Football's greatest winners who were universally loved

Players who united fans and critics

As football fans, we all have our allegiances – there are the players we cheer on and the players we boo. But what about those players with so much class on and off the pitch, you can't help but love them?

Chelsea v Leicester City - Premier League

Claudio Ranieri for example, Leicester's City's victorious manager, is regarded as one of the game's good guys. In fact, you'd be hard pushed to find anyone who has a bad word to say about him, whether it is a player, coach, pundit or member of Joe Public lucky enough to meet him.

But what about players? Nice guys finish last, so the saying goes (and let's be honest, we all like to see a pantomime villain on the pitch) but there are plenty of footballers out there who make a nonsense of such a cliché, players who've managed to combine outrageous footballing gifts with a sense of modesty, grace, good humour and generosity. These are the kind of players you can't help but like, even though they might play for your rivals, players who exhibit class both on and off the pitch.

Historically, two names inevitably spring to mind, and not only because the share the same forename: Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton. Both men epitomised a sense of character and integrity, as well as genius on the ball, that marks them out as representatives of everything that's great about the game, beloved by fans whatever their club allegiance. Pele, another of football's good guys described Moore as "an incredible footballer," and a defender who was "always hard, always fair." But above all else, he was "a gentleman."

The same went for his England teammate, the wondrous Bobby Charlton, a player who survived the Munich air disaster in 1958 in which eight of his teammates died, and went on to become part of Manchester United's DNA. Sir Matt Busby said of him, "he was as near perfection a man and a player as it is possible to be."

Someone who, as Sir Alex Ferguson summed up, "you would trust with your life." Of course, when it comes to England's 1966 team we could run right through the squad list, from hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst to acrobatic Gordon Banks to dancing Nobby Styles. Every one of them has earned a place in the hearts of England fans everywhere.

Real Madrid v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final

The other home nations have had their fair share of universally-loved players too. Who isn't a fan of Dennis Law or Kenny Dalglish, Gareth Bale or Ian Rush, George Best or Danny Blanchflower? One or two of them may have fallen into the category of 'flawed genius', but their love of the game and the swagger with which they played has seen them surpass tribal and national loyalties to become admired by fans all over the world.

Of course, in international terms, no one has inspired so much admiration and love as Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known to the world as Pele. For players and fans alike, Pele was so good he somehow occupied a category all his own. "I sometimes feel football was invented for this magic player," said Bobby Charlton. Another legend, Hungarian Ferenc Puskas, said, "I refuse to classify Pele as a player. He was above that." What's more, having grown up in poverty in Brazil, Pele never forgot his roots, tirelessly using his influence to promote the cause of the less fortunate, using football as a means to raise awareness. He put it best himself when he said, "With football it doesn't matter if you are rich, poor, black or white, it is one nation."

There have been plenty of Premier League era footballers who've inherited Pele's attitude to the game, as well as a sprinkling of his genius. For example, Chelsea with all their Russian billions might have provoked a lot of resentment among rival fans, but there was one player no one could ever feel any animosity towards – Gianfranco Zola. A wizard in the style of Maradona (who he played with at Napoli), Zola's impeccable technique was matched by his impeccable manners. "I loved watching him," admitted Sir Alex Ferguson. "For me to say that about an opponent tells you how much I admired him."

Thierry Henry (R) of Arsenal celebrates

Or how about Dennis Bergkamp? When he arrived at the Gunners they were known as 'Boring, boring Arsenal.' That tag quickly disappeared when people saw the kind of breath-taking skills the Dutchman could do with a football. He was the kind of striker whose goals would cause spontaneous applause to erupt among opposing fans watching the game. Take the famous pirouette around Newcastle's Nikos Dabizas in 2002, a goal that had never been seen before and has never been done since, the kind of move that redefines the limits of what's possible in the game. No wonder Gooners called him 'Mr Class'.

With Premier League players the list goes on. One could easily single out Paul Scholes, Alan Shearer, Matt Le Tissier, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Didier Drogba or a host of others who have managed to combine electrifying talent with an admirably sanguine attitude to their own abilities, always sure they can keep improving, always humble and generous off the pitch, models of what it is to be a great professional.

And that's even before we get started on those players we admire abroad. How many kids in the world wear a shirt adorned with the name of Messi, or Ronaldo, or Iniesta? True, it's hard to put the case that someone like Cristiano Ronaldo is universally loved (or Lionel Messi as far as Real Madrid fans are concerned) but who could argue about Andrés Iniesta, captain of one of the greatest club sides of all time, a player who other players frequently name-check as the best there is, comparing him to another undisputed great, Zinedine Zidane? Then there's Andrea Pirlo, Paolo Maldini, Laurent Blanc, Philipp Lahm, Damiano Tommasi – we could keep going for hours.

So the next time you see the cynical play-acting of someone like Pepe, or Marco Materazzi or Sergio Busquets, just remember there are plenty of players out there with a lot more respect for the game and for themselves – players who remind us with their skill, attitude and spirit why we love football so much.