Who is the greatest soccer player of all time? A question as difficult to answer as who is the greatest president, scientist, inventor, composer, actor, writer, poet, painter, musician or comedian, a near impossibility to narrow it down to just one human being amongst that elite few that we recognize as not just “great,” but “the greatest.”
The list of soccer greats that we have celebrated for decades while they play and beyond their time on the field is endless. A small number of these elite of the elite footballers have both led their illustrious teams to major victories while standing out as those extra-special players of the world, which separates the greats from the greatest.
The 18 famous World Cup footballers below are the ultimate stars of the game who have brought attention to themselves and, more importantly, to their teams and to the game itself with their unique styles and awe-inspiring skills. Here is a look at their jaw-dropping accomplishments during their time playing, as well as a look at where they are now.
Famous World Cup Footballers Then And Now
Paolo Maldini played as a left back and central defender for the Italy national team from 1988 until 2002 and AC Milan from 1985 until 2009. Maldini is recognized as one of the greatest defenders of all time and participated in four World Cups. He reached the semifinals of the 1990 World Cup and the final of the 1994 World Cup and was chosen to be on the all-star teams for these tournaments.
After his retirement in 2009, Maldini was offered a coaching position with Chelsea but turned it down. The defender still wanted to be involved in the world of soccer but was not interested in coaching any team. Instead, in 2015 he became the co-owner of NASL club Miami FC. He was entered into the hall of fame only a few years prior to this and in 2017 attempted to enter a different sport, tennis. He qualified for the Aspria Tennis Cup in Milan and was beaten by a landslide with a score of 6-1, 6-1. After the loss, Maldini decided to abandon the sport and stick with soccer.
George Weah was a striker for Liberia for two decades (1987-2007) and played for 11 club teams in Italy, France, and England. He never qualified to play in a World Cup but he was still regarded as one of the greatest African players of all time and is the only African player to have ever won FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon d'Or. He was also named African Footballer of the Year in 1989, 1994 and 1995, and in 1996 he was named African Player of the Century.
Weah retired from soccer in 2003 and became involved in politics in Liberia. He formed the Congress for Democratic Change and ran for president in the 2005 election, which he lost. He was elected to the Liberian senate for Monserrado County in 2014 and ran for president again in 2017 and won the election. Weah is currently the president of Liberia.
Attacking midfielder and second striker Diego Maradona is one of the most well-known footballers in the world. He played for club teams Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla, Newell's Old Boys and Boca Juniors and the Argentina national team. He played in four World Cups and in 1986 he captained the team and led them to a victory against West Germany in the final. In 1997, Maradona retired and in 2000 was awarded FIFA Player Of The Century alongside Pele.
In 2008 he began coaching Argentina's national team until the end of the 2010 World Cup. From 2011-2012 he coached Dubai-based club Al Wasl and in 2017 he became the coach of Fujairah until the end of the season.
Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better known as Zico, was an attacking midfielder for club teams Flamengo, Udinese and Kashima Antlers along with Brazil's national team. He represented Brazil in the 1978, 1982 and 1986 World Cups and although Brazil did not win these tournaments, the 1982 team was considered to be one of the best squads in World Cup history. In 1981 and 1983 Zico won player of the year.
After his retirement in 1994, he was in no rush to leave the soccer world and when he was invited to play beach soccer he eagerly accepted. In 1995 he won the Beach Soccer World Cup and was the top scorer in the game scoring 12 goals. He was named the best player in the tournament. After his days of playing ended, he became Japan's national team coach. He has also coached Iraq's national team and managed club teams such as Fenerbahce, CSKA Moscow and FC Goa.
Nicknamed "Bomber der Nation" ("the nation's bomber"), Gerd Muller is known for his inventive goal scoring that led him to become one of the top scorers in the world, with the third-highest goal-to-game ratio. Muller was a striker for Germany's national team from 1966 until 1974 and was on club teams 1861 Nordlingen from 1963 until 1964, Bayern Munich from 1964 until 1979 and Fort Lauderdale Strikers from 1979 until 1981. He played in two World Cups in 1970 and 1974, where he stole the show. In 1970 he scored 10 goals and was awarded the Golden Boot as the top goal scorer and was named European Footballer of the Year preceding the World Cup. He scored four goals in the 1974 World Cup giving him the all-time goal-scoring record in the World Cup with 14 goals, which stood for 32 years.
After Muller's career ended in 1982 he fell into a depression and began suffering from alcoholism. He went through rehabilitation and after finishing he was given a position as a coach at Bayern Munich II. He also began releasing apparel lines for Adidas. Now 72, Muller unfortunately has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and is unable to engage in the world of professional soccer any longer.
Roberto Rivellino was a Brazilian soccer player popular for his large mustache, bending free kicks, long-range shooting, accurate long passing, close ball control and dribbling skills. He was an attacking midfielder for club teams Barcelona in 1962, Corinthians from 1963 until 1974, Fluminense from 1975 until 1978 and Al-Hilal from 19778 until 1981, and Brazil's national team from 1965 until 1978. Rivellini played in three World Cups in 1970, 1974 and 1978 and was one of the key players in Brazil's win in 1970.
Currently, he works as a host and pundit on Brazilian TV Cultura where he reports on soccer.
Otherwise known as "Le Roi" ("The King"), Michel Platini played as an advanced midfield playmaker for the French national team from 1975 until 1987. He played for club teams Nancy from 1972 until 1979, Saint-Étienne from 1979 until 1982 and Juventus from 1982 until 1987. Platini participated in three World Cups in 1978, 1982 and 1986 and led the French team to the semifinals in 1982 and 1986. He held France's record for the most goals-per-game until 2017 and still holds the record for the most goals scored in the European Championship.
The incredible midfielder retired in 1987 and became the coach for France's national team in 1988 until 1992. In 1998 he was the co-organizer of the World Cup in France and in 2007 he was elected as the president of UEFA. He was also the chairman of FIFA's Technical and Development Committee and vice-president of the French Football Federation. In 2015, FIFA's Ethics Committee banned him from football administration for four years and he can no longer hold any position related to soccer management.
Marcos Evangelista de Morals, known as Cafu, was a defender on Brazil's national team from 1990 until 2006 and club teams São Paulo in 1995, Junteude in 1995, Pemerias from 1995 until 1997, Roma from 1997 until 2003 and Milan from 2003 until 2008. Cafu is known for having the most appearances for the Brazil national team and played a significant role in Brazil's World Cup wins in 1994 and 2002. He also played in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups and is the only player to appear in three consecutive World Cup finals in 1994, 1998, and 2002.
Cafu completely retired in 2008 and in 2012 he was inducted into the AS Roma Hall of Fame. Beyond receiving awards, Cafu has maintained a private life and it is unclear what he is doing at age 47 now.
Franz Beckenbauer, nicknamed Der Kaiser ("The Emperor") due to his graceful style and leadership on the field, played for the West Germany national team from 1964 until 1977 and club teams Bayern Munich, New York Cosmos and Hamburger SV. Beckenbauer was versatile in his ability to switch positions and played as a midfielder and central defender. Playing central defender was his strong suit, but starting out his soccer career as a midfielder gave him an impressive advantage when on the field. He appeared 103 times for West Germany and helped bring them to a victory at the World Cup in 1974 as captain. He played in two other World Cups and was twice named European Footballer of the Year.
Beckenbauer retired in 1983 and began managing teams. From 1984 until 1990 he managed West Germany, Marseille from 1990 until 1991, Bayern Munich from 1993 until 1996. In 1996 he was also inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame for his time playing with the New York Cosmos.
Today Beckenbauer is a huge influence in soccer and he currently works as a columnist for the newspaper Blid and as a pundit for Sky Germany. In 2016 an investigation began after Beckenbauer was accused of fraud and money laundering.
Thierry Henry was a forward and striker for the France national team and club teams Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona and New York Red Bulls. He is Arsenal's all-time leading scorer and had a total of 228 goals and in 2003 and 2004 he was the runner-up for FIFA World Player of the Year. During his last two seasons with Arsenal, he was named club captain, where he led them to the 2006 UEFA Champions League Final. Thierry played in four World Cups in 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2010 and helped bring the team to a victory in 1998.
After the 2010 World Cup, Thierry announced his retirement and in 2016 he was appointed as the second assistant manager of Belgium's national team, which is his current position.
Eduardo Gonçalves de Andrade, more frequently referred to as Tostão, was a forward and attacking midfielder for Brazil's national team and club teams America, Cruzeiro and Vasco da Gama. The left-footed player was known for his impressive dribbling skills, elegant technique and superb vision that contributed to many assists. He played with Brazil in two World Cups, winning the tournament in 1970 where he played alongside Pelé, who formed a lethal partnership with Tostão.
Unfortunately, he had an early retirement in 1973 due to eye problems and decided to become a medical doctor. Now 71 years old, Tostão is completely retired.
Mario Kempes played as a striker for the Argentine national team from 1973 until 1982 and played for 11 club teams over the span of 24 years. He began playing for the Talleres reserves at the young age of 14, but he is better known for his time playing for Valencia, where he finished as LaLiga's top goal scorer twice, amassing 116 goals in 184 league games for the club. He represented Argentina in three World Cups in 1974, 1978 and 1982 and brought them to their victory in 1978 when he scored twice in the final match and received the Golden Boot as top goal scorer. He was also awarded the Golden Ball for the player of the tournament. He also won South American Footballer of the Year in 1978.
After retiring in 1994, Kempes went into management like so many other pros. He first managed with Hector Nunez at Valencia and then went to his old club in Indonesia. He was then the first foreign manager Albania ever had but the position was short-lived. After his years of management, he decided to go into broadcast television and he currently works as a soccer analyst for ESPN Deportes.
Franco Baresi mainly played as a sweeper and central defender for Italy's national team and the club team AC Milan. He played for Italy from 1982 until 1994 and for Milan from 1977 until 1997. He was a part of three World Cup squads in 1982, 1990 and 1994; Italy was victorious in 1982. He was named in the FIFA World Cup All-Star Team in the 1990 World Cup and finished third in the tournament. In 1994 he became Italy's captain and helped bring them to the final.
Baresi retired in 1997 and managed Milan Primavera from 2002 until 2008. He left management to coach youth soccer, which is his current position
Romário de Souza Faria, more commonly known as simply Romário, was a talented striker who played for Brazil's national team from 1987 until 2005. He also played on 14 club teams and made 309 goals over the 14 years he played. He played in two World Cups in 1990 and 1994 and helped bring Brazil to a victory in 1994. The same year he also won the Gold Ball for the most valuable player of the tournament and was put on the FIFA World Cup All-Star Team. Romário scored 71 goals in 85 international matches, which puts him right behind Pelé as the second-highest goal scorer in the history of the Brazilian team.
The striker retired from his lengthy career in 2005 and became involved in politics. In 2010 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies and in 2014 he was elected into the senate. More recently, Romário has announced he will be running for governor of Rio de Janeiro in 2018.
Gianni Rivera played as an attacking midfielder for Italy's national team from 1962 until 1974 and club teams Alessandria from 1959 until 1960 and AC Milan from 1960 until 1979. He took part at four World Cups in 1962, 1966, 1970 and 1974 and although they didn't win any of the tournaments he aided them in getting close in 1970 when he led the team to the final against Brazil.
Rivera retired in 1979 and became involved in politics in 1986. He became a member of the Italian parliament in 1987 and he was re-elected in 1992, 1994 and 1996. He also served as the secretary for defense and as a member of the European parliament.
Roberto Donadoni was a midfielder for Italy's national team from 1984 until 1996 and played for club teams Atalanta, Milan, MetroStars and ended his career in 2000 with Ittihad. Donadoni played in two World Cups in 1990 and 1994 and helped lead the team to win the bronze and silver medals at the tournaments.
After his retirement in 2000, he began his coaching career. He became the coach for Italy's national team from 2006 until 2008 and also managed club teams Lecco, Livorno, Genoa, Napoli, Cagliari, Parma and Bologna. Donadoni parted with Bologna in May 2018 and is considering a full retirement.
Andriy Shevchenko was a striker for the Ukraine national team along with club teams Dynamo Kyiv, AC Milan and Chelsea. He is ranked as the fifth top goal scorer in all of Europe with 67 goals from playing internationally and is the second top goal scorer for Milan with 175 goals. He is also the top goalscorer for the Ukraine national team with 48 goals. He participated in one World Cup in 2006 and served as captain of the team and led them to the quarterfinals in their first ever World Cup appearance.
In 2012, Shevchenko announced his retirement from soccer so that he could take part in the elections and involve himself in politics. He ran to join the Ukrainian parliament in 2012, but his party lost the parliamentary representation.
Widely regarded as the greatest footballer of all time is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé. The gifted forward played for Brazil's national team from 1957 until 1971 and club teams Santos from 1956 until 1974 and New York Cosmos from 1975 until 1977. He played for the youth club team Santos at the young age of 15 and Brazil's national team at only 16 years old. He participated in his first out of four World Cups in 1958 and helped bring the Brazilian national team to victory in 1958, 1962 and 1970.
Pelé retired in 1977 and became engaged in non-profit work along with many other extracurriculars, including acting as the star in documentary films, composing musical pieces and writing several autobiographies. In 1978 he was awarded the International Peace Award for his work with UNICEF and years after he was appointed as UN ambassador for ecology and environment in 1992 and as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 1994. Alongside his work as an ambassador, Pelé was heavily invested in ridding soccer of corruption and in 1995 he was awarded Brazil's Gold Medal for outstanding services to the sport. In more recent years Pelé has continued receiving awards due to his accomplishments such as an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh for "significant contribution to humanitarian and environmental causes, as well as his sporting achievements."
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