I made a list of the greatest performances I have ever witnessed, in person or on screen, the earliest being from 1953 and the most recent being in 2017.
I then ranked each performance out of 10 in terms of how good the performance was and out of ten once more in terms of how important the game was and how strong the opposition were, to give a combined total out of 20.
For example, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 2012 performance against England would score very highly for performance, but not so highly in terms of importance, since it was a friendly. We also put a lot of emphasis on the overall performance, so every touch and every involvement, not just incredible individual moments. We also limited it to just one entry per player.
Here are our 7 greatest individual performances of all time:
7. Lionel Messi vs Bayern Munich (2015)
We start with the most recent inclusion in this seven, and that is Lionel Messi’s virtuoso display against Bayern Munich in 2015. There were a whole load of Messi displays which made our shortlist, from his four goal haul against Arsenal to his five goal Champions League knockout display against Bayer Leverkusen, but the one which makes the seven proper is his 2015 performance against Bayern Munich.
This was not the best game of Messi’s career, I can probably name five more impressive ones off the top of my head, but it’s score for the quality of the opposition and game importance puts it in this seven. Bayern were favourites to win the 2015 Champions League, and they had demolished Barca by 7 goals to none on aggregate in the 2013 Champions League semi-final.
This was another Champions League semi-final, and neither team had scored with 75 minutes on the clock. Messi had been bright, but had not yet broken the deadlock, until the 77th minute that is. Messi first cut inside on the edge of the area to fire past Manuel Neuer, but it was three minutes later that he scored what can be considered a truly great goal even by his standards.
The little Argentine’s quick feet tied Jerome Boateng in knots, as the German fell to the floor, Messi breezed past him before nonchalantly lifting the ball over Manuel Neuer with his weak foot. Boateng and Neuer were almost universally considered the best players in their respective positions in the world at the time, and Boateng at least has never quite been the same player since.
7. Cristiano Ronaldo vs Sweden (2013)
Okay, I know what you’re thinking, I accidentally put number 7 again when I meant to put 6. I don’t blame you, I’ve made errors like that in the past. However, today it’s on purpose, since when we ranked all our shortlisted performances out of 20, there was a four-way tie for fifth place, meaning we have to include eight players in this list.
Tied with Lionel Messi in seventh then, and very diplomatically one might add, is Cristiano Ronaldo and his 2013 hat-trick against Sweden. The game, between Portugal and Sweden, was to decide which nation would be heading to the 2014 World Cup, so it was quite a biggy. Billed as Ronaldo vs Zlatan, the game lived up to its billing, but it was Ronaldo who came out on top.
Cancelling out Ibrahimovic’s brace and going one further, Ronaldo scored a hat-trick, showing a quite wonderful display of movement and clinical finishing. We’re used to that from the five-time Ballon d’Or winner though, what set this Ronaldo performance out from the rest was the rest of his game. He was constantly willing and driving Portugal forward, and there was a feeling that there was nothing Sweden could do to stop him that night.
6. Ronaldo vs Manchester United (2003)
Former Brazilian player Ronaldo looks on prior tothe 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium on June 14, 2018 in Moscow, Russia.
Moving onto sixth, although in reality fifth to seventh are all ties in our eyes, we go from one Ronaldo to another. Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima is, in our eyes, one of the most gifted footballers in the history of the game. To watch him at his absolute peak, we’d recommend his single season at Barcelona or his first season at Inter Milan, but his greatest performance by our criteria came in 2003.
This was the second leg of the 2002-03 Champions League quarter-final, and it would be one of the finest exhibits of football from both teams in the history of the competition. Real already held a 3-1 lead, meaning United had to go for it, and go for it they did. Ronaldo opened the scoring for Real with a fierce shot past Fabien Barthez, van Nistelrooy scored the next, Ronaldo then bagged a tap-in, followed by a Real own goal.
The next goal was the strike of the night though, as Ronaldo picked up the ball 45 yards from goal, carried it a further 10 unchallenged before unleashing an unstoppable thunderbolt past Barthez. United went on to win the game 4-3 after Ronaldo was subbed off, albeit losing on aggregate, but the match would be remembered for Ronaldo’s brilliance, and he was applauded by all four corners of Old Trafford.
5. Zinedine Zidane vs Brazil (2006)
Although it is an unpopular opinion to express on YouTube, Zinedine Zidane was inconsistent for the vast majority of his playing career. He was also one of the most natural footballers you’re ever likely to see, who could turn a game on its head in an instance. The Frenchman had two brilliant performances against Brazil, one in the 1998 World Cup final, and another in the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals.
The tournament was Zidane’s last hurrah as a player, but it was an ageing Brazilian midfield that were made to look like retirees that day. Zizou’s performance just oozed class all game. His touch and awareness gave France control of the game, and his assist from a set piece provided the only goal of the game. A masterful display by a parting genius on the biggest stage.
4. Franco Baresi vs Brazil (1994)
AC Milan former player Franco Baresi shows the shirt of Ray Wilkins before the serie A match between AC Milan and FC Internazionale at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on April 4, 2018 in Milan,...
Elevating us from those tied in fifth up to fourth place, it is another World Cup display against the Brazilians, this time by Franco Baresi. Undoubtedly one of the finest centre-halves the game has ever seen, Baresi was tough, smart and elegant.
Aged 34, Baresi had no right to play for Italy in the ‘94 World Cup final. The nation’s captain, Baresi had torn his meniscus in Italy’s second group game. It looked as though his tournament was over, but Baresi went immediately under the knife in a desperate attempt to play some further part in his final World Cup.
He made his return in the final, against Brazil, with Italy having suffered two further defensive casualties. It was probably the finest defensive display I have ever witnessed. His heroics denied the likes of Romario and Bebeto, with a 0-0 draw taking the game to penalties. A fatigued Baresi missed his spot kick, but that was the only blight on a truly awe-inspiring performance.
3. Diego Maradona vs England (1986)
We could fill this list with performances by Diego Maradona, and it seems somewhat unfortunate that the one we have gone with includes a notable act of cheating by the Argentine. We’ll try to overlook that though, for the rest of Maradona’s performance was simply genius.
Argentina’s talisman throughout the entire tournament, no team in the world could stop Maradona when he was in full flow, and so it proved. Maradona danced past English defenders and midfielders all game, and he was at it again in the 54th minute. This time it wasn’t just outfield players El Diego left in his trail though, rounding Peter Shilton in the England goal as well before slotting into an empty net. The goal was crowned the ‘Goal of the Century’, and in many people’s eyes, this little magician was the player of the century.
2. Pele vs France (1958)
Pele attends Hublot Celebrates 10 year anniversary of all black collection at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on April 19, 2016 in New York City.
It’s fair to say there are some decent players in this seven, and we’ve got another one in second place, in fact, we’ve got the only man who we would rank above Maradona as the greatest of the 20th century. Like the others in this seven, Pele has a reel of mind-bogglingly brilliant performances longer than the length of my arm. There were six that made our shortlist, but we’re limited to one entry per player, and the highest scoring of all was his 1958 World Cup semi-final display against France.
Pele was only 17 at the time, and you’ve probably heard that so many times it loses its poignancy, but it really shouldn’t. Pele was younger than the likes of Ryan Sessegnon and Phil Foden are now. He was two years younger than Kylian Mbappe is now and three years younger than Marcus Rashford, yet this tournament established him as the best footballer on the planet.
Pele was already a prolific goal scorer in Brazil, but it was his all-round game against France in ‘58 that was so outstanding by anyone’s standards, let alone that of a 17-year-old. His footballing intelligence was remarkable, knowing when to play a pass, when to beat a player, and ultimately, when to score a hat-trick which ensured that his country reached the World Cup final. There is decent footage of this game out there, and it’s well worth a watch.
0. Honourable Mentions
As always with lists of this ilk, there were a whole mound of honourable mentions, so we’re going to have to be selective with the ones we share with you here.
I’ll start with arguably the most unfortunate to miss out, which for me was Stanley Matthews in the 1953 FA Cup final. Once again, this wasn’t the finest performance of Stan’s career, but it was probably the most important. At a time when the FA Cup was the pinnacle of the English game, a 40-year-old Matthews was so dominant on the right flank that the game became known as the ‘Matthews final’, despite Stan Mortensen scoring a hat-trick.
Some of you might have been expecting Ronaldinho’s 2005 performance at the Bernabeu which earnt him a standing ovation from the Real Madrid fans to have featured, and it did make our shortlist, but despite scoring two fantastic goals, Ronaldinho’s all-round performance wasn’t great enough to make this seven.
One performance that will be fondly remembered by England fans was David Beckham’s 2001 World Cup qualification display against Greece. England only needed a draw to reach the tournament, but the Three Lions were completely off the pace. All but Becks, that is, as United’s number 7 dragged England out of the mire with a five star performance epitomised by a sumptuous and crucial late free-kick.
Then there are just outstanding goal scoring contributions, such as Robert Lewandowski rapid five-goal haul against Wolfsburg in only 9 minutes or Omar Sivori’s six goals for Juventus against Inter Milan in 1961. These, and many others like it, are of course terrific achievements, but we were looking for more than just goals for our seven proper, and that is summed up by our number one spot…
1. Roy Keane vs Juventus (1999)
Cork , Ireland - 25 September 2018; Roy Keane of Manchester United Legends during the Liam Miller Memorial match between Manchester United Legends and Republic of Ireland & Celtic Legends...
Roy Keane beating the likes of Pele, Maradona and Messi to top spot in this seven may seem a little far fetched, but I challenge you, by our criteria, to watch that game and score Roy Keane on the two factors taken into account.
His performance was extraordinary. Having been booked and knowing he would miss the final if United were to progress, Keane showed why he is one of the greatest leaders the game of football has ever seen. Juve’s midfield boasted the likes of Didier Deschamps, Edgar Davids and Zinedine Zidane that night, but none got a sniff up against Keane, who single-handedly dominated the middle of the park.
He scored the games opener, as United went on to win 3-2, before winning the final against Bayern Munich, but his game was about much more than that goal. He drove United forward and inspired his team to victory, as well as being by far the best player on the pitch. A perennially underrated footballer, Keane almost never wasted a touch in that game, and by our measure, it is the greatest individual performance in football history.