The World Cup is One of the Greatest Events in Global Sport… But Who Are the Players Who Have Made it so Special?
Since 1930 there have been 21 World Cups. The most prestigious competition in international football – or soccer – it’s produced so many glorious moments down through the years. Nothing galvanises a nation like your country’s team doing well and getting into the knockout stages of the tournament.
Only a few countries have won the World Cup, but realistically only a few countries are capable of winning it, unless there’s a major shock. Still, though, that doesn’t mean that individual players can’t be outstanding throughout the competition. So let’s take a look at the greatest World Cup players of all time.
We’re only talking about players who turned up and performed outstandingly during the World Cup. So the two greatest players of the modern era, Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, both miss out. Check out the list below! Enjoy
30. Javier Mascherano
When you think of Argentinian players, it’s the likes of Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi that come to mind. Javier Mascherano is definitely not as glamorous as those legends, but he’s arguably the nation’s most important player of the 21st century. There’s a reason he’s been to four World Cups and earned a national record of 147 caps.
Mascherano played at the highest level for all of his career, including lengthy spells at Liverpool and Barcelona. Like a terrier, he’d grab the game by the scruff of the neck. A tough holding midfielder, his most iconic moment was an outrageously brilliant last-ditch sliding tackle against Germany in the 2014 World Cup final.
Eden Hazard is one of the slickest operators in football today. A versatile forward who can play deeper between the lines, the Belgian is like a wizard with the ball at his feet and has sublime ball control. He’s the crown jewel in Belgium’s golden generation and played a massive part in them getting to the 2018 World Cup semifinal.
Hazard was sensational in Russia, especially against Brazil whose right-back Fagner was taken apart by the brilliant Belgian. With three goals and two assists throughout the tournament, he helped drag his nation to their highest ever finish on the biggest stage of international football. That helped him get his dream move to Spanish giants Real Madrid.
They might want to think about rebranding the Makelele role. Has any player had more influence for any team they’ve played for than the brilliant N’Golo Kante? A diminutive figure, the Frenchman doesn’t look like the tough-tackling midfielder that he is, but he was arguably the most important player in France’s 2018 World Cup-winning campaign in Russian.
Kante’s brilliance and efficiency allowed the likes of Paul Pogba more freedom to play their game. If you doubt his influence, just check out his club record. He famously helped Leicester to an outrageous Premier League win against all of the odds. The following season he moved to Chelsea and won it again. Kante is just a class act and a brilliant player.
The first player other than Christiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi to win the Ballon D’Or in over a decade, Luka Modric’s brilliance knows no bounds. Widely regarded as the greatest Croatian player of all time, Modric dragged his nation to the 2018 World Cup final, where they would eventually lose to France. There’s no shame in that though, as the small nation had overachieved by getting there.
Technically he’s one of the greatest players of the modern era. The 2018 World Cup Golden Ball winner possesses incredible vision and has an insane passing range. He’s been a guaranteed starter for Real Madrid over the last decade. Modric has played in three World Cups for his own country, captaining them to second place in Russia.
Thomas Muller is one of the most strange players in world football. Rangy and slightly inelegant, Muller doesn’t look like your typical footballer, but boy is he effective. The Bayern Munich forward has played in a number of different positions. He’s been an attacking midfielder, a forward, and an out-and-out striker. One thing he guarantees is consistency.
And at the international level, this has really shined through. Muller was superb at both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. He scored five goals in both tournaments, closing in on countryman Miroslav Klose’s record. He won the Golden Boot in the first tournament and the silver boot in the second. Extremely unorthodox, Muller is very difficult to play against.
A proper fox-in-the-box, Gary Lineker was a highly effective striker for England. Like Muller, he’s not the most traditionally technically gifted player on this list, but he had the composure and the mentality to prosper when it counted. He found space in the box like few other players could and made good use of it.
Lineker won the Golden Boot in Mexico 1986 and would go on to provide some brilliant moments at Italia 90. There was that equaliser against West Germany in the semi-Final. Who could forget that look at the bench when Paul Gascoigne got booked? He’s still England’s World Cup record goalscorer with a total of ten.
The greatest African footballer of his day, Roger Milla came from extremely humble beginnings. Born on the French territory of Reunion, a small Pacific island, he was called up by Cameroon for the 1990 World Cup. He then went on to bring them further than any African nation had previously achieved in the global event.
Milla also has the record for the oldest goalscorer in World Cup history. At the age of 42, he managed to get one in 1994. After retiring, Milla imprisoned a team of pygmies in Cameroon’s national stadium and forced them to play a novelty football tournament. Yep. We’re being totally serious. Why isn’t this guy in the top ten?
A player who needs no introduction, Rivaldo was part of Brazil’s devastating triple-axis alongside Ronaldo and Ronaldinho in the 2002 World Cup. But his legacy goes back even further than that special tournament in Japan and South Korea. He also starred in his country’s run to the 1998 World Cup Final in France.
A physically imposing presence, Rivaldo also has the samba skills you’d expect of a Brazilian forward. He scored five goals as Brazil won the World Cup in 2002, with a spectacular one against Belgium the pick of the bunch. Oh, and don’t forget that ridiculous dive against Turkey. Another iconic World Cup moment…
One of the greatest centre backs of his generation, Paolo Maldini is an AC Milan and Italy legend. The son of Cesare Maldini, who was named in the 1962 Team of the Tournament after starring for Italy, Paolo was one of the most refined and composed defenders to ever step onto a football field. Oh, and he had a gorgeous head of hair too.
A former Italy captain, he endured agony more than once in the World Cup. Maldini played in four World Cups but was unable to add another star to his country’s badge. They suffered three penalty shootout defeats as well as a golden goal loss. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s one of Italy’s greatest ever players and a star of the World Cup.
Brazil has been blessed with generations of playmakers who’ve each stepped up to the plate one after another. Garrincha is one of the greatest footballers to play the game – some say the greatest – so you’d have to feel for the man next in line after he retired. But Jairzinho didn’t let the pressure upon him show and put on one of the most amazing World Cup displays ever in 1970.
As part of one of the best teams in the tournament’s history, he helped Brazil win the tournament outright, after the disappointment of 1966. Jairzinho more than played his part as he scored in every single game he played in. It was the perfect combination of speed, flair and strength. What a performance from the man and he’s well-deserving of a place on this list.
Born in Mozambique, Eusebio is a legend of the game. He only played in a single World Cup but he made sure that it was a good one. The Portugal international scored 9 goals in 1966 before getting knocked out in the semi-final by England. That’s a crazy record. He got four of those goals against the North Koreans, as Portugal came back from 3-0 down to win in a famous comeback.
He also scored in that defeat to England. While Portugal didn’t win the World Cup, he got his hands on the Golden Boot and won the adoration of the English fans. You’d wonder if they would have loved him so much if he had of been responsible for their side getting knocked out of the country. Eusebio scored 735 goals in 745 matches. Insane.
The first-ever FIFA World Player of the Year, Lothar Matthaus was a proper powerhouse of a midfielder. He’s got the record for the most World Cup games played by a single player (25) and astoundingly featured at five instalments of the tournament – 1982, 1986, 1990 1994 and 1998. The Panzer captained West Germany to glory in 1990 and then captained the unified state in US ’94.
When Diego Maradona calls you his greatest ever opponent, then you know you’re doing something right. That’s what the Argentine maestro said about Matthaus. The German shut down Maradona in the World Cup final, but unfortunately for him, his side wasn’t able to win the actual trophy. A dynamic box-to-box midfielder, Matthaus truly was something special.
He might have disgraced himself as a football politician, but there’s no doubt that Michel Platini was a stellar footballer. Like fellow superstars Maldini and Johann Cruyff, he never actually won the World Cup, but that doesn’t affect his own individual brilliance at the tournament. You’d expect no less from a three-time Ballon d’Or winner of course.
In Spain ’82, Platini played in the greatest match of his career. He scored in a 3-3 draw with West Germany that would end with France going out after a penalty shootout. He also helped his nation to third place in Mexico ’86. While his performances at the European Championships were definitely more spectacular, his role in France’s ‘magic square’ cannot be questioned. Just a pity about the corruption isn’t it?
A true modern great, Xavi’s name is synonymous with the idea of total football. The former Barcelona and Spain midfielder is one of the best passers of a ball that the game has ever seen. He’d dictate the game from the base of midfield despite his slight size and frame. Blessed with outstanding vision, movement and pinpoint accuracy, he more than made up for his physical deficiencies.
The 2010 World Cup was his greatest moment on the international stage as he captained his country to win the trophy for the very first time in their history. Throughout the tournament, he played more successful passes than any other player and covered an incredible 15km in the final. The man was everywhere and deserved to be the one to lift the trophy in South Africa.
Yes, there was actually a time when Hungary was good at football. Sure it might sound shocking, but the Mighty Magyars were one of football’s greatest ever sides. Now, we are going back to 1954, when Ferenc Puskas was at his peak. Somehow, despite being slow and short, he was also very prolific in front of goal, scoring a ludicrous 84 goals in 85 games.
Puskas was obviously Hungary’s main man – and probably would be now too if they dug him up and stuck him in their frontline again. Between 1950 and 1956, Hungary only lost a single game: the World Cup Final against West Germany. It was a shock defeat that came about after Puskas played through an ankle injury. Hungary World Cup Champions just sounds weird now, but what could have been…
AC Milan fans might not like Cannavaro being ahead of Maldini on this list, but there’s a good reason why. He outshone his counterpart after taking the captaincy. ‘The Little General’ actually won the World Cup and put on the performances of his career to do it. He’s the last defender to win the Ballon d’Or, back in 2006, after captaining his side to their fourth ever tournament win in Germany.
Cannavaro was quite simply at his best throughout the 2006 World Cup and alongside goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, he was one of only two players to complete every minute of the campaign. Italy went through the tournament only conceding two goals. One was an own goal and the second was a penalty. Quite simply he was imperious through a legacy-defining campaign.
That goal. That beautiful, glorious, wonderful goal. We could talk forever about one of the greatest team goals of all time. Carlos Alberto was the man at the end of it. He captained his nation at the 1970 World Cup, leading a team widely regarded as the best Brazilian side ever. The right-back was renowned for bombing up and down the wing, like a precursor to Cafu. His leadership as captain of Santos led to him getting the armband for Brazil.
1970 was the only World Cup that Carlos Alberto played in because he was injured for West Germany in 1974. But he made his name in Mexico, leading his country to the final instalment of the Jules Rimet Trophy before the modern edition was introduced. That trophy was eventually stolen and melted down by thieves, who were after the 18-carat gold.
Paolo Rossi probably shouldn’t even have been at the 1982 World Cup. He was suspended for three years for match-fixing but had it reduced to two, conveniently letting him return in time to make the squad for Spain. Rossi looked off the pace in the group stage, sluggish and not match-fit, nobody could have predicted the impact he’d make in the knockout stage.
After scoring against Brazil after five minutes in the second group stage, Rossi suddenly turned a corner. He’d score a hattrick to help Italy to the semi-finals. Then he got a brace against Poland and a goal in the final to help Italy win the tournament. Rossi won the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball and the Ballon d’Or. What a crazy year he had.
Nicknamed ‘The Black Panther’ for obvious reasons, Lev Yashin is the only goalkeeper in history to win the Ballon d’Or. That alone should be a testament to how good he was. 1958 exposed him to the world’s attention because that was the first year that the World Cup was televised to a global audience.
Yashin became a firm favourite of football fans all over the world after a series of phenomenal saves, including a remarkable performance in a 2-0 defeat against Brazil. It should have been a lot more. In 1966, he helped the Soviet Union to fourth place, their highest ever finish. Yashin was excellent at managing his defence. Definitely ahead of his time.
Before Thomas Muller, there was Miroslav Klose. And before Klose, there was Gerd Muller. If you want to talk about goal-poaching forwards, Gerd Muller is the man. Number three in the all-time rankings, his record at the top-level is extraordinary, with 14 goals scored across two World Cups.
A bit like Gary Lineker, Muller had great instincts. Der Bomber banged out ten goals, including two hattricks, in 1970 to win the Golden Boot. He only scored four in 1974, but the team did better because they went all the way to the final and beat a strongly favoured Netherlands side, in a shock result.
He never won the World Cup but Johann Cruyff was fluidity personified. He was the beating heart of the Total Football era of Netherlands’ football. Blessed with great technical skills and dynamism, just check out the iconic turn that he used famously against Sweden’s Jan Olsson, inspiring millions around the world. The imagination that took was something else.
The Netherlands got all the way to the final in 1974, but they failed to capitalise on having the best team in their history. They passed the ball around, without a cutting edge and would lose to West Germany in a shock result. Sadly, Cruyff never got to play at another World Cup after a kidnapping attempt in 1978 preventing him from travelling.
He was the most expensive player in the world when he moved from Juventus to Real Madrid. Now he’s in his second spell as manager of the Spanish giants, after previously winning three Champion’s Leagues in a row. When time passes by it’s easy to forget how good somebody was. Zinedine Zidane is up there with the best ever to lace up a pair of boots.
While his international career is definitely remembered for that extraordinary headbutt against Marco Materazzi – he’d scored an ice-cold penalty earlier in the game – it’s not the full story. No, go back to 1988 when he scored twice to help France get past tournament favourites Brazil in the final. A volatile brilliant genius.
The fourth-highest goalscorer in World Cup history, Just Fontaine has the record for most goals scored in a single tournament with a wild 13. The Moroccan-born French international only played in one tournament, back in 1958, but that was enough to make an impact on the biggest stage in football. Striking up a partnership with Raymond Kopa, he was devastating.
Bizarrely, he still didn’t make it into the team of the tournament because of a weird voting system. It’s going to take something special to break that outrageous scoring record though.
Many believe that Garrincha is the greatest player of all time. Whereas Pele was a marketing dream, Garrincha was a volatile genius. Before he eventually retired to look after his army of illegitimate children, Garrincha was phenomenal. He actually had a genetic trait that left him with crooked legs. This only helped him twist and turn his opponents.
While he played a big part in his country’s 1952 win, it was 1962 where he had his greatest moment. Garrincha stepped up to score four as Brazil went and won the tournament. He became the first player to win the World Cup, Golden Boot and Golden Ball all in one go.
Cafu changed how people think about fullbacks. More of a wingback than an out-and-out defender, he marauded up and down the wing for Brazil and Roma. The most capped Brazilian footballer of all time (142), he won the World Cup in 1994 and 2002, captaining his side in the second tournament.
The Brazilian’s career lasted for 16 years. Unlike Roberto Carlos, he could actually defend well too. Cafu was reliable and consistent, perfectly balancing a blend of attack and defence. It’s crazy to think of now, but he only played in 1994 because Jorginho got injured in the World Cup final.
A massive reason why West Germany won the World Cup in 1974, Beckenbauer captained his side to the Jules Rimet Trophy, beating Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands side in the final. He was a classy, tidy sweeper during an era of rough pitches and crunching tackles that would have caused half of today’s primadonnas to go join ballet classes instead of football.
Beckenbauer scored five times in 1966 as West Germany reached the final against England. He finished third with his nation in 1970. Then in ’74 he finally got his hands on the trophy with a magnificent display of defending in the final. A top player and a legend of the game.
Possessing one of the worst haircuts in World Cup history, Ronaldo was a force of nature in his prime. The tragedy of the Brazilian is that injuries decimated his career, or else he’d be higher up this list. We all know about 1998 when he was brilliant in the tournament but the night before the final fell ill. Brazil lost 3-0 to France as Ronaldo was a ghost of himself.
In 2002 he made up for it. After missing the entire qualification campaign with a cruciate injury he stepped up to the plate, leading to that haircut to take eyes off his injury record. The only team to keep him out was England and Ronaldo would score the winner in the World Cup final against Germany, despite a valiant performance from Oliver Kahn. The second-highest goalscorer in World Cup history also won a winner’s medal in 1994, without playing.
Germany never lost a game where Miroslav Klose scored. And he scored a lot of goals. At club level he was reliable, but in the international game, he was absolutely lethal. Polish-born Klose is the top-scorer in men’s World Cup history with an astounding sixteen goals across four World Cups. Oh, and he’s also Germany’s top-scorer. They still haven’t replaced him.
Klose scored five goals in 2002, blasting Germany to the World Cup final, which they would lose to Brazil. He’d win the Golden Boot in 2006, popping in another five. In 2010 he scored four, and then finally in South Africa, 2014, scored two, to overtake Ronaldo as the top scorer in World Cup history. Oh and more importantly for him, he also got his hands on the actual trophy.
Yeah, you know who this guy is. Pele is one of the greatest players ever – and definitely the first to build a big brand around his name. Pele made his first appearance at a World Cup in 1957, as a 17-year-old. He played a big part in winning that World Cup, including two goals in the final against Sweden. Injuries prevented him from playing a full part in the next two campaigns.
So it was in 1970 that he cemented his status as one of the greatest World Cup players ever. This was Pele in his prime; powerful, clinical, dynamic and imaginative. The audacity of some of the tricks he tried like that shot from the halfway line and allowing to the ball to run left past the Uruguay goalkeeper as he ran right. Spectacular.
And now we’re finally at number one. Diego Maradona is the greatest player in World Cup history. Pele might have won more than the little Argentinian, but he never dragged his side to the final in swashbuckling style as Maradona did. In 1986, Maradona was the talk of the world for the way he helped guide Argentina to World Cup glory.
There are just so many iconic moments. The Hand-of-God which England still haven’t got over, that gorgeous mazy finish that left half the England team on their backsides, he was just outstanding. After playing in four World Cups, Maradona sealed his status as the greatest player in World Cup history by being off his face and going crazy in the stands while Argentina played Nigeria. A true legend.