The Top 21: Experts Pick the Greatest Player of All Time

Art by Onkar Shirsekar

If you are involved in the sport in any way, the odds are that you’ve at some point pondered the pointless question about who the greatest player of all time is. But, despite all our efforts, no consensus has been reached on this matter.

What if one asked 253 experts to pick their greatest player of all time? Who would come out on top? Lionel Messi? Pelé? Johan Cruyff, perhaps? Some candidates were raffish, frivolous. Others were pedants, even shtum. All eradicated their opposition in different ways.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s frame connotes a Leni Riefenstahl montage. Messi, the perfect footballing specimen, was probably built in a lab. Ronaldo, the Brazilian one, was, unfortunately, the prisoner of his knees. Cruyff invented the river we swim in, and modern football owes him too much. Each of these players escape definition, with mere stars lucky to ever get within seeing distance of them.

How do you even determine the value of a footballer, what metric quantifies glory? How significant are shots, passes, dribbles, and tackles compared to goals and assists, to trophies? How valuable is a stat-padding session on a farm versus a game-winner in the European Cup semi-finals? How do you count memories? Greatness hardly ever goes hand in hand with numbers and lists.

Yet, I recently got wind of a fascinating, albeit deleted, Wikipedia article that had looked to answer the following question: Who is the greatest male player of all time? The meat of the page was a tabulated opinion list, amassed from a plethora of experts, including agents, club owners, presidents/chief executive officers, clubs, coaches, football-related associations, members of the written media, sporting directors, and other professional footballers.

Of course, this collection was and is riddled with flaws.

First of all, a list like this one might endorse the idea that praising one player renders the others obsolete. Secondly, not all football industry figures listed were actually experts. Not all obscure scribes and run-of-the-mill defenders know what they’re talking about. Let us not fool ourselves, some are just flatout inept. Additionally, hyperbole, thinly veiled homerism and the pressure of one’s employer have without doubt influenced a large swath of opinions.

Though some of these responses originated from the turn of the century when numerous lists were composed and votes held on the subject, the research was not helped by the fact that it was skewed to modern sources. A decent result would be reliant on interviewing experts of varying ages and motivations.

I’ve also contended extensively in the past that due to the vast pool of master-of-the-universe-level ballers, circumstantial differences, personal preferences, and the evolution of the game, it is frankly impossible to compare GOATs against one another. (I recommend reading my older exploration of how and why a player is tagged as the All Time Number One Football Player. It’s an argument against conflating opinion with the truth.)

And still, I’m now reposting this gem of a Wikipedia article for all the world to see. It’s just too fun and too extensive. Controversial and heresayish.

I’ve done research of my own and, together with my editor Anushree, we have edited the content to satisfy certain quality standards. Otherwise, the credit belongs to the tireless volunteers at Wikipedia whose work almost went unnoticed.

These rankings are sorted by the number of No. 1 positions, so assessed by at least one member of the electorate. The amount of No. 2 positions is not taken into consideration, even though many experts have named a top 3 or a top 5, and, technically, I could have valued a first choice five points and so on. If the name of the expert is not hyperlinked, you can assume that I’ve acquired the opinion in question via conferring. If an opinion is struck through, it means that the opiner has had a change of heart, has effectively retracted their support, or has revised their statement.

But now, let’s cut to the chase. Here we go—the officially unofficial definitive list of the greatest male players of all time.

The list

15= ROBERTO BAGGIO, 1 (0.4%)

Endorsers: Fabrizio Ravanelli (footballer)


15= BOBBY CHARLTON, 1 (0.4%)

Endorser: Simon Barnes (award-winning journalist and The Times‘s long-time chief sportswriter)


15= EUSÉBIO, 1 (0.4%)

Endorser: Alfredo Di Stéfano (footballer and coach)


15= GARRINCHA, 1 (0.4%)

Endorser: Santiago Formoso (former United States international)


15= MICHAEL LAUDRUP, 1 (0.4%)

Endorser: Andrés Iniesta (Golden Foot recipient)


15= ALESSANDRO NESTA, 1 (0.4%)

Endorser: Yaya Banana (Cameroon international)


15= ZICO, 1 (0.4%)

Endorsers: Ronaldo (footballer) and one of the first 34 Ballon d’Or winners


14 GERD MÜLLER, 1–2 (0.4%)

Endorser(s): Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (football executive and former player) and one of the first 34 Ballon d’Or winners


10= MARCO VAN BASTEN, 2 (0.79%)

Endorsers: Giovanni Cornacchini (coach) and Arrigo Sacchi (one of the game’s greatest coaches)


10= GIUSEPPE MEAZZA, 2 (0.79%)

Endorsers: Giuseppe Prisco (sports administrator) and Gianni Brera (legendary sports journalist and novelist)


10= MICHEL PLATINI, 2 (0.79%)

Endorsers: Enrico De Santis (contributor for SportMediaset) and one of the first 34 Ballon d’Or winners


10= ZINEDINE ZIDANE, 2 (0.79%)

Endorsers: Jules Delay (contributor for Nouse), David Beckham (club owner and legendary football ambassador), and Eden Hazard (footballer)


8= FRANZ BECKENBAUER, 3 (1.19%)

Endorsers: Andreas Brehme (Germany’s 1990 World Cup hero) and two of the first 34 Ballon d’Or winners


8= RONALDINHO, 3 (1.19%)

Endorsers: Sean O’Brien (sports writer and Saturday editor at talkSPORT), Luis García (footballer, born 1978), Pedro Henrique Konzen (footballer), and Nani (2016 European Champion)


7 RONALDO NAZARIO, 7 (2.77%)

Endorsers: Nicolas Anelka (footballer), Karim Benzema (four-time Champions League winner and three-time French Player of the Year), Roberto Carlos (Ballon d’Or Dream Team nominee), Gonzalo Higuaín (footballer), Zlatan Ibrahimović (self-proclaimed god), Alexis Sánchez (pianist), and Mario Balotelli (footballer)


6 ALFREDO DI STÉFANO, 10–12 (3.95%)

Endorsers: Florentino Pérez (current president of Real Madrid), Real Madrid (13-time European Cup champions), Helenio Herrera (‘Napoleon of Milan’), Jorge Ordás (journalist), Bruno Longhi (contributor for SportMediaset), Bobby Charlton (footballer), Eusébio (continental icon), Diego Maradona (Napoli’s cult hero), and four of the first 34 Ballon d’Or winners


5 JOHAN CRUYFF, 11–12 (4.35%)

Endorsers: Vereniging van Contractspelers (Association of Contract Players), Alberto Brandi (Italian journalist), Jimmi Carney (contributor for Bleacher Report), Topias Kauhala (journalist for Finnish sports magazine Elmo), Kaustubh Pandey (football writer for various media outlets), Alain Ronsse (journalist), Jamie Spencer (regular at 90min.com), Gary Thacker (football author), David Winner (journalist and William Hill Sports Book of the Year nominee), Michel Platini (three-time Ballon d’Or winner and former president of UEFA), Sjaak Swart (‘Mr. Ajax’), and one of the first 34 Ballon d’Or winners

Additional information: In 2012, three psychologists, Steve Janssen, David Rubin, and Martin Conway asked 600 plus participants to list the names whom they thought were the five greatest footballers of all time. Most people selected Johan Cruyff (86 per cent), and Pelé came in second (56 per cent). The poll was presented in Dutch on the website of Amsterdam University.


4 CRISTIANO RONALDO, 24 (9.49%)

Endorsers: Jorge Mendes (super agent), Sporting CP (Portuguese club), Virat Kohli (co-owner of Indian Super League team FC Goa), Phil Neville (footballer and coach), Nuno Espírito Santo (coach), Zinedine Zidane (no introduction necessary), Edu Aguirre (Ronaldo’s friend and Spanish journalist), Om Arvind (contributor for Managing Madrid, SB Nation, and Outside of the Boot), Emmanuel Ayamga (author at These Football Times), Kevin Baxter (Los Angeles Times sportswriter), Jackson Cole (sports journalist at talkSPORT), Marco Heta (intransigent man of culture), Richard Keys (sports presenter), Colin Mafham (sports journalist), Piers Morgan (journalist and published author), Jack Otway (Senior Sport Reporter for Daily Express Online), Peter Staunton (Goal’s Chief Correspondent), Fabio Paratici (Juventus sporting director), Rolando Aarons (footballer), Karim Benzema (four-time Champions League winner and three-time French Player of the Year), João Félix (footballer), Nani (2016 European Champion), Krzysztof Piątek (footballer), Lianne Sanderson (former Lionesses international), Connor Wickham (footballer), and Ruud Gullit (Ballon d’Or winner)

Additional information: From what is being said online, a lot of people believe Ronaldo is worthy of the title. In early 2020, Madrid-based publication Marca gave a platform for fans to vote for their ‘greatest of all time’ players in a knockout competition format. Out of a pre-selected group of 16 players, fans participated by casting their votes on online polls. Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were drawn on opposite sides of the bracket.

Ronaldo eventually reached the last round, which he won with 246,000 (54%) votes to Messi’s 209,000 (46%). En route to the final he had moved past Paolo Maldini with 73% to 27%, Zinedine Zidane with 56% to 44%, and Diego Maradona by 59% to 41%.

Similar voting was held by Globo Esporte around the same time. With Ronaldo and Messi reaching the round of two once again, 46,481 (50.19%) readers chose the Portuguese, while 46,187 (49.81%) went with La Pulga.


3 DIEGO MARADONA, 29–32 (11.46%)

Endorsers: José Antonio Camacho (coach), Glenn Hoddle (National Football Museum Hall of Famer), Mauricio Pochettino (footballer and coach), 90min.com (football news platform), Matt Barlow (football writer for the Daily Mail), Steve Bates (Daily Mirror reporter), Luca Caioli (football biographer), John Cross (chief football writer at Daily Mirror), Matteo Dotto (contributor for SportMediaset), Rob Draper (chief football writer for the Mail on Sunday), Marcus Foley (journalist), Mattia Fontana (journalist), FourFourTwo (football magazine), Craig Hope (football correspondent for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday), Desmond Kane (journalist), James Lawton (sports journalist and biographer), Louis Massarella (features editor at FourFourTwo), Mark Ogden (football journalist), Tariq Panja (published co-author and global sports reporter for The New York Times), Heikki Uusitalo (online editor at Kaleva), Jonne Lindblom (sporting director and former football agent), Gabriel Batistuta (footballer), Fabio Cannavaro (Ballon d’Or and World Cup winner), Eric Cantona (footballer), Rio Ferdinand (footballer), Ryan Giggs (footballer and coach), Ruud Gullit (Ballon d’Or winner), Paul Merson (former footballer and pundit at Sky Sports), Lionel Messi (six-time Ballon d’Or winner), Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (footballer), Carlos Valderrama (Colombian great), Marco van Basten (footballer), and three of the first 34 Ballon d’Or winners

Additional information: The Iglesia Maradoniana is a religion, established by stans of Maradona, whom they worship not only as the GOAT but a deity. The church has around 500,000 members. In 2013, readers of Corriere dello Sport voted Maradona the best athlete in history. On his way to victory, he gained a majority against the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Jordan. Maradona himself received the news with pride; upon hearing he had won, he said, “I’m glad to receive this award. Especially since it is [chosen] by people, who admire you and follow you without any ulterior motives. I’m happy. And more so because I was in Italy, a great country.”


2 PELÉ, 70–73 (27.67%)

Endorsers: Sir Alex Ferguson (arguably the greatest manager of all time), César Luis Menotti (1978 World Cup-winning coach), Carlos Alberto Parreira (1994 World Cup-winning coach), Association of Football Statisticians, International Federation of Association Football, Joe Bernstein (Daily Mail reporter), Robbie Blakeley (contributor for Bleacher Report), Florian Bogner (journalist), Adalberto Bortolotti (leading journalist at Guerin Sportivo), Lee Clayton (English sports journalist), Complex (American media and entertainment magazine), GQ (men’s magazine), Juha Kanerva (sports historian and Ballon d’Or voter), James Lawton (sports journalist and biographer), Darren Lewis (football correspondent for Daily Mirror), Arjun Namboothiri (ESPN journalist), Jon O’Brien (contributor for Paste), Roberto Omini (contributor for SportMediaset), Placar (Brazilian sports magazine), Dan Quarrell (journalist), Laurent Vergne (journalist), Carlos Alberto (footballer), Ricardo Armendáriz (footballer), Franz Beckenbauer (footballer), Ricardo Bochini (shining beacon of Independiente), Claudio Caniggia (footballer), Clodoaldo (footballer), Johan Cruyff (Netherlands’ GOAT), Teófilo Cubillas (footballer), Giancarlo De Sisti (footballer), Elías Figueroa (three-time South American Footballer of the Year), Rodolfo Jose Fischer (footballer), Hugo Gatti (record-breaking goalkeeper), Alcides Ghiggia (scorer of the 1950 World Cup-winning goal), Antônio Wilson Vieira Honório (footballer), Jürgen Klopp (footballer and coach), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City legend), Omar Larrosa (World Cup winner), Roger Milla (one of Africa’s finest), Neymar (most expensive footballer of all time), Daniel Onega (footballer), Carlos Alberto Parreira (footballer), Luís Pereira (footballer), Roberto Perfumo (footballer), Michel Platini (three-time Ballon d’Or winner and former president of UEFA), Ferenc Puskás (football’s first international superstar), Antonio Rattin (footballer), Jamie Redknapp (former footballer and pundit at Sky Sports), Rivellino (FIFA 100 member), Gianni Rivera (Italy’s ‘Golden Boy’ and 1969 Ballon d’Or winner), Cristiano Ronaldo (five-time Ballon d’Or winner), Romário (footballer), Dino Sani (Milan Hall of Famer), Alberto Spencer (Ecuador’s GOAT), Tostão (footballer), Jose Varacka (footballer), Mário Zagallo (FIFA Order of Merit honoree), Zico (‘White Pelé’), and 17 of the first 34 Ballon d’Or winners

Additional information: In the 2018 OnePoll research commissioned by the History television channel to mark its History of Football season, Pelé came out on top and was voted the greatest of all time—ahead of Maradona who finished second. Almost 20 years earlier, World Soccer readers as well had designated him as the best of the best. The results were published in the magazine’s last 1999 issue.


1 LIONEL MESSI, 80 (31.62%)
Endorsers: Josep Maria Bartomeu (current president of FC Barcelona), Adriano Galliani (football executive), Joan Laporta (club president), FC Barcelona (Spanish superclub), Carlos Bianchi (only coach to win four Copa Libertadores), Luis Enrique (footballer and coach), Pep Guardiola (arguably the greatest coach of the modern era), Ángel Guillermo Hoyos (coach), Ronald Koeman (footballer and coach), Julen Lopetegui (coach), Graeme Souness (coach), Ernesto Valverde (coach), Arsène Wenger (legendary Arsenal coach), Riath Al-Samarrai (chief sports feature writer at the Daily Mail), Guillem Balagué (football journalist, author and pundit), Chris Bascombe (football reporter for The Daily Telegraph), Oliver Browning (GiveMeSport author), JJ Bull (football writer for The Daily Telegraph), Jason Burt (chief football correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph), Alex Chick (journalist), Sarthak Dev (contributor for Football Paradise), Ty Duffy (college American football contributor for The Athletic Detroit and former writer on The Big Lead), Taronish Elavia (contributor for Football Paradise), Siavoush Fallahi (sports journalist), Graham Hunter (football journalist and award-winning author), Mike Keegan (sports news correspondent/sports agenda editor at the Daily Mail), Jussi Leppälahti (football journalist at Finnish sports magazine, Elmo, and head coach of Kakkonen club JIPPO), Danny Lewis (published author and freelance sport journalist for various papers), Philip Micallef (contributor for SBS), Andy Mitten (journalist, author and founder of the best-selling United We Stand fanzine), Paper (independent magazine), Jason Pettigrove (UEFA accredited journalist and published football author), Ashwin Raman (football writer), Robert Redmond (contributor for SportsJOE.ie), Gert Remmel (football analyst at Finnish sports magazine, Elmo, and head coach of Pafos FC Under-19), Graham Ruthven (freelance football writer for various publishers), Paul Sarahs (freelance journalist), Joel Slagle (contributor for Football Paradise), Oli Stein (journalist), Karan Tejwani (sports book writer and co-founder of Football Chronicle), Parashar Thanki (contributor for Football Paradise), Rahul Warrier (freelance football writer and Head of Online at Forge Press), Chris Wheatley (journalist), Laurie Whitwell (journalist for The Athletic and 2019 Sports Journalists’ Association Awards nominee), Igor Zelenitsyn (journalist), Jordi Alba (2012 European Champion), Dani Alves (most-decorated footballer of all time), Joey Barton (footballer), Alan Brazil (footballer), Antonio Cassano (footballer), Sunil Chhetri (‘Asian Icon’ and current captain of the India national team), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona teammate), Ángel Di María (compatriot), Paulo Dybala (another compatriot), Samuel Eto’o (footballer), Cesc Fàbregas (World Cup winner), Gennaro Gattuso (footballer and coach), Mario Gómez (footballer), Markus Halsti (former Finland international), Eden Hazard (footballer), Ashley Hunter (footballer), Mauro Icardi (two-time Capocannoniere winner), Joaquín (Real Betis club legend), Gary Lineker (Golden Boot winner and English Football Hall of Fame inductee), David Luiz (footballer), Pedro (footballer, born 1987), Gerard Piqué (footballer), Carles Puyol (long-time Barcelona captain), Ivan Rakitić (footballer), Marcus Rashford (philanthropist and eFootball PES 2021 cover star), John Arne Riise (footballer), Wayne Rooney (footballer), Dean Saunders (footballer), Alan Shearer (footballer), Alan Smith (former footballer and current pundit at Sky Sports), Marc-André ter Stegen (footballer), John Terry (footballer), Arda Turan (footballer), David Villa (footballer), and Xavi (one of the greatest midfielders ever)


*George Best and Ferenc Puskás were also named once, both by Pelé. I’ve excluded them from this list because, nowadays, Pelé is evidently his own biggest fan and he sees himself as not only the greatest of all time but also as a cultural icon who destabilized the institution of a white man.

**Stanley Matthews, Omar Sívori, and George Best declined to vote. Lev Yashin was already dead at the time.

***Zinedine Zidane is also one of the anonymous first 34 Ballon d’Or winners. Both votes are counted.

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Marco Heta

Found writing in third grade, discovered football in seventh. Five years later, combined them.

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