13 Greatest World Cup Players Of All Time
The World Cup is the greatest opportunity for players to show what they are capable of. Some of the best of all time have failed to shine on the biggest stage, whilst some with much less ability have used it to prove their worth.
Here are the 13 men who have shined brightest at the World Cup over the year…
The rock-solid centre-back went to four World Cups with Italy from 1998-2010, playing 18 matches in total at the biggest tournament on the planet.
Three of those trips were fairly forgettable, but one stood out and made Cannavaro a legend in his country. He captained Italy to the World Cup win in Germany, winning World Player of the Year as a result. He was sensational throughout the tournament and became the first Italian to lift the trophy for 24 years in the process.
The goalkeeping legend played in four tournaments for Italy from 1970–’82 winning the tournament in his final appearance, captaining the team to victory over Germany in Madrid.
Italy finished runners-up in 1970 and fourth in ’78 with Zoff in both squads, making 17 World Cup appearances in total. He is the oldest World Cup winner after that ’82 performance at 40-years-old, for which he won the Best Goalkeeper award.
The only Argentinian to win two World Cups, the no-nonsense defender captained his side to victory in 1978 and then was part of the squad that won it again in 1986.
Widely recognised as Argentina’s greatest ever defender, one of the hardest men in football history and one of the most inspirational leaders on a pitch anywhere. He also scored an incredible amount of goals for a centre-back, notching 22 in 70 international appearances, including the key opening goal against France in the 1978 group stages from the penalty spot.
He was in the Team of the Tournament in ’78 and his performances in his homeland that year earn him a spot on this list.
A number of German strikers narrowly missed out on this list despite a strong case – Uwe Seeler, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Thomas Muller – but the one to edge ahead of them is Jurgen Klinsmann.
The polarising forward went to three World Cups with his national side, winning in 1990 and scoring 11 goals in 17 appearances across eight years.
He crucially won the tournament when Rummenigge and Seeler did not, and he has more goals and appearances than Muller, so that is why Klinsi wins this little German tussle. Although Muller could well oust him in Russia this summer.
One of only three men to play in five World Cups, and was a central figure in the Italian team which triumphed in Germany in 2006. The legendary stopper won the Goalkeeper of the Tournament that year as his team conceded just two goals throughout the entire competition, which is a record he shares with Fabien Barthex in 1998 and Iker Casillas in 2010.
Italy’s performances in his other appearances were not on the same level, but for his longevity and heroics in the winning campaign of 2006, Buffon is certainly in the argument to be the greatest goalkeeper in World Cup history.
A player often overlooked as he was on the field at the same time as Pele, but he should not be forgotten, having won two World Cups and scored in both finals he played in – becoming the first person to do so.
Vava scored nine goals in 10 World Cup matches over the 1958 and ’62 tournaments, lifting the trophy in Sweden and Chile, he was also the joint top-scorer in Chile.
Forgotten by some, but rightfully remembered here as one of the World Cup greats.
El Diego is often credited for winning the 1986 World Cup for Argentina on his own, and whilst that is clearly not true, few in his home country would disagree. He certainly beat England on his own in that tournament as he scored two memorable goals for very different reasons.
The controversial figure played 21 times at World Cups across four tournaments, only three men have made more appearances. Maradona netted eight times in those games, including five in ’86. Argentina scored four goals across the quarter and semi-finals that year and Maradona got all of them en route to being named Player of the Tournament.
He may not have scored in 1990, but he still made the Team of the Tournament as his team made the final. His achievements were incredible, but his cheating will forever be a stain on his character.
No other player has appeared in three World Cup finals (Pele won three tournaments but missed the 1962 final), making Cafu the outright leader in that respect.
The right-back was a model of consistency for Brazil as they reached the 1994, 1998 and 2002 finals, winning the former and the latter, he also went to the 2006 World Cup, taking his total to four.
He made 20 World Cup appearances and also holds the record for most yellow cards in the tournament (6) although that doesn’t really warrant his position here. However, lifting the trophy as Brazil’s captain in ’02 certainly does.
For many years, Gerd Muller set the standard in terms of World Cup goal-scoring. By the end of the 1974 tournament he had netted 14 times in 13 matches and this was not bettered until Ronaldo surpassed him in 2006.
He was top scorer in 1970 with 10 goals, although Germany were beaten in the semi-finals. He managed just four in 1974, but one of those was the winning strike in the final as Germany beat Netherlands, so I’m sure he wasn’t disappointed with his return.
Just two World Cups for ‘Der Bomber’ but he made a serious impact at both of them.
The original Ronaldo went to four World Cups and won two of them, holding the record for the most goals in the competition from 2006 until 2014. He also shares the record for most matches with at least one goal (11) and most matches with at least two goals (4).
Whilst he didn’t play in 1994, he was the main man for Brazil en route to the 1998 final and as he led them to victory in the 2002 tournament. It was, arguably, his lack of full fitness in the ’98 final that gave France the opportunity to beat the men in gold.
Ronaldo was the best striker on the planet in the late ‘90s and early noughties and he showed it at World Cups, scoring 16 times in his 19 appearances.
The German stalwart went to five World Cups and no one has played more games at the premier tournament than him (25).
Matthaus went to every World Cup with Germany from 1982-1998 and won the event in 1990, being selected in the Team of the Tournament for his performances and captained his side to lifting the trophy.
He scored six goals across his World Cup career, four of those coming in the Italia ’90 win, including the winning goal in the quarter-finals. He also scored in the shootout against England in the semis.
An inspirational leader and model professional who was a lynchpin for the best team in the world.
A man who made the very best of his abilities and holds the record for most goals scored at World Cups. Rarely considered one of the best players on the planet, Miroslav Klose shone on the greatest stage of them all with incredible consistency.
The striker scored 16 times in 24 World Cup matches from 2002-2014 and was still so important to his side at the latest event that he started the final against Argentina. He scored twice in that tournament which saw him equal and then overtake Ronaldo’s record.
Klose also holds the record for appearing in the most World Cup semi-finals (4), most knockout games played (14), most matches won (17) and most tournaments with at least four goals (3). He was top scorer in 2006 with 5, although he only lifted the trophy once, in 2014.
A great underdog, but a greater performer.
The only man to win three World Cups, and arguably the greatest player of all time, it is only fitting that Pele tops the list of greatest footballer to ever grace the World Cup.
The Brazilian legend lifted the trophy in 1958, 1962 and 1970, being the one man who made it into all three of those squads for his country – he also came to England for the unsuccessful 1966 campaign.
The diminutive striker netter 14 times in 17 World Cup games, putting him fifth on the all-time scorers list, but with a better goal ratio than both Klose and Ronaldo. Pele proved at the World Cup just what a great player he was, scoring in two winning finals – something only he and Vava have managed.