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Who Is the Greatest World Cup Player of All Time?

Definitively answering the question of who is the World Cup's greatest ever player is almost an impossible task. Comparing individuals from different eras is never easy, while each player has strong merits to be considered the greatest...

The identity of the greatest player in the history of the World Cup has sparked numerous debates over the years and several players from different generations could all be considered for their various achievements on the world's biggest stage.

Looking solely at their performances in the World Cup itself, here are the six best individuals that could lay claim to the title of the competition's greatest ever player.

6. Giueseppe Meazza

Giuseppe Meazza is one of a relatively short list of players to have won the World Cup twice.

The prolific forward picked up two titles for Italy in the 1930s, a time when he was regarded by many as the greatest player there had ever been and is one of the tournament's earliest legends.

However, despite everything he did for the Azzurri, Meazza's achievements are still somewhat overshadowed by the background politics.

In 1934, the title was widely condemned after the alleged involvement of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and questionable refereeing in both the semi-final and the final itself.

In 1938, Mussolini's influence could not be shaken and Meazza, as captain of the team, received a telegram before the tournament began reading simply "win or die".

5. Johan Cruyff

Johan Cruyff never won the World Cup, but his stamp on the history of the competition is unmistakable.

The face of the Dutch team in 1974, famed the world over for their revolutionary brand of Total Football, Cruyff wowed audiences with his ability and charisma.

He led the Oranje to the final in spectacular fashion and got the team off to an incredible start, winning a penalty inside the first minute after a mazy run into the heart of the West German defence.

However, the hosts were eventually able to turn the game around and took the trophy. Cruyff didn't play in the World Cup in Argentina four years later and so he was not able to complete his legacy on the international stage.

4. Franz Beckenbauer

Franz Beckenbauer made his World Cup bow in England in 1966, playing every game as a young central midfielder.

He scored four goals as West Germany reached the final, but was famously marked out of the game by Bobby Charlton as England went on to win.

Beckenbauer was back four years later as the West Germans once again made an impact, this time losing out to Italy in an epic semi-final clash. However, he would finally lift the trophy at his home tournament in 1974, having dropped back into the defence and pioneering the libero position.

In 1990, Beckenbauer further cemented his place in World Cup history as he became only the second individual to win the competition as both a player and manager, guiding West Germany to victory over Argentina.

3. Pele

Arguably the biggest name associated with the World Cup, Pele won the competition for the first time when he was just 17 years old in 1958. The young forward scored six goals in the tournament, including two in the final itself.

He was expected to shine four years later in Chile, but an injury in just the second game halted his participation.

Brazil went on to retain their title, but it was without Pele.

In 1966, he had another tournament to forget as heavy handed tactics resulted in further injury, whilst the team as a whole could not get past the first round.

However, at his final World Cup in 1970 everything came together as Pele was the focal point of what is widely considered the greatest team ever to play football.

Brazil destroyed Italy in a famous final and Pele walked away with his third winners' medal.

2. Ronaldo

Currently the record goal scorer in World Cup history, Ronaldo endured several ups and downs when it comes to the planet's greatest competition.

As a 17-year-old in 1994, he was an unused substitute when Brazil claimed victory over Italy and four years later he was the star of the team as Brazil reached the final once more.

However, a mystery seizure the night before the showpiece event affected his performance and France were crowned victorious.

In 2002 he was back with a vengeance and his goals powered the Selecao to an unprecedented title. In 2006, despite obvious weight issues, his finishing was still as deadly as ever, though Brazil as a team under performed.

1. Diego Maradona

Football has rarely, if ever, seen a level of individual brilliance that could rival Diego Maradona.

The Argentine idol made his World Cup debut in 1982 and was already a key player, demonstrated no more clearly than by the brutal man-marking dished out by Italy.

In 1986, it was a different story though and he simply couldn't be stopped, dragging an average team behind him to become world champions.

Maradona almost single-handedly managed it again in 1990, but Argentina lost in the final.

Unfortunately, his reputation for drug use often superseded his legacy as a footballer and in 1991 he was suspended for 15 months after testing positive for cocaine use. In 1994 he was sensationally sent home from the World Cup in the USA.

• • •

Definitively answering the question of who is the World Cup's greatest ever player is almost an impossible task. Comparing individuals from different eras is never easy, while each player has strong merits to be considered the greatest.

When it comes to the number of trophies, Pele is the clear favourite. The Brazilian is the only player in history with three World Cup wins to his name, but he was a great player in two exceptional teams in 1958 and 1970, while in 1962 his role was minimal.

Ronaldo had similar longevity and although not as successful in terms of trophies, he is the record goalscorer despite a history of knee and weight issues. He went to four World Cups, played in three and was unfortunate not to win two.

Maradona may have a chequered history, but he was a one-man show when it came to guiding his team to victory, almost twice. No one else, no matter how good, has ever won the World Cup on their own and it is for that main reason why Diego Maradona is the greatest player in the history of the competition.

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