Right, it’s been a while since we have done one of these, but we have previously looked at the 7 greatest dribblers and even further back the 7 greatest captains of all time.
It’s often said that heading is a dying art, and to some extent that is true. There are nowhere near as many headed goals scored in football as there once were, but it remains an integral part of the game, and a really effective weapon for those capable of mastering it.
We should point out our criteria. We are only interested in attacking headers of the ball. That doesn’t discount defenders, it just means we’re only concerned with their heading ability when aiming at the opposite goal. We also have no regard for the players overall ability, they could have the touch of a donkey and the acceleration of a dump truck, but if they’re fine headers of a football, we don’t care.
Finally, our primary concern is of course for the players heading technique, but we must also account for their ability to beat players in the air. Therefore, a players jumping ability should be accounted for, but shouldn’t be discounted from a player who already has a sufficient height advantage to not require having a five-foot leap.
Oh, and yes, it’s of all time, so there will be players from before 1990, as well as some honourable mentions between first and second place.
Here are our 7 greatest headers of a ball of all time:
7. Carlos Santillana
Carlos Santillana, better known simply as Santillana, was a really powerful and dangerous centre-forward who spent almost his entire career with Real Madrid. He joined Los Blancos having been named as the top scorer in the Segunda Division with Racing Santander, thus beginning a 17 year love-affair which brought 16 trophies – including 9 La Liga title – to the Bernabeu.
At 5’9”, Santillana will be one of the shortest players in this seven, but he possessed an extraordinary leap. Renowned for his diving headers, Santillana made a habit of flying – quite literally – into the box, and darting the ball towards goal with his head.
When he hung up his boots in 1988, only Alfredo di Stefano had scored more than his tally of 289 goals for Real Madrid. Records were not kept for how many of those goals were scored with Santillana’s head, but one could make a safe bet that it was a hefty chunk. As well as his trophy-laden 17 years in Madrid, Santillana also won 56 caps for Spain.
6. Cristiano Ronaldo
I had real difficulty deciding whether or not to include Cristiano Ronaldo in this seven, and that’s not just because his religious followers would have threatened to murder me if I hadn’t. In terms of the pro’s, Ronaldo scores a stunning amount of goals with his head – as he does with his feet in fairness – he has quite possibly the finest jump of any footballer in the history of the sport, and his heading technique is very good.
On the flip side, I do think that Ronaldo is so prolific with his head – particularly in the latter stages of his career – thanks to the genius of his movement. Ronaldo’s subtle ability to just pull off the back of a defender or nip in front of them, combined with his general ability to pick up excellent positions, sees him score a tremendous amount of headed goals.
In summary, there are players with better heading technique than Ronaldo, but on the balance of things, I think sixth place is thoroughly deserved. Unlike most of the others, we do have very good records for Ronaldo and his heading output. Of the 673 goals Ronaldo has scored at club and international level, 118 of them have been with his head, which is roughly 17.5%.
5. Horst Hrubesch
Best known for his five years at Hamburg, where he won three Bundesliga titles and a European Cup, Horst Hrubesch was nicknamed Das Kopfball-Ungeheuer in his native land, and those of you who are fluent in German will know that that translates as ‘the Header Beast’, or maybe you wouldn’t have from that pronunciation in fairness.
Nomenclature isn’t the only reason Hrubesch makes our seven though, since the nickname was handed to him very much on merit. A late bloomer who only really rose to prominence at the highest level in his late 20’s, it was by rising highest in the penalty area that Hrubesch made his name.
Neither quick nor particularly dainty, the 6’2” frontman was an old school centre-forward, never afraid to shoot and brilliant getting a run on a defender and powering the ball past a goalkeeper. As well as his successes with Hamburg, Hrubesch was also an unlikely hero for West Germany at Euro 1980. Having only made the country’s squad by virtue of injuries in attacking areas, he scored twice in the final of the tournament as West Germany beat Belgium 2-1.
Following his retirement, Hrubesch turned his attention to management, currently acting as interim manager of the German women’s national team.
4. Oliver Bierhoff
Staying in Germany, or West Germany as it was at the time, Oliver Bierhoff began his career as a professional footballer in 1986, the same year in which Horst Hrubesch retired, and defenders should count their blessings that they never had to contest a penalty area containing the pair of them.
Bierhoff was just unstoppable in the air. Whether the ball was whipped across the front of goal for him to dart at with a diving header or hung up in the air ready for him to nod past an advancing goalkeeper, Bierhoff struck fear into the eyes of goalkeepers and defenders across Germany, Austria and Italy, scoring prolifically in all three nations.
The 6’3” target man features alongside the likes of Paolo Maldini and Marco van Basten in AC Milan’s Hall of Fame, but his greatest achievement came at Euro ‘96, when he scored the Golden Goal which gave Germany victory over the Czech Republic.
For our money, Bierhoff is the finest header of a ball in the modern era.
3. Dixie Dean
A man very much not from the modern era, Dixie Dean is probably the greatest pre-war British footballer of the lot. Real name ‘William Ralph Dean’, Dixie’s statistics speak for themselves, having scored 425 goals in 489 games at club level, and 18 goals from 16 caps for England.
To this day, Dean holds the record for the most goals in a single top flight season in England, bagging an incredible 67 goals in 46 games in the 1927-28 campaign. Dean’s leaping and heading ability were a thing of legend, and sadly – due to a scarce amount of footage – it largely remains as legend.
Sir Matt Busby described Dean’s heading ability as ‘extraordinary’, adding, ‘However close you watched him, his timing in the air was such that he was coming down before you got anywhere near him, and he hit that ball with his head as hard and as accurate as most players could kick it.’
Although no official statistics were kept, it has been suggested that Dean may have scored more goals with his head than any other footballer in history.
2. Uwe Seeler
As we stated in the introduction, this list is concerned only with a footballers attacking heading abilities, but it just so happens that the calibre of player is very high. Uwe Seeler is among the greatest centre-forwards in the history of the game, renowned as a fantastic leader who was lethal with both feet and incredibly acrobatic.
Standing at just 5’7”, Seeler is the shortest player in this seven, but he more than made up for that with his tremendous jumping ability. Virtually a one-club man having spent 19 years with Hamburg, where he won one Bundesliga title and scored over 500 goals, Seeler was a three-time German Footballer of the Year, with an international career spanning 14 years.
Seeler scored all kinds of goals with his head, from poacher-type finishes facilitated by his fox-in-the-box instincts, to stunning diving headers from almost outside the box. Seeler famously scored an extra-time header which knocked reigning champions England out of the 1970 World Cup quarter-finals, exacting some revenge for West Germany who had lost to the Three Lions in the final four years earlier.
0. Honourable Mentions
This turned out to be a horrible topic to try and whittle down to just seven players. I have to say, when I started, Didier Drogba was one of the first names on my shortlist, and I found it incredibly difficult to leave the Chelsea legend out of my final seven. Drogba was a real force to be reckoned with in the air, scoring perhaps the most famous goal of his career with his head.
Other recent stars who came mightily close include former Mexico favourite Jared Borgetti and Boca Juniors icon Martin Palermo. Both Borgetti and Palermo were absolute monsters in the air, and they ran Santillana incredibly close for seventh place.
Others we have to mention include the likes of Patrick Kluivert, Alan Shearer and Peter Crouch, all very different types of forwards, but all highly effective when it came to scoring goals from aerial balls.
Then there is Christian Vieri, who I have long waxed lyrical about on this channel, and who was just about the most feared footballer on the planet when it came to a ball being whipped into the box at one time. A little before Vieri there was Ivan Zamorano, who scored prolifically with his head in both La Liga and Serie A.
The other players who made our shortlist, and as such, our honourable mentions, include England legend Tommy Lawton, West Brom great Jeff Astle, Bulgarian centre-forward Georgi Asparuhov and former Real Madrid and Mexico superstar Hugo Sanchez.
That’s it for the honourable mentions, make sure to subscribe if you enjoyed the video, and here’s your top spot…
1. Sandor Kocsis
Cristiano Ronaldo is undoubtedly the finest overall footballer in this seven, but Sandor Kocsis is the man who runs him the closest, and when it comes to aerial ability, we think he’s the greatest of all time. The third inclusion in this seven who also made our epic – if we do say so ourselves – list of the 100 greatest footballers of all time, Sandor Kocsis ranks among the game’s most celebrated strikers.
With Budapest Honved, Barcelona and the Hungarian national team, rarely did a game pass in which Kocsis didn’t find the back of the net. He scored 75 goals from 68 caps for Hungary, with a better goals per game ratio than strike partner Ferenc Puskas.
Unsurprisingly then, Kocsis was a man of many talents, possessing brilliant striking instincts and a precise shot with either foot. There was never any doubt about the Hungarians finest asset though, and that was his ability when heading the ball on goal.
Never has there been a cleaner header of the ball than Kocsis, who had a fantastic leap and a knack of heading the ball accurately down into the ground and to either side of the goalkeeper which no team ever truly learnt how to combat. In our eyes, Kocsis is football’s greatest header of a ball.