The GOATs of Soccer: Forwards

By Lucien Betancourt

This is the fourth and final part in a series discussing the greatest soccer players of all time. This time, we’ll be covering the greatest forwards to ever play. 

First up is Italian legend Francesco Totti. He played his entire 28-year career with Roma, where he won a Serie A. He was also a key player in Italy’s 2006 World Cup victory, scoring 1 goal and 4 assists on their way to the trophy. He retired from football altogether in 2017, at the age of 41. He had an eye for goals, scoring 275 of them in 700 appearances. He also broke many records on club level, becoming Roma’s highest goalscorer in Serie A with 250 and in Roma’s Champions League appearances with 17. He also appeared in more Serie A games with Roma than anyone else with a whopping 619, including a record-setting 57 Champions League appearances. He’s the Champions League’s oldest goalscorer at 38 years and 59 days, holds the most goals for a single Serie A club, was the youngest Serie A Club captain at 22 years and 34 days, and has the 2nd most goals scored in Serie A history. He has also scored against the most Serie A teams, a remarkable 38 different clubs. Although he was never nominated for the Ballon D’Or, he is one of the best forwards of all time.

Next, a pair of modern legends who need no introduction. First, Cristiano Ronaldo. He started his career at Sporting CP, where he scored 3 goals in 25 games and had 5 assists at just 17 years old. In 2003, he transferred to Manchester United, where he won 3 Premier Leagues, an FA Cup, and a Champions League. In 2009, he transferred to Real Madrid. During his 9 years there, he won 2 La Ligas, 2 Copa del Reys, and 4 Champions Leagues. He is tied for the 2nd-most Champions League titles ever with 5. He has also had success with Portugal national team, winning the 2016 Euros and 2019 Nations League with that squad. He has scored 112 goals in 118 international games, and a remarkable 484 goals so far in 615 club games. He has also won 5 Ballon D’Ors, the 2nd-most ever. Also worth mentioning is longtime rival Lionel Messi. Messi has scored 474 goals in 520 games, winning 10 La Ligas, and 4 Champions Leagues, as well as 6 Ballon D’Ors, the most in history. WIth the Argentinian national team, he has scored 80 goals in 155 games, winning a Copa America in 2021 and reaching the 2014 World Cup final along the way. 

This jersey signified greatness in Italy.

Another legendary player worth mentioning is the all-time Champions League win record holder, Francisco Gento aka “Paco Gento,” who stands alone with 6 titles. He spent his entire career at Real Madrid, scoring 130 goals in 438 games. He also won 12 La Liga titles from 1953-1971 as well as the 1964 Euro with Spain, their first international trophy before 2008. He was a key part in Madrid’s dominance, as well as captain for Spain’s national team. He had exceptionally good crossing and passing, and an eye for consistent goal-scoring.

Next up, another legendary member of the previously mentioned “Mighty Magyars” Hungarian dynasty of the 1950s in Zoltan Czibor. He played as left wing for Budapest Honved, Ferencvaros, and later with FC Barcelona. He led Ferencvaros to a league title in 1949, then transferred to Budapest Honved, where he won 2 league titles and scored 58 goals in 80 games. In 1958, he joined Spanish giant FC Barcelona, scoring 36 goals in 84 games, winning 2 La Ligas along the way. He was a key part in Hungary’s dominance in the 1950s, winning the same trophies as most of the Mighty Magyars, Central European Champions, Olympic Gold, and World Cup Final, which he scored in.

Next, the leader of the Mighty Magyars, Ferenc Puskas. He played for Budapest Honved and Real Madrid, having major success with both. Over the course of his club career, he scored over 514 goals in 530 games, the greatest goal/game ratio ever. With Budapest Honved, who he played for from 1943 to 1956, he won 5 Hungarian League Titles. In 1956 he left Hungary, seeking asylum due to the ongoing Hungarian Revolution of the time. He ran off to Spain, where in 1958, he received an offer from Spanish giants Real Madrid. The rest is history. He won 5 La Ligas and 3 Champions Leagues with Madrid until his retirement in 1966. He also had a lot of International success with Hungary, winning Olympic gold, the Balkan Cup, Central European Championship, and reached the 1954 World Cup final. He scored 85 goals in as many games in national team play, a remarkable 1:1 ratio– all this before his final international appearance in 1956. Ferenc Puskas’ partner both with Hungary and Budapest Honved was another legend: Sandor Kocsis. Kocsis won 3 Hungarian League titles with Honved, where he then earned a move to FC Barcelona in 1956, also due to the revolution, and won a pair of La Liga trophies there. Overall, Kocsis scored 295 goals in 335 games in club play, as well as 75 for his country in 68 games. He was like Puskas: fast, skilled, and an incredible dribbler.

The legendary Ferenc Puskas.

Another Real Madrid legend from the 1950s worth considering is Alfredo Di Stefano. But before his stint there, he played for a pair of Latin American clubs and had great success. At River Plate, he won 2 Argentinian league titles, scoring 49 goals in 66 games. At Millonarios, he won 3 Colombian league titles, scoring 90 goals in 100 games. He then moved to Real Madrid, where his career exploded. Di Stefano scored 216 goals in 282 games, winning 8 La Ligas, 5 Champions Leagues, 2 Ballon D’Ors, and 2 Latin Cups along the way, completing one of the most storied runs for a single football player ever.

Finally, let’s talk about the player who in my opinion is the greatest ever. It’s Johan Cruyff, who played for both the legendary Dutch national team and one of the best iterations of Ajax in the 1970s. He also had a big impact as a manager. He started his career with Ajax in 1964. There, he won 8 Eredivisie titles, 5 KNVB cups, and 3 Champions Leagues as well as 3 Ballon D’Ors, scoring 190 goals in 230 games. In 1973, he transferred to Barcelona and won a La Liga trophy and a Copa del Rey. After this, he would become a journeyman of sorts, hopping from team to team. He made a return to Ajax in 1981, then moved to local rivals Feyenoord and won an Eredivisie there. After this, he retired as a player but started his new career as a manager. His first managerial position was with Ajax from 1985 to 1988, where he won 2 KNVB cups and a European Cup, with his stint being a solid stepping stone towards Ajax’s eventual 1995 Champions League winning team. His second job as a manager was with FC Barcelona from 1988 to 1996. There, he won 4 La Ligas, a Copa del Rey, 3 Supercopas de España, a Champions League, and a European Cup. During his time as a manager, he took Rinus Michels’ “Total Football” ideology from Ajax and the Dutch national team to develop it into what we know today. In “Total Football,” multiple players are trained to fill in multiple roles so if one drops down to a different position, another player can temporarily take that role. This kept defensive structure and stability while also confusing the opponents when they were on the attack. Cruyff compared this philosophy to a garden: “If I am the defender of this whole garden, I am the worst. If I am the defender of this small area, I am the best.” He and Rinus Michels’ development of Total Football has made it the most popular and common football ideology today, where players have become more versatile and can play in all sorts of positions.

This concludes the breakdown of some of the best forwards to ever play football, completing our journey upfield.