Best Male Soccer Players Of All-Time: Top 5 Iconic Athletes, According To Experts

Soccer is the most popular game in the world, and it takes discipline, sacrifice, and talent to make it to the top. The game’s history goes back more than 150 years, and since then there have been plenty of great players to draw the attention and adulation of fans. So, whether you’re a lifelong fan or you’re new to “the beautiful game,” you may be wondering which athletes are the best male soccer players of all time.

The sport is wildly popular in Europe and South America, and it’s becoming more so in the United States, Asia and Africa. There are several leagues around the world, including several legendary rivalries that make for great games. As The Sporting News reported, millions of people around the world tuned into the 2022 World Cup final, which showcased some of the best players of the modern era.

Even if you’re not an avid soccer fan, it’s likely you will recognize the name of this legend. Pelé, soccer’s first global superstar, died at the age of 82 in December 2022. His death was significant for many. He was the symbol of soccer played with passion, gusto and a smile. Indeed, he helped to forge an image of the game, which even today lots of people continue to crave.

With so much to consider when comparing top athletes, you may think that homing in on the greats will be a difficult task. StudyFinds turned to the experts to make this list of the best male soccer players of all time to ever roam the field. Let us know who your favorite players are, and whether they made our list, in the comments below. 

soccer players in white and orange dribbling a ball
(Photo by Jannik Skorna on Unsplash)

The List: Best Male Soccer Players of All Time, Per Sports Experts

1. Pelè

Perhaps the best male soccer player of all time, Pelé’s name is now synonymous with the game. Since he debuted at the age of 17, Brazil’s prodigy set nearly every record and raised the bar very, very high.  As Biography writes, “Any list of soccer’s all-time greats begins and ends with Pelé, whose supernatural gifts raised the bar for what was possible on the pitch. … He dazzled crowds at home and when his Santos club toured the world, earning the nickname ‘O Rei’ (The King) for his sublime efforts.”

Bleacher Report states, “King of kings…the name synonymous with the joga bonita, with dauntless ability, with ingenious sleights of foot and with the greatest goal-scoring record in history: 1,281 goals in 1,363 games. … He was, and is, a remarkable athlete and ambassador of the game. … Pelè played with an adolescent’s infatuation his entire career—uncynical, inventive, incessantly accomplishing the impossible, the never-before-attempted.”

“The man born Edson Arantes de Nascimento became a name that rolled off everyone’s tongues when he lit up the 1958 World Cup at the tender age of 17,” writes Paste. “Pelé scored six goals at the tournament, including one of the all-time final greats, to help Brazil lift the coveted Jules Rimet for the first time in their history. Of course, it wouldn’t be theirs, or their star No.10’s last.”

2. Maradona

A joint winner of FIFA’s Player of the Century Award (with Pele), Diego Maradona is a legend. He could do it all, with bravado, skill, and a style all his own.

WorldSoccerShop calls Argentinian midfielder Diego Maradona “the most iconic midfield maestro of all time…On the pitch he had the propensity to pick out the punishing pass, the skill to swivel the hips and dip beyond defenders. He wasn’t afraid to take entire teams on – seen in his iconic goal of the century against England – but he also wasn’t afraid to set up teammates, or to shoot from distance. He was a star on the field and off of it.”

“The legend of Diego Maradona casts a wider shadow than nearly any player in soccer history,” notes The Delite. “The Argentine icon played in four World Cups, carrying his native country to the title in 1986.”

“Maradona has great passing ability, ball control, and dribbling skills. He is the best dribbler of all time,” writes Sportshubnet. “He is also a great leader who always led from the front. His presence on the field has a great effect on team performance. Maradona is granted the nickname ‘El Pibe de Oro’ (The Golden Boy), a name that totally justifies his talent on the field.”

3. Johan Cruyff

Known as “Pythagoras in Boots,” Cruyff was a Dutch player known for his dribbling, speed, and unique technique. The player-turned-coach is also remembered for his ability to lift his teammates’ performances as well.

“A now mythical figure, Cruyff is arguably the most influential footballer of all time; and one of the most talented too,” states Sports Illustrated. “The centrepiece of the ‘Total Football’ era (shoutout to Parquet Courts), Cruyff made beautiful teams successful; a feat so incredible that we still see its effects to this day.”

LiveAbout notes, “The outspoken Dutchman excelled for Ajax and Barcelona in the 1960s and 1970s and is considered by many to be Europe’s best ever player…Cruyff was effective in both wide and central positions and was famous for his ability to turn players. Winner of three Ballon D’Ors (European Player of the Year awards), Cruyff won eight Dutch titles and three European Cups with Ajax and also made a controversial move to bitter rivals Feyenoord.”

“You can still safely say that both Pelè and Maradona were better (but just barely) individual players, but neither bequeathed anything as revolutionary or enduring as Cruyff’s vision of ‘Total Football’: a style of play characterized by ‘tiki-taka’ passing, commanding possession and the interchangeability of the outfield players now particularly in evidence at Barcelona,” writes Bleacher Report.

4. Lionel Messi

He’s been wowing fans since he was recruited as a teenager to become one of the best (if not the best) male soccer players of the modern era. The pride of Argentina, he’s the all-time leading goalscorer for his home country.

“Lionel Messi is a player with a touch, a dribble, a dance, a turn, a way of playing that is otherworldly – a player such that every time he receives the ball you hold your breath and wait for greatness,” writes WorldSoccerShop. “Not only has he replicated Maradona’s goal of the century and Hand of God, but he’s smashed records, set the game to new heights and mesmerized at every turn. This is a player who has done the unthinkable, the unbelievable, the magisterial. He’s won everything he’s had the opportunity to win and he’s not just done it, but he’s done it in style. With class, verve, skill, and preposterous audacity.”

Paste calls Messi “‘A miracle from God.’ ‘The Mozart of soccer.’…Lionel Messi may be somewhat vertically-challenged but he certainly isn’t short of total admiration from his peers. … The Argentinian forward has earned such respect thanks to a breathtaking technical ability and a record-breaking list of achievements unlikely to be surpassed by anyone in the near future. With Barcelona he’s lifted eight league titles, four Champions League trophies and five Ballon d’Or awards (four consecutive), and become the highest La Liga scorer of all time with an astonishing 337 goals.”

As LiveAbout mentions, “It is not an exaggeration to say that The Atomic Flea is now challenging Pele for the crown of greatest ever soccer player and will surely surpass the Brazilian if the remainder of his career is as fruitful as the opening years. Messi joined Barcelona when he was just 13, scored on his debut at 17 and now wows the Camp Nou faithful on a regular basis with his dribbling, passing and goalscoring exploits. He broke Gerd Muller’s record for most goals in a calendar year when he scored an incredible 91 in 2012.”

5. Michel Platini

France’s legendary midfielder is considered a master of passing and free kicks. While his reputation has been tarnished by his actions as UEFA president, there’s no denying that as a soccer player, he was one of the greats.

“His time on the pitch was nothing short of glorious,” states The Delite. “The French icon is tied as the top goalscorer in UEFA Euro tournament history and led his home country to the 1984 title after having the best single tournament of any player ever at the event. One of the most dominant offensive players of the 1980s, despite playing midfield, Platini won the Ballon d’Or three consecutive times from 1983-85.”

“Nicknamed ‘Le Roi’ (The King), Michel Platini was famous for his technical ability, leadership, and prolific goalscoring,” writes Top Soccer Blog. “He is one of the best passers and free-kick specialists ever seen.”

As Biography notes of “Platoche,” the Platini “Possessed exquisite touch and a scorer’s mentality, winning three consecutive Ballon d’Ors while leading Saint-Etienne and Juventus to league titles and a host of other trophies. While he never tasted the thrill of a World Cup title, Platini’s performance for France in Euro 1984, in which he delivered nine goals in five matches, marked arguably the greatest individual run for a player in an international tournament.”

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