up (1), Ballon d’Or (3), World Cup Golden Ball (1), World Cup All-Time Team, World Cup All-Star Team (1), Dutch Footballer of the Year (3), European Cup (3), La Liga (1), Eredivisie (9)
Making a case for Cruyff: Some say Cruyff changed football. First, as a player, leading Ajax to three successive European Cups and in 1974 introducing “Total Football” — or the idea that players are not fixed to a specific position and are free to interchange with one another — to the world with an outstanding Dutch national team at the World Cup in West Germany. Cruyff is in the same class as Pele, Diego Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer, and Lionel Messi. A genius as a player and coach, Cruyff’s influence first with Ajax in the late ’80s and later in assembling Barcelona’s Dream Team, cannot be understated.
Ruud Gullit, MF (1964-1984)
Notable accomplishments: European Championship (1), Ballon d’Or (1), Dutch Footballer of the Year (2), European Cup (2), Serie A (3), Eredivisie (3)
Making a case for Gullit: Gullit remains the only Dutch captain to hold aloft a major international trophy when he led the Netherlands to victory at the 1988 European Championship. Gullit was so versatile. He could play up front as No. 9, as an attacking midfielder or in a more defensive role. And he ended playing as a central defender at AC Milan in the 1990s. He was not only strong but also skilled with a perfect technique. Twice he won World Player of the Year, once European Player of the Year and won the UEFA Cup two times with AC Milan squad, together with Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten.
Arjen Robben, FW (2000-)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup runner-up (1), World Cup Bronze Ball (1), World Cup All-Star Team (1), Champions League (1), Premier League (2), La Liga (1), Bundesliga (8)
Making a case for Robben: The only active player in the list of Dutch stars after he came out of retirement to help his beloved FC Groningen in the summer. It says everything about Robben. The best Dutch player of the 21st century, in the era of Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, Robben could maybe have been as dominant as Messi and Ronaldo if not for all his injuries. At the 2014 World Cup, he came in second in the player of the tournament poll. An Eredivisie, Premier League, and La Liga title, and a Bundesliga winner eight times, not to mention scoring the winning goal in the 2013 Champions League final, make him one of the country’s most decorated players. Maybe the best testament to Robben’s skill and greatness was that his success can largely be attributed to one move — cutting in to shoot with his left foot — yet, while predictable, was largely unstoppable. If only he had taken his chance to score in the 2010 World Cup final, which the Dutch eventually lost to Spain.
Marco van Basten, ST (1981-95)
Notable accomplishments: European Championship (1), Ballon d’Or (3), FIFA World Player of the Year (1), European Championship Golden Boot (1), European Golden Boot (1), Dutch Footballer of the Year (1), European Cup (2), Serie A (3)
Making a case for Van Basten: What if van Basten had avoided the serious ankle injuries through his 20s that eventually ended his career? We’ll never know but his achievements would nowadays compare to Messi and Ronaldo. He won the European Cup Winners’ Cup with Ajax, twice the UEFA Cup with AC Milan, and the 1988 European Championship with Netherlands. The three-time European Footballer of the Year played his final match in the 1993 Champions League final, aged 29, after scoring 218 goals in 280 matches for Ajax and AC Milan. — Okko van de Berkt
Steve Nicol struggles to separate Andres Iniesta and Xavi as ESPN FC considers Spain’s all-time best player.
Iker Casillas, GK (1999-2020)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), European Championship (2), World Cup Golden Glove (1), World Cup Dream Team (1), Champions League (3), Club World Cup (1), La Liga (5)
Making a case for Casillas: They don’t call him San Iker (Saint Iker) for nothing. Agile, charming, handsome and successful are all applicable adjectives but, above all, Casillas was master of the improbable. Three examples, of many, stand out. He was upset to be dropped by Madrid against Bayer Leverkusen for the 2002 Champions League final. César, his replacement, went off injured at 2-1 and Casillas then repelled a torrent of chances from the Germans to win his second European Cup aged only 19. His penalty save in the 2008 European Championship quarterfinal shootout against Italy propelled Spain to their first trophy since 1964. But his 1v1 save in the 2010 World Cup Final against Robben might be the greatest goalkeeper moment in history. Afterward, he told me waiting for Robben to pull the trigger was “…eternal”. So are you Iker, so are you.
Xavi Hernandez, MF (1997-2019)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), European Championship (2), Ballon d’Or third place (3), FIFA World Player of the Year third place (1), European Championship Player of the Tournament (1), Champions League (4), Club World Cup (2), La Liga (8), Copa del Rey (3)
Making a case for Xavi: No question that Xavi is Spain’s “lightning conductor” player. It was around his geometric passing brilliance, his reluctance to ever leave a match without having had at least 100 significant touches of the ball, that La Furia Roja (the Red Fury) abandoned their previous style and became masters of possession, position, and trophy-winning. World-class opposition, like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, would talk about “not being able to get near him.” He is one of only five men in the history of football to start in a winning World Cup final and win the Treble with his club — twice. If he’s not Spain’s greatest, who is?
Andres Iniesta, MF (2001-)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), European Championship (2), Ballon d’Or second place (1), World Cup Dream Team (1), European Championship Player of the Tournament (1), Champions League (4), Club World Cup (3), La Liga (9)
Making a case for Iniesta: The trouble with making a case for Xavi is that he’ll always tell you that the best footballer in Spain’s history is Andres Iniesta. Samuel Eto’o once said, “People ask me about the greats I played with and they expect me to talk about Ronaldinho and Messi … but it’s Iniesta and Xavi. Iniesta would play in my team until the day he said he wanted to stop. He’s the guy who makes the complex things in football simple.” Not just the scorer of Spain’s World Cup-winning goal, he provided assists in three Champions League finals — and required just 45 minutes to be the standout player in the other one he won.
Sergio Ramos, DF (2005-)
Notable accomplishments: World Cup (1), European Championship (2), World Cup Dream Team (1), Champions League (4), Club World Cup (4), La Liga (5)
Making a case for Ramos: Stats abound for this history maker. The man with the most wins in international football, the defender with the most goals in international history (23), with Messi the only man to score in 17 consecutive Liga seasons, four Champions League trophies, two European Championships, a World Cup, 26 red cards for Madrid — not one for Spain in over 170 caps. It’ll be a surprise if he doesn’t, in due course, become the most capped international footballer ever. But anyone embarking on a Ramos retrospective who stops at the stats will be encapsulating about a tenth of this massive character. Irrepressible in a crisis, a leader, charismatic, enormously competitive — just think of his extra-time equaliser in the 2014 Champions League final against Atleti if you want to sum this man up. Add in a century of goals for Madrid from central defence, a cool 29/32 career record from the penalty spot and a penchant for the big moment, and Ramos deserves to be in the conversation regarding the greatest defenders of all-time. — Graham Hunter
Rafa Marquez, DF (1996-2018)
Notable accomplishments: Gold Cup (2), CONCACAF Best Player (1), CONCACAF Best XI (1), Champions League (2), Club World Cup (1), La Liga (4), Ligue 1 (1), Liga MX Apertura (1), Liga MX Clausura (1)
Making a case for Marquez: “El Kaiser de Michoacan.” The fact the Franz Beckenbauer-inspired nickname fit Marquez sums up what a class player the defender/holding midfielder was. Marquez was an important figure in one of the golden eras of Barcelona’s history (two Champions Leagues and four La Liga titles) and that tells you all you need to know about his quality. At international level, Marquez dominated El Tri’s dressing room over a 21-year career, becoming the first player to wear the captain’s armband at five different World Cups and amassing 147 caps. Despite the accolades, in some ways, Marquez was ahead of his time, a centre-back with the vision of a No. 10.
Hugo Sanchez, ST (1976-1997)
Notable accomplishments: Gold Cup (1), FIFA 100, FIFA XI (1), Mexican Primera Division Golden Ball (1), La Liga (5), Mexican Primera Division (2), European Golden Shoe (1)
Making a case for Sanchez: In 1976, Sanchez graduated with a degree in dentistry, although that feat was soon surpassed when he helped Pumas to the 1977 Mexican league title at just 18. What happened next was something that could have been scripted for a movie: Sanchez overcoming a slow start and racial abuse at Atletico Madrid to win five scoring titles and establish himself as one of La Liga’s best at rivals Real Madrid. In the history of La Liga, only Lionel Messi has brought more points to a team (through goals) than the Mexican overhead kick specialist did and his 238 career goals still rank fourth in the history of the competition. His international career may not have been as bright as his accomplishments in Spain, but he still netted more than a goal every two games and was part of the last Mexico team to win a knockout game back in 1986.
Cuauhtemoc Blanco, MF (1992-2016)
Notable accomplishments: Gold Cup (2), Mexican Player of the Year (3), Liga MX Golden Ball (3), MLS All-Star team (1), CONCACAF Champions League (2), Mexican Primera Division Clausura (1)
Making a case for Blanco: Currently a state governor, don’t rule out Blanco from one day becoming the president of Mexico. Politics aside, Blanco created a connection with the masses. He liked to party, had a big mouth, acted in telenovelas, and once even punched a journalist in the middle of an interview! A kid from the notorious Tepito neighborhood who talked in slang and was physically unremarkable, Blanco was relatable where Marquez and Sanchez were aloof. Blanco also turned up in big moments for Mexico perhaps more often than any other player, with the decisive goal in the 1999 Confederations Cup final against Brazil his defining moment. Fans worldwide were introduced to him through the “Cuauhteminha” at the 1998 World Cup, but Mexico fans got to see that kind of street-learned invention and bravado on a regular basis throughout his 15-year career. — Tom Marshall
Nwankwo Kanu, FW (1992-2012)
Notable accomplishments: Africa Cup of Nations runner-up (1), Olympic Gold Medal (1), African Footballer of the Year (2), BBC African Footballer of the Year (2), Champions League (1), English Premier League (2)
Making a case for Kanu: “Papilo” was and remains the golden child of Nigerian football, and it is easy to see why. He captained the Under-17s to the World Cup title in 1993 and later led Nigeria to Africa’s first Olympic football gold medal in 1996. As if that were not enough, he went on to win almost everything there was to win at club level, including the Champions League, UEFA Cup, Premier League (x2), and FA Cup (x3). As a striker, Kanu was not a prolific goal scorer. What he was, however, was sleek, outrageously skilled, and wildly intelligent with a football at his feet, routinely leaving fans, opposition, and even his own teammates wide-eyed with his jaw-dropping skills. From the perspectives of talent, trophies, clutch performances, and easy on the eye entertainment, Kanu had no peers.
Rashidi Yekini, FW (1981-2005)
Notable accomplishments: Africa Cup of Nations (1), African Footballer of the Year (1), Nigeria all-time record goal scorer, Africa Cup of Nations Best Player (1), Africa Cup of Nations top scorer (2)
Making a case for Yekini: Yekini was not what one might call the total package for a footballer. What he was, was a straight, old-fashioned No. 9 who was simply exceptional at one job, putting the ball in the net. Big, strong and clinical, Yekini wasted no time on frills. All he needed was the ball in space or to feet and he would do the rest, whether it was a tap-in from close range or fire a rocket from range. Wherever he played, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire or Portugal, he consistently emerged with the Golden Boot. The national team rode to the World Cup on the back of his goals and it is a credit to his ability that he has the double distinction of scoring Nigeria’s first-ever World Cup goal and holding the nation’s all-time record for international goals.
Vincent Enyeama, GK (1999-2018)
Notable accomplishments: Africa Cup of Nations (1), CAF Champions League Player of the Year (2), CAF Champions League (2), Nigerian Premier League (3)
Making a case for Enyeama: Considering some of the names that have been left out, this might raise more than an eyebrow or two, but Enyeama belongs on this list. He is one of two players in Nigerian history to log over a century of appearances (101) and is the joint-record cap holder, but it is more than that. Enyeama was an extremely talented goalkeeper who stood up to some of the best players in the world and earned their respect (Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, anyone?). Not many players, let alone goalkeepers make their competitive debut in a FIFA World Cup game, but Enyeama not only did so but kept a clean sheet against star-studded England. During his time as Nigeria No.1, Enyeama led the Super Eagles to seven major tournaments, often single-handedly keeping them in games against top opposition.
Jay-Jay Okocha, MF (1990-2008)
Notable accomplishments: Africa Cup of Nations (1), Africa Cup of Nations runner-up (1), Olympic Gold Medal (1), Africa Cup of Nations Best Player (1), BBC African Footballer of the Year (2), Nigerian Football of the Year (7), Africa Cup of Nations top scorer (1)
Making a case for Okocha: One of the most enigmatic and entertaining players to come out of Africa, Augustine “Jay-Jay” Okocha’s name evokes awe and admiration, not just among Nigerian football followers, but also from around the world. Supremely gifted, he captivated from the very first moment his silky skills were introduced to Nigerian football. In his early years, that ability to turn trick at any turn was considered a drawback, which slowed the team down. But as he matured, his game evolved to the point where he controlled the pace of the game and added to his repertoire with deadly free-kick taking, cleverly disguised passing, and long-range shooting. Okocha won the African Nations Cup with Nigeria and played at three World Cups. Surprisingly, he never won the African Player of the Year award but is still recognized as one of the greatest football players to emerge from the continent. — Colin Udoh
Harry Kewell, FW (1996-2014)
Notable accomplishments: Australia’s greatest-ever footballer, Medal of the Order of Australia, Oceania Footballer of the Year (3), AFC Asian Cup Team of the Tournament (1), Confederations Cup runner-up (1), OFC Nations Cup (1), Champions League (1)
Making a case for Kewell: Named the Greatest Ever Australian Footballer by the Australian federation in 2012, Harry Kewell feels like a reasonable enough choice to start this list. A Champions League winner with Liverpool, Kewell enjoyed varying success at Anfield, Galatasaray and Melbourne Victory, but is best remembered for his time at Leeds. Part of David O’Leary’s dynamic young United side that shocked its way to the UCL semis in 2001, Kewell was genuine Premier League box-office material. With silky skills and a penchant for scoring amazing goals, Kewell was courted by England to solve their left-sided woes in the late 90s, but stayed true to his homeland and went on to make 58 appearances and score 17 goals for the Socceroos.
Mark Viduka, FW (1993-2009)
Notable accomplishments: Oceania Footballer of the Year (1), Johnny Warren Medal (2), Croatian First League (3), Australian NSL (1)
Making a case for Viduka: With the quintessential “good touch for a big man,” Kewell’s Leeds teammate Mark Viduka played with a perfect blend of grace and power — gifts perfectly encapsulated in his one-man, four-goal demolition of Liverpool in 2000. The “V-Bomber” was one of the most reliable strikers of his time, amassing 92 goals in 240 Premier League appearances for the likes of Leeds, Middlesbrough and Newcastle. Viduka also won three titles in Croatia, Scotland’s player of the year in a one-season stint at Celtic and — strangely enough — is the only one of the three nominees here to have won an Australian league title — winning the NSL with his beloved Melbourne Knights in 1995.
Tim Cahill, FW (1998-2019)
Notable accomplishments: Australia record goal scorer, Australia’s greatest-ever team, AFC Asian Cup (1), OFC Nations Cup (1), Oceania Footballer of the Year (1), AFC Asian Cup Team of the tournament (1), Australian PFA Player of the Year (1), MLS All-Star team (1)
Making a case for Cahill: Cahill may not have had the latent skill that the aforementioned two possessed, but the former Everton and New York Red Bulls star more than made up for that with sheer determination. The only Socceroo to have played in four World Cups, Cahill is Australia’s greatest-ever goal scorer and can rightly claim to have single-handedly won more games for the national team than any other player. Crucially, Cahill also managed to win a major international trophy with Australia — the 2015 Asian Cup — an achievement that neither Kewell nor Viduka can claim. The first Australian to score at a World Cup, and also netted in three of his finals appearances and is their all-time finals goal scorer. — Mike Wise
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