World football is currently in mourning following the sudden death of Diego Maradona, undoubtedly amongst the greatest players to have played the beautiful game.
There are few players who have commanded such a God-like status as Maradona, a footballer who has transcended eras and remains amongst the most celebrated icons the sport has seen.
The Argentine was the inspiration behind his nation’s World Cup triumph in 1986 and produced arguably the finest individual performances the tournament has seen, with the South American nation announcing three days of mourning to mark his passing.
His legend lives on further in Europe and in Naples, where he helped transform Napoli from perennial strugglers to title winners, winning the sole two league titles in the club’s history in the late eighties and early nineties.
In tribute to one of the game’s greats we’ve decided to look back at history’s most iconic number 10s, here are ten of the greatest footballers ever to have worn the iconic shirt:
Alfredo Di Stefano
It’s fair to say that Argentina has quite the history in producing legendary footballing figures, with the Buenos Aires-born Di Stefano an irreplaceable figure amongst the sport’s pantheon of greats.
Di Stefano learned his trade on the working-class streets of Argentina’s capital and enjoyed success with River Plate and Colombia’s Millonarios, though it was his move to Europe that catapulted the forward into superstardom.
Real Madrid won an acrimonious battle with rivals Barcelona to secure his signing and it proved an addition that would change the course of history, Di Stefano – alongside Hungarian icon Ferenc Puskas – inspired the Spanish giants to unprecedented success.
A first league title in over two decades was secured in his first campaign at the Bernabeu and he added a further seven to his collection, whilst starring as Los Blancos won the first five editions of the European Cup in succession – scoring in each final.
Regarded by many as the most complete player of all-time, Di Stefano scored 308 goals in 398 appearances in all competitions and finished as the leading scorer in Spanish football on four occasions.
There are few players held in a higher regard at arguably the world’s biggest football club, the glitz and glamour of Real Madrid based largely on the achievements of a side inspired by Di Stefano.
Over four decades since he last kicked a ball professionally, there is a strong case that Pele remains the most iconic footballer to have ever lived.
This is the fresh-faced 17-year-old who burst onto the scene to inspire Brazil to World Cup success in Sweden in 1958, before becoming the first – and so far only – player to win football’s biggest prize on three occasions.
His impact as a teenager in that 1958 tournament is something unlikely to ever be repeated, a player barely out of childhood scoring six times as the South Americans were crowned as world champions, netting a semi-final hat-trick before scoring twice more as the hosts were beaten in the final.
Pele spent the bulk of his club career in his homeland with Santos, scoring an astounding 643 goals in just 656 competitive appearances for the Brazilian side, winning six league titles and twice lifting the Copa Libertadores.
It was the World Cup that made him a global phenomenon, however, and whilst his contribution to Brazil’s 1962 triumph was reduced amid injuries, he starred as part of a legendary 1970 team, forming part of an exhilarating attacking line-up including the likes of Jairzinho and Rivellino.
The forward scored 77 goals in 91 appearances for the national side and remains their all-time leading scorer, a brilliant goalscorer and a man whose indelible mark on the game is still felt today.
The mid-eighties saw Michel Platini reign as the finest footballer in Europe, the Frenchman an elegant midfielder who combined classy creativity with an ability to score prolifically.
Platini came to prominence in his native France during spells at Nancy and Saint-Etienne, scoring prolifically with both sides and inspiring the latter to the Ligue 1 title in 1981.
It was a move to Juventus that saw the midfielder truly become the game’s best, however, scoring over a century of goals for the Turin side and winning two league titles, in addition to netting the decisive goal as the Bianconeri lifted the European Cup for the first time amid tragic circumstances in 1985.
Platini became the first player in history to win the Ballon d’Or in three consecutive years, winning football’s greatest individual accolade between 1983 and 1985, his second triumph coming after one of the most extraordinary international tournaments in memory.
Platini scored an incredible nine goals in just five fixtures as France won the 1984 European Championships on home soil, including a dramatic extra-time winner in the semi-finals and the opener as Spain were beaten in the final.
Maradona’s death has seen football lose one of its undisputed icons, a player who – for many – played the game in a way never seen either before or since.
There are countless players on this list who perhaps scored more goals or won more trophies, but the intriguing aspect since the tragic news emerged is that there have been few brandishing facts and figures when it comes to Maradona.
Simply watching him with the ball at his feet was more than enough to acknowledge his greatness.
Maradona became the youngest player in the history of Argentine football at Argentinos Juniors before rising spectacularly to superstardom, captivating audiences in Buenos Aires, Barcelona and Naples.
He was mesmerising when in possession, his strength defying his diminutive stature as he rode robust challenges, sparkling with that familiar low-centred gait, explosive acceleration and sublime skill.
His status at Boca Juniors and Napoli borders on cult, where at the latter he inspired a team that had notoriously struggled into title winners, twice winning the scudetto – two triumphs which remain the only league title successes in Napoli’s history.
Then, of course, is that 1986 World Cup as he led Argentina to glory, his two goals against England in the quarter-finals encapsulating the best and worst of a man often labelled as a troubled genius.
The most capped player in the history of the German national side, Matthaus was regarded as one of the finest players in world football during the late eighties and early nineties, captaining his nation to World Cup success at Italia ’90.
Matthaus was described by the aforementioned Maradona as his toughest ever opponent and was a player who combined competitive edge with cultured class, a complete midfielder and inspirational leader.
He began his career with Borussia Monchengladbach before having two hugely successful spells at Bayern Munich, his time with the Bavarians sandwiched between an impressive spell at Inter Milan, winning the Serie A title in 1989 and starring in a division stacked with the game’s greatest talents.
Germany’s success as the 1990 World Cup saw Matthaus named as the winner of the Ballon d’Or, before becoming the inaugural recipient of the FIFA World Player of the Year award the following year.
A swashbuckling midfielder with a penchant for the spectacular in his early years, Matthaus reverted to a sweeper role in his latter career following a serious Achilles injury and thrived in a new position, his career one of both incredible longevity and success.
He won eight league titles alongside two major tournaments a decade apart with Germany, the figurehead of a hugely successful period for one of football’s proudest nations.
Italian football played host to the game’s finest footballers during the late eighties and for much of the nineties, but as a wealth of superstars flocked to Serie A it was Roberto Baggio who shone brightest from the homegrown contingent.
Baggio’s career was almost done before it had even started following a first serious knee injury as a teenager, but despite being told he may never play again the forward instead inspired a generation of Italian football fanatics.
He became a star at Fiorentina before making a controversial move to Juventus, where he scored 115 goals in just 200 appearances and won one league title, in addition to being named as the winner of the Ballon d’Or in 1993.
Baggio was free-spirited when in possession and boasted a formidable repertoire of finishes, a player as equally capable of curling the ball home from distance as he was weaving his way past a succession of challenges.
He almost single handedly dragged Italy to the final of the 1994 World Cup before memorably missing the decisive spot-kick against Brazil, sadly amongst the defining images of a player who brought such joy to the Azzurri.
That memorable miscue should not detract from the ability of a player amongst the best of his era, a footballer who tormented some of the best defences the game has seen.
Mention the name of Zinedine Zidane to football fans of a certain vintage and they will wax lyrical about a player whose artistic style wowed a generation, a footballer who combined an effortless elegance with a steely-eyed will to win.
Debating the greatest footballers of all-time between generations can be unyielding with an obvious and predictable preference for the stars seen first hand, and for the many who grew up in the era that Zidane starred in it is difficult to look past his balletic brilliance.
The Frenchman emerged at Bordeaux before enjoying much success at Juventus, winning two league titles and reaching back-to-back Champions League finals with the Turin side, in addition to twice being named as the league’s foreign Footballer of the Year.
The son of Algerian immigrants, he became the face of a new generation for France at international level and inspired the nation to a first ever World Cup on home soil – scoring two headers in the final as Brazil were defeated in Paris.
Two years later he helped France to European Championship success, starring to be named as the tournament’s best player before signing for Real Madrid in a world-record deal, his debut campaign ending with a career-defining moment as he won the Champions League for the Spanish giants with a majestic volley in the final.
He finished his career in shameful – if iconic – fashion after being sent off for a head-butt in the World Cup final, having rolled back the years to inspire France to the showpiece, including a masterful individual performance to defeat Brazil in the last eight.
His exit from the game was unforgettable and unexpected, much like many of the magic moments he regularly provided throughout an astonishing career.
Rome’s favourite footballing son, Francesco Totti dedicated his entire career to the club he had adored since childhood, coming through the club’s youth ranks to become the greatest player in Giallorossi history.
He made his debut as a teenager before becoming Italian football’s youngest ever captain in his early twenties, Totti a generational talent and one who prided loyalty over all other aspects of the game.
Totti spent a barely believable 25 years in the first team at Roma despite their struggle for success, his 786 appearances and 307 goals both club records.
His list of honours at club level were restricted to just one league title and two Coppa Italia trophies, though he formed part of the Italy side that were crowned as world champions in 2006, scoring a 95th-minute penalty to defeat Australia in the last 16.
In truth, the game appeared to come easy to Totti who was equally adept at scoring and creating goals, the catalyst for Roma’s best displays for over two decades and the second-highest scoring player in the history of Serie A.
He has perhaps not always been awarded the acclaim his talent deserves from those outside of Italy, though it is unlikely to matter much to a player who fulfilled his boyhood dreams.
Unapologetically Roman, unequivocally brilliant.
Ah, Ronaldinho. The carefree footballer whose highlight reel matches up to any talent in history, a player who danced his way into Barcelona hearts and changed the course of the club’s history forever more.
There are few players who have ever played the game with such joyous style, Ronaldinho extravagant, explosive and expressive, a footballer who was peerless at his peak and often produced jaw-dropping moments of sublime skill.
The Samba star briefly reigned as the world’s finest footballer, arriving at a Barcelona team without a major trophy in four seasons before inspiring the Catalans to back-to-back league titles and the 2006 Champions League, winning the Ballon d’Or in 2005 and FIFA World Player of the Year awards in both 2004 and 2005.
Ronaldinho often embarrassed opponents with trademark nutmegs and flip-flaps, ghosting past opposition defenders with a goofy-grin that will live long in the memory.
Barcelona often played to the beat of his drum and it was his performances that helped lay the foundations for the most successful period in the club’s history, a born entertainer and legendary figure amongst the Camp Nou’s finest.
Diego Maradona’s exploits for Argentina mean he will perhaps forever be remembered as his nation’s greatest, but in Lionel Messi the Albiceleste have a player many feel is the best to have ever kicked a football.
Messi’s failure to win a major honour with the national side to date will continue to be used as an argument to question his greatness, but it is difficult to look past a career for which there are few superlatives left to describe.
Simply listing his list of accomplishments and achievements is more than enough to place Messi into contention for the best ever, a record six-time winner of the Ballon d’Or and the greatest goalscorer in the history of Argentina, Barcelona and Spanish football.
Messi came through the academy system at the Camp Nou to cement his status as the planet’s finest, possessing an ability to make the extraordinary routine and shattering records and perceptions of what a footballer is capable of.
To list his many milestones fails to provide a true testament of his greatness, however, his unstoppable genius with the ball at his feet a pleasure to behold; a player for whom no outcome appears off limits when in possession.
It is quite impossible to envisage a better number 10 than the Argentine superstar who has now scored a staggering 640 goals in 742 appearances for Barcelona, Messi arguably the best goalscorer, passer and dribbler on the planet – equally wrapped into one magical and mesmeric talent.
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