Legendary Football Players [Top 20 Legends of the Game]

There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of great footballers in the history of the sport. Some have been truly great, and a more elite group have been referred to as legends of the beautiful game.

But what distinguishes between the good, the great and the ‘legends’? Who decides which players deserve the ‘legend’ tag?

Every football fan will have a list of their favourite players in mind, and it is more than likely that each will include different players in that list – it is far too subjective a topic for everyone to agree.

But let’s think about what gives a player that legendary status, and try to come up with a list of the top twenty football legends of all time.

Feel free to disagree!

When Does a Footballer Become a Legend?

What makes a footballer a legend? Is it honours won? Goals scored? Clean sheets? Cult status? Iconic goals? Perhaps a combination of all of the above? 

One thing is for sure – not all football fans will agree on who is a legend and who isn’t, except in a small number of cases. Few would argue that the likes of Pelé, Diego Maradona and, more recently, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, deserve that accolade.

In coming up with our list of the top twenty football legends, we have omitted the likes of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Roberto Baggio, Ruud Gullit and Franco Baresi, and from the current era Luka Modric and Karim Benzema, who have all won the coveted Ballon d’Or, awarded to the best player in the world each year.

Football Legends [Top 20]

20. Garrincha – 1951-1972

Serrano, Botafogo, Corinthians, Atletico Junior, Flamengo, Olaria: 345 appearances, 102 goals. Brazil: 50 appearances, 12 goals.

World Cup winner 1958 and 1962. Named in the World Team of the 20th Century, and the FIFA World Cup All-time Team. Player of the Tournament and Top Scorer at the 1962 World Cup.

19. Lev Yashin – 1950-1970

Dynamo Moscow: 326 appearances. Soviet Union: 74 appearances.

European Championship winner in 1960, and runner-up in 1964. Olympic Games gold medal in 1956. Ballon d’Or winner in 1963, the only goalkeeper to have won the award. Kept 270 clean sheets and saved more than 150 penalties during his career. 

18. Zico – 1971-1994

Flamengo, Udinese, Kashima Antlers: 700 appearances, 469 goals. Brazil: 71 appearances, 48 goals.

Led Flamengo to four league titles, one Copa Libertadores and a Club World Cup. Four goals in five games at the 1982 World Cup, named in the team of the tournament and widely regarded as the best Brazilian player to never have won the World Cup.

17. Paolo Maldini – 1985-2009

AC Milan: 902 appearances, 33 goals. Italy: 126 appearances, 7 goals.

Won Serie A seven times, the Coppa Italia once and the Supercoppa Italiana five times. European Cup/Champions League winner five times, four-time UEFA Super Cup winner, twice Intercontinental Cup winner and FIFA Club World Cup winner in 2007.

16. Gerd Muller – 1963-1981

1861 Nordlingen, Bayern Munich, Fort Lauderdale Strikers: 716 appearances, 654 goals. West Germany: 62 appearances, 68 goals.

World Cup winner in 1974, European Championship winner in 1972. Bundesliga winner four times, German Cup winner four times, three-time European Cup Winner, European Cup Winners Cup winner and Intercontinental Cup winner. Ballon d’Or winner in 1970.

15. Bobby Charlton – 1956-1980

Manchester United, Preston, Waterford United: 807 appearances, 260 goals. England: 106 appearances, 49 goals.

World Cup winner and top goalscorer in 1966, Ballon d’Or winner in the same year. European Cup winner in 1967, First Division winner three times, FA Cup Winner in 1963 and Charity Shield winner in 1965 and 1967.

14. Ferenc Puskas – 1943-1966

Budapest Honved and Real Madrid: 629 appearances, 625 goals. Hungary: 85 appearances, 84 goals.

European Cup winner three times and five-time La Liga winner (consecutively from 1960 to 1965). Runner up and top goalscorer at the 1954 World Cup, and European Cup top goalscorer twice. Olympic Games gold medal winner in 1952.

13. Michel Platini – 1972-1987

Nancy, Saint Etienne, Juventus: 580 appearances, 312 goals. France: 72 appearances, 41 goals. Ballon d’Or winner in 1983, 1984 and 1985.

European Championship winner and Player of the Tournament in 1984. France Ligue 1 winner in 1981, Serie A winner in 1984 and 1986 and European Cup winner in 1985.

12. Eusebio – 1957-1979

Sporting Marques, Benfica, Boston Minutemen, Monterrey, Toronto Metros, Beria-Mar, Las Vegas Quicksilvers, Uniao de Tomar, New Jersey Americans: 570 appearances, 579 goals. Portugal: 64 appearances, 41 goals.

Ballon d’Or winner in 1965. Portuguese Primera Liga winner 11 times, European Cup winner in 1962. World Cup top goalscorer in 1966 and three-time European Cup top goalscorer.

11. Marco van Basten – 1981-1995

Ajax and AC Milan: 379 appearances, 282 goals. Netherlands: 58 appearances, 24 goals.

European Championship winner in 1988. Ballon d’Or winner in 1988, 1989 and 1992. FIFA World Player of the Year in 1992. Dutch Eredivise winner three times, Serie A winner four times. Three-time European Cup and European Super Cup winner.

10. Franz Beckenbauer – 1964-1983

Bayern Munich, New York Cosmos, Hamburger SV, New York Cosmos: 754 appearances, 98 goals. West Germany: 103 appearances, 14 goals.

World Cup winner in 1974, European Championship winner in 1972. Ballon d’Or winner in 1972 and 1976. Bundesliga winner five times, European Cup winner three times, European Cup Winners Cup winner once.

9. George Best – 1963-1983

Manchester United, Stockport County, Cork Celtic, LA Aztecs, Fulham, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Hibernian, San Jose Earthquakes, Bournemouth, Brisbane Lions: 705 appearances, 251 goals. Northern Ireland: 37 appearances, 9 goals.

Ballon d’Or and European Cup winner in 1968. English First Division and Charity Shield winner in 1965 and 1967.

8. Ronaldo – 1993-2011

Cruzerio, PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Corinthians: 518 appearances, 352 goals. Brazil: 98 appearances, 62 goals.

World Cup winner in 1994 and 2002. Copa America winner in 1997 and 1999. Ballon d’Or winner in 1997 and 2002. FIFA World Player of the Year in 1996, 1997 and 2002. 

7. Alfredo Di Stefano – 1945-1966

River Plate, Huracan, Millionarios, Real Madrid, Espanyol: 669 appearances, 480 goals. Argentina: 6 appearances, 6 goals. Spain: 31 appearances, 23 goals.

Ballon d’Or winner in 1957 and 1959. La Liga winner eight times. European Cup winner five times in succession from 1956 to 1960, and scored in each of the finals.

6. Zinedine Zidane – 1989-2006

Cannes, Bordeaux, Juventus, Real Madrid: 695 appearances, 125 goals. France: 108 appearances, 31 goals.

Ballon d’Or and World Cup winner in 1998. European Championship winner and Player of the Tournament in 2000. Champions League winner in 2002. Serie A winner twice and La Liga winner in 2003.

5. Johan Cruyff – 1964-1984

Ajax, Barcelona, LA Aztecs, Washington Diplomats, Levante, Feyenoord: 713 appearances, 400 goals. Netherlands: 48 appearances, 33 goals.

Ballon d’Or winner 1971, 1973 and 1974. European Cup winner three times (1971-1973), Dutch Eredivise winner nine times, La Liga winner in 1974. World Cup runner up in 1974.

4. Cristiano Ronaldo – 2002-Present

Sporting CP, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus, Al Nassr: 954 appearances, 702 goals. Portugal: 196 appearances, 136 goals.

Ballon d’Or winner in 2008, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017. Champions League winner five times, English Premier League winner three times, twice La Liga winner and twice Serie A winner. European Championship winner with Portugal in 2016.

3. Diego Maradona – 1976-1997.

Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys: 589 appearances, 311 goals. Argentina: 91 appearances, 34 goals.

Widely regarded as one of the best – if not the best – player of all time, Diego Maradona was a World Cup winner with Argentina in 1986, where he was also top scorer. He won Serie A with Napoli twice in 1987 and 1990, and the Argentinian Primera Division in 1981 with Boca Juniors. He also won the UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia with Napoli, and is still revered in his adopted hometown of Naples. His transfers to Barcelona and Napoli saw him become the first player to be transferred for a world-record fee on two occasions. 

2. Lionel Messi – 2004-Present

Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain: 867 appearances, 709 goals. Argentina: 172 appearances, 98 goals.

The diminutive maestro that is Lionel Messi could easily have topped this list. He lifted the La Liga trophy ten times with Barcelona, the Champions League four times, the Copa del Rey on seven occasions and the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup three times each. Since moving to PSG he already has a Ligue 1 winners medal in 2022. On the international stage, he captained Argentina to the 2022 World Cup triumph, where he was also top scorer, and won the Copa America in 2021. Messi is also a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner.

1. Pelé – 1956-1977

Santos, New York Cosmos: 765 appearances, 709 goals. Brazil: 92 appearances, 77 goals.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pelé, is arguably the most famous footballer ever to grace a pitch. Including friendlies, he scored 1279 goals in 1363 games, which is a Guinness World Record. He won the World Cup three times with Brazil, in 1958 (as a 17 year old), 1962 and perhaps most famously in 1970 in Mexico, where Brazil were widely seen as the best side of all time. He shared the accolade of FIFA Player of the Century with Diego Maradona in 2000, won the Brazilian Championship six times with Santos and was top scorer in the league on 11 occasions. His name and legacy is synonymous with football around the world.

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Thomas Smith

Tommy is a freelance writer and editor based in Spain but originally from the north east of Scotland. A former daily newspaper reporter, he is passionate about football, loves cricket and snooker and enjoys watching most sports.

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