Of all the sports in the world, soccer may be the most difficult when compiling a list of the most legendary players to ever take the pitch. The origins of the game go back several centuries, and the simplicity of soccer and its lack of socio-economic and cultural barriers means that it has truly been enjoyed by millions of players across the world.
However, the mass of talent that has participated in soccer over the years isn’t enough to deter us from “tackling” the task of compiling the greatest legends to play the sport. In this article, we’ve identified 20 players who have had the most profound impact on the game in its contemporary history.
The first thing to note about any list of legendary athletes is that it is completely subjective. After all, we all have varying criteria and opinions about what makes an athlete a true legend of their sport, so we’re bound to have varying opinions about which players should have made a particular list and which players shouldn’t have.
With that in mind, let us explain what we looked at when coming up with this list of soccer legends.
Regardless of the sport, it isn’t fair to judge players purely based on their statistics.
Advancements over the years in technology, nutrition, training, and even transportation (traveling long distances is a heck of a lot more comfortable now than it used to be) have given modern-day athletes advantages that their predecessors never had. Also, the way a sport is played goes through various changes and evolutions over the years, and soccer is no exception. Today’s game is played more fluidly and with less rigidity than it was 100 years ago, making it easier for midfielders to contribute offensively.
Rather than compare players from across different eras, we prefer to identify players who were the best of their peers for a sustained period. That is much more of an apples-to-apples comparison.
Soccer isn’t just about scoring goals. Don’t get us wrong, the ability to put the ball in the opposition’s net is very important since the only way to win a game is by scoring more goals than the other team. But there’s a lot more that goes into the beautiful game, such as moving the ball up the field to generate scoring opportunities for teammates or defending your own net.
Instead of just looking at the top goal scorers from each generation, we’ve tried to highlight players who excelled in other areas as well, such as midfielders, defenders, and keepers. Otherwise, this list of soccer legends would simply be comprised of strikers and forwards.
Ultimately, the goal of professional and international sports is to win championships. And though it’s not always fair to judge an athlete’s career by the number of trophies they lifted over their heads (even the greatest superstars need help from their teammates to win titles), championships are part of what separates legendary players from great ones.
Records are another way of identifying players who dominated in a way that had never been done before, especially if those records stand for a lengthy period of time. Awards and honors are also important, whether they be season-long accolades (such as the Ballon d’Or) or tournament-specific awards (like the World Cup’s Golden Ball).
Being a legend isn’t always about winning tons of championships, earning numerous awards, or scoring a pile of goals. Legends can leave their mark on the game in other ways, especially if they were pioneers of a style that changed the way the sport is played forever.
Several players on our list of soccer legends earned their spot predominantly because of this.
This final criterion is admittedly the most subjective of them all, but it’s also an important one. After all, the definition of a legend is “an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field.”
While most players on our list earned their fame and notoriety for their tremendous accomplishments on the field, there are also several players who are remembered for less-than-ideal circumstances that impacted their careers and kept them from reaching their true potential. Whether for good reasons or bad, they’re memorable in their own way, and we felt they were also worthy of inclusion in this list of soccer legends.
All right, enough explaining of what we took into account when making this list of soccer legends. Grab a drink, pull up a chair, and enjoy this opportunity to learn more about 20 of the greatest ever to play the beautiful game (listed in no particular order).
No player in the history of international soccer may ever match the success enjoyed by the great Edson Arantes do Nascimento, who was nicknamed Pelé as a youngster because of the way he mispronounced the name of his favorite player (Bile, a Brazilian keeper in the 1940s and ‘50s). Coincidentally, Pelé happened to be a perfect nickname for the Brazilian sensation, since it is Hebrew for “Miracle.”
Pelé is the only player to ever win three World Cup titles, and his 0.85 goals-per-game average in international competition is nearly double the average of modern-day greats Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. His 757 career markers in international play don’t even include the tallies he posted in friendlies or now-defunct tournaments, and his all-time total of 1,281 goals is the second-most in world soccer history.
Pelé might have accomplished even more internationally had he not been hampered by injuries, some of them due to the attention he drew from opposing defenders. A groin injury two games into the 1962 World Cup sidelined him for the rest of the tournament, and leg ailments kept him out of much of the 1966 World Cup as well. But when Pelé was healthy, he lit up the field, whether it was the five goals he scored over the final two games of the 1958 World Cup (as a 17-year-old) or the four goals he scored in the 1970 tournament.
His status as a soccer legend isn’t limited to his on-the-field exploits. Pelé was adored for his positive personality and sportsmanship, he’s been a worldwide ambassador for the game ever since his retirement more than 40 years ago, and he is a Brazilian icon for his strong support of policies to improve quality of life for the poor. Pelé’s greatness and impact on the sport were recognized in 1999 when he was named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee. He was also named Player of the Century by both the International Federation of Football History & Statistics and FIFA, though he shared the latter award with Maradona.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
Even though Maradona’s legacy was tarnished late in his career by multiple failed drug tests, many still consider the Argentinian midfielder to be the most skilled player to ever take the pitch. His 259 career goals in club play and 34 markers in 91 international caps belie the impact he had on a game since other statistics such as assists weren’t tracked as closely in his playing days as they are today.
Maradona’s international career is defined by his brilliant performance in the 1986 World Cup when he captained Argentina to the championship and won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s top player. He scored both goals in Argentina’s 2-1 win over England in the quarter-final, the first marker coming illegally on an undetected hand ball (famously known as the Hand of God) and the second following an incredible dribbling display when he weaved through five defenders before scoring what was later voted the Goal of the Century by FIFA.com voters.
In club competition, Maradona led Barcelona to the Copa del Rey and Copa de la Liga titles in 1983, then helped Napoli win two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup championship in a three-year span from 1987-90. Failed drug tests in 1991 (cocaine) and at the 1994 World Cup (ephedrine) made for a disgraceful end to Maradona’s career, but his accomplishments before then warrant inclusion on any short list of soccer’s all-time greats.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
Whether it was as a player or as a manager, Cruyff impacted the game of soccer in many ways that are still felt today. He led the Netherlands from irrelevance to powerhouse status during the 1970s, helping the Dutch reach the 1974 World Cup final, and his advocacy of the “Total Soccer” philosophy resulted in the more free-flowing style that we see in the modern game.
On the pitch, Cruyff was an elite goal scorer, but he was also a tremendous playmaker who seemed aware of where his teammates were at all times. He embraced the notion that players shouldn’t be limited by their position, arguing that finding the most space and time on the field was more important than staying in a certain area typically reserved for their role.
Cruyff finished his international career with 33 goals in 48 appearances, eight of those goals coming in the 1974 World Cup when he was named the top player in the tournament. He also shone in club action, helping Ajax win three consecutive European Cup (now UEFA Champions League) crowns in the early 1970s, then winning a La Liga championship and Copa del Rey title with Barcelona. In 1999, the International Federation of Football History & Statistics voted him the European Player of the Century.
After retiring in 1984, Cruyff also enjoyed plenty of success as a coach, winning various league championships with alma mater Ajax and then guiding Barcelona to four European finals in a five-year span from 1989-94. Many point back to Cruyff’s time at Barcelona as a turning point for the franchise, which has gone on to become one of the greatest dynasties in soccer.
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Where Ronaldo actually ranks among the all-time greats is a matter of great debate, with many believing that Pelé or Messi have the edge on the Portuguese superstar when it comes to career accomplishments. What can’t be debated, however, is that Ronaldo is the greatest iconic figure the sport has ever seen.
ESPN has declared Ronaldo to be the world’s most famous athlete in each of the past three years, and he topped the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes in 2016 and 2017. Some of Ronaldo’s marketability has to do with his appearance (he headlined People.com’s sexiest athletes list in 2012 and once complained that “people are jealous of me as I am young, handsome, and rich,” but his dominance of the sport and the flair with which he plays the game are also undeniable.
Ronaldo is best known for being a powerful finisher, a skill that made him the only player in La Liga history to post six consecutive 30-goal seasons. But while much of the success in his career has been achieved while playing off the ball, he has gradually improved his playmaking skills to the point that he is now a terrific facilitator for teammates as well.
Ronaldo is also legendary for his off-the-field philanthropy and charity work. Global movement activist website DoSomething.org named Ronaldo the world’s most charitable sports person in 2015 after he donated 5 million pounds to assist people in Nepal following an earthquake. He also once covered the entire $83,000 cost of a 10-month-old child’s brain surgery, flew to Indonesia to aid victims of a devastating tsunami, and donated his entire 2016 Champions League bonus to charity.
Whether it’s for his incredible accomplishments on the field or his marketing and charitable work off of it, Ronaldo’s legacy in soccer will never be paralleled.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
Though he was born in Argentina, Di Stefano is legendary for the impact he made on Spanish soccer, particularly with La Liga powerhouse Real Madrid. He anchored one of the greatest soccer dynasties of all time, scoring 216 goals in 282 career appearances and helping Real win five straight European Cups from 1956-60.
Nicknamed “saeta rubia” (blond arrow) because of his blond hair, quickness, and power, Di Stefano was also renowned for the versatility that made him dangerous anywhere on the pitch. Pelé called him the greatest Argentinian player ever (perhaps a dig at Maradona, whom Pelé had a poor relationship with), and France Football magazine ranked Di Stefano the fourth-best player of the 20th century. When he retired from Real Madrid in 1964, he was the top goal scorer in the club’s history, and he remains third on the franchise’s all-time list behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Raul.
Unfortunately, Di Stefano never played in a World Cup with either his native Argentina or with Spain, where he acquired citizenship in 1956. He helped both countries qualify for the World Cup, but Argentina boycotted the 1950 tournament, and an injury prevented him from suiting up for Spain in 1962 at the age of 37.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
Nicknamed “Garrincha” (small bird) as a youngster because of his small stature, Manuel Francisco dos Santos overcame numerous other physical and mental hurdles to become one of the greatest dribblers and players the game has ever seen.
Despite being born with a deformed spine and a right leg that was nearly 2.5 inches longer than his left (leading to another nickname, the “Bent-Legged Angel”), Garrincha dominated the pitch from the time he first set foot on it as a professional. He scored a hat trick in his first-team debut for Botafogo in 1953, going on to score 232 goals in 581 career matches with the prestigious club before concluding his pro career with Corinthians, Atletico Junior, and Flamengo.
Garrincha’s greatest achievements, however, came in international play with the Brazilian soccer dynasty of the 1950s and early ‘60s. With Garrincha on the field, Brazil did not taste defeat in 49 consecutive matches, including back-to-back championships at the 1958 and 1962 World Cup. Though Garrincha was surrounded by plenty of talent on the Brazilian team, he played a leading role in the latter World Cup title after Pelé was hurt in the opening round, scoring two goals in both the quarter-finals and semifinals en route to being named the tournament’s top player.
All of Garrincha’s success came in spite of various off-the-field issues, including excessive partying, alcoholism, multiple failed marriages (he is believed to have fathered 14 children over the years), and a car crash in 1969 that killed his mother-in-law, and he died in 1969 at the age of 49 due to alcohol-related health problems. Still, Garrincha is revered in Brazil for his brilliant international career, and one of the stadiums that hosted games in the 2014 World Cup is named Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha in his honor.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
Some people already consider Messi to be the greatest soccer player ever, and the skilled Argentinian forward still has time left in his career to convince others of the same. By the time he was 30 years old, Messi had already tied the record for the most Ballon d’Or awards, led Barcelona to nine La Liga titles and four UEFA Champions League crowns, and was La Liga’s all-time leading scorer.
Nicknamed The Flea because of his small stature (he needed treatment for growth hormone deficiency as a youngster) and pesty presence to opponents, Messi has scored more than 600 goals in club and international play combined. His goal in the 2007 Copa del Rey, when he ran half the field and dribbled around multiple Getafe defenders before beating the keeper, evoked memories of Maradona. And his 91 markers in 2013 set a new record for the most goals in a calendar year, surpassing the previous standard by six.
What makes Messi magical, however, is that he’s much more than simply a goal scorer. There have been better pure finishers in the game over the years, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi’s legendary contemporary. However, Messi is also a phenomenal playmaker, whether he is setting up his own opportunities with incredible dribbling skills (his former coach Pep Guardiola once suggested Messi actually runs faster with the ball than without it) or finding open teammates after drawing the attention of defenders. At the time of writing, Messi and Ronaldo had comparable point totals, but 29% of Messi’s points had come on assists, compared to 24% of Ronaldo’s.
The closest thing to criticism that anyone can launch at Messi’s career is a lack of international championships. Though he won gold at the 2008 Olympics with Argentina’s Under-23 team, he hasn’t been able to lead his country to similar success in World Cup or Copa Americas tournaments. However, that may be a case of Messi not having enough support around him. He received the Golden Ball at the 2014 World Cup after leading Argentina to the final (where they lost to Germany in extra time), and he’s the country’s all-time leading goal scorer. Another stellar performance at the 2018 World Cup might be enough to finally convince his detractors that he is the greatest to ever play the sport.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
Friedenreich’s name doesn’t come up often in discussions about the greatest soccer players ever, whether it’s because of the era in which he played or because he never suited up in the World Cup. But based on the numbers he put up throughout his 26-year playing career in Brazil, the striker is the most lethal scorer the game has ever seen.
Credited with 1,329 goals in 1,239 games, Freidenreich tallied 48 goals more than Pelé and 524 more than third-place Josef Bican on the all-time scoring list. He was declared the “King of Football” when Brazil toured England for a series of games in 1925, and he was the top scorer and top player in the 1919 Copa America South American championships.
If a dispute between the leagues of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo hadn’t prevented Freidenreich from representing Brazil in the 1930 World Cup (only players from Rio were selected to the national team that year), we’d know a lot more about this legendary sniper.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
Puskas sits second in soccer history when it comes to most goals scored in international competition, and he’d probably have been the all-time leader if he’d simply played in more games.
The Hungary native’s 80 goals ranks behind only Iran’s Ali Daei, and Puskas accomplished that total in just 89 games, compared to Daei’s 109 goals in 149 contests. That 0.89 goal-per-game average is the second-highest of any of the top 10 scorers in international history, trailing only Japan’s Kunishige Kamamoto (80 goals in 84 games). One of Puskas’ goals came in the final of the 1954 World Cup, despite being hampered by an injury that had kept him out of two games earlier in the tournament.
Puskas was even more lethal in club play, striking for 514 goals in 529 career matches in Hungarian and Spanish leagues. Much of his damage was done with Real Madrid, with whom he won four La Liga scoring titles and scored seven goals in two European Champions Cup finals appearances. That prolific scoring pace led the International Federation of Football History & Statistics to declare Puskas the top scorer of the 20th century. Puskas’ former greatness as a goal scorer is also reflected by the fact that FIFA has an award named after him (the FIFA Puskas Award) which goes to the player who scored the “most beautiful goal” each season.
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Say what you want about the caliber of competition Kamamoto faced in Japanese leagues, but his performance in international play proved what an elite scoring talent he was. Kamamoto averaged nearly a goal per game wearing Japan’s national colors (80 goals in 84 games), tying him with Ferenc Puskas of Hungary for the second-most goals ever scored in international competition.
Amazingly, Kamamoto posted these numbers despite never turning pro. In his rare opportunities going up against professional competition, he scored goals in friendlies against Brazil’s Palmeiras, England’s Arsenal, West Germany’s Borussia Monchengladbach, and Portugal’s Benfica. International superstars like Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, and Wolfgang Overath raved about Kamamoto’s abilities after facing him on the pitch, but Japan’s inability to qualify for the World Cup until 21 years after Kamamoto’s 1977 retirement always made him one of the game’s best-kept secrets.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
As a midfielder and central defender, Beckenbauer’s goal-scoring totals don’t rival those of many of the other all-time greats of the game. Instead, his status as a soccer legend is due to his incredible leadership, a trait that earned him the nickname “Der Kaiser” (The Emperor) early in his playing days.
Although he captained Bayern Munich to numerous championships throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the greatest example of Beckenbauer’s leadership came in the 1970 World Cup semifinal. After dislocating his shoulder when he was fouled by an Italian opponent, Beckenbauer played the rest of the game with his arm in a sling, refusing to come out of the contest because West Germany had already made its maximum number of substitutions. He wasn’t rewarded with a World Cup championship that year (West Germany lost the semifinal in penalty kicks), but four years later, he lifted the FIFA World Cup Trophy as West Germany beat the Netherlands 2-1 in the final.
Beckenbauer also revolutionized the sport through the way he redefined the role of libero, organizing the team from the back but also joining the attack when opportunities presented themselves. His intelligence on the pitch and those leadership skills also proved valuable later in his career, when he became West Germany’s national team coach and led the country to the 1990 World Cup title – making him the first man to win a World Cup as both a player and a manager.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
What Moore lacked in size and speed, he more than made up for with anticipation. Moore’s ability to read the play before it happened led such legendary players as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer to refer to him as the greatest defender they ever faced. Former Celtic manager Jock Stein once famously joked that “There should be a law against him. He knows what’s happening 20 minutes before everybody else.”
Moore remains an icon in British soccer lore as the captain of the only English side to ever win the World Cup, leading the Brits to international supremacy in 1966. Moore helped put that victory on ice when, after England took a 3-2 lead over Germany in extra time of the final, he calmly found teammate Geoff Hurst with a long pass down the field that led to an insurance marker.
Moore is also remembered for his textbook tackle of Brazilian star Jairzinho in the 1970 World Cup, a play that is still described as the “perfect tackle” nearly 50 years later.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
Even though he is currently serving an eight-year ban from soccer due to ethics violations committed while he was the president of UEFA, Platini will always be a legend of the game for what he accomplished during his playing career. Not many players had a knack around the net that the Frenchman displayed during his time on the pitch, which was highlighted by a historic performance in the 1984 UEFA European Championships.
Platini scored nine goals in five games during that tournament, including “perfect” hat tricks (when a player scores a goal with both feet and one with his head) against both Belgium and Yugoslavia. Not only did that performance lead France to its first major international title, but it also came despite the pressures of competing on home soil.
In addition to winning that Euro title and scoring a record 41 goals in 72 career games for the France national team, Platini also made his mark in club play with Saint-Etienne and Juventus. He led Serie A in scoring in three straight years from 1983-85 (also earning European Footballer of the Year honors in those seasons), and won the French championship, European Super Cup, Intercontinental Cup, UEFA Champions League, and a pair of Italian championships.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
Before Cristiano Ronaldo, Eusebio was indisputably the greatest player in Portugal soccer history. He averaged nearly a goal per game throughout his 745-match career, including 41 goals in 64 games for the Portuguese national team.
Known as the Black Panther because of his African-born heritage and tremendous speed, Eusebio nearly single-handedly carried Portugal to the final of the 1966 World Cup. He finished the tournament with nine goals (four of them coming in one game against North Korea), and his two-goal effort against Brazil knocked the South American powerhouse out of the competition. Portugal fell 2-1 to eventual champion England in the semifinals, with Eusebio providing his team’s only goal in the loss.
Eusebio spent 15 of his 22 club seasons with Benfica, where he scored a club-record 638 goals in 614 games and led the squad to 11 Primeira Liga championships and four European Cup finals. He holds the record for Primeira Liga scoring titles (seven) and was also the top scorer in the European Cup on three occasions.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
The ending to Zidane’s international career (getting ejected from the 2006 World Cup final after headbutting Italy’s Marco Materazzi) couldn’t have been more different from the rest of it. The French midfielder was renowned for coming up big for his country when things mattered the most, whether it was scoring twice in France’s 3-0 win over Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final or scoring a golden goal in the Euro semifinals two years later.
Those moments were just the tip of the iceberg for Zidane, who went down in history as one of the winningest players the game has ever seen. He was a three-time FIFA player of the year, earned the Golden Ball at the 2006 World Cup despite his ejection from the final, won a La Liga championship and UEFA Champions League title with Real Madrid, and claimed a pair of Serie A championships with Juventus. His success has even continued off the field, where he’s managed Real Madrid to three straight Champions League titles from 2016-18 (becoming the first coach to accomplish that feat).[ Back to Top ↑ ]
If it weren’t for injuries, the Brazilian striker may have been the greatest Ronaldo to play the game. That may sound crazy, given how amazing Cristiano Ronaldo is, but Ronaldo Nazario was that gifted of a talent as well.
Before Ronaldo was 21 years old, both Barcelona and Inter Milan had paid world transfer record prices to land his talents. By age 23, he’d already scored more than 200 goals in club and international play combined, and he’d won back-to-back FIFA World Player of the Year awards. And even after missing three seasons due to knee injuries and rehabilitation, he returned in 2002 to win another World Player of the Year trophy, claim his second Ballon d’Or award, and lead Brazil to a World Cup title (scoring the most goals in the tournament in the process).
Unfortunately, injuries struck again, forcing Ronaldo to retire from soccer in 2011. Even though he technically played until he was 35, those various ailments limited him to just 98 games in international play, and he wasn’t the same explosive talent in the twilight of his career. But for the few years that he was young, healthy, and in his prime, the game of soccer may not have seen anyone greater.
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No player is more emblematic of the precision and skill of Spanish soccer than Xavi, the central midfielder who anchored Spain’s three consecutive European/World Cup championships from 2008-12.
Though the position he played prevented him from putting up gaudy goal totals, Xavi was the engine of the Spanish machine during their unprecedented four-year run. He passed the ball at a 91% success rate in the 2010 World Cup, and he assisted on three of Spain’s five goals in the 2008 and 2012 Euro championship games combined (becoming the first player in history to draw assists in consecutive Euro finals). At Euro 2008, his playmaking, tackling, and leadership was recognized with the Player of the Tournament award.
Xavi’s club teams were also tremendously successful with him at the helm. His Barcelona side won six titles in 2009 (Copa del Rey, La Liga, Champions League, Spanish Super Cup, European Super Cup, and Clubs World Cup), and he led La Liga in assists in both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 season. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Ballon d’Or, beat out Barcelona teammate to win Player of the Year, and collected his third of four straight World’s Best Playmaker Awards from the International Federation of Football History & Statistics. When Xavi retired from international play in 2014, he was the second-most decorated player in his country’s history, behind only long-time international and Barca teammate Andres Iniesta.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
Best’s legendary status in soccer is as much about what he could have been as what he actually did accomplish on the pitch.
A prodigious talent as a teenager, he made his debut with Manchester United at the age of 17 and went on to score 179 goals in his Man U career, leading the team in scoring in five different seasons. His 1968 season was particularly brilliant when he led United to the European Cup championship and was named both European Footballer of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year.
For all of his skill, however, Best’s lasting legacy is sadly of unfulfilled potential. He became known as the “Fifth Beatle” due to his celebrity lifestyle off the field, particularly his alcoholism that cut short his career and, ultimately, his life. One year before he retired from soccer, he was cut from Northern Ireland’s World Cup team because he was too out of shape, and he never appeared in the final of a European Championship or World Cup final.
Best famously summed up his approach to life when he said, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.” Liver complications and multiple organ failures led to his death in 2005 at the age of 59.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
Neymar is already one of the greatest players in modern soccer history, and the young striker is just getting started. Going into the 2018 World Cup, he’d already scored the fourth-most goals of any Brazilian in international play, and he’d accomplished that by the tender age of 26.
There isn’t much that Neymar can’t do on the pitch. In addition to being a tremendous left-sided finisher, he is also a creative playmaker who sees the field extremely well, is accurate with both feet, excels at set pieces such as free kicks, and is a phenomenal dribbler. His versatility and endurance allow him to be dangerous all over the field, opening up space for his teammates.
All that you need to know about Neymar’s potential is that he already owns the richest deal in professional soccer history, inking a 222-million-pound contract when he transferred from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. PSG obviously anticipates that Neymar’s best is yet to come, and we should as well.[ Back to Top ↑ ]
As important as strikers, forwards, midfielders and defenders are in soccer, no position in the game is as critical as the keeper. So no list of soccer legends would be complete without mention of the greatest to ever guard the goal, and Yashin is our choice for that (with an honorable mention to recently-retired Italian star Gianluigi Buffon).
Yashin’s greatness is reflected by the fact that he is the only keeper to ever receive the Ballon d’Or, and it was validated in 1999 when the International Federation of Football History & Statistics named the Russian as the best keeper of the 20th century. But Yashin doesn’t simply make our list of soccer legends because of his accolades and statistics, which include 270 shutouts and 151 saves of penalty kicks. He was also a pioneer of the position.
Prior to Yashin, keepers were typically conservative and didn’t stray far from their goal line. But the man they called “the Black Spider” didn’t hesitate to jump into the play, whether it be charging out at attacking forwards, aggressively intercepting crosses, or even acting as an extra fullback. He also kept play moving by punching the ball out to teammates instead of catching the ball, often leading to counterattack opportunities for his squad.
Since 1994, the top keeper in the World Cup has received the Lev Yashin Award in memory of the legendary netminder.
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