Greatest Players at the Soccer World Cup

Diego Maradona

Diego Maradona. Source: Best Player In The World

Diego Maradona. Photo: Best Player In The World


Considered one of the world’s best ever footballers, Diego Maradona represented Argentina in a total of four World Cups, including their monumental triumph in the 1986 tournament in Mexico.
Captaining the side in that particular competition, Maradona registered one of the most famous performances of any one player in a World Cup fixture; scoring both goals in a 2-1 quarter final over England that each became famous for varying reasons.
In the first, Maradona claimed a goal via an un-penalised hand-ball, which has since become known as the ‘Hand of God’ goal. The second, voted ‘Goal Of The Century’ in 2002, involved a 60 metre dribble via five England players before burying the ball in the lower corner of the net.
Also claiming the award for Best Player in that particular World Cup, Maradona scored a total of eight goals over his four World Cup appearances.


Pele

Pelé in 1960. Source: Wikipedia

Pelé in 1960. Source: Wikipedia


Considered by many as the world’s best ever footballer, Pele graced the football pitch for a total of 22 seasons, racking up 638 games for Brazilian club side Santos before playing out his final two season for American side New York Cosmos.
Claiming several incredible honours over his playing years and those which have followed, Pele has been voted Player of the Century and World Player of the Century as well as being dubbed the Athlete of the Century by the IOC in 1999.
Representing his nation in four World Cups; spanning from 1958 in Sweden through to the 1970 edition in Mexico, three of which Brazil won, Pele claimed a total of 67 wins, 14 draws and just eleven losses over a total of 92 games for his country, scoring an impressive 77 goals in the process.


Franz Beckenbaur

Beckenbauer "Der Kaiser". Source: The Telegraph

Beckenbauer "Der Kaiser". Source: The Telegraph


Often considered the greatest German footballer of all time, Franz Beckenbaur has had a profound effect on the football World Cup as both a player and manager, and was an instrumental figure in Germany’s successful bid for the 2006 edition of the cup.
Twice selected European Player of the Year, Der Kaiser as he is commonly referred in the football circuit represented West Germany a total of 103 times, scoring 13 goals from his renowned position in the centre of defence.
Making his first World Cup appearance in England in 1966, Beckenbauer stamped his claim as one of football’s best almost instantaneously; scoring twice in a 5-0 drubbing of Switzerland, and after progressing to the top of their Group, led the charge towards a memorable appearance for West Germany in the Grand Final. While falling at the final hurdle to the host nation, Beckenbauer was labelled a hero after amazingly tying for third on the tally of most goals scored throughout the entire World Cup tournament – from a defensive position.
Arguably reaching peak status during West Germany’s famed 1970 World Cup campaign, Beckenbauer led West Germany comfortably past the pool stage before inspiring an incredible fight-back when scoring a goal in the 69th minute against England to well and truly turn the run of momentum in his nation’s favour. Progressing through to the preliminary finals, West Germany faced off with Italy in what has become known as the Game of the Century. Breaking his left clavicle after being fouled, Beckenbauer elected to remain on the pitch as West Germany had already exhausted their permitted number of substitutions. While ultimately losing that match 4-3, West Germany secured a 1-0 consolation victory over Uruguay to finish the 1970 World Cup third.
Making his final appearance in a World Cup tournament in the West Germany-hosted 1974 edition, Beckenbaur sported the captain’s armband and led his nation to a memorable tournament victory, including a hard-fought 2-1 win over clear favourites the Netherlands, in which Beckenbauer produced one of his career-best performances.


Johan Cruyff

Johan Cruyff bends the ball. Source: Imageshack

Johan Cruyff bends the ball. Source: Imageshack


While never winning a football World Cup tournament and appearing in just a single edition, classy Dutch striker Johan Cruyff secured the Man of the Tournament award at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany and is still considered one of history’s stand-out strikers.
Leading from the front, Cruyff’s Netherlands side famously mastered the ‘Total Football’ system throughout the 1974 world cup; cruising through the pool system and knocking out powerhouses Argentina, East Germany and defending champions Brazil on their way to the Grand Final.
Beginning with the ball in the 1974 final, Cruyff passed back to his team mates, who circulated the ball 13 times before returning to their star striker, who forced a penalty inside the box which was promptly scored by teammate Johan Neeskens; all before host nation West Germany had touched the ball once.
While eventually going down 2-1, Cruyff cemented his name in World Cup folklore with his heroics throughout the entire 1974 tournament.


Giuseppe Meazza

Giuseppe Meazza, an all-time great. Source: The 100

Giuseppe Meazza, an all-time great. Source: The 100


Appearing in two World Cup tournaments and claiming honours in each, Italian legend Giuseppe Meazza is often considered one of the greatest players ever to strap on a pair of football boots and had arguably one of the strongest effects on the world’s premier sporting event.
In his maiden World Cup appearance in 1934, Meazza played every game for the Azzurri, stamping his class immediately with a brace during a 4-0 qualifying victory over Greece before again asserting his dominance with a man-of-the-match performance in Italy’s 7-1 demolition of the United States in their official campaign opener.
Continuing to build in class and form on his way to an appearance in the Grand Final against Czechoslovakia, Italy was nearly dealt a huge blow when Meazza went down early with injury. Playing through the pain, Meazza was left un-marked by the Czech’s when the game was forced into extra time at 1-1, which proved to be a devastating error in judgement when the talented 24-year-old threaded a pass through to his strikers which was promptly sent to the back of the net.
Awarded the Golden Ball for player of the tournament, Meazza was similarly impressive when leading Italy to the 1938 World Cup grand final against surprise packets Hungary; a feat made all the more impressive by carrying the burden of dictator Benito Mussolini, who famously sent the Italian captain a telegram reading only ‘Win or Die!’
Barely looking troubled, Italy led 3-1 at the break, eventually becoming the first nation to win a World Cup title outside their own nation when finishing 4-2 in the clear.
To this day, Meazza remains one of only four European players to claim consecutive World Cup titles.


Bobby Charlton

Sir Bobby Charlton. Source: The Telegraph

Sir Bobby Charlton. Source: The Telegraph


A pivotal member of England’s successful 1966 World Cup campaign, midfielder Bobby Charlton represented his nation at four World Cups, and is arguably England’s best-ever footballer.
Travelling to Sweden in 1958, Charlton did not take to the pitch for a single minute, bewildering nearly the entire football community. Continuing to build in class for club and country over the next four seasons, the Manchester United star played a huge role in England’s qualification and finals appearance in the 1962 World Cup, scoring a goal in an impressive victory over Argentina before unfortunately being eliminated in the quarter finals by eventual champions Brazil.
Hosting the Cup in 1966, England drew 1-1 with Uruguay in the tournament’s opening game, leading into an incredible performance from Charlton in scoring the sealing goal in a 2-0 in over Mexico, before repeating the dose against France. Continuing to put in career-best performances in hard-fought victories over Argentina and Portugal on the way to the Grand Final, Charlton etched his name into English football history in producing a notable performance against leading defender Franz Beckenbauer in England’s 4-2 victory over West Germany.
Making his last appearance at World Cup in 1970, Charlton lead his nation to the quarter-finals once more, which included a Man of the Match performance in a victory over Brazil, before being knocked out in a re-match of the 1966 Grand Final against West Germany.


Zinedine Zidane

Zinedine Zidane. Source: Goal

Zinedine Zidane. Source: Goal


Representing his nation in three World Cups, French star Zinedine Zidane is held in high regard in the World Cup community, and is arguably the standout performer in sport’s greatest competition of the last 20 years.
Debuting to World Cup fixtures in his home country in 1998, Zidane had a memorable effect on the tournament for both good and bad reasons. Becoming the first French player to ever receive a red card in a World Cup after stamping on the foot of Saudi player Fuad Anwar in Pool game 2, Zidane returned to help France to a 4-3 win on penalties over Italy in the quarter finals before progressing to the Grand Final with a gutsy 2-1 victory over Croatia. Meeting defending champions and resounding favourites Brazil in the final, Zidane registered arguably his career-best performance, leading France to a dominant victory and scoring two impressive goals.
Unable to take to the pitch in France’s first two unsuccessful games of the 2002 World Cup as a result of a thigh strain, Zidane was rushed back into the fold prematurely, but was unable to help Le Bleus bypass an inevitable exit at the pool stage.
Retiring from International football along with several key players from the 1998 triumph, Zidane was coaxed back for the 2006 World Cup and instilled as captain. Given barely a chance of progressing to the knock-out stage, Zidane led France on a memorable charge toward the Grand Final. Just seven minutes into the Grand Final, Zidane became only the fourth player in history to score in two World Cup final fixtures; slotting a penalty past Italian number 1 Gianluigi Buffon. Sensationally sent off in the 110th minute after head-butting Marco Materazzi, Zidane was unable to take part in the resulting penalty shootout, with Italy claiming the 2006 World Cup.
To this day, Zidane remains one of the stand-out performers at World Cup level, particularly in high-pressure Grand Final scenarios.


Juan Schiaffino

Juan Schiaffino. Source: My Football Facts

Juan Schiaffino. Source: My Football Facts


Small in stature and notoriety when making his maiden appearance for Uruguay, Juan Schiaffino continually defied those who said he was not big enough and did not have the skill-set to out-do larger, big name defenders, playing a pivotal role in guiding his nation to the World Cup crown in 1950.
Quickly gaining a place in the Uruguayan National Team after impressing for club side Penarol, Schiaffino immediately had effect on world sport’s grandest stage, scoring an impressive three goals in the pool stage to see Uruguay progress with ease.
Continuing his dominance through the knock-out phase, the 25-year-old set-up the decisive goal in Uruguay’s 3-2 semi-final victory over Sweden before scoring the winner in the Grand Final against host nation and resounding favourites Brazil.
Moving to Italy to play with Milan following the 1950 World Cup, Schiaffino switched allegiances to play for his new nation, however never re-appeared at a World Cup.


Garrincha

Garrincha in 1968. Source: Sao Tome Noticias

Garrincha, Brazilian Star. Source: Sao Tome Noticias


A team mate of Pele through arguably Brazil’s golden years, Garrincha played a pivotal role in claiming two World Cup winner’s medals, appearing in three tournaments from 1958-1966.
Securing a position in Brazil’s 1958 World Cup team on the back of a standout season for club side Botafogo, Garrincha did not take part in the tournament’s first two pool games, but made his debut appearance with a standout performance against tournament favourites the USSR, hitting the crossbar and setting up a chance for Pele with the game’s first play, which has since widely been referred to as ‘the best three minutes of football of all time’. Progressing through the knock-out stage with relative ease, Garrincha registered one of his best ever performances when setting up striker Vava twice in the Grand Final against Sweden, seeing Brazil claim the 1958 World Cup 2-1.
Winning the award for Most Outstanding Player at the 1962 World Cup, Garrincha took the lead when Pele was forced from the tournament with injury, playing a pivotal role particularly in Brazil’s impressive victories over England and Chile. Suffering a severe fever when Brazil was drawn against Czechoslovakia in the Grand Final, Garrincha once again led from the front with a man of the match performance to see Brazil successfully defend the World Cup, winning 3-1.
Appearing in one more World Cup at England in 1966, Garrincha scored one of the tournament’s best ever goals when striking a free kick with the outside of his foot in a 2-0 win over Bulgaria. Contesting his final international match in a 1-3 loss to Hungary, which amazingly figured as the only time he played in a losing Brazilian side, Garrincha remains one of the most influential players ever to line up in a Football World Cup and still holds several tournament records.


Lev Yashin

Lev Yashin training in Paris, 1965. Source: Carotenuto

Lev Yashin training in Paris, 1965. Source: Carotenuto


A top ten of the best ever Football World Cup players would not be complete without at least one shot stopper, and when it comes to international goal keepers there is none better than the Soviet Union’s Lev Yashin, who represented his nation between 1954 and 1970 for a total of 78 caps and three World Cup campaigns.
In his first appearance in a World Cup in 1958, Yashin played himself into football folklore with several incredible performances for the Soviet Union, leading his team to the quarterfinals. Producing one of his career-best displays in a pool match against eventual champions Brazil, Yashin single-handedly prevented his team from an embarrassing score line, making close to 100 saves throughout the game.
Returning to the world’s grandest sporting stage in 1962, Yashin once again led the Soviet Union to the quarter-finals, despite suffering two separate concussions throughout the tournament. While putting in an un-characteristically off performance against Columbia which included conceding a goal directly from a corner kick, Yashin continued to build in form and class on his way to the Ballon d’Or award in 1963, cementing his place in the national side for the 1966 World Cup in England, in which he led his nation to their best ever showing in a World Cup; fourth position.
Having continued to contribute to his nation’s success in travelling to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico as assistant coach and third-choice goal keeper, Lev Yashin is arguably football’s greatest ever gloveman.