Talking about the greatest athletes in history is always tricky and polemic. In soccer, the most popular sport in the globe, even more. Although some top 5 lists may change some players or move others up and down, these are generally cited as the top men's soccer players of all time:
Pelé. As if the name wasn't big enough for itself, the best player of all time is also called the King of Football (or soccer). Coming from a very small city in the interior of Brazil, Pelé took the world and made his name known by people in all continents, even those who are not soccer fans. With an unprecedented class to play the game, an innate intimacy with the soccer ball in his feet, and an ability to embarrass defenders and score goals, Pelé started to become recognized as a world class player when he was only 16 years old. Quickly, he was called to the Brazillian Senior National Team, and traveled to his first world cup in 1958. During the competition held in Sweden, the boy who would become king was presented to the world, with enhanced television coverage that that edition of the tournament had. Pelé scored six goals in 4 matches, including two in the final, helping his team raise the trophy for the first time, changing forever Brazilian soccer. By the next edition of the tournament, he was already considered the best player in the world. Pelé was the central piece of Brazil's 1970 world cup squad, considered by many the best international team ever assembled, winning his, and Brazil's, third world cup in four editions. In addition to his success with Brazil, the King won 21 trophies with his team, Santos, including two continental cups and two club world championships. It is sometimes hard to understand the brilliance and impact of Pelé in today's context, nonetheless his light still shines over the soccer world. Pelé was as revolutionary as any other player in history, and lucky were the ones who had the privilege to follow him through his prime. Those who didn't are still blessed with clips of the best soccer player ever, although that is not enough to understand what Pelé was.
Just looking at Lionel Messi's statistics, accolades, trophies, and personal awards should be enough for someone to understand how good he is. But it is not enough. For someone to truly understand what Messi is, his talent, and his significance, it is necessary to watch him play for his club, FC Barcelona, which he has been a member since he was 13 years old, moving from Argentina to Spain just to join the club. Reading about Messi is not enough, as by doing so one cannot see his dribbling ability, passing skills, and natural feel for the game. Messi sometimes is referred to as a being from another planet, as Messi is the only one capable of doing the things he does on the field. Leo Messi has won everything there is to win, individually and with his club. Together with the next player in our list, Cristiano Ronaldo, he has dominated world soccer since making his professional debut at the age of 17. That is showcased by his 6 Ballon D'Or's, presented to the best player in the world in the season. Some of Messi's critics mention his lack of trophies with Argentina's national team, but not even that can take Messi's name out of the discussion about the best soccer players in history. Messi is known for being a quiet guy, staying away from the popstar life that many of his peers live. But for him, the way he plays the game and his success in it speak for themselves.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a top athlete in every sense of the word. A player that always aimed to get better, going the extra mile to do so, being a true leader in every team he has ever been part of, and playing the game of soccer with passion and a killer mentality. Through his career, Cristiano has established himself as a winner, above all. Of his 31 trophies, 5 are Champions League trophies, arguably the hardest soccer competition in the world, in which Cristiano has always been the centerpiece of his team's success. In addition to that, Cristiano has proven his worth in different countries, establishing himself as a difference maker for every time he has played for. It is hard for a player to be as successful as Ronaldo in his career, and even more so when playing in the hardest leagues on the planet. Cristiano has 7 league titles in his resume, all playing for top european teams; Juventus, Real Madrid, and Manchester United. In 2016, Cristiano was the leader and main responsible for taking his national team, Portugal, to an unlikely Euro win, which only contributed more to his legacy as a leader and as one of the most decisive players in soccer history, if not the most. It is impossible to talk about the sport and not mention Cristiano Ronaldo. Alongside Messi, he has dominated the soccer world, and set a new standard of greatness for players across the world. As time goes by, Cristiano Ronaldo only gets better and better, and age seems to be only a number for him. He is on pace to pass Pelé on the all time soccer scoring list, and to win a few more trophies along the way.
Because of his actions on and off the field, Diego Armando Maradona is known all around the world. Similar to his fellow countryman, Leo Messi, reading about Maradona is not enough to truly understand how spectacular he was when putting on soccer boots and controlling a soccer ball. Maradona was magic, a characteristic evident to anyone who watches his "Goal of The Century". His talent was spotted early on, he was the youngest player in Argentinian soccer history to make his professional debut, at the age of 15. Maradona unsurprisingly got the attention of European scouts, and in 1982 he moved to play for FC Barcelona, one of the biggest clubs in the world. At Barcelona, Maradona built a reputation that he would carry until the end of his career, a genius at soccer with a short temper and a polemic personality, which made him even more popular. Transfering to Napoli, Diego played the best football of his career, and Napoli fans sing songs about him to this day. Around the same time, Maradona won the World Cup for Argentina as the team's main man. In the most prestigious soccer tournament in the World, Maradona not only won the trophy but put up one of the best individual performances ever in a World Cup and scored one of its most incredible goals ever. If just that doesn't tell you how good he was, Maradona was arguably the only player before Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi to challenge Pelé as the best soccer player of all time. That narrative contributed to the heated soccer rivalry between Brazil and Argentina. While for Brazilians there is no question that Pelé is the best soccer player ever to walk on Earth, Argentinians have no doubt in their mind that there has never been a better player than Diego Armando Maradona, including Messi, who has stated that Maradona is the best that has ever been.
Johan Cruyff might not have been as gifted or as talented as the names cited on this list. Nonetheless, he is probably the most influential of all, and arguably the one with the biggest legacy. Cruyff was a tactical genius who saw the game of soccer unlike anyone else. He was the centerpiece of the 1974Netherlands National team legendary tactical scheme. Still, Cruyff was an incredible player, fact proven by his three Ballon D'Or awards won in four years. During his 9 years with Ajax, the team saw its most successful period in history, winning the European cup three times and 6 league titles. Johan would come back at the dawn of his career and play two more years, winning two more league titles. His protagonism for Ajax is shown through his goal numbers, he won 7 top scorer awards while playing for the team. Cruyff is so important in Ajax's (and soccer's) history that his number 14 shirt was retired by the team, something extremely uncommon in the sport. Cruyff's remarkable mind for the sport led3 him to become a manager after retirement. With innovative schemes that are still being used by teams, Cruyff cemented his legacy in football not only as a brilliant player, but also as one of the sport's greatest coaches. As a coach, Cruyff won important titles for the two main teams he played for, Ajax and FC Barcelona. Cruyff was a revolutionary player that combined ability with tactics, an easy recipe to make him one of soccer's top 5 players of all time.