Ronaldo, Real Madrid icons and Pele among best ever strikers in tiered rankings

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Ronaldo

Throughout the annals of history, football has been adorned with global treasures, and for this game, diamonds are its best friend.

But which jewels have dazzled brightest? And what carat of quality do they fall into?

We’re ranking the best players of all time and placing them into four separate tiers from one-four.

Naturally, there are big names missing and there will predictably be some contention around the placements as arguments can be made for each.

Yet we’ve given it a go and here’s our Tiered Rankings of the best retired strikers of all time.

TIER 1

PELE

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The reality created the myth. Pele’s name to any football fan, of any generation means ‘goals’ and ‘GOAT’.

It doesn’t matter whether they were around when he danced across the pitch or not, Pele remains an iconic No10.

Over time, his story has blurred into myth, yet it is fuelled by his unprecedented ability and triumph.

In a period when televisions flickered in black and white, Pele permeated the screen with performances of pure verve and vibrancy during the 1960s and ’70s.

With his club side Santos and national team, the Brazilian would score an impregnable 1,281 goals during a 22-year career. The numbers are astonishing, creating the myth. The reality was equally as absurd, too.

Indeed, Pele scored in all four corners of the goal, and reached all four corners of the globe.

This during a period when global communication was slow, but like the best features of his game, Pele travelled fast.

The kid-king would become ‘O Rei’, announcing himself by lighting up the 1958 World Cup with a quarter-final winner, a hat-trick in the semis and two in the final. The teenager was no bigger than the Jules Rimet when lifted aloft by his team-mates with the same joyous ease as the trophy.

He would go on to lift the World Cup another two times, score a mountain more goals and in the process climb his way to the top of football.

Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich, the defender who marked Pele in the 1970 final, described him best when he said: “I told myself before the game, he’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else. But I was wrong.”

ALFREDO DI STEFANO 

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Before Pele, there was Di Stefano. Had it not been for war, Di Stefano’s esteem would be held higher in regard given he was denied the opportunity to play in a World Cup.

But if justification is required for the Argentine’s genius, then consider the fact he could have played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona – at the same time.

Yes, the Spanish FA made the startling suggestion he should feature for the two rivals, alternating after each season over four years, following a complicated and fraught deal to take him from Colombian club side, Millonarios. Andy West’s detailed piece for the BBC sheds more light on this.

But in the end, Di Stefano signed for Real and would go on to become their greatest ever player. If football possesses its own language then Di Stefano was fluent in many dialects.

He was every desirable attacking trait splintered into one Blonde Arrow. A warrior on the pitch, fast and strong, a brutally clinical finisher who could create with supreme vision and defend as well.

The undoubted star of Real’s first five outstanding consecutive European Cups, in a side containing legends in their own right – Paco Gento, Ferenc Puskas, Jose Santamaria and Canario – he remarkably scored in each final.

A defining performance arrived during the 7-3 demolition of Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt, his hat-trick powered a triumph which is still considered the competition’s defining team performance.

A two-time Ballon d’Or winner and fourth-placed finisher in France Football’s voting for Football Player of the 20th Century, Di Stefano is a legend, no doubt about it.

TIER 2

RONALDO

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Mention the name Ronaldo and there is often some confusion as to which icon is the topic of conversation – the Portuguese or the Brazilian. Follow it up with the ‘Original Ronaldo’ and it is immediately clear.

Every man, woman and child would likely trace back their football affection to Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima. A modern-day great, Il Fenomeno was a scarcely believable talent. Every football fan has those dreams once in their life.

The one in which the ball is at their feet in the Bernabeu, San Siro or any one of the grand football cathedrals, where defenders are collapsed from the dazzling feet and freakish power before adding a finish of unerring precision.

To the collective mortals this was an hallucination, pure fantasy, but for Ronaldo, it was reality, the norm. Think of a heavyweight boxer with the lightning fast speed and footwork of a lightweight, and that is Ronaldo.

He was a force of nature, a blip in the Matrix, but with a career masked by misfortune.

Indeed, there are two tags which prefaced Ronaldo – The Original… and Prime…

Injury ravaged Ronaldo’s career, his knees buckled under the weight of expectation. It means we are left comparing the prime Ronaldo, a smaller snapshot of a player so genetically blessed, but with a body so cursed as well.

His knees struggled to contain his explosive power output, deterioration had to be monitored before two excruciating injuries with Inter. By the age of 23, Ronaldo had twice broken the world-record transfer with moves to Barcelona and Inter, but he was never the same after rupturing his knee for the latter.

He remained a technical phenom, but lost his trademark explosion. Still, Ronaldo is a World Cup, Confederations Cup, Copa America and La Liga winner.

He was chosen as the best player in the world three times, in 1996, 1997 plus 2002, and he changed what it meant to be a No9. His watermarks are dripped onto current superstars.

GERD MULLER

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Few players, even in today’s game, harnessed their predatory instincts effectively as Gerd Muller did in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The German’s familiarity with the six-yard box was like that of his own bedroom because it’s practically where he lived throughout his goal-laden career. It wasn’t always tidy either, but instead of waking up and sniffing breakfast, it was goals, and no No9 of that era possessed his nose for the net.

After all these years, Muller remains the game’s greatest poacher with his remarkable haul of 582 goals in 669 appearances reflective of his talent for scoring.

The modern Bayern Munich was built on his exponential exploits. Alongside Franz Beckenbauer, and then later Sepp Maier, Muller fired Bayern from the second-division in 1965 to domination at home and abroad.

Indeed, four DFB-Pokal triumphs, four Bundesliga titles (three consecutively from 1972-74), a first European honour in 1967 with the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and, of course, a hat-trick of European Cups from 1974 to 1976, were all attained during this dream-team era.

The club’s top scorer during that time? Muller. No Bayern player scored more than ‘Der Bomber’ in every season from 1964/65 to 1977/78. In seven of those seasons, no player bettered him in the Bundesliga and his single-season mark of 40 goals during the 1971/72 campaign still stands. Muller also held the record for goals scored in a calendar year until Lionel Messi, some 40 years later, surpassed his 85 strikes for Munich and West Germany in 1972.

That year coincided with European Championship success before the pinnacle of a World Cup two years later.

Muller’s winner against the Netherlands in the final was the loudest example of his striking personality; the undetected movement, sumptuous first touch and precision finish.

Simplicity was never more beautiful.

TIER 3

FERENC PUSKAS 

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If England is indeed football’s birthplace, then one strand of its evolution is distinctly Hungarian. In 1953 a Hungary team led by Puskas opened the eyes of English football by making them bleed with embarrassment.

The Hungarians systematically dismantled England 6-3 to become the first foreign team to win at Wembley in a defeat which crumpled English hubris and changed their thinking forever.

Puskas was chief tormentor. Physically he was built like a bowling ball, but picture an ice skater navigating pins on a glossed alley, and that was closer to what Puskas produced.

His left foot was lethal, but it contrasted the manner in which sashayed past players. The ‘Marvellous Magyars’ captain was all skill and grace before there was such a thing.

The game was blood and thunder, but on that day in November, Puskas showed fluid movement and precision would rule.

One goal immortalised him. For Hungary’s third, the great Billy Wright slid in to challenge, but the ball vanished and he practically left the pitch as Puskas dragged it back, shifted the ball out of his feet and slammed home with his left foot.

The beauty of the goal lies in its originality. Puskas was ahead of his era and his left foot had the ability to warp time such was the ferocity of his strikes.

He scored spectacularly and often, accruing a ratio of 84 goals in 85 games for his country.

At club level, Puskas was his century’s most prolific scorer, registering 511 goals in 533 top-flight appearances for Budapest Honved and Real Madrid.

With Real, his partnership with De Stefano is enshrined in the rich history of the club. Puskas won five straight Spanish titles and a European Cup triumph which is hallmarked by his absurd four-goal haul against Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 showpiece.

He was an icon, before icons were even a thing.

THIERRY HENRY 

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Arsenal’s all-time leading goalscorer is preserved by a statue outside the Emirates Stadium, which is a little ironic considering Henry’s career was framed by his electric movement.

Henry was so good, and his impact so great during his eight-year stay with the Gunners, that English football welcomed French phrases into its vernacular to describe him.

Henry’s brand of pace, technique and vision possessed a certain je ne sais quoi. When the Frenchman produced his signature finish – that left-wing glide, his body opened wide and a right-foot slide into the far corner – we all hailed his va va voom.

Under Arsene Wenger, Henry changed and developed into a Premier League great, shifting the image of the No9 from a bouncer to a dancer.

Considered a winger for much of his career, Wenger reapplied Henry’s elegant traits in a central role, turning a one-dimensional wideman into a two-pronged frontman.

Henry wasn’t initially a prolific goalscorer, evidenced by a poor debut season at Juventus fresh after winning the 1998 World Cup with France, but when Wenger deployed him through the middle, he could score goals, take players on and find the killer ball.

He was the centrepiece of Arsenal’s majestic wrestle with Manchester United, winning two Premier League titles and three FA Cups.

And he was also the league’s top scorer four times, hitting the vaunted 30-goal mark during Arsenal’s invincible season.

His shock move to Barcelona wasn’t as gratifying, but it was trophy-laden helping one of the modern great teams win six trophies in one campaign in 2008/09.

Given how decorated his club career was, it’s easy to forget his success for Les Bleus. He was their top scorer en route to World Cup glory in 1998 and earned man-of-the-match plaudits in the European Championship final victory over Italy two years later.

Unfortunately, his prime did not align with the quality around him at international level, but he remains their record scorer with 51 strikes and is undoubtedly one of their finest players.

TIER 4

MARCO VAN BASTEN 

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Football can elicit the entire spectrum of emotions, but with Marco van Basten, there was only ever one when he was on the pitch – happiness.

Watching him in action was pure joy and if smiles were a currency in football, Van Basten would be the game’s richest man.

While there’s a feeling of what could have been – his career was brutally cut short by injury at the peak of his powers aged 28 – what we had was magnificent.

Were the surgeries on his ravaged ankle not so cruel, and this list so cut-throat, Van Basten would occupy a far higher position.

But regardless, he is one of the most beloved centre-forwards in history.

He had absolutely everything. When we talk about complete strikers in the modern day, they all pale in comparison to the Dutchman. For a player so tall, Van Basten was balletic. He could contort and twist his body like gymnast, prise open space as if mathematical genius and score goals closer to art than sport.

If Holland’s Total Football is the model for all to follow, then Van Basten is one of its greatest exponents. Fitting then that for his Ajax debut he replaced Johan Cruyff.

During his first season for the Amsterdammers in 1982-83, Van Basten scored nine times in 20 games. The four subsequent seasons saw him lead the league in goals and in 1985-86, all of Europe as well. The Swan of Utrecht left for AC Milan the following year, but not before capturing the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup through his match-winning strike.

The swan became the saint in Milan. He collected three Ballons d’Or, two Capocannoniere titles, one Fifa World Player award and 16 more trophies as a collective with the Rossoneri. For club and country, The Flying Dutchman scored many goals and many great goals – maybe even the greatest ever against the Soviet Union to claim Euro 1988 glory, a tournament where he was the leading scorer.

When Van Basten retired in 1993, there was another emotion he drew from us one of sadness. Yet we were so lucky to have had what came before.

EUSEBIO 

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Eusebio da Silva Ferreira – the Portuguese Black Pearl unearthed from dust tracks of Mozambique.

Africa’s first great and finest ever export, Eusebio left for Benfica and a country he would earn 64 international caps for and the recognition as one of the game’s premier forwards.

From 1961-75, Eusebio carved out his own legend during a time when football’s other great portraits like Pele, Johan Cruyff, George Best and Bobby Charlton were being hung up.

The squared-jawed striker ran circles around defenders, using his blaring speed and powerful shot to score 727 times in 715 Benfica appearances.

He won seven Portuguese titles, 11 trophies in total domestically, and was the country’s leading scorer for four straight season from 1964-68. His nine goals at the 1966 World Cup secured the Golden Boot and a third-placed finish for Portugal.

But for all the gargantuan numbers, there are two games which hallmarked his greatness.

The second, and perhaps his finest, was at that World Cup when four of his goals arrived in a remarkable comeback against North Korea in the quarter-final. Portugal went 3-0 down, but minutes after Yang Sung-Kook’s goal, Eusebio ghosted into the box and poked home into the top corner.

His penalty just before half-time found the same left spot of the net and brought the score to 3-2. After the break, he tore the Koreans apart, completing his hat-trick by latching onto a through ball and unleashing another precise strike into the corner.

His fourth, earned after he was brought down, added the varnish to his masterpiece. Of course, England would go on to win the semi-final, but by this point Eusebio had already tasted immense glory thanks to his other iconic performance. In 1962, he helped bring the European Cup to Estadio da Luz, a stadium where he is immortalised in statue form.

He scored a penalty to put Benfica ahead against the great Real Madrid after the break – a side graced by their two legends spoken of above, Di Stefano and Puskas – and his stunning free-kick sealed a 5-3 victory.

Eusebio idolised Di Stefano, but on that night, it was the Argentine in awe as he asked to swap shirts at full-time. Greatness recognise greatness.

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