Years Played: 1951 - 1970
Why he's one of the greatest: Lev Yashin is said to have saved over 150 penalty shots throughout his outstanding career.
Worldwide, Lev Yashin will always be on every soccer fan's dream team, and in the majority of cases, as the starting goaltender. The Moscow Dynamo keeper nearly left the world of football to play hockey for the like-named Moscow hockey team. An injury to then-starter Alexei Khomich gave Yashin his opportunity to impress, and the position was his from then on. He went on to play 326 matches in the Soviet Super League and quickly gained global recognition. In 1963, he was the first Soviet to win the European Footballer of the Year award and he remains the only goaltender to have won the honor.
The "Black Spider" was between the posts as the Soviet Union claimed the first-ever European Championship in 1960, then known as the Nations Cup. Yashin guided the Soviet Union to consecutive World Cup quarterfinals in 1958 and 1962, going one better in reaching the semifinals in 1966. He was included in the 1970 squad, not only as the backup goalkeeper but to offer leadership to the team. Upon retiring in 1970, Yashin's testimonial match played in front of 100,000 adoring fans included stars from around the globe.
Years Played: 1964 - 1982
Why he's one of the greatest: "The Kaiser" is the only footballer ever to have lifted the World Cup trophy as player (1974) and manager (1990).
Franz Beckenbauer revolutionized the role of attacking sweeper during his days at Bayern Munich and led them to the 1967 Cup Winners' Cup, as well as three consecutive European Cups from 1974 to 1976. In his time at Bayern, the club dominated the Bundesliga, winning the league title four times. His incredible form for club and country earned him the European Footballer of the Year award in 1972 and 1976.
The first player in West German history to reach 100 international caps, Beckenbauer burst onto the scene in the 1966 World Cup, scoring four goals for his side before losing the final in extra-time to England. Part of the squad that reached the 1970 World Cup final match, he continued to dominate in the early '70s, as he captained West Germany to the 1972 European Championship and 1974 World Cup titles. Beckenbauer, who is currently president of Bayern Munich, would go on to succeed at the managerial level, taking West Germany to the 1986 World Cup final match and lifting the trophy with the squad four years later in Italy. In terms of innovation and success on the pitch, "The Kaiser" is clearly in a class all his own.
Years Played: 1976 - 1996
Why he's one of the greatest: Scored five goals to lead Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title, effectively earning him the World Player of the Year award.
Ask anyone in Argentina -- there is God and not far under, there is Diego Maradona. Arguably, football's greatest ever talent also remains one of the sport's most controversial players. Playing his first match for Argentinos Juniors at the age of 15, Maradona scored an amazing 43 goals in 45 matches five seasons later, to reach the league's quarterfinal round. He would break three world transfer records, going first to Argentine club Boca Juniors, then to Spanish side Barcelona, and finally to Italian club Napoli. Still hailed as a savior in Naples, he single-handedly brought the side out of mediocrity, to two Italian League titles and a UEFA Cup over his seven seasons with the club.
His international career began at the age of 16, but he was left out of the 1978 World Cup squad the following year. Maradona will always be remembered for his unbelievable performance at the 1986 edition of the competition. His two goals against England in the quarterfinals included the infamous "Hand of God" goal and one of the best World Cup feats of all time, as he left five English players in his wake to score single-handedly. Argentina would go on to win the competition thanks to Maradona. Four years later, and Maradona's Argentina once again reached the final, only to lose to West Germany. Drug abuse and scandal followed him to the 1994 World Cup, where he played just one match. Through it all, Maradona remained a pure magician when it came to playing the game.
Pele (Edson Arantes do Nascimento)
Years Played: 1956 - 1977
Why he's one of the greatest: At the age of 17, Pele scored six goals in the 1958 World Cup, inspiring Brazil to its first title.
Throughout his illustrious career both on and off the pitch, Pele has remained a true ambassador of the game. Making his club debut for Santos at the age of 15 in 1956, he remained with the club until 1974. Although facts and figures could never do justice to the majesty that was Pele, his 1,281 goals in all competitions certainly serve to prove the point. He helped lead Santos to nine State Championships, and claimed two consecutive World Club Championships in 1962 and 1963.
There is no player who can claim greater success on the world stage. Pele made his international debut at the tender age of 16. A year later and his teammates pressured the national coaching staff to include the 17-year-old in the 1958 World Cup squad. Kept out of the majority of the tournament due to injury, Pele came on in Brazil's pool match against the Soviet Union. In the quarterfinals, Pele scored the winner against Wales, a hat trick in the semifinals against France, and two in the final against Sweden, Brazil won the 1958 World Cup... and a star was born. Out with injury for the 1962 World Cup, Pele returned to the national squad and claimed one more World Cup title in 1970. Voted the Century's Greatest Footballer along with Diego Maradona, Pele has continued to be an inspiration to the "the beautiful game."
It is difficult to choose only 20 great players of the beautiful game. Soccer, or football to most, has had such a rich history riddled with glorious moments. With billions tuning in to certain competitions to support the favorite teams and nations, soccer's arms reach around the globe. And to pick the 20 greatest players means omitting so many others who have had a huge impact on the game. But any way you look at it, these players are undeniably some of the most influential in the world.
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Andrew M. Cohen, London, England