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The best football (soccer) player of all time according to the greatest legends of the sport

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Following the post about the greatest basketball player of all time according to NBA legends, some friends and readers asked for a similar list about soccer/football.

If you follow this blog, you probably know that I consider Pelé to be the greatest footballer ever.  However, I must recognize that there are other athletes worthy of such title, true giants like Maradona, Di Stéfano, Cruyff, Messi, Garrincha, among others. In my opinion, no one was much better than Messi – not even Pelé. No one was considerably superior to Cruyff – not even Maradona. They are all are gods, seated in the most honorable places of soccer Olympus.

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Nonetheless, the discussion about who was the best ever is indeed very fun (certainly the topic of many conversations among friends). Because of that (besides requests by friends and readers), I’ve decided to look for the opinion (the most recent ones, when Messi, for example, was already considered an all time great) of 24 world football legends (17 players and 7 coaches).  I used, as criteria to choose the players, the following list of the 20 greatest (witch does not mean that I necessarily agree with that list)  by  The International Federation of Football History & Statistics

 1."Pelé"                 (Brazil)        1705 
 2.Johan Cruijff          (Netherlands)   1303
 3.Franz Beckenbauer      (Germany)       1228
 4.Alfredo di Stéfano     (Argentina)     1215
 5.Diego Armando Maradona (Argentina)     1214
 6.Ferenc Puskás          (Hungary)        810
 7.Michel Platini         (France)         722
 8.Garrincha              (Brazil)         624  
 9.Eusébio                (Portugal)       544  
10.Robert Charlton        (England)        508
11.Stanley Matthews       (England)        368
12.Marco van Basten       (Netherlands)    315
13.Gerd Müller            (Germany)        265
14.Zico                   (Brazil)         207
15.Lothar Matthäus        (Germany)        202
16.George Best            (N. Ireland)187
17.Juan Alberto Schiaffino(Uruguay)        158
18.Ruud Gullit            (Netherlands)    119
19.Valdir Pereira Didi    (Brazil)         116
   Gianni Rivera          (Italy)          116

Excluding dead players from the list (with the exception of Eusébio and Di Stéfano, because they got the chance to see Messi and other recent players) and Gerd Muller (since I could not find his views on the subject), we get 13 players. In order to make it to 17, I’ve decided to add Just Fontaine (French, record holder of most goals in a single World Cup – 13 in 58); Roberto Rivelino (World Cup champion with Brazil in 1970), Zinedine Zidane (WC champion in 1998 with France) and Daniel Passarella (captain of the 1978 WC Champions, Argentina).

Among the 7 coaches, I’ve selected one big name of each World Cup winning nation (I chose one Scottish for England, that’s why I will list the country as United Kingdom). Since there are mostly Brazilians and Argentinians fighting for the top spot, I chose 4 (3 players and one coach) from each of those countries. Therefore, the 24 voters will be:

Argentina – Maradona, Di Stéfano,  Daniel Passarella and César Luís Menotti (as a coach, won the World Cup with Argentina in 1978);

Brazil – Pelé, Zico, Rivellino and  Zagallo (as a coach, won the 1970 WC);

France – Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Just Fontaine and Arsène Wenger (coach);

Germany – Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Matthaus, Jupp Heynckes (as a coach,  won the  Champion’s League with Real Madrid and Bayern Munchen);

Italy – Gianni Rivera and Fabio Capello (as a coach);

Netherlands – Johan Cruyff, Rudd Gullit and Marco Van Basten;

Portugal – Eusébio.

Spain – Josep (Pep) Guardiola (as a coach);

United Kingdom- Robert (Bobby) Charlton and Alex Ferguson (scottish coach, 2 time Champion’s League Winner with Manchester United).

Lastly, next are each legend choices (first players, then coaches):

Peléhimself (Pelé). 

Trivia: Pelé has special admiration for Zico  (undoubtedly, one of the game’s greats):

“Reporter: Among all the Brazilians you have listed, who came closer to Pelé as players?

Pelé: Because of his playing style, the closest one was Zico”

Maradona: himself (Maradona) –  He thinks he was superior to Pelé and Messi.

Bobby Charlton – Di Stéfano.

 In 2014, Charlton claimed Di Stéfano was the greatest ever. However, he also has Pelé, Messi and Cruyff at the same level as Di Stéfano. 

Johan Cruyff: Probably Pelé.

When Pelé was voted the best player of the 20th century in 2000, Cruyff said that the poll had the right winner.

In 2012, Cruyff named his All time XI with: Yashin (URSS); Carlos Alberto (BRA), Beckenbauer (GER), Krol (HOL); Guardiola (SPA), Charlton (ENG), Di Stefano (ARG), Keizer (HOL); Maradona (ARG), Pelé (BRA), Garrincha (BRA). Since he left Messi out, I presume he still regards Pele as the all time best.

Franz Beckenbauer: Pelé. 

About Pelé and Messi, the “Kaiser” said in the current year of 2015:

“But now he (Messi) is the best player in the world and of his time. However, the best ever is Pele. He is just ahead of Messi. I’ve never seen a player like Pele. I played with him at the New York Cosmos and you would give him the ball and just not see him again because he was too fast. Pele was all instinct.”

Di Stefano: Pelé.

During an interview in 2012, the late Argentinian genius stated:

“The best player ever? Pele. Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are both great players with specific qualities, but Pele was better”.

Recently, according to journalist Luis Munilla, Menotti said in an interview with “Radio Marca” that Di Stefano, in private conversations, used to tell him that there was no one like Pelé.

Platini: Pelé ou Cruyff (each one will get one vote).

In 2011, Platini said Cruyff was the greatest of all time. In 2014, he had Pelé as the best ever (I shall count one vote for each one of them).

In an youtube video, Platini said: “There is Pelé, the man, and then Pelé, the player. And to play like Pelé is to play like God”.

Eusébio: Di Stéfano. 

“The most complete player in the history of football is called Alfredo Di Stéfano.”

Zico: Pelé.

In 2014:

“No doubt, he is the greatest ever. When God built Pele, he put everything that a player needs in him. He knew how to shoot, how to dribble, how to head, be physical. He had everything that a football player needs to have. It’s difficult for someone to achieve what he has in football.”

Tactically, technically, physically, mentally he was the best. A lot of things that I learnt was from Pele’s sticker albums: how to head, how to shoot the ball. It was like a step-by-step guide. I learnt from Pele as a kid.”

Roberto Rivelino: Pelé and Maradona,in that order

In an interview to Maradona himself in 2014, Rivelino stated:

“There is always a lot of comparison between Pelé and Maradona. I take my hat off for Pelé. But, after Pelé, Maradona was the best I ever saw. For his elegance, his importance. He was a true “10”. What Maradona did for Napoli gives me goosebumps. Maradona played football extremely well, he was so special.”

Zinedine Zidane: Probably Maradona. The French superstar always mentions that Maradona was in another level from the rest.

Daniel Passarella: Hard to compare great players.

In 2013, Passarela said about Pelé, Messi and Maradona.

“Today, football is more about results. The same people who say Maradona is better than Messi for having won a Word Cup, don’t the same about Pelé, who won 3, more than Maradona. With that, I want to say that Messi, even without winning a World Cup, has showed that he is in the right path to surpass Maradona.”

In 2014, about Pelé, Di Stéfano and Maradona:

“It is hard to compare great players. I did not see Di Stéfano and another famous players. We begain to watch and understand football in Pelé’s days (…). But we don’t compare Pele and Maradona the same way. There is not such comparison, because Pelé played 4 and won 3 world cups. This is important data. I think it was differnt times. Maradona was more flashy, drew a lof of attention, much more visible thatn Pelé. Pelé was more intelligent, understood the game better.”

Gianni Rivera (Milan and Italy legend, Ballon D’or winner in 1969)- Pelé:

“Messi is quite a weapon for Barca. Having him in your team is huge, he’s the most decisive player right now, However, I do think there’s someone who was even better and that’s Pele. He used both feet on the pitch. He was as dangerous with his right as he was with his left. He was strong in the air as well, and created a lot of chances.”

Rudd Gullit:  Maradona.

” He (Messi) is already the best in the world. He is an exceptional talent. I still think Diego Maradona is the best player I have ever seen, but Messi is closing in fast. He’s a wonderful sight in full flight and we are lucky to have him around.”

Marco Van Basten: Maradona.

He believes that Messi needs to win a World Cup to be considered the best.

Lotthar Matthaus: Pelé. 

In 2014, in the Brazilian show “É campeão” by Sportv, he replied that Pelé was the greatest ever (Sadly, I can’t find the clip).

Just Fontaine : Messi. 

“I used to hink Pelé was better, because he shone for his club and won World Cups. People also talk about Di Stéfano, mas I think Messi is superior. With his speed and dribbles, he reminds me of Garrincha. When he wins a World Cup, the world will think the same.”

Coaches from here on now.

Pep Guardiola: Messi (compares him with Pelé):

“He is the best player of all time. I compare him with Pelé. I am so happy to see this football.”

Zagallo: Pelé (“There was no one like him in the world”). 

Arsène Wenger: Messi.

Jupp Heynckes: Pelé, Messi and Maradona are in the same leve (each one will get one vote).

“He’s (Messi) a genius and is certainly on a par with Maradona and Pele”.

Menotti – Pelé

He stated in an interview in 2012:

“The best of all was Pele, who is a mixture of [Alfredo] Di Stefano, [Diego] Maradona, [Johan] Cruyff and Leo Messi.”

During his participation in a documentary about Messi’s life, according to an article published in“La Nacion”,  Menotti praised the Barça’s genius, “but when he heard Pelé’s name, his demeanor changed completely: ‘When we talk about football, don’t put Pelé because he was from another planet. Then, he added: “Who was better between Messi and Maradona? I don’t now, not possible to decide, they are both great players. The only one who is above everything, I’ve already mentioned and won’t say it again”.

Alex Ferguson – Pelé.

Interview in 2013:

Charlie Rose: Who is the best player that you ever saw?

AF: I’m a Pele fan from way back when I was a kid, and then there was always this thing later about Pele and Maradona. I was young and impressionable as a kid but it was always Pele for me. Today, I think that you have got to look at Messi and Ronaldo. They are unbelievable. The best today. They are fantastic – absolutely.

Fabio Capello – Pelé, Messi and Maradona are the three best ever (each one will get one vote).

“Pelé, Maradona and Messi: they are the three best players in the history of football. They make you get out of your seat and you give them a standing ovation at the end of the game”.


PELÉ – 14 votes (Pelé, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Di Stéfano, Zico, Platini, Rivellino, Rivera, Mathaus, Menotti, Alex Ferguson, Heynckes, Zagallo and Capello);

MARADONA – 6 votes (Maradona, Zidane, Gullit, Van Basten, Heynckes and Capello);

MESSI – 5 – votes (Fontaine, Guardiola,  Wènger and Heynckes);

DI STÉFANO – 2 votes (Bobby Charlton and Eusébio);

CRUYFF- 1 vote (Platini)

Interestingly, I also consider the above players to be the 5 greatest ever. Beckenbauer and Cristiano Ronaldo  would complete my top 7.

As expected, Pelé was the most remembered player. Also important to say the Messi’s 4 votes are impressive, specially since there are no one of his peers among the voters.

If you find a legend’s opinion that is not here (specially by top 20, 30  all time greats), please leave a comment and the link to the statement.

Bonus (thanks to the contributions of reader José Mauro)

Note to readers: I will not add the “Bonus part” to the final ranking, because I have decided to count only the “votes” of the greatest legends of the sport, chosen according to the criteria explained in the article. 

Alcides Ghiggia (1950 World Cup Champion for Uruguay): Pelé.

In an interview for Marca in 2005:

Q: Who are, in your opinion, the three best players of all time?

Ghiggia: Pelé, Di Stéfano and Puskas. In that order.

José Santamaría (Real Madrid’s legendary Uruguayan defender in the 50’s and 60’s): Di Stéfano.

Interview in 2014:

Q. You had the chance to see the great players in action, like Di Stéfano himself, Pelé, Maradona and Cruyff… Di Stéfano was the best?

Santamaria:   I’ve always stated that Di Stéfano was the most complete, because he was the best, there is no doubt. The most complete in every way, because he worked with both legs, with his head, he did not stop running during the 90 minutes of the game. Anyway, a player with extraordinary qualities. And a winner. Always a winner.

Humberto “Bocha” Maschio: Messi.

This great Argentinian-Italian forward, (played for both national teams; defended Italy in the 1962 World Cup), stated in 2011:

“Messi will be the best of them all. He just needs time to fill his resume. I’ve played against Pelé e Di Stéfano. Pelé was simple to play against, bad because he would throw elbows. Di Stéfano, a man everywhere in the field; Maradona, very skilled and and a great finisher. However, this kid (Messi) has something the others don’t: he is fast with the ball at his feet, he takes it close to him, they know where his going, but can’t stop him. He is a phenomenon, number one in history already. It does not matter that he has now won with the national team.

(…) First Messi. One step below, Di Stéfano, Pelé and Maradona at the same level. And Cruyff, another step below. But Messi above all, the best in history.”

Dino Sani: Pelé.

Great defensive midfielder for São Paulo, Milan (European Club Champion in 1962) and Brazil  (World Cup winner in 1958),  Dino Sani said in 2013:

“Pelé is absolutely incomparable, unique mental speed. He would dribble you without you even noticing it. What we did was to try to anticipate his moves, because a player like him could be stopped. In my days at São Paulo, Vitor defended Pelé, who would move all the time, incredibly fast, quicksilver. When you got to him, you had to do something drastic, to the ball or to him. However, in the blink of an eye, he was already gone pass you and another player, and would give an assist or finish it himself. I’ve never seen anyone close to Pelé. He was astonishing.

(…) After Pelé and Di Stéfano, it’s him (Maradona), no doubt.

There are great  (Messi e Neymar) and will get better, specially Neymar, who is younger, but can’t be compared to them both (Pelé and Di Stéfano). And there others ahead of them.”

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  1. mauro penha

    One time, one of football legends, the Argentine Alfredo Di Stefano, said that the English Stanley Matthews was the greatest player in history. What about Pelé? Di Stefano said: “I’m talking about football players, not sobrenatural phenomenons”.

  2. mauro penha

    Pelé was the most complete player – Bobby Moore

  3. mauro penha

    Alfredo Di Stéfano was the greatest footballer of all time – far better even than Pelé. He was, simultaneously, the anchor in defence, the playmaker in midfield, and the most dangerous marksman in attack – Helenio Herrera (Coach Internazionale)

  4. mauro penha

    “Despite playing in a different position, Messi is also an excellent player. Very, very good indeed” I think they are both at the same level, in my way of thinking. And I was a quality professional athlete. Because, in order to reach the Brazilian National team and to win in the World Cup, you got to have quality. That’s why I feel free to say this. So I put Messi at the same level as Pelé, without a problem” (Brito, Brazilian player in the 1970 World Cup).


  5. mauro penha

    “For me, it is Pelé, Alfredo Di Stefano and Maradona, in that order. I appreciate Diego, he is a great player. But from another planet was Pelé, not him”. Hugo Gatti, Argentine goalkeeper from the 60,70 and 80’s.

  6. mauro penha

    “Diego is Diego and for me he is the greatest player of all time”. “Even after a million years I am not even going to be close to Maradona” Lionel Messi.

  7. mauro penha

    “Maradona was and continues to be the best player in the world. A player capable of doing anything on the pitch” – Antônio Camacho (played for Real Madrid in the 80’s) in 2014.


  8. mauro penha

    Interviewer: In your ranking order, is Pelé the greatest of them all?
    Evaristo de Macedo (Brazilian Barcelona and Real Madrid legend): In that position, there was no one like Pelé. Now, one must open a chapter for Maradona, he was fantastic. He did not play as much as Pelé, but he came close. About Messi, he is a great player for Barcelona. He lacks playing at that level for the Argentina National Team.

  9. Artur

    I do not know how authentic is this one but Pele traits page on the facebook quotes Argentian goalkeepr Armadeo Carrizo was among top 10 goal keepers of 20th century:

    “betweem Pele and Maradona Pele is by far the best player in the whole story. There are thousand of miles between Pele and other players”

    as a source he shows: https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D3lmUzkUmLO4&h=SAQHYSb-0

    • Comment by post author

      Otávio Pinto

      Thanks, Artur! Yes, it is authentic. Amadeo Carrizo is asked by the interviewer who is the the greatest of all time. And he said that it’s undoubtedly Pele; that there are a lot of players like Maradona, one of the greatests, but they are far from Pelé.

  10. Luis Soccer

    1. Pele, 2. Cruyff, 3. Messi, 4. Maradona, 5
    Beckenbauer, 6. Di Stefano, 7. Garrincha, 8. Puskas, 9. Ronaldo, 10. Zico, 11. Zidane, 12. Platini, 13. Eusebio, 14. Ronaldinho, 15. Muller, 16. Romarlo, 17 . Cristiano, 18. Best, 19. Schiaffino, 20. Charlton
    All post 1950

  11. essam

    there is no doubt that pele is the greatest ever and cruyff is second but i think Maradona is no 3

  12. Marco

    Marco van Basten- Have you seen his Ajax goals. Better than Pele. Would have won the 1994 world cup and another couple of balon dor

    • Comment by post author

      Otávio Pinto

      Van Basten was great, but his career does not measure up to the likes of Pelé, Maradona, Messi, Cruyff (and some others), since it was cut short by injuries. Also, he was a striker (a CF), while those guys were players who both create and score with ease. Pelé was, even as a 10 (an attacking midfielder/forward*), a better goalscorer than Van Basten. Also the Brazilian was miles ahead as a playmaker; thus, a more complete player. If Van Basten was better than Pele, he would be the greatest player of all time; which he obviously is not.

      * http://otaviopinto.com/index.php/2016/07/14/pele-10-formation/

  13. Tshun Fatt

    MARCO VAN BASTEN Try google the youtube. Ever seen Messi or Cristiano score a bicycle kick ? Never. Cristiano tried shamelessly and failed


    01. Pelé (Brazil)
    02. Diego Maradona (Argentina)
    03. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
    04. Johan Cruyff (Netherlands)
    05. Alfredo Di Stéfano (Argentina)
    06. Franz Beckenbauer (Alemania)
    07. Ferenc Puskás (Hungary)
    08. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
    09. Zico (Brazil)
    10. Michel Platini (France)
    11. Ronaldo (Brazil)
    12. Zinedine Zidane (France)
    13. Eusébio (Portugal)
    14. Lotthar Matthauss (Germany)
    15. Bobby Charlton (England)
    16. Marco van Basten (Netherlands)
    17. Gerd Muller (Germany)
    18. Garrincha (Brazil)
    19. José Manuel Moreno (Argentina)
    20. George Best (North Ireland)
    21. Gianni Rivera (Italy)
    22. Lev Yashin (Union Sovietic)
    23. Zizinho (Brazil)
    24. Didí (Brazil)
    25. Paolo Maldini (Italy)

  15. Shahriar ahmed

    Cruyff once said that pele is the only player who have crossed the boundaries of all logics

  16. Erez

    There isn’t “the best of all time”, but there are some players at the top – Pele, Maradona, Cruijff, Backenbauer, Maldini, Di stefano, Crsitiano ronaldo, Ronaldo9, and Messi.

  17. Steve

    There is only one player without a weakness and impossible ability here – Pele.

  18. J24B

    Messi Maradona Di Stefano
    Cruyff CR7 Zidane Ronaldo Beckenbauer

  19. Andrea

    in no particular order, just the names:

    Gerd Mueller
    Christiano Ronaldo
    Di Stefano

  20. Wayne Cirtola

    You can compare Pele only to Muhammad Ali, he was not only the greatest footballer but one of the two greatest sportsmen ever. He and Ali were the two most famous people on Earth, more famous than the Pope, Elvis, the Beatles, JFK etc. And this at a time without Cable TV, Internet or social networks.

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