Is it Maradona or Messi, Ronaldo or Pele? In what is a hotly debated issue, here are the best players from each country as determined by their level of achievement at both the international and club level.
Argentina – Lionel Messi
The 6-time Ballon d’Or winner has played 128 games for La Albiceleste and scored 65 times, a team record. After helping his side win the gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Messi’s international career has experienced a mix of ups and downs. He led Argentina to a runner-up in World Cup 2014 and runner-up in Copa América three times: 2007, 2015, 2016. After losing the Copa América 2016, he briefly retired and then returned to play in the 2018 World Cup.
But it’s Lionel Messi’s club performance that puts him first on the list. Torching all opposition with his technique, spins, and speed, he’s recorded scored a remarkable 387 goals (most ever in La Liga) for the Catalan side, in addition to 150 assists. He’s also tied in a record-setting 5 Ballon d’Ors and led the stripes to 9 domestic league titles, 6 Copa Del Rey, and 4 champions league titles.
Portugal – Cristiano Ronaldo
With infectious passion and lethal skill, Ronaldo is one of the greatest footballers ever to play the game. He’s also the most decorated, with 26 trophies including five Champions League titles and five Ballon d’Or awards. And while the World Cup trophy eludes him, he led his team as captain to Portugal’s first-ever major trophy in UEFA Euro 2016. He also leads Portugal with 154 caps and 85 goals.
With over 700 club goals in nearly 1000 appearances, CR7 oozes effort and class.
The Portuguese star seemed to win it all in 2008 at Manchester United, including the Treble (Champions League, the Premier League, an FA Cup) topping it off with his first of a record-tying five Ballon d’Or. But then he joined the La Liga giants Real Madrid to continue his scoring and trophy haul.
CR7 surpassed Raul, Real’s previous number seven, with 450 goals of his own on 438 appearances at Real Madrid, averaging over one per game. A four-time Champions League winner, a two-time Spanish league champ, the four-time Ballon d’Or winner as a member of Los Blancos, Ronaldo is one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Brazil – Pele
The Brazilian striker Pele was perhaps the best out and out goalscorer, scoring a remarkable 1281 goals in 1363 games. His goal tally remains the highest by any player in the history of the sport.
In addition to numerous trophies garnered at Santos FC, he’s also the only player to win the World Cup three times: 1958, 1962, and 1970.
Pele brought the “Joga bonito” to the world stage with his dazzling display of dribbling technique and shooting skills.
France – Zidane
The talisman, Zinedine Zidane sparkled in his five years in Turin winning the Scudetto in his first two years with the club. He earned the Ballon d’Or in 1998 following his historic World Cup for France and was named the Serie A Footballer of the year twice. Perhaps the greatest ever, he dazzled fans with his majestic play and legendary vision.
Germany – Franz Beckenbauer
The footballer who ushered in the sweeper role for his dual dominance at both ends of the field, Franz Beckenbauer earned 103 caps for West Germany over twelve years. He played in 3 World Cups, leading the team to its 1974 victory, while also winning the 1972 European Championship. He also coached the German side to a World Cup in 1990.
At the club level, Beckenbauer twice earned European Player of the Year at Bayern Munich. He also captained the side to its first league victory in the 1968-69 season, finishing his career a four-time German Cup Winner and three-time Champions Club’s Winner. As coach of the Bavarians’, he won one more league title and the UEFA Cup. Along with Cristiano Ronaldo, Beckenbauer is the only footballer to win 2+ Golden Balls, 2+ Champions League and 2+ trophies with the national team.
England – Bobby Charlton
With 106 caps, the Manchester United striker /attacking midfielder played in four World Cups for England tallying 49 goals. He won the 1966 World Cup on home territory with England, before retiring from international duties after the 1970 World Cup.
Croatia – Luka Modric
Winner of the Champions League four times in five years and runner-up in the 2018 World Cup, Luka Modric is on a tear. The classy midfielder won FIFA’s “Best Player” award and UEFA Men’s Player of the Year Award in 2018 and is on the shortlist for this year’s Ballon d’Or. A six-time Croatian Footballer of the Year, the 33-year old captain now has 115 caps with the national side.
Denmark – Peter Schmeichel
One of the best goalkeepers of all-time, the ‘Great Dane’ Peter Schmeichel powered one of the most decorated Manchester United sides. With a commanding goal presence and quick reflexes, Schmeichel won a Champions League, five Premiership titles, three FA Cups, and a League Cup during his eight your spell with the Red Devils.
Colombia – Carlos Valderrama
The blonde and bushy-haired midfielder with an iconic mustache, Carlos Valderrama is undoubtedly one the most recognizable players to emerge from Columbia onto the world scene. A tall and commanding presence, Valderrama excelled in passing and seemed to be born with gifted footwork and dribbling skills. With 111 caps and three World Cups in the 1990s, he’s made the most appearances for the national side than any other player.
Spain – Andres Iniesta
The versatile and inventive midfielder Andres Iniesta played an essential role in the Catalan side that won the treble in 2009 and 2015. His whopping 33 trophies over 16 years in the first team include 9 La Liga titles and 4 Champions League. He received runner-up to Messi in the 2010 Ballon d’Or. The Barcelona man famously scored the winning goal for Spain to seal the 2010 World Cup against Holland, the country’s first World Cup trophy ever.
Italy – Paolo Maldini
Considered one of the best defenders of all-time, Paulo Maldini finished third for the Ballon d’Or twice, once in 1994 and a second time nine years later. The one-club Italian was remarkably consistent, captaining AC Milan to five Champions League trophies and seven league titles in 25 historic years with AC Milan.
The Netherlands – Johan Cruyff
The three-time Ballon d’Or winner Johan Cruyff never lost an international match in which he scored. His goal tally of 33 goals over 48 games, saw him lead the team in their ‘total football’ campaign to the final in 1974 to play West Germany where the Dutch lost. Cruyff’s tenure came to an end just before the 1978 World Cup, where after getting the team to qualify, he refused to play the World Cup in Argentina due to political reasons.
Considered one of the best footballers ever, the dynamic attacker left a legacy of the total footballer at Ajax. He played 365 games with the Ajax side where he won 8 domestic championships and 3 European Cups before moving on to Barcelona in 1973 for a then-record transfer fee of $2 million where he won both La Liga and Copa del Rey.
Sweden – Zlatan Ibrahimović
While he only spent three years at Internazionale, the versatile Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimović scored 66 goals in 117 appearances with the club. He won Footballer of the Year for two consecutive seasons, helping lead the team to three Scudetti and four Italian Super Cups. Only the Champions League alluded him.
The enigmatic Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimović also played two years with AC Milan where he scored 56 goals in 85 games. His honors include a 2010/11 Serie A tite and 2011 Supercoppa Italiana.
Ibra also scored a handful of beautiful goals for Sweden in international play.
Uruguay – Diego Forlan
Uruguay’s top scorer with 36 goals, Diego Forlan played in three World Cups, winning the Golden Boot in the 2010 South Africa. He also played an instrumental role in the team’s 2011 Copa América victory.
A replacement for the departing Fernando Torres, the Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan made an immediate impact in his first year at Atletico Madrid. In addition to being the league’s top scorer in the 2008-2009 season, he also scored the all-important goals in 2008 and 2009 that qualified Atleti for back to back Champions League appearances. He earned 196 caps with Atlético Madrid and netted 96 times, six of which he scored en route to the 2010 Europe League trophy.
USA – Landon Donovan
One of the most celebrated American soccer players of all-time, Landon Donovan played 157 games for the USMNT making him the second most-capped in team history. He’s also the only American player to achieve both 50 assists and 50 goals for the side, tied with Clint Dempsey with the most-scored goals at 57.
Despite his contributions in 2002, 2006, and 2010 World Cups, he fell short in making the Brazil 2014 World Cup roster.
At the club level, the pacey American forward played for both the San Jose Earthquakes and the LA Galaxy in his 13 years in the MLS. In his four years with the Earthquakes, he notched 32 goals and provided 29 assists, while also winning the 2001 and 2003 MLS championships. His tenure at Los Angeles Galaxy saw him score over 100 goals in 253 appearances, along with 4 MLS Cups.