With the 2019 Copa America final between Brazil and Peru soon upon us, now seems like the perfect time to reflect on South America’s finest players.
From Pele to Messi and everyone in between, this is a list celebrating the very best the continent has had to offer us.
Here are the top 50 South Americans to ever grace the game.
50) Alexis Sanchez
Alexis Sanchez’ inclusion on this list may seem like a joke when you consider his recent form for Manchester United, but the Chilean winger has proven to be quite the player in the past – particularly on the international stage.
The former Barcelona and Arsenal man played a central role in Chile’s consecutive Copa America victories in 2015 and 2016 – registering a very impressive tally of three goals and three assists in the latter.
49) Diego Forlan
Another South American whose Manchester United career was underwhelming at best, Diego Forlan went on to enjoy a stellar career upon his exit from Old Trafford in 2004.
The Uruguayan hitman excelled at Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, finding the back of the net 128 times in La Liga, and was at the peak of his powers during the 2010 World Cup where he was voted as the tournament’s best player for his Jabulani-defying heroics.
48) Arturo Vidal
Arturo Vidal, like Sanchez, was an essential component in Chile’s recent Copa America successes, but the tough-tackling midfielder’s club career has been even more impressive.
Quite remarkably, Vidal has managed to secure eight back-to-back league titles in three different countries, winning the top prize with Juventus, Bayern Munich and, most recently, Barcelona.
47) Jose Luis Chilavert
You wouldn’t tend to describe a goalkeeper as ‘prolific’, but that was certainly the case for Paraguayan stopper Jose Luis Chilavert.
Conflicting reports exist surrounding the number of goals Chilavert scored at club level, but we do know that he managed to find the back of the net eight times for his country. That’s not forgetting the fact that he was an outstanding keeper in his own right, as he was voted as the w
46) Radamel Falcao
The whole ‘Manchester United flop’ theme is starting to get old by this point, but don’t let Falcao’s ill-fated spell in the Premier League distract you from the fact that he is one of the most lethal strikers of the past decade.
The Colombian was unstoppable for Porto and Atletico Madrid, but his career faltered somewhat after he ruptured his cruciate ligament in the buildup to the 2014 World Cup. He’s back on track with Monaco, but who knows what heights he could have hit if it weren’t for that injury.
One of the last greats of a dying breed, Roberto Ayala was one of the most accomplished, no-nonsense defenders of the 21st century.
Ayala was capped 115 times for Argentina, captaining them for 63 of those appearances, and enjoyed a stellar club career at the highest level, fielding for the likes of Napoli, Milan and Valencia, before hanging up his boots in 2011.
44) Javier Mascherano
Javier Mascherano began his career as a snarling defensive midfielder and became one of the best in the business after his move to Liverpool in 2007.
One of the most underappreciated players in Barcelona’s recent history, Mascherano successfully made the transition from midfield to defence, forming a rock-solid partnership alongside Gerard Pique and making his lack of height seem relatively inconsequential.
43) Juan Roman Riquelme
Juan Roman Riquelme stands out as one of the most accomplished midfielders o
As excellent a player he was, Riquelme remained somewhat of an enigma off the pitch, who managed to get on the wrong side of just about every manager he played under during his 20-year career due to his often abrasive attitude.
42) Claudio Taffarel
Claudio Taffarel was a veteran of three World Cup campaigns for Brazil during the 90s, notably keeping four clean sheets on the way to lifting the trophy in 1994.
Taffarel was a traditional keeper, who performed the fundamentals of goalkeeping to the highest standard, and he managed to hold down the number one spot for the best part of a decade before hanging up his gloves in 2003.
41) Carlos Tevez
Carlos ‘El Apache’ Tevez was a defender’s nightmare. Quick, strong and lethal, the Argentinean striker was everything you wanted in a modern striker, and then some.
His controversial signing for West Ham was soon brushed aside as he single-handedly saved the Hammers from relegation in 2007, before he went on to enjoy profitable spells at both Manchester clubs – winning a Premier League title in both ends of the city – and at Juventus.
40) Hernan Crespo
Hernan Crespo scored goals where ever he played his football. That’s a simple fact that cannot be denied.
Considering his impressive record in front of goal, Crespo isn’t revered as much as he probably should be, as he tends to be forgotten amongst the great strikers of the 21st century. His career was a decorated one too, as he won three Serie A titles with Inter, as well as a Premier League with Chelsea.
39) Dani Alves
Still going strong at 36 years old, Dani Alves found his way back into the Brazilian squad for the Copa America this year after a decent season with Paris Saint-Germain.
Why does Alves earn a spot on this list, though? After winning the Ligue 1 title this season, he became the most decorated player in history, with 42 titles to his name – the majority of which came during his profitable time with Barcelona.
38) Sergio Aguero
Sergio Aguero has rightfully earned a reputation as one of the most consistently deadly strikers in Premier League history and he looks certain to overtake Thierry Henry as the highest scoring foreign player in English top flight history.
It’ll be very interesting to see what the next few years have in store for the Argentinean, because he doesn’t look like slowing down for Manchester City any time soon.
The last captain to lift the World Cup trophy for Brazil, Cafu was one of the most dependable full-backs you could possibly wish for.
Cafu was a true leader in every sense of the word and, while not as bombastic as Roberto Carlos on the opposite flank, he was capable of fulfilling every task required of a full-back to the very highest standard.
It may seem a little controversial to leave Neymar this low down on the list, but the 27-year-old still has so much more to prove over the coming years.
He’s usually delivered for Brazil and, in fairness, was on the path to unquestionable super-stardom at Barcelona, but his time at PSG has tainted his previously glowing reputation, as he’s lacked the necessary competition to raise his game to the next level.
35) Teofilo Cubillas
The only Peruvian to feature on this list is Teofilo Cubillas, who remains one of just three players to score five or more goals at multiple World Cups.
Cubillas was the crowning jewel for Peru during the 1970’s, playing a starring role at the 1970 and 1978 World Cups for the South American underdogs – as well as their Copa America triumph in 1975. He was so good, Pele even announced him as his eventual successor upon the Brazilian’s international retirement in 1970.
34) Elias Figueroa
Elias Figueroa. Pelé said he was the best CB he ever played against, and Franz Beckenbauer said he was so good that he was nicknamed the “European Figueroa!” pic.twitter.com/a32r1qcObd
— Eduardo Hagn (@EduardoHagn) June 18, 2019
Widely regarded as one of the first effective ball-carrying central defenders, Elias Figueroa is held in high regard in the footballing world for his pioneering approach to defending.
The Chilean often fielded as a sweeper, whose playing style was not too dissimilar from the great Franz Beckenbauer, with his best performances coming during the 1974 World Cup, where he was voted at the tournament’s best central defender.
33) Nilton Santos
Nilton Santos was born on this day in 1925. Nilton won the World Cup with Brazil in 1958 and 1962, and spent his entire career with Rio de Janeiro club Botafogo, who have named their stadium after him. pic.twitter.com/CuNhb6uzv5
— Football Manics (@footballmanics) May 16, 2019
Prior to Nilton Santos’ introduction onto the world stage, full-backs were simply expected to provide extra cover in defence and nullify the the threat of opposition wingers. The Brazilian changed all that in 1958.
Nilton was one of the first full backs to consistently provide an overlap in attack, changing the way we view the position for good. Immensely talented and extremely versatile, Nilton was an irreplaceable member of the 1958 and 1962 World Cup winning squads.
32) Ivan Zamorano
Ivan Zamorano wasn’t necessarily the most gifted striker, but he more than made up for that with his utterly insatiable desire to win and leave everything on the pitch.
He’s fondly remembered by Inter and Sevilla supporters, but his four-year spell at Real Madrid coincided with his very best form, as he scored goals for fun with Los Blancos –
31) Djalma Santos
Nilton wasn’t the only marauding full-back to announce himself on the world stage at the 1958 World Cup.
Djalma Santos was similarly attack-minded down the right flank for Brazil during their consecutive World Cup victories, forming an almost-telepathic connection with the great Garrincha.
30) Luis Suarez
29) Gabriel Batistuta
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could strike a ball quite like Gabriel ‘Batigol’ Batistuta.
Graceful yet explosive, Batistuta was the ultimate striker during the late 90s and, when he was in the mood, there was virtually no stopping the inevitable. Goals. Lot’s of them. He banged in 54 in 77 appearances for Argentina and routinely hit the 20 goal mark with Fiorentina, before going on to lift his one and only Scudetto at Roma in 2001.
There’s no no doubting that Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winning side are the greatest collection of individuals to ever grace the international stage, but their success wouldn’t have been possible it it weren’t for Gerson.
‘The Brain’ pulled the strings for the Selecao, acting as the glue that held together their countless prodigious talents. His greatest performance for Brazil fittingly came in the final against Italy, where he scored to put his side on course for victory.
27) Marcelo Salas
Despite being overtaken in the goal scoring charts by Alexis Sanchez, Marcelo Salas remains Chile’s greatest ever player.
He was fleet-footed, brutally efficient and ridiculously tenacious, scoring goals at prolific rate throughout his career, until he began to slow down following a spate on injuries during his disappointing spell at Juventus.
Bebeto is often a forgotten figure in the history of Brazilian football, simply due to the sheer volume of world-class strikers the country has been able to produce.
Don’t get it twisted though. Bebeto was ridiculously talented and consistently prolific, scoring a number of vital goals along the way. Some of his best performances came on the grandest stages, as he scored six goals during Brazil’s 1989 Copa America success and three at the 1994 World Cup.
25) Javier Zanetti
Javier Zanetti wasn’t your typical South American full-back. He didn’t bomb forward with reckless abandon, nor did he rely on the fabled ‘dark arts’ to succeed. What set him apart was his supreme technical prowess and scarcely-believable consistency, as his lofty standards rarely dropped right e way up until his retirement in 2014.
Despite making 144 appearances for Argentina, Zanetti only played at two World Cups, as he was inexplicably left out of the 2006 and 2010 squads, much to the bewilderment of supporters who had grown to love the Inter legend.
24) Enzo Francescoli
Slight and unassuming, you’d be forgiven for underestimating Enzo Francescoli. He certainly didn’t look like he cause much of a threat.
How wrong you would be. The 80s gave birth to what we now understand to be the modern ‘trequartista’ and Francescoli was one of the best in the business. He was Uruguay’s main man during their back-to-back Copa America wins in 1983 and 1987, before he went on to enjoy a brief, but glittering career in France with Racing Club Paris and Marseille.
Rivaldo’s lasting legacy is that of a player who was the driving force behind Barcelona’s consecutive La Liga titles between 1997 and 1999, scoring an abundance of goals along the way.
The crowing glory of his individual career came in 1999 as he was awarded the Ballon d’Or for his performances at Barca – though his best goal scoring season came two years later as he netted 35 goals in all competitions.
22) Carlos Alberto
The captain of the famous 1970 World Cup side and the scorer of one of the greatest goals of all time, Carlos Alberto goes down in history as a giant of Brazilian football.
He was never able to hit the same heights of 1970 again, as injuries curtailed the rest of his career, but the legacy he left behind on Mexico ensured that he will forever be remembered as Brazil’s most accomplished right-back.
21) Daniel Passarella
A defender “must be a little like a good thief”. The words of Daniel Passarella, the captain of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup winning side and a fearsome defender who was as tough-tackling as they come.
His leadership skills, on and off the pitch, shone through during his career and what’s more, he boasted a quite remarkable goal scoring record for a defender, having plundered
What separates Tostao from so many players on this list is that, by all accounts, he didn’t really have a defined position. Rather than restrict himself to one area of the pitch, the Brazilian magician would nonchalantly occupy any position he wanted – to great effect.
Another member of the 1970 squad, Tostao more than played his part on the way to greatness, forming a lethal partnership alongside Pele. Not a bad duo.
19) Carlos Valderrama
He’s remembered for his hair more than anything else, which is a shame considering how important Carlos Valderrama was for Colombian football during the 80s and 90s.
A deep-lying playmaker with a keen eye for a raking pass, Valderrama was far from your typical number 10. He wasn’t necessarily that prolific in the final third, but El Bibe’s tactical intelligence and positional awareness ensured that he remained a fixture in the Colombian setup for 13 years between 1985 and 1998.
When you think of Roberto Carlos, it’s hard not to immediately think of that goal against France in 1997, a physics-defying effort that defined everything the left-back was about. Raw power.
The former Real Madrid man was the best left-back in world football during his ten year stay at Real Madrid, acting as one of the core ‘Galacticos’ during Los Blancos attempts to form the world’s most formidable club side. He secured plenty of titles during his decorated career, including a World Cup, three Champions Leagues and four La Liga trophies.
The player of the tournament at the 1958 World Cup, Didi was at the heart of Brazil’s midfield for their triumph in Sweden, as well as their win four years later in Chile.
He was an elegant and cultured midfielder who, in many respects, was well ahead of his time, but what really set him apart from the rest was his outstanding set-piece ability. No fewer than 12 of his 20 goals for Brazil came from direct free-kicks.
At his peak, Kaka was a force of nature, combining technical ability and robotic-like precision to wonderful effect, running the show for Milan during the mid-2000s.
He was awarded with the Ballon d’Or in 2007 for his performances with I Rossoneri and, if your’e still in doubt about his ability, just go and re-watch his goal against Manchester United in the Champions League. Majestic stuff.
15) Mario Kempes
Without Mario Kempes, there is no way Argentina would have been able to win their first ever World Cup on home soil.
The former Valencia striker was in the form of his life in 1978, scoring six goals to secure the Golden Boot, as well as the Golden Ball. Notably, two of his goals came in the final itself, as Argentina dispatched the heavily fancied Netherlands.
An all-action midfielder who could effectively carry out every role required of him in the middle of the park, Falcao left a lasting impression on Brazilian football and, at one stage during his time with Roma, he was the highest-paid footballer in world football.
He was a member of the 1982 squad which is universally considered to be the best side to never lift the trophy, scoring three goals along the way.
Jairzinho remains the only player to ever score in every single game of a single World Cup campaign. That’s quite the statistic.
Pele took the majority of the plaudits at the 1970 World Cup, but it was Jairzinho who was the most lethal forward at the tournament. He played the majority of his football at Botafogo, where he scored an impressive 186 goals, demonstrating that his 1970 showings weren’t just flukes.
12) Omar Sivori
1961 Ballon d’Or winner Omar Sivori was the driving force behind Juventus’ emergence as a true European powerhouse during the 50 and 60s.
The Argentinean – who also briefly represented Italy – made over 200 appearances for I Bianconeri, scoring 161 goals while winning three Serie A titles and two Coppa Italias. His move to Juventus came at a cost, however, as he was never selected for Argentina again.
Whatever the ‘beautiful game’ really is, Rivelino knew how to play it.
He played with poise, elegance and ruthlessness, with his precise dribbling and deft touch contrasting his lethal long-range finishing. Another member of the 1970 Brazil squad, his name has been now been immortalised.
There isn’t a single player who burned quite as brightly as Ronaldinho for such a short amount of time.
Between 2004 and 2007, the former Milan and Barcelona man was at the top of his game and firmly established himself as the best player in the world, bar none. Ever sine he disappeared from the limelight, there hasn’t been another player who can put a smile on the faces of supporters quite like Ronaldinho did.
One of the most clinical strikers of the 90s, Romario was brought out of the international wilderness to fire Brazil to World Cup glory in 1994, scoring five goals to finish the tournament as the joint top scorer.
He shone at Barcelona alongside Hristo Stoichkov and cemented his status as a Brazilian legend by finishing his international career with 55 goals to his name.
Socrates’ nickname ‘the doctor’ didn’t just come about as a result of his surgical precision on the football field. He was a fully qualified physician, as well as being one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Previously described as the ‘central intelligence’ of Brazil’s 1982 side, Socrates was the archetypal central midfielder, who could create an opportunity from nothing in an instant. Gifted doesn’t even begin to cut it.
7) Mane Garrincha
For a bow-legged upstart who frequently refused to train, Mane Garrincha was one hell of a player, whose dribbling skills were unrivalled during his peak years.
The Brazilian was irrepressible at the 1958 and 1962 World Cups, featuring in the team of the tournament on both occasions, with defenders everywhere getting twisted inside out at the mere though of trying to get the ball off him. Simply put, no one could dribble the ball quite like Garrincha.
The quality that separated Zico from the rest during the early 80s was his uncanny ability to create something from nothing. To find a pass that no one had even considered to be possible. To produce the unthinkable.
That was Zico in a nutshell. A genius who was always five steps ahead of everyone else on the pitch.The Brazilian’s performance for Flamengo against Liverpool in the
5) Alfredo Di Stefano
Real Madrid great Alfredo Di Stéfano was born #OnThisDay in 1926.
369 RM games
⚽️ 308 RM goals
Copa del Rey
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) July 4, 2018
The star of Real Madrid’s five consecutive European Cup triumphs between 1955 and 1960, Alfredo Di Stefano’s lasting legacy is one of unrelenting success, having scored over 200 times for Los Blancos in less than 300 appearances.
Born in Buenos Aires, Di Stefano represented three different national teams during his career: Argentina, Spain and Colombia. Despite this, he was never able to compete in a World Cup, making him the greatest player never to feature in the biggest competition of them all.
The scariest thing about Ronaldo? We arguably didn’t see him reach his full potential, as knee injuries stopped him in his tracks on two separate occasions.
It’s scary to envisage what the former Barcelona, Inter and Real Madrid man could have achieved had he stayed in peak physical condition for the majority of his career. He was the perfect embodiment of what you would want from a striker and, as his eight goal tally at the 2002 World Cup proved, no one could rival him when he was in the mood.
3) Lionel Messi
There is absolutely no denying the fact that Lionel Messi is the greatest player of the 21st century. On pure talent alone, no one comes close.
To describe him as extraordinary would be a disservice, quite frankly, as we’ve seen him take apart practically every side in Europe single-handedly for Barcelona over the past few years.
So why is he only at number three on this list? Argentina. He can’t quite guide his national side to glory, no matter how hard he tries and, until he can break that curse, that will always count against him in the GOAT debate.
Pele wasn’t just one of the greats of football. He was football.
Breaking onto the scene as a sprightly teenager during the 1958 World Cup, Pele’s status as one of the finest talents the world has ever seen – and is ever likely to see – was firmly cemented when he scored a stunning solo goal in the final against Sweden.
He won three World Cups and, on an individual level, scored more goals than anyone else has ever managed in the history of the game. No further explanation needed.
1) Diego Maradona
Diego Maradona may not have scored as many goals as Pele. He may not have been as impressive on an individual level compared to Messi. But he did something no one else has ever been able to achieve. He practically won a World Cup by himself.
Argentina are forever indebted to the man who single-handedly dragged them kicking and screaming to glory in 1986, putting in man of the match performance after man of the match performance, scoring five goals and securing the Golden Ball along the way.
And that’s not forgetting his heroic spell at Napoli, where he practically repeated the same feat on a domestic level, guiding an otherwise unfancied side to two consecutive Scudetti.
He’s not just the greatest South American footballer of all time. He’s the greatest footballer of all time, period.