We recently did something of a mini-series looking at the 7 greatest back fours, midfield trios and attacking trios of all time, and one suggestion that seemed to get a lot of love in the comments section was the idea of taking a look at the 7 greatest dribblers of all time.
I quite liked the idea, and there’s loads of other ideas we could explore should it be successful, such as the 7 greatest headers of a ball, 7 greatest finishers, best passers and so on and so forth. So let us know which, if any, of those ideas you’d like to see in the future, or any others you’d rather see in the comments.
Just as a quick prelude, this is a list of the greatest dribblers of all time, so no attribute other than dribbling is taken into account. Longevity has no bearing, we are looking at every player at the absolute peak of their powers, and as we very much need to here, there will be some honourable mentions between first and second place.
Here are the 7 greatest dribblers of all time:
7. Roberto Baggio
A player who we very rarely, if ever, seem to have talked about on HITC Sevens in the past, so I’ll try to do him justice here. Known as the Divine Ponytail in Italy, Roberto Baggio was a remarkable footballer, with that all-too-rare ability to get bums off seats and give spectators the idea that something special was about to happen every time he got the ball.
Baggio had exceptional balance which meant defenders never knew which way he was going to go. He had fantastic close control, and although he didn’t possess the searing pace of someone like Ronaldo, he did have tremendous speed over four or five yards, which tended to be enough to get beyond a player.
Arrigo Sacchi said Baggio was so good he wouldn’t swap him for Maradona, which is some praise. Described by Michel Platini as a nine-and-a-half, Baggio had excellent technique, he was wonderfully two-footed and above all else, he was endlessly unpredictable. One of the greatest dribblers of all time, he comes in at seventh place for us.
6. Johan Cruyff
With a slim, weak physique and an arrogance about his approach to the game, Johan Cruyff was perhaps the finest mind we’ve ever had in football. Marco Van Basten claimed that Cruyff was already technically perfect as a school boy, and that’s why he turned his attention to the tactical side of the game.
Cruyff was an unpredictable dribbler as well, but he was also a highly-efficient one. He knew when to run, when to stand still, when to play the ball and when to just dance past opposition players. When he did go on one of his mazy runs, there have been few finer players. He had such quick feet, even when running at speed, and he had a brilliant knack for slowing down, sucking a defender in and then bursting past them.
Cruyff always made a point of saying that football was a game played with your head, and that your legs are just there to help you, but his legs and feet were among the deftest, most technical and most precise in the sports history.
5. George Best
Any list in which longevity isn’t a factor and peak ability is should lend itself kindly to George Best, and this is no exception. Best wasn’t a tactical genius who elevated the level of all those around him like Cruyff, but at his very best, we think he was a slightly superior dribbler of the ball.
At a time in the British game where mercurial masters of the ball were often met by force and some pretty rugged challenges, George Best danced past flailing limbs, sometimes beating players, checking back and beating them once again in the ultimate act of footballing humiliation.
Football’s great individualist, Best thought nothing of taking on and beating four players, and although his reluctance to bring others into the game could frustrate his team mates, at his very best he could afford to do it. Best would sometimes hang on to the ball for so long he’d end up in positions where you thought the opportunity had gone, but at that moment he’d pull an outrageous piece of skill or the most audacious of chips out of nowhere. Without doubt he is one of the game’s great dribblers, and he takes fifth place for us.
Much of what we said about George Best is true of Ronaldinho as well. The Samba star also had a relatively brief period in which he got the best out of the ability he had, but when looking at peak performance, he was a special footballer.
During the early-mid 2000’s, Ronaldinho was just a joy to watch, and he put as much of a smile on any spectators face as the enormous one typically brandished upon his. He played like a kid in the park, just a kid who happened to be the most technically gifted player in world football. Ronaldinho didn’t just beat players, he tied them in knots. He pulled off tricks during Champions League games that most players wouldn’t attempt in training, but he wasn’t a mere showboater, his attacking output for more than seven years was outstanding.
David Beckham called Ronaldinho “unplayable” at his best, and it’s difficult to argue with that. He was superb with both feet, his first touch was exceptional and he could beat players with either speed or technique. At his best, the fourth finest dribbler of all time in our eyes.
It shouldn’t surprise you that there are a couple of Brazilians in this seven. In fact, if anything, it should surprise you that there are only a couple of Brazilians. It may be cliche, but Brazilians have always played the game with a touch of verve, swagger and joy, based on skill, technique and often individual brilliance.
In this joyous footballing nation, there is one man arguably more synonymous with this style of play than any other, Manuel Francisco dos Santos, better known simply as Garrincha. Nicknamed ‘the Joy of the People’, Garrincha also had a childish spirit, and his ability with a ball at his feet allowed him to mystify defenders and delight spectators in a single motion.
The greatest right winger of all time in our eyes, Garrincha was a magician and an artist, and we rank him third in our list of the greatest dribblers in football history.
2. Diego Maradona
Quite probably the most exceptionally naturally gifted footballer in the history of the game, a very compelling case can be made for Diego Armando Maradona being the greatest dribbler of all time. When El Diego had the ball under the mastery of his left foot, there was little you could do to take it off him. He almost never went in to a game without having at least one or two players man marking him, more often than not tugging on his shirt, snapping at his heels and doing anything legal or illegal to stop him in his tracks.
Maradona was a fierce character though. He was strong, arrogant and had a burning desire to win, which occasionally boiled over into the illegal on his own behalf. At his best though, during his early years in Argentina, his inspired seven seasons in Naples and the apex of his career at the 1986 World Cup, Maradona was simply a force of nature.
His touch, technique, dynamism, pace, power and balance were second to none. In full flow, there have been fewer finer sights on a football pitch… it was 5’5” of explosive footballing genius. Maradona wasn’t as two-footed as most of the players in this seven, but his left foot was so good that it didn’t matter.
Michel Platini famously said that what he could do with a football, Maradona could do with an orange, and he came agonisingly close to topping this seven.
0. Honourable Mentions
Closing in on top spot, before we get there, we must take some time out to discuss a handful of honourable mentions. Great dribblers in football are like empty seats when Queen’s Park play at Hampden Park… there are a lot of them, and as such, we can only mention those who came closest to making our final seven.
We start with the Brazilian Ronaldo, who was arguably a better dribbler than his international teammate Ronaldinho, over the entire course of their careers at least. When it comes to close control and technique when running at speed, Ronaldo is up there with the best of them. During his time at PSV, Barcelona and Inter Milan before his long-term injuries, Ronaldo was almost unstoppable once he was up and running.
Staying with Brazilian centre-forwards, it seems almost criminal that Pele doesn’t feature here, but that’s just the way our seven turned out. Technically, Pele was as good as anyone, but it was his intelligence in knowing how to beat an opponent that set him apart. He could be flamboyant and artistic, but he was often more direct and ruthless, and that’s one of the reasons why he doesn’t have a reputation as a pure dribbler.
Going back to the pre-war era, we have to mention Matthias Sindelar, even ahead of Giuseppe Meazza. Nicknamed ‘the Paperman’, Sindelar looked out of place in the 1930’s, but his incredible technique made him stand out, and he’s unfortunate to miss out here.
Not long after Sindelar, Stanley Matthews was the name on every football fans lips, and the Staffordshire-native wasn’t nicknamed the Wizard of the Dribble for nothing. In terms of beating a full-back in a wide area, Matthews is the greatest of them all, but his skill set was slightly more one-dimensional than the others in this seven, so he just misses out.
Others who came close include the likes of Rivelino, Zico, Zinedine Zidane, Ariel Ortega, Tom Finney, Jairzinho and Jay-Jay Okocha. As always, feel free to subscribe and let us know your suggestions and any future video ideas in the comments, but firstly, we come to top spot…
1. Lionel Messi
I have made no secret of the fact that I consider Lionel Messi to be the greatest footballer of all time since setting up this channel almost 18 months ago, but does he deserve to top a seven on purely the game’s greatest dribblers? Undoubtedly, there will be those who say no. Messi is not a showboater, and other than in the early stages of his career at least, you rarely see him pulling off outlandish flicks or tricks similar to someone like Ronaldinho for example.
But there’s a good reason for that. Messi is the most effective footballer in the final third in football history. Over the years, he has fine-tuned his game to make himself as efficient as possible. Therefore, he won’t do five step-overs when only one is required. He won’t take on four players if an incisive through ball is the best route to goal, and he won’t hold onto the ball when a teammate is better placed than himself.
However, Messi’s dribbling, when called upon, is virtually faultless. His close control both on the spot or whilst running at pace is almost perfect. He is incredibly difficult to dispossess, and he too has that wonderful ability to suck players in, slow things down and suddenly burst past them. It’s that constant ability to have a change of speed and change of direction which marks the truly great dribblers, and Messi is the greatest of all time.
The only argument against Messi is that Maradona was perhaps an equally as talented dribbler on much harsher surfaces, and although we’d give credence to that argument, it’s not really something we can mark Messi down for. And, on the other hand, whilst Maradona was as good of a dribbler, he wasn’t as intelligent or as efficient a dribbler as Messi, who takes this one for us.