Who is the Best Football Player Ever?
The best football player ever is not something everyone will agree on. They have played in different countries, different leagues, in different eras and different positions. There is also a raft of different criteria to consider. How many goals they scored, how many assists they created, their ball mastery, their ability to read a game and their impact on the result of a match – to name just a few.
As a result, it becomes a subjective measure and where that list starts and stops is equally as subjective.
Here I have compiled a list of statistics and videos from which you can draw your own conclusions. Regardless, strap yourself in for some excitement, some disagreement and visual football candy. Let’s get the ball rolling.
Ronaldinho Gaucho – Brazil
Few players brought excitement to the field like the Brazilian Ronaldinho. As a left side midfielder, whether running the ball at defenders, scoring or setting up goals, Ronadlinho would cause opponents much anxiety. His bag of tricks brought crowds to their feet, left opponents baffled and entertained billions of people.
Whether it’s the no look passing, the amazing touch and vision or the Elastico flick, it is hard to surpass Ronaldinho’s bag of tricks with the ball. While he may not have pioneered the Elastico flick, few can argue that anyone did it better or with such successful frequency as Ronaldinho.
He spent much of his senior career playing for Barcelona, AC Milan and Paris St Germain in addition to stints with multiple teams in the Brazilian national competition.
In his career for club and country:
Played: 610 games
Scored 196 goals
In addition to his ball skills, Ronaldinho possessed superior acceleration and passed the ball with vision that not even commentators saw coming. He played in the top flight in France, Italy, Spain, Mexico and for his homeland. Brazil.
Ronaldinho’s Trophy Cabinet
World Cup 2002,
Champions League 05/06
La Liga (2) 2004/05 & 2005/06
Spanish Super Cup (2) 2004/05 & 2005/06
Serie A 2010/11
Copa Libertadores 2012/13
Confederations Cup 2005
Recopa Sudamericana 2013/14
Copa America 1998/99
World Player of the Year (2) 2004 & 2005
Best Player in Europe 2005
Needless to say there are further trophies and accolades Ronaldinho won, though these are the most notable.
The only blight on Ronaldinho’s record followed the lack of success from the 2006 World Cup when Brazil was expected to win with a star studded squad. A that point Ronaldiho was just 26 and although he did achieve further team success, sadly his best playing days were behind him.
Diego Maradona – Argentina
Though perhaps he was considered a striker for most of his career, technically Maradona sat just behind the front line making him an attacking midfielder. His ball mastery was second to none in his time. Combined with his strength and speed, his evasiveness when running the ball created confusion in his opponents making him the most dangerous attacking player in his era.
Like many of the greats, his signature move became known as the Maradona turn. His performance at the 1986 World Cup for Argentina provided headlines around the world. The term ‘Hand of God’ became synonymous with Maradona following a discreet handball that knocked the ball over the English goal keeper’s head and into the goal. Missed by the Assistant Referee, it was the kind of goal that probably wouldn’t have survived in this era of video assisted refereeing.
Maradona spent most of his senior football with Napoli, Boca Juniors and Barcelona, with a brief yet tumultuous stint in Sevilla.
Played: 380 games
Scored 169 goals
Diego Maradona’s Trophy Cabinet
World Cup 1986
UEFA Cup Winner 1988/89
Serie A (2) 1986/87 and 1989/90
Italian Super Cup 1989/90
Spanish Cup 1982/83
Spanish Super Cup 1982/83
Spanish League Cup 1982/83
Superliga (Argentina) 1981
UEFA Best Player in Europe (2) 1986 and 1987
Maradona became a divisive figure following the 1990 World Cup. The ‘halo effect’ from the 1986 Cup started to diminish aster he failed to deliver the same level of quality at the 1990 Cup. He returned a positive drug test in 1991 and was banned from football for 15 months. He gained weight, faced a paternity suit in Italy in addition to drug possession charges and his relationship with Napoli soured.
Further criminal issues followed Maradona in the ensuing years as well as another failed drug test at the 1994 World Cup, resulting in a further 15 month ban from football. Sadly, for Maradona in 1991 at age 30, his best days as a footballer had passed.
Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal
Like Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo plays as a left side attacking midfielder. With electric speed, sublime ball control and a powerful shot, few players have maintained such a high level of performance over as long a period as Ronaldo. His first touch, step overs, ball mastery, flicks and turns make him potentially one of the greatest attacking players of all time.
Ronaldo burst onto the scene as an 18 year old for Manchester United in the English Premier League in 2003. He made an immediate impact and soon became sought after by the biggest clubs in Europe.
Played: 961 games
Scored: 689 goals
After Manchester United, Ronaldo has spent several seasons at Real Madrid and now Juventus.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Trophy Cabinet
Euro Championship Portugal 2016
UEFA Nations League 2019
EPL Champions (3) 2006/7, 2007/8, 2008/9
English FA Cup Winner 2003/4
English League Cup (2) 2005/06, 2008/09
English Super Cup (Community Shield) (2) 2006/07and 2007/08
FIFA World Club Cup Winner (4) 2008 (Man U), 2014, 2016, 2017 (Real Madrid)
Champion’s League (5) 2007/08 Man U), from 2013/14 to 2017/18 won 4 times with Real Madrid
La Liga (2) 2011/12 & 2016/17
Serie A 2018/19
Portugese Super Cup 2002
UEFA Super Cup Winner (3) 2014/15, 2016/17 & 2017/18
Spanish Super Cup Winner (2) 2012/13 and 2017/18
Spanish Cup Winner (2) 2010/11 and 2013/14
World Player of the Year (5) – 2008, 2013, 2014, 2016 & 2017
Best Player in Europe (4) 2008, 2014, 2016 and 2017
Whilst Ronaldo maintains a plethora of other club awards, individual awards and second places, these are the stand outs. At times, the Portuguese star has been a divisive member of teams he has played in. However there is no denying that he is deserves his place in the hall of fame amongst players that are the best of all time. At 34 he continues to break and set new records. With each new club he has signed, success has followed and the only significant trophy missing from the mantelpiece is the World Cup.
Lionel Messi – Argentina
It seems fitting to discuss Messi and Ronaldo at the same time. Both have been pitted against each other in an era where both players have dominated world player of the year headlines for over 10 years.
As great players do, Argentina’s Messi set about breaking records early in his career as the youngest player ever to score for Barcelona in La Liga. A relentless attacking forward, Messi possesses electric speed, elusiveness, great support play, vision and a dynamic left foot. Having signed with Barcelona FC at the age of 13, his entire senior career has played out in front of the adoring Catalan supporters. His passing interchange with team mates is a sight to behold while his predatory instinct for goal is no less than thrilling.
Played: 823 games
Scored: 671 goals
Messi’s time with Barcelona has resulted in great success. He arrived at a time when the form and interest of Ronaldinho was declining. As a result, the talent and form of Messi made for an easy decision to move Ronaldinho on. Imagine if these 2 could have played together for several seasons?
Lionel Messi’s Trophy Cabinet
Champions League (4) 2005/06, 2008/09, 2010/11 & 2014/15
FIFA Club World Cup (3) 2009, 2011 & 2015
La Liga (10) 2004/05, 2005/06, 2008/09, 2009/10, 2010/2011, 2012/13, 2014/15, 2015/16, 2017/18 & 2018/19
Spanish Cup (6) 2008/09, 2011/12, 2014/15, 2015/16, 2016/17 & 2017/18
UEFA Super Cup (3) 2009/10, 2011/12, 2015/16
Olympic Gold Medal 2008
World Player of the Year (5) 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 & 2015
UEFA Best Player in Europe (3) 2009, 2011 & 2015
The absence of any national team silverware is something that has haunted Messi’s senior career. Many of the greats have had success for both club and country, whereas all of Messi’s success has come at Club level. Whilst this is not necessarily reflective of his individual brilliance, it is reflective of the absence in Argentina of quality players required to win Copa America or the World Cup. Regardless, there have been times where Messi’s brilliance has been absent at the national team level and though at 32 there is still time, the clock is ticking.
Marco van Basten – The Netherlands
Van Basten is a towering striker from The Netherlands renowned for his ball control and quality goals. He played for some of Europe’s highest profile Clubs and the Dutch National team from 1981 to 1995. At times it seemed he had the ball on a string as he danced and weaved his way passed defenders with electric pace. Like Messi, van Basten had a predatory instinct for goal.
Van Basten’s height and agility enhanced his ability to score spectacular goals whilst his vision and awareness permitted a deeper role allowing him to run the ball or distribute. At full flight, when van Basten received the ball, the crowd were on their feet in anticipation.
Played: 414 games
Scored: 291 goals
Van Basten played his senior career with Ajax Amsterdam and AC Milan. At Ajax, he scored 128 goals at almost a goal a game (133 games) whilst he was part of an AC Milan team that went 58 league games undefeated, an Italian record that still stands.
Marco van Basten’s Trophy Cabinet
European Champions Netherlands 1988
European Champion Clubs’ Cup (2) 1988/89 & 1989/90
Dutch Champions (3) 1981/82, 1982/83 and 1984/85
Dutch Cup Winner (3) 1982/83, 1985/86 & 1986/87
Serie A (3) 1987/88, 1991/92 & 1992/93
Italian Super Cup Winner (2) 1987/88 & 1991/92
Intercontinental Cup Winner (2) 1989 & 1990
UEFA Super Cup Winner 1988/89 & 1989/90
Europapokal Der Pokalsieger Sieger 1986/87
World player of the Year 1992
Sadly for van Basten and spectators, he succumbed to a recurring ankle injury in 1993 robbing him of the opportunity to play in the 1993/94 Serie A title, the Champions League final and the 1994 World Cup.
Zinedine Zidane – France
Zidane was another attacking midfielder that possessed sublime vision & touch. Whilst he wasn’t renowned for electric speed, he did entertain with class, deception and awareness. His ability to run the ball, maintain possession and evade opponents without electric speed, are the qualities that made him such a special player.
After commencing his senior career in France’s Ligue 1, he was soon sought by the powerhouse clubs of Europe spending five seasons with Juventus, followed by five seasons at Real Madrid. In addition to club success, Zidane was the stand out in France’s World Cup title in 1998 in addition to their European Championship in 2000.
In his time with Real Madrid, Zidane played alongside other great players of the era. Brazil’s Ronaldo & Roberto Carlos, England’s David Beckham, Portugal’s Figo & Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro – all with the exception of Carlos, would be first or second in the World Footballer of the Year titles between 2001 and 2006.
Played: 711 games
Scored: 148 goals
While the Maradona turn was penned from an earlier generation, it is arguable that Zidane made this move his own, using it with more frequency and success than its namesake. His use of the move to win and secure the ball whilst also eluding opponents ensured supporters from both sides were entertained by his graceful movements.
Zinedine Zidane’s Trophy Cabinet
World Cup (France) 1998
European Champions 1998
Champions League 2001/02
La Liga 2002/03
Spanish Super Cup (2) 2001/02 & 2003/04
Serie A (2) 1996/97 & 1997/98
Italian Super Cup 1997/98
Intercontinental Cup (2) 1996 & 2002
UEFA Super Cup (2) 1995/96 & 2001/02
World Player of the Year (3) 1998 and 2000 – Juventus and 2003 – Real Madrid
UEFA Best in Europe 1998
As is the case with most of the greats, wherever Zidane went success soon followed. Whilst he possessed heroic qualities on the field, the villain in Zidane can be read in his statistics. No other player at his elite level has exceeded double figures in terms of red cards (13) for both club and country. His most notable and potentially costly transgression coming in the final of the 2006 World Cup versus Italy when Zidane was sent off for head-butting Italy’s Marco Materazzi. France went on to lose that game in a Penalty shoot-out.
Pele – Brazil
No list of great players is complete without mention of Pele. From the age of 15, Pele was playing professional football. A talented striker, there has never been a teenager like Pele who could revolutionise the game like he did. His creativity in running the ball, his ability to evade defenders and score spectacular goals with both subtlety and power, ensured a new benchmark was being set globally.
Ten months after signing a professional Club contract, Pele was selected to play for his country. His selection to the world stage eventually contributed to Brazil winning 3 World Cups in 12 years (1958/1962/1970).
Despite winning their first match against Bulgaria in the 1966 World Cup, Pele sustained injuries that prevented him playing the second group match and hampered him in the third match. Brazil lost both games.
Whilst the Guinness Book of Records list Pele as having scored 1281 goals in his career, some of these were from unofficial matches. Regardless, having scored in excess of 1,000 goals in senior competitive matches is extraordinary. After playing 18 seasons in Brazil (the Brazilian government declared Pele an ‘official national treasure’ which prevented him playing for foreign clubs.
Played: 1319 games
Scored: 1,174 goals
Assists: No data available
Pele’s Trophy Cabinet
World Cup (3) 1958, 1962 & 1970
Brazilian Champion (6) 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1968
Intercontinental Cup (2) 1962 & 1963
Copa Libertadores (2) 1961/62 and 1962/63
NASL (USA) Soccer Bowl 1976/77
Though Pele’s trophy cabinet may not be as full as his contemporaries this is more due to the generational difference than ability. There was no World Player of the Year accolades in the day, not the number of competitions that are available today. Despite this, Pele is widely recognised by all as being the best ever, even by members of this list.
Pele is the only player to ever win three World Cups. He averaged almost a goal per game. His passing was deft, his shooting absorbing, however as described by team mate Carlos Alberto Torres stated: “His greatest secret was improvisation. Those things he did were in one moment. He had an extraordinary perception of the game.”
So who is the Best Football Player Ever?
There are many players I have had to overlook in formulating this list of seven. Could Dutchman Cruyff, England’s George Best or Brazil’s Ronaldo have been included? Perhaps.
Comparing them all, it is near impossible to do it fairly without some criteria favouring one player over another. Have Messi and Ronaldo won a World Cup? No, so does this eliminate them? The fact Pele didn’t play for any of Europe’s big clubs, does it eliminate him? (Imagine if he had!) Maradona’s on-field and off-field transgressions can be perceived as clouding his legacy. Van Basten had his career cut short due to injury and may never have reached the dizzying heights. he may have. Ronaldinho seemed to lose interest in his late twenties and wasn’t able to maintain the quality he displayed earlier. While Zidane was masterful, as an attacking midfielder did he score enough goals and did his aggression backfire.
Whichever way you look at it, all of these players brought something to football. They draw spectators in and they get supporters from both teams off their seats in anticipation. We will still be talking about them long after their playing days are finished.
The goals scored are a moment in time. Their creativity, evasiveness, technique, awareness and improvisation allow us to recall their skill and this is their legacy. There will be something about each player that we will admire and applaud. While Pele will likely be identified as the best football player ever in most polls, the player that lifted my excitement levels the most is Ronaldinho. He was a true entertainer.
While this is subjective, I am keen to hear your thoughts. It doesn’t have to be about my list, it can be about another player you feel strongly about. Feel free to share them in the comments section below.
Note: The games and goals for each player total club and country.by