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The ten greatest football legends in history

Football is undisputedly the world’s most popular sport, with more countries a part of the governing body, FIFA, than the United Nations itself!

The sport is also the most watched in the world, with the English Premier League being the most watched sports league across the globe and the 2018 FIFA World Cup garnered a TV audience of close to 3.8 billion.

Being such a popular sport, football has also given some of the most recognizable sportspeople on earth. Many of them have reached legendary status and here, we’ve listed down the 10 greatest football legends.

PELE

There’s always debate about who’s the greatest football player of all time. Pele was the first to be unanimously awarded that title and those who’ve seen him play call him the finest ever.

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For starters, he is the only player in the world to win 3 FIFA World Cups. He burst onto the scene in the 1958 World Cup as a 17-year old and was instrumental in his country’s first World Cup win. Two more titles followed in 1962 and 1970, with Pele being adjudged the best player at the 1970 World Cup. Not to forget, that the 1970 World Cup winning side is considered to be the best international football team. 

In addition to his stupendous skill with the ball, Pele was a feared goal-scorer as his record shows. According to International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS), Pele scored 1281 goals in 1363 games at the club-level. He is still Brazil’s all-time leading scorer despite the country producing some great attacking talents like Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Neymar.

Pele’s stardom coincided with FIFA expanding the sport greatly and the Brazilian became a global megastar. ‘The Black Pearl’ served as a global ambassador for the sport and his teams used to tour multiple international locations to play friendly games. After his retirement in 1977, Pele also appeared in a Hollywood film Escape To Victory alongside Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and fellow football player, Bobby Moore.

Despite never playing for a European club, Pele’s legacy remains as strong as ever. For all of the modern football greats, he is the ghost to chase as the dreams of emulating him reverberate in every football player on the planet.

DIEGO MARADONA

The last time Argentina won the World Cup was in 1986 and the man who led them to the title was ‘El Magico’, Diego Armando Maradona.

Widely notorious for his short-temper but also worshipped by many for his amazing talent, Maradona was the ultimate maverick. He could dribble past players like a hot knife through butter. He could pick out a teammate with a fantastic pass that would leave defenses stunned and he could produce moments of magic on a daily basis.

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Starting his career with Boca Juniors, Maradona became known on the world stage during his stints with FC Barcelona and Napoli. His transfers to both clubs were then-world records and the Argentine legend won league titles at both clubs. His exploits at Napoli are even more remarkable considering that the club from Southern Italy was never a powerhouse in the Serie A, which was dominated by Juventus and the Milan clubs.

Maradona’s career’s pinnacle, however, came in 1986 when he led Argentina to their second World Cup title. In a team that was devoid of great star power, Maradona led La Albiceleste to a storied win. During the course of the tournament, in typical Maradona style, he was both a figure of controversy and awe. Against England in the 1986 Quarter-Finals, Maradona scored a goal using his hand, what is now referred to as the ‘Hand of God’. He then scored another goal in which he dribbled past eight English players. That goal is called the ‘Goal of the Century’.

Maradona reached another World Cup final in 1990, with the opponents being the same as 1986, West Germany. The Germans, however, got the better of Maradona and Argentina as they won the first World Cup of the 1990s.

The 1994 World Cup served as the final bow for Maradona, whose personal life had been in a turmoil for long. That turmoil spilled on over to his professional career as he was tested positive for a ‘cocktail of drugs’ and was sent back home after playing only two games. Soon after, Maradona announced his retirement from the game. A sad end to one of the greatest careers in the history of the beautiful game.

LIONEL MESSI

There have been many Argentine players with the mantle of ‘The Next Maradona’. Pablo Aimar, Alessandro D’Alessandro, Ariel Ortega and many others. None of them lived up to that title.

Lionel Messi, arguably, has surpassed that title and the man himself.

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Born in Rosario, Messi’s footballing career started at Newell’s Old Boys before he was snapped up by FC Barcelona. At the Catalan club, Messi became the legend that he is today winning everything at club level and serving as the club’s talisman.

With FC Barcelona, Messi has won nine La Liga titles, six Copa del Rey’s and three UEFA Champions League titles. He is also FC Barcelona’s all-time leading goal-scorer as well as assist provider. A record that he also holds for La Liga. In the 2011-12 season, Messi scored 50 goals in La Liga, which is the highest ever in a single season. In 2012, he scored 93 goals which was the highest ever in a calendar year in the top football leagues. He has also won the European Golden Shoe five times along with the Pichichi trophy. Not to mention his stranglehold on the Ballon D’Or with Messi winning the award five times.

While his critics argue that Messi has not had international success, he has led Argentina through a fairly successful period. Messi led the team to the 2014 World Cup final and was also adjudged the tournament’s best player. He also captained the team to two successive Copa America finals appearances in 2015 and 2016, which ended up in losses to Chile.

Messi is a global star and is one of the most recognizable sportspersons in the world. His rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo has drawn comparisons to famous sports rivalries like Borg-McEnroe, Prost-Senna, Federer-Nadal and more. He is easily one of the greatest legends of the sport.

CRISTIANO RONALDO

From Messi to his greatest on-field rival, Cristiano Ronaldo.

It is very interesting that both Messi and Ronaldo emerged as stars at roughly the same time. But there’s no denying that both of them have changed the landscape of football with their jaw-dropping talent and of course, records.

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The Portuguese superstar started his career at Sporting Lisbon but achieved worldwide fame with Manchester United where he went on to win three Premier League titles and an FA Cup. He also won his first UEFA Champions League with them, winning it in the 2007-08 season. In 2008, he also received the first of his five Ballon D’Ors.

In 2009, Ronaldo joined Real Madrid in what was then, a world record transfer fee. He developed into a goal-machine at the Santiago Bernabeu, becoming Real Madrid’s all-time leading goalscorer in a stint that lasted nine years. In addition to that, he also set the record for most La Liga hat-tricks and won the Pichichi trophy thrice. Ronaldo also was Los Blancos’ best player when they won the league title in 2011-12 and 2016-17.

Ronaldo’s performance in the Champions League was of even greater proportions as he is the first man to win the prestigious trophy five times. Ronaldo is the highest goal-scorer in the competition’s history and finished as top-scorer in a single tournament, five times.

While he may not have the same number of League titles as his rival Messi, Ronaldo has an international trophy to his name, leading Portugal to victory at the 2016 European Championships. He is also the most capped player for Portugal and the country’s leading goal-scorer. Furthermore, he is the only player to score a goal in eight consecutive international tournaments.

Ronaldo moved to Italian giants Juventus in 2019 and the £104 Million fee was the highest for a player above the age of 30. It was also the highest fee paid by a Serie A club in history.

Ronaldo is, as per ESPN, the world’s most famous sportsperson. According to Forbes, he’s the highest paid football player and the most marketable athlete in the world. A true legend of the game.

JOHAN CRUYFF

While the other players on this list are renowned for their records, Johan Cruyff is in this list because of the sheer influence he has had in the modern game.

Born in Amsterdam, Cruyff was the crown jewel of football in the Netherlands and was the catalyst in the European nation’s rise to football royalty. When Rinus Michels developed his game of totaalvoetball, Cruyff was the deep-lying forward who made the formation and strategy tick.

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Cruyff led the Netherlands to the 1974 World Cup final where they lost to West Germany. Despite losing, the side is fondly remembered for the intricate passing game and attacking mindset. In essence, it laid the foundation for how the game was going to be played in the modern era with highly versatile players who could perform multiple functions on the pitch.

Cruyff adapted the same philosophy on to the club level where he led Ajax from relative obscurity to powerhouse status. The Dutch legend won eight Eredivisie titles with the club and three successive European Cups in 1971, 1972 and 1973.

He then moved to FC Barcelona where he won a league title in the 1973-74 season along with a Copa del Rey in the 1977-78 season. His influence at the Catalan club, however, would emerge out much later as the playing style and values he would instill would serve as the bedrock for the club’s unparalleled success in the 21st century.

After retiring from his playing career, Cruyff became an equally successful manager, leading FC Barcelona to four successive La Liga titles in the early 90s. He also managed them to their first Champions League title in 1991-92. His most telling legacy, however, was the establishment of La Masia, FC Barcelona’s youth academy which would produce world-class players like Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and more.

ZINEDINE ZIDANE

There is no doubt that Zinedine Zidane has been one of the finest attacking midfielders of all time. Zidane started his footballing career with a French club named Cannes and then moved to Bordeaux in 1992. The Frenchman in his last season with the Girondins won the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award.

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After, an impressive performance for Bordeaux, Zidane got offers from the big clubs of Europe. The Frenchman decided to join the Italian giants, Juventus in 1996. Zizou, in his spell of five years at the Old Lady, won two Serie A titles, one Super Cup, two Serie A Foreign Footballer of the Year awards and one Ballon d’Or. During the same time, the former Juventus midfielder achieved tremendous success with French national team as he won the 1998 FIFA World Cup and Euro 2000. His exploits garnered him the Golden Ball at the latter tournament as well.

Zidane’s phenomenal performance for Juventus and French national team made him the most expensive football player back then. As he joined Real Madrid for a transfer fee of around €77.5 million, Zizou succeeded in winning the UEFA Champions League trophy in his first season at Santiago Bernabeu. The second season at the famous club saw him capture his first La Liga title.

After facing defeat in the 2002 FIFA World Cup and 2004 UEFA Euro Cup. Zidane decided to retire from the international football. France struggled a lot to qualify for the 2006 World Cup and due to this Raymond Domenech urged the Frenchman to return from retirement. Zizou agreed for it and was made the captain of the French national team.

Once again, the former Bordeaux midfielder won everybody’s heart with his performance on the pitch. Zidane took the French team on his shoulders to the final of the 2006 World Cup. However, his headbutt on Marco Materazzi saw him being sent off in his last ever game as a professional.

FRANZ BECKENBAUER

Franz Beckenbauer is still considered one of the best German players to ever appear on a football pitch. The German footballer started his career as a midfielder but then went on become one of the best defenders in the business. Beckenbauer was considered a versatile player and was always appreciated for his dominance and leadership on the field. 

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The German defender started his career with Bayern Munich and achieved tremendous success in his 13 years spell with them. Beckenbauer won five Bundesliga titles, three UEFA Champions Leagues (called European Cup then), five DFB Pokals, four German Footballer of the Year and two Ballon d’Ors with Bayern Munich.

During the same time, the former Bayern Munich player also thrived with the German national team. ‘Der Kaiser’ captained West Germany to triumph at the 1974 World Cup, over Johann Cruyff’s famed Netherlands side no less, as well as Euro 1972. Amazingly, for a defender, Beckenbauer also won the World Cup Bronze Boot in 1966.

After leaving Bayern Munich, Beckenbauer moved to New York Cosmos, where he won three North American Soccer League. In 1980, the German defender decided to move to Hamburger SV, where he won the sixth Bundesliga title of his career.

Following his retirement from professional football, Beckenbauer decided to become a manager. In his first job, the German defender faced a lot of pressure as he became the manager of West Germany. However, he never let that pressure contain him and this was proved when he took West Germany to victory in the 1990 World Cup. This made him the second person to win the World Cup as a player and manager, after Mario Zagallo.

PAOLI MALDINI

Paolo Maldini was a one-club man. The Italian defender spent 24 years of his career in Serie A with AC Milan. During his time at Milan, Maldini won total of 25 trophies: Five UEFA Champions League, Seven Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana titles, four European Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup.

The Italian defender was popular among everybody due to his leadership and defending skills on the field. Maldini captained both AC Milan and Italy and he was brilliant at leading the team from forward. Due to this quality, Maldini’s fellow teammates nicknamed him “The Captain”.

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In his 25 seasons with AC Milan Maldini achieved many individual trophies and created numerous records. The Italian defender was placed third in the Ballon d’Or on two occasions: 1994 and 2003. He also won Serie A defender of the year in 2004 and won best defender title at the UEFA Club Football Awards.

Maldini achieved a lot with AC Milan but couldn’t achieve the same success with the Italian national team. The Italian defender reached the semi-final of the 1990 FIFA World Cup and the final in 1994 but couldn’t get his hands on the golden trophy. The AC Milan defender also reached the semi-final of the UEFA Euro Cup 1988 and the final in 2000. Even on these two occasions, Italy couldn’t win the international trophy. At last, Maldini decided to retire at the age of 41 with a record 902 appearances for AC Milan.

GERD MULLER

Gerd Muller was one of the most lethal strikers the footballing world has ever seen. The German striker had more than one goal per game average at international level and almost a goal per game average with football clubs. Due to this brilliant goal scoring rate, Muller was nicknamed “Der Bomber”.

Muller started his career with 1861 Nördlingen, where he scored 51 goals in 31 appearances in a single season. In 1964, the German striker moved to Bayern Munich and stayed there for 15 years. 

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During his time at Bayern Munich, Muller became a feared frontman. In his 453 appearances with Bayern Munich, the German striker won four Bundesliga titles, four DFB-Pokal trophies and three UEFA Champions Leagues. During this time, Muller achieved success with the German national team as well. The German striker won the UEFA Euro Cup in 1972 and FIFA World Cup in 1974.

The Bayern Munich striker scored for the German national team on numerous occasions. In the 1970 World Cup, Muller scored 10 goals and won his first Golden Boot at the competition. The German striker scored most goals (4) even in the 1972 UEFA Euro Cup.

In addition, Muller scored four goals at the 1974 FIFA World Cup and one of these goals came as the winning goal in the final game against the Netherlands. For his brilliant performance throughout his career at club and International level, Muller won the Ballon d’Or in 1970, European Golden Shoe in 1970 and 1972 and German Footballer of the Year award in 1967 and 1969.

Muller scored 14 goals at the World Cup which stood as a record from 1974 till 2006. Ronaldo was the striker, who surpassed the German striker to become the striker with most goals at the World Cup in 2006. The Bayern Munich striker also held the record of Germany’s top goal scorer until Miroslav Klose broke it in the 2014 World Cup.

Muller is also the leading goal-scorer in Bundesliga history with 365 goals. The closest active player to him is Robert Lewandowski with 180 goals. It’s safe to say that Muller’s record will remain intact for the years to come.

GIANLUIGI BUFFON

Gianluigi Buffon would be one of the best goalkeepers of all time this game has ever come across. The Italian great started his career with Parma in 1995 and stayed at the club for six seasons. During his six-year spell with the Crusaders, Buffon won one Coppa Italia and one UEFA Euro Cup.

His phenomenal performances for Parma made him famous in the Serie A at a very young age. This made Juventus spend around €52 million to bring Buffon to the Old Lady. This was a record transfer fee spent for a goalkeeper back then and it stayed until Allison Becker moved to Liverpool in 2018.

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Buffon thrived and achieved most of the success in his career with Juventus. The Italian goalkeeper won numerous trophies in his 17 seasons at the Old Lady. The goalkeeper won 11 Serie A titles and four Copa Italia titles. Along with the club trophies, Buffon also won many individual trophies. He was the first goalkeeper to win Serie A Footballer of the Year award along with Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year for a record 12 times. Buffon was also placed second in the 2006 Ballon d’Or.

During the same time, Buffon achieved success with the Italian national team. The former Juventus goalkeeper was one of the reasons behind Italy’s win in the 2006 World Cup. The Italian goalkeeper kept five clean sheets and conceded two goals in seven games. This performance of Buffon at the World Cup also won him the FIFA Golden Glove award and he also made it to the FIFA World Cup All-Star Team of 2006.

The Italian goalkeeper is aged 40 currently but it doesn’t look like that he has a plan of retiring sometime soon. He recently left Juventus to join PSG and the audience in France is more than lucky to be seeing the living legend in action.

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