The players listed in this website are all world class players - the greatest players in their position of all time. But only a select few can be counted amongst the much smaller category of 'Legends'. These are the iconic players that are the best the game has ever seen. They have represented the game - becoming household names even to those who do not follow it, they have transformed and expanded the game, and have seized the imagination of the world - often during a World Cup. Most of all they have acted as an inspiration to both fans and amateur and professional players and have inspired millions to follow, play and learn the game.
These are the 20 greatest players the world has ever seen, in order. This always stirs lively debate so let us know what you think via our facebook page!
Att Midfielder, Brazil & Flamengo/Udinese, 1970s/80s
A Flamengo legend, Zico was also the star of the great Brazil team for the 1982 World Cup and one of the undisputed stars of that tournament. A creative midfielder with flair and an eye for goal, he was perhaps the best free kick taker of alltime. His legend is tarnished somewhat by his, and the teams' lack of success there, and his showing at the 1978 and 1986 tournaments - marred by injury and rarely selected to start games. At Flamengo he won the Copa Libertadores and then led his team to thrash Liverpool 3-1 in the Intercontinental Cup in 1981, giving Flamengo fair reason to claim the title of best club in the world, with him as their star player.
Part of a great team: Brazil 1982
19. Marco Van Basten
Striker, Netherlands & Ajax/AC Milan, 1980s/90s
The greatest player of the late 80s/early 90s, Marco Van Basten managed to win be named European Footballer of the Year three times before he retired at 28 due to injury. A complete striker with pace and great technique, he could score from virtually anywhere.. He scored 128 goals in 133 games for Ajax and then moved to AC MIlan where he helped them to win two European Cups (1988, 1989). At Milan he was playing alongside his Dutch team mates Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, with whom he had won Euro 88, scoring one of the best goals ever scored in the final against the USSR. Sadly he missed Milan's 1994 European Cup win and never played in a World Cup.
Part of two great teams: AC Milan, Netherlands 88
Striker, Brazil & PSV/Barca/Flamego
An instinctive and natural goalscorer, Romario was the best player of the 1994 World Cup, inspiring Brazil to win the trophy. After five seasons at PSV Eindhoven he moved to join Cruyff's dream team at Barcelona in 1993 and played in the European Cup Final of 1994, losing to AC Milan but being named European Footballer of the Year that year. He ended his career at a succession of Brazilian clubs. While he was at Vasco de Gama he scored twice against Manchester United in the Club World Championship, beating them 3-1. He scored his 1000th goal at Vasco de Gama in 2007, where there is now a statue of him. With 55 goals in 70 appearances from Brazil he was one of their best ever strikers. He formed a lethal partnership with Ronaldo, winning the 1997 Copa America but then missed out on the 1998 World Cup due to injury. Who knows, if he had played Brazil could well have won the World Cup, again that year.
Part of a great team: Barcelona 1989-1994
17. Lev Yashin
Goalkeeper, Russia & Dynamo Moscow, 1950s/60s
You might presume that goalkeepers always commanded their defence, came off their line to intercept crosses and rushed out of the area to challenge attackers. They didn't, and they do now because of Lev Yashin. He reinvented the art of goalkeeping while playing for the Soviet Union and presented this to the world at the 1958 World Cup. Dressed all in black and known as the Black Panther, he was the star of the team, impressing with his atheleticism. He was also a master of saving penalties, saving 150 in his career. He won the European Championship of 1960 and would appear in four World Cups. He also helped Dynamo Moscow win 5 Soviet League titles. Yashin is the only goalkeeper to win European Footballer of the Year (1963). He is an automatic pick in goal for every all-time dream team and the World Cup award for best goalkeeper is now named after him.
16. Jose Andrade
Defensive Midfielder, Uruguay & Penarol/Nacional
Andrade might be the only member of this list that you have not heard of but he fully deserves his place here. He is the greatest star of the pre-war years and did more than anyone to make football a global game. Andrade was the star, from a right half-back position, of the great Uruguay team of the 1920s. The team won the Olympic Games, which is recognised by FIFA as being equivalent to a World Cup (as there was no World Cup in this period) in both 1924 and 1928. Andrade also helped his country win three South American Chammpionships. Despite suffering from illness and being near the end of his career he was then the star player of the team that won the first proper World Cup in 1930. At the 1924 Olympics in Paris Andrade drew out the locals in great numbers with his graceful, athletic midfield game. He stayed behind after the tournament to be the toast of French high society. Despite his fame and success he would live his later years in poverty and alcoholism. His story is a fascinating one.
Recommended reading: Before Pele there was Andrade (The Guardian)
Part of a great team: Uruguay 1924-1930
Striker, Portugal & Benfica, 1960s
The only player from Africa on this list - born in Mozambique, Eusebio played for the colonial power Portugal. He led his adopted country to a World Cup semi-final in 1966 and was the undisputed star of this tournament, becoming a household name with remarkable performance scoring four goals against North Korea. This came within a period of success at club level. He was brought to Portugal by Benfica, one of the greatest club sides of the 1960s. They won the European Cup without him in 1962 but he then became their star player, leading them to a second European Cup victory in 1962, scoring twice to beat Di Stefano’s Real Madrid in the Final. Eusebio went on to lead Benfica to two more European Cup Finals but failed to regain the trophy, losing to Inter Milan in 1965 and Manchester United in 1968. He was named European Footballer of the Year for his contribution in 1965.. A phenomenal goalscorer, he would finish his career with 423 club goals in 431 games.
Part of a great team: Benfica 1960s
14. Sir Bobby Charlton
Att. Midfielder, England & Man Utd, 1950s-70s
England’s greatest ever player and still the record goalscorer for both his country and Manchester United. His club career is one of great personal triumph. He was a fringe player in the famous Busby Babes, certainly not their greatest player, but he was one of the very few that survived the Munich Air Disaster and continued to play to his potential. He would go on to become captain and key player for United, forming part of a ‘holy trinity’ alongside George Best and Denis Law. A forward that dropped back into midfield he nevertheless maintained a formidable scoring record. He was two footed, capable of beating a player and had a remarkable, thunderous shot, claiming him many goals from deep positions. From an early age he was also a key player for England. After impressing at the 1962 World Cup he would be his country’s inspirational player when they won the trophy in 1966, being named European Footballer of the Year that year. Two years later he would win the European Cup with United, helping to lay the ghosts to Munch to rest. In 1970 he continued his impressive international career, being named in the team of the tournament despite his advancing age. He remains a United legend with a seat on the Board, and is a great global ambassador of the game.
Part of two great teams: Man Utd 1963-68 and England 1966
13. Michel Platini
Att. Midfielder, France & St Etienne/Juventus, 1970s/80s
France's inspiration and the leading player of European footballer in the early/mid 1980s. Platini was an attacking midfielder with a goalscoring ratio that any striker would be proud of. He was an elegant passer of the ball and a great free-kick taker. He would lead and organise his team from midfield and his play showed great intelligence. Between 1983 and 1985 Platini led his country to victory in the 1984 European Championships, won the European Cup with Juventus and was named European Footballer of the Year three times in succession. He impressed in both the 1982 and 1985 World Cups, reaching the semi-final and being named in the team of the tournament on both occasions. His greatest moment was leading France to European victory in 1984. He scored 9 goals in the tournament, and remains the competitions record goalscorer, despite playing in only one tournament.
Part of a great team: France 1982-86
12. Cristiano Ronaldo
Winger/Striker, Portugal & Man Utd/Real Madrid, 2000s/10s
A modern day great that sits comfortably alongside past legends. Ronaldo was signed at 18 by Manchester United after impressing in a pre-season friendly and would go on to inspire the club to three league titles and a European Cup win in 2008. Always an exciting dribbler gifted with pace, United transformed him from an out-and-out winger to a more complete player that drifted infield and scored a phenomenal number and range of goals. He is also a great free-kick and penalty taker. After moving to Real Madrid he would continue his astonishing goal record, despite mostly starting from wide positions, and he continues to perform with remarkable consistency. Becoming the key player in a great side he lit up La Liga with a personal rivalry with Lionel Messi, leading his club to a tenth European Cup win in 2014. It is his misfortunate to share the stage with the slightly superior Messi but Ronaldo is still one of a select number of players to win the European Cup three times (once with Manchester United). He may be more comfortable in the limelight, and perhaps driven by egotism, but he has always matched his talent with great dedication and won the respect and admiration of his teammates. Now surely Portugal’s greatest ever player, Ronaldo has played in three World Cups but unfortunately disappointed in all of them, otherwise he would have been higher in this list.
Part of a great team: Man Utd 1999-2009
11. George Best
Right/Left Winger, N. Ireland & Man Utd, 1960s/70s
Named by Pele as his greatest player of all time, one only has to watch footage of Best and it ishard not to agree. A great dribbler and goalscorer Best was the first superstar footballer in England and the greatest star in a famous United team (that also included Charlton). His talent was confirmed to the world with his exploits in the European Cup, in which he showcased his ability in 1966 and then inspired his club to win in 1968, earning him a European Footballer of the Year award. A natural player who loved to entertain, and who fans, and team-mates, never knew what to expect next, He played with verve and imagination and celebrated the best that football could be. He was also brave and would not be intimidated by the hard men of the era. One can only imagine what he could have achieved if he played on the pitches, and with the protection given by referees, of today
Two-footed, Best could play on either wing; he also worked hard for his club and was a good tackler. In the early 1970s, when United were in decline he almost single-handedly maintained their position as a great club. The pressure became too much, and he fell to alcoholism. He may have retired from United at the age of 27 but he had burst into the first team at 17, and so enjoying a lengthy career there, winning all he could win for the club. Best then moved to the US where he continued to wow crowds, on his good days, with astonishing football. Playing for Northern Ireland, it is understandable that he never played at a World Cup, and so never had the opportunity to be measured directly against the all-time great which sit higher than him on this list.
Part of a great team: Man Utd 1963-68
... now see the Top 10 :
Right Winger, Brazil & Botafogo, 1950s/60s
Garrincha was born with deformed knees and it was a miracle he could play at all, but he was a genius with the ball, probably the best dribbler of all time. He would tear teams apart from the right wing, delighting the crowds with his tricks, scoring great goals and creating many chances for his team-mates. It seemed like he was playing for his own amusement most of the time. He would often turn up at his club Botafogo without knowing who the match was against. He would only train when he wanted to and in the afternoons he would return to his home village, playing kickabouts with his old mates, drinking and womanising.
None of this stopped him delivering when it mattered. He went to the 1958 World Cup with equal billing to Pele and proved just as important in leading Brazil to victory. In 1962, with Pele injured, he picked up the mantle and became the player of the tournament and the inspiration behind his country's second World Cup victory. He played in a very good Botafogo side and won several national titles and various international trophies.By the mid sixties though his legs were failing him and his lifestyle caught up with him. Sadly he was to die in obscurity at the age of 49, having left behind an indelible legacy. His play seemed to express the carefree attitude and joy of the Brazilian people he is better loved in his home country than Pele.
Part of a great team: Brazil 1958-62
9. Ferenc Puskas
Inside Forward, Hungary & Honved/Real Madrid, 1950s
Puskas was one of the greatest players of all time and an innovator of the way the game is played. He scored an incredible 83 goals in 85 games for Hungary and 514 goals in 529 games at club level. Puskas was the starring member in the great 'Magical Magyars' Hungary team of the 1950s - the team that beat England 6-3 at Wembley (and 7-1 in Budapest) and revolutionised tactical play, introducing withdrawn forwards. Hungary were the favourites for the 1954 World Cup and looked set to win it with 9-0 and 8-3 victories in their early games (the second result against West Germany). In the second game though he fractured his angle, which kept him out of the next two games. Amazingly he played the Final, and scored, but could not lead Hungary to victory. In 1958 Puskas defected from communist Hungary and joined Real Madrid, teaming up with Di Stefano in the greatest club side of all time. There his success continued, he helped Madrid win two European Cups, scoring 4 goals in the 1960 Final.
Part of two great teams: Hungary 1950s and Real Madrid 1955-1960
8. Alfredo di Stefano
Inside Forward, Argentina/Spain & Real Madrid, 1950s
The great Alfredo di Stefano was the undisputed leader, star player and eternal symbol of the greatest club side ever seen, leading Real Madrid to win five back-to-back European Cups, a feat that has not ever looked like being repeated since. In so doing he became an inspiration to countless other players, including several other legends on this list (notably Charlton and Eusebio).
Di Stefano first came to prominence at River Plate in his native Argentina, developing his game with a loan spell at Huracan and a sojourn to Colombia's all-star break-away league. In 1953 he moved to Spain, with Real Madrid winning a tug-of-war for his services. At Madrid he was nominally a centre-forward but he would show great stamina shuttling back and forward to help and organise his defence and midfield. He scored in all five European Cup Finals between 1955 and 1960 and won the European Footballer of the Year award twice in this period.
Di Stefano does not have the same track record at international level, playing for Spain after he left Argentina and never playing in a World Cup. His international career is not without success though - he helped Argentina win the 1947 South American Championship, scoring 6 goals in 6 games.
Part of a great team: Real Madrid 1955-1960
7. Lionel Messi
Right Winger/Support Striker, Argentina & Barcelona, 2000s/10s
The best player playing today and the star of a remarkable Barcelona team for almost ten years. Messi is a creative forward that can play from wide or central positions, drifting from deep, beating players and setting up and scoring goals seemingly out of nowhere. He has shown remarkable consistency in La Liga, scoring 278 goals in 309 games, and scoring more goals than the number of games played in three seasons, including an astonishing record 73 goals in all competitions 2011/12. He has won the European Footballer of the Year four times, more than anyone else ever, and is the all-time leading scorer in the European Cup.
His form for Argentina, whilst still impressive has generally not matched his club form and he is not revered in his home country the same way that Maradona still is. Aged only 18 in 2006 he did not start any games, in 2010 he played very well, despite not scoring but disappointed in comparison to his ability (he was not named in the team of the tournament). In the 2014 World Cup he impressed in the early games, winning more man-of-the-match awards than anyone else, and was awarded the Golden Ball (a choice though that many football writers disagree with). However, the greatest players are rightly judged on their ability to produce for their team when it really matters. In the 2014 Final against Germany the game went into extra time with the score at 0-0. A moment of magic from Messi, like he had produced many times before, would have won his country the World Cup. But Messi did not rise to the occasion and Argentina lost. This is what separates Messi from the players above him. He will be 30 when the next World Cup starts so may yet have another chance to improve his ranking, though he may not be presented such a good opportunity again.
Part of a great team: Barcelona 2006-2012
6. Zinedine Zidane
Att. Midfielder, France & Juventus/R.Madrid, 1990s/00s
One of the greatest midfielders the game has ever known. Zidane played with such elegance, vision and sublime technique that when a film was made consisting solely of slow motion footage of him playing in one game, it was taken entirely seriously as piece of art. In the 1998 World Cup Zidane succeeded where Platini had previously failed, winning the trophy to become a unifying symbol for his country. In truth he had not fully lived-up to his reputation until the Final when he rose to the occasion and scored twice to lift the trophy, although Brazil had problems of their own that day (see Ronaldo below). Zidane's greatest moment for France came two years later in Euro 2000 when he was the undisputed star of the competition and the inspirational player leading France to victory. After both he and his country disappointed in both the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 he surprised the world with an Indian summer in 2006, becoming the player of the tournament and unexpectedly taking France to the Final. Ill discipline has always been part of his game though; he missed several World Cup games due to suspension. This would cost him and his country in the 2006 Final, his last ever game, when he was sent off for headbutting Marco Materazzi, and France lost. By this point he had already been named player of the tournament.
At club level he moved from France to join Juventus in 1996, where he proved himself a vital player for them from the outset. He helped them to win two league titles and reach two European Cup Finals but lost in both of them. In 2001 Zidane joined Real Madrid's Galaticos line-up in a 75 million Euro deal. There he would become arguably the team's most important player, scheming from midfield, passing with incredible vision, setting up assists and scoring exquisite goals. His greatest goal was the volley he scored in the 2002 Champions League Final, an individual piece of brilliance that finally won him the trophy. One of the very few players to be named European Footballer of the Year he remains a legend for both his international and club career.
Striker, Brazil & Barca/Inter/R. Madrid, 1990s/00s
Ronaldo is a player with a great story, one that is interwoven with the history of the World Cup. When he led Brazil to the trophy in 2002, scoring 8 goals in the process, he was validating a personal comeback and claiming the recognition he deserved for his career up to that point. His first club in Europe was PSV Eindhoven and he was a non-playing member of the 1994 World Cup squard, but he exploded on the world scene with season at Barcelona in 1996/97. His performance that season was incredible, scoring 47 goals in 49 games and taking the club to a Cup Winners Cup trophy. His pace, dribbling and goalscoring ability was incredible, accompanied by a masterful close control gained from his start as a futsal player. This was the best form of his career and he won the FIFA World Player in 1996 at the age of just 20. For Brazil, in the 1997 Copa America he formed a formidable partnership with Romario, driving his team to win the trophy, which he would win again in 1999. After just one season at Barcelona he moved to Inter Milan where he continued to impress, maintaining his impressive goal tally against tough Italian defences and expanding his repertoire with assists and free kicks, inspiring his club to win the UEFA Cup. He was the real star of the 1998 World Cup (winning the Golden Ball), in probably the best team in the tournament. We will probably never really know what happened on the day of the Final but the truth is that Ronaldo experienced some kind of seizure and, despite being eventually selected, was visibly far not himself in the game, which affected the whole team and led to France winning.
Ronaldo succumbed to major injury at Inter, rupturing as knee tendon twice and missing most of two seasons, but recovering in time for the 2002 World Cup. It was amazing that he recovered to play at all, but he did far more than this in becoming the star player of the 2002 World Cup, in another great Brazil team, this time teaming up with Rivaldo and Ronaldinho and inspiring his team to win the trophy. This led to the third of his FIFA World Player of the Year awards and sealed a major transfer to Real Madrid’s ’Galacticos’. He impressed for two years for Madrid and maintained an impressive goal ratio over his time there (83 goals in 127 games over 5 years). Most notably he starred in a 3-1 away demolition of Manchester United in which he scored a hatrick and was given a standing ovation by both sets of supporters (including this writer). At this point in his career he lacked the pace of his youth but this was compensated for by an innate understanding of where to be, and when, in order to score. By 2005 his party lifestyle and injury history were catching up with him - he put on weight, suffered a succession of injuries and his form dropped. He moved between several other clubs (AC Milan, Corinthians) and played with diminishing returns, retiring in 2011, but he should be remembered as the star of two World Cups and an incredible goalscorer for three great clubs.
Part of two great teams: Real Madrid 1998-2005 and Brazil 1998-2002
4. Franz Beckenbauer
Sweeper, W. Germany & Bayern Munich, 1960s/70s
No one has ever achieved more success for both club and country then 'The Kaiser'. For Bayern Munich he won three back-to-back European Cups from 1974-76. For his country he won the Wolrd Cup. After impressing in the 1966 and 1970 World Cups, and winning the 1972 European Championships, he captained his side to win the trophy in 1974. He would go on to win the World Cup again as manager in 1990. He made the All Star Team for all three World Cups he played in and was named the Best Young Player in 1966, where he marked Charlton out of the final.
What is more impressive is that Beckenbauer was the most influential player in these great teams (both Bayern Munich and West Germany), and did this from a central defensive position rather than as a midelder or forward, which is almost unparalleled. He genius also rests on the fact that he was tactically innovative, developing the role of the 'attacking libero': starting from a sweeper position he surged forward to launch attacks. In addition to great positional awareness and tackling ability he had great vision and passing range. Moreover, he was a great leader, acting as captain and example for his team. Repeatedly recognised by his peers, he was twice winner of the European Footballer of the Year. In short, he achieved all he possibly could from his position, even expanding the parameters of how that position could be played to benefit the team.
Part of two great teams: Bayern Munich and West Germany
3. Johann Cruyff
Inside Forward, Netherlands & Ajax/Barcelona, 1970s
Johnann Cruyff was an incredibly skilful and creative player. He was also a great thinker about the game and leader on the pitch. He worked with his coach Rinus Michels to develop the Total Football system, in which players interchanged positions, attacked with fluidity and defended by closing down space. Cruyff pulled the strings on the pitch to implement this great vision and acted as inspiration to his team. A great dribbler, passer and goalscorer - so skilful that he developed his own moved - the 'Cruyff turn' - he played with a verve and freedom that was a joy to watch. Nominally a striker, he was a great goalscorer but would also drop deep to organise team and act as playmaker.
With the new system, and his own genius Cruyff, would help take Ajax from being a small local club to European heavyweights, winning three consecutive European Cups from 1970-72. In so doing he was named European Footballer of the Year three times. More than this, Total Football would transform the way the game is played to this day. Michels and Cruyff took their tactical approach, and most of the Ajax players, to the Netherlands national team. Previously football minnows they now wowed the world in the 1974 World Cup. Looking like favourites from the start they came unstuck in Final against West Germany, seemingly beaten by their own dedication to style in contrast to the more ruthless Germans. Cruyff was the central figure in a very talented team and won the Golden Ball as player of the tournament. A bad experience with the media unfortunately meant that he ruled himself out of the 1978 World Cup. His teammates would go to the Final again and lose to the hosts Argentina. With Cruyff in the team they may well have won. As it was they remain one of the greatest teams of all team, and one of the best teams to have never won the World Cup.
Cruyff left Ajax for Barcelona, where we again be instrumental in changing the tactics and becoming the star of the team. When he returned as manager he put in place a way of playing that has informed the tactical approach of the club ever since, and leading his 'dream team' to a European Cup win. His influence as a player, and manager, has fundamentally shaped the way the game is played today.
Part of two great teams: Ajax 1970-73 and Netherlands 1974-78
Att. Midfielder, Argentina & Barcelona/Napoli, 1980s/90s
There may be several legends on this list that have led their teams to win the World Cup but no other can claim to have done this single-handedly to the extent that Diego Maradona did in 1986, scoring five goals and making five assists in seven games. The Argentina team of that year were decent and included a few very good players (Valdano, Burruchago) but they were by no means a great team and would certainly not have won the trophy without Maradona. Playing in a free attacking midfield role he would pick up the ball from deep, beat players and set chances with great vision, or often he would go on long dribbling runs and score spectacular individual goals by himself. Nowhere was this more apparent that his second goal in the quarter-final against England where he dribbled from his own half and scored. This is generally regarded as the greatest World Cup goal ever scored and perfectly captures his genius: creating chances from nothing and using mesmerising control to score spectacular goals.
His influence on his team was therefore immense, and by extension he has become a hero for his country, transcending football. Through the appeal of watching him play he also became a standard bearer for football itself, being named the Player of the Tournament for that World Cup (probably the easiest choice for this award ever) and one of the key players to watch in the 1990 and 1994 tournaments (after failing to live up to expectations in 1982). Evidence of his importance can be seen in the number of opposition players that marked him in these later campaigns. Although never reaching the same heights as 1986 he was always capable of producing moments of brilliance and he won third place for the Golden Ball in 1990.
To underscore his individual importance Maradona delivered similar success at club level. His club form may have been patchy, after bursting onto the scene at Boca Juniors he generally disappointed after a major transfer to Barcelona (for various reasons), but it was at Napoli that he enhanced his reputation. Joining this underachieving, unfashionable club, he led them to challenge the northern elite and win two league titles and a UEFA Cup. His ‘street-fighting’ style - of fighting for the underdog and using dirty tricks when he needed to (such as his first goal hand-ball against England in 1986), seemed to suit his blue-collar choice of clubs (Boca Juniors and Napoli), and doubtless derived from his background in a poor barrio of Buenos Aires. It is this also that fits elements of the Argentine character and elevates him to a national hero.
There is of course another side of Maradona. His willingness to cheat extended beyond the pitch and he dramatically failed a doping test ruling him out of the remainder on the 1994 World Cup. This followed a similar ban for cocaine use three years earlier. His poor professional discipline has certainly limited the longevity of his achievements but what he achieved when he was at his best is enough to place him very highly in the pantheon of legends, though perhaps eternally second to...
Inside Forward, Brazil & Santos, 1950s-70s
Pele is and always will be the greatest footballer ever. It is a role he wears very comfortably. His play, full of joy and exuberance, seems to sum up everything that the world loves about the game and as he travels the globe acting as its greatest ambassador his own legend is reinforced.
He is fully deserving of this title though. He remains the only player ever to inspire his country to win the World Cup twice: in 1958 and 1970. His team-mate Garrincha runs him close (as perhaps does Giuseppe Meazza in the 1930s) but Pele was the clear star of two teams, just eclipsing Garrincha in 1958. He was only 17 when he was introduced in the 1958 tournament in Sweden, he then scored a hat-trick to help his team reach the final and scored twice in the final itself. His tears at the final whistle showed a humanity that endeared the watching world to him from then on. The following year he was named best player in the 1959 South American Championship, scoring 8 goals. His participation was limited by injury in the 1962 World Cup and Brazil were beaten by heavy tackling in 1966. By 1970 he was coaxed out of his intended retirement to lead another, wholly different all-star team to glory. He played as a classic number 10, dropping back and engaging in some impeccable link-up play and demonstrating great vision - his pass to a seemingly unseen Carlos Alberto for the fourth goal in the 1970 Final remains the best lay-off in history. He could also beat players and score gaols in a great variety of ways, showing that he really was the complete forward.
He is also separated from other legends by the fact that he has proven himself equally through his club career. He remained in Brazil, at Santos throughout his prime years and was the star attraction in a team that swept all before them. It is true that they played a lot of unimportant friendly matches, but they also played some very important games. After winning the Copa Libertadores in both 1962 and 1963 each time they unequivocally answered any questions of relative worth in comparison with European football by comprehensively beating that years European Cup winners: beating Benfica 5-2 away in 1962 and seeing off AC Milan in 1963, both opponents among the greatest club sides of all time. 650 goals in 694 competitive club games tells its own story (leaving aside the 1000+ goals in all games).
Pele is now a true global icon, one of very few in sport, and is indivisbly linked to the game in the public imagination. When the world thinks of football it thinks of Pele, and not just football but el joga bonito (the 'beautiful game' as he named it). It is an association that football benefits from, and that is the best summary of why Pele is number 1.
Part of three great teams: Santos 1962-63, Brazil 1958-62 and Brazil 1970
The Next Best 12
An Honourable Mention to 12 players that narrowly missed out (in alphabetical order):
Roberto Baggio (SS) Italy 1990s
Cafu (RB) Brazil 1990s/00s
Ruud Gullit (SS) Netherlands 1980s/90s
Paolo Maldini (LB) Italy 1980s/90s/00s
Lothar Matthaus (B2B) Germany 1980s/1990s
Sir Stanley Matthews (RW) England 1930s/40s/50s
Giuseppi Meazza (IF) Italy 1930s
Bobby Moore (CB) England 1960s/70s
Gerd Muller (STR) Germany 1970s
Matthias Sindelar (IF) Austria 1920s/30s
Ronaldinho Brazil (LW) 1990s/00s
Juan Schiaffino (IF) Uruguay 1950s
Do you agree with our top 20? In the order we have picked? Who do you think is the greatest and why? Use the forum below to leave your comments.