Ronaldo, Messi, Ronaldinho: The 50 biggest footballing icons of the 21st century ranked

  • Kobe Tong

World-class footballers are some of the most recognisable individuals on the planet.

For all the dizzying fame of celebrities, musicians and politicians, we live in a world where the most followed person on Instagram is arguably the best football player of all: Cristiano Ronaldo.

However, even in a world where these footballing icons weren’t plastered over social media and brand deals, you could bet that millions of fans across the globe would still be bowing down to them.

Footballing legends and icons

But it does go without saying that the internet age of the 21st century has done nothing other than amplify the star status of players like Ronaldo who transcend football with their remarkable talent.

And on the 20th anniversary of data gurus Transfermarkt last summer, their team set about ranking the 50 footballers who they considered to be the sport’s biggest icons since the turn of the century.

The compelling list has been wheeled out on their home page once again and it makes for fascinating reading with each and every rung littered with legends of the beautiful game.

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The 50 biggest icons of the 21st century

But who takes the top prize and where does your favourite player rank? Well, be sure to check out the full list down below to find out who the most iconic icon of them all really is.

50. Vincent Kompany


49. Karim Benzema

48. Lilian Thuram

47. Robin van Persie

46. Rio Ferdinand

45. Luka Modric


44. Fabio Cannavaro

43. Luis Suarez

42. Pavel Nedved

41. Andriy Shevchenko

40. Wayne Rooney


39. Michael Ballack

38. Miroslav Klose

37. Bastian Schweinsteiger

36. Xabi Alonso

35. Iker Casillas


34. Franck Ribery

33. Frank Lampard

32. Didier Drogba

31. Dennis Bergkamp

30. Dani Alves


29. Clarence Seedorf

28. Neymar

27. Samuel Eto’o

26. Robert Lewandowski

25. Francesco Totti


24. Arjen Robben

23. Philipp Lahm

22. Oliver Kahn

21. Manuel Neuer

20. David Beckham


19. Carles Puyol

18. Sergio Ramos

17. Roberto Carlos

16. Raul

15. Andrea Pirlo


14. Gianluigi Buffon

13. Kaka

12. Zlatan Ibrahimovic

11. Steven Gerrard

10. Luis Figo


9. Paolo Maldini

8. Xavi

7. Thierry Henry

6. Andres Iniesta

5. Ronaldinho


4. Ronaldo

3. Zinedine Zidane

2. Cristiano Ronaldo

1. Lionel Messi


Messi and Ronaldo take top spots

Who else could have occupied the top two places?

Even if you spoke to someone who knew absolutely nothing about football, you could almost guarantee that they would still have heard of Ronaldo and Messi.

It’s staggering to think just how much the two Ballon d’Or winners have permeated the mainstream, perfectly fitting the narrative of two world-beating footballers running parallel to one another.


To tell you the truth, it’s a little bit terrifying that both players are edging closer towards retirement, but at least Transfermarkt’s top 50 underlines just how many icons the sport can produce.

Besides, you know the last 20 years of the beautiful game have been stacked with legends when everyone from Ibrahimovic to Kaka and Buffon to Beckham can’t even bag a spot in the top ten.

And frankly, we can’t wait to see the heroes and role models that the next two decades will bring.

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