Greatest football players of all time rankings: Writing a list like this is the most difficult task for a sports fan. Not because it is difficult to find the stats and achievements of all great players of the sport, but to then compare their achievements and whittle the list down to an arbitrary number like, let’s say – five.
How does one compare Zinedine Zidane’s 156 career goals and 15 trophies to Johan Cruyff’s 433 goals and 22 trophies? How much impact has Alfredo di Stephano had on a sport that we love as compared to Lionel Messi, Pele, or Michel Platini? And who has done more for their club and country, Cristiano Ronaldo or Diego Maradona? And which of these factors do you give more weight to when writing a list like this?
That is why, none of the lists of this ilk can be totally factual or definitive. While everyone brings different facts and pointers to light when making a list like this of their own, any listing of the “greatest ‘X-number’ of players of all time” can not be more than an opinion piece. With that in mind, here is our list of 5 Greatest Football Players of all Time.
Greatest football players of all time rankings
Alfredo Di Stefano: The First True Galactico
The leading figure of the first Real Madrid side that was genuinely the best in all of Europe, Alfredo di Stefano was instrumental to Real Madris’s European dominance in the latter half of the 1950s.
An Argentinian by birth, Di Stefano opted for Spanish citizenship at the height of his powers in 1956. While he a legend at clubs like River Plate in Argentina and <illionarios in Columbia, it was his transfer to Real Madrid that made him a global superstar and one of the best players in the world. While it is arguable that Pele was the best player in the world in that era due to his performances for Brazil, Alfredo Di Stefano was the best player on the biggest club side in the world.
Alfredo Di Stefano is currently the sixth-highest goal scorer in the Spanish top-flight and is the fourth-highest goal-scorer in Real Madrid history. He is also Real Madrid’s highest goal-scorer in the history of El Classico alongside Cristiano Ronaldo with 18.
In his 2-decades long career, Di Stefano scored 418 goals, out of which, 308 were for Real Madrid. He won the first five editions of the European Cup, which later evolved into the UEFA Champions League. Alfredo won a staggering 28 team trophies in his career and was awarded the Ballon d’Or twice, back when it was a Europe-only award.
Alfredo di Staphano is also the only winner of the Super Ballon d’Or, which was awarded to the best footballer in the world of the past three decades. The one and only Super Ballon d’Or was awarded in 1989.
Diego Maradona: The Flawed Genius
Despite having a 2-decade long career, Argentinian legend Diego Maradona is the player with arguably the shortest peak in this list. Remembered for his unparalleled skill with the ball at his feet, Maradona had the ability to create goals out of nowhere, often against the flow of play.
No conversation of Diego’s career can be completed without his all-time great performance at the 1986 FIFA World Cup, where he dragged a mediocre Argentina side to the World Cup trophy. In that tournament, Maradona scored 5 and assisted 5 goals on route to winning the Golden Boot. His goals included the infamous “Hand of God” goal, where he pushed the ball over the English keeper Peter Shilton to score his first goal in the Quarter-Final. Four minutes later, he scored what is considered the Goal of the Century – a 60-yard, 10-second dash towards the English goal saw Maradona pass four players and finish with a feint touch with his left foot.
Diego Maradona’s club career saw him play for legendary sides like Barcelona and Napoli. For the latter, he scored 115 goals in 259 matches, winning Serie A twice. He was also voted FIFA’s Player of the Century in the year 2000.
Diego’s career was marred by controversy. His time at Napoli ended after stories of his Cocaine use emerged. He abused drugs for most of the 1990s as his career ended on a down note. His health and drug issues are claimed by some as the reasons behind his untimely passing in 2020. Although, that is a bag of worms to be opened some other day.
Pele: The King Of Football
Pele, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, is a name synonymous with football greatness. Hailing from Brazil, Pele was football’s first global icon. Considered the greatest international footballer of all time, the man nicknamed O Rei (The King) won three World Cups with Brazil in 1958, 1962, and 1970. Apart from being the only player to win the FIFA World Cup thrice, he is also the youngest player to win the tournament at the age of 17. He is also only one of two teenagers to score in the FIFA World Cup final, the second being Kylian Mbappe.
First bursting onto the scene in the late 1950s with Santos FC, he showcased an unrivalled combination of skill, agility, and goal-scoring prowess. Apart from being the greatest football in the world for over a decade, Pele was also an excellent ambassador of the sport around the world. His transfer to American club New York Cosmos in 1975 is credited for popularising the sport of Soccer in the US.
A goodwill ambassador for FIFA and UNICEF, Pele is credited for coining the term “The Beautiful Game.” His 1279 goals in 1363 games, which includes friendlies, is a record to this day.
Pele as a player was not only a complete footballer with breathtaking flair but his presence transcended his game on the pitch.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi
Cristiano Ronaldo: The Complete Footballer
Someone more familiar to modern audiences, Cristiano Ronaldo is arguably the most complete forward in football history. He is also the leading goalscorer of all time. A powerhouse of athleticism and goal-scoring prowess, he is renowned for his aerial prowess, blistering speed, and lethal finishing. For the past two decades, Ronaldo has been a dominant force in both domestic leagues and international competitions.
An absolute beast when it comes to winning trophies and accolades, CR7 has won five Ballon d’Or, five UEFA Champions’ Leagues, a UEFA European Championship, and seven League titles. He is also the highest goals-scorer and assists provider in Champions League history with 140 and 40 goals respectively.
Having played for clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid in his prime, he is also a club legend at his hometown Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon, and Italian giants Juventus. Now in the twilight of his career, Ronaldo is currently plying his trade at Saudi Pro League club Al Nassr, where he started a trend of European greats going to Saudi clubs for big money.
One of two players of his generation in the conversation of Greatest of all Time, Cristiano Ronaldo is truly a marvel of modern football. Arguably the most famous footballer of all time, his contribution to spreading the sport around the world has been immense.
Lionel Messi: The Beauty
While it is still a disputed topic for many, Lionel Messi is one of the greatest footballers of this generation, and in our opinion, of all time. While the likes of Diego Maradona might have had higher peaks than the 26-year-old Rosario native, what sets Messi apart is his incredible consistency over his nearly 2-decade-long career. Ever since he first appeared for Argentina in 2005, he has been one of the best players in the world.
His unparalleled close control, agility, and vision have set him apart as a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Messi’s consistency in front of goal, amassing numerous accolades and breaking records, is a testament to his otherworldly skill.
Having scored a staggering 848 goals in his career for club and country, Lionel was the leading figure of arguably the greatest club side of all time, Barcelona in the mid-2010s. He also scored an astonishing 91 goals for Barcelona and Argentina in 2011-12.
A record seven-time Ballon d’Or winner (favorite to win an eighth this year), Lionel Messi has won 12 League titles, 4 UEFA Champions Leagues, 8 League Cups, and 2 Club World Cups in his career. While international trophies with Argentina eluded him for most of his career, he did win Copa America in 2021 after losing in countless finals across his career. He then won the big one, the World Cup in 2022, winning the Golden Ball for the second time in his career.