Brazil Flag with Football as Centre

The Three Best Brazilian Players of All Time

England may well be the home of football, though some would dispute it, but even so, many would consider Brazil the game’s spiritual heartland. There are many stereotypes about Brazil and, as with most stereotypes, there is at least some truth in all of them. However, when it comes to Brazilians’ love of football, that is one that is absolutely, 100% true.

Visit almost any beach, at virtually any time of the day or night, and you will see locals kicking around a ball, or some item standing in for a football. This love of the game, coupled with the country’s huge population (around 216 million), and the fact that poverty is little barrier to entry, has helped make Brazil the most successful football nation on the planet.

Brazil has won the World Cup a record five times, one more than Germany and Italy, although they have not made the final since 2002 (when they won). Only Germany have made the final on more occasions (eight to Brazil’s seven) and Brazil are always near the top of the betting when the World Cup swings around, even if they have not always delivered on that.

Brazil’s success has, of course, been built on their ability to produce brilliant players. They are the world’s leading exporter of professional footballers. According to Statista there were 1,289 Brazilians playing professionally outside of Brazil in 2023. The next highest is France, with 1,033 according to the CIES Football Observatory, although that same body puts the figure for Brazil much higher at over 1,500.

But as well as the sheer number of players Brazil produces, that ply their trade both at home and away, the land of carnival, caipirinhas and capoeira has also given us some of the very best players football has ever seen. Here is our top three, and whilst we think number one spot is pretty uncontroversial, deciding the other two, and the order, was far from easy.

1) Pele

It could only really be Pele topping this list, or Edson Arantes do Nascimento, as the odd football nerd might call him. Pele was born in 1940 and sadly died recently, on the 29th of December 2022, at the age of 82. His playing career spanned some 21 years, between 1956 and 1977 and he only ever played for two clubs.

He is primarily associated with Sao Paulo outfit Santos, for whom he played around 659 times, netting about 643 goals. The reason for this uncertainty relates to record-keeping back then, and also because some matches were more akin to exhibition games and so are not recorded by all sources as official games and goals. Nonetheless, he played a lot of times for Santos, and scored at almost a goal a game.

At the end of his career he spent three years in America playing for New York Cosmos. In all he turned out for the no-longer-extant club 107 times and added 66 goals to his tally. He helped both clubs win major trophies, but the undoubted highlights of his club career were lifting the Copa Libertadores – South American Champions League – twice with Santos, in 1962 and 1963.

Pele Proves Greatness on Global Stage

Pele with World Cup
Pele won the World Cup with Brazil in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Image: Sasha India, flickr

His goals record with Santos speaks for itself, as do the honours he won at club level. But it was his magnificence in the famous yellow shirt of Brazil that really earnt Pele the status as the greatest footballer of all time – until Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo came along to complicate the argument. The man from Minas Gerais state set many records, several of which still stand to this day and for many fans who were lucky enough to see him play in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, he remains the greatest.

He bagged 77 goals for his country from just 92 fully official appearances, a fantastic goals-to-games ratio. He made his debut for the Canaries aged just 16 and promptly scored. Against Argentina. At the Maracana. Not a bad way to announce yourself on the international football stage. Between his Brazil debut in 1957 and the end of 1965, he scored international goals at a rate of better than one per game in six out of nine calendar years (though he didn’t play internationally in 1961).

In all he won three World Cups with Brazil, in 1958, 1962 and 1970 and played a big role in all of those triumphs. He notched 12 goals in 14 World Cup games in total, including a hat-trick in the semi-final in 1958 and two more in the final. When still just 17!

As a footballer he had it all, and there is a brilliant clip online of him performing various tricks and skills that are associated with other footballers, years before the others did them. He was fast, strong, and excellent in the air for someone who was 5ft 8in, thanks to a superb leap and excellent timing. In addition, he was a wonderful striker of the ball, with either foot, had exceptional balance, great power and impeccable technique. He was the complete footballer and Brazil’s undisputed king.

2) Ronaldo

Ronaldo Playing for Brazil
Ronaldo scored 15 World Cup goals for Brazil. Image: Maxisports, Bigstock Photo

Before CR7 there was “Brazilian Ronaldo”, “Original Ronaldo” or just Ronaldo as he was then. Born in 1976, Ronaldo played 98 times for his nation and bagged 62 goals. He won “just” two World Cups, in 1994 and 2002, and was a runner-up in controversial circumstances in 1998, when some form of mystery illness struck him just before the final.

Ronaldo played for some of the biggest clubs in the world, including PSV, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and AC Milan. He is the only player ever to have played for both of the Milan giants, and both of Spain’s Clasico rivals, and he was so good he could get away with it!

Ronaldo was taller and more dynamic than Pele and whilst his game was more about raw pace and power, he was also a complete footballer who could do it all. At his best he was unplayable and defenders struggled even to foul him. He scored 47 goals in 49 games for Barca and was prolific everywhere he went, despite injuries that often plagued his career – probably due to the many fouls he attracted.

As well as his brace of World Cups, he won the Copa America twice, in addition to the Confederations Cup. He won domestic silverware in Brazil, Holland, Italy and Spain, whilst individually he won far too many awards to mention, including being crowned FIFA World Player of the Year in 1996, 1997 and 2002, and winning the Ballon d’Or in 1997 and 2002 (he was second in 1996).

3) Zico

There are so many contenders for the bronze medal when it comes to the best players Brazil has ever produced. Garrincha is right up there, as are entertainers like Rivaldo, Romario and Ronaldinho, whilst younger fans will be startled at the omission of Neymar. Players including Kaka, Roberto Carlos, Socrates, Tostao and many others are also in the debate, but in the end we have plumped for Zico.

Pele himself spoke in gushing terms about his compatriot, saying that in terms of the football he produced, “The one player that came closest to me in playing style was Zico.” Zico was born in Rio in 1953 and played deeper than Pele, more as an attacking midfielder.

Zico scored 48 goals from 71 games for Brazil which was a fantastic return, but bad luck, underperformance at the wrong time and simple bad timing – in terms of the other players in the yellow shirt during his career – meant that Zico never lifted the World Cup. However, that does not mean he was not a world-class footballer and a real superstar.

Zico was a versatile player, capable of producing the goods almost anywhere in the midfield or attack, though was mostly a forward-thinking midfielder or number 10. He took brilliant freekicks, generating amazing dip, and was technically superb. He was one of the best passers of the ball ever, and boasted superb vision – even when executing his famous no-look passes.

Although injuries limited his career somewhat, he still won numerous honours with his primary club, Flamengo, including the 1981 Copa Libertadores. He was named the best player of that year’s competition too, and it is just shame that he was never able to lift the World Cup.