The World Cup was founded in 1930 and has captivated the world since then. While many different groups of players have hoisted the winning trophy, several names stand out among the rest in terms of their World Cup legacy. With collectors in mind, we take a look at some of the greatest players to ever appear in the FIFA World Cup.
As the many who collect soccer cards have come to realize, the market for soccer cards is much different than that of baseball or basketball. While North American collectors made the move to a collecting approach more built on investment and high values, soccer cards still maintain a system mainly geared to simplicity and base cards. Soccer collecting has started to come around to more premium releases, but it has been a slower process. This difference in collecting is further separated by an ambiguous view of rookie cards. The end result is a soccer market that is light on cards for many former players from most of the last century and is comprised primarily of base and sticker cards.
Despite the lack of cards, this does not mean that there are no collecting options for the greatest players in World Cup history. It just means that it might take a little bit more work. Panini has recently alleviated some of that searching with an extensive autograph checklist found in 2014 Prizm World Cup. The following list looks at 15 of the best to ever roam the pitch at the World Cup. Top cards, including the earliest known options, are noted when available. For a look at the current crop of players, check out our 2014 World Cup collecting guide.
When narrowing down any list to 15, it is always tough to come up with a final group. Obviously there are other fantastic soccer players that are not included on this list. Do any other World Cup performers hold a special place in your collection?
Collecting the Greatest World Cup Stars of All-Time
Click the player name to browse options on eBay.
Paolo Rossi appeared in two World Cups (1978, 1982), scoring nine total goals. The Italian striker scored six of those goals in 1982, on the way to helping the team win the 1982 World Cup. His card options are largely limited to stickers from his playing days.
- 1975-76 Panini Calcio
The first of several elite players that call Brazil home, Romário was an impressive scorer with a career that stretched until 2009. He played in two World Cup tournaments (1990, 1994), but made the biggest impact in 1994. Romário scored five goals in the 1994 World Cup, held in the United States, and led Brazil to the title. His cards are slightly more plentiful, but mostly consist of the base card variety.
- 1987 Campeonato Brasileiro
Just Fontaine only appeared in a single World Cup tournament, but what a performance it was. Fontaine netted 13 goals in the 1958 World Cup, a record that still stands today. Unfortunately, his French team did not claim the World Cup trophy, losing to Brazil in the semifinals. Card options are very minimal for Just Fontaine, mainly due to the period in which he played. Most of his readily available cards are from his coaching days.
- 1958 Heinerle
Known as "Bomber der Nation" or just "Der Bomber," Gerd Müller was a powerful forward for one of the top European squads. After totaling ten goals in the 1970 Word Cup, Müller followed that up with four goals in 1974, including the game winner in the final game versus the Netherlands. His 14 World Cup goals put him among the top scorers in World Cup history. Gerd Müller cards are not tough to find, but are mainly stickers from his active career, as well as cards from the Sportscasters sets.
- 1965-66 Bergmann
Although he was born in Mozambique, Eusébio took his immense soccer talents to Portugal. The "Black Panther" tallied nine goals in his only World Cup appearance in 1966, helping Portugal win third place. In addition to his vintage card options, Eusébio was featured in a 2010 Sportkings autographed set and was honored with a short-printed tribute card in 2014 Prizm World Cup.
- 1963 Panini Calciatori
- 2010 Sportkings Autographs (2 versions)
While many on this list are purely scorers, Michel Platini was equally adept with his passing. The French midfielder participated in three World Cups, including 1978, 1982 and 1986. Platini scored five total goals and led France to consecutive semifinal appearances, where they lost both times to Germany. The team would finish in third place in 1986, but Platini was sidelined for the final game. His card options fall in line with most of the previous players, but he was recently featured in a 2013 Futera insert,"The Mythicals," which included real diamonds and a gold frame.
- 1974 Ageducatifs Michel Platini #289
- 2013 Futera The Mythicals #MYTH08
Seemingly old even when he was young, Bobby Charlton was the face of English football in the early-1960s. He was selected for four consecutive World Cups, starting in 1958, but only played in 1962, 1966, and 1970. Charlton helped England win their lone World Cup in 1966, defeating Germany in the final game. He ended his World Cup career with four goals. Bobby Charlton's cardboard career stretches several decades, from his vintage options in the 1950s and 1960s, to more recent releases. Collectors can find signed cards for Charlton in 2014 Prizm World Cup, including a regular version and a rare dual signed card with Steven Gerrard. It is also fair to say that he had the greatest comb over in history.
- 1958 A&BC Gum Famous Footballers #3
- 2014 Panini Prizm World Cup Signatures
The pride of Italy, Roberto Baggio appeared in three World Cups, including 1990, 1994 and 1998. Known as Il Divin' Codino or "The Divine Ponytail," for obvious reasons, Baggio finished with nine World Cup goals, but is largely remembered for the one that got away. In the 1994 World Cup Final against Brazil, the game went to a shoot-out and Baggio took the last kick, with his team trailing. He put his shot over the crossbar and Brazil won 3-2. Two of his earliest cards from 1985-86 feature a similar look, but the Edis version actually included the wrong name, showing him as "Paolo Monelli." Baggio was also part of the autograph set in 2014 Prizm World Cup and has proven to be one of the more valuable pulls from the product.
- 1985-86 Edis Calciatori #65
- 1985-86 Panini Calciatori #93
- 2014 Panini Prizm World Cup Signatures
Like Roberto Baggio, Zinedine Zidane is another elite player that has been seemingly defined by one specific moment. The dynamic midfielder played in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups for France, and scored five goals. Zidane helped the host team win the 1998 World Cup, defeating Brazil in the final game. He scored the first two goals in the 3-0 win for France. However, he made the most headlines for his performance in the 2006 World Cup Final. After France battled Italy to a 1-1 tie, the game moved to a shoot-out. Zinedine Zidane did not make it to that point, because he was was red-carded and thrown out of the game for headbutting Marco Materazzi of Italy. This final act by Zidane ended his international career on a sour note and was even featured in a Family Guy episode. While there is a decent variety of Zinedine Zidane card options, they are mostly limited to base and sticker cards.
- 1992 Panini Football #43
- 1993 Panini Football #261
Although he was born Manuel Francisco dos Santos, most football fans known him as "Garrincha," which is Portuguese for "little bird." Garrincha scored five goals between the 1958, 1962 and 1966 World Cups and helped Brazil win the World Cup in both 1958 and 1962. He is most remembered for leading the team to victory in 1962 after Pelé went down with an injury. Garrincha passed away in 1983 at the age of 49. Although his cards are largely limited to regional options, Garrincha is found in many of the same sets as Pelé. One of his more notable early cards actually pairs the two Brazilians on the same card.
- 1958 Alifabolaget #632
- 1958 Swedish Rekord Journal w/ Pelé
Before Cristiano Ronaldo made headlines, Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima was the Ronaldo everyone talked about. The prolific scorer finished with 15 goals in his World Cup career, including appearances in 1998, 2002 and 2006. Ronaldo was also on the 1994 World Cup Champion roster, but did not play. He currently sits as the top overall scorer in World Cup history, but Miroslav Klose has 14 goals and is playing in the 2014 World Cup. Ronaldo led Brazil to the title in 2002 and second place in 1998. Despite his relevance to the game and the fact that he is a modern player, there is not a large supply of cards available for Ronaldo. This is further complicated, because it is tougher to search for his cards given the shared name with Cristiano Ronaldo.
- 1995 Panini Voetbal 95 #78
Widely considered one of the greatest to never win a World Cup, Hendrik Johannes Cruijff, or Johan Cruyff, as he is more commonly known, helped lead the Netherlands all the way to the 1974 World Cup Finals against West Germany. The team came up short, but Cruyff did everything he could and is remembered as one of the greatest facilitators in the history of the sport. He notched three goals in the 1974 World Cup and is regarded as one of the top players of all-time. Although they are all largely plain, Johan Cruyff cards are relatively easy to track down.
- 1972 Monty Gum #233
- 1973 Panini Campioni Dello Sport #112
Teammate Gerd Müller may have been "Der Bomber," but Franz Beckenbauer was "Der Kaiser," or "The Emperor." One of the greatest players in history, Beckenbauer made it look easy. He played all over the pitch and headlined an impressive West German World Cup squad in 1966, 1970 and 1974, scoring five goals. Beckenbauer helped West Germany win the 1974 World Cup. He also won the 1990 World Cup as the West German coach. Most of Beckenbauer's cards are from his final playing days, but his earliest cards are rare vintage options from the mid-1960s. Signed cards are also available in 2014 Prizm World Cup.
- 1965 Lampo Perfetti
- 1965-66 Bergmann
- 1966 Panini Calciatori / Campioni Dello Sport
- 2014 Panini Prizm World Cup Signatures
At his very best, Diego Maradona was arguably the greatest of all-time. But at his worst, his questionable actions overshadowed his brilliance. Maradona played in the World Cup in 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994 and finished with eight total goals. He helped Argentina win the 1986 World Cup and missed out on a repeat win in 1990, as the team lost to West Germany in the finals. Compared to many of the players on the list, Diego Maradona has a good mix of base cards.
- 1978 Crack Mundial Diego Maradona
- 1979-80 Panini Diego Maradona #312
All the future greats will be compared to Pelé and they will all likely come up short. Pelé is widely considered the single greatest soccer player in history and his time spent with the Brazilian National Team is a huge reason for that. He appeared in four tournaments, including 1958, 1962, 1966 and 1970. His 12 total goals puts him in an elite group and Brazil won three of the four World Cups that he participated in.
Because of his immense popularity, Pelé's cards are the most plentiful and most valuable in the group. In addition to a wide variety of cards from throughout his career and retirement, both Topps and Panini have issued autographed cards in recent sets. Showing his crossover appeal, Topps even featured his signed cards in baseball products.
- 1958 Alifabolaget Pelé #635
- 1958-59 Tupinamba Ltda. Quigol Pelé #109
- Various Pelé Topps/Panini Autographs