Football is a global sport, played by millions of people across the planet. And whether you're on the beaches of Brazil, the streets of Spain, or the muddy fields of England, there's one thing that you can always expect to find amongst young people playing the game: an adoration for world-class attackers.
Strikers are often the most beloved players on a team, grabbing the headlines and inspiring fans in a way that many players in other positions simply can't manage. A wide variety of special talents have made a name for themselves in the striker position over the years; in this article, we'll be taking you through some of the very best, as well as explaining the role of a striker in soccer.
A striker is typically the most important attacking player on the team. Strikers are the most advanced players on the soccer field, tasked with leading the offensive line, scoring goals and interacting with other forwards and midfielders to create chances.
Sometimes, strikers will play up front on their own, in a formation such as 4-5-1. On other occasions, they will operate within a duo, in a shape like 4-4-2, and sometimes you'll even see three out-and-out strikers on the pitch for one team. This reflects an important reality — the striker role can vary a lot.
There are big, burly lone frontmen who rely on their physical attributes and bully defenders for 90 minutes. There are small, tricky players with great movement and the tactical knowledge to outfox opponents. And there are speedy, sharp-shooting Number 9s who look to play off the shoulder and get in behind a back line. What these different jobs have in common is a dependence on goals; strikers are all about scoring and helping teammates score. It's the most attacking position on the pitch, and a number of different skills are needed for a player to perform effectively within the striker role.
Strikers are the heartbeat of any attack, the pivotal point of an offensive lineup. In order to operate effectively in this role, a variety of skills and abilities are needed.
In a way, being a striker is all about movement. Forwards need to be clever with the way they position themselves; by filling the gap between two central defenders they can cause confusion about who should be marking them, or by dropping deep they can drag defenders out of position and create gaps for other attackers to exploit. Strikers also need to be able to complete forward runs that help get them beyond the opposition back line, timing these runs effectively so that they remain onside and manage to get on the end of teammates' passes.
Strikers can come in all different shapes and sizes. Take Manchester City, for example — two of their greatest strikers in recent years are Sergio Aguero, a small, agile, intelligent forward, and Erling Haaland, a huge, physically imposing presence with a lethal finish. The difference between the two shows that you don't have to be a certain body type to be effective in this position; however, all strikers should have a base level of physical strength that allows them to compete with defenders and hold their own, shielding the ball and using their body to get themselves in advantageous situations and win fouls in dangerous areas. Impressive physical attributes will always be useful to a striker.
Perhaps the most important skill of all is finishing; strikers need to be able to put away chances in a range of different positions, using their killer instinct, positional knowledge, and composure in front of goal to ensure that they remain calm and are able to put as many chances as possible in the back of the net. Whether it's a glanced header at the front post, a drilled finish from one side of goal into the far corner, or a calmly slotted one-on-one that leaves the keeper with no chance of making a save, strikers need to have a real range of finishes in their arsenal.
Another facet of the striker role is hold-up play, which essentially means picking up the ball and shielding it from opponents, creating time and space for movement from teammates and bringing them into the game. It could be controlling a lofted pass and holding off a defender until a pass can be made, or stalling a run to help play a killer one-two with a teammate, and it can be displayed in pretty much any area of the field. Hold-up play is one of the more unselfish traits that a striker must possess.
Below is a list of some of the finest players to have played in the striker position, going from the present day back to the 1950s, when the global footballing landscape was extremely different.
Thought by many to be the best striker Germany has ever produced — despite the illustrious records of players such as Miroslav Klose, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, and Jurgen Klinsmann — Gerd Muller is a legend of the European game. The Bayern Munich and West Germany centre forward won pretty much everything there is to win, including the 1974 World Cup, the 1972 European Championship, the 1970 Ballon d'Or, and the UEFA Champions League, scoring hundreds of goals for club and country during the 1960s and 1970s.
A strong, aggressive, talismanic figure with wonderful technical ability and a dazzling array of finishes in his locker, Luis Suarez has shone at every single club he's played at. A key pioneer in Liverpool's (ultimately unsuccessful) charge for the Premier League title under Brendan Rogers, he's been at his best in La Liga with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, winning numerous La Liga titles, a Champions League trophy, and a Copa America with Uruguay (amongst other honours), and scoring a whopping 482 career goals along the way.
If you've got a prestigious international award with your name on it, it's a pretty good testament to your impact on the global game. The Puskas Award is an annual accolade given to the male or female footballer judged to have scored the "most beautiful" goal of the calendar year. And the naming is pretty apt; Ferenc Puskas was a marvelously talented forward who played for Hungary and Real Madrid (as well as Hungarian giants Budapest Honved earlier on) in the middle of the 20th century, known for his excellent technique and prolific goalscoring ability.
The "original" Ronaldo is one of the most influential strikers to have walked the planet, capturing hearts and minds across the world with his wondrous dribbling, explosive finishing and charismatic personality. The Brazil legend won the 2002 World Cup with his country and played for a host of elite clubs including Real Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, and Internazionale, eventually retiring with Corinthians in 2011.
Widely viewed as one of the greatest players of all time, his goalscoring record speaks for itself. With 128 goals for Portugal, he is the all-time world record holder for international goals and even at 38 is likely to add significantly more to that tally. Even more impressive, his scoring record across both his club and international career currently stands at 858 goals in 1188 games, with his spell at Real Madrid seeing him hit more than a goal per game. Had it not been for a certain Lionel Messi, these numbers would be seen as near impossible.
Not many players have made an impact on the Premier League like Thierry Henry. The Frenchman was one of Arsene Wenger's earliest signings, becoming a pivotal force behind their first-ever Premier League title win in 2001/02, and their invincible campaign in 2003/04. Henry would often drift wide onto the left flank, destroying full-backs and centre-backs alike with mazy dribbling, lightning-fast footwork, and intelligent movement, but his career goal tally of 366 ensures he's known not as a winger but as one of the best strikers of all time.
In the 1990s, Brazil's squad was packed with iconic stars such as Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, and Dunga. However, many fans would say that the most inspiring, legendary player of that era was striker Romario, an insanely clinical finisher who scored over 700 career goals and was pivotal in clinching Brazil's 1994 World Cup win. He played all over the world, from South America to Europe and the Middle East, and has a remarkable record of having notched over 100 goals for three different clubs: Vasco de Gama, Flamengo, and PSV.
Portuguese giants Benfica are known across the world as a talent factory, a place that develops world-class young players at a rapid rate. Some incredible footballers have passed through the doors over the years, but Eusebio is widely considered to be the best of all. The Portuguese forward was an out-and-out striker known for his speed, technique, athleticism and sharp shooting, his prolific record of 577 goals in 582 club games highlighting his ability in front of goal, and Benfica's incredible 11 league titles in 15 years between 1960 and 1975 showing how crucial his goalscoring form was for the Lisbon outfit.
This list would not be complete without the striker dubbed by many "the greatest footballer of all time". The only man to have won the World Cup three times (in 1958, 1962 and 1970), Pele is a true great, in every sense of the word. He scored a ridiculous 643 goals in 659 games for Santos, dazzling the Brazilian domestic league, twice winning the Copa Libertadores, and consistently showcasing his beautiful footwork, prolific finishing and leadership skills on the world stage with his country. His death in December 2022 was a real loss to the world of football.
Dutch legend Marco Van Basten was an extremely intelligent footballer, a central striker with clever movement, excellent ball skills, aerial ability and powerful striking skills. A giant player for Ajax and then Milan in the 1980s and 1990s, Van Basten is one of the Netherlands' most influential footballing figures, surpassed in quality perhaps only by Johan Cruyff.
Thought by many to be Real Madrid's greatest ever player, Alfredo di Stefano is a legend of the global game, his status as one of only two players to have been involved in all of Madrid's five consecutive European Cup wins (1955-1960) showing his impact in Spain. The Argentina-born forward was a powerful, quick, technical striker, and a prolific goalscorer, registering 509 goals in 706 career appearances.
If you'd like to find out more about this unique position, check out our guide to the role of the striker in soccer.