When discussing the greatest players to ever grace the pitch, the term “GOAT” or “Greatest Of All Time” is often brought up.
The debate around term in football is one that sparks passionate arguments among fans worldwide.
What does GOAT actually mean in this context?
At its core, GOAT status is reserved for those rare players who have achieved the highest levels of both team and individual success while also leaving an indelible mark on how the game is played.
To truly evaluate who deserves the honorific, we must look beyond stats and trophies to consider a player’s complete body of work, their impact on changing the game, and their iconic moments that still resonate decades later.
Today, we will analyze and rank the top candidates for the title of true GOAT of football based on their trophies and accomplishments, individual awards and records, longevity at the elite level, and impact in revolutionizing their positions or the sport in general.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in Brazil in 1940, Pelé is considered by many to be the first true superstar of global football.
He made his professional debut for Santos at just 15 years old and would go on to score over 1,000 career goals for club and country.
With Brazil, Pelé won an unprecedented three FIFA World Cup titles in 1958, 1962, and 1970, scoring a then-record 12 goals in 14 games.
At the club level, he won six Brazilian league titles and two Copa Libertadores trophies with Santos, cementing his status as a leader of the legendary Santos sides of the 1960s.
Individually, Pelé won the Ballon d’Or award for European Footballer of the Year in 1958 and 1962, reflecting his popularity even outside of South America at a time when global travel and media were still developing.
Perhaps most importantly, Pelé helped grow the popularity of football worldwide through his dazzling skills and success on the biggest stages, making him the first true celebrity footballer.
The next true megastar to emerge was Argentine playmaker Diego Maradona.
After breaking out with Boca Juniors, he rose to global fame leading Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup where he almost single-handedly defeated England in the quarterfinals with his infamous “Hand of God” goal, before scoring what is widely considered the greatest goal in World Cup history.
Maradona’s two goals encapsulate his entire career – one surrounded by controversy but showcasing his unparalleled willingness to win at all costs, the other a solo work of art highlighting his unmatchable skills and dribbling ability.
After the World Cup triumph he became a god in Argentina and moved to Napoli where he inspired their only two Italian league titles and a UEFA Cup, turning the club into champions.
While his career was cut short by injuries and struggles with addiction, Maradona left an indelible mark with his magic on the pitch and larger than life “Pibe de Oro” persona that still resonates strongly in his home country.
For carrying a nation on his back and singlehandedly outplaying the best with his creativity and guile, Maradona’s place among the GOATs is undeniable.
Still active but well on his way to GOAT status is Argentine star Lionel Messi.
A product of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, Messi has spent his entire senior career with the Spanish giants where he holds the all-time club records for appearances, goals, and assists.
Individually, his accolades and stats are unmatched – 10 La Liga titles, 4 Champions League trophies, 6 Ballons d’Or, the all-time top scorer in both La Liga and Champions League history, and much more.
Messi has shattered record after record while maintaining consistently jaw-dropping performances season after season. For over a decade-and-a-half he has been the best player in the world and carried Barcelona to glory time and again with his vision, dribbling, and magical left foot.
While international success has eluded him with Argentina, Messi continues to dominate at 34 and shows no signs of slowing down.
His combination of skill, winning, and longevity at the highest level make it very difficult to argue against Messi as the best of this generation and a top contender for GOAT status when his career ends.
The player who has come closest to matching Messi’s greatness is his longtime rival Cristiano Ronaldo.
Like Messi, Ronaldo has enjoyed a historic club career winning over 30 trophies between Manchester United, Real Madrid, and now Juventus.
He holds the record for most Champions League titles with 5, to go along with numerous domestic league and cup honors. Individually, Ronaldo has won 5 Ballons d’Or and holds the all-time international goals record with over 115 for Portugal.
While not as naturally gifted a playmaker as Messi, Ronaldo’s relentless work ethic and goalscoring ability have propelled him to the top.
Even at 37, he continues finding the back of the net for fun and dragging his clubs to victory.
For his incredible longevity at an elite level unmatched since the days of Pelé and Maradona, Ronaldo’s place among the pantheon is assured.
His rivalry with Messi has also undoubtedly raised the bar of excellence for all players.
While he came before the era of global television, Dutch legend Johan Cruyff still left an impact that revolutionized the modern game.
After starring for Ajax and helping them win three straight European Cups, Cruyff moved to Barcelona where he became their first true superstar.
It was there he pioneered “Total Football” – a fluid, positionless style where every player was both an attacker and defender. This approach focused on outthinking opponents through short, quick passes and high pressing – a blueprint still used by elite clubs today.
As a player, Cruyff was a magician with the ball at his feet while also possessing incredible vision and leadership.
He then led the Netherlands to the 1974 World Cup final and later enjoyed coaching success with club and country.
For changing how the game is played and inspiring future generations with his revolutionary tactics, Cruyff made as big an off-field impact as any player, cementing his place among the GOAT debate.
Emerging from Brazil in the 1990s was a forward like no other – Ronaldo Luis Nazário de Lima, or simply Ronaldo.
Blessed with lightning quick feet, incredible dribbling and close control, and a killer instinct in front of goal, Ronaldo was playing at a level far beyond his peers by his early 20s.
After breaking out with Brazil and PSV, he enjoyed his peak years at Barcelona and Inter Milan where he scored goals for fun and led Inter to a historic UEFA Cup, Spanish league and Cup double, and Champions League triumph in 1998.
That same year, a 21-year old Ronaldo single-handedly carried Brazil to a World Cup title where he scored all 4 goals in the final.
Tragically, recurring knee injuries slowed the Brazilian later in his career, but his combination of skill and goalscoring at his best makes him one of the most talented players ever seen on a pitch. For being ahead of his time with his natural abilities, Ronaldo will always be considered among the all-time greats.
While the debate around the true GOAT will undoubtedly continue, this analysis has highlighted the top candidates based on their achievements and impact on football. In the end, three players stand out:
- Pelé is considered by many to be the original superstar of world football based on his unprecedented trophy haul of 3 World Cups with Brazil and long list of goalscoring records at the highest levels of the game during a time when globalization was just beginning.
- Lionel Messi has taken individual and team success to unprecedented heights that may never be matched, with 6 Ballon d’Or wins, countless scoring records, and 35+ titles still accumulating in his incredible career at Barcelona and now PSG.
- Diego Maradona could be considered the most gifted of all based on some of the most iconic individual moments ever, like his two legendary goals against England in 1986 that single-handedly won Argentina the World Cup.
Of course, the debate will continue as future generations look to surpass these legends. But in this analysis, Pelé, Messi and Maradona stand out as the top candidates based on achievements, honors, and their immeasurable impact on popularizing and revolutionizing the beautiful game.