Messi, Henry, Pele, Ronaldinho: Football's 50 most influential players ever named

Beckham, Messi and Pele feature as 50 most influential players in football history are named

Each generation throughout football history has been littered with outstanding players for their time. A select few individuals, however, have left a legacy that still impacts the game as we know it today – and not always for their performances on the pitch.

In recognition of those who have blazed a trail to shape the sport into what it is today, FourFourTwo recently compiled a list of 50 of the most influential players in football history.

From Northern Irish defender Bill McCracken – the pioneer of the offside trap in the 1900s – to some of today’s biggest names, the list delves deep into football’s past to celebrate those that have helped define it.

FourFourTwo stopped short of formally ranking the elite 50, though. As they themselves put it: “We chickened out of ranking how influential they were. Well, how can compare a 1950s Brazilian renegade with a business-savvy 21st Century counterpart?”

A very valid point.

To make the half-century of footballing icons easier to navigate, we’ve decided to group those that made the cut by nationality, rather than simply listing them.

You can check out the list in full below.

The 50 most influential footballers of all time (as per FourFourTwo)

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – JUNE 14: Lionel Messi of Argentina celebrates after scoring the first goal of his team during a Group A match between Argentina and Chile at Estadio Olímpico Nilton Santos as part of Copa America Brazil 2021 on June 14, 2021 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Wagner Meier/Getty Images)

Argentina
Ossy Ardiles (Headed first influx of foreign players into English football)

Amadeo Carrizo (Voted best South American keeper of the 20th century)

Diego Maradona (Argentinian icon)

Lionel Messi (Seven-time Ballon d’Or winner)

Carlos Volante (Pioneer of the Segundo Volante position – a pure defender playing defensive midfield)

Austria
Matthias Sindelar (Popularised the free role/positional fluidity)

Belgium
Jean-Marc Bosman (Revolutionised free transfers with landmark legal ruling)

KOBE – JUNE 17: Ronaldo of Brazil celebrates after scoring the second goal during the FIFA World Cup Finals 2002 Second Round match between Brazil and Belgium played at the Kobe Wing Stadium, in Kobe, Japan on June 17, 2002. Brazil won the match 2-0. DIGITAL IMAGE. (Photo by Koji Aoki/ AFLO/Getty Images)

Brazil
Garrincha (Dribbling pioneer)

Marta (Top goalscorer of either gender for Brazil)

Neymar (Most expensive player ever)

Pele (Football legend. Scored a Guinness World Record 1279 goals in 1363 games)

Ronaldinho (2005 Ballon d’Or winner)

Ronaldo Nazario (Two-time World Cup winner. Revolutionised the role of striker in the late 1990s)

Nilton Santos (Pioneer of the wing-back role)

Czech Republic
Antonin Panenka (Inventor of the Panenka penalty)

Dual Nationality (Argentinian/Spanish)
Alfred Di Stefano (Real Madrid legend. Two-time Ballon d’Or winner)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – MARCH 26: David Beckham of England in action during the World Cup Qualifier Group 6 match between England and Northern Ireland at Old Trafford on March 26, 2005 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

England
Viv Anderson (First black player to represent England)

David Beckham (115 international caps for England. International celebrity and entrepreneur)

Rio Ferdinand (First ball-playing defender of the Premier League era)

Trevor Francis (First £1 million player)

Stanley Matthews (Inaugral Ballon d’Or winner)

Kelly Smith (England’s first female professional footballer)

Jamie Vardy (127 Premier League goals, having started in non league football)

Ian Wright (113 Premier League goals, after making his PL debut at 29)

PARIS – MAY 27: Zinedine Zidane of France looks on during the international friendly match between France and Mexico at the Stade de France on May 27, 2006 in Paris, France. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

France
Thierry Henry (Transformation from winger to striker at Arsenal influenced many other stars)

Zinedine Zidane (Lynchpin of Real Madrid’s ‘Galacticos’ side)

Eric Cantona (First foreign player to become a superstar in the Premier League)

Claude Makelele (Namesake of the ‘Makelele role’)

Germany
Franz Beckenbauer (Perfected the position of sweeper. Two-time Ballon d’Or winner)

Philipp Lahm (Helped popularise the use of inverted wing-backs)

Thomas Muller (Celebrated for his ability to interpret space while operating in a free role)

Manuel Neuer (Evolved the Sweeper-keeper role)

Hungary
Gyula Grosics (Sweeper-Keeper pioneer)

Nandor Hidegkuti (Originator of the ‘false nine’ tactic)

YEREVAN, ARMENIA – OCTOBER 12: Andrea Pirlo of Italy in action during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier group B match between Armenia and Italy at Hrazdan Stadium on October 12, 2012 in Yerevan, Armenia. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

Italy
Franco Baresi (One of the earliest ball-playing centre-backs)

Giacinto Facchetti (First notable attacking full-back)

Andrea Pirlo (Outstanding long-range passer from deep)

Francesco Totti (Roma icon. Further developed the ‘false nine’ role)

Japan

Hidetoshi Nakata (Raised the profile of the game in Japan)

ITALY – AUGUST 27: AC Milan forward George Weah celebrates after scoring during a Serie A match between Padova and Milan on August 27, 1995 in Italy. (Photo by Allsport/Getty Images)


Liberia
George Weah (Only African to ever win the Ballon d’Or)

Netherlands
Johan Cruyff (Inventor of the Cruyff Turn)

10 Jan 1966: George Best of Manchester United and Northern Ireland during a league match. Mandatory Credit: Allsport Hulton/Archive

Northern Ireland
George Best (1968 Ballon d’Or winner)

Bill McCracken (First player to play the offside trap)

Portugal
Eusebio (First African-born player to star at a World Cup)

Cristiano Ronaldo (Most international goals in men’s football history)

Russia
Lev Yashin (Only goalkeeper to ever win the Ballon d’Or)

MADRID, SPAIN – NOVEMBER 14: Andres Iniesta of Spain lines-up before the International friendly match between Argentina and Spain at the Vicente Calderon stadium on November 14, 2009 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

Spain
Andres Iniesta (Iconic playmaker. Barcelona legend)

Uruguay
Jose Andrade (First recognised deep-lying midfielder)

1993: Mia Hamm of the USA poses for a picture during a game against Canada. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart /Allsport


USA
Mia Hamm (US women’s soccer icon. Made international debut at just 15)

Wales
John Charles (First major player to leave England for an overseas club)

Football mascots quiz: Can you name the weird and wonderful characters at British clubs?

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Let’s start easy: who’s this iconic character?

A stellar line-up of great names, all rightly recognised for the innovations they have given to the beautiful game.

Many deserving candidates, though, narrowly missed out of the top 50, with FourFourTwo admitting that the likes of Romario (Brazil), N’Golo Kante (France) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (England) were all close to inclusion.

The ever-evolving spectacle of football is one of the reasons for its enduring popularity with fans around the world.

If this list is compiled again in the years to come, then a number of new names will inevitably feature, each recognised for the technical advances or fresh ideas they have contributed since.

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