The 10 football World Cup heroes

Ahead of Qatar 2022, here is a list of 10 biggest players to have played the World Cup.

pele maradona zidane
Maradona, Pele and Zidane [Getty Images]

Football is a great leveller. Not everyone goes to a school with a rugby pitch and not everyone can afford a pony.

However, from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the slums of Nairobi to the playgrounds of Monaco and Beverly Hills, you will see children kicking a football about.

Perhaps the way in which football stars have often escaped humble origins to shine in a sport that allows the very best to become icons on and off the pitch and truly become heroes of nations.

Arguments over the greatest 10 World Cup heroes have kept friends debating into the small hours for decades.

Such arguments will continue for as long as football is played. But here, ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, are 10 we think have been the best:

10. Zinedine Zidane

One of the greatest, and most controversial, players of the game, Zidane won the 1998 World Cup for France at home, scoring twice in the final.

Injuries kept him largely out of France’s short-lived 2002 World Cup campaign, but he went on to be named player of the tournament at the 2006 edition – despite the infamous head butt that sent him off in the final. Thousands of fans lined the streets of Paris chanting Zidane’s name when the team returned home.

Having scored 31 goals in 108 matches for France, his talismanic leadership shaped the national team into something much greater than the sum of its parts.

As a coach, he went on to win three Champions League titles and La Liga twice with Real Madrid.

French football team
Zinedine Zidane lifts the trophy after victory in the World Cup final against Brazil in 1998 [Ben Radford/Allsport via Getty Images]

9. Jimmy Greaves

Not even the great Bobby Moore – whose statue greets supporters arriving at Wembley Stadium – was as loved by the everyday English fans as Jimmy Greaves.

Already a star at home, Greaves gained international recognition after rescuing a pitch-invading dog that had evaded the Brazilian greats during England’s 1962 World Cup quarter-final. Brazil’s Garrincha took the dog home and Greaves became known in Brazil as “Garrincha’s dog-catcher”.

Greaves was part of the 1966 World Cup-winning squad, but a savage injury inflicted by France’s Joseph Bonnel that required 14 stitches kept Greaves out of the final.

Greaves scored six hat-tricks in an England shirt, a record that still stands.

The 1966 campaign continues to be a focal point of English identity, the squad universally adored, and Greaves became a broadcaster, welcomed into the nation’s living rooms for decades.

Greaves was eventually awarded a World Cup winners’ medal by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009.

Jimmy Greaves in action for Tottenham Hotspur [File: Action Images]

8. Ferenc Puskas

Puskas was captain of the Mighty Magyars, Hungary’s golden team, which flourished under the influence of Jimmy Hogan’s Total Football.

He scored 84 goals in 85 matches for Hungary and made four appearances for Spain. Hungary were so dominant under Puskas that the 1954 World Cup final was the only game they lost in the entire decade.

He scored 702 goals from 705 career games. The giant of European football was a vocal supporter of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and defected to Spain while on tour after the Soviet Army killed 2,500 of his countrymen while crushing the uprising.

He returned to Hungary after the collapse of Communism and remains worshipped by Hungarians.

Hungarian soccer legend Ferenc Puskas
Puskas kicks the ball in Budapest’s People’s Stadium in this 1986 photo [File: Laszlo Balogh/Reuters]

7. Lothar Matthaus

Germany’s most-capped player, Matthaus scored 23 goals in 150 international matches. A box-to-box midfielder, he featured in five world cups, helping his side win the 1990 edition.

The only German to be named FIFA World Player of the Year, Matthaus holds the record for most World Cup games (25). His natural leadership gave him a commanding presence on the field, and his technical ability combined with his tactical awareness gave him an unstoppable dominance on the pitch.

The bullish Diego Maradona called him the toughest opponent he had ever faced.

Lothar Matthaus
Matthaus celebrates a goal for West Germany [File: Getty Images]

6. Miroslav Klose

It’s rare that you get prizes just for being a good guy, but Germany’s record goal scorer, the somersaulting Miroslav Klose, has a handful of them. With a career hallmarked by fair play and decency – he famously refused to accept a penalty awarded to him during a club match because he knew the referee was mistaken – Klose scored in four world cups, finally lifting the trophy in 2014.

A physical powerhouse of a forward, his stature belied his speed. He scored 71 goals in 137 matches in a German shirt. He also scored 16 World Cup goals. No one has ever scored more. He was prolific, and a good guy.

Klose holds the World Cup trophy after the 2014 World Cup final against Argentina [File: Eddie Keogh/Reuters]

5. Ronaldo

“The Phenomenon” reinvented the role of striker while playing for Brazil in 98 matches and scoring 62 goals. He lifted the 1994 World Cup trophy at the age of just 17.

Four years later, he was named Player of the Tournament after steering Brazil into the final, only to suffer a convulsive fit just hours before the game. He scored twice in the 2002 World Cup final to add to his six in the competition earlier, once more lifting the trophy.

A fourth World Cup appearance saw Ronaldo score a then-record-breaking 15th World Cup goal.

But it was the way in which he did it that set the world on fire: Speed, control, vision, total mastery of the ball, explosive runs, juggling the ball past defenders with acrobatic flicks and tricks and the goals.

Brazil’s Ronaldo celebrates after scoring against Turkey during their World Cup semi-final match in Saitama, Japan, on June 26, 2002 [File: Reuters]

4. Franz Beckenbauer

No compilation of World Cup heroes could omit Franz Beckenbauer, one of only three men – along with Didier Deschamps and Mario Zagallo – to lift the World Cup trophy both as a player and a manager. Despite playing as a defender, Beckenhauer scored 14 goals in his 103 appearances for West Germany, captaining the 1974 winning side.

After playing in the 1966 World Cup final loss to England, he got revenge four years later, scoring a searing goal to knock the English out and send West Germany to the semi-final.

But three World Cup appearances weren’t enough for him, and as Germany marched towards reunification and a new era, Beckenbauer guided the national team as manager to win the 1990 World Cup. In later years, he led Germany’s successful bid to host the 2006 World Cup, a campaign that was later investigated by FIFA over alleged corruption.

Beckenbauer holds his Lifetime Achievement trophy at the Laureus World Sports Awards ceremony in Barcelona on April 2, 2007 [File: Albert Gea/Reuters]

3. Johan Cruyff

The three-time Ballon d’Or winner, one of the most influential figures in the sporting philosophy of Total Football, brought a new level of sophistication to the game.

Football for Cruyff wasn’t just an athletic sport, but a blending of mind, body and artistry – an exercise in simplicity and beauty.

A creative playmaker with a unique understanding of the geometry of players’ pitch positions, he led his team like the conductor of an orchestra. The Netherlands never lost a game in which he scored. And he scored a lot – 33 goals in 48 international matches.

Cruyff led the Netherlands to the final of the 1974 World Cup, scoring twice against Argentina and knocking out then-champions Brazil. It was only the defensive heroics of Franz Beckenbauer that frustrated Cruyff’s efforts on goal and kept the Dutchman from lifting the trophy.

Cruyff didn’t play in the 1978 tournament after a kidnapping attempt led him to reassess his priorities on football’s global stage. But his was a revolutionary legacy, not only at Ajax and Barcelona, where he both played and managed, but also for the Dutch national team and for the future of the game itself. Total Football, “tiki-taka”, the Cruyff turn – all speak to his mastery of the way football should be played.

19th July 1974: Johan Cruyff, Dutch footballer, in action against Uruguay. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Johan Cruyff in action against Uruguay in 1974 [File: Keystone via Getty Images)

2. Diego Maradona

The drug-addled “Golden Boy” is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of football. His 60-metre dribble past five England players in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final led to the “goal of the century”, yet its mastery followed the sport’s most famous unpenalised handball – the goal that became known as “the hand of God”.

That game epitomised the two sides of Maradona: the raw, prodigious talent of the Argentinian captain, mixed with an absolute disregard for rules, the shameless arrogance of a genius born in the slums, the belief that one’s innate talent sets you apart from – and above – the mere mortals around you.

Argentina went on to win the 1986 World Cup, 10 years after Maradona had made his first appearance for the national side aged just 16.

He earned 91 caps and scored 34 goals for his country, but no one can know in how much more glory he could have basked were it not for his 1991 arrest for cocaine possession as his off-field life started to spiral.

He played in four World Cup tournaments but did not finish the 1994 tournament after testing positive for ephedrine, a banned substance.

After the final whistle blew on his playing days, he supported various left-wing causes, protesting against the war in Iraq, arguing with the pope over the distribution of wealth and condemning Israel’s bombing of Gaza. Maradona sported tattoos of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro and was Hugo Chavez’s guest of honour at the 2007 Copa America.

After his death aged 60 from cardiac arrest, such was Maradona’s popularity in Argentina that his coffin, draped in the national flag and bedecked with football jerseys, lay in state at the presidential palace as tens of thousands of mourners paid their respects.

Diego Maradona
Maradona playing for Argentina in 1986 [File: Bongarts via Getty Images]

1. Pele

Has there ever been a more successful football icon than Brazil’s Pele?

In 1958, when he scored his first World Cup goal – the result of a scuffed mishit that ended Wales’s World Cup dreams for the following seven decades – could anyone have known the giant he was to become?

With either foot, Pele could produce the sort of magic that inspired generations. Off the pitch, as one of the first truly global Black sports superstars, his outspoken support for improving the lives of the poor made him a national hero.

Pele lifted the World Cup three times: 1958, 1962 and 1970. He remains Brazil’s leading goal scorer with 77 goals in 92 games. He was so famous, so beloved all around the world that in 1969, both sides in Nigeria’s brutal civil war agreed to a ceasefire so they could watch Pele play in an exhibition match in Lagos.

A prolific goal scorer, he could play from any position on the field with vision and flair. He was never selfish, linking with other team players to produce generous assists. His charismatic leadership on and off the pitch led to a legacy lauded by figures as diverse as Nelson Mandela and Henry Kissinger.

“There’s Pelé the man and then Pelé the player,” France’s Michel Platini said. “And to play like Pelé is to play like God.”

Pele celebrating a goal
Brazil’s Pele celebrates after scoring a goal in 1970 [File: Action Images via Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera