Maradona, Pele, Messi or Ronaldo – just who is football’s greatest player?

Among the grief and adulation expressed after Diego Maradona's death, an age-old debate of who was the game's greatest player has been reignited.

The discussion has been held many times before, and will no doubt be raised on many more occasions in the future, but the loss of the masterful Argentina forward aged just 60 has only intensified his claim to the throne.

In truth it is an impossible task to judge footballers from different eras, playing in different times, with different rules, but the PA news agency's Carl Markham gives his assessment on those who purport to be 'the greatest'.

Diego Maradona (Argentina, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli)

39 PHOTOS
Diego Maradona
See Gallery
Diego Maradona
Foto del 29 de junio de 1986 del jugador de la selección de Argentina, Diego Maradona, levantando el trofeo de campeón del Mundial tras vencer 3-2 a Alemania Occidental en la Ciudad de México. (AP Photo/Carlo Fumagalli, File)
(FILE) Picture taken February 24th, 2007 in Guatemala of former Argentine football star Diego Armando Maradona. Maradona was hospitalized 28 March, 2007 in the evening in a private hospital in Buenos Aires, according to informations released by two Argentine television channels. AFP PHOTO/Orlando SIERRA (Photo by ORLANDO SIERRA / AFP) (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images)
Buenos Aires, ARGENTINA: (FILE) Diego Maradona gives his thumb up to fans at La Bombonera stadium, 18 February, 2007. Maradona was comfortable and in good health on 13 April 2007 after returning to the hospital with symptoms of abdominal pain, the hospital director said. The football legend was rushed early in the morning for emergency treatment at a hospital 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Buenos Aires after reporting severel pain. AFP PHOTO/Juan MABROMATA (Photo credit should read JUAN MABROMATA/AFP via Getty Images)
(FILES)-A September 11, 2011 file photo shows Argentine football legend Diego Maradona (L) looking at his new shirt with Marwan Bin Bayat, chairman of the Emirati al-Wasl Football Company, during a press conference in Dubai. Maradona, 51-years-old, was sacked as coach of United Arab Emirates side Al Wasl just over a year after he was appointed to the job, the club announced on July 10, 2012. Maradona - who as a player almost singlehandedly guided Argentina to the 1986 World Cup trophy and then to the 1990 final - had another year left on his contract. AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB (Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP/GettyImages)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL: (FILE) Former football legend Argentine player Diego Armando Maradona enters the playing field holding hands with former Brazilian star Arthur Antunes Coimbra "Zico" (out of the frame), presently Japan's football team coach, to play at a charitable friendly match 21 December, 2005 at the Zico Sport Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Maradona was detained by the police at Rio de Janeiro's airport due to an incident after missing his flight to Buenos Aires. AFP PHOTO/Vanderlei ALMEIDA (Photo credit should read VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images)
Medellin, COLOMBIA: (FILES) -- A file photo taken 06 December 2005 shows former football legend and presently TV show host Argentine Diego Armando Maradona greeting people in the lobby of a hotel before touring around Medellin, Colombia. A former beauty queen in the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora has filed a complaint against Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona, saying he threw a glass at her in a nightclub causing an injury that required eight stitches, the local prosecutor said 24 January 2006. If the complaint by Tumata Vaimarae stands up, Maradona could spend up to three years in jail. AFP PHOTO/ Gerardo GOMEZ (Photo credit should read GERARDO GOMEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA: (FILE) Argentine former world soccer champion Diego Armando Maradona waves at the press 16 February 2005 in the Colombian city of Cartagena. Maradona underwent gastric bypass surgery 05 March 2005 in Cartagena in order to help him reduce weight, and the operation has been successful, according to surgeon Carlos Chaux. During the gastric bypass procedure, the upper stomach is stapled to reduce food intake and thus help the patient lose weight. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images)
(FILES) This 06 June, 1999, file photo shows former Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona in Buenos Aires. A Cantegrill hospital doctor in Punta del Este, Uruguay, said Maradona, 39, had been admitted to the hospital and was in intensive care suffering from hypertension and ventricular arrhythmia, during a press conference 04 January, 2000. The doctor added that Maradona was under observation and should have a short stay. AFP PHOTO/Daniel LUNA/FILES (Photo by DANIEL LUNA / AFP) (Photo credit should read DANIEL LUNA/AFP via Getty Images)
(FILE) A photo of Diege Armando Maradona that was taken 18 January 2000, in Havana, Cuba. The former Argentine soccer star was critized by the church of Buenos Aires, for his verbal attack against Pope John Paul II." (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE (ARCHIVO) Foto de Diego Armando Maradona tomada el 18 de enero de 2000, en La Habana, Cuba. La Iglesia de Buenos Aires repudio el 10 de julio de 2000 el ataque verbal del ex astro argentino Diego Maradon contra el Papa Juan Pablo II, en una entrevista grabada en Cuba y difundida en Argentina. Maradona habria dicho refiriendose al Papa, "como se puede ser tan hijo de p..., de vivir en un lugar con techos de oro, mientras tanta gente pasa hambre, y despues se va y besa la tierra de los paises pobres".(ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP via Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL: (FILE) Argentine football legend Diego Armando Maradona, poses for photographers with a glass on his head 24 February, 1998, during the Samba School Parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, during Carnival celebrations. Maradona, who came close to death with heart and lung problems last month, was back in intensive care in hospital on May 05, 2004, suffering from indigestion. The 43-year-old 1986 World Cup winning captain was readmitted to the Suizo-Argentina hospital in Buenos Aires where he was treated from April 18 to 29. AFP PHOTO/Vanderlei ALMEIDA (Photo credit should read VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images)
Argentine national soccer team captain, Diego Maradona (L) yells out as he and his teammates (R) celebrate after Argentina scored its second goal against Greece 21 June 1994 at Foxboro Stadium in Foxboro, Massachussetts. Argentian won the game 4-0. (Photo credit should read DANIEL GARCIA/AFP via Getty Images)
(FILE) Argentina's soccer star team captain Diego Maradona brandishes the World Cup won by his team after a 3-2 victory over West Germany 29 June 1986 at the Azteca stadium in Mexico City. Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona was named coach of the national team on October 28, 2008 in Buenos Aires, according to 1986 World Cup winning coach Carlos Bilardo, after he came out of a meeting with Argentinian Football Association president Julio Grondona. (Photo by STAFF / AFP FILES / AFP) (Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP via Getty Images)
File portrait of Argentinean soccer player Diego Maradona, 05 September 1981 in Paris. Diego Maradona, considered as the best player in the world, is in Paris with his team Boca Juniors, to play a friendly match against Paris Saint-Germain. (Photo credit should read GABRIEL DUVAL/AFP via Getty Images)
(FILE) This 1981 picture shoes Argentine soccer star Diego Armando Maradona, being carried by fans after winning the 1981 local Championship with Boca Juniors at La Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires. Boca Juniors, the most popular football club in Argentina, celebrates on April 3rd, 2005, its centenary - from its creation by a group of football enthusiast in a humble neighbourhood of immigrants, until reaching the world's summit, and counting among its supporters with the most famous fan, Diego Armando Maradona. AFP PHOTO/DIARIO POPULAR/NA ARGENTINA OUT (Photo by DIARIO POPULAR / NA / AFP) (Photo credit should read DIARIO POPULAR/AFP via Getty Images)
Argentina's Diego Maradona falls to the pitch after being tripped up in their World Cup quarterfinal match against England in Mexico City in this June 22, 1986 file photo. Maradona scored both goals in Argentina's 2-1 victory. Maradona remained in intensive care on Tuesday morning, more than 36 hours after falling ill with heart and breathing problems. A clutch of fans continued a vigil outside the posh Buenos Aires clinic where Maradona, one of the most gifted players in soccer history, was rushed on Sunday. Maradona arrived at the clinic in a serious, feverish condition with breathing difficulties and a swollen heart after watching a game at his former club Boca Juniors' stadium where he made his name. (B/W ONLY) REUTERS/Gary Hershorn GMH
Former Argentina captain and coach Diego Maradona and his father Diego Maradona Senior, also known as Don Diego (L), attend the Primera D championship soccer match between Deportivo Riestra and San Miguel in Buenos Aires in this August 19, 2013 file photo. Don Diego died on June 25, 2015 at the age of 87 after a battle against heart and respiratory problems, local media reported. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci/Files
Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona applauds during a friendly soccer match between Georgian and Argentine soccer veterans in Tbilisi in this October 25, 2008 file photo. Maradona is to be the new coach of the Argentine national side, television and media reports said on October 28, 2008. The news came as Maradona, who has had only two brief stints as a coach, was meeting Argentina Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona in Buenos Aires. Photo taken October 25, 2008. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili/Files (GEORGIA)
Former Argentina World Cup-winning captain Diego Maradona poses with his mother Dalma in Buenos Aires in this undated file photo. The former soccer star's mother, who was better known as "Dona Tota," died on November 19, 2011 at the age of 81 in a private clinic where she was being held in intensive care unit since Friday, local media reported. REUTERS/Stringer/Files (ARGENTINA - Tags: OBITUARY PROFILE SPORT SOCCER)
Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona (L) stands with President Carlos Menem as they greet fans before a charity match in Buenos Aires, in this 1989 file photo. Maradona remained in intensive care in a Buenos Aires hospital early April 20, 2004, more than 36 hours after falling ill with heart and breathing problems while watching a game at his former club Boca Juniors' stadium where he made his name. REUTERS/Daniel Merle RR
A file photo shows Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona (L), in Cuba undergoing rehabilitation for cocaine abuse, meeting with Cuban President Fidel Castro inside the Revolution Palace in Havana, in this file photo from October 29, 2001. Maradona remained in intensive care in a Buenos Aires hospital early April 20, 2004, more than 36 hours after falling ill with heart and breathing problems while watching a game at his former club Boca Juniors' stadium where he made his name. REUTERS/staff RR
Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona celebrates after scoring a goal for his national team against Greece at Foxboro Stadium in Boston during the World Cup USA 1994, June 30, 1994. Maradona remained in intensive care in a Buenos Aires hospital early April 20, 2004, more than 36 hours after falling ill with heart and breathing problems while watching a game at his former club Boca Juniors' stadium where he made his name. REUTERS/Brian Snyder RR/HB
Claudia Villafane de Maradona (L) shows off her husband Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona's face during a live television variety show in Buenos Aires in this November 19, 1996 file photo. Claudia Villafane filed for divorce from Maradona in March 7, 2003, which was made public in March 27, after 13 years of marriage. REUTERS/Str/FILES PP04010032 MBH
Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona and Claudia Villafane are shown at their wedding in Buenos Aires in this November 7, 1989 file photo. Claudia Villafane has filed for divorce from Maradona in March 7, 2003, which was made public in March 27, after 13 years of marriage. REUTERS/Str/FILES PP04010032 MBH
Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona is seen in this 1993 file photo driving the ball during a friendly against Brazil. The number ten jersey worn by Maradona might be retired forever "to pay permanent tribute to the best player in the history of soccer in Argentina" after a farewell game scheduled to be played at Boca Juniors' stadium in Buenos Aires on November 10, 2001. REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian PP04010032 EM/JP
File photo showing former Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona smoking a Cohiba cigar in waters off Havana on April 8, 2000. Maradona, one of the most gifted players in soccer history, remained in intensive care in a Buenos Aires clinic April 19, 2004 with heart and breathing problems but was stable and improving. Family doctor Alfredo Cahe said Maradona had a lung infection and denied reports he had taken an overdose of cocaine, an addiction he has been battling for the last decade. REUTERS/Alfredo Tedeschi/FILE MBH/GN
FILE PHOTO 21DEC99 - Former soccer star Diego Maradona tested positive for cocaine he after checked into a Uruguayan clinic suffering from high blood pressure and an irregular hearbeat, police said. According to doctors January 6, Maradona must remain in intensive care a while longer. Maradona is shown kissing a Platinum Olimpia Award given to him by the Sports Journalists' Associaton, who declared him Argentine sportsman of century December 21, 1999.
FILE PHOTO 23FEB98 - Sporting a cowboy hat and large tattoo of Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Argentine soccer superstar Diego Maradona watches the carnival parades at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, February 23. Despite rumors that he would parade with the Beija Flor school, Maradona watched the proceedings from a box seat on the sidelines. ZDC/HB
FILE - In this March 7, 2020 file photo, Diego Maradona, coach of Gimnasia y Esgrima, sits on the bench prior to Argentina's soccer league match against Boca Juniors at La Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Maradona turns 60 on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
El ex gran futbolista Diego Maradona sostiene una pequeña réplica de la Copa Mundial de la FIFA mientras la besa frente a los fanáticos en la casa del gobierno después de su reunión con el presidente argentino Alberto Fernández en Buenos Aires, Argentina, el jueves 26 de diciembre de 2019. (AP Foto / Marcos Brindicci)
Diego Maradona, head coach of the Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata, waves prior to his team's local tournament soccer match against Racing Club at Juan Carmelo Zerillo stadium in La Plata, Argentina, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Gustavo Garello)
FILE - In this May 5, 2019 file photo, Dorados' head coach Diego Maradona looks out from the bench during the final leg match of Mexico's second division soccer league against Atletico San Luis, in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Maradona has been operated in one of his knees, at a private clinic in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File)
Dorados' head coach Diego Maradona waves as he takes his seat on the bench ahead of the start of Dorados' Copa MX quarterfinal match against Pumas at Olympic University Stadium in Mexico City, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
FILE - In this Nov. 25, 2016 file photo, former soccer player Diego Maradona of Argentina sits with his companion Rocio Oliva watching the Davis Cup finals tennis match in Zagreb, Croatia. Police say they were called to investigate an altercation involving Diego Maradona and a woman at a hotel in Madrid. on Wednesday Feb. 15, 2017 after a call from the hotel, but found no evidence of any disturbance after talking to Maradona and the woman. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic, File)
Soccer legend Diego Maradona, center, arrives to the Argentine Football Association (AFA) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, July 6, 2016. Maradona says he will meet with FIFA members at AFA in the midst of country's soccer crisis. FIFA announced on June 24 that they are intervening AFA in the midst of the institutional crisis in the South American organization. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
FILE - In this May 4, 2015 file photo, Argentina football legend Diego Maradona speaks on the second day of the SoccerEx Asian Forum conference in Southern Shuneh, Jordan. Journalist Victor Hugo Morales said on Twitter late Sunday, June 21, 2015 that Maradona plans to run for president of FIFA. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh, File)
FILE - The June 29, 1986 file photo shows Argentina's Diego Maradona dribbling past West German players during the World Cup Soccer Final match between Argentina and West Germany at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, Mexico. On Sunday, July 13, 2014, Germany and Argentina will face each other again in the final of the 2014 soccer World Cup. (AP Photo/file)
** FOR USE AS DESIRED WITH YEAR END--FILE **In this May 20, 2008 file photo, former Argentine soccer player Diego Maradona poses during the photo call for the documentary "Maradona" during the 61st International film festival in Cannes, southern France. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles/FILE)
FILE - In this April. 3, 2005, file photo, former soccer player Diego Maradona, left, talks with Boca Juniors President Mauricio Marci at the "Bombonera" Boca Juniors stadium during the centenary celebration of the club in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Macri was President of Boca Juniors, from 1995 to 2007. Marci is the top opposition conservative candidate for next elections set for Oct. 25. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Former Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona watches the Carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in this February 23, 1998 file photo. Maradona was responding to treatment for heart and blood pressure problems on Tuesday, April 20, 2004, doctors said, two days after the soccer star was admitted to the hospital. (AP Photo/Renzo Gostoli, file)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Big-time hero, small-time villain (unless you were English in the 1980s), Diego Armando Maradona melded fantastical football and a larger-than-life lifestyle to brilliant effect. He was the stand-out player as Argentina won the 1986 World Cup – with a little help from the Hand of God – and his silky skills and driven determination saw him inspire Napoli to the first two Serie A titles in their history and a maiden UEFA Cup victory. Three days' national mourning in his homeland and mass outpourings of grief and celebration on the streets of Naples highlight the esteem in which he was held.

Skill factor: 10

Goal factor: 8

Charisma factor: 9

Legend factor: 10

Final score: 37

Pele (Brazil, Santos, New York Cosmos)

Before Maradona, Pele was the undisputed greatest in most people's eyes. A winner of three World Cups – the first in 1958 when he scored six goals in four games aged just 17 – his individual skill and eye for goal was unrivalled but he also benefited from playing in some of the best international sides in history. He won six league titles and two Copa Libertadores with Santos.

Skill factor: 9

Goal factor: 10

Charisma factor: 7

Legend factor: 10

Final score: 36

Lionel Messi (Argentina, Barcelona)

Lionel Messi is Argentina's second great superstar after Diego Maradona
Lionel Messi is Argentina's second great superstar after Diego Maradona (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Maradona's heir-apparent, Messi has yet to hit the levels of adulation in his homeland – due to the fact he has yet to significantly influence Argentina's fortunes on the world stage and impose his will on the team the way his predecessor did. His Barcelona achievements (10 league and four Champions League titles) are a different story, where he has set new standards with a consistent level of genius previously not seen in European football.

Skill factor: 10

Goal factor: 10

Charisma factor: 6

Legend factor: 9

Final score: 35

Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Sporting, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus)

Cristiano Ronaldo elevated his status with an incredible spell at Real Madrid
Cristiano Ronaldo elevated his status with an incredible spell at Real Madrid (David Davies/PA)

Messi's great contemporary rival, their comparison is probably the easiest as for nine seasons they played in the same league at comparable clubs. Ronaldo won four Champions League and two LaLiga titles with Real, having arrived with three Premier League winners' medals, and now has two Serie A titles. He became a goalscoring phenomenon at the Bernabeu and is one of the world's most recognisable sportsmen.

Skill factor: 9

Goal factor: 10

Charisma factor: 7

Legend factor: 9

Final score: 35

Alberto di Stefano (Spain, River Plate, Millonarios, Real Madrid, Espanyol)

Five years ago, madridismo said goodbye to Alfredo Di Stéfano, the greatest footballer of all time and the man who changed #RealMadrid history forever. 👉 https://t.co/6Qj2NKU7hNpic.twitter.com/Ku3s9FNJ63

— Real Madrid C.F. 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@realmadriden) July 7, 2019

Probably the first football superstar, the Argentina-born forward was skilful, hugely prolific, creative and tactically versatile. After 12 years playing in his homeland and Colombia, his move to Real transformed them into a European super power. He scored in each of their five successive European Cup victories and single-handedly drove them to their first league triumph in 20 years in his first season at the club, one of eight he would win at the Bernabeu in addition to his two Ballons d'Or.

Skill factor: 9

Goal factor: 10

Charisma factor: 6

Legend factor: 9

Final score: 34

Johan Cryuff (Holland, Ajax, Barcelona, Feyenoord)

Johan Cruyff was the orchestrator of Total Football
Johan Cruyff was the orchestrator of Total Football (PA)

Not the architect but the orchestrator of Total Football, developed at Ajax and transferred to the national team. Supremely effective and hugely prolific at Ajax, where he won three European Cups, eight league titles and, individually, three Ballons d'Or. He won a league title with Barcelona, where his lasting legacy was to come in the brand of football they played with him going on to manage the club and become one of the most influential people in football.

Skill factor: 8

Goal factor: 8

Charisma factor: 8

Legend factor: 9

Final score: 33

Ronaldo (Brazil, Cruzeiro, PSV, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Corinthians)

Ronaldo was a brilliant goalscorer
Ronaldo was a brilliant goalscorer (Owen Humphreys/PA)

The other Brazilian to make it to the top of the all-time greats list, Ronaldo at his peak was a goalscoring machine but with the talented touch of a boy who had grown up playing on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. He featured for some of Europe's top clubs, winning trophies with all of them, won two World Cups and by the age of 23 had scored over 200 goals for club and country, although serious knee injuries blighted his later career.

Skill factor: 8

Goal factor: 9

Charisma factor: 7

Legend factor: 7

Final score: 31

Read Full Story Click here to comment

FROM OUR PARTNERS