The world’s best players do not always perform at their peak on the grandest stage of all. However, others appear to be energized by the international spotlight, playing in ways they could never do for their club. Here are 30 world cup players of all time, so read on and let us know if you agree in the comments.
What is the World Cup, exactly?
But first, let us refresh our memories on some World Cup facts.
The FIFA World Cup is a football tournament in which senior national teams from around the world compete. It began in 1930 and is held every four years.
Teams affiliated with FIFA are eligible to compete, but they must qualify for the tournament’s final stage, which is divided into qualification rounds based on confederation affiliation.
The World Cup has been held continuously since its inception, except for 1942 and 1946, when it was interrupted by World War II.
How Many Countries Will Attend the World Cup?
The current World Cup format features 32 finalists, but this has not always been the case and will not always be the case.
The first World Cup featured only 13 teams, which increased to 16 from 1934 to 1978. (With a few exceptions)
In 1982, the World Cup was expanded to include eight more teams, bringing the total number of participants to 24.
The current format of 32 teams was first used in the 1998 World Cup in France.
However, FIFA has confirmed that the 2026 World Cup will have 48 finalists, a 16-team increase.
Who Was the First World Cup Champion?
In 1930, Uruguay hosted and won the first World Cup.
It was an invitational tournament with only 13 teams, seven of which were from South America, a far cry from the tournament we know today.
The competition featured four European teams, with Mexico and the United States rounding out the field.
The final, held at Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario, featured an all-South American clash between Uruguay and Argentina.
Uruguay won the inaugural World Cup 4-2 in front of a crowd of over 68,000 people.
Who Has Won the Most World Cups?
Since its inception in 1930, only eight countries have won the World Cup, with Brazil being the most successful, having won it five times.
The country that produced Pele, Ronaldo, and Romario first won the World Cup in 1958, then again in 1962, 1970, 1994, and 2002.
Italy and Germany have each won the World Cup four times (though Germany won it three times as West Germany), while Argentina, Uruguay, and the current champions, France, have all won it twice.
England and Spain each have one World Cup victory.
The tournament has been held 21 times since 1930, and the complete list of winners can be found below.
The World Cup Trophy
The World Cup winners receive the unmistakable gold FIFA World Cup trophy. Silvio Gazzaniga, an Italian artist, designed it, debuting at the 1974 World Cup. It is crafted from 18-karat gold and has a malachite base.
“The lines rise in spirals from the base, stretching out to receive the world,” Gazzaniga said of his creation. The figures of two athletes at the emotional moment of victory emerge from the sculpture’s remarkable dynamic tensions.”
The trophy is 36.8 centimeters (14.5 inches) tall and 6.175 kilograms in weight (13.61 pounds). Ok, so now when we briefly reminded ourselves about the World Cup facts, let’s start with our legendary list!
This week, the football world suffered another major loss while still mourning the loss of Wales coach Gary Speed. Sócrates, a Brazilian midfielder legend known as “The Doctor” due to his medical license and on-field precision and intelligence, died over the weekend from septic shock caused by food poisoning.
The Doctor’s Seleco never won a World Cup, but he was a wise and capable captain during the 1982 tournament. Brazil was eliminated in the second round, but not without some spectacular play, including this magnificent goal.
He earned 60 caps and 22 goals for the Brazilian national team during his career.
Lineker, Gary (29th)
The England striker was not as technically gifted as many of the other players on this list, but composure is everything in the World Cup. Lineker always managed to finish, no doubt helped by the blinding effect of that ridiculous Day-Glo tan (making the most of his time at Barcelona).
He won the Golden Boot in Mexico in 1986 and provided some of the most memorable moments in Italy in 1990, including an equalizer against West Germany in the semi-final… and now he’s on the bench following Paul Gascoigne’s booking.
Hristo Stoichkov (28th)
Former Bulgarian international soccer player Hristo Stoichkov is widely regarded as the greatest Bulgarian footballer of all time and one of the most gifted players of his generation. He has represented both his club and his country as a forward. He has twice been named a FIFA World Player of the Year runner-up. Aside from that, he received the prestigious Ballon d’Or. In addition, the legendary Pele inducted him into the FIFA 100 list, which includes the world’s greatest living players, in 2004.
He was not only a talented but also a contentious player. He was notorious for his bad temper, which harmed his relationships with teammates and even referees. His behavior issues also hampered his subsequent managerial career, as players found him difficult to work with. He currently works as a football analyst for Univision Deportes, a Spanish-language broadcast television network.
The choice between Romario, Ronaldinho, and Rivaldo was difficult. We chose the latter because he excelled in multiple tournaments. Romario was a star for the US in 1994, but he had been hampered by injury four years before. According to David Seaman, Ronaldinho was brilliant in 2002 but fell flat four years later.
Rivaldo helped Brazil reach the World Cup final in 1998 and then stole the show in 2002, scoring five goals, including a memorable strike against Belgium, to help Brazil win their fifth World Cup. Given his near-death experience in the first game against Turkey, his performance was all the more impressive. You are so brave.
Maldini, Paolo (26th)
When it comes to the old Jules Rimet trophy, the Maldini family has a lot of defensive skill but not a lot of luck. Cesare Maldini played in the 1962 World Cup for Italy and was named to the tournament team, but his team was eliminated in the first round.
His son, Paolo, fared a little better. Despite being one of his generation’s most elegant and composed defenders and winning five European Cups, he never won the World Cup; penalty shootouts decided his first three tournaments, and his fourth was by a golden goal. Perhaps one of his sons will be luckier.
After retiring from football after the 1966 World Cup to focus on fathering illegitimate children, Jairzinho stepped into Garrincha’s right-wing berth for the 1970 World Cup. On that free-flowing side, positions didn’t mean much. Nonetheless, as a member of one of the greatest World Cup teams in history, he was a terrifying combination of speed, strength, and skill.
Jairzinho scored in every game of the tournament as Brazil easily won.
Mozambique’s striker only played in one World Cup, but it was memorable. He scored nine goals in 1966, including four against North Korea, as Portugal famously came back from a 3-0 deficit to win. This was in addition to the striker’s two goals in his first three games, and his acceleration and powerful strike made him difficult to defend.
He scored once more in Portugal’s 2-1 semi-final defeat to England. Nine goals earned him the Golden Boot and the adoration of English fans, prompting Madame Tussauds to create a waxwork likeness of him.
Buffon, Gianluigi (23rd)
Gianluigi Buffon is an Italian professional goalkeeper who captains both Juventus of Serie A and the Italian National Team. He is the most capped player in the history of the Italian National Team, with 167 appearances.
Gianluigi Buffon is regarded as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time by players, pundits, and managers. Buffon also became the most expensive goalkeeper in history after joining Juventus in 2001. In the locker room, he is well-known for his exceptional shot-stopping abilities.
He is currently the most expensive goalkeeper in history, having moved from Parma to Juventus for €53 million in 2001. Buffon has the cleanest sheets in Serie A and for the Italian national team. He also holds the record for the longest goalless streak in Serie A history, going unbeaten for 974 minutes over twelve league matches during the 2015-16 season, as well as the most consecutive clean sheets (ten) in Serie A that same season.
Kempes, Mario (22nd)
If Diego Armando Maradona is the undisputed icon of Mexico’s 1986 World Cup, Mario Alberto Kempes is the undisputed icon of Brazil’s 1978 World Cup.
His exceptional goal-scoring ability earned him the nickname “El Matador” for both his clubs and his country. He won the Copa del Rey, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, and the European Supercup during his eight seasons with Valencia, becoming one of the best players in Ché history. He helped Argentina win the FIFA World Cup in 1978, scoring six goals, two of which came in the final against Holland.
“Matador raised his arms, his long hair flapping in the breeze as he slipped past the three Dutch defenders.” His deft touch with the tip of his boot broke the draw, igniting an Argentine celebration. Thanks to his goal scorer stamp, he was in the right place at the right time.
Matthaus, Lothar (21st)
Maradona refers to Matthaus as his “best rival”; this is most likely due to their clash in the 1986 World Cup Final, in which Matthaus knocked the Argentine out – albeit not well enough to win the competition. The goal-scoring midfielder played in five World Cups, a World Cup record for an outfielder, and captained his team to victory in 1990 when he was the driving force with dynamic box-to-box runs.
Michel Platini (20th)
Platini joins the likes of Cruyff, Paolo Maldini, and Roberto Baggio in shining at World Cups but having nothing to show for it. In 1978, the future UEFA president made his World Cup debut but failed to make an impression against Italy in a crucial group game.
He was a member of France’s Magic Square in 1982, along with Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana, and Luis Fernandez, a quarter of talented midfielders who advanced to the World Cup knockout stages and won the European Championship.
Despite the fact that the international version of tiki-taka was a little less free-flowing than the Barcelona version, the pint-sized playmaker was the metronome to Spain’s unwavering tournament success. There were many 1-0 victories and extended periods of possession, but Xavi made it all possible. He excelled at creating space in a crowded midfield and launching attacks with short, sharp passes.
In 2010, his third World Cup in four years, Xavi completed more passes than any other player and set up the winning goals in both the quarter-final and semi-final.
Brazil faces its most difficult right-back dilemma since 1994, with Dani Alves out of the World Cup. Cafu, a relatively inexperienced right-back at the time, entered the World Cup final as a substitute for the injured Jorginho. He became his country’s most-capped player during a 16-year international career that saw many changes in Brazil’s playing style, guiding them to two more World Cup finals.
Cafu was a dynamic and energetic forward, regardless of what various managers asked of him, and he could actually defend a little, unlike the free-kick-smashing lunatic on the other wing.
Fabio Cannavaro (17th)
Paolo Maldini’s shoes are difficult to fill, but Fabio Cannavaro handled the role admirably after taking over as captain of Italy following the 2002 World Cup. He outperformed his former international teammate in terms of both caps and international honors.
During the 2006 World Cup, the center-back was at his most composed and committed. Along with Gianluigi Buffon, he was one of only two players to play every minute as Italy finished the tournament with only two goals conceded: one on his own goal and the other on a penalty. In our opinion, a perplexing stint as a BBC pundit only boosted his reputation.
Moore, Bobby (16th)
During his international career, he was awarded 108 caps for England, a record at the time for an outfield player. Although David Beckham later broke his record, Moore played the entire game in an era before substitution, unlike modern caps. He also spent over 15 years with West Ham before finishing his career in the second division with Fulham.
Bobby Moore was widely regarded as one of the world’s best defenders. He had a superb understanding and reading of the game, as well as a high level of fitness, discipline, and commitment. He wasn’t the fastest or most naturally gifted defender, but he had excellent timing and frequently demonstrated his ability to intercept and predict the movements of attacking players. “There should be a law against him,” Jock Stein said of Bobby Moore, who could read the game and predict what would happen. He is 20 minutes ahead of everyone else to understand what is happening.”
Alberto Carlos (15th)
Carlos Alberto captained Brazil’s 1970 team, widely regarded as the greatest team in history, but he is best remembered for one and only one thing. The purpose. There’s a tendency to romanticize footage from that era, and in a modern game, a wider camera angle would definitely lessen the impact of the Brazilian charging onto Pele’s languid lay-off to thunder the ball home.
Regardless, no matter how many modern screamers we see in glorious high-definition, Carlos Alberto will always be there, thundering down the right wing of our collective memories.
Rossi, Paolo (14th)
Going into the 1982 World Cup, Rossi carried a lot of weight. His three-year ban for match-fixing was reduced to two years, allowing him to rejoin the squad on time, but he appeared out of shape and slowed in the first group stage. Italy persisted, but everything changed when they faced Brazil in the second round of the World Cup. Rossi scored after only five minutes.
“I felt liberated, just like when one takes off soaking wet clothes,” he wrote in his autobiography “I Made Brazil Cry.” Rossi’s eventual hat-trick propelled Italy to the semi-finals, where he scored twice against Poland and once against West Germany. Despite being suspended at the start of the season, he won the Golden Ball, Golden Boot, and Ballon d’Or.
Yashin, Lev (13th)
The Russian goalkeeper was one of the stars of the 1958 World Cup, the first broadcast globally. Yashin earned the nickname “The Black Panther” due to his habit of dressing entirely in black, and he was certainly capable of making heroic saves. His performance in a 2-0 loss to eventual winners Brazil captivated the world, and he helped the Soviet Union finish fourth – their best ever result – in 1966.
He was ahead of his time when it came to defense, frequently barking orders and rushing off his line to close down attacks. He is the only goalkeeper to have received the Ballon d’Or (in 1963).
Charlton, Bobby (12th)
In a 2-0 victory over Mexico, Bobby Charlton scored the game’s first goal. This was followed by a scoreless draw with France, advancing England to the quarter-finals. England defeated Argentina 1-0. During his international career, Charlton was only cautioned once.
No one personifies Manchester United’s values better than Sir Bobby Charlton. He played every game as if it were for his fallen colleagues after surviving the trauma of the Munich Air Disaster when he was only 20 years old, recovering from his injuries to reach the pinnacle for both club and country. He played 758 games and scored 249 goals in a 17-year career with the Reds, both of which were long-standing records until Ryan Giggs surpassed them in 2008 and Wayne Rooney in 2017.
Muller, Gerd (11th)
Germany has a strong track record of producing goal-scoring forwards who come alive during tournaments. Gerd Muller, who came in third all-time behind Miroslav Klose and Cristiano Ronaldo, scored 14 goals in 13 World Cup games before Miroslav Klose. He was short and stocky but had a huge leap and instincts for close-range finishing.
In the 1970 World Cup, he won the Golden Boot with two hat-tricks and ten goals. In 1974, he scored the game-winning goal to help West Germany defeat Johan Cruyff’s Holland in a shock result.
Original Ronaldo could have won three World Cups if it hadn’t been for the strange events the night before the final in 1998 (opens in new tab). The striker attended the 1994 World Cup but did not play a single minute; his presence would have undoubtedly improved a goalless tournament. He was the best player in the world four years later, quick, powerful, and intimidating to oppose.
He was brilliant, scoring four goals and assisting three more as Brazil advanced to the final, but they were defeated 3-0 by hosts France, with the striker looking a shadow of his former self. Due to a serious cruciate injury, he missed Brazil’s entire 2002 qualification campaign, but he arrived in Asia with some wrongs to the right and a haircut you’d expect to wake up with after falling asleep drunk at a house party (earlier this year, he said the haircut was a deliberate ploy to distract people from his injury – it worked so well we wonder if other players have been doing this). Only England prevented Ronaldo from scoring, as he did in every other game, including two in the final against Germany.
Cruyff, Johan (9th)
Cruyff is one of only a few players on this list who has never won a World Cup, but that does not diminish his legacy. The Netherlands had a formidable squad during the Total Football era, but it all seemed to flow through Cruyff – the team’s beating heart. He was technically brilliant and imaginative; as evidenced by the eponymous turn, he performed to fool Swedish defender Jan Olsson in the group stage (a 0-0 draw in the end).
Holland breezed to the final, but after taking the lead in the second minute, they became overconfident. According to football writer Brian Glanville, they were content to “roll the ball around in pretty patterns.” Cruyff was there every step of the way. Unfortunately, despite capturing the imagination with his playing style and outspokenness, he was unable to validate his brilliance with a World Cup medal – he did not appear in another, missing out in 1978 due to a kidnapping attempt on his family.
Zidane Zinedine (8th)
An absolutely insane outing will balance out a promising performance in which they fulfill their promise, usually culminating in Patrice Evra being sent home for fighting. Zinedine Zidane exemplifies this rule, so they should name it after him.
Following some early controversy, including a red card against Saudi Arabia, he remained composed under pressure and scored twice to help Les Bleus defeat Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final. He appeared to be on track to repeat the feat in 2006 when he scored an ice-cold penalty to put France up 1-0 against Italy before unleashing one of the most dramatic sporting moments of all time: that textbook headbutt on Marco Materazzi. Zizou truly could do it all.
Fontaine, Fontaine (7th)
Fontaine’s record appears to be safe for the time being unless Mo Salah maintains his Liverpool form into the World Cup and the injury gods are kind to him. During the 1958 World Cup, the Moroccan-born French forward scored 13 goals in six games, including four against defending champion West Germany.
That one tournament, in which he formed an effective partnership with Polish-born Stade de Reims colleague Raymond Kopa, was enough to propel him to fourth place all-time in scoring. He scored in every game he played, but he could not make the tournament team due to an unusual voting system.
When Pele injured his leg early in the 1962 World Cup, Garrincha – the ‘Little Wren’ – stepped in to fill the void. They were polar opposites. While Pele was known as ‘The King,’ Garrincha was known as ‘The Joy of the People’ due to his free-spirited style of play, twisting and tormenting defenders with the help of a genetic trait left him with crooked legs.
He was at the pinnacle of his playing career when he was 25, scoring four goals to help Brazil win the World Cup, but he burned out quickly due to alcoholism and a life of excess.
Puskas, Ferenc (5th)
Ferenc Puskas’ ankle, which became a tabloid obsession in 1954 when an injury to the Galloping Major threatened Hungary’s Magical Magyars’ supremacy, came before Wayne Rooney and David Beckham’s metatarsals. Puskas had a ferocious shot and scored 84 goals in 85 games despite being short and slow.
Hungary only lost one game between 1950 and 1956: the World Cup final, in which Puskas played through pain in a 3-2 loss to Germany.
Miroslav Klose (4th)
Ronaldo may be referred to as O Fenomeno. Still, Klose is the true phenomenon: he has 16 World Cup goals (from a combined distance of about 12 yards) and is the only player in tournament history to appear in four consecutive semi-finals.
Franz Beckenbauer (3rd)
The performance of the former Lazio and Bayern Munich striker was unremarkable, but the tournament stage seemed to bring him to life.
Der Kaiser competed in three World Cups, finishing no lower than third in any of them. Beckenbauer rose to prominence in 1966, scoring five goals as West Germany reached the World Cup final in an era when pitchers and permissive refereeing made it that much more difficult.
He had a powerful long-range strike, which he demonstrated four years later when the Germans sent England home early with a suitcase full of stolen jewelry. By 1974, he had become captain and had finally won the trophy by defeating Johan Cruyff’s Dutch team in the final – it’s well deserved.
In 2000, FIFA held a public poll to determine the greatest player of the twentieth century. Diego Maradona received more than 60% of the vote, but someone in Geneva must have thought that crowning an overweight former cocaine addict with a penchant for deception was a little too FIFA-y. As a result, they devised a new award, this time decided by journalists, and divided the prize equally between Maradona and Pele.
They are difficult to distinguish, but most polls appear to arrive at the same conclusion. It’s an old debate, but it’s worth repeating: Pele may have won more World Cups than Maradona, but he never dragged, dribbled, or punched his way to victory in 1986 like the little Argentine did. Sure, the Brazilian was never deported for failing a drug test, but Wada considered adding Viagra to the list of prohibited substances in 2008, so maybe his timing was just better.
Who Will Be the World Cup’s Biggest Stars in 2022?
Previous World Cups have given established icons a chance to shine as well as emerging players a chance to make their mark on the global stage, and 2022 should be no different.
The Legend Number 1 – Pele
Pele scored eight million goals for Santos, but his international fame stems from his World Cup performances. His first was in 1958, at the age of 17, when he was the tournament’s youngest player. During that tournament, he scored a hat-trick in the semi-finals and two goals in the final against hosts Sweden. However, injuries prevented him from fully contributing to Brazil’s next two World Cup appearances, so 1970 – his fourth World Cup – cemented his status as one of the greatest players ever to grace football’s highest stage.
He was strong, clinical, and creative; during the 1970 World Cup, he almost scored from the halfway line, and against Uruguay, he produced a memorable moment of quick thinking, allowing a through-ball to run past the onrushing goalkeeper to the left while ambling around to the right.
He dragged that chance against Uruguay wide after rounding the goalkeeper without touching the ball, and Gordon Banks famously saved that header. It doesn’t seem all that remarkable now, but its enduring appeal demonstrates how good Pele was – it was as if Banks had performed a miracle by stopping him.
Mbappe, Kylian (France)
Mbappe was superb for Didier Deschamps’ France as they won the World Cup in 2018, but the PSG star has gone to another level in the last two seasons, with an incredible 68 club goals since the start of the 2020-21 season at the time of writing.
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Messi, Lionel (Argentina) Messi’s powers have been overstated this season, with the mercurial Argentine demonstrating his abilities in a deeper role at PSG. He currently leads Ligue 1 in assists with ten, and his tenacity will be crucial for Lionel Scaloni’s side once more.
Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne will be tasked with finally helping Belgium shed their ‘nearly men’ tag in Qatar, with a star-studded lineup that has consistently underperformed in previous tournaments. On the other hand, the Manchester City midfielder will be determined to establish himself as the best in the world.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Expectations were high for Ronaldo in Qatar, where he will compete in his fifth Finals, a record, but Portugal had to qualify through the playoffs. They eventually defeated North Macedonia to qualify for the tournament, and the 2016 European champions will rely heavily on Ronaldo’s ability to lead their attack once again.
Junior Vinicius (Brazil)
Vinicius Jr. has excelled despite the pressure of establishing himself as a key player for both Real Madrid and Brazil over the last 18 months. His Real Madrid partnership with Karim Benzema is the most lethal in Spanish football right now, and his world-class potential could propel him to one of Qatar 2022’s breakout stars.
Virgil van Dijk (Netherlands)
Van Dijk has never represented his country in a World Cup despite consistently playing the role of Liverpool’s defensive rock. The Dutch are much stronger at the back and in midfield than in recent years, and Van Dijk, like Premier League rival De Bruyne, will want to cement his reputation as one of the best players in the world in his position.
The mercurial Brazilian will once again carry his country’s hopes on the world stage, and Qatar 2022 will be no exception. A nation waits for Neymar to put on the shirt, and he will be desperate to lead Selecao to their first world title since 2002. Neymar has not performed to expectations this season with PSG, and injuries have not helped, but he remains the focal point of the attack for the 2021 Copa America beaten finalists.
Pedri is the most recent midfielder to come from Spain’s production line, which has also produced Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi. There are whispers around Camp Nou that Pedri will one day eclipse his Barcelona forefathers, and he will be looking to build on a fantastic breakthrough performance at Euro 2020.
Karim Benzema (France)
In France, where Les Bleus were eliminated in Round 16, Deschamps’ decision to recall Benzema for Euro 2020 elicited mixed reactions. However, in 2021-22, the veteran forward has reminded everyone of his big-game abilities, especially in the Champions League, and he remains one of the world’s deadliest finishers.
Luka Modric (Croatia)
Modric, like Ronaldo, Messi, and Benzema, is expected to retire from international football after the World Cup, but the 36-year-old midfielder will be determined to lead Croatia to victory in Qatar, and despite his advanced age, he remains a match for anyone in the world.
Alphonso Davies (Canada)
Despite the absence of their talisman for the final push, Canada qualified for the World Cup for the first time since Mexico in 1986. Davies was ruled out after contracting myocarditis (heart inflammation) due to a COVID-19 infection. However, the Bayern Munich star’s emotional reaction to Canada securing their place in Qatar on social media demonstrated how much it means to him, and he will be desperate to shine on the biggest stage once he is fully fit again.
Christian Pulisic (USA)
The USMNT will need their talisman Pulisic to lead them if they are to advance far in the tournament. The Chelsea playmaker was the standout of their qualifying campaign, and he will hope to carry his excellent Premier League form into the world stage as part of Gregg Berhalter’s talented squad in 2021-22.
Heung-min Son (South Korea)
Son has repeatedly demonstrated his individual brilliance in his Premier League career with Tottenham, scoring some of the league’s most spectacular goals. With over 30 international goals to his name, he is just as ruthless on the international stage, and he will be among the strikers expected to shine in the Middle East.
Harry Kane (England)
England captain Kane will be crucial for Gareth Southgate’s team as they look to build on their Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy. Kane has returned to form in the second half of the 2021-22 Premier League season, but his club future will once again dominate pre-season headlines.
Do you agree with our ranking of the top 25 World Cup players of all time? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and get ready for Qatar!