So, how to rate footballers? Many people go by numbers of titles; numbers of Ballon d’Ors; numbers of goals. My criteria for deciding the best ten footballers ever discards all of these stats. It’s about the player themselves, not the team they played for, and not what pundits said about them or which writers praised them. I’m rating them purely on their abilities as footballers, what they could do, and for the most part I have had to rely on video footage and highlight reels to measure their brilliance.
I had maybe 50 players in mind to begin with, and I looked at their best play and compared it with other benchmarks. Could Messi have scored that goal? Could Maradona have pulled off that trick? Looking at their playing style and abilities over and over, you get a sense for what is within their capabilities and what is not. It’s guesstimation for sure, but it’s guesstimation with a high sample size, and gradually a leaderboard emerges.
By judging a player simply on their skill and their capabilities, and leaving behind opinions and other influences, it makes for a pure rating based on their abilities as a footballer. I cast aside sentiment for players from bygone eras. As skilful as many of these players were, it is clear that skill levels in the game have risen decade-on-decade. Grainy footage in black-and-white of a blur moving past another blur is simply not enough evidence to acclaim a footballer as being among the greatest ever.
So this list of the top ten footballers ever may cause controversy. It will scandalise older fans, fans of defensive players, and fans of established greats. I apologise to all those whose opinions are based on the opinions of others: you will be upset by this list. I’m only basing this on what I can view with my own two eyes on the film that’s available to me. Just be prepared for some surprises...
10 – Ryan Giggs
People most often attribute Manchester United’s incredible run of Premiership success to Alex Ferguson, but there’s one player whose career coincides even more with that period of success, and with good reason: Ryan Giggs was an absolute born winner. More than this, his speed, control, shooting, and ability to take on defenders, made him almost impossible to play against for nearly 25 years. In his early years especially, his agility, and his knack for making mazy runs from midfield to score unbelievable goals make him one of the top ten footballers ever.
9 – John Barnes
It is unfortunate, and somewhat criminal, that Barnes is perhaps most remembered for his inconsistency for England in the mid 90s, and being injury-prone after losing most of his achilles tendon in a shocking tackle in 1992. Before that time though, Barnes’ play was absolutely mesmerising. He could dance past defences, and score from almost anywhere. He took a dominant Liverpool side in the mid 1980s to another level, and his goal for England against Brazil wasn’t too bad either. And he did all this in the face of absolutely appalling racism. Amazing.
8 – Alessandro Del Piero
During Del Piero’s epic Juventus career it always seemed as though he could score from anywhere. His first touch especially was other-worldly, and he scored a number of goals from volleys. His nimbleness, and ability to beat other players one-on-one, coupled with a deadly accurate shot made him one of the most dangerous players of his generation. Like the next player on this list, he loved finding the top corner – it’s incredible to think they both played for Juventus at the same time...
7 – Thierry Henry
Every team has that one legendary player, who once scored an unreal goal by running from within their own half and scoring with a thunderbolt of a finish. This guy seemed to do this almost every weekend. Brought to Arsenal as a winger, the legend has it that Wenger moulded him into a striker, but his play shows he was effectively both at the same time. What makes him so highly rated for me is his ridiculous speed, with and without the ball, and that unerring ability to find the top corner, every – single – time.
6 – Lionel Messi
Messi’s incredible career with Barcelona, including a beautiful collection of amazing individual goals makes him one of the defining players of his generation. But… despite being in an incredible Barcelona team, and a very talented Argentina team, he very rarely produced a performance when it really mattered on the big stage. He is great at dribbling along the ground, and has an amazing repertoire of skills and tricks, but for me, seven Ballon d’Ors is absolutely laughable.
5 – Christiano Ronaldo
Again, many people’s number one, but there’s more to this list than the number of Ballon d’Ors they’ve won (it’s an irrelevant award anyway). Ronaldo’s speed, audacity, and heading ability make him still an absolute nightmare to play against for any team, and he’s 36 now. In his peak form, towards the end of his first stint at Man United, and for much of his Real Madrid days, he was completely dominant as a player, scoring goals for fun and making world class defences look amateur. However, his individual brilliance is slightly dimmed by his selfishness as a player.
4 – Ronaldo
The original Ronaldo, and still marginally, the best. His control of the ball under pressure, strength and pace made his the most feared striker of his generation. Some of his goals for Barcelona looked like something out of a kung fu B-movie, ending with all his adversaries on the floor, and the ball nestling in the back of the net, with everyone wondering how the hell it got there. He also scored some unreal goals for Brazil, in particular in the 1996 Olympic Games, where he was at the absolute peak of his powers. A strange seizure in the build up to the 1998 World Cup Final, and two debilitating knee injuries robbed the world of his talents for three years, but he came back to score freely for Brazil again in the early 2000s, netting another World Cup in 2002.
3 – Mo Salah
Probably the best active football player in the world right now, he’s head-and-shoulders above any other player on a Liverpool team that is probably the best in Europe. Whenever he gets the ball you know something special is going to happen. The fact that he’s yet to be awarded a Ballon d’Or devalues the award yet further, and shows how out of touch and meaningless that title has always been. His left-footed poise, uncanny balance, killer instinct, and knack for running past entire defences and scoring (or laying a killer pass) reminds me of Maradona – speaking of whom...
2 – Diego Maradona
Sadly no longer with us, and will forever be hated among English fans for his ‘Hand of God’ goal, but this guy really could play. We’ve all seen his amazing other goal against England. His perfect ball control, especially in close quarters, and his genius for running with the ball and seeing the right pass, and the right opportunity every time, justifies his position as the best footballer of his generation. His control of the ball was so precise, so perfect with every touch, that he could have taken on Michael Jordan at basketball without using his hands. Look up his play on YouTube, and see him do things for Napoli, Barcelona, and Boca Juniors that defy physical sense.
1 – Ronaldinho
Anyone who saw this guy in full flow will know why he’s number one. Some of his performances for Barcelona were simply unstoppable. In 2005 against Real Madrid, his poise and speed tore apart one of the hardest defences in the world to score two beautiful solo goals. His play for Paris St Germain, Juventus, and of course, the Brazil national team, with whom he won a World Cup, two Copa Americas, and an Olympic gold medal, was utterly unmatched. Watching Ronaldinho play was like watching a dancer; his effortless and perfect ball control came second to his athleticism and balance. Sorry Messi fans.
So, no Pelé? I’ve watched hours of highlights and footage of Pelé down the ages, and there is no doubt he was both talented and consistent. But, while he was far ahead of his time, other players have since done what he did to a greater level, scoring from the half way line where he couldn’t, and finishing with a goal after incredible moments of brilliance, where Pelé did not.
George Best too, while skilful and talented, just would not have had the ability to do what Ronaldo could do, or Maradona. Indeed, in his own team, in the footage I watched of him, he was consistently overshadowed by Brian Kidd, whose talents more often seemed to bring about an end product.
While we’re on the subject of United greats, Eric Cantona should not avoid a mention, for his deft control, creativity and sheer flair. But again, when I watch his best moments, I can see every one of the top ten players imitating that without much trouble. Could Cantona have scored Maradona’s goal against England? Or even Giggs’ goal against Arsenal? No; sorry.
I would have loved to include Duncan Edwards among the top ten here. The limited film there is of him shows an absolute giant of a man repeatedly picking his way past defenders with the agility of a panther, before slamming the ball home from 20 yards. There’s just too little material of him to make a case though. It is the same with other mid 20th century stars, like Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews.
Johann Cryuff, so many times listed as second or third to Pelé, for me, just doesn’t have the array of ability of the more modern greats. That the Cryuff turn is imitated by so many players is testimony to his greatness, but also to the fact he has been surpassed. How many could imitate Ronaldo’s Elastico?
I’d also really like to include Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in this list, but I’ve yet to see consistent individual brilliance at Manchester City, whose style has been more about the whole than one or two players. Other great players who could have made it were Dennis Bergkamp, Abedi Pele, Augustine Okocha, Michael Laudrup, and Zinedine Zidane. But they didn’t, so there.
So there you have it – the best football player who ever played is Ronaldinho.