The Soccer Pantheon: 25 Players Who Define the Sport’s Legacy

cristiano ronaldo

Soccer, football, association football, the beautiful game. However you refer to it, it's the most played, most watched, and one of the oldest sports on the planet.

In this piece, we'll take you through the 25 players who, dead or alive, are the most famous and instantly recognizable in 2023, ending with the biggest star in the world today.

1. Son Heung-min

Son Heung-min
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Son Heung-min is a South Korean professional footballer who plays as a forward for Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League and captains the South Korean national team. He is regarded as one of the best wingers in the world and has previously played for Bayer Leverkusen and Hamburger SV in the German Bundesliga.

2. Abedi Pele

Abedi Pele
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Abedi Pele is a retired Ghanaian professional footballer who was an attacking midfielder. He started his professional career in 1980, in his native Ghana, with Real Tamale United and went on to star in Europe with the likes of Marseille and Lyon in France's Ligue 1, Torino in Italy's Serie A, and 1860 Munich in Germany's Bundesliga, as well as in Asia with Al Sadd of Qatar and Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates.

3. Thierry Henry

Thierry Henry
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Thierry Henry is a retired French professional footballer who played as a striker. He played for Monaco in France's Ligue 1, Juventus in Italy's Serie A, Arsenal in England's Premier League, Barcelona in Spain's La Liga, and New York Red Bulls in America's MLS. He also played for the French national team, earning 123 caps and scoring 51 goals, making him the second-top scorer in the team's history at the time of writing. Fans see him as one of the best strikers in history and the Premier League's best-ever player.

4. Lev Yasmin

Lev Yasmin
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Goalkeepers generally attain different levels of fame and glory than their outfield counterparts, but it would be remiss not to include arguably the greatest of all time on this list. Lev Yashin was a Soviet professional footballer who spent his entire career with Dynamo Moscow. He was capped 74 times by the Soviet Union national team. He's a genuine footballing icon who sadly died from stomach cancer in 1990.

5. Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Gareth Bale is a retired Welsh professional footballer who played as a winger. He started his professional career with Southampton in the English second tier before moving up a league to Premier League Tottenham Hotspur. Bale then moved to Spain's Real Madrid in La Liga for a world record fee of £85.1 million (€100.8 million). He finished his career in the United States with the MLS team Los Angeles FC.

6. Kylian Mbappé

Kylian Mbappé
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

The heir to the shared throne of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the King of Football is Kylian Mbappé. Mbappé is a French professional footballer who plays as a forward for Paris Saint-Germain in France's Ligue 1 and the French national team. He previously played for Monaco, also in Ligue 1.

7. Erling Haaland

Erling Haaland
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Hot on the heels of Mbappé is Erling Haaland. Haaland is a Norwegian professional footballer who plays as a striker for Manchester City in the English Premier League and the Norwegian national team. He previously played for Bryne and Molde in his native Norway, Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, and Borussia Dortmund in Germany's Bundesliga.

8. Luka Modrić

Luka Modrić
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Luka Modrić is a Croatian professional footballer who plays as a midfielder for Real Madrid and captains the Croatian national team. He was previously on the books at Dinamo Zagreb in his native country and Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League.

9. Karim Benzema

Karim Benzema
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Karim Benzema is a French professional footballer who plays as a striker for Saudi Professional League club Al-Ittihad and, before his international retirement, the French national team. He previously captained Real Madrid in Spain's La Liga and played for Lyon in France's Ligue 1.

10. George Best

George Best
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

George Best was a Northern Irish professional footballer. He played as a winger and attacking midfielder. He played 37 times for the Northern Ireland national team and scored nine goals. He started his professional career at Manchester United in England and spent most of his playing days there. He went on to play for several other English clubs, Jewish Guild in South Africa, Cork Celtic in Ireland, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and San Jose Earthquakes in the United States, Hibernian in Scotland, and Brisbane Lions in Australia.

11. Franz Beckenbauer

Franz Beckenbauer
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Franz Beckenbauer is a retired German professional footballer nicknamed “Der Kaiser” because of his dominance on the field of play. He played in defense for Bayern Munich and Hamburger SV in his native country's Bundesliga, New York Cosmos in the American NASL, and the West Germany national team. The world of football credits him with inventing the role of the modern sweeper, and he's seen as one of the finest players of his type ever to step foot on a soccer pitch.

12. Paolo Maldini

Paolo Maldini
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Paulo Maldini is an Italian former professional footballer who played as a defender. He spent his entire club career with AC Milan in Italy's Serie A, racking up 902 games, 647 of which were in the league, making him the player with the most appearances for Milan and second-most in Serie A. He played 126 times for Italy and is the country's third-most-capped player.

13. Kaká

Kaká
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Kaká is a retired Brazilian professional footballer who was an attacking midfielder and playmaker. He played for São Paulo in his native Brazil, AC Milan in Italy's Serie A, Real Madrid in Spain's La Liga, and Orlando City in America's Major League Soccer. He played 92 times for his country, scoring 19 goals.

14. Neymar

Neymar
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Neymar is a Brazilian professional footballer who is a forward for Paris Saint Germain in France's Ligue 1 and the Brazil national team. He has previously played for Santos in his homeland and Barcelona in Spain's La Liga.

Individually, Neymar won 2011's World Soccer Young Player of the Year, the 2011 FIFA Puskás Award, and the South American Footballer of the Year award in 2011 and 2012.

15. Eusébio

Eusébio
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Eusébio was a Portuguese professional footballer who played as a striker. He spent most of his career in his homeland with Benfica, scoring an incredible 317 goals in 301 games. He also played for several smaller Portuguese clubs, in the United States for Boston Minutemen, Las Vegas Quicksilvers, and the New Jersey Americans, in Mexico for Monterrey, and Canada for Toronto Metros-Croatia. He played 64 times for Portugal, scoring 41 goals.

16. Zlatan Ibrahimović

Zlatan Ibrahimović
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Zlatan Ibrahimović is a recently retired Swedish professional footballer who was a striker. He started his career in his native Sweden with Malmo. Subsequently, he played in the Netherlands with Ajax, in Italy's Serie A with Juventus, Inter Milan, and AC Milan, in Spain's La Liga with Barcelona, in France's Ligue 1 with Paris Saint Germain, in England's Premier League with Manchester United, and America's MLS with Los Angeles Galaxy. He played 122 times for Sweden, scoring 62 goals, making him his country's record goalscorer.

17. David Beckham

David Beckham
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

David Beckham is a retired English professional footballer who played as a midfielder. He played for Manchester United in his native England's Premier League, Real Madrid in Spain's La Liga, Los Angeles Galaxy in America's MLS, AC Milan in Italy's Serie A, and Paris Saint Germain in France's Ligue 1. He played for England 125 times, making him the country's third-most-capped player, and scored 17 goals.

18. Zinedine Zidane

Zinedine Zidane
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Zinedine Zidane is a French former professional footballer who was a midfielder. He started his career with Cannes in his native country's Ligue 1 before moving to Bordeaux in the same division, then on to Juventus in Italy's Serie A, and finishing his career with Real Madrid in Spain's La Liga. He played 108 times for France, scoring 31 goals.

Infamously, Zidane was given a red card in the 2006 World Cup final for headbutting Italy defender Marco Materazzi, who had reportedly insulted his mother.

19. Johan Cruyff

Johan Cruyff
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Johan Cruyff was a Dutch professional footballer who was a forward and attacking midfielder. He started his career in his native Netherlands with Ajax, going on to play for Barcelona and Levante in Spain's La Liga, in America for Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats, and finished his career back in his homeland with Feyenoord. He played for the Netherlands national team 48 times, scoring 33 goals.

20. Ronaldo

Ronaldo
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Ronaldo is a retired Brazilian professional footballer who played as a striker. Known as R9 to differentiate him from Cristiano Ronaldo, he started his career in his native Brazil with Cruzeiro before playing in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven, in Spain's La Liga with Barcelona and Real Madrid, in Italy's Serie A with Inter Milan and AC Milan, and ending his playing days back home with Corinthians. He played 98 times for Brazil, scoring 62 times.

21. Ronaldinho

Ronaldinho
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Ronaldinho is a retired Brazilian professional footballer who was an attacking midfielder and winger. He started his career in his homeland with Grêmio, then moved to France's Ligue 1 with Paris Saint Germain, Spain's La Liga to play for Barcelona, and Italy's Serie A for AC Milan. He also played for Querétaro in Mexico and Brazil's Flamengo, Atlético Mineiro, and Fluminense, where he saw out his playing days.

22. Diego Maradona

Diego Maradona
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Diego Maradona was an Argentine professional footballer who was an attacking midfielder and second striker. He's in the conversation regarding the best-ever footballer and was one of the two joint winners of the FIFA Player of the 20th Century award. He started his career in his homeland with Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors, then played for Barcelona and Sevilla in Spain's La Liga, Napoli in Italy's Serie A, and Newell's Old Boys back in Argentina. Maradona returned to Boca Juniors to see out his playing days.

Maradona abused substances throughout his life and suffered medical issues as a result. He sadly died from cardiac arrest in 2020 at the age of 60.

23. Pelé

Pele
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Pelé was a Brazilian professional footballer who was an attacking midfielder and forward. He spent most of his career in his native Brazil with Santos, where he played 1106 games and scored an incredible 1091 goals. Pelé finished his career in the United States with the New York Cosmos. He played 92 times for Brazil, scoring 77 times, making him the current joint-top scorer with Neymar at the time of writing.

24. Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Lionel Messi is an Argentine professional footballer who is an attacking midfielder and forward. He started his professional career at La Liga's Barcelona in Spain, where he played 778 games and scored 672 goals, making him the player with the most appearances for the club, the most goals, and the player with the most goals for a single team in football history. Messi moved to Paris Saint Germain in France's Ligue 1 in 2021 and will join Inter Miami in America's MLS in the second half of 2023.

25. Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Cristiano Ronaldo is a Portuguese professional footballer who plays as a forward. Known as CR7 to differentiate him from Brazilian Ronaldo, he started his career at Sporting Lisbon in his homeland before playing for Manchester United in the English Premier League (twice), Real Madrid in Spain's La Liga, Juventus in Italy's Serie A, and Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia, where he currently plies his trade. He captains the Portugal national team, for whom he has played 198 times and scored 122 goals, making him the country's most-capped and highest-scoring player.

A Special Mention

Mia Hamm
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

A special mention must go to stars such as Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Alexia Putellas, Lucy Bronze, Sam Kerr, Vivianne Miedema, and the many talented players who have put the women's game on the global map.

In 2004, Hamm and Akers were included in the FIFA 100, which was Pelé's list of the 125 greatest living players, making them the only two females chosen. Since then, the female stars of the sport have elevated the game to a new level, and they are fast becoming as recognizable as their male counterparts. It's only a matter of time before the biggest names in the sport make their way onto lists like this.

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Writer and editor with ten years of experience working full-time in this capacity. I've written over 2000 pieces of published work and managed teams of 50+ writers. I've produced content for some of the world's most prominent entertainment and sports platforms. My published work includes feature articles, news and opinion pieces, listicles, quizzes, voice-over scripts, viral content, and more. I'm a British 80s kid who loves movies (horror, superhero stuff, and all things 80s are my favorites), boxing, and football (soccer), a former business owner and executive headhunter, and a Tottenham Hotspur FC fan for my sins.