The Best European Soccer Players of the 20th Century

Let's take a look at the some of the European soccer players who achieved astonishing feats over the last century.
The Best European Soccer Players of the 20th Century

Last update: 20 June, 2020

According to the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS), one group of players stood out above the rest on the ‘old continent’ during the 20th century. In this article, we’ll tell you who the IFFHS thinks are the best European soccer players of the last century.

Who were the best European soccer players?

We’re not going to be talking about Cristiano Ronaldo nor about Zinedine Zidane, at least not today. On this occasion, we want to pay a deserved tribute to the best European soccer players of the last century. Which of them did you like the most on the pitch?

1. Johan Cruyff

Born in Amsterdam in 1947, Cruyff played ten seasons at Ajax. However, he’s most well-known for his time in Barcelona. El Flaco (the skinny one) won the Ballon d’Or three times in 1971, 1973, and 1974. Cruyff was known for his “total football” style of play, moving in various positions on the field of play.

Johan Cruyff in a game.
Image: FIFA

He made his debut for the Dutch national team in 1966 and played in the 1974 World Cup in Germany. He was part of the ‘Clockwork Orange’ team that made it to the final. On that occasion, they lost to the hosts 2-1 at the Olympic Stadium in Munich. Cruyff was part of the national team until 1977.

After he retired, he continued as a coach, first at Ajax and then later in Barcelona. He won 14 trophies in total between both teams.

2. European soccer players: Franz Beckenbauer

The second on the list is the German Franz Beckenbauer. Born in 1945, he was captain of his national team, a World Cup winner in 1974, and winner of the Ballon d’Or in 1972 and 1976.

Franz Beckenbauer playing a pass.
Franz Beckenbauer. Imagen: FC Bayern Munich.

‘The Kaiser’ played in just three teams over the course of his career. From 1964 to 1977 he played for Bayern Munich. Then he moved across the Atlantic to play for the New York Cosmos (1977-1980 and 1982-1983) returning briefly to play for Hamburg from 1980 to 1982. He was also the coach of the Mexico national team (World Cup runners-up in 1986) and Italy national team (World champions in 1990).

3. Alfredo Di Stéfano

Although born in Argentina, Di Stéfano is considered one of the best European soccer players of the 20th century because he became a Spanish national. Interestingly, he played for both national teams in the time that it was permitted, although he never played in a World Cup.

A face shot of Di Stefano, one of the best European soccer players.
Image: RFEF.

He started his career at River Plate and then went on to Millonarios in Colombia. He later became ‘famous’ after joining Real Madrid (after almost signing for Barcelona). Di Stéfano retired in 1966 at Deportivo Español and then continued as a coach in both Spain and Argentina, with very good results.

4. European soccer players: Ferenc Puskás

Here’s another player with dual nationality, this time Hungarian and Spanish, and both countries called him up to be part of the national team. He played in the 1954 World Cup for Hungary, who finished as runners-up. Then, he played for Spain in the 1962 World Cup, where they were knocked out in the group stage.

In Spain, Puskás was nicknamed ‘Little Canon’ because of his goals and his strong left-footed shot. He made his debut for Kispest AC in Hungary in 1943, before moving on to Budapesti Honved in 1949 and ending his playing career at Real Madrid (1958-1966).

Puskas taking a shot.
Image: Hungary Today.

After he retired as a player, he became a coach and managed 13 teams from different parts of the world (Spain, United States, Greece). In 1993, he coached the Hungarian national team.

5. Michel Platini

Born in France in 1955, Platini is one of the highest-scoring midfielders in history. He won top scorer three times the Italian league and is the second all-time top scorer in the French national team (behind Thierry Henry). He won the Ballon d’Or three years in a row in 1983, 1984, and 1985.

Michel Platini playing for France.
Image: AS USA.

Platini played for three teams in his career: AS Nancy, AS Saint-Etienne (France), and Juventus (Italy). He played in 400 games and scored a total of 207 goals, and with the France team, he took part in three World Cups (1978, 1982, and 1986). He was president of UEFA from 2007 to 2015.

6. Eusébio

Born in Portuguese Mozambique, his full name was Eusébio da Silva Ferreira. He’s widely recognized as one of the best strikers in history and he won the Ballon d’Or in 1965. His nickname was ‘The Black Panther’.

Eusebio, one of the best European soccer players.
Image: SL Benfica.

During his career, Eusébio played for nine different teams, but the most prominent was Benfica in Portugal and Monterrey in Mexico. He played in the 1966 World Cup, in which Portugal came in third.

Other prominent European soccer players

Continuing the IFFHS list of the best European footballers of the last century, we find Bobby Charlton (England), Stanley Matthews (England), Gerd Muller (Germany), and Marco van Basten (Netherlands). Do you remember any of them and their playing style?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.