Lionel Messi or Diego Maradona? Is Pelé the undisputed best of 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 to resolve some of the game’s biggest debates: Who is the greatest male player of all time from 13 major countries?
It was not an easy task to create shortlists as we first had to establish clear criteria for the GOAT candidacy. Our group of authors took into account international and club awards as well as considerations such as historical significance and a player’s relationship / connection with fans.
For example, Hugo Sanchez is more on the Mexican list because of his successes in Spain than he is because of his success at El Tri, and Alfredo Di Stefano, who played for three different countries, is in the top 3 in Argentina because of his contribution to the game’s growth in the south America.
Put simply, let the debates – and votes – begin …
Jump to: Australia | Brazil | England | France | Germany | Italy | Mexico | Netherlands | Nigeria | Portugal | Spain | United States
Lionel Messi, FW (career 2004-)
Notable achievements: World Cup second place (1), World Cup Golden Ball (1), Ballon d’Or (6), FIFA World Player of the Year (1), Best FIFA Men (1), World Cup Dream Team (1), Copa America Golden Ball (1), Argentine Player of the Year (11)
An argument for Messi: Perhaps no player in the history of the game has been able to maintain – and count – such consistent excellence at the highest level in a decade and a half. With the ball on his left foot, Messi is a genius in a confined space and appears to be watching the game from the best seat in the house, aware of what is happening across the field and making critical decisions in a fraction of a time second. It is true that there are no senior titles with Argentina that could be added to all the cutlery he won with Barcelona – although he has a U20 cup title and an Olympic gold medal in his name. Even so, he has scored more goals for Argentina than anyone and has led them to four finals (one World Cup, three Copa Americas). With 640 goals for Barcelona, Messi only needed four to break Pele’s record of 643 at a club.
Diego Maradona, MF (1976-1997)
Notable achievements: 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)
Stand up for Maradona: Maradona could be his worst enemy, and his life and career followed a path as lazy as some of his low focus dribbles, with drug problems and lots of controversy along the way. However, it is doubtful whether a player has made that high before or since at a World Cup he reached in 1986. There came a time when he was unstoppable, even by those who tried to defile him. With a stand only 5-foot-5, it took extraordinary courage to improve on his performances in Argentine club football and, most importantly, lead Napoli to two Serie A titles. Maradona’s career has been comprised of various peaks and valleys, but his best tracks are some of the best we’ve seen.
Alfredo Di Stefano, FW (1945-1966)
Notable achievements: South American Championship (1), Ballon d’Or (2), World Team of the Century; European Cup (5), La Liga (8)
An argument for Di Stefano: Di Stefano, the final and greatest product of the golden age of Argentine football in the 1940s, helped Argentina win the 1947 Copa America, but that barely scratches the surface of its influence. He helped get professional football up and running in Colombia for Millonarios, but that was just a warm-up exercise for what he was going to do in Europe. When the European Cup (now the Champions League) was launched in 1955, the continent was still recovering from the war. It could have failed, but thanks largely to Di Stefano, the heart and mind of Real Madrid, it was an amazing 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 everyone around him. Those years changed football and, by improving Spain’s image, changed the course of post-war European history. No player was more influential. – Tim Vickery
The ESPN FC board agreed that Pele Brazil had the best result ever against Garrincha and Ronaldo.
Pele, FW (1956-1977)
Notable achievements: 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)
Stand up for Pelé: Pele had it all: strength, speed, balance, vision, flawless two-foot technique, aerial skills, cunning, intelligence, a great match temperament, and a terrifying will to make sure he got the most out of his talent. Before Pelé, Brazil was all potential. By the end of his playing career, they were the undisputed world power, both for the number of titles and for the bold and joyful way in which they were achieved. From the exuberant, skinny teenage boy in Sweden in 1958 to the outstanding wise old owl in Mexico in 1970, Pelé was the soul of the beautiful game.
Garrincha, RW (1951-1972)
Notable achievements: World Championship (2), World Championship Golden Ball (1), World Championship Golden Shoe (1), World Championship All-Star-Team (2), Ballon d’Or (1), World Team of the Century, Best Player of the Brazilian Championship (1)
Stand up for Garrincha: Some Brazilians rate Garrincha higher than Pele. It’s a stretch – not least because Garrincha’s peak only lasted from 1956 to his knee surgery in 1962 – but it’s hard to think of someone who gave fans more pleasure. Garrincha turned football into a variant of bullfighting that didn’t kill anyone, but humiliated, tortured, and played with hundreds of left-backs. Born with a rare abnormality – one of his legs was longer than the other – Garrincha did this and that before hitting the defenders from the outside. Everyone knew what he was going to do, but no one seemed able to stop him. His finest hour was the 1962 World Cup. With Pele injured, Garrincha scored four goals to lead an aging Brazil to the title.
Ronaldo, FW (1993-2011)
Notable achievements: World Championship (2), World Championship Second (1), World Championship Golden Ball (1), World Championship Silver Ball (1), World Championship Golden Shoe (1), World Championship 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)
Stand up for Ronaldo: Football exploded in the late 1990s and became the world’s premier sports attraction – and the game’s flagship was one of the most explosive strikers of all time during that period. Few, if any, players have walked with the ball at their feet with the pace and strength of the Brazilian Ronaldo – traits that went with two-foot technique, subtlety, and seldom calm. When the river was full, it simply blinded. Equally impressive was the way he slowed down as he neared the target, holding his head steady, and choosing his place. Who could stop him? Just his own physical limitations. It’s possible he was too busy – the pursuit of power meant he didn’t long remain the skinny boy who made a name for himself with Cruzeiro in Brazil. After two years at PSV in the Netherlands, he got out in a golden season with Barcelona – and then to Inter Milan, where knee problems began to plague him. Twice he collapsed in excruciating agony, and many thought he would never play top-notch football again. And so his triumphant comeback at the 2002 World Cup, where his goals led Brazil to victory, is one of the most heartwarming stories in the history of the game. – Tim Vickery
Clint Dempsey, FW (2004-2018)
Notable achievements: Gold Cup (3), Gold Cup runner-up (1), Gold Cup top scorer (1), US top scorer; US Football Athlete of the Year (3), Confederations Cup Bronze Ball (1), MLS Cup (1), US Open Cup (1), MLS All-Star Team (4)
Stand up for Dempsey: Dempsey’s career spanned 14 seasons, seven of them in the Premier League with Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur. He won Fulham’s Player of the Season Award twice and also stood out in the MLS with the New England Revolution and Seattle Sounders. But especially with the US national team, Dempsey made himself popular with American fans, scored three different world championships and ended up with Landon Donovan as the US team’s top scorer with 57 goals. Dempsey most notably brought a boast to the field – and a willingness to test yourself overseas – that US fans could relate to. Not bad for a kid from Nacogdoches, Texas.
Landon Donovan, FW (1999-2018)
Notable achievements: World Cup All-Star Team (1), World Cup Best Young Player (1), Gold Cup (4), Gold Cup MVP (1), Gold Cup Top Scorer (3), Tournament Gold Cup Team (4 ), US top scorer; US Football 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)
Stand up for Donovan: Donovan shared the opinion among US fans like perhaps no one else. Apart from very brief stints at Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Everton, Donovan spent most of his career in the MLS. He was undoubtedly successful in the league – retiring as the league’s top scorer – and won six MLS Cups during his tenure at the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy. But there was a feeling that in Europe he could have done more against the world’s best talent. However, his achievements with the United States strengthen his place among the best in the country. Not only is he linked to Dempsey for most US goals (57) – five of them at world championships – his 58 international assists are also a US record. And then there’s the last-minute goal against Algeria, the most iconic moment in USMNT history.
Tim Howard, GK (1997-)
Notable achievements: Gold Cup (2), US 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)
Stand up for Howard: When it comes to all-time US greats, there’s no shortage of goalkeepers, including Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel. But Howard’s contributions to both the club and the country surpass the other two. Howard began his professional career in the USL with the New Jersey Imperials, but soon moved to MLS with MetroStars, where he converted his strong performance into a move to Manchester United. While enduring some inconsistent spells with the Red Devils, he became a loyal and popular fan on Merseyside over his next 10 seasons at Everton, where he made over 400 appearances in total. It was just as important to the US, appearing 121 times and competing in both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. It is this 2014 World Cup that Howard will remember most, namely his tournament record of 15 parades in a 1: 2 Lost to Belgium in extra time.
Tab Ramos, MF (1988-2002)
Notable achievements: CONCACAF Player of the Year (1), US Soccer Athlete of the Year (1), US Soccer Hall of Fame (1), MLS All-Star Team (3), ASL All-Star Team ( 1)
Stand up for Ramos: As the first American to take part in three world championships, Ramos was one of the most talented US players of his generation. He was able to make defensive passes and score big goals. He was part of the pioneering spirit that characterized the players of the late 1980s and 90s and went to Europe, where he spent two seasons at Figueres and later at Real Betis. He then returned home to play for MLS’s New York / New Jersey MetroStars. But his most notable exploits came in a US jersey. His goal against Costa Rica in a 1-0 win in the USA secured qualification for the 1998 World Cup and he set up Earnie Stewart’s goal in a 2-1 win over Colombia at the 1994 World Cup. There is a sense of “what if?” about Ramos’ career when the fractured skull he sustained at the 1994 World Cup against Brazil paused him for an extended period of time. – Jeff Carlisle
The ESPN FC panel will discuss which is the greatest English legend ever played for the Three Lions.
Gordon Banks, GK (1958-78)
Notable achievements: World Cup (1), European Championship third place (1), All-Star World Cup (1), FIFA Goalkeeper of the Year (6), FWA Footballer of the Year (1)
An argument for banks: When England won their first (and so far only) World Cup in 1966, the contribution of goalkeeper Banks was as important as that of Bobby Charlton and hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst. Banks did not concede in England’s first four games in ’66 and conceded only two open game goals in the entire tournament. Banks was widely regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his rescue from Pele during a World Cup clash against Brazil in 1970 when Banks somehow shot Tae’s header over the bar remains one of the most iconic Moments of sport. A car accident in October 1972 when shards of glass stole the sight of his right eye ended Banks’ career in England prematurely at the age of 34.
Bobby Charlton, MF (1956-75)
Notable achievements: World Championship (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 Championship All Star Team (2) , FWA Footballer of the Year (1), European Cup (1), First League (3)
One argument for Charlton: By the time Wayne Rooney became the first English player to score more than 50 international goals, Charlton was the country’s top scorer for almost half a century (49). The Manchester United midfielder, who survived the 1958 Munich air disaster that killed eight of his teammates, made 106 appearances for England. The highlight was the 1966 World Cup final victory against West Germany at Wembley. Only six players have represented England on multiple occasions. Charlton’s two-goal performance in the semi-final win against Portugal was arguably his greatest on the international stage. In this game, Charlton showed both his relentless energy in midfield and his ability to score goals and find the net from afar.
Jimmy Greaves, ST (1957-71)
Notable achievements: World Championship (1), European Cup Winners’ Cup (1), Serie A (1), FA Cup (2)
An argument for greaves: Greaves was the most prolific goalscorer of his generation and a player considered by many to be England’s greatest striker of all time. The former star from Chelsea, AC Milan and Tottenham scored 44 goals in 57 games for England. His international career, however, was determined by the injury that cost him his place on Sir Alf Ramsey’s team during the 1966 triumphant World Cup. Greaves was the fastest English striker with 15, 20, 25, 30, 35 and 40 goals and still has the most hat-tricks – six – for his country. His record of 357 goals in the English top division is unlikely to ever be beaten, as he is 43 points ahead of second-placed Steve Bloomer and a whopping 177 ahead of active front runner Sergio Aguero.
Bobby Moore, DF (1958-83)
Notable achievements: FIFA World Cup (1), European Championship Third (1), Ballon d’Or Second Place (1), World Cup All-Time Team (1), World Cup All-Star Team (1), European Tournament Team (1), FWA Footballer of the Year (1), European Cup Winners’ Cup (1)
Stand up for moors: Widely regarded as England’s greatest player of all time, Moore was the man who won the Jules Rimet Trophy after beating West Germany in 1966 in the World Cup final. The middle half wasn’t blessed with rapid pace, but his reading of the game and calm temperament made him the pre-eminent defender of his generation. He was England captain for 10 years, from the age of 23 until his last appearance in 1973, and won 108 international matches. His outstanding performance in a 1-0 loss to Brazil at the 1970 World Cup is considered his greatest. Moore’s postmatch shot, captured by Pele, has proven to be one of the most iconic in World Cup history. – Mark Ogden
Cristiano Ronaldo, FW (2002-)
Notable achievements: European Championship (1), UEFA Nations League (1), Ballon d’Or (5), FIFA World Player of the Year (1), 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), Series A (2)
An argument for Ronaldo: Ronaldo has dominated world football alongside Lionel Messi for almost two decades. Ronaldo is one of the most dedicated athletes in any sport. His combination of speed, quality, power and unpredictability makes him an absolute nightmare to defend against, previously as a left winger at Sporting, Man United and in his early years at Real Madrid and more recently as a matched goalscorer at Juventus. Ronaldo has won five Ballon d’Ors, five Champions League, three Premier League, two La Ligas and two Serie A titles and has apparently won everything there is to be won in club football. His career in Portugal is almost as successful, having led a surprising Portuguese team to Euro 2016 glory and being one of two players to ever score 100 international goals (101 and more). The 35-year-old Ronaldo is still going strong and currently has just nine goals less than Ali Daei’s Iranian record of 109 international goals.
Eusebio, FW (1957-1980)
Notable achievements: World Cup Third Place (1), Ballon d’Or (1), FIFA XI (2), FIFA 100, World Cup Golden Shoe (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)
Stand up for Eusebio: The “Black Panther” was one of the most prolific football players, scoring 727 goals in 715 games for Benfica and another 41 in 64 games for Portugal between 1960 and 1975. Eusebio was devastatingly quick and gifted with a missile of a right foot. He scored a hat trick in his first game for the Portuguese giants. After overcoming poverty in his homeland of Mozambique, the striker is considered one of the first real superstars in Africa and won the European Cup with Benfica in 1962, the Ballon d’Or in 1965, the European Golden Boot in 1968 and in 1973, Eusebios The brightest moment came at the 1966 World Cup, where he led Portugal to what is still the best third place in the country, scoring nine goals to win the Golden Shoe and the Bronze Ball.
Luis Figo, FW (1989-2009)
Notable achievements: Ballon d’Or (1), FIFA World Player of the Year (1), FIFA 100, All-Star World Cup Team (1), European Championship of the Tournament (2), Portuguese Footballer of the Year (6), Champions League (1 ), La Liga (4), Serie A (4)
An argument for Figo: While Cristiano Ronaldo and Eusebio were goal scorers, Figo was best known for his passport and role as a playmaker. In his early days, the Almada-born man was a dynamic and direct winger who could step down the flank and curl or cut into crosses to create shooting opportunities. As his pace deteriorated, Figo fell into midfield, where he reinvented himself as No. 10 to great effect. The 2000 Ballon d’Or winners, Sporting, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter, won 22 club trophies in 2002, including the Champions League with Madrid in 2002. While never winning a major tournament with Portugal, he appeared in three euros and two world championships, was voted Portuguese player of the year six times and retired as Portugal’s all-time leader with 129 (surpassed by Ronaldo since then). – Gus Elvin
Former French defender Frank Leboeuf reveals his top player to put on the Les Bleus shirt.
Thierry Henry, ST (1994-2014)
Notable achievements: World Championship (1), European Championship (1), Ballon d’Or runner-up (1), All-Star World Cup 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)
Make a case for Henry: The best striker France has ever seen, ahead of Just Fontaine. His record speaks for itself: 123 international matches (second highest), 51 goals (highest), a 1998 World Cup triumph with 20, a Euro 2000 title, four world championships and some incredible goals for the national team, not to mention his clubs. He brought Arsenal to the top of English football and led “The Invincible“to an unbeaten season (03/04), scoring 175 goals in 258 Premier League games over eight seasons with the Gunners. And when Henry left London in the summer of 2007, he moved to Barcelona to eventually win the Champions League. It’s a shame that the Parisian’s legacy was slightly tarnished in 2009 by his infamous handball against the Republic of Ireland that led to his country in 2009, he said it was a bad reflex and as the controversy continued he felt drawn from the People in France not supported enough, it was neither his greatest moment nor the World Cup that followed in 2010. Nevertheless, he remains undisputedly one of the best strikers of modern times who was simply not playable at times.
Raymond Kopa, FW (1949-67)
Notable achievements: Third World Cup place (1), Ballon d’Or (1), All-Star World Cup Team (1), French Player of the Year (1), European Cup (3), La Liga (2), Ligue 1 (4 )
An argument for Kopa: Often times, if you look for French football first, Kopa is the answer. He was the first to win the Ballon d’Or when he joined Real Madrid in 1956, moved to the biggest club in the world, won the European Cup in 1957 (and 1958 and 1959) and became a great football star after leading France Les Bleus to third place at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. He had great pace and wonderful skills with an extravagant style.
Michel Platini, MF (1972-87)
Notable achievements: 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 of the Tournament (1), French Player of the Century, European Cup (1 ): Serie A (2), Ligue 1 (1)
Stand up for Platini: A number 10 that was also a number 9 and so many other things. With a breathtaking European Championship in 1984 (9 goals in 5 games) he delivered the country’s first soccer cup. He was a wonderful captain, a great leader with vision, intelligence and an eye for purpose. He was also a free kick champion. His performances at Juventus also showed that he could make it abroad in what was then the best league in the world. He won the Ballon d’Or three times and came close to World Cup fame in 1982 and 1986.
Zinedine Zidane, MF (1989-2006)
Notable achievements: 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)
Stand up for Zidane: Poetry in motion. Seeing him play live was always a spectacle as he is certainly the most technically gifted player France has ever produced. His football came from the streets of Marseille where his exquisite first touch was molded. His vision and skills were amazing. He was calm off the field but had a fiery temper and his last game will always be remembered for his red card in the 2006 World Cup final when he hit Marco Materazzi in the head. Zidane’s exploits with his country in 1998, 2000 and 2006, as well as his successes with Bordeaux, Juventus and Real Madrid, make him one of the world’s best of all time alongside his 1998 Ballon d’Or, regardless of France. – Julien Laurens
Franz Beckenbauer, DF (1964-83)
Notable achievements: World Championship (1), European Championship (1), Ballon d’Or (2), World Championship 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)
An argument for Beckenbauer: The emperor, which translated means “the emperor”, invented the position of Libero, an attacking sweeper. With elegance, intelligence and style, he led the lines behind the center-backs with powerful long runs and classic passes. One of the few Germans who have ever won the Ballon d’Or – and twice. He led Germany to World Cup glory in 1974 and played in the 1966 and 1970 editions and as part of the team that won the 1972 European Championship.
– Why Beckenbauer is Germany’s “undisputed” goat
Philipp Lahm, DF (2001-17)
Notable achievements: Weltmeisterschaft (1), All-Star-Weltmeisterschaft (1), FIFA FIFPro World XI (2), Champions League (1), Klub-Weltmeisterschaft (1), Bundesliga (8)
Für Lahm eintreten: Der beste Verteidiger seiner Generation, Lahm, führte Deutschland und Bayern München mit gutem Beispiel voran. Pep Guardiola sagte, er sei “der intelligenteste Spieler, den ich jemals trainiert habe”. Er gewann acht Bundesligatitel, sechs DFB-Pokale und die Champions League 2013 mit den Bayern, als sie Anfang der 2010er Jahre vor dem Rest der Bundesliga davonliefen. Er begann als Linksverteidiger, wechselte zum Rechtsverteidiger und stieg dann in das Mittelfeld auf. In mehreren Positionen war er Weltklasse. Eine Wendung des Schicksals, Shkodran Mustafis Verletzung im Achtelfinale gegen Algerien, führte dazu, dass Lahm bei der WM 2014 wieder in die Position des Rechtsverteidigers für Deutschland zurückkehrte Nationalmannschaft um ihre vierte Weltmeisterschaft zu gewinnen. Lahm war Kapitän der Mannschaft und war der erste, der die Trophäe in die Nacht von Rio de Janeiro brachte.
Gerd Müller, ST (1963-81)
Bemerkenswerte Leistungen: Weltmeisterschaft (1), Europameisterschaft (1), Ballon d’Or (1), Goldener Schuh der Weltmeisterschaft (1), All-Star-Team der Weltmeisterschaft (1), Torschützenkönig der Europameisterschaft (1), Deutscher Fußballer der Jahr (2), Europapokal (3), Bundesliga (4)
Für Müller eintreten: Mullers Name steht für Ziele, Ziele, Ziele und “”Der Bomber “ erzielte 365 von ihnen in der Bundesliga. Er war mit 68 Toren Deutschlands bester Torschütze aller Zeiten, bis Miroslav Klose ihn in den Schatten stellte, und er war auch der beste Torschütze aller Zeiten bei der WM-Endrunde, bis zuerst der Brasilianer Ronaldo und dann Klose mehr erzielten. Er ist tief in der deutschen Geschichte als Torschütze des Siegtors im WM-Finale 1974 verankert, als Westdeutschland die Niederlande mit 2: 1 besiegte. Niemals ein Mann, der die Menge mit Worten unterhält, sind seine Zielstatistiken bis heute bei Messi oder Ronaldo. Sein Torinstinkt und seine Finishing-Fähigkeit bleiben unübertroffen. – Stephan Uersfeld
Roberto Baggio, FW (1982-2004)
Bemerkenswerte Leistungen: Zweiter der Weltmeisterschaft (1), Ballon d’Or (1), FIFA-Weltfußballer des Jahres (1), Silberball der Weltmeisterschaft (1), All-Star-Team der Weltmeisterschaft (1), Serie A (2)
Ein Argument für Baggio: Bekannt als der “göttliche Pferdeschwanz”, war Baggio ein Klassiker Nr. 10, der mit faszinierenden Dribbling-Fähigkeiten und einem Auge fürs Tor gesegnet war (er belegt den siebten Platz aller Zeiten in der Serie A). Er gewann 1993 den Ballon d’Or und den FIFA-Weltfussballer des Jahres, führte Italien zum WM-Finale 1994 und ist nach wie vor der viertbeste Torschütze in der Geschichte der Nationalmannschaft. 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.
– Maldini or Baresi: Which Milan legend is Italy’s GOAT?
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 und 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.
– Cahill, Kewell or Viduka: Who is Australia’s GOAT?
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