The best players don’t always produce their best on the biggest stage of all. Others appear energized by the international attention, playing in ways they never could for their club. Here are 30 of the tournament’s all-time world cup players, so read on and tell us in the comments if you agree with our list.
What exactly is the World Cup?
But first, let us quickly remind ourselves of some facts about the World Cup.
The FIFA World Cup is a football tournament that features senior national teams from all over the world. It was first held in 1930 and is held every four years.
Teams affiliated with FIFA are eligible to compete, and they must qualify for the tournament’s final stage, with qualification rounds divided by confederation affiliation.
The World Cup has been held continuously since its inception, except in 1942 and 1946, when it was interrupted by the Second World War.
How Many Countries Participate in the World Cup?
The current World Cup format sees 32 finalists compete, but this was not always the case and will not always be the case.
Only 13 teams featured in the first World Cup, which increased to 16 from 1934 to 1978. (with some exceptions).
The World Cup was expanded to include eight additional teams in 1982, bringing the total number of participants to 24.
The format we know today – 32 teams – was first used in the 1998 World Cup in France.
However, FIFA has confirmed that the 2026 World Cup will feature 48 finalists, a significant increase of 16 teams.
Who Was the First World Cup Winner?
Uruguay hosted and won the first World Cup in 1930.
It was an invitational tournament with only 13 teams, seven of which were from South America, making it very different from the tournament we know today.
Four European teams competed, with Mexico and the United States rounding out the field.
The final at Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario featured an all-South American battle between hosts Uruguay and Argentina.
Uruguay won the inaugural World Cup 4-2 in front of over 68,000 spectators.
Who Has the Most World Cup Victories?
Only eight countries have won the World Cup since its inception in 1930, with Brazil being the most successful, having won it five times.
The country that produced Pele, Ronaldo, and Romario won the World Cup for the first time in 1958 and then again in 1962, 1970, 1994, and 2002.
Italy and Germany have won the World Cup four times each (though Germany won it three times as West Germany), while Argentina, Uruguay, and current champions France have all won it twice.
England and Spain have each won the World Cup once.
Since 1930, the tournament has been held 21 times, and the complete list of winners can be found below.
Trophy for the World Cup
The unmistakable gold FIFA World Cup trophy, is presented to the World Cup winners. It was designed by Italian artist Silvio Gazzaniga and debuted at the 1974 World Cup. It is made of 18-karat gold with a malachite base.
Gazzaniga described his creation: “The lines rise in spirals from the base, stretching out to receive the world. The figures of two athletes at the emotional moment of victory rise from the remarkable dynamic tensions of the sculpture’s compact body.”
The trophy stands 36.8 centimeters (14.5 inches) tall and weighs 6.175 kilograms (13.61 pounds).
The footballing world has suffered another great loss this week while still reeling from the loss of Wales coach Gary Speed. Sócrates, a Brazilian midfield legend known as “The Doctor” for his medical license and great precision and intelligence on the field, died over the weekend due to septic shock from food poisoning.
The Doctor never won a World Cup with the Seleco, 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 golazo, which was met with stadium-wide cheers of “GOAL!” as the announcer points out.
He earned 60 caps and 22 goals for the Brazilian national team throughout his career.
Gary Lineker (29th)
The England striker was not as technically gifted as many of the other players on this list, but in the World Cup, composure is everything. Lineker always seemed to find a way 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 Italia 90, including an equalizer against West Germany in the semi-final… and that looks to the bench after Paul Gascoigne’s booking.
Stoichkov, Hristo (28th)
Hristo Stoichkov is a former Bulgarian international soccer player. He is widely regarded as one of the most gifted players of his generation and the greatest Bulgarian footballer of all time. Hristo has played forward for both clubs and his country. He has twice been named a runner-up for FIFA World Player of the Year. Aside from that, he was the recipient of the prestigious Ballon d’Or. Furthermore, in 2004, the legendary Pele inducted him into the FIFA 100 list, which includes the world’s greatest living players. He was not only a talented player but also a controversial one. He was known for his bad temper, which harmed his relationships with his teammates and even the referees. His behavioral 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.
It was difficult to decide between Romario, Ronaldinho, and Rivaldo. We chose the latter because he performed well in more than one tournament. Romario was a star for the United States in 1994, but he had been hampered by injury four years earlier. As David Seaman recalls, Ronaldinho was brilliant in 2002 but fell flat four years later.
Rivaldo contributed to Brazil’s run to the 1998 World Cup final and then stole the show in 2002, scoring five goals, including a memorable strike against Belgium, as Brazil won their fifth World Cup. His performance was all the more impressive, given his brush with death during the first game against Turkey. So courageous.
Paolo Maldini (26th)
When it comes to the old Jules Rimet trophy, the Maldini family is blessed with considerable defensive skill but not much luck. Cesare Maldini represented Italy in the 1962 World Cup and was named to the tournament team, but his team was eliminated in the first round.
Paolo, his son, 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; his first three tournaments ended in penalty shootouts and the fourth in a golden goal. Perhaps one of his sons will be more fortunate.
Jairzinho stepped into Garrincha’s right-wing berth for the 1970 World Cup after he retired from football after the 1966 World Cup to focus on fathering illegitimate children. Positions didn’t mean much on that free-flowing side. Nevertheless, he was a fearsome member of one of the greatest World Cup teams in history, combining speed, strength, and skill.
Jairzinho scored in every tournament game as Brazil cruised to a resounding victory.
The striker from Mozambique only appeared in one World Cup, but it was memorable. In 1966, he scored nine goals, including four against North Korea, as Portugal famously rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win. That added to the striker’s two goals in his first three games, and his acceleration and powerful strike made him difficult to play against.
He scored again in Portugal’s 2-1 semi-final loss to England. A total of nine goals earned him the Golden Boot and the adoration of English fans, to the point where Madame Tussauds immediately created a waxwork likeness of him.
Gianluigi Buffon (23rd)
Gianluigi Buffon is an Italian professional goalkeeper who serves as Captain of both the Serie A club Juventus and the Italian National Team. With 167 caps, he is the most capped player in the history of the Italian National Team.
Gianluigi Buffon is regarded by players, pundits, and managers as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time. Furthermore, after joining Juventus in 2001, Buffon became the most expensive goalkeeper in history. He is well-known in the locker room for his outstanding shot-stopping abilities.
Following his €53 million transfer from Parma to Juventus in 2001, he is currently the most expensive goalkeeper in history. Buffon holds the record for the cleanest sheets in Serie A and with the Italian national team. He also holds the record for the longest streak without conceding a goal in Serie A history, going unbeaten for 974 minutes over twelve league matches during the 2015-16 season, as well as having achieved the most consecutive clean sheets (ten) in Serie A that same season.
Mario Kempes (22nd)
If Diego Armando Maradona is the undisputed icon of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Mario Alberto Kempes is the undisputed icon of the 1978 World Cup.
His exceptional goal-scoring ability, both for his clubs and his country, earned him the nickname ‘El Matador.’ During his eight seasons with Valencia, he won the Copa del Rey, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, and the European Supercup, becoming one of the best players in Ché history. He won the FIFA World Cup with Argentina in 1978, scoring six goals, two of which came in the final against Holland.
“Matador’s arms raised, his long hair flying in the wind as he slipped past the three Dutch defenders.” His deft touch with the tip of his boot broke the draw and set off the Argentine celebration. Thanks to his goal scorer stamp, he was in the right place at the right time.
Lothar Matthaus (21st)
Maradona refers to the German defender as his “best rival”; this is most likely due to their clash in the 1986 World Cup Final, in which Matthaus marked the Argentine out of the game – albeit not well enough to win the competition. The goal-scoring midfielder competed in five World Cups, a record for an outfielder, and captained his team to victory in 1990 when he was the driving force with dynamic, box-to-box runs.
Platini, Michel (20th)
Platini joins the ranks of players such as Cruyff, Paolo Maldini, and Roberto Baggio, who have shone at World Cups but have nothing to show for it. In 1978, the future UEFA president made his World Cup debut but failed to make an impact in a crucial group game against Italy.
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 knockout stages of two World Cups and won the European Championship.
Although the international brand of tiki-taka was admittedly a little less free-flowing than the Barcelona version, the pint-sized playmaker was the metronome to Spain’s relentless tournament success. There were many 1-0 victories and long periods of possession, but Xavi was the man who made it all possible. He specialized in finding space in a crowded midfield and setting up attacks with short, sharp passes.
Xavi completed more passes than any other player in the tournament in 2010, his third World Cup in four years, and set up the winning goals in both the quarter-final and semi-final.
With Dani Alves out of the World Cup, Brazil faces its most difficult right-back dilemma since 1994. Cafu, a relatively inexperienced right-back at the time, came on as a substitute for the injured Jorginho early in the World Cup final. Over a 16-year international career that saw many changes in Brazil’s playing style, he became his country’s most-capped player, guiding them to two more World Cup finals.
Cafu was energetic and dynamic going forward, regardless of what various managers asked of him, and he could actually defend a bit, 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 Italy captain after the 2002 World Cup. Indeed, he outperformed his former international teammate in terms of both caps and international honors.
The center-back was at his most composed and committed during the 2006 World Cup. He was one of only two players, along with Gianluigi Buffon, to play every minute as Italy went through the tournament with only two goals conceded: one with his own goal and the other with a penalty. In our opinion, a perplexing stint as a BBC pundit only boosted his reputation.
Bobby Moore (16th)
He was awarded 108 caps for England during his international career, a record at the time for an outfield player. His record was later broken by David Beckham, but 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 with Fulham in the second division.
Bobby Moore was regarded as one of the best defenders in the world. He possessed an exceptional 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 talented defender, but he had excellent timing and frequently demonstrated his ability to intercept and predict attacking players’ movements. Jock Stein said of Bobby Moore, who could read the game and predict what would happen, “there should be a law against him.” He is 20 minutes ahead of everyone else in knowing what is going on.”
Carlos Alberto (15th)
Carlos Alberto was the captain of the 1970 Brazil team that was widely regarded as the greatest team in history, but he is best remembered for one thing and one thing only. The objective. There’s a tendency to romanticize footage from that era, and a wider camera angle would definitely lessen the impact of the Brazilian charging onto Pele’s languid lay-off to thunder the ball home in a modern game.
Despite this, Carlos Alberto will always be there, thundering down the right wing of our collective memories, no matter how many modern screamers we see in glorious high-definition.
Paolo Rossi (14th)
Rossi was carrying a lot of weight going into the 1982 World Cup. He’d had his three-year ban for match-fixing reduced to two years, allowing him to rejoin the squad in time, but he looked out of shape and off the pace in the first group stage. Italy persevered, but everything changed when they faced Brazil in the second group stage. After only five minutes, Rossi scored.
In his autobiography I Made Brazil Cry, he wrote, “I felt liberated, just like when one takes off soaking wet clothes.” Rossi’s eventual hat-trick helped Italy reach the semi-finals, and he added two more goals against Poland and one against West Germany in the final. He won the Golden Ball, Golden Boot, and Ballon d’Or despite being suspended at the start of the season.
Lev Yashin (13th)
The Russian goalkeeper was one of the stars of the 1958 World Cup, the first broadcast worldwide. Yashin’s habit of dressing entirely in black earned him the moniker ‘The Black Panther,’ and he was certainly capable of making heroic saves. His performance in a 2-0 defeat to eventual winners Brazil captivated the world’s attention, and he helped the Soviet Union finish fourth – their best ever result – in 1966.
When it came to defense, he was ahead of his time, frequently barking orders and rushing off his line to close down attacks. He remains the only goalkeeper to have won the Ballon d’Or (in 1963).
Bobby Charlton (12th)
Bobby Charlton scored the game’s first goal in a 2-0 victory over Mexico. This was followed by a scoreless draw against France, allowing England to advance to the quarter-finals. Argentina was defeated 1-0 by England. Charlton was cautioned only once during his international career.
Sir Bobby Charlton personifies Manchester United’s values better than anyone else. After surviving the trauma of the Munich Air Disaster when he was only 20 years old, he played every game as if it were for his fallen colleagues, recovering from his injuries to reach the pinnacle for both club and country. In a 17-year career with the Reds, he played 758 games and scored 249 goals, both of which were long-standing records until they were surpassed by Ryan Giggs in 2008 and Wayne Rooney in 2017.
Gerd Muller (11th)
Germany has a good track record of developing goal-poaching forwards who come alive during tournaments. Before Miroslav Klose, Gerd Muller scored 14 goals in 13 World Cup games and ranks third all-time behind Klose and Ronaldo. He was short and stocky, but he had a huge leap and the instincts to finish from close range.
He won the Golden Boot with two hat-tricks and ten goals in the 1970 World Cup. In 1974, he scored the game-winning goal to help an underdog West German team defeat Johan Cruyff’s Holland in a final shock result.
If it hadn’t been for the strange events the night before the final in 1998 (opens in new tab), Original Ronaldo could have won three World Cups. The striker went to the World Cup in 1994 but did not play a single minute; his presence would have undoubtedly improved a goal-less tournament. Four years later, he was the best player in the world – quick, powerful, and intimidating to oppose.
He was brilliant, scoring four goals and making three assists as Brazil advanced to the final, but they were defeated 3-0 by hosts France, with the striker a shadow of his usual self. He missed Brazil’s entire 2002 qualification campaign due to a serious cruciate injury, 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 kept him out, as Ronaldo scored in every other game, including two in the final against Germany.
Johan Cruyff (9th)
Cruyff is one of the few players on this list who has never won a World Cup, but that hasn’t diminished his legacy. During the Total Football era, the Netherlands had a formidable squad, 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 in the group stage to fool Swedish defender Jan Olsson (a 0-0 draw, in the end).
Holland breezed to the final but became overconfident after taking the lead in the second minute. According to football writer Brian Glanville, they were content to “roll the ball around in pretty patterns.” Cruyff was there all the way. Although his playing style and outspokenness captured the imagination, he could not validate his brilliance with a World Cup medal – he didn’t appear in another, missing out in 1978 due to a kidnapping attempt on his family.
Zidane Zinedine (8th)
In international tournaments, there’s a general rule of thumb: a promising performance in which they fulfill their promise will be balanced out by an absolutely insane outing, usually culminating in Patrice Evra being sent home for fighting. Zinedine Zidane is a living example of this rule. They should give it his name.
After some early controversy and a red card against Saudi Arabia, he remained composed under pressure and scored twice to help Les Bleus defeat Brazil in the final in 1998. In 2006, he appeared to be on track to repeat the feat: Zidane 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 could truly do it all.
Fontaine, Just Fontaine (7th)
Fontaine’s record appears safe for the time being, unless Mo Salah continues his Liverpool form into this summer’s World Cup and assumes the injury gods are kind. The Moroccan-born French forward scored 13 goals in six games at the 1958 World Cup, including four against defending champion West Germany.
That single tournament, in which he formed an effective partnership with Polish-born Stade de Reims colleague Raymond Kopa, is enough to place him fourth all-time in scoring. He scored in every game he played, but due to an unusual voting system, he was unable to make the tournament team.
When Pele injured his leg early in the 1962 World Cup, Garrincha – the ‘Little Wren’ – stepped in. They were diametrically opposed. While Pele was known as ‘The King,’ Garrincha was known as ‘The Joy of the People’ because of his carefree style of play, twisting and tormenting defenders with the help of a genetic trait that left him with crooked legs.
At 25, he was at the pinnacle of his playing career, scoring four goals to help Brazil win the World Cup, but he burned out soon after due to alcoholism and a life of excess.
Ferenc Puskas (5th)
Before Wayne Rooney and David Beckham’s metatarsals, there was Ferenc Puskas’ ankle, which became a tabloid obsession in 1954 when an injury to the Galloping Major threatened Hungary’s Magical Magyars’ supremacy. Despite being short and slow, Puskas had a ferocious shot and scored 84 goals in 85 games.
Between 1950 and 1956, Hungary only lost one game – the World Cup final, in which Puskas played through pain in a 3-2 defeat to Germany.
Klose, Miroslav (4th)
They may refer to Ronaldo as O Fenomeno. Still, Klose is the true phenomenon: he is the World Cup’s leading goalscorer, with 16 (from a combined distance of about 12 yards), and the only player in tournament history to appear in four consecutive semi-finals.
The former Lazio and Bayern Munich striker’s performance was unremarkable, but the tournament stage seemed to bring him to life.
Franz Beckenbauer (3rd)
Der Kaiser competed in three World Cups, finishing no lower than third in any of them. A classy, cultured sweeper in an era when pitchers and permissive refereeing made that much more difficult (John Stones would have been eaten alive), Beckenbauer rose to prominence in 1966, scoring five goals as West Germany reached the World Cup final.
He possessed a powerful long-range strike, which he demonstrated four years later when the Germans retaliated by sending England home early with a suitcase full of stolen jewelry. By 1974, he was captain and finally won the trophy by holding off Johan Cruyff’s Dutch side in the final. Very well deserved.
Pele scored eight million goals for Santos, but his global reputation is built on his World Cup performances. His first was in 1958 when he was 17 years old and the tournament’s youngest player. His exploits during that showpiece included 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 premier competition.
He was powerful, clinical, and imaginative; during the 1970 World Cup, he almost scored from the halfway line, and he produced a memorable moment of quick thinking against Uruguay, allowing a through-ball to run past the onrushing goalkeeper to the left while ambling around to the right.
Unbefitting for someone who scored 12 World Cup goals, his two most iconic moments are both misses – he dragged that chance against Uruguay wide after rounding the goalkeeper without touching the ball and then saw Gordon Banks famously save that header. When you watch it now, it doesn’t seem all that remarkable, but its enduring appeal demonstrates how good Pele was – it was as if Banks had performed a miracle by stopping him.
Diego Maradona (1st)
FIFA held a public poll in 2000 to determine the best 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 on-brand for FIFA. So they devised another award, this time decided by journalists, and divided the prize between Maradona and Pele.
They are difficult to separate, but most polls appear to reach the same conclusion in the end. It’s an old argument, but it bears repeating: Pele may have won more World Cups than Maradona, but he never dragged, dribbled, or punched a team to victory like the little Argentine did in 1986. Sure, the Brazilian was never deported for failing a drug test, but Wada did consider adding Viagra to the list of prohibited substances in 2008, so perhaps his timing was just better.
Who Will Be the Biggest Stars at the World Cup in 2022?
Previous World Cups have provided a stage for established icons to shine as well as for emerging players to make their mark on the global stage, and 2022 should be no different.
Mbappe, Kylian (France)
Mbappe was superb for France as Didier Deschamps’ side 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.
Messi, Lionel (Argentina)
Lionel Messi’s (Argentina) Speculation about Messi’s powers waning has been exaggerated this season, with the mercurial Argentine demonstrating his abilities in a deeper role at PSG. He currently has the most assists in Ligue 1, with ten, and his enduring class will be crucial once again for Lionel Scaloni’s side.
De Bruyne, Kevin (Belgium)
With a star-studded lineup that has consistently underperformed in previous tournaments, De Bruyne will be tasked with finally helping Belgium shed their ‘nearly men’ tag in Qatar. However, the Manchester City midfielder will be determined to establish himself as the world’s best.
Ronaldo, Cristiano (Portugal)
Expectations were high around Ronaldo in Qatar, where he will compete in a record-equalling fifth Finals, but Portugal had to qualify through the playoffs. They eventually defeated North Macedonia to secure their place in the tournament, and the 2016 European champions will once again rely heavily on Ronaldo’s ability to lead their attack.
Vinicius Junior (Brazil)
Despite the pressure of establishing himself as a key player for both Real Madrid and Brazil over the last 18 months, Vinicius Jr. has excelled. His partnership with Karim Benzema in Madrid is the most lethal in Spanish football right now, and his world-class potential could see him become one of Qatar 2022’s breakout stars.
Van Dijk, Virgil (Netherlands)
Despite consistently playing the role of Liverpool’s defensive rock, Van Dijk has never represented his country in a World Cup. The Dutch are much stronger at the back and in midfield than they have been in recent years, and Van Dijk, like Premier League rival De Bruyne, will be looking to cement his reputation as one of the best players in the world in his position.
The mercurial Brazilian continues to carry his country’s hopes on the biggest stage, and Qatar 2022 will be no exception. When Neymar pulls on the shirt, a nation waits, and he will be desperate to lead Selecao to their first world title since 2002. Neymar has not reached the heights expected of him with PSG this season, and injuries have not helped, but he remains the focal point of the attack for the 2021 Copa America beaten finalists.
Pedri is the latest midfielder to emerge from Spain’s production line, producing Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi. However, there are whispers around Camp Nou that Pedri could one day surpass his Barcelona forefathers, and he will be looking to build on a fantastic breakthrough performance at Euro 2020.
Benzema, Karim (France)
Deschamps’s decision to recall Benzema for Euro 2020 was met with mixed reactions in France, where Les Bleus were eliminated in Round 16. However, the veteran forward has reminded everyone of his big-game abilities in 2021-22, particularly in the Champions League, and he remains one of the world’s deadliest finishers.
Modric, Luka (Croatia)
Modric, like Ronaldo, Messi, and Benzema, is likely 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 advancing years, he remains a match for anyone in world football.
Davies, Alphonso (Canada)
Canada qualified for the World Cup for the first time since Mexico in 1986, despite the absence of their talisman. Davies was ruled out after developing myocarditis, or heart inflammation, due to a COVID-19 infection. However, the Bayern Munich man’s emotional reaction on social media to Canada securing their place in Qatar demonstrated how much it means to him, and he will be desperate to shine on the biggest stage once he is fully fit again.
Pulisic, Christian (USA)
If the USMNT is to advance far in the tournament, they will need their talisman Pulisic to lead them. The Chelsea playmaker has been the standout of their qualifying campaign, and he will hope to carry his excellent club form in the Premier League into the world stage as part of Gregg Berhalter’s talented roster in 2021-22.
Heung-min Son (South Korea)
Son has repeatedly proven in his Premier League career with Tottenham that he is capable of individual brilliance, scoring some of the league’s most spectacular goals. He is just as ruthless on the international stage, with over 30 international goals to his name, and he will be among the strikers expected to shine in the Middle East.
Kane, Harry (England)
England captain Kane will be crucial for Gareth Southgate’s side as they look to build on their Euro 2020 final loss to Italy. Kane has returned to form in the second half of the 2021-22 Premier League season, but his club future is set to dominate the pre-season headlines once more.
Do you agree with our list of the 25 greatest World Cup players of all time? Write us what you think in the comments and get ready for Qatar!