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Is Pele the best football player ever? Greatest soccer star debate versus Messi, Ronaldo, Maradona and others

It is the age-old debate familiar to fans of every single sport: Who is the greatest of all time? And picking a winner when it comes to football is as difficult as you’d imagine, given the rich history of the game.

However, there are some standout contenders who frequently come up in the discussion. One of them, Pele, has died at the age of 82. Here, we assess his place in the pantheon of GOATs

MORE: Pele 1940-2022 — The man who taught the world the beautiful game

Who is the best player in football history?

Here are the five outstanding candidates for the title of the game’s GOAT, but note that the official goal totals for each have often been hotly contested down the years. 


The only player ever to win three World Cups, a ludicrously prolific goalscorer, and a man who invented almost every trick in the football playbook.

And don’t let the lack of Ballon d’Or awards fool you: Pele was ineligible as a result of the fact he played the majority of his club football with Santos in his native Brazil. 

In 2016, a review by France Football magazine conceded that, had the criteria been changed, he would have won the award on seven different occasions.

  • World Cup titles: 3
  • Major club titles: 27
  • Goals: 762
  • Ballons d’Or: 0

MORE: Who did Pele play for? Brazil legend’s clubs and why he never played in Europe

Diego Maradona

He may not have won as many trophies as the other contenders on this list, but it is the fact that Maradona almost single-handedly dragged both Argentina and Napoli to World Cup and Serie A success that underlines his greatness.

An unstoppable dribbler, fine finisher, and all-round genius with the ball at his feet, he would also have won the Ballon d’Or in 1986 and 1990 had he been eligible.

  • World Cup titles: 1
  • Major club titles: 9
  • Goals: 344
  • Ballons d’Or: 0

Johan Cruyff

You know you’ve left a special mark on the game if you have a trick named after you, and the ‘Cruyff Turn’ is testament to both Johan’s impact and his creativity. 

The Dutch master captained the Netherlands to a World Cup final in 1974 but, despite never winning that medal in the end, he still managed to claim three European Cups and three Ballon d’Or awards.

Every Dutch team since — and those of Barcelona, of course — have aimed to stay true to his footballing principles and legacy.

  • World Cup titles: 0
  • Major club titles: 22
  • Goals: 433
  • Ballons d’Or: 3

MORE: Messi finally gets his World Cup, with a hand from his Argentina teammates

Lionel Messi

So often hailed as the true heir to Maradona, Messi has surpassed his idol — and arguably all others — in every measure, and now he has finally won the World Cup too after leading Argentina to glory at Qatar 2022.

His crowning achievement in the Middle East ended the debate in many people’s eyes, as to whether he held a genuine claim to being the greatest.

  • World Cup titles: 1
  • Major club titles: 37
  • Goals: 793 (as of Dec 29, 2022)
  • Ballons d’Or: 7

MORE: List of the top all time international goalscorers, with Ronaldo leading the way

Cristiano Ronaldo

The Portuguese is already the greatest goalscorer of all time, but, whether it is fair or not, his remarkable feats have been at times overshadowed as a result of playing in the same era as Messi.

Unlike Messi, he has ended his World Cup career without winning the biggest trophy of them all after Portugal were knocked out in the quarterfinals of Qatar 2022.

  • World Cup titles: 0
  • Major club titles: 30
  • Goals: 813 (as of Dec 29, 2022)
  • Ballons d’Or: 5

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