For more than 150 years, soccer has been the world’s favorite pastime. The beautiful game has seen countless players take the pitch for teams at every corner of the globe and every level of ability. But among all those footballers, there have been a select few that have become icons and heroes, worshipped by fans long after they hung up their cleats for good.
Comparing players among the various positions and the many leagues and tournaments that exist is a tough task but we’ve looked through the record books and found our choices for the best men to ever play the game. In most cases, our stats came from The Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation (RSSSF), unless otherwise noted.
30. Ruud Van Nistelrooy
One of the great offensive players of recent history, Bleacher Report named Ruud Van Nistelrooy the second-best goalscorer in soccer for the 20 years from 1990-2010. He was known to torture goalies in leagues across Europe, racking up nearly 250 goals at the game’s top level in his career. The Dutchman spent the 2000s playing with the game’s two most elite clubs, Manchester United and Real Madrid, scoring a combined 141 goals with those teams in 10 years. That scoring helped him secure one EPL and two La Liga titles.
29. Ryan Giggs
A U.K. football legend, Ryan Giggs played his entire career for Manchester United, which is arguably the most iconic club in the sport. The midfielder appeared in 672 English Premier League games and earned his reputation as one of the game’s best playmakers ever. His 162 career assists are by far the most in EPL history, putting him more than 50 ahead of the runner-up. He was part of countless great teams, winning a record 13 EPL titles and a pair of UEFA Champions League titles as well, just to name a few.
28. Hugo Sánchez
You can make a strong case that Hugo Sánchez is the best soccer player to ever come from North America. When he was just a teen, Sánchez helped lead his native Mexico to an undefeated, gold medal finish at the 1975 Pan American Games and he was just getting started. Sánchez is the fourth all-time goalscorer in the history of Spain’s notoriously competitive La Liga, with 234 goals under his name in that league, and that only accounts for less than half of his total career scores.
He’s among that elite group of players to have scored at least 500 career goals at the game’s top level — and you’ll see many of them on this list.
27. Alan Shearer
There are only two players in the history of the English Premier League to have scored at least 200 goals in league play and Alan Shearer is one of them. In fact, his 260 EPL goals — earned between memorable stints with Blackburn and Newcastle — are the most in history. In total, he scored 283 times at the top level of the game and never played for a single team that wasn’t in his native England. In 2004, the legendary Pelé named Shearer one of the 125 greatest living soccer players, which was just another feather in his cap.
26. Zlatan Ibrahimović
Longevity in professional sports is remarkable and Zlatan Ibrahimović has made it look easy. The Swedish striker has scored a goal in all three decades from 1990-2020, beginning with his time with Malmö FF in 1999. In Sweden, he’s nothing short of a living legend, having scored more goals than any other player in the proud history of that country’s national team. Among all active players, Ibrahimović sits behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo with the most top-level goals scored in a career, with 547 so far.
25. Petr Čech
One of just a few goaltenders to make our list, Petr Čech’s career accomplishments stand alongside anyone who’s ever minded the net. His 202 career clean sheets in English Premier League play are by far the most in league history and his 1,005 saves are the second-most. The Czech was so dominant in the EPL that he once went 17 consecutive hours on the pitch without giving up a goal, which was a league record at the time. Before retiring in 2019, Čech appeared in 567 top-level club matches and 124 international games with the Czech Republic national team, which is the most ever for that country.
24. Miroslav Klose
Whenever Miroslav Klose scored a goal for the German national team — which happened in 40 contests in his long career — they never lost a single game. How’s that for a stat? Klose is as good as any player in history on the biggest stage in all of sports, with his 16 career World Cup goals being the most for any man in tournament history. His 11 World Cup matches with at least one goal are tied for the most ever and he’s also the only player to score at least four times in three different World Cup tournaments.
He wasn’t nearly as gifted a goalscorer at the club level but Klose’s precision at the game’s most revered tournament helped Germany to top-three finishes in 2002, 2006 and 2010, as well as a championship run in 2014.
23. Wayne Rooney
One of the greatest players in British history, Wayne Rooney was a prodigy who made his international debut for the English national team at 17. He’s since come to be seen as arguably the best player in that team’s storied history, with his 53 career international goals being a record for England, despite him not being the team’s most-capped player. He’s also the all-time leading scorer for Manchester United and the second all-time leading scorer in English Premier League history. And in case you thought that all meant he was selfish with the ball, he’s also one of only four men with at least 100 career assists in EPL play, as well.
The youngest player to make our list, Neymar has lived up to his nation’s unmatched legacy of incredible soccer talent. The Brazilian made his professional debut at 17 in Série A and has since only grown his legacy by starring in La Liga and Ligue 1. Since 2009, he’s done nothing but torch the record books, scoring an incredible 310 club-level goals in just 277 appearances. He’s already the third-best scorer in the vaunted history of the Brazil national team, scoring 61 times since 2010.
Neymar’s value in the current game is just about unmatched, with his market value of 180 million Euros being tied as the highest of any player at the 2018 World Cup and his 2017 transfer fee of more than 222 million Euros being the most expensive in history.
21. Jimmy Greaves
Another English legend who spent nearly his entire brilliant career playing for clubs in his native country is Jimmy Greaves. The striker’s 357 career goals earned while playing for top-tier English clubs make him the country’s all-time leading goalscorer. Of course, that total doesn’t even include the 150-plus other goals he netted in international, tournament and Serie A play. It’s a shame that medical issues kept him from a starring role on England’s 1966 World Cup championship team because that’s about the only thing that could raise his profile in the game’s history more.
One of the earlier players on our list, Zarra, seen here taking a shot, is an undisputed legend in the history of Spanish football. Despite having scored his last goal in La Liga play during the 1954-55 season, Zarra still ranks third in that league’s history in terms of career scoring. And he was basically unstoppable, as his goals-per-game ratio of 0.9 is behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in La Liga history. Today, the league hands out the Zarra Trophy to the highest-scoring Spanish player every season in his honor.
19. Ferenc Puskás
Having a trophy named after you is great but having a nearly 70,000-seat soccer stadium named after you is a whole other sign of greatness. Hungary’s biggest stadium is called Puskás Arena because of the brilliance Ferenc Puskás showed during his long career representing his home country. He racked up more than 500 career goals at the club level in the Hungarian League and La Liga from 1943-1962. At the international level, Puskás was truly divine, scoring 84 goals in 85 appearances for Hungary, leading them to Olympic gold in 1952 and the World Cup final in 1954.
18. Alfredo Di Stéfano
Argentina’s Alfredo Di Stéfano played at the same time as Ferenc Puskás and even formed a great partnership with him on the pitch when they were both playing for Real Madrid. But even before his Hungarian pal got there, Di Stéfano was turning that club into a powerhouse that ran roughshod over La Liga and the European Cup. He won the Ballon d’Or award as Europe’s best men’s soccer player — arguably the most prestigious individual award in the game — twice and scored more than 500 career goals at the club and international levels.
It’s easy to see why fellow legend Eusébio called him “the most complete footballer in the history of the game.”
17. Gordon Banks
In the photo here, taken at the 1966 World Cup, you can see goalkeeper Gordon Banks making the kind of amazing save he spent a long career making. He started every game for the English national team in their march to the World Cup title that year, part of 73 total caps he’d earn for his country’s team in the 1960s and 1970s. Banks was named the goalkeeper of the year a remarkable six times by FIFA in a career that included 249 appearances at England’s top club level.
In 1999, the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) voted Banks the second-best keeper of the 20th century.
16. Franz Beckenbauer
Another two-time Ballon d’Or winner is German legend Franz Beckenbauer. His style of play as a defender revolutionized the position for everyone who would follow him. That type of legacy for innovation on the pitch is a major reason why Bleacher Report named him one of the five best soccer players in history in a 2011 list. He helped lead West Germany to three World Cup appearances, including a championship in 1974. In 1990, he would manage Germany to another World Cup title, proving his knowledge of the game was still nearly unmatched.
Speaking of players who’ve been ranked among the elites, Brazilian star Ronaldinho was voted as the fifth-best player in soccer history by users at Ranker, in a contentious poll that has earned millions of votes. The two-time FIFA World Player of the Year is as athletically skilled as anyone to ever put on cleats, even if his later career was slightly derailed by injuries. At his best in the 2000s, Ronaldinho was a monster midfielder for Barcelona, helping them win back-to-back La Liga titles in 2005 and 2006. At the international level, he was a star for Brazil’s legendary 2002 World Cup-winning team and earned 97 total caps with his home nation in his career.
14. Gianluigi Buffon
The best goalkeeper of his generation, there have been plenty of strong arguments written that declare Gianluigi Buffon as the greatest of all time. The users at Ranker voted him as the best goalie in history and one of the 10 best players at any position in the aforementioned poll of the sport’s giants. He’s the most-capped player in Italy’s proud history of international soccer, with a mind-blowing 176 appearances for the national team, and he helped lead his home country to a World Cup title in 2006, allowing just two goals in seven games and posting five clean sheets.
All that’s not even taking into consideration his impeccable career at the club level, which included helping Juventus win nine Serie A titles in 17 seasons.
13. Marco Van Basten
If injuries hadn’t cut Marco van Basten’s career criminally short, forcing him to retire at the age of 31, the Dutch master would likely be even higher on this list. In a career that lasted only from 1981-1993, Van Basten scored 301 goals at the top level of club and international soccer, winning the Ballon d’Or a remarkable three times. He led both of the club teams he played for, Ajax and Milan, to three league championships and led the Netherlands to its first and only UEFA European Championship in 1988.
12. Zinedine Zidane
There are only two players that earned the honor of FIFA World Player of the Year three times and Zinedine Zidane is one of them. “Zizou” is a cultural icon in his native France after helping lead the national team to a World Cup win in 1998 and a runner-up finish in 2006, as well as a UEFA Euro in 2000. The midfielder played in more than 600 top-level matches across Ligue 1, Serie A, La Liga and international play, where his 108 caps put him at fifth in French history. Zidane was so beloved by soccer fans across Europe that he was selected as the continent’s best player ever in a 2004 poll organized by UEFA.
11. Lev Yashin
You can see Lev Yashin making a diving stop at a 1966 World Cup match in the photo here and it’s probably one of the less acrobatic saves he made that day. The Soviet-born legend is widely considered to be the best goalkeeper in the history of the sport, earning 275 clean sheets and stopping 150 penalty kicks at soccer’s top level, which is a world record. About the only thing Yashin never accomplished was a World Cup win, but he took home Olympic gold in 1956, a UEFA Euro in 1960 and helped ensure Dynamo Moscow won the Soviet Top League five times in a 20-year career.
Yashin was named the European Goalkeeper of the Year nine times and is still the only goalie to win the Ballon d’Or, which he earned in 1963. In 1999, the IFFHS voted named him the best goalkeeper of the 20th century.
10. Michel Platini
Michel Platini’s post-playing career has had its share of controversy, but his time on the pitch was nothing short of glorious. The French icon is tied as the top goalscorer in UEFA Euro tournament history and led his home country to the 1984 title after having the best single tournament of any player ever at the event. One of the most dominant offensive players of the 1980s, despite playing midfield, Platini won the Ballon d’Or three consecutive times from 1983-85. He also led all three club teams he played for to championships, including two Serie A titles for Juventus.
9. Josef Bican
The soccer website Back-Post described Josef Bican as “the greatest goalscorer you’ve never heard of,” and we’d have to agree. The Austrian striker was the most prolific offensive player in soccer history and that’s not hyperbole. The RSSSF lists Bican as the best goalscorer of all time, crediting him as the only player with more than 800 goals in official matches in a career and stating that he scored a mind-blowing 1,468 goals in his career from 1931-1956. While he never won a World Cup or any major honors until after his retirement, that kind of production makes it undeniable that he was one of the all-time greats.
8. Johan Cruyff
In 2011, Bleacher Report proclaimed Johan Cruyff as the greatest soccer player in history. While we’re not going quite that far, the Dutch icon is undoubtedly in the conversation. He was a trendsetter and innovator in many ways and helped revolutionize the game with his technical skills. Cruyff won the Ballon d’Or three times from 1971-74 and led the Netherlands to a second-place finish at the World Cup in 1974. The fact that he led AFC Ajax to eight Eredivisie titles in 10 seasons with the team is just further evidence of his dominance as a leader on the field.
7. Gerd Müller
Germany has a proud history of football excellence but that country never gave the world a better player than Gerd Müller. He led his home country to the 1972 UEFA Euro crown and the 1974 World Cup title over Johan Cruyff’s Dutch squad, cementing him as an icon. Müller’s 14 career World Cup goals was the all-time mark for decades but puts him third today, while his 365 career goals in Bundesliga play are still by far the most in that prestigious league’s history, despite his last game there coming in 1979. Müller was such an unstoppable force that he averaged a goal roughly every 105 minutes he spent on the pitch.
According to RSSSF statistics, Romário is the most prolific goalscorer in modern soccer history, edging out his fellow Brazilian, Pelé, with 772 goals scored in official matches. His reputation as an offensive threat is nearly unmatched, thanks to his speed and technical skill. A mainstay of Brazil’s vaunted national team in the 1990s, Romário tallied 55 international goals in 70 appearances in his career, which included a starring role in the 1994 World Cup championship team, where he was the tournament’s top scorer.
5. Diego Maradona
The legend of Diego Maradona casts a wider shadow than nearly any player in soccer history. The Argentine icon played in four World Cups, carrying his native country to the title in 1986. His performances on the game’s biggest stage led Daily Mail to call him the second-best player in World Cup history on a list that was filled with brilliant players. Maradona loses some points for losing much of his edge in the back half of his career, but users at Ranker didn’t seem to mind when they voted him the best soccer player in history.
The Brazilian Ronaldo was the first to make that name synonymous with soccer excellence and remains one of the most feared strikers in history. His 62 career goals with the Brazil national team rank him at second in the unmatched history of that international squad, and his 15 career goals at the World Cup also rank him second in history. The two-time Ballon d’Or winner and three-time FIFA World Player of the Year helped lead Brazil to World Cup wins in 1994 and 2002, as well as a runner-up finish in 1998.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo
The Portuguese Ronaldo came into the game with that already-legendary name and has arguably outplayed the Brazilian icon who came just before him. Cristiano Ronaldo’s stature as a cultural phenomenon is nearly unmatched but it’s his legacy as a player we’re interested in and he’s been incredible on the pitch. He sits at second in the long history of La Liga with 311 goals scored in league play but he earned that tally in just 292 appearances, giving him the best-ever ratio of 1.07 goals per game. He’s the most prolific scorer in UEFA Champions League history and also has the most assists in the history of that event, showing his greatness as a leader and teammate.
He’s Portugal’s most-capped player and has played in four World Cups but that championship has been about the only one to elude him. Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s five Ballon d’Or awards speak for themselves and we rank him as the best European player ever.
2. Lionel Messi
It seemed impossible that any player could surpass Diego Maradona in Argentine history but Lionel Messi has done just that in his long and storied career. He’s been nominated for the Ballon d’Or a record 12 times and has won it an incredible six times, which is also a record. Messi’s greatness as a goalscorer is undisputed, as his 627 goals for Barcelona alone are the second most by any player for a single club in soccer history and he’s led that club to an amazing 10 La Liga crowns in 16 seasons with them. Messi cemented his status as the best contemporary player by scoring 91 goals in 2012, which is recognized as the single greatest year for goalscoring by any player in history.
Failing to lead Argentina to a World Cup win is the only thing that’s keeping Messi from being the greatest player ever but the rest of his legacy more than puts him in the conversation.
How can you top a god? Pelé’s name still rings louder than any other across international soccer, despite it being nearly 50 years since he last wore Brazil’s colors on the pitch. A prodigy, Pelé’s first World Cup goal at the 1958 tournament came when he was just 17 years old, making him still the youngest goalscorer in the event’s long history. His 77 career goals for the Brazil national team are the most in that iconic squad’s history by a whopping 15 scores and he is still the only player to win three World Cups, leading his country to titles in 1958, 1962 and 1970.
Other all-time records that Pelé still holds are his 92 hat tricks and his 643 goals scored for a single club, the latter of which he did in 659 career appearances with Santos. But his most impressive record might be his 1,279 career goals at soccer’s top level, which Guinness World Records recognizes as the most in history.