The 10 Best Soccer Players of All Time

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ballon d'or
Image: Stern

Messi vs Ronaldo. Pele vs Maradona. The debate over who is the best soccer player of all time will never go away.

What’s undoubtedly true is that each of these players have all been the best soccer players in the world at one point or another.

Surely, the argument will mostly be a generational one.

Whether we’re talking about different eras, different advantages, different conditions, and everything in between, discussing the best soccer players ever or even deliberating over the best soccer players right now will always come down to stats and individual opinion.

Here’s ours.

10. Gerd Müller

Gerd Muller
Image: Bayern Munich

An absolute legend who did it for both club and country, Gerd Müller is, undoubtedly, one of the best German players of all time.

Müller was a goal machine, scoring 365 goals in 427 Bundesliga matches, a record that still stands today.

At the international level with West Germany, his rate was even better, scoring 68 goals in 62 international matches, a rate of over a goal per game.

Müller won just about everything you could win as a footballer, both individually and with his club and country.

Individually, he won the 1970 Ballon d’Or while finishing in the top-three on three other occasions.

That same year, he won the World Cup Golden Boot and would, immediately afterwards, win the 1972 European Championship and the 1974 World Cup.

With Bayern Munich, Müller won 13 major trophies including three European Cups (now known as the Champions League) while being the Bundesliga’s top scorer an incredible seven times.

9. Alfredo Di Stefano

Alfredo Di Stefano
Image: Real Madrid

The Argentinian nicknamed “Saeta Rubia” (“Blond Arrow”) was the main piece during Real Madrid’s complete domination of both Spain and Europe in the 50s and 60s.

Di Stefano did something that will probably never be done ever again: scoring in five consecutive European Cup finals, helping Real Madrid win all five titles.

He’s most remembered for his hat-trick in Madrid’s 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final in front of over 127,000 people in Glasgow, a match considered by many as one of the greatest matches ever played.

After starting his career with River Plate (Argentina) and Millonarios (Colombia), Di Stefano moved to Spain and featured at Real Madrid for 11 years, winning an incredible eight La Liga titles.

Di Stefano won the Ballon d’Or twice and is the only player ever to be awarded the Super Ballon d’Or. The award was given to Di Stefano for being chosen as the best football player of the previous three decades.

The award may finally be given out again in 2029 and is only eligible for multiple-time Ballon d’Or winners since 1989 (Messi, Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Marco Van Basten).

8. Franz Beckenbauer

Franz Beckenbauer
Image: Bayern Munich

Beckenbauer is arguably the greatest defender who ever lived.

The German is the only defensive player who is on this list and is undoubtedly one of the best soccer players of all time.

It’s nearly impossible for a defender to win the Ballon d’Or and Beckenbauer did it on two occasions, winning in 1972 and 1976 while finishing in the top-three on three other occasions.

At the club level with Bayern Munich, Beckenbauer was a catalyst in winning four Bundesliga titles and a hat-trick of consecutive European Cups between 1974 and 1976.

With West Germany, he won the European Championship in 1972 and the World Cup in 1974.

Beckenbauer’s greatness continued on the sidelines as well, managing West Germany to the World Cup title in 1990 after finishing third in the competition in 1986.

Following his World Cup triumph, he left for club football and immediately won a Ligue 1 title with Marseille in his only year at the club.

After a three-year hiatus, he was picked up by Bayern half-way through the season and led them to the Bundesliga title.

In his final act, he returned to Munich at the tail-end of the 1996 season and guided the club to the UEFA Cup title.

7. Zinedine Zidane

Zinedine Zidane
Image: Reuters

Zidane was one of the most beautiful footballers to watch on a pitch and is arguably the greatest midfielder of all-time.

He had a certain style and grace about him and was always one to show up in the biggest of moments, for better or worse.

Though he may have left the game in heartbreaking fashion with an unceremonious red card in the 2006 World Cup final, his famous headbutt has not overshadowed his legacy both as a player and a manager.

The one-time Ballon d’Or winner’s list on individual honors is seemingly endless and rightfully so.

Though he was far from a regular scorer, Zidane was still able to score in two World Cup finals, including twice in their 1998 win over Brazil.

If that couldn’t be topped, Zidane won the 2002 Champions League final with Real Madrid, putting in a Man of the Match performance while scoring one of the best goals in the history of world football.

As an unproven manager, Zidane took over a dangerous Real Madrid side and took them to the peak of football.

In addition to his two La Liga titles in 2017 and 20, Madrid won an incredible three consecutive Champions League titles between 2016 and 2018 during the peak of the Messi vs Ronaldo rivalry.

In modern football, sheer dominance at the top is incredibly hard to come by and may not happen for several decades to come.

6. Ronaldo

Ronaldo lifts the World Cup
Image: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

If you didn’t have a love affair or, at the very least, a strong love for Ronaldo and those Brazilian teams in the late 90s and early 2000s, you probably don’t appreciate the game.

Or you’re from Argentina.

Ronaldo won everywhere he played and is probably the only player who ever played for both Barcelona and Real Madrid who doesn’t strike up conflict over his club loyalty.

Perhaps the best true number nine who ever played, Ronaldo never stopped scoring until his final days as a player.

A two-time Ballon d’Or winner, a two-time World Cup champion, and a two-time Copa America winner, Ronaldo did everything both at the club level and, most importantly, representing his nation.

Though he somehow never won the Champions League, Ronaldo is forever iconic and is undoubtedly one of the best soccer players of all time.

The hero of a nation is now the owner of Real Valladolid and Brazilian giants Cruzeiro.

5. Johan Cruyff

Johan Cruyff
Image: AFC Ajax

If you have a move named after you, you’ve probably done something to change the game forever.

Johan Cruyff not only won the Ballon d’Or three times, he’s also widely regarded as one of the best managers of all time due to his application of “Total Football.”

Cruyff won 22 major trophies as a player, including three Champions League titles with Ajax.

Unfortunately, Cruyff and company fell short in the 1974 World Cup final, which would have further solidified his legacy.

Nevertheless, Cruyff is widely credited with Barcelona’s long-term success, transforming the Spanish giants from one of the better sides in world football to a legendary club.

Cruyff would go on to win 14 trophies as a manager, including four-straight LaLiga titles and the 1992 European Cup.

While Cruyff passed away in 2016 at the age of 68, his legacy lives on, having Ajax’s Amsterdam Arena being renamed Johan Cruyff Arena in 2017.

4. Pele

Pele
Image: Pele Foundation

While many regard Pele as the best soccer player of all time, it’s hard to convince someone like myself that he would do the business in something that embodied the modern game.

Nevertheless, Pele holds the Guinness world record for most goals in a career, scoring 1,279 goals in 1,363 games, despite never playing in Europe.

Many argue whether or not this achievement is legitimate as some games were against literal farmers where Santos would win by double digits.

Pele was awarded as FIFA’s joint-Player of the Century, along with Diego Maradona.

While Maradona was the overwhelming winner of the fan vote, Pele earned an insane 73% of the vote from FIFA Magazine readers and the FIFA Grand Jury.

The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner is credited with growing the game in the United States, as Pele brought instant influence to the country after signing with the New York Cosmos.

It’s likely that if Pele never left his home club of Santos for New York, that Major League Soccer – and consequently MLS betting sites – wouldn’t exist today.

Pele is also credited with creating what everyone calls “the beautiful game”, as he was one of the first to ignore regular tactics and developed an incredibly eye-catching style of his own.

To this day, he is still the only player in the history of the game to ever win three World Cup titles as a player, something that may never happen for another 50 or 100 years.

3. Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo
Image: Twitter

While Cristiano Ronaldo himself declared Pele the greatest player of all time, few can argue about his impact on the game of soccer.

Even Real Madrid honorary president and former player, Alfredo Di Stéfano, who’s also on this list, stated that: “The best player ever? Pelé. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are both great players with specific qualities, but Pelé was better.”

Despite this, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi developed a complete duopoly over who was the best player in the world for the better part of two decades.

Ronaldo himself won five Ballon d’Or titles and was arguably the best player on the pitch during his five Champions League wins.

Ronaldo’s ability to score over a goal a game for virtually his entire career allowed him to win titles wherever he’s played, winning a total of 29 team titles to date.

However, there’s no doubt that the happiest moment of his career was helping Portugal to their 2016 European Championship title, something that the country would have never thought about before he joined up with the squad.

Ronaldo is one of the most recognizable players in the world and has amassed a staggering net worth through sponsors and endorsements.

2. Diego Maradona

Diego Maradona
Image: FIFA

While many would put Diego Maradona at the top of this list, he simply didn’t play enough games to warrant being labeled as the greatest soccer player of all time.

Despite never winning a Ballon d’Or, many believe he would have won the award multiple times as non-European players were ineligible to win for the majority of his career.

Until the last decade or so, Maradona and Pele were in a two-way heat over who was the best soccer player of all time.

Even during the late stages of the Cristiano Ronaldo vs Messi rivalry, many claimed that Maradona was the best ever, only until Messi lifted the World Cup in 2022.

Maradona scored what’s undoubtedly the greatest goal of all-time, dribbling past four defenders to score against England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals en route to lifting the cup.

FIFA even held a vote ahead of the 2002 World Cup and awarded Maradona the “FIFA World Cup Goal of the Century.”

After a crazy-successful career in Argentina with Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors, Maradona became a beloved figure during his brief stay with Barcelona and then with an unexpectedly long career with Napoli.

In fact, both of his transfers were world-record transfer fees at the time. Nobody has ever claimed that the money wasn’t worth it.

Maradona won Serie A with the club in 1987 and 1990, two of his five trophies at the club.

Napoli had never won the league before his arrival and didn’t again until last season.

They are one of numerous clubs to have retired his number 10 and name their stadium after him.

1. Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi
Image: FIFA

Messi, to this day, remains the most popular player in the world and draws a huge crowd wherever he goes.

Like Ronaldo, he too boasts an eye-watering net worth thanks to his global popularity.

A debate lingered on over the level of his greatness only until a few years ago, as he was widely considered a club player who couldn’t bring Argentina any glory.

However, he solidified his legendary status with a Copa America title in 2021 and a World Cup trophy lift in 2022.

Messi’s eight Ballon d’Ors will almost certainly never be replicated and it’s doubtful that anyone will break his club-record 34 trophies with Barcelona, where he exclusively played until 2021.

Messi’s 672 goals with Barcelona is a world record for goals with a single club and he holds the records for most goals (474), hat-tricks (36), and assists (192) in La Liga.

Messi won 10 LaLiga titles, seven Copa del Reys, and four Champions League trophies during his time at Barcelona, where he scored a legendary 91 goals in a calendar year in 2012 for club and country.

Messi’s ability to seemingly have the ball glued to his foot will forever be iconic.

At 36 years old, his recent move to MLS’s Inter Miami has taken the football world by storm.

In fact, Inter Miami has been a hugely popular choice on the best online sportsbooks, with Messi to score being one of the most common prop bets in sports right now.

Though Messi doesn’t play anywhere close to 100% of his club’s games, he has no trouble dominating the league and selling out stadiums no matter where he goes.

There are even some rumblings of a return to Europe, where he would certainly continue to dominate until his late 30s, his early 40s, and potentially even later on.

Blaise Bourgeois
Poker and Gambling Expert
Blaise Bourgeois
Poker and Gambling Expert

Blaise is an Expert Gambling Writer and a professional poker player in Brazil. He has played and traveled throughout Latin America for the last four-and-a-half years and recently won his first WSOP Circuit ring! He received his Master's in Sport Management and Sports Analytics from St. John's University. Blaise also holds a Mathematics and Computer Science degree from SUNY Purchase, where he still holds the school's Men's Soccer record for goals in a season. Blaise has worked for Catena Media, OddsSeeker, WSOP, PokerNews, and Poker.Org in various capacities. He has a passion for extensive research and aims to provide accurate…