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“Dominating the midfield is the most important thing in modern football,” says Germany’s Toni Kroos, but that’s not a new phenomenon, the great teams in history have been powered by their midfield. The 1990s’ West Germans, Spain’s trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning quartet or the French ‘Magic Square’ of the ’80s all had talent to burn.
Here we pick our top 10 midfielders of all time. We've used a number of achievements to quantify our rankings, as well as a player's overall contribution to the game in history. So who makes it into our top 10?
All stats come from www.transfermarkt.co.uk and are correct as of the publish date.
Other articles in this series:
Clubs: Sporting Lisbon, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan
The Portuguese playmaker Luis Figo (second in assists in La Liga history behind Lionel Messi) was a winner wherever he went. After leaving Sporting for Barcelona, he helped Barca to consecutive Spanish titles. Controversy then followed when that year’s Ballon D’Or winner switched to Real Madrid but he starred in a team featuring fellow new signing Claude Makélélé plus Steve McManaman, Roberto Carlos, Raul and Fernando Morientes that won Real’s first title in four years. His time at Inter saw another four league titles enter his trophy cabinet.
Clubs: Brescia, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus, New York City FC
You could forgive Roy Hodgson (not to mention Joe Hart) for having nightmares whenever the name Andrea Pirlo crops up in conversation. The former England boss watched his team torn apart by the deep-lying playmaker in consecutive tournaments at Euro 2012 and Brazil 2014. A ridiculously gifted passer, Pirlo ran Italy’s midfield for 13 years and won Serie A with AC Milan before adding four consecutive titles with Juventus.
Clubs: Americano, Madureira, Fluminense, Botafogo, Real Madrid, Sporting Cristal, CD Veracruz, Sao Paulo
Player of the Tournament at the 1958 World Cup Didi almost had to have his right leg amputated at the age of 14 when he contracted a severe infection after an injury. But the Brazilian would go on to win two World Cups in the gold and green, scoring 20 goals in 68 appearances for his country, among them 12 by way of his trademark knuckleball free kicks.
Clubs: 1.FC Herzogenaurach, Borussia Munchengladbach, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, MetroStars
Germany’s most capped player of all time, Lothar Matthaus also holds the record for most World Cup matches played by a single player, with 25. Only Rafael Marquez can match the German’s record of playing in five World Cups. The midfielder captained Die Mannschaft to glory at England’s expense at Italia ’90 and lifted the Ballon d’Or that season.
Clubs: Barcelona, Al-Sadd SC
Part of arguably the greatest club and international midfield in football history with Andrés Iniesta (see below) and Sergio Busquets, Spaniard Xavi pulled the strings throughout the tiki-taka era that scooped two Euros and a World Cup victory. Winner of 25 major trophies at Barcelona, the midfielder returned as the Catalan side’s manager in November 2021 just six years after leaving the club as a player.
Clubs: Gremio, Paris St Germain, Barcelona, AC Milan, Flamengo, Atletico-MG, Queretaro FC, Fluminense
Frank Lampard knows a thing or two about playing midfield and he had this to say about Ronaldinho: “I’d never seen a player like that. It was my early knockings in the Champions League and seeing him play was like, ‘Wow, this player is from a different planet to the rest of us.'” One of the most fun-to-watch players in history, largely because <i>he</i> looked like he was enjoying himself, the Brazilian made no-look passes a thing and won the Ballon d’Or in 2005.
Clubs: Cannes, Girondins Bordeaux, Juventus, Real Madrid
Vision, accuracy and Gallic elegance, France’s Zinedine Zidane had it all (he was handy with his head too). “He was as elegant as a dancer – he even used the soles of his boots efficiently,” said legendary Italy centre-back Franco Baresi of the 1998 Ballon d’Or winner. “Everything was easy for him; he made such movements that if I tried to copy them I would break my legs.”
Clubs: Barcelona, Vissel Kobe
“The press often ask me whether Messi or Ronaldo is the best, but for me something is very clear: Andrés Iniesta is the number one,” said David Silva. “He is able to do even more difficult things on the pitch. He is magic with the ball and so influential.” Still plying his trade in Japan at the age of 37, Iniesta was the maestro behind Barcelona’s historic trebles in 2009 and 2015 and Spain’s international dominance from 2008 to 2012, often looking like he was playing in slow-motion.
Clubs: AS Nancy, Saint-Etienne, Juventus
Only Lionel Messi (seven) and Cristiano Ronaldo (five) have more Ballon d’Or trophies than Frenchman Michel Platini’s three (tied with Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten). It was Ronaldo who, at Euro ’21, passed Platini’s Euros scoring record of nine goals. It’s taken the Portuguese star 25 matches to net 14 times, Platini’s all came in the 1984 tournament (five games). According to Pele, “The way he shone with France and Juventus, and his capacity for taking free-kicks, made him the European footballer of the 1980s.”
Clubs: Argentinos Jrs, Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla, Newell’s, Boca Juniors
While Peter Shilton may still not agree, Diego Maradona is the most gifted midfielder in the history of the game. “The best of the lot, no question,” said Brazilian great Zico. “In my generation, my era, he was simply the best. I saw Maradona do things that God himself would doubt were possible. He always had someone marking him, he always had someone hanging on to him, and yet he could still always conjure up wonderful pieces of magic. A genius.”