Top 6 Best Men's Soccer Players of All Time

best mens soccer players of all time

Soccer is one of the oldest and most widely practiced sports in the world, with over 3.5 billion fans and 250 million players spread across 200 participating countries. With such a large fanbase and number of teams, soccer players who stand out as the best of the best are often known around the world for generations. Below, we discuss the top 6 best men’s soccer players of all time.

Who are the best men’s soccer players of all time?

  1. Pelé
  2. Diego Maradona
  3. Lionel Messi
  4. Johan Cruyff
  5. Cristiano Ronaldo
  6. Paolo Maldini

1. Pelé

  • Three-time World Cup Champion (1958, 1962, 1970)
  • Top scorer of the Brazil National Football Team (77 goals in 92 appearances)
  • Most goals in the Intercontinental Cup (7)
  • Most career goals in international football (1,283)
  • Youngest winner of a FIFA World Cup (17 years old)
  • Former Minister of Sports for Brazil

Quite possibly the best-paid and most widely-known athlete in the world, Pelé (whose given name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento) is a former soccer player from Brazil and a three-time World Cup champion. Born on October 23, 1940, Pelé played for a minor league soccer club in his youth but was initially rejected by a major league club in the city of São Paulo. However, in 1956, at the age of 16, Pelé joined the Santos Football Club, winning nine league championships and winning the Libertadores Cup and the Intercontinental Club Cup in 1962 and 1963, respectively. Pelé became known as the “Pérola Negra” (Portuguese for “Black Pearl”), and soon was a national hero in his home country of Brazil. 

In 1958, Pelé helped his team win his first of three World Cups, and immediately afterward, Brazil declared him a national treasure to prevent other countries from recruiting him to their teams. Throughout his career, Pelé won two more World Cups, in 1962 and 1970. In 1969, during his 909th first-class soccer match, he scored his 1,000th professional goal. In his World Cup career, Pelé scored 12 goals in 14 games

He briefly retired from soccer in 1974 but then joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League for three years to help promote the sport in America. In 1977, Pelé finally retired for good. The following year, he received the International Peace Award for his long career, as well as Athlete of the Century awards from the French magazine L’Equipe and the International Olympic Committee. 

Since his retirement, Pelé has published many autobiographies, starred in documentaries about his life, and has even composed music. In 1995, he was named Brazil’s first-ever Minister of Sports, a title he held until 1998. He has also served as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and a United Nations Ambassador for ecology and the environment.

2. Diego Maradona

  • World Cup Champion (1986)
  • FIFA U-20 World Cup Champion (1979)
  • UEFA Europa League Champion (1989)
  • Appeared in four World Cups (1982, 1986, 1990, and 1994)
  • Coached the Argentine National Soccer Team

One of the top soccer players of the 1980s, Diego Maradona, hailed from Argentina and was renowned for his skills on the soccer pitch, notably in controlling the ball and creating opportunities for goals. Over the course of his career, Maradona played for teams in Argentina, Italy, and Spain and was a World Cup champion for Argentina in 1986. 

Maradona began playing soccer very early in his life. Making his debut in first-division soccer at age 16, Maradona was the youngest Argentine ever to appear on a first-class team but was prevented from joining the World Cup team in 1978 because it was felt that he was still too young. In 1982, Maradona moved to Europe, briefly playing for FC Barcelona in Spain and SSC Napoli in Italy, winning championships for both teams. He returned to Spain soon afterward and then to Argentina, where he played his final soccer match for the Boca Juniors on October 25, 1997. 

Across his career, Maradona appeared in four World Cups (1982, 1986, 1990, and 1994), the most famous of which was his 1986 appearance, where he scored two pivotal goals, including one later called the “Hand of God” goal, which Maradona scored with his hand, though the official mistakenly believed he had scored with his head. After ending his career, Maradona went on to coach the Argentine National Soccer Team, leading them to the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup.

3. Lionel Messi

  • Best FIFA Men’s Player of 2019
  • Seven-time Ballon d’Or winner (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2019, 2021)
  • Three-time UEFA Best Player in Europe (2009, 2011, 2015)
  • Four-time Champions League winner (2005-2006, 2008-2009, 2010-2011, 2014-2015)
  • Three-time FIFA Club World Cup winner (2009, 2011, 2015)
  • One-time Olympic gold medalist (2008)

One of the current soccer players on our list, Lionel Messi, hails from and plays for Argentina, as well as for Paris Saint-Germain in France. 

Born in Rosario, Argentina, in 1987, Messi was recruited by a youth club at age eight. By age 13, Messi was offered the ability to train with FC Barcelona’s youth academy, an opportunity he eagerly accepted. Though Messi remains one of the shorter professional soccer players, his unique height and skill have garnered him comparisons to Diego Maradona, who was of a similar build and speed. 

Since his professional debut, Messi has played for FC Barcelona and the Argentine National Team. However, in 2021, he left to join Paris Saint-Germain in France. Throughout his ongoing career, Messi has set many records, among them becoming the first player to score five goals in a Champions League match, becoming Barcelona's all-time leading scorer, and accumulating the most goals in a calendar year, with 91 goals scored in 2012. Messi has not yet won a World Cup, but his ongoing career means that the accolade is still a lingering possibility.   

4. Johan Cruyff

  • Three-time Ballon d’Or winner (1971, 1973, 1974)
  • One-time Spanish Champion (1973-1974)
  • One-time Spanish Cup winner (1977-1978)
  • Nine-time Dutch Champion
  • Six-Time Dutch Cup winner (1966-1967, 1969-1970, 1970-1971, 1971-1972, 1982-1983, 1983-1984)
  • One-time International Cup winner (1972)
  • Coached FC Barcelona and the Catalonia National Football Team

Johan Cruyff (born Hendrik Johannes Cruijff) was a Dutch soccer player who won numerous honors throughout his career. After playing soccer in his youth, Cruyff joined Ajax, a youth club in Amsterdam, at the age of ten in 1957. He made his senior debut for the same club at 17. While playing for Ajax, Cruyff participated in winning six league titles, four national cups, and three European Champion Clubs’ Cups (later renamed the Union of European Football Associations Champions League). His success led him to transfer over to FC Barcelona, where he was named captain and won even more championships in the 1970s. 

Cruyff also played for the Dutch National Team, scoring 33 goals in 48 international matches. In the 1974 World Cup, the Dutch team, led by Cruyff, were nicknamed “Clockwork Orange” for both the novel of the same name and their orange jerseys. Though they failed to win, Cruyff excelled and was given the Ballon d’Or (“Golden Ball”), the World Cup’s MVP Award, that year. 

In 1979 and 1980, Cruyff joined a few American teams, including the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats. He then returned to the Netherlands to play for Ajax, as well as the Dutch team Feyenoord, winning his ninth Dutch championship and fifth National Cup. After retiring, Cruyff coached various teams, including Ajax, FC Barcelona, and the Catalonia National Team.   

5. Cristiano Ronaldo

  • Two-time Best FIFA Men’s Player (2016, 2017)
  • Five-time Ballon d’Or winner (2008, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017)
  • Three-time UEFA Best Player in Europe (2014, 2016, 2017)
  • Ten-time Portuguese Footballer of the Year
  • Five-time Player of the Year
  • One-time European Champion (2016)
  • Five-time Champions League Winner (2007-2008, 2013-2014, 2015-2016, 2016-2017, 2017-2018)

One of the most well-known names in modern soccer, Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo has become a household name even among non-soccer fans in recent years. Ronaldo was raised around soccer, as his father was the equipment manager for a local club named Andorinha. Thus, Ronaldo began playing soccer from a young age. However, his aspirations were briefly impeded by the discovery of a heart condition at age 15, which required surgery to correct. Nevertheless, Ronaldo recovered quickly and fully, and was soon back on the field

After playing for the Clube Desportivo Nacional of Madeira, Ronald transferred to the Sporting Clube de Portugal (also known as Sporting Lisbon), where he made his professional debut in 2002. In 2003, Ronaldo’s excellent performance led him to sign with world-famous Manchester United, the star soccer team of England. His career skyrocketed instantly, and he quickly became known as one of the best forwards in the sport. 

During the 2007–08 season, Ronaldo scored an amazing 31 League and 11 Cup goals, while also winning the Golden Shoe award for being the leading scorer in Europe. The stunning season performance also led him to be named the FIFA World Player of the Year. Ronaldo soon left Manchester United to join Spain’s Real Madrid, where his success continued. 

In 2013, Ronaldo scored a total of 66 goals across his 56 appearances with both Real Madrid and the Portuguese National Team, an effort which earned him his second World Player of the Year Award. Ronaldo also became known off the field for his endorsements, ushering in a new era of soccer stars in advertising by becoming the third-ever athlete (after Michael Jordan and LeBron James) to land a “lifetime” contract with Nike. 

Ronaldo also established his own brand of products, “CR7,” which includes shoes, underwear, and fragrances. In 2018, Ronaldo left Real Madrid to play for Juventus, and in 2021, he returned to Manchester United. He has not yet won a World Cup, but his ongoing career makes a future win a distinct possibility.

6. Paolo Maldini

  • Two-time European Clubs’ Cup winner (1988-1989, 1989-1990)
  • Five-time Champions League winner (1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, 2007) 
  • Seven-time Italian Champion
  • One-time Italian Cup winner (2007)
  • One-time FIFA Club World Cup winner (2007)
  • Four-time World Cup player

Italian soccer player Paolo Maldini was born in 1968 and is widely regarded as one of the greatest defenders in the game. After success in youth soccer, Maldini debuted for AC Milan in 1984 and remained on the team for his entire career, which lasted until 2009. As a player for AC Milan, Maldini won numerous championship trophies, including five UEFA League Championships, seven Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana titles, five European Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, and one FIFA Club World Cup.

Maldini also played for the Italian National Team beginning in 1988, earning 7 goals in 126 international matches before ending his career with the National Team in 2002. During his time with the National Team, he was captain for eight years, gaining a record at the time for the most appearances as captain of the National Team, with 74 games played as captain. Maldini participated in four FIFA World Cups with the Italian Team, never winning but successfully reaching the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup and the final of the 1994 World Cup. 

Maldini retired from soccer in 2009, though he played in various special matches over the years and even played professional tennis for a time. In 2018, he became the Sporting Strategy and Development Director for AC Milan, and in 2019, he was promoted to Technical Director.

Honorable Mentions

Franz Beckenbauer

  • Two-time Ballon d’Or winner (1972 and 1976)
  • Five-time Bundesliga Champion (1969, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1982)
  • FIFA World Cup winner (1974)
  • Three-time European Cup winner (1974, 1975, 1976)

Franz Beckenbauer is a retired German soccer player and manager who is considered to be one of the best defensive midfielders and defenders of all time. He was one of the most dominant players in the 1970s, winning two Ballon d’Or awards and a FIFA World Cup championship with West Germany in 1974. 

He saw the bulk of his success with Bundesliga powerhouse Bayern Munich, winning four league titles and appearing in 427 matches with the club. On the international side, Beckenbauer played 103 games for West Germany, winning a UEFA European Championship and a FIFA World Cup. After retirement from playing, Beckenbauer went on to coach multiple high-level soccer teams in Europe.

Zinedine Zidane

  • Three-time FIFA World Player of the Year (1998, 2000, 2003)
  • FIFA World Cup winner (1998)
  • Ballon d’Or winner (1998)

Zinedine Zidane, better known by his nickname “Zidou” was one of the best French soccer players of all time. As a midfielder, he helped lead the French national team to a FIFA World cup win in 1998 and a European Championship win in 2000. For this period, Zidou was awarded the Ballon d’Or once and the FIFA World Player of the Year twice. In 2001, he was then traded in a massive deal to Real Madrid, where he spent the rest of his professional career.

In Spain, he was almost as successful, being recognized by FIFA yet again as the world’s current best player. After his retirement in 2006, Zideo went on to become one of the most respected and valued coaches in Real Madrid history.


  • Two-time World Cup winner (1994, 2002)
  • Three-time FIFA World Player of the Year (1996, 1997, 2002)
  • Two-time Ballon d’Or winner (1997, 2002)

Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, more commonly known as Ronaldo, was one of the powerful strikers in the history of professional soccer. The powerhouse began making a name for himself playing for Brazil’s national team. In 1994, he even led them to win his first World Cup. For the 1996-1997 season, he was traded to FC Barcelona and won a FIFA World Player of the Year award for his time there. For the next five seasons, he played for Italy’s Internationalize and won another title from FIFA. 

From 2002 to 2007, he dominated for both Real Madrid and Brazil, winning a Ballon d’Or, FIFA Player of the Year, and a second World Cup title all in the same year. In 2008, Ronaldo retired from professional play as one of the all-time greats and focused on coaching and various business ventures.


Who is the greatest men’s soccer player of all time?

Many men’s soccer players have been named the greatest of all time over the years, including famous names such as Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Johan Cruyff, and Cristiano Rinaldo. However, many people consider the greatest men's soccer player of all time to be Pelé, the Brazilian star athlete who won three World Cups and scored over 1,000 goals in his career. Pelé has undoubtedly changed the soccer world, and many of the records he accumulated still hold to this day, making him a strong contender for the greatest male soccer star of all time.

Who is the men’s soccer player with the most goals scored?

Depending upon statistics, the men’s soccer player with the most goals scored is either Pelé or Cristiano Ronaldo. Pelé holds the absolute record for the most goals scored in a specified period, with a Guinness World Record approved count of 1,283 goals throughout his lifetime. However, in just his professional soccer career, Pelé accumulated a total of 775 goals in 840 matches, while Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 816 goals in 1,124 matches. This means that Ronaldo has scored more goals in his professional career than Pelé. 

Who is the men’s soccer player with the most Champions League titles?

The men’s soccer player with the most Championship League titles is Francisco Gento of Real Madrid, who earned six Championship League titles, winning them in 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, and 1966. Gento is followed in the ranking by Italy’s Paolo Maldini, with five titles (1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, and 2007), and Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United and Real Madrid, also with five titles (2008, 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2018).