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Messi and Ronaldo tussle to become the legend of football

Lionel Messi is the legend of football. He has the highest goal involvements and has the best per 90 stats among everyone over the course of his career. Messi has also been extremely consistent throughout the past decade. Lionel Messi is also one of the most well rounded players the game has ever seen and is equally efficient at scoring goals as he is at creating them, an advantage he has over his rival Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Who is the legend of football? This question is extremely common and often comes up in several debates involving the Beautiful Game. Football fans are often confused and split when it comes to deciding on the greatest football players of all time.

Professional football has been around for a long time and has a rich history spanning over a century. During that period, the game has seen several changes and has undergone transformations starting from rules to tactics and strategies to players’ diet and fitness regimes. Therefore, comparing players across different eras is a difficult endeavour.

However, world-class players always leave their mark no matter which generation they are playing, which opponents they are facing, or what the circumstances are. Thankfully, the sport of football has seen several legends over the years who have dominated like nothing else on the world stage. These great athletes have wowed and mesmerized fans all over the world with their supreme talent and have left behind incredible legacies.

An important factor while determining who is the legend of football is consistency. Talented players alone are not enough, they have to showcase their abilities, and skills and bring out their best game for a long enough time period to be considered among the best of the best.

In the list below, we’ll try to discuss exactly that.

Who is the legend of football? Top 10 list

PlayerCountryPositionYears ActiveMatches PlayedCareer GoalsCareer Assists
Lionel MessiArgentinaForward2004 – present974769331
Diego MaradonaArgentinaForward1976 – 199749125979
PeleBrazilForward1956 – 1977812757343
Johan CruyffThe NetherlandsMidfielder1964 – 198465237781
Zinedine ZidaneFranceMidfielder1989 – 200679915645
RonaldoBrazilStriker1993 – 201162041820
Cristiano RonaldoPortugalForward2002 – present1122815230
Alfredo di StefanoArgentina, SpainMidfielder1945 – 19665143992
XaviSpainMidfielder1998 – 20191051125133
Franz BeckenbauerGermanyDefender1964 – 19837389156

Lionel Messi | Argentina

Club TeamNational TeamCareer
Appearances812162974
Goals68386769
Goals per 900.920.580.87
Assists28249331
Goal contribution per 901.30.91.23

Lionel Messi is arguably the greatest footballer in football history. While nostalgia and survivorship bias may make plenty of people lean towards the likes of Diego Maradona and Pele in the Greatest of All Time or GOAT debate, make no mistake, Messi is perhaps the most talented player to ever grace a football pitch.

Bursting on to the scene as a fresh-faced kid from Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, Lionel Messi went on to establish himself as the best player in the world under the tutelage of the legendary manager Pep Guardiola. During this period, Barcelona cemented its status as one of the greatest teams in football history with Messi running things at its core.

A child prodigy, he went on to live up to that epic potential and his consistency and genius put him ahead of everyone else in the modern era. While football has seen plenty of goalscorers and playmakers, rarely has a player been as brilliant and efficient at both. Messi has consistently defied expectations of what a football player is capable of.

Lionel Messi has led Barcelona to four Champions League titles and with seven Ballon d’Or wins, is the most decorated individual player in history. He has had a legendary club career that has seen him winning everything – La Liga, Champions League, Copa del Rey, FIFA Club World Cup as well as the UEFA Super Cup. Managers in Spain often used to say that it’s impossible to beat a team with Messi in the pursuit of a league title, which just goes to demonstrate his unbelievable consistency.

However, Messi’s career with Argentina has been polarising. Growing up in the shadow of one Diego Maradona, he has always felt the pressure on his shoulders. On four occasions, the diminutive and elegant Argentina number 10 has fallen one step short of silverware with Argentina which includes the infamous World Cup final against Germany in 2014.

So great was the pressure of the shirt that he even retired from the national team briefly only to return after two months at the request of millions of Argentina and football fans all over the world. Fortunately, things have turned around for Messi with Argentina and he finally won the Copa America tournament in 2021, after defeating arch-rivals Brazil in the final at the Maracana Stadium. Argentina have also won La Finalissima against Italy recently and look like one of the favourites for the World Cup later this year.

“Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him, just watch him,” Guardiola said about Messi’s innate genius.

Diego Maradona | Argentina

The strongest personality to ever step foot on a football pitch, Diego Maradona was a magician of the highest order. His entire life and career was perhaps captured in that 1986 World Cup quarter-final match against England in Mexico.

First, there was the dodgy ‘Hand of God’ goal that leapt over Peter Shilton and diverted the ball into the back of the net. It was a sign of Diego’s failings – substance abuse that affected his career, unprofessionalism, and a history of violence and bad company.

However, that was immediately followed by a moment that transcended mortal beings and eclipsed divinity. Maradona took the ball in his own half and dribbled past the entire England squad to score arguably the most famous goal of all time. This describes the genius and charisma of a man who is regarded as a God in his native country of Argentina and has a Church with thousands of worshippers.

“Maradona, turns like a little eel and comes away from trouble, little squat man… comes inside Butcher and leaves him for dead, outside Fenwick and leaves him for dead, and puts the ball away… and that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the world.” —Bryon Butler BBC Radio commentary on Maradona’s second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup.

Elected the FIFA World Player of the Century along with Pele following the turn of the millennium, Maradona also had a legendary career in European football with Napoli. At Naples, he single-handedly dragged the club to two Serie A titles beating the likes of Milan, Inter, and Juventus. He also won the UEFA Cup with them in 1989.

Prior to his adventures in Italy, Maradona also spent a few years with Barcelona in Spain. In fact, it was his first exploits in Europe and he took little time to announce himself to the world. So miraculous were his performances with Barcelona, that he even received a standing ovation from hostile Real Madrid fans at the Santiago Bernabeu in El Clasico. He won the Copa del Rey and Supercopa Espana during his time in Barcelona.

Maradona is regarded as the most famous son of Naples and Napoli also retired the number 10 jersey in his honour. Following his untimely demise, tributes poured in from all over the world and Napoli even named the stadium The Diego Maradona Stadium in his memory.

Pele | Brazil

Regarded as the king of Football, Pele’s exploits in international football are known to almost everyone. Pele is the only player in history to win three World Cups. He led the famous Brazilian national team to triumph in 1958, 1962, and 1970. That alone warrants him a place in the conversation of one of the most influential sportspeople of all time.

Like Maradona, he was labelled as the greatest player of the previous century by FIFA. He was also named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee and Time Magazine also included him in the list of 100 most important people of the 20th century.

With 77 goals in 92 matches, Pele is the all-time leading goal-scorer for Brazil. He is also the highest scorer in the history of Santos with 643 goals in 659 matches. Pele led the golden period of dominance for Santos where they won the 1962 and 1963 Copa Libertadores as well as the Intercontinental Cup.

Including friendlies, he is said to be the highest goalscorer in football history with 1279 goals in 1363 matches, which is a Guinness World Record. Pele is also the youngest ever player to score in a World Cup and he found the back of the net twice in the final of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.

Although he played just one match in the 1962 World Cup, he cemented his legacy as one of the greatest following a hugely successful 1970 World Cup campaign. Brazil played a rich and marvellous brand of football with Pele at its centre and he also won the Golden Ball for his exploits. Therefore, it is not surprising to find out that many people across the world mention Pele’s name when asked who is the legend of football?

Johan Cruyff | Netherlands

No single individual has had as big of an impact on European football as Johan Cruyff. One of the greatest pioneers and philosophers the sport has seen, Cruyff was famous for championing the idea of ‘Total Football’ with Ajax, Barcelona as well as the Netherlands National Team. He learnt his trade from Rinus Michels and was one of the most aesthetic and ingenious footballers ever.

Cruyff’s famous move ‘The Cruyff Turn’ was based on simplicity and efficiency. A one-touch move that involved a change of direction but completely overthrew the opposition. Winner of the Ballon d’Or thrice during his career, Cruyff created a unique legacy with Ajax and Barcelona that is visible in the cultures of both clubs to this day.

He is regarded as the godfather of Barcelona and helped the club reach the pinnacle of success, first as a player and then as a manager. As a player playing for the Catalan club, he helped them win their first league title in 14 years and also starred in the famous 5-0 win against Real Madrid, becoming an instant cult hero.

He introduced the art of quick passing, total football and ensured that technique was the king on the pitch. During his tenure as manager of the club, where Barcelona won their first Champions League title (then known as the European Cup) in 1992, Cruyff put more emphasis on La Masia and it is because of his efforts that players like Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta were able to succeed.

Johan Cruyff was also part of the greatest ever team to not win the World Cup trophy. The Netherlands national team came close in 1974, but finished as runners-up against West Germany.

“If you look at the greatest players in history, most of them couldn’t coach. If you look at the greatest coaches in history, most of them were not great players. Johan Cruyff did both – and in such an exhilarating style,” said his former teammate Johan Neeskens.

Cristiano Ronaldo | Portugal

One of the greatest footballers of the modern generation, Cristiano Ronaldo’s knack for goal, his ability to avoid defenders, his fitness, professionalism, and his dominance in the air make him truly one of the most feared goal-scorers that the game has ever seen.

Identified as a young precociously talented teen at Sporting CP in Portugal and brought to Manchester United by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, Ronaldo quickly went on to become one of the most recognizable names in the world due to his grit, determination and hunger to succeed. During his first spell with United, he won three Premier League titles and also the UEFA Champions League and Ballon d’Or.

However, it was with Real Madrid where the Portuguese superstar truly cemented his legacy as one of the best. Multiple goals, broken records, and Champions League titles followed as Cristiano Ronaldo went on to become a global brand synonymous with success and resilience in football. He also won the first international trophy in Portugal’s history following their European Championship win in 2016.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner also plied his trade for Juventus in Serie A before securing a dream return to the English Premier League with Manchester United. Cristiano Ronaldo currently holds the record for being the highest goal-scorer in professional football as well as the highest goal-scorer in international football.

Zinedine Zidane | France

Winner of the Ballon d’Or in 1998, Zinedine Zidane is one of only four footballers to have scored in multiple FIFA World Cup finals. He conquered the 1998 World Cup on his home soil in France and established himself as a genuine world-class player with his performance against Brazil in the final.

Having scored a brace of headed goals in the final, Zidane secured France’s much-awaited and maiden World Cup victory against favorites Brazil. He became an overnight hero and icon of world football and he followed it up with stunning performances in Euro 2000, where France won again. Zidane was crowned the player of the tournament because of his wonderful performance.

Besides his international success, he was also instrumental in the history of both Juventus and Real Madrid. Technically brilliant, Zidane embodied the qualities of a perfect attacking midfielder and his ball control truly made him a class apart.

In the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen, he scored his most famous goal in a white shirt after volleying the ball with a left-footed shot from outside the box. The Frenchman was a big game player and he excelled during decisive moments.

However, Zinedine Zidane is also remembered for a moment of controversy when he headbutted Marco Materazzi and was sent off in the 2006 FIFA World Cup final against Italy, where France ended on the losing side.

Zidane has also been able to emulate his successes as a player following his retirement. As a coach of Real Madrid, he became the first to win three consecutive Champions League titles. He also led them to a La Liga title and is currently one of the most coveted coaches in world football.

Ronaldo | Brazil

Ronaldo has had a very unique career in professional football. Having played for Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Inter Milan, he has no haters and is loved and respected by all. That just goes to show the level of wizardry ‘O Fenomeno’ (The Phenomenon) Ronaldo was capable of.

If one had to design a lethal striker from scratch, Ronaldo would be it. Strong, physical, he was also technically efficient, had great speed, and was able to break the ankles of defenders for fun. He also had predatory goalscoring instincts. The legend of football had never seen a player like him before and is unlikely to see ever again.

Ronaldo burst onto the scene as a fiercely talented teenager with Cruzeiro in Brazil. He made the move to Europe with PSV Eindhoven and announced himself on the big stage with Barcelona where he scored 47 goals in a single season, leaving everyone dazed and mesmerized.

However, his stay in Barcelona was brief as he departed to Inter Milan for a world record fee. Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or award in 1997 and 2002 and also led Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002. He was also one of the best players in the 1998 World Cup campaign, scoring three goals and providing four assists. Unfortunately, he wasn’t healthy for the final where Brazil succumbed to hosts France.

Ronaldo’s professional career was cut short due to frequent knee injuries. Despite bursts of brilliance with Real Madrid and AC Milan in the second of his career, he started to fade away. “There were two Ronaldos: the one that returned after long-term injury in 2002 was a great goalscorer, but the 1990s version was a great everything. At his fearsome peak for PSV, Barcelona, and Inter Milan, he was arguably the most dangerous striker the world has ever seen,” said reputed journalist Rob Smyth of the Guardian.

Ronaldo is now the owner of Spanish club Real Valladolid and he also bought a controlling stake in his boyhood club Cruzeiro, investing $70 million in the club.

Alfredo Di Stefano | Argentina, Spain

One of the greatest players in the history of Real Madrid and a man responsible for much of their dominance, Alfredo Di Stefano was one of the earliest geniuses in world football. He had a legendary and storied 20-year-long career where he was among the best of the best for most of that period.

His achievements with Real Madrid are quite staggering. He had scored 307 goals in 396 appearances and won 15 titles with Los Blancos, including five European Cup victories. Playing alongside legendary players Ferenc Puskas and Paco Gento, he was crucial in big games and holds the record for being the only player to find the back of the net in five European Cup finals.

“He revolutionised forward play by his box-to-box mobility, his willingness to tackle back and his mastery of the attacking arts – shooting, close control, heading power and an eye for the most telling pass. A perfect footballer,” said journalist Mike Langley about Di Stefano.

Xavi | Spain

Xavi is arguably the most complete and intelligent midfielder that the modern game has seen. Not the tallest or the most physical, yet Xavi was able to dominate an entire midfield all by himself. He led the famous midfields of Barcelona and Spain with Andres Iniesta during their unprecedented era of dominance between 2008 and 2012. Xavi is perhaps the most talented footballer to not win a Ballon d’Or.

Having coming up through the ranks of La Masia, he received his education directly inspired by Johan Cruyff’s teachings. Xavi took some to establish himself in the Barcelona midfield under Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard, but once he had found his footing, he quickly became renowned all over the world for his passing, vision, ball retention, long ball and ability to get out of tight spaces.

He won eight La Liga titles and four UEFA Champions League trophies with Barcelona and he was also a star in Spain’s UEFA Euro 2008 and 2012 triumphs as well as their maiden FIFA World Cup win in South Africa in 2010. With two assists in the UEFA Euro 2012, he became the first player to register two assists in two successive European finals after also setting up Fernando Torres’ match-winning goal in 2008.

Having retired from football, he is now into management and in November 2021, he returned to childhood club Barcelona as their coach.

Franz Beckenbauer | Germany

In a list full of forwards and midfielders, Franz Beckenbauer is a genuine exception. Nicknamed ‘Der Kaiser’ (The King) because of his elegant style as well as dominance and leadership on the field. His first name ‘Franz’ was also similar to Austrian emperors of the 19th century and Beckenbauer is a true legend of football.

Having started out as a midfielder, Beckenbauer switched to central defence and is credited for inventing the role of the sweeper (libero) in modern football. He is one of only three men besides Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and France’s Didier Deschamps to win the FIFA World Cup both as a player and a manager.

He led West Germany to World Cup success in 1974 against Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands side. Beckenbauer had even played a match in the 1970 World Cup with a dislocated shoulder because Germany had run out of substitutions.

No one could get past the German brick wall and he also had a storied career with German behemoths Bayern Munich, winning four Bundesliga titles and three European Cups with them. He was also awarded the Ballon d’Or in 1972 and 1976.

Beckenbauer also led Germany to a World Cup triumph in 1990 against a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina side in the final.

FAQs

Who is the legend of football 2021?

Lionel Messi is the legend of football in 2021. He had yet another glittering year with Barcelona and led Argentina to international success for the first time in 28 years, after winning the Copa America in Brazil. He was also elected as the Player of the Tournament and finished as the highest goal-scorer.

Who is the legend of football in India?

Sunil Chhetri is the legend of football in India. He is the highest goal-scorer in the history of Indian football with 84 goals and even at the age of 37, he is still going strong.

Who is the legend of football in 2022?

Karim Benzema is the legend of football in 2022. He had a wonderful year with Real Madrid and led them to La Liga and Champions League wins.

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