With apologies to Neymar, Romario, Ronaldinho and Jairzinho – to name just four – who all very nearly made the list, we have compiled a top-five rundown of the best-ever Brazilian players.
It was no easy task, such is the amount of world class players to have pulled on the famous yellow shirt.
5 – Garrincha
Garrincha was the darling of Brazilian football fans in the 1950s and 60s, and was among the first players to showcase the sort of skills we now take for granted in the modern game. Full of tricks, flicks and step-overs – that were not commonplace back then – ‘The Little Bird’ was an entertainer who made dribbling an art form.
According to reports, he suffered from a bent right-leg following surgery to correct physical deformities from birth, but it didn’t hinder him one bit. He was an integral member of Brazil’s successful 1958 and 1962 World Cup teams, and was voted Player of the Tournament in the latter as he stepped up to star after Pele got injured.
He struck 12 goals from 50 caps and it was only in his final-ever appearance in the Yellow shirt that he suffered defeat on the international stage against Hungary at the 1966 World Cup in England. His club career was based mainly at Botagogo, where he spent eight years between 1953 and 1965, scoring 84 times in 238 league games.
4 – Zico
One of the standout players of his generation in the 1970s and 80s, Zico was a skillful, attacking midfielder that could dictate the pace of games and is regularly talked about as one of his country’s best-ever players.
Of all the compliments paid to the former Flamengo and Udinese star, one stands out, from Pele, who said: “Throughout the years, the one player that came closest to me was Zico.”
It’s no surprise Pele was a huge fan as Zico racked up 192 club goals in 334 appearances, while he hit 48 for Brazil from 71 caps.
A playmaker of such quality that in 1999, Zico came in eighth in the FIFA Player of the Century grand jury vote, and then in 2004 was named in the FIFA 100 list as one of the world’s greatest-ever living players.
3 – Cafu
Admittedly, down the years, the great Brazil teams are not known for their defending but Cafu has to make this list. Regarded as one of the best modern-day full-backs, some credit Cafu as being the man who reinvented the role. Not only was he solid as a rock at the back, he got forward whenever he could and was a major creative outlet out wide.
On top of that, he’s Brazil’s most-capped player, representing his country 142 times. He played in four World Cups between 1994 and 2006, and is the only player in history to have appeared in three consecutive World Cup finals, winning the 1994 and 2002 editions, the latter as captain in South Korea and Japan, while he also won the Copa America twice.
Cafu’s club career was forged in Italy and it was with Milan where he enjoyed plenty of success, helping the Rossoneri win the Scudetto in 2004 and the Champions League in 2007, as well as two UEFA Super Cups and a Club World Cup during his time with the Serie A giants.
2 – Ronaldo
Ronaldo, the original one, was so good in his prime that he would often seemingly win games on his own. The twice-crowned FIFA World Player of the Year was a devastating, powerful finisher who could run at defences and had close control and dribbling ability that belied his big frame and imposing stature.
However, it was his clinical finishing that set him apart. Ronaldo amassed 247 club goals for the likes of AC and Inter Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and PSV and shot to global prominence in the 90s and early 2000’s. He’d been part of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning squad but never really featured. Then, arguably, his greatest tournament came four years later when he was untouchable for much of France ’98 as Brazil made the final, before he suffered a mysterious injury or illness setback just before their showdown in Paris with hosts France.
He made amends, though, in 2002 as he once again starred to help the Selecao triumph on the biggest stage once more, scoring eight goals to also win the Golden Boot. Ronaldo is his country’s third-highest scorer ever, registering 62 goals in 98 appearances.
1 – Edson Arantes do Nascimento or, simply, Pele.
Pele remains one of the most revered footballers of all time and, without a doubt, Brazil’s finest.
His goalscoring record is sensational but he was, for those lucky enough to see him in the flesh, much more than just a prolific striker.
They say he had it all. The ability to run at and torment defences, pick a crucial pass, while he was equally adept with his head as he was with his feet. He was the scorer of all types of goals and helped Brazil, some say single-handedly at times, win three World Cups.
At just 17, Pele became the youngest player to feature in a World Cup final in 1958 and he scored an amazing six goals as a teenager in Sweden that summer, including a semi-final hat-trick and two more in the final. By definition, he was already a big-game player.
His goal stats are out of this world. He’s Brazil’s highest goalscorer of all-time with 77 in 92 appearances and a quick check of the record books show he managed 538 goals from 557 league games for Santos and NY Cosmos. That’s before we take into account cup and other games, which strongly suggest he had a barely-believable better than a goal-per-game ratio throughout a breathtaking career.