With over 3.5 billion fans across the globe, football is without a doubt the most popular sport in the world. To true devotees, football isn’t just a game — every match is a battle and every player a warrior. A victory of their favorite team is their own, and the best players are football legends who deserve to live forever.
Whether you’re a casual or a die-hard fan, you’ve likely heard of some of the greats. But in case you need to refresh your memory, I’ve compiled a list of ten football legends every fan should know of.
1. Diego Maradona
Let’s start with an old-school legend, a man who is widely considered the best player of all time even today. This Argentinian footballer first drew the attention of the world when he was playing for SSC Napoli — at the time a second-rate club with no significant victories. Not only did Maradona’s skills and exploits quickly launch the team into the big league, but they also made it the strongest among European teams.
But Maradona’s greatest achievement happened in 1986 when he helped the Argentinian national team win its second World Cup title. In the game against England, he scored two of his most legendary goals, now referred to as ‘The Hand of God’ and ‘Goal of the Century’. ‘The Hand of God’ showed the fans around the world that, aside from technical skills, Maradona had a certain cunning. He scored that goal with his hand while pretending to hit the ball with his head.
As is the case with many legends, Maradona gave himself over to drugs and eventually had to retire. Still, he remained one of the most beloved and well-known players, which is obvious from the number of films made about his life.
I couldn’t sleep soundly at night if I didn’t place Pele right next to Maradona, where he deserves to be. Pele appeared on the football stage with a bang — he was only seventeen when he participated in and won the 1958 FIFA World Cup for Brazil. Not only that, but he scored six goals during the competition. To this day, no other player managed to do the same.
However, Pele didn’t settle for this, and after winning his first World Cup, he went on to win another two. He ended up with a total of three, which is also the most World Cups that any player has ever won.
Pele is also considered the most successful goal scorer in the world when friendly matches are taken into account. He can boast about scoring over 1200 goals in total. But even if you count only the official matches, Pele ranks in the top three scorers in the world with 767 goals. Quite impressive, don’t you think?
3. Lionel Messi
If you’ve got the impression so far that football legends only existed in the previous century, Messi is here to prove you wrong. This Argentinian player is considered the current best player in the world. He is notable for his stint with FC Barcelona, where he is the number one goal scorer and assist provider.
Messi has won ten La Liga trophies, four UEFA Championships, and three UEFA Super Cups. When playing for his national team, Messi scored 68 goals and became the all-time top goal scorer. He has also been awarded UEFA Men’s Player of the Year twice. In fact, Messi won so many trophies and awards that it would take quite some time to list them all!
But though he is clearly an incredibly talented footballer, Messi’s strengths lie in his teamwork abilities. He isn’t a glory-chaser — as shown by his number of assists, he’s more than happy to let his teammates take the spotlight. Ultimately, Messi understands that only a team that works as one can hope to win. Funnily enough, this is precisely what sets him apart as the best player in the world.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo
It’s impossible to mention Messi and leave out his greatest rival, Cristiano Ronaldo. Fans are quite divided on who the better player of the two is, but that is a decision I will leave to you. In the meantime, let’s see what makes Ronaldo one of the legends.
This Portuguese footballer became famous while playing for Manchester United where he won three Premier League titles and a FA Cup. When he moved to Real Madrid with a record transfer fee at the time, he went on to win La Liga twice and the UEFA Champions League four times. On top of this, he helped Portugal win the 2016 European Championship and became the country’s number one goal scorer.
Aside from numerous sports achievements, Ronaldo became the face of 21st-century football. Even if you’re not a fan of the sport, chances are that you know who Ronaldo is. Or, at the very least, you’ve seen his face in several commercials over the years.
Staying on the topic of Portuguese footballers, I must give due respect to Eusebio, formerly considered the best player in thе country. He lost this title to his younger colleague Cristiano Ronaldo, but his importance is still tremendous.
Eusebio was born in Mozambique in 1942, and thus became the first African-born football player that achieved world renown. He played for Benfica and the Portuguese national team, averaging more than one goal per game in over 600 matches he played. And in 1965, he became the European Footballer of the Year.
Eusebio got the nickname “Black Panther” due to his speed, agility, and strength. Some even compared him to Pele. And while he might not have been quite at Pele’s level, there is no doubt that his place on this list is well-deserved.
There must be something special in Brazilian water, something that turns people into football legends. Aside from Pele, a proof that there really might be something is Ronaldinho, a famous footballer from the early 21st century.
Ronaldinho was certainly more than just the titles he won — and these were still numerous. In 2002, he helped the Brazilian national team win FIFA World Cup, after which he joined FC Barcelona and won two La Liga titles. During that time, he became The Best FIFA Men’s Player twice.
But football fans will always remember him for his amazing dribbling abilities and his speed which confounded the opponents. Ronaldinho’s spirit was so contagious that he got a standing ovation from Real Madrid fans — the bitterest opponents of FC Barcelona. In a way, he embodied pure love for football, and no one could stay indifferent to it.
7. Johan Cruyff
No proper list of football legends should exclude Johan Cruyff. Cruyff wasn’t just an exceptionally good player — he was a force that influenced and practically invented modern football. This was more than enough to make him immortal, but Cruyff went a step further and became a myth in his own right.
This Amsterdam-born player turned the quiet Netherlands into a football powerhouse by his sheer creativity and belief that quality was more important than the result. He wanted to play beautiful football, and as it turned out, that was the key ingredient for success. Cruyff is to this day famous for never losing a game in which he scored. And he scored often.
With Cruyff’s guidance, the Netherlands reached the World Cup finals in 1974. The team lost, but their playing style and mindset became foundations of modern football. Cruyff also proved himself as a football manager for Barcelona, which won four successive titles under his leadership. Finally, Cruyff’s talent and skill were recognized in 1999 when he won the European Player of the Century title.
8. Zinedine Zidane
This French player was quite the rage when I was younger. Perhaps it was because of his catchy and rather unforgettable name. Or maybe just because of the fact that he was one of the best — a real football legend.
Zidane first started his career in a French club called Cannes, but soon after he got offers from major European clubs that noticed his skills. He joined Juventus, where he won numerous titles, and then transferred to Real Madrid for a €77.5 million paycheck. These years brought him two additional titles with his national French team — 1998 FIFA World Cup and 2000 UEFA Championship. After two successive defeats in national championships, Zidane retired from international football, only to return in the 2006 World Cup and lead France to the finals.
I don’t want to measure Zidane’s success only in titles and records, though. His true talents lay in his ability to control the matches and set the pace for the entire team. His goals were often spectacular, and he even went out with a bang — after headbutting his opponent during a match, he was sent off from the game. This was the last match in his career.
9. Franz Beckenbauer
You probably know that when it comes to football, Germany is a force to be reckoned with. And among the ranks of brilliant German players, Beckenbauer stands out as the best. No wonder then that he earned a nickname “Der Kaiser” or “The King”.
Beckenbauer started his career as a forward and a midfielder but eventually moved to the position of defender. As it turns out, that was the right choice, since this is the very position that launched him to the stars. He spent thirteen years in Bayern Munich, where he won every title from Bundesliga to UEFA Champions League. On top of this, he was one of two only defenders to ever win Ballon d’Or, and he even won it twice.
He led his national team to World Cup victory both as a player and a manager. The first time this happened was in 1974, and Beckenbauer’s West German team triumphed over Cruyff and the Netherlands. The second time was in 1990, and Beckenbauer showed that he wasn’t just a capable player, but a manager as well. Such versatility was what ultimately set him apart from his peers.
10. Gerd Muller
Widely regarded as the best goal scorer of all times, Gerd Muller is another German player with a fun nickname — “Der Bomber”. He is famous for his amazing goal average of more than one goal per game at the international level. In a single season, this man scored 67 goals in 49 appearances. His presence alone was enough to strike fear into his opponents’ hearts.
Just like Beckenbauer, he spent the majority of his career in Bayern. In fact, these two football legends played side by side in numerous matches and won many titles together. Among those, the 1974 World Cup stands out as the game in which Muller scored four goals for his national team, cementing their victory.
To this day, Muller holds the record as the leading goal scorer in Bundesliga with 365 goals. He became German Footballer of the Year twice — in 1967 and 1969. And there’s no doubt that Muller deserves not only the title of a German football genius, but also that of one of biggest football legends in the world.
Choosing who belongs on the list of football legends is no easy task. There are at least ten more players that deserve the title of football geniuses. Yet the ten on this list set themselves apart with their skill, talent, and their pure love for the beautiful game that is football.