Football, like any other modern-day sport, has undergone a sea of changes as it evolved over the years. Fans of different generations vouch for their favourite players as the best of all time.

The likes of Pele, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been fan favourites and are some of the prime contenders for the title of King of Football.

Brazilian legend Pele had set the benchmark early with three football World Cup wins out of the four he played from 1958 to 1970. He netted close to 700 goals for club and country to leave his legacy on the game. With such incredible records to his name, the title of King of Football is most often associated with the legendary Pelé.

Later, Diego Maradona received similar adulation from the fans as he single-handedly took Argentina to the pinnacle of World Football in 1986 captaining the team to a World Cup win. He was known more for his dribbling prowess as he cast a spell on defenders to wriggle away with the ball.

The late 1990s saw the emergence of players like Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho who left their mark on the field with spectacular performances.

However, it has been a two-horse race in the 21st century with Argentine superstar Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo pushing each other to bring out their best. 

Messi, who could not replicate his performances at Barcelona with the Argentina national team, has struck gold lately in the blue and white stripes. He first won the Copa America trophy in 2021 with Argentina before achieving ultimate glory with a FIFA World Cup win in 2022.

Messi finished as the joint top-scorer and shared the Best Player award with Brazilian Neymar in the 2021 continental championship. He also won the Golden Ball for the Player of the Tournament at the 2022 World Cup. 

Another title at the Copa America 2024 will make it three international titles in a row for Argentina and Messi, cementing his place as the King of Football. With a career spanning 20 years, 8 Ballon d’Or trophies, four FIFA World Player of the Year awards, and more than 600 goals, Messi has reached the zenith of the beautiful game.

Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo has been a revelation with the most international appearances and goals scored by any player in the history of the game. He has played in top European clubs in Portugal, England, Spain and Italy winning a total of five UEFA Champions League titles, seven league titles and five Ballon d’Or awards among others.

Ronaldo won the Euro 2016 title with Portugal but is yet to win a World Cup with the side. In the 2022 World Cup, he became the first player to score in five World Cups and his presence in the UEFA Euro 2024 has made him the only player to have played six European Championships. 

With close to 700 goals and 21 years of professional football behind him, Ronaldo has pushed all limits of fitness and longevity in a tough physical game.

World Football will soon see the passing of the baton from Messi and Ronaldo to the next generation of stars, like Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham, who are in line to be crowned the world’s best.

Photo credit: Alamy