Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona: Ranking the greatest footballers of all time

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Diego Maradona has been a loss to the sporting world from which it may never recover.

That might sound like a pessimistic outlook, but it's meant as a compliment to the legend himself who brought joy and happiness to millions with his pure, unabashed love for the beautiful game.

Argentina have spent three days of national mourning in the wake of Maradona's tragic passing at age 60 this week and emotional tributes have been rolling in for the World Cup-winning great.

Maradona's tragic passing

You only have to look at the murals and fireworks in Naples, the disbelief in Spain and the tearful supporters in Buenos Aires to see what 'El Pibe de Oro'  meant to the footballing world.

In truth, such is Maradona's iconic legacy, there is nothing we could do to sufficiently honour one of the greatest sportspeople of all time - but we hope contextualising his greatness comes close.

No matter who you think is the greatest football of all time, there is no case to be argued that Maradona isn't in the top five at least and one vote even named him as the undisputed GOAT.

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The GOAT debate

Regular readers will be aware that we like to tackle debates like these through the medium of Tiermaker and there was a 'Greatest Football Players of All Time' template waiting for us.

Using more than 40 players lined up for the graphic, we designed tiers ranging from 'GOAT' to 'not in the conversation' to order legends, including Maradona, from the great to the greatest.

It goes without saying, seeing as we're talking about the greatest footballers ever, that no position on this list is an insult and every player has enlivened the sport we love in a special way.

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Greatest footballers of all time

Nevertheless, in a world of never-ending rankings, rank we must, so check out our final selections on the greatest players in the history of the beautiful game:

Not in the conversation

Wayne Rooney, Frank Rijkaard and Manuel Neuer

Are these three players bonafide legends? Of course they are, but of the 40-plus players put forward for GOAT status, they stood out as the candidates who aren't really in the conversation for us.

Rooney is an England and Premier League great without ever really threatening the status globally, while Rijkaard and Neuer's placements will become understandable when you see the leap up in quality...

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Amazing

Romario, Luis Figo, Gianluigi Buffon, Thierry Henry, Carles Puyol, Iker Casillas, Carlos Alberto, Raul and Rivaldo

Now, we're talking. For starters, Puyol and Casillas formed integral parts of one of the greatest national teams of all time, dominating between 2008 and 2012, while also thriving for Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Buffon is arguably the finest 'keeper of the 21st century, but we think two shot-stoppers come closer to achieving GOAT status, while Alberto deserves this placing for his World Cup final wonder goal alone.

Henry, Romario, Raul and Rivaldo are four of the deadliest forwards of the modern era, all but one of whom won the World Cup and Figo rounds off this star-studded their as a Ballon d'Or-winning magician.

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Exceptional

Bobby Moore, Cafu, Lothar Matthaus, Michel Platini, Roberto Carlos, Zico, Socrates and Roberto Baggio

There's plenty of defensive greatness here with Carlos and Cafu laying claim to being the greatest left-back and right-back of all time, while world champion Moore more than earns his place alongside them.

Electric displays at the 1982 World Cup are just the tip of the iceberg for Socrates and Zico, while similarly, Baggio's displays at the 1990 and 1994 tournaments are rightfully the stuff of legend, save the penalty miss...

Matthaus and Platini share a common thread of being the midfield dominators of their eras, rightfully bagging their fair share of Ballon d'Or trophies as well as Euro and World Cup winners' medals.

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Elite

Ronaldinho, Sir Bobby Charlton, Xavi, Peter Schmeichel, Eusebio, Andres Iniesta, George Best, Lev Yashin, Marco van Basten and Garrincha

Ronaldinho, Xavi and Iniesta are three of Barcelona's greatest ever players, all boasting World Cup wins for good measure, while Yashin and Schmeichel are the finest goalkeepers in football history.

Manchester United fans will be rubbing their hands together at the sight of Charlton and Best, two of the most technically-gifted players of their generation and their contemporary Garrincha wasn't far behind them with his dribbling majesty.

And the tier for which 'elite' is the understatement of the century is rounded off by Van Basten and Eusebio, who stake outside claims as the most lethal number nines that football has ever seen.

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Legendary

Alfredo Di Stefano, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Ferenc Puskas, Zinedine Zidane, Johan Cruyff, Ronaldo, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller

Woof. We're talking about top ten material here and if it wasn't for the fact we wanted to keep the GOAT tier as an exclusive club, then trust us when we say plenty of these legends have a shout at number one status.

Di Stefano and Puskas' goal-scoring in the 1940s and 1950s is the definition of iconic, Ronaldo could easily have become the GOAT if it wasn't for injuries and Zidane is a World Cup and Champions League-conquering icon.

Muller is one of the greatest goalscorers of all time, Cruyff reinvented the game with his 'Total Football' of the 1970s and Beckenbauer won everything available to him as a juggernaut in the centre of the pitch.

Oh... and the small matters of AC Milan legends Baresi and Maldini are, for our money, the greatest defenders to ever play the sport.

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GOAT

Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Pelé

Welcome to the throne. Messi, Ronaldo, Maradona and Pelé are the four greatest footballers there have ever been and frankly, their impact on the sport has been so indelible that we won't deign to order them.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll know the stats behind Messi and Ronaldo's greatness like the back of your hand and Maradona's placement in the top tier is similarly beyond the point of dispute.

Pelé, who has become vogue to slam recently, might be the most controversial pick, but lest we forget we're talking about Brazil's record goalscorer with over 1,000 goals and THREE World Cup trophies.

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Full graphic

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GIVEMESPORT's Kobe Tong says

Go on, call me a chicken for picking four players in the GOAT category, but I'm not out to provoke controversy for the sake of comments or clout and I back my diplomatic choices to the hills.

The fact of the matter is that it's so difficult to compare different eras and players with such varying styles that I had to lay four place-mats at the top table for an undisputed quartet of icons.

If I had to say, I would choose Messi as my number one player of all time, but I'll happily admit that such a decision would be completely biased as I never saw Pele and Maradona play.

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And that's the beauty of it, really. I can objectively choose these four players as the top dogs with plenty of confidence, but we all have the player that means the most to us and that's great.

For so many people, that player was Maradona and trust me when I say that I'd love to hop in a time machine to watch just one of his magical performances for either Argentina and Napoli.

But even as somebody who was born after Maradona hung up his boots, it only takes his highlights to see exactly why 'El Pibe de Oro' was universally loved for what he brought to football.

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And therefore, regardless of any silly Tiermaker or GOAT poll, I tip my hat to you, Diego, because what you brought to the sport I love is something for which I will be eternally grateful. RIP.

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