For nearly a century, the World Cup has been capturing the imagination of football fans around the globe. Undoubtedly the most prestigious tournament in sports, the World Cup provides a stage for international footballers to dazzle in front of an audience of billions and several superstars have achieved legendary status for their performances at the competition.
In decades gone by, a number of iconic and inspirational players have dragged their country to glory almost singlehandedly and at many tournaments, altering the destiny of an entire nation with their skills and causing World Cup predictions to be rewritten with every crucial strike and match-winning display.
To honour those immortal sporting stars, we’ve ranked the top 10 players in World Cup history below.
The top 10 players in World Cup history
10. Gerd Muller (West Germany)
World Cups: 1970, 1974 (winner)
Known as ‘Der Bomber’, Gerd Muller was an apex predator for West Germany and his cocktail of lethal finishing and razor-sharp anticipation was too much for defences to digest during his career.
Muller scored an incredible 68 times in just 62 appearances for his country, 14 of which were plundered at World Cup tournaments. Ten of those were notched in 1970 when he won the Golden Boot, though Muller got his hands on the World Cup trophy itself four years later when he netted in the final.
9. Garrincha (Brazil)
World Cups: 1958 (winner), 1962 (winner), 1966
Garrincha was born with one leg six centimetres shorter than the other and feet turned at unnatural angles, though the Brazilian winger overcame any perceived difficulties to achieve the improbable when he starred in his country’s World Cup win in 1958.
Four years later, Garrincha was the star performer again for a Brazil side that was lamenting the loss of injured talisman Pele. He scored twice in both the quarter and semi final in Chile to drag his team to the World Cup final and Garrincha’s wing wizardry on the right flank helped Brazil to beat Czechoslovakia in the competition’s climactic fixture.
8. Johan Cruyff (Netherlands)
World Cups: 1974
Three-time Balon d’Or winner Johann Cruyff is widely considered to be one of the most influential figures in the history of football and the Dutch forward is arguably the greatest player to never win the World Cup. Cruyff led a Netherlands side famed for their ‘Total Football’ to the World Cup final in 1974, though they were unexpectedly beaten 2-1 by West Germany at the final hurdle. Nevertheless, Cruyff remains one of the sport’s most revered players.
7. Xavi (Spain)
World Cups: 2002, 2006, 2010 (winner), 2014
Diminutive midfielder Xavi was the glue that held Spain’s golden generation together during an unprecedented period of success for La Roja between 2008 and 2012. The playmaker could spot channels where others only saw roadblocks and his speed of thought allowed him to evade even the toughest of markers. Xavi lifted the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.
6. Zinedine Zidane (France)
World Cups: 1998 (winner), 2002, 2006
The enigmatic Zinedine ‘Zizou’ Zidane oozed class when he danced across pitches at three World Cups between 1998 and 2006. In his pomp, Zidane won the competition for Les Blues in ’98, scoring twice in the final to topple Brazil. In 2006 however, he performed his last action at a World Cup when he headbutted Marco Materazzi in the chest, exiting the international scene in the most dramatic fashion possible.
5. Lothar Matthäus (West Germany, Germany)
World Cups: 1982, 1986, 1990 (winner), 1994, 1998
Lothar Matthäus remains the only outfield player to have ever played in five different World Cups and the uber-reliable midfielder played an integral role in some outstanding German teams during his illustrious career. A beaten finalist in 1982, Matthäus eventually captained his country to World Cup success at Italia 90 and he would win 150 caps before his retirement.
4. Franz Beckenbauer (Germany)
World Cups: 1966, 1970, 1974 (winner)
Franz ‘Der Kaiser Beckenbauer played with distinction at three World Cups for Germany, where he carved out a unique position for himself as a sweeper – a role that allowed him to make the most of his highly-polished skillset on the biggest stage. Few teams could cope with Beckenbauer’s marauding runs and ability to knit play together from deep. The languid midfielder-cum-defender lifted the World Cup with the Germans in 1974.
3. Ronaldo (Brazil)
World Cups: 1994 (winner), 1998, 2002 (winner), 2006
Brazil rank as one of the many favourites to win the World Cup in Qatar, but when the Selecao had Ronaldo in their ranks, it felt as though nothing could stop them. O Fenômeno (‘The Phenomenon’) had it all. Blessed with searing pace, incredible strength and a vast array of stunning tricks, Ronaldo could decimate defences on his own and while he picked up a participatory medal as a youngster when Brazil won the World Cup in 1994, Ronaldo was the headline act when he won it again eight years later.
2. Diego Maradona (Argentina)
World Cups: 1982, 1986 (winner), 1990, 1994
Diego Maradona was a hurricane of passion, skill and self-destruction that dominated the club and international football scene for almost a decade. Architect of the ‘Hand of God’ goal and the best individual effort ever scored at a World Cup against England in the same game in 1986, Maradona was capable of producing show-stopping moments on a whim. Larger than life but smaller than most, Maradona will always be remembered as one of football’s greatest-ever players.
1. Pele (Brazil)
World Cups: 1958 (winner), 1962 (winner, 1966, 1970 (winner)
When you think of the World Cup, Pele’s name is one of the first things that springs to mind. Brazil’s most famous and beloved number 10 won his first World Cup at the tender age of 17, though that teenager blossomed into an unstoppable force who led from the front in two more successful World Cup campaigns for his country in 1962 and 1970. Pele remains the only player to have ever won the World Cup three times.