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The 10 Best World Cup Players in Football History

Thomas Swan has been an avid fan of the English Premier League and international football for more than 30 years.

Diego Maradona holds the World Cup trophy (left), with Pelé (center), and Paolo Rossi (right).

Diego Maradona holds the World Cup trophy (left), with Pelé (center), and Paolo Rossi (right).

Who Are the Greatest World Cup Players?

The World Cup is the most watched sporting event on Earth. It has made footballers such as Pelé and Diego Maradona into legends. This season's tournament in Qatar is an opportunity for today's players to immortalize themselves on the pages of history.

The 2022 World Cup is the 22nd tournament of its kind, with the first held in 1930. It is hosted every four years in a different location, which means that in almost a century of footballing history, only 445 players have had the honor of lifting a World Cup trophy.

The following list only includes champions who have made a lasting impression on the footballing world because of their performances in the tournament. It therefore excludes some talented players who have played but not won a World Cup, such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Johan Cruyff, and Ferenc Puskás (although there are some honorable mentions).

Statistics and videos are provided to help you judge the footballing legends who are included. Awards are also shown, including whether they won a Golden Ball (best player) or a Golden Boot (top goalscorer) at a tournament.

10. Gerd Müller (Germany)

  • Position: Striker
  • Appearances: 13
  • Goals: 14
  • World Cup record: third place (1970), winner (1974)
  • World Cup awards: Golden Boot (1970), All-Star Team (1970)

Gerd Müller was a goal machine with 68 goals in 62 games for (West) Germany, and he once scored 66 goals in a season for Bayern Munich (1972-1973).

Müller scored 14 goals in two World Cups, a record that has only been beaten by Ronaldo and Miroslav Klose (who played more games). He would have had more goals, but he only broke into the team at the end of 1966.

Müller then retired from international football after the 1974 World Cup due to an argument with the German Football Association (he quit because players' wives could not attend a celebration but officials' wives could).

Müller won the Ballon d'Or in 1970. He was known as an opportunistic striker with incredible anticipation, agility, and acceleration, which allowed him to reach the ball first and bypass defenders. He was a clinical finisher and, despite being relatively short (1.76 m), he was brilliant in the air.

9. Bobby Charlton (England)

  • Position: Forward / Attacking midfielder
  • Appearances: 14
  • Goals: 4
  • World Cup record: quarter-final (1962), winner (1966), quarter-final (1970)
  • World Cup awards: Golden Ball (1966), All-Star Team (1966, 1970)

Bobby Charlton was probably England's greatest ever player, with 49 goals in 106 games. After narrowly surviving the Munich air disaster in 1958, he made his England debut in the same year, aged 20, but did not play in that year's World Cup.

At the 1962 World Cup, he scored against Argentina in the group-stage, but his England team were knocked out in the quarter-final by the eventual winners Brazil. In 1966, Charlton was at his dominant best. He controlled the midfield high-up-the-pitch and thus ensured that England created lots of chances. This included some memorable goals of his own (see video).

In 1970, England were again progressing strongly, but were defeated by a remarkable comeback by Germany (from 2-0 down to 3-2) in the quarter-final. Charlton spent most of his career with Manchester United and won the Ballon d'Or in 1966.

8. Ronaldo (Brazil)

  • Position: Striker
  • Appearances: 19
  • Goals: 15
  • World Cup record: runner-up (1998), winner (2002), quarter-final (2006)
  • World Cup awards: Golden Ball (1998), Golden Boot (2002), All-Star Team (1998, 2002)

The "original" Ronaldo scored 62 goals in 98 games for Brazil. He was the complete striker, combining strength and power with pace and skill. He was famous for making runs behind opposition defenses and bypassing the goalkeeper with elaborate "step-over" skills.

Ronaldo was in the squad for the 1994 World Cup (aged 17) but did not play. He made his name at the 1998 World Cup, scoring four and assisting three (the most assists at the tournament), but he controversially fell ill for the final. He played anyway and Brazil lost 3-0 to France.

At the 2002 World Cup, it was the "three Rs," with Ronaldo partnered with Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. They devastated the opposition, with Ronaldo scoring 8 goals, including two in the final against Germany (won 2-0). In 2006, Ronaldo was past his best and slightly overweight, but he still managed three goals, which was enough to break the World Cup scoring record set by Gerd Müller (since beaten by Miroslav Klose).

7. Giuseppe Meazza (Italy)

  • Position: Forward / Winger / Playmaker
  • Appearances: 9
  • Goals: 3
  • World Cup record: winner (1934), winner (1938)
  • World Cup awards: Golden Ball (1934), All-Star Team (1934, 1938)

Giuseppe Meazza was the greatest pre-WW2 footballer. He was a quality striker, but his creative talent (dribbling, passing, vision, etc.) meant that Italy preferred to use him as a supporting striker or winger (e.g., similar to Lionel Messi). This didn't stop him from scoring, and he netted 33 goals in 53 matches for the Azzurri.

Meazza broke into the national team in 1930 (aged 19), but Italy did not compete in the first World Cup that year (travelling to Uruguay by ship would have been difficult). His international career was also cut short by WW2, so he only had two World Cups. In a straight knockout tournament with 16 teams (4 matches to win), Meazza won both tournaments.

In the 1934 World Cup, he scored two goals in the five matches (one was a replay) and was inspirational in the final against Czechoslovakia. In 1938, he was again pivotal as Italy beat Hungary 4-2 in the final with two assists from Meazza.

6. Garrincha (Brazil)

  • Position: Winger
  • Appearances: 12
  • Goals: 5
  • World Cup record: winner (1958), winner (1962), group stage (1966)
  • World Cup awards: Golden Boot (1962), Golden Ball (1962), All-Star Team (1958, 1962)

As possibly the greatest winger and dribbler ever, Garrincha played 50 times for Brazil. He used his skills, flair, and creativity to score 12 goals and to assist the likes of Pelé and Vavá. He may have also inspired the first "olé" chants from football fans.

Garrincha made his international debut in 1955 but was overlooked for the opening two matches of the 1958 World Cup for showboating in a warm-up match. Alongside Pelé, they cruised through the tournament, beating Sweden 5-2 in the final (Garrincha with two assists in that match).

At the 1962 World Cup, Pelé was injured after two games, so Garrincha stepped up. He netted four goals: two in the quarter-final against England, and two in the semi-final against Chile. They then beat Czechoslovakia 3-1 in the final.

Garrincha was 33 years-old and plagued by injuries at the 1966 World Cup. He scored his 5th World Cup goal in a victory against Bulgaria, but finally suffered a defeat against Hungary (his only defeat, and also his last international match). Brazil exited the tournament after losing to Eusébio's Portugal.

5. Zinedine Zidane (France)

  • Position: Attacking midfielder
  • Appearances: 12
  • Goals: 5
  • World Cup record: winner (1998), group stage (2002), runner-up (2006)
  • World Cup awards: Golden Ball (2006), All-Star Team (1998, 2006)

Zinedine Zidane may have been the most technically-gifted player ever, with the grace, skill, vision, and ball control to make football look like art. He won the Ballon d'Or in 1998 and he scored 31 goals in 108 games for France.

Like a blessing, Zidane made his debut for France in 1994 (aged 22), not long after they had failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. With the 1998 tournament held in France, Zidane was there to make it count. His creativity and class contributed throughout, and he scored twice in the final as they beat the favorites, Brazil, 3-0.

At the 2002 World Cup, Zidane was injured just before the tournament and France crashed out in the group stage. At the 2006 tournament, Zidane came out of international retirement (along with Claude Makélélé and Lilian Thuram) to make another push for the trophy.

Despite being 34, Zidane scored three goals (two penalties), won the Golden Ball, and guided France all the way to the final. However, he was sent off in extra-time for an infamous head-butt and they were beaten on penalties by Italy.

4. Paolo Rossi (Italy)

  • Position: Striker
  • Appearances: 14
  • Goals: 9
  • World Cup record: fourth place (1978), winner (1982)
  • World Cup awards: Golden Boot (1982), Golden Ball (1982), All-Star Team (1978, 1982)

Paolo Rossi made such a huge impact on the 1982 World Cup that it was impossible to overlook him here. Rossi was an opportunistic striker with the anticipation and positional sense to always find himself in the best place to score. He scored 20 goals in 48 games for Italy and won the Ballon d'Or in 1982.

Rossi made his debut for Italy in 1977. Not just a striker, he sometimes moved onto the right wing where he could use his technical ability to assist Italy's other forwards. In the 1978 World Cup, he managed 3 goals and 4 assists, but Italy could not defeat Netherlands and finished fourth.

In the 1982 tournament, Italy were poor in the 1st group stage. Rossi did not score as Italy scraped through on "goals scored" after drawing every game. In a 2nd group stage, Italy were drawn with hot favorites Brazil and an Argentina team that featured Diego Maradona and Mario Kempes. Rossi helped to make them two of the best teams to never win a World Cup.

First, Italy beat Argentina 2-1 due to their excellent defense. Then, Rossi scored a hat-trick in a 3-2 win over Brazil. Rossi kept going, scoring both goals in their 2-0 victory over Poland in the semi-final, and another goal in the 3-1 defeat of Germany in the final.

3. Franz Beckenbauer (Germany)

  • Position: Sweeper
  • Appearances: 18
  • Goals: 5
  • World Cup record: runner-up (1966), third place (1970), winner (1974)
  • World Cup awards: All-Star Team (1966, 1970, 1974)

Franz Beckenbauer played as a sweeper, which is a ball-playing defender who anchors and organizes the defense (usually in a 5-3-2), sweeps up balls over the top, pushes into midfield, and sets up attacks with their passing ability (i.e., a defensive "free role"). Beckenbauer had these traits in abundance, scoring 14 goals in 103 games for Germany. He also won the Ballon d'Or twice (1972, 1976).

Beckenbauer made his international debut in 1965 and played every game in the 1966 World Cup. He scored twice in Germany's opener and brought his tally to four with goals against Uruguay (quarter-final) and the USSR (semi-final). Bobby Charlton's England defeated them 4-2 in the final.

In the 1970 World Cup, Germany got their revenge by coming from 2-0 down to beat England 3-2 in the quarter-final, starting with a 20-yard strike from Beckenbauer. However, they were defeated 4-3 by Italy in the semi-final after extra time.

The 1974 tournament was Beckenbauer's moment of triumph. They cruised through (despite a 1-0 group stage defeat to East Germany) and met Johan Cruyff's Netherlands team in the final. Germany won 2-1 to defeat Cruyff's "Total Football."

2. Diego Maradona (Argentina)

  • Position: Forward / Attacking midfielder
  • Appearances: 21
  • Goals: 8
  • World Cup record: second group stage (1982), winner (1986), runner-up (1990), round of 16 (1994)
  • World Cup awards: Golden Ball (1986), All-Star Team (1986, 1990)

Diego Maradona was the original Messi, with sublime dribbling skills, close control, passing, vision, and finishing. Although he was more of a creative midfielder, he managed 34 goals in 91 games for Argentina and won the Ballon d'Or in 1986 and 1990. Maradona is often regarded as one of the two best players of all time (alongside Pelé).

Maradona made his international debut in 1977 (aged 16) but was considered too young to play in the 1978 World Cup (which Argentina won). In 1982, Maradona played all five games and scored a brace against Hungary, but they were defeated by Rossi's Italy and Zico's Brazil in the 2nd group stage. Maradona was sent off against Brazil for retaliating against a succession of brutal fouls.

Maradona captained Argentina in 1986. He scored five goals and had the most assists in the tournament (5). Two goals came in the quarter-final against England, including his "hand of God" (i.e., an illegal handball) and his mazy dribble past five defenders. Another two came against Belgium (semi-final), and he provided the assist for the winning goal against Germany in the final. Many considered Maradona to have won the World Cup by himself.

At the 1990 tournament, Maradona was recovering from an injury, although he still provided the assist for the winner against Brazil (round of 16). Argentina scraped into the final on penalty shoot-outs but were defeated by Germany. Maradona only played twice in the 1994 World Cup, scoring once (and celebrating wildly) before being sent home for a failed drug test.

1. Pelé (Brazil)

  • Position: Striker
  • Appearances: 14
  • Goals: 12
  • World Cup record: winner (1958), winner (1962), group stage (1966), winner (1970)
  • World Cup awards: Golden Ball (1970), All-Star Team (1958, 1970)

Pelé is the only player to have won the World Cup three times. He managed 77 goals in 92 games for Brazil, and 1,283 goals in 1,363 games overall (including friendlies) (both records). If the Ballon d'Or could have gone to non-Europeans before 1995, the committee said that Pelé would have won it 7 times.

Pelé made his debut (and scored) for Brazil in 1957, aged 16. At the 1958 World Cup, he became the youngest player to score, to get a hat-trick, and to score in the final (aged 17). Due to an injury, his tournament began in the 3rd game against the USSR (getting an assist). He then scored against Wales (quarter-final), got a hat-trick against France (semi-final), and two against Sweden (final).

In the 1962 World Cup, Pelé injured himself in the 2nd game, but he managed a goal and an assist in the 1st. In the 1966 tournament, Brazil struggled with the brutal physicality of defenders. Pelé scored in the 1st game, was injured for the 2nd, and was hacked down and left limping in the 3rd. Brazil were eliminated and Pelé almost quit World Cups altogether.

With better officiating, Brazil flourished in the 1970 World Cup. Pelé scored in the opener, got an assist for the winner against England, and scored twice in the 3rd group game. He got assists against Peru (quarter-final) and Uruguay (semi-final), before scoring and providing two assists in the final against Italy (won 4-1).

Pelé was the ultimate footballer, with speed, strength, skill, creativity, leadership, and powerful finishing with either foot. In addition to his 12 World Cup goals (5th best), Pelé has the most assists in the tournament's history (10), most in a tournament (6), and most in finals (3).

Honorable Mentions

This list had to make some omissions. Here are some notable players who didn't make the cut.

  • Rivaldo (Brazil; winner in 2002)
  • Gianluigi Buffon (Italy; winner in 2006)
  • Mario Kempes (Argentina; winner and top goalscorer in 1978)
  • Johan Cruyff (Netherlands; Golden Ball in 1974)
  • Jairzinho (Brazil; winner and top goalscorer in 1970)
  • Ferenc Puskás (Hungary; Golden Ball in 1954)
  • Eusébio (Portugal; top goalscorer in 1966)
  • Lionel Messi (Argentina; Golden Ball in 2014)
  • Bobby Moore (England; winner in 1966)
  • Romário (Brazil; winner and Golden Ball in 1994)
  • Gaetano Scirea (Italy; winner in 1982)
  • Andrés Iniesta (Spain; winner in 2010)
  • Miroslav Klose (Germany; winner in 2014, runner-up in 2002, third place in 2006 and 2010, and most ever World Cup goals (16))
  • Leônidas da Silva (Brazil; top goalscorer and Golden Ball in 1938)
  • Just Fontaine (France; top goalscorer and most goals (13) at a single tournament in 1958)

Thank you for reading and watching this compilation of the greatest World Cup players in football history.

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© 2022 Thomas Swan