Packed with goals, drama, and raw emotion, and built against an intense underdog narrative that carried Argentina through to the final trophy-winning penalty from Gonzalo Montiel, the 2022 World Cup final was one of the most exciting matches in international football history.
And it wasn't just the individual brilliance of Kylian Mbappé or the extreme dramatics of extra time and penalties that clinched that status; much of the match's significance came down to the role of the South American side's captain, Lionel Messi.
While his position as one of the best soccer players of all time was undeniable before the tournament, for many, Messi's lifting of the trophy was all that was needed to confirm his status as the best ever.
That being said, debates of this kind are destined to rage on forever. At its core, football is an extremely tribal game, and each fan is entitled to their own opinion as to who the GOAT is. Allegiances of club and country come into it, and the generation each fan is born into also plays an important role here.
However, there are a number of players whose significance within football history is impossible to argue with. Taking you from the 1950s through to the present article, this article will sketch out that prestigious list, guiding you through some of the most talented technicians to ever play the game.
Narrowing down a list of the best players to have graced the world stage is no mean feat. Unsurprisingly, most of the footballers who have reached star status across the globe have been attackers, capable of capturing the imagination of fans with special moments of creative genius and prowess in front of goal.
However, it's not just out-and-out goalscorers that deserve legendary status, as our collection of the best soccer players of all time will underline. As such, here's our picks for the 9 best soccer players of all time:
Argentina forward Alfredo Di Stefano is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of the 20th century. Having made his name at River Plate, scoring 49 goals in 66 appearances for the Buenos Aires titans, he then moved on to Colombia (where his scoring record was similarly impressive), before completing a pivotal journey to Spain.
Relocated to the Spanish capital, he swiftly became a Real Madrid legend, and one of the greatest footballers in the world. An instrumental part of Madrid's success and dominance in the 1950s and early 1960s, he forged a powerful partnership with Hungarian forward Ferenc Puskas, scoring 216 goals in 282 appearances for the club.
As well as grabbing countless league titles and a staggering five European cups with Real Madrid, he also won a raft of individual awards, including the 1957 and 1959 Ballon d'Or, as well as the even more prestigious one-off 1989 Super Ballon d'Or.
He remains the only player to have won this award, which on its own is probably enough to get him on this list.
Given the term libero by Italian football theorists, the sweeper role was one of the 20th century's most profound tactical developments, in terms of both defensive and offensive play. And arguably the player who typified this position better than anyone else was West Germany's Franz Beckenbauer.
An intelligent, elegant, and technically advanced player who was technically stationed as a central sweeper defender, but who in reality had tons of freedom to roam into midfield and launch attacks, he was a hugely influential player for club and country during the 1960s and 1970s.
He led West Germany to the 1974 World Cup, and won five Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich, as well as three European Cups and a UEFA Cup.
More recently, Beckenbauer headed the successful campaign to win Germany hosting rights for the 2006 World Cup, and his influence over German football continues to this day.
Credited as one of the key architects of Total Football, an influential tactical philosophy developed in the Netherlands that revolved around constant positional rotation and fluidity between players, Johan Cruyff had a profound effect on global football.
As a coach for Ajax and Barcelona in the 1980s and 1990s, he helped develop the skills and minds of football geniuses like Pep Guardiola, meaning his impact continues to felt in the modern era. And as a player for Ajax, Barca, and the Dutch national team, his creative ingenuity, versatility, clever movement, and technical skill was a driving factor behind numerous trophy wins, as well as three Ballon d'Or triumphs, in 1971, 1973, and 1974.
His invention of the famous "Cruyff Turn" technique, a classic skill in the arsenal of any top attacker, is just one aspect of Johan Cruyff's rich footballing legacy.
The most decorated Spanish football player in history, Andres Iniesta was a key figurehead in the nation's remarkable international success in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
Operating as a smart, technical, forward-thinking midfielder alongside the likes of Xavi and Sergio Busquets, he was instrumental in guiding the Spaniards to back-to-back European Championship wins, with a 2010 FIFA World Cup victory sandwiched in the middle for good measure.
A key cog within the tiki taka football machine, Iniesta's passing game was phenomenal, and he supplemented that talent in possession with a knack for clever footwork, inventive skill, and close ball control — his pioneering of the skill La Croqueta adeptly highlights his ingenuity and creativity on the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane broke records during his stint as manager of Real Madrid, winning three consecutive Champions League trophies between 2016 and 2018. But for many football supporters, it's his time as a player that he'll be remembered for.
As part of the iconic 'Les Bleus' side that won both the 1998 FIFA World Cup and the 2000 European Championships, the Frenchman cemented his legacy as one of the most talented attacking midfielders the game has ever seen. At club level, he was a star player for clubs such as Bordeaux, Juventus, and Real Madrid, where he perfectly represented the club's famous 'Galacticos' model of the noughties.
Known for his elegance, intelligent movement, magical footwork and creative vision, the 1998 Ballon d'Or winner fully deserves to be regarded as one of the best soccer players of all time.
Since bursting onto the scene as a tricky young winger with Sporting and then Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo has turned himself into an absolute machine of a player, a goalscoring specialist who has broken countless records on the European and world stage (he's the all-time Champions League top scorer with 140 goals and the all-time top scorer in international football with 123 goals in 200 appearances for Portugal).
He has five Champions League trophies, seven domestic titles, five Ballon d'Ors, and numerous other accolades to his name, as well as an against-the-odds European Championship win with Portugal in 2016. There's no denying the impact that CR7 has had on the game, as he's tussled repeatedly with perceived rival Lionel Messi for the status of 'greatest player in the world'.
His move to the Saudi Pro League has seen him step back from the elite stage, yet Cristiano Ronaldo remains one of the highest-paid and most culturally dominant athletes in the world at the age of 38.
In 2000, FIFA crowned legendary Brazilian forward Pelé the "Player of the Century". It's hard to argue with that accolade, particularly when you look at the attacking record of Brazil's joint all-time top scorer: playing throughout Santos' golden era, in which he led the club to victory in the 1962 and 1963 Copa Libertadores and the 1962 and 1963 Intercontinental Cup, Pelé scored a remarkable 643 goals in 659 games.
One of the Brazil icon's most famous quotes is "The more difficult the victory, the greater happiness in winning" — and while he's sometimes harshly criticised for never having tested himself in a European league, the fact that he remains the only player in world football history to win three World Cups (1958, 1962, and 1970) is an undeniable testament to his triumphing against the odds to become one of the greatest ever soccer players.
Not many people have touched the world of football in the way that Diego Maradona has. The Argentina legend, who was pivotal in Argentina's famous 1986 World Cup win in Mexico, also transformed the fate of Serie A side Napoli during his seven-year spell at the club from 1984 to 1991.
Winning numerous domestic titles and trophies and capturing the hearts and minds of fans everywhere he went with his mix of pure passion and unparalleled technical skill, he remains an iconic figure across the world. Maradona's death in 2020 was a major blow to the beautiful game, but the former Argentina captain's memory lives on in many ways.
There are the skills he pioneered, such as the Maradona Turn, and the 'El Diego' murals that decorate the streets of Naples. But above all, there are the hundreds and hundreds of memories of the magic moments he produced on the pitch.
Where else to end this list? Messi's iconic 2022 World Cup win with Argentina was the jewel in the crown for a player who has now won everything there is to win.
The Barcelona legend, who racked up an astonishing 672 in 778 games for the Catalan giants, has come up against some doubters in his homeland, where he's sometimes struggled against constant comparisons with the World Cup-winning Maradona.
But his talismanic performances and incredible leadership during both the 2021 Copa America triumph and the Qatar tournament the following year cemented his prestigious place in Argentine folklore for all time.
His graceful movement, dynamic passing, sharp vision, and prolific creativity and goalscoring — at the time of writing, in his 1028 career appearances he's notched a staggering 807 goals and 357 assists — means that whatever happens next in Messi's career, his name will go down as arguably the greatest football player of all time.