It would still be an understatement to suggest that ranking the best football players of all time is the ultimate subjective endeavour in the history of subjective endeavours.
To compare a 21st century athlete to someone from the early 20th century is a virtually impossible task, in no small part down to the fact that very few people have lived to see all 10 players in our own list at their prime.
Football needs to get its story straight as the modern game continues to evolve. Exactly who are the benchmark players who set the standard the rest of the world could only dream of?
In an age dominated by Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah, we bring you a list of megastars leagues above even their lofty levels.
You will almost certainly disagree with our selections, but is there even a correct answer to the question: who is the greatest of all time?
RadioTimes.com brings you our round-up of the best football players of all time.
Best football players of all time
10. Andres Iniesta
Some players were simply born at the wrong time to dominate world football, and some of those absolutely maxed out their careers regardless.
In a world without Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Iniesta would have scooped it all. The fact he didn't claim at least one Ballon d'Or in his fabled career is a tragedy.
We – and I include myself here – are increasingly obsessed with stats. Obscene goalscoring tallies and off-the-scale numbers of assists, but some players can't be measured by raw numbers alone. Football isn't played on a spreadsheet.
Iniesta's influence on every team he has played in should never have to be defended. Nobody, arguably not even Messi himself, could pull strings in a game like Iniesta. He may have been aided by Xavi alongside him, with a bona fide Argentinian wizard ahead of him to aim for, but Iniesta's touch, ingenuity, creativity and vision were virtually unparalleled.
The Spanish megastar didn't need the sheer explosiveness of Messi to become the second-best Barcelona player of all time and the most important player for his country in history, leading them to one World Cup and two European Championships.
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Though Iniesta's career has been somewhat overshadowed by his supernatural teammate, Ronaldo's legacy has been criminally overlooked by his supernatural namesake.
R9 is one of the all-time top centre-forwards in football history, without doubt. In an era of wide forwards and false nines, it's easy to forget the impact of a world-beating, complete No.9.
Ronaldo was the face of a generation, the ultimate all-rounder, a player who transcended sport and became synonymous with greatness.
The Brazilian superstar had pace and power in perfect balance like none other before or since. He simply had everything. Physical dominance, technical ability in bucket-loads and a predatory instinct to know when to time his devastating runs, where he needed to be at all times. There are few more intense, downright scary, sights in football for a defender than the sight of R9 approaching at full throttle with the ball at his feet. O Fenomeno.
8. Alfredo Di Stefano
Di Stefano is widely regarded as the greatest player in Real Madrid's illustrious history. That is a staggering claim, considering the numerous golden ages the club has enjoyed, the Galacticos that have strode across the threshold of the Bernabeu and carved their names into the locals' hearts.
The striker was born in Argentina, and even represented them on six occasions before switching allegiances to Colombia (!) before finally settling on Spain, where he played shockingly few international games – just 31 caps with 23 goals to his name.
Di Stefano was, like Ronaldo Nazario, a complete striker, well-rounded with immense strength, pace and endurance as well as technical ability far beyond his era in the 1940s and '50s.
He slammed home a whopping 308 goals in 396 games for Madrid across a remarkable 11-year period following a decade of tormenting teams in his native South America.
7. Franz Beckenbauer
It's incredibly difficult to compare players in all areas of the field with one another, but Beckenbauer's quality, and versatility to play in a whole range of positions, makes him an easy selection for the list.
The German started life as a midfielder before dropping into the heart of the defence for Bayern Munich where he effectively invented the modern sweeper role. In an age of no-nonsense defending and route one, burly centre-backs, 5ft 11ins Beckenbauer was a revelation with the ball at his feet.
His comfort on the ball was unparalleled among defenders, to the point he would effectively become a box-to-box midfielder from the centre-back position. The man effectively ran 90-minute bleep tests with the ball glued to his feet and was rewarded with an astonishing 98 goals in his 754-game career, including 75 in 584 for Bayern Munich.
Beckenbauer was a player ahead of his time and would be one of the most sought-after defenders in the world had he emerged in the 2010s.
6. Johan Cruyff
Another revolutionary figure, Cruyff effectively lit the touch paper on 'tiki-taka football' almost 40 years before Pep Guardiola's Barcelona and the Spanish national team conquered the world with it between 2008-2014.
Cruyff was a conductor of the concept of 'Total Football' with Ajax, where he started his career and scored 257 goals in 329 games. The Dutchman openly admitted, long after retiring, that he felt many other players were more technically gifted, stronger, fitter, more powerful, but that his success as an individual boiled down to nailing his tactical designs.
He was a firm believer in not only winning football matches but winning them in the 'right' way. His 'win-with-style' philosophy may not be for everyone, but for Cruyff, it was everything.
At Barcelona, he was given freedom to play his way, with immense success. The Cruyff Turn has translated from the pitch of the Nou Camp to schoolyards around the world over decades. So much of the modern game finds its origins in Johan Cruyff, a visionary footballer with on-field intelligence like no other.
5. Zinedine Zidane
If Ronaldo was the ultimate complete striker, Zidane goes down as the ultimate complete midfielder. The Frenchman boasted an unreal level of technical ability, with all the elegance and grace you wouldn't expect from a six-foot-one powerhouse.
His touch, as delicate at the grass he strode across, was otherworldly. His control over the ball, mesmeric. His ability to shift through the gears to convert an innocuous reception into the start of a blood-and-guts drive through the field has barely been replicated since.
Zidane will go down as one of the greatest dribblers of all time, but his intelligence on the ball added all the more threat to his attacks – he wasn't going to run out of road or ideas, he made clinical decisions with consistency, and the ball would find a teammate or the back of the net more often than not.
In terms of sheer achievements, Zidane's trophy cabinet is surprisingly not as full as you might expect, but everything is in there at least once. The World Cup, the Euros, La Liga, Serie A, the Champions League. But silverware isn't the ultimate metric of greatness. The level of fear he'd strike into every opponent in his path? That's a hallmark of greatness.
All of Brazilian football is geared towards embodying the spirit of Pele. Anything you've ever seen a Brazilian footballer do well, it is because Pele has done it before them. He is arguably the greatest ever player on the international stage with 77 goals for Brazil in just 92 games with three World Cups to his name.
Pele's legacy is an interesting one. There are those who scrunch up their faces at Pele's records, most particularly his claimed '1,281 goals in 1,363 games' line, when in fact a tranche of those games were exhibition showpieces against far weaker opposition.
However, his record excluding those games remains immense. He notched a reported 643 goals for Santos in 659 games across an 18-year spell before taking his talents to the US with New York Cosmos to wrap up his career.
Many use the fact he never played regularly in Europe as a stick to beat Pele with, but his international record speaks volumes about his talent in any context. His devastating pace and deadly accurate finishing were simply too much for some of the world's greatest defences at the time, and would likely be too much for them today at his prime.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo
To fully appreciate Ronaldo's greatness, you need to zoom out and not let his shambolic 2022 antics cloud your judgement of him. In time, once his career is all said and done, Cristiano will have more than earned his seat at the top table of all-time greats.
I know I said stats aren't everything, and trophies aren't everything, but when they are largely the result of one man, the most ferocious competitor in the history of football, they become incredibly difficult to ignore.
Ronaldo has lit up the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, claiming each nation's domestic title and cup trophy. He boasts five Champions League titles across two teams and lifted the European Championship trophy with Portugal.
In each of those seasons, in every triumph, Ronaldo will have produced a clutch moment of brilliance. Last minute penalties? No problem. Thunderous strikes against the run of play? Sorted. Fire-and-brimstone performances that could turn the tide against the odds? Done.
Ronaldo's career has been a masterclass in winning. His never-say-die attitude and matchday mentality at his prime was unrivalled. The 37-year-old's inability to age gracefully should not detract from two decades of mounting evidence to suggest he will go down as the greatest European footballer of all time.
2. Diego Maradona
Rarely is a player deified in the way Maradona has been by fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Argentina is awash with tributes to their greatest son, while the streets of Naples, Italy remain awash with Maradona-ism in response to their icon, their legend, their saint.
The diminutive Argentine forward boasted a low centre of gravity and the outrageous technical ability that could see him drift by players in unstoppable fashion. Maradona's intensity and direct running ability made him a menace for all who dared oppose him. This intensity not only struck fear into the hearts of opposition, but it emboldened teammates around him to raise their level, like an army general in the heat of battle.
Maradona's trophy cabinet is surprisingly bare for a player many still feel is the greatest footballer of all time. One league title in Argentina, none with Barcelona, you'd be forgiven for wondering, 'Is that it?' Though it's the manner of the trophies he did win that live long in the memory.
Napoli were a middling, solid yet unspectacular entity in Serie A before Maradona arrived from Barcelona. Within five years of his presence, they won the league twice and capped it off with the UEFA Cup, all while winning the World Cup with Argentina – the last time they have done so.
Maradona's legendary dribbling skills, vision, marksman-like passing ability and raw desire to win completely transformed Napoli and Argentinian football. He dragged them to success, kicking and screaming. A one-man army.
1. Lionel Messi
There's not a lot to be said that hasn't already been said about Lionel Messi, but I'm going to try.
We'll get the stats out of the way first. Messi has bagged 791 goals and 350 assists in 1,002 games for club and country. That works out at 72 minutes per goal contribution. Every 72 minutes. Across an 18-year career.
Many elite players are figured out, they're sussed, they enjoy a few seasons in the sun before someone cracks the code and neutralises them. Not Messi; never Messi.
Messi has adapted throughout his career, mainly to accommodate his gentle deceleration, but the end product has always remained the same.
His touch is extraordinary, applying the correct weight to every delicate tap like a fine artist working on their masterpiece. The ball sticks to his feet, under his spell, and his measured passing ability is simply the greatest of all time. Nobody has or will ever split a defence quite like Lionel Messi.
When he doesn't feel like passing through you, the Argentine megastar will simply turn the world's greatest defenders inside out. He has pulled many of them around like rag dolls in front of their families. He leaves few prisoners.
And at the end of those runs, he has shown great selflessness in the past to cut the ball back with pin-sharp accuracy or he'll slide, dink or flick the ball over the keeper. In every great chance he creates, Messi effectively gives himself a multiple-choice question about how he'd like to score in that given moment. It's not about whether he'll find the net, it's about how.
All that combines to say: Lionel Messi boasts the purest form of magic that makes us all love football in the first place. Simply, he chisels a smile on your face while watching him. It has been a privilege, and will continue to be a privilege until the day he hangs up his boots. The certified, undisputed Greatest of All Time.
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