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Greg Lea
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The 2022 World Cup is on the horizon, with the big kick-off in Qatar now less than two months away. This is still the biggest sporting event on the planet and the scheduling of the tournament in November and December, while controversial, should at least ensure that the players are fitter and fresher than usual. Erling Haaland (Norway), Mohamed Salah (Egypt) and Luis Diaz (Colombia) are among the high-profile stars who will be absent from the competition after their nations failed to qualify. Meanwhile, Paul Pogba of Juventus and France, and Ronald Araujo of Barcelona and Uruguay, have been ruled out through injury.

But most of the world’s best footballers will be present in Qatar for the 22nd edition of the World Cup, including Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema, Harry Kane and Robert Lewandowski. Yet for all their undoubted qualities, none of the above names have done enough yet in this competition to be counted among the greatest players in World Cup history. We have picked out the top 10 footballers to have graced the tournament over the decades, taking only their showings in the World Cup into account.

10. Miroslav Klose 

🌍: Germany

Miroslav KloseNo player in World Cup history has scored more goals in the tournament than Miroslav Klose, who found the back of the net 16 times for Germany. 

A player who was always more readily associated with the national team than any of his clubs, Klose made his World Cup debut in 2002 and notched five goals in Japan and South Korea (only Ronaldo scored more) as the Mannschaft reached the final. 

Germany were the hosts four years later, when Klose continued to demonstrate his prowess as a fox in the box. He again notched five goals, which was enough on that occasion to see him win the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer.

Four more goals followed in South Africa in 2010, before the crowning glory that was the 2014 World Cup. No longer a guaranteed starter by then, the ageing Klose nonetheless bagged two goals to become the tournament’s all-time leading scorer as Germany lifted the trophy in Brazil.

9. Didi 

🌍: Brazil

Didi Brazil Football PlayerThere have been only two back-to-back winners of the World Cup: Italy in 1934 and 1938, and Brazil in 1958 and 1962. Those triumphs were the Selecao’s first in the competition following their heartbreaking defeat by Uruguay in the final game of the 1950 edition on home soil.

Eight years later, Brazil showed themselves to be the strongest side on the planet. Among their most important players, albeit one who was often overshadowed by his attacking team-mates, was the central midfielder Didi. 

He was the man who set the tempo for Brazil, building play from the centre of the park and creating chances for those ahead of him. Didi, not Pele, Vava or Garrincha, was voted as the best player at that tournament in Sweden.

Didi was 34 years old by the time the 1962 edition came around, yet he remained an integral part of the Brazil side. His intelligence and experience, allied with his technical ability, meant he was highly valued by the manager Aymore Moreira, who started him in each of Brazil’s six matches.

8. Zinedine Zidane 

🌍: France

Zinedine ZidaneZinedine Zidane’s first World Cup could not have ended much better. As hosts, France were under pressure to win the tournament for the first time in their history, and their No.10 actually got his summer off to a disappointing start by being sent off against Saudi Arabia in the group phase.

Yet that lapse ensured Zidane was fresh and firing for the majority of the knockout rounds. He returned to the team as France beat Italy on penalties in the quarter-finals, with Zizou converting his spot-kick. Les Bleus then beat Croatia 2-1 in the semis, before a Zidane brace saw them win 3-0 against Brazil in the final.

The less said about 2002, the better: a talented but complacent France were eliminated in the group stage after failing to win any of their three games, with their star man missing two of those matches through injury.

Zidane, then 34, was back to his best in 2006, inspiring France’s run to the final. However, his last act on a football pitch was to headbutt Italy defender Marco Materazzi, a misdemeanour for which he was sent off prior to the Azzurri winning on penalties. 

7. Lothar Matthaus 

🌍: West Germany/ Germany

Lothar MatthausLothar Matthaus holds the record for the most appearances at World Cups, having played in no fewer than 25 matches during an exceptional career. Those outings came across five editions of the tournament, another record he holds jointly with Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon and Mexico duo Rafael Marquez and Antonio Carbajal.

A young Matthaus was a back-up player in 1982, when West Germany were beaten by Italy in the final. Four years later, at the age of 25, the Bayern Munich man was key as the Mannschaft again reached the showpiece event, where he selflessly and effectively man-marked Diego Maradona – yet his admirable efforts were not enough to prevent a 3-2 defeat.

It was third time lucky for Matthaus in 1990, as West Germany won the World Cup for a third time. The midfielder was the heartbeat of his team and he could easily have been named Player of the Tournament. Matthaus also appeared at World Cups in 1994 and 1998, by which time he was 37. Selected as a sweeper in place of the injured Matthias Sammer, Matthaus and Germany were knocked out by Croatia in the quarter-finals.

6. Garrincha 

🌍: Brazil

Garrincha“In the entire history of football no one made more people happy,” Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote of Garrincha. The bow-legged winger was born with a right leg that was six centimetres shorter than his left, but he defied the odds by turning professional – and his rise did not stop there.

Garrincha was included in the Brazil squad for the 1958 World Cup, but he was not initially a starter. Yet the forward forced his way into the XI for the Selecao’s third game against the Soviet Union, and from there he was a guaranteed pick as Brazil went on to win the tournament for the first time ever.

Four years later, Garrincha was even better. The defending champions lost Pele to injury early on, denting their hopes of going all the way for the second tournament on the bounce. That was when Garrincha stepped up. The winger was unstoppable in the knockout phase, scoring twice each against England and Chile to help secure Brazil’s place in the final. Garrincha was not at his best against Czechoslovakia after contracting a fever, but he was still deservedly voted as the Player of the Tournament after Brazil’s 3-1 triumph.

5. Gerd Muller 

🌍: West Germany

Gerd MullerWith 14 goals to his name, Gerd Muller sits third in the list of all-time World Cup top scorers. And when you take goals-per-game into account, the legendary poacher has a far superior record to the two men above him in that ranking.

Muller, a player who famously offered little outside the penalty area but was deadly inside it, only ever featured at two World Cups. His first was in 1970, when he scored two hat-tricks in the group phase (plus the winner against Morocco), before notching the decisive goal against England in the quarter-finals. Muller then bagged a brace against Italy in the semis, taking his tally at the tournament to 10, but was unable to prevent a 4-3 defeat.

Muller was not quite as prolific four years later, but he was far happier given his four goals, including the winner in the final against the Netherlands, contributed to a West German triumph. 

4. Franz Beckenbauer 

🌍: West Germany

Franz BeckenbauerOne of only three men to win the World Cup as both a player and a manager (alongside Mario Zagallo of Brazil and Didier Deschamps of France), Franz Beckenbauer remains one of the greatest footballers in the history of the game.

His World Cup journey began at the 1966 World Cup, when West Germany reached the final and only lost to host nation England in extra time. Beckenbauer played in every game and finished as the third highest scorer, despite playing in central midfield.

In 1970 West Germany reached the semis, where they were beaten 4-3 by Italy in an encounter dubbed the ‘match of the century’. 

Four years later Beckenbauer finally got his hands on the trophy, as West Germany upset the Netherlands in the final. He was the captain at that tournament and was deployed as a sweeper, a role in which he contributed to both the defensive and attacking phases of play.

3. Ronaldo 

🌍: Brazil

Ronaldo Brazil Football PlayerSecond on the list of all-time World Cup top scorers is Ronaldo, who held the record with 15 goals until he was overtaken by Miroslav Klose in 2014. The Brazilian was a non-playing member of his country’s squad for the 1994 edition, which ended with the Selecao holding the trophy aloft for the first time in 24 years.

By the time the 1998 edition came around, Ronaldo was the most exciting talent on the planet. The thrilling 21-year-old scored four goals to help Brazil reach the final, before which he suffered a seizure in mysterious circumstances. Ronaldo was nevertheless selected to face France, but he was a shadow of his usual self as Brazil lost 3-0. Even so, the striker was voted as the tournament’s best player.

Redemption came in Japan and South Korea four years later. Ronaldo finished as the top scorer with eight goals, including a brace in the final against Germany. After some serious knee problems had threatened his career in the years prior to 2002, Ronaldo reminded the world of his qualities on the biggest stage of all. The centre-forward signed off his World Cup career with three more goals in 2006, but Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side were eliminated by France in the quarter-finals.

2. Diego Maradona 

🌍: Argentina

Diego MaradonaAs far as individual performances at a World Cup are concerned, nothing can match Diego Maradona’s exploits in 1986. It is unfair to dismiss that Argentina side, astutely managed by Carlos Bilardo, as a one-man team, but there is no question that they would not have triumphed in Mexico without Maradona in the XI.

The diminutive forward had made his World Cup debut four years earlier, but his tournament ended disappointingly after he was sent off for fouling Brazil’s Batista, having been kicked by opponents throughout the summer. Maradona was more mature in 1986, though, and he managed to keep a lid on his temper despite ample provocation.

His first goal against England in the quarter-final came with his hand, but Maradona’s second is the greatest goal in World Cup history. He notched another brilliant one in the semis against Belgium, before Argentina beat West Germany in the final.

Those two sides met again in the 1990 showpiece, with Maradona once again influential throughout the competition in Italy. Even at the 1994 World Cup, from which he was thrown out in disgrace after failing a drugs test, Maradona showed flashes of brilliance in the group phase. “The best of the lot… a genius,” said Brazilian great Zico.

1. Pele 

🌍: Brazil

PelePele won the World Cup three times during his career, a feat that no other player can match. His first triumph came when he was still a teenager, as Brazil lifted the trophy for the first time in 1958. Pele, like the aforementioned Garrincha, was not a starter at the beginning of that tournament, but he was introduced to the line-up in Brazil’s third game and quickly made himself undroppable.

At the age of just 17, Pele notched a hat-trick against France in the semis, then stuck two past Sweden in a 5-2 victory in the final. It was an astonishing achievement for someone so young.

Pele obtained another winner’s medal in 1962, but he had little impact on that tournament after suffering an injury early on. The 1966 edition was also frustrating for Pele, who received little protection from referees as the holders suffered a shock group stage exit.

But that was not the last we saw of Pele at the World Cup. At Mexico ’70, the 29-year-old was the figurehead of a team that not only won the tournament, but did so by playing beautiful, spellbinding football. Pele scored four times in total, including the opening goal in the 4-1 thrashing of Italy in the final.

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Greg lea

Greg LeaVerified

Featured Football Writing Specialist

London born Greg Lea is a freelance journalist focusing on football. Greg specialises in the Premier League and the Champions League. 

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