Top 10 Best Soccer Players Of All Time

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One of the most controversial topics in sports always goes back to the question, “Who are the greatest of all time?” The best soccer players of all time can be more difficult to list because of the long history of soccer and how much the game has evolved over the years.

My name is Ethan, I have played soccer for the majority of my life. I’ve played at the highest levels in the youth soccer system in the United States. I currently play soccer for my local university. 

We can learn so much from the best soccer players. My goal is to not only provide you with a list of the best players but also what we can learn from them and apply to our game. 

Growing up, I always looked up to certain players. Although not on the list, Eden Hazard was a player that shaped me into the player I am today. 

Needless to say, from years of watching, playing, and researching soccer this list features the best soccer players of all time.

What Makes A Great Player?

In sports, we often define greatness by our achievements. But really it’s much more than that. Greatness can include legacy, overcoming trials, player longevity, and achievements. Some players have signature moves that have survived the test of time and have been used by millions of young soccer players. The best players influence the game on a global scale.

Statistics give a good idea of what caliber player we are dealing with but don’t define the player’s greatness entirely. Players like Andres Iniesta didn’t score an absurd amount of goals, but that doesn’t take away from how good he was. His impact goes beyond statistics, so I account for that. 

What The List Contains

This list contains players that are both currently playing and retired. With each player, there will be key points like the years that they played, their achievements, and what we can learn from them. 

After the list, you’ll find honorable mentions and upcoming ‘greats’. 

The Top 10:
10- Andres Iniesta
9- Paolo Maldini
8- Gianluigi Buffon
7- Franz Beckenbauer
6- Ronaldo Nazario
5- Johan Cruyff
4- Cristiano Ronaldo
3- Diego Maradona
2- Pele
1- Lionel Messi

10- Andres Iniesta

Nationality: Spain

Years Played: 1996-2020

Achievements: Iniesta led Spain to win the 2010 World Cup. He scored the game-winning goal over the Netherlands. With Spain, he won the European Championships (Euro’s) in 2008 and 2012. At the club level, he won 9 La Liga titles and 4 Champions League titles with Barcelona.

Key Learning Points: Iniesta demonstrates what it means to be composed in high-pressure situations. Countless times he receives the ball in tight spaces and either relieves pressure with his first touch or a one-touch pass. Iniesta was an excellent dribbler and often breezed past multiple defenders when needed. His passing vision was top-notch. Playing with Lionel Messi, he knew needed to get the ball to Messi in good areas. He had an impressive 190 assists throughout his career.

9- Paolo Maldini

Nationality: Italian

Years Played: 1985-2009

Achievements: Maldini’s achievements are numerous. He was a part of the Italian squad that was runners-up for the World Cup in 1994. For AC Milan, his lifelong club, he won 7 Serie A titles and a record 5 Champions League titles. He was awarded multiple Serie A Defender Of The Year titles along with many other individual awards.

Key Learning Points: Maldini’s longevity allowed him to achieve great things. He played for 25 years and remained loyal to AC Milan. His leadership was essential to AC Milan’s defense and led them to a dominant run in the 1990’s. This team was regarded to have one of the best runs in soccer history. 

8- Gianluigi Buffon

Nationality: Italian

Years Played: 1995-2023

Achievements: Buffon is the only goalkeeper on the list. He led Italy to a World Cup Title in 2006 only conceding 2 goals throughout 7 games. He won an amazing 9 Serie A titles while securing multiple Goalkeeper Of The Year awards. He reached the Champions League Final with Juventus in 2015 but lost to Iniesta and Messi. 

Key Learning Points: Buffon earned 501 clean sheets throughout his career which is the most of any goalkeeper in soccer history. He is undisputedly regarded as the best goalkeeper of all time by expert analysts. His large stature and athleticism enabled him to make seemingly impossible saves. He revolutionized the goalkeeper position and displayed great leadership for club and country. 

7- Franz Beckenbauer

Nationality: German

Years Played: 1964-1984

Achievements: Beckenbauer not only achieved winning the World Cup in 1974 as a player but won the World Cup in 1990 as a manager as well. He won 5 Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich. He was awarded the 1966 World Cup Best Young Player award and won the Ballon d’Or twice. 

Key Learning Points: Beckenbauer was one of the first players to display superior game intelligence over his opponents. He was a versatile player who could play as a sweeper and a midfielder. He had incredible vision and passing technique which was a main part of his game.

6- Ronaldo Nazario

Nationality: Brazilian

Years Played: 1993-2011

Achievements: He won the World Cup in 1994 and 2002. Ronaldo won the Golden Boot award as the tournament’s top goalscorer in the 2002 World Cup. With Real Madrid, he won La Liga twice, in 2002 and 2003. He is a two-time Ballon d’Or winner.

Key Learning Points: The Brazilian Ronaldo, not Cristiano Ronaldo, is one of the greatest goal-scorers of all time. He was a relentless forward who scored over 400 goals in approximately 518 matches. He was able to excel on many different teams in many different leagues. He found the most success with Brazil and Real Madrid. 

5- Johan Cruyff

Nationality: Dutch

Years Played: 1964-1984

Achievements: Cruyff led the Netherlands to the 1974 World Cup Final. For club, he helped Barcelona to their first La Liga title after a 14-year drought. He is a 3 time Ballon d’Or winner and created the “Cruyff Turn” which is one of the most effective skills still used today. 

Key Learning Points: Johan Cruyff pioneered “Total Football” changing the way the game was played. Total Football is where formations are more versatile and fast-paced. It involves quick passing and high pressing. This style caught teams off guard and evolved into the modern tactics and play style that we see today. Rather than sitting back, Johan Cruyff emphasized the beauty of attacking soccer with his dribbling skills. 

4- Cristiano Ronaldo

Nationality: Portuguese

Years Played: 2002-present

Achievements: Everyone knows his name and is the long-time rival of Lionel Messi. Ronaldo has won 5 Ballon d’Ors, 3 Premier League titles, 2 La Liga titles, and 2 Serie A titles. He has won 5 Champions Leagues. One with Manchester United and four with Real Madrid. With Portugal, he won the 2016 European Championship which remains his major international trophy. 

Key Learning Points: There’s a lot to be said about Ronaldo’s athleticism and fitness. He is displaying his longevity going into his 21st year of soccer. He has scored 855 senior goals for club and country. His key skills include shooting, heading, dribbling, and speed/physicality. His trademark “Ronaldo Chop” and his knuckleball are imitated by millions around the world. He has influenced the game in so many different ways. 

3- Diego Maradona

Nationality: Argentine

Years Played: 1976-1997

Achievements: ​​His crowning glory came in 1986 when he led Argentina to a World Cup victory. He scored the iconic ‘Hand of God’ and ‘Goal of the Century’ in the same match. He transformed Napoli from league underdogs to champions in the iconic 1987 season. He has one Ballon d’Or to add to his impressive collection.

Key Learning Points: Maradona was a player who had a great passion for the game. His mindset was always on winning. He wanted it more than opponents despite his team’s morale and situation oftentimes being not ideal. His dribbling allowed him to tear through defenses and he did just that. His famous goal of the century came when he dribbled the ball from the halfway line to the goal line shooting it past the goalkeeper.

2- Edson Arantes do Nascimento “Pele”

Nationality: Brazilian

Years Played: 1956-1977

Achievements: Pele is a 3 time World Cup champion. He played the majority of his career with the Brazilian club Santos FC. They won numerous domestic titles. Pele scored over 1,000 goals in his playing career which to this day is the most by any player. 

Key Learning Points: Pele is the most prolific goalscorer in the history of the game. He debuted with Brazil’s national team when he was only 16 years old. He revolutionized the game and brought about ‘Jogo Bonito’. This was a skill-based soccer style featuring dribbling, and attacking creativity. 

1- Lionel Messi

Nationality: Argentine

Years Played: 2003-present

Achievements: Messi has a record of 7 Ballon d’Or. Messi has won 10 La Liga titles, 2 Ligue 1 titles, and 4 Champions League titles. His prized achievement and perhaps the moment the entire world has been waiting for was when he won the World Cup in 2022. He scored 2 goals in the final and won the golden ball for the tournament. He completed soccer and has the silverware to back it up. 

Key Learning Points: Messi has scored 819 goals in 1,040 matches. He is the most ruthless attacker in soccer history and single-handedly would dismantle the world’s best teams. What sets Messi even further apart is his playmaking abilities. He has recorded 360 assists. Lionel Messi is the best soccer player of all time.

Honorable Mentions

  • Zinedine Zidane
  • George Best
  • Michel Platini
  • Alfredo Di Stefano
  • Neymar
  • Ronaldinho

Upcoming Greats

  • Kylian Mbappe
  • Erling Halaand
  • Vinicius Junior
  • Jude Bellingham

What’s The Next Step?

I hope you found this article helpful in your journey to becoming a better player or coach. You’ll also find the best soccer leagues in the world helpful in building your soccer IQ.

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Ethan is the owner of Skillful Soccer and has over 20 years of playing experience. He is currently a collegiate soccer player and is thrilled to share his insights for all things related to soccer.

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