Brazil. It’s a country that lives and breathes football. To Brazilians, footballers have often been adored, deified almost, viewed as larger-than-life characters who possess the power to make one forget about life and dream, dream about the beautiful game.
Brazil, as a country, has been through a lot, politically, socially and economically. But even when faith in government and the powers-that-be has wavered, football has remained a fundamental part of life in South America’s largest nation.
It was telling that, by all accounts, when, as hosts, Brazil were knocked out of the 2014 World Cup after a crushing 7-1 defeat to Germany, the whole country was plunged into mourning.
But even after the national team’s darkest hour, the Brazilian people continue to love the sport unconditionally.
Thankfully, they have produced some of the finest players to ever grace the game; artists and icons who challenged perceptions of what was possible on a football pitch.
And here, we’re going to spoil it all by saying something stupid like ‘we’ll rank them’. Ranking anything is a dangerous game. There is no ‘right’ answer, of course, considering that they are intensely subjective. You’re not wrong for putting Citizen Kane above The Godfather, nor are you wrong for holding Eric Clapton in higher esteem than Jimi Hendrix.
Anyway, that’s a whole other can of worms we’re not opening. Our focus is Brazilian footballers, so let’s get crackin’.
Kicking off our list is Gérson, the creative heartbeat of Brazil’s legendary World Cup-winning side of 1970.
A player of exquisite technique, hawk-like vision and a thunderous left foot, Gérson represented four of Brazil’s biggest clubs – Flamengo, Botafogo, São Paulo and Fluminense – but his brilliance for the seleção was what propelled him into global footballing consciousness.
A supreme passer of the ball, Gérson overcame the pain of a deeply disappointing 1966 World Cup campaign – in which Brazil failed to progress beyond the group stage – to become the chief architect of that glorious side four years later, winning the tournament’s Silver Ball and scoring his country’s second in the final victory over Italy.
Elegant midfielder. Heavy drinker and smoker. Qualified medical doctor. Social activist and tireless campaigner for democracy.
Yes, Sócrates was all of these things, his legacy being much more than what he did on the field. A remarkable man, he was the legendary captain of Brazil’s 1982 World Cup team, unmistakable and unhurried, a player whose nonchalant brilliance was not enough to drive his country to the final in Spain.
A winner of three Brazilian championships with Corinthians, Socrates hung up his boots in 1989 before making a strange return with English non-league side Garforth Town for about five minutes in 2004.
That bizarre cameo did not blemish his legacy, though; Sócrates remains one of the most naturally gifted players Brazil has ever produced.
A powerful, rapid winger, Jairzinho is best remembered for his remarkable feat during the 1970 World Cup; scoring in all six games.
He was a player who could score any type of goal, from sublime solo efforts to thunderous shots, he had every type of finish in his arsenal. Indeed, it was Jairzinho’s unerring precision in front of goal that lifted his country to their greatest-ever triumph.
Jairzinho found success at club level, too, clinching two state championships in the 1960s with Botafogo. It’s his exploits in Mexico, however, that set him apart from so many of his compatriots.
With so many of Brazil’s legends attack-minded players, it’s a testament to Cafu’s impact and consistency over such a long stretch that he comfortably breaks into the top ten.
A stalwart of the national side, Cafu is the only player to appear in three consecutive World Cup finals, winning in 1994 and 2002, captaining his country in the latter.
He is also Brazil’s most-capped player with a staggering 142 to his name. Cafu is best remembered as the indefatigable presence at right-back who helped Roma to the Scudetto in 2001. He clinched his second Serie A title with AC Milan in 2004 and was a veteran member of the Rossoneri’s Champions League winners in 2007.
Simply one of the greatest right-backs ever.
Few players mastered the art of goalscoring quite like Romário. While there are certainly question marks over the validity of his 1000-goal haul, there can be no disputing the striker’s brilliance in the penalty area, possessing the touch and finish that allowed him to score important goal after important goal.
Romário’s finest hour came at the 1994 World Cup when he scored five goals during Brazil’s triumphant campaign in the United States, a haul that didn’t clinch him the Golden Boot but contributed to him being awarded the Golden Boot.
He found tremendous success at European clubs, too, helping PSV Eindhoven to three Eredivisie titles before joining becoming the focal point of Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ at Barcelona in 1993. In his first year at the Camp Nou, Romário scored 30 goals in 33 games as Barça won La Liga and also had spells at Valencia, several clubs back in Brazil, Miami FC and Adelaide United before hanging up his boots in 2009.
A consistent performer for his country, he managed 55 goals in 70 caps.
Perhaps football’s most flamboyant showman, Ronaldinho was a special talent.
Immensely skilful yet devastatingly effective, Ronaldinho was a reminder that football remains a game, something to be played and enjoyed. He took the ball at his feet like a child in the playground, painting a picture in his head of what he wanted to with it and, more often than not, executing it.
Having shot to prominence with Paris Saint-Germain, Ronaldinho became an icon at Barcelona, winning two league titles and a Champions League for the team, and a host of accolades – including the Ballon d’Or – for himself.
A World Cup winner in 2002 with Brazil, Ronaldinho would be even higher on this list were it not for a frustratingly nomadic latter half to his career. Already seemingly in decline by the time he joined AC Milan in 2008, he eventually turned out for Flamengo, Atlético Mineiro, Querétaro and Fluminense before calling it quits in 2018.
Another all-time great who never managed to lift the World Cup, Zico was still an astonishingly consistent performer for club and country throughout his career.
Having overcome his slight build in his formative years, he helped Flamengo win the Copa Libertadores in 1971, eventually going on to win seven state titles and four Brazilian championships in two separate spells which included 800 games and 500 goals.
A pass master with exceptional vision, Zico is also widely considered the greatest free-kick taker the game has ever seen.
His story with the national team was one of pain, however, having been part of that 1982 side that fell short while also failing to find success in 1978 and 1986. Even still, his record of 48 goals in 71 games shows what a clinical presence he was in midfield.
One of the most lavishly gifted footballers of all time, Brazilian or not, Garrincha was, by many accounts, the greatest dribbler the game has ever seen.
Garrincha came to the fore at the same time as Pelé, at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. While his teammate became the poster boy for that tournament, Garrincha was the hero four years later in Chile, functioning as Brazil’s star man with Pelé missing through injury.
Garrincha’s career was a triumph of spirit over anatomy. Certified a cripple by a doctor when he was young because of his left leg being six centimetres longer than the right, he still managed to become an elite sportsman.
While he was far from a model athlete – as a heavy drinker and smoker and serial womaniser – Garrincha continues to be rightly regarded as one of the most uniquely brilliant players to ever come out of Brazil.
Serious business now. The top two.
For many, Ronaldo – O Fenômeno himself – is the greatest. And yes, he was given serious consideration, but there are a few factors which prevent him from taking top spot.
Unquestionably the most explosive and exciting talent to emerge during the 1990s, Ronaldo was an almost unplayable fusion of speed, power and skill, a feared No.9 who regularly blitzed defenders and sent commentators scrambling through their thesauruses looking for more superlatives.
And yes, while he scored eight goals to help Brazil win the World Cup in 2002, there is still an aching tinge of ‘what if’ to him, a sense that, despite all his goals and brilliance, particularly that superhuman solitary season at Barcelona during which he scored 47 goals in 49 games, he was strangely unfulfilled by the time he retired.
Of course, a lot of this wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t his fault that he succumbed to a life-threatening seizure on the eve of the ’98 World Cup, nor was it his fault he suffered a near career-ending injury in 1999.
Fate dealt O Fenômeno a terrible hand, but his shoddy attitude towards training and discipline, to try and prolong his career, ultimately knock a point off his score.
Perhaps surpassed by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the greatest of all time, Pelé remains the model to whom up-and-coming Brazilians aspire.
He was the complete striker, a player not only of almost unmatchable technical quality but of immense mental fortitude.
Pelé exploded onto the global scene as the 17-year-old who took the 1958 World Cup by storm, scoring six goals – five of which came in the semi-final and final – as Brazil were crowned world champions for the first time.
Having missed the 1962 tournament before disappointment four years later, Pelé lifted his second World Cup in 1970 as the centrepiece in one of the greatest attacking teams ever assembled; alongside Gérson, Rivellino, Jairzinho and Tostao. Pelé is still Brazil’s leading scorer with an enviable record of 77 goals in 92 caps.
Spare a two-year stint with New York Cosmos before retiring, Pelé’s entire club career was spent with Santos, where he won 25 titles in 18 years including six Campeonato Brasileiro Série A titles and two Copa Libertadores.
Messi and Ronaldo may have surpassed him in recent years but, in this writer’s opinion at least, Pelé is Brazil’s greatest footballer of all time. To hear the opinion of an infinitely more talented writer, though, listen below to the late, great Hugh McIlvanney’s tribute to Pelé. Poetic.