Top 10 Best Soccer Players of the 1990s

10 Best Soccer Players of the 1990s

In 1990, for the first time in 40 years, the United States competed in the World Cup. Though much of the rest of the world had serious soccer fever, it wasn’t until then that the sport, known as football elsewhere, piqued the interest of the American audience.


Controversy was also rampant throughout the world of soccer in the 1990s, and several major rules were changed, which led to negative player tactics both on and off the field. The 1990 World Cup is noted as one of the most boring and poorly played cups of all time, but with the 1994 World Cup being held in the United States for the first time, it was also a historic time for the world of soccer.


The 1990s were a good time for the Americans to become interested in the sport, as it was an exciting time in the world of soccer. The European teams were the ones to notice in the FIFA universe, and the world of soccer was certainly intertwining with politics throughout the world. Fans of the sport had their own version of a soap opera as the player’s antics both on and off the field were noted in the tabloids.


Some of these players became household names, and even in the US, where soccer was less popular, people recognized names such as David Beckham and Luiz Ronaldo. The following are the headliners, the loved and the worshiped, or in other words, the top 10 best soccer players of the 1990s:


10. Gheorghe Hagi


Gheorghe Hagi played professionally from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, and he is widely considered to be the best Romanian player of all time. He was one of the most feared attacking mid-fielders in the whole of Europe throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and fans called him “The King” or “The Commander.”


Hagi is considered a Romanian hero, and he was named the Romanian Footballer of the Year a total of seven times. He was both a creative and advanced player on the field, and well known for his passing, dribbling and finishing. Hagi played for the Romanian national team in 1990, 1994 and 1998 and also played in three European Football Championships. Even Pele, one of the best players of all time, named Gheorghe Hagi one of the 100 Greatest Living Footballers.


Throughout his career, Hagi was both a player and a coach, and he holds the Romanian record for the national team’s top scorer, as of 2016. As a professional, he is one of the only players in the world to play for both rival Spanish football teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid. He also played for Galatasaray, Brescia, Steaua Bucure?ti,            Sportul Studen?esc and Farul Constan?a, which is where he began his career in 1982.


Today, Hagi is both the owner and chairman of the Romanian club Viitorul Constanta, which he founded, and he runs the Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy, one of the largest football academies in the Southeastern Europe region.


9. Peter Schmeichel

Peter Schmeichel, known as “The Great Dane,” is the only goalkeeper on the list, and he is best known for his years with Manchester United. Schmeichel was voted “IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper” in 1992 and 1993. Schmeichel is an intimidating man in size, with a height of 6’3”, and wore custom made XXXL jerseys when he played.


On the field, Schmeichel was a fierce competitor, and often loudly criticized his defenders when he believed they made mistakes. Though he was a goal keeper, he was able to score 11 goals throughout his career, including one when he was on the Denmark national team. He played for the Denmark national team for the Euro 92 tournament, in the 1998 FIFA World Cup and for three years in the European Championship tournament.


Schmeichel is known as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, and was ranked as one of the top 10 keepers of the 20th century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics. Reuters also did a public poll where most of the 200,000 participants rated Schmeichel as the best goalkeeper ever. Though he is a Danish player, he played for teams throughout Europe in his career including Manchester United, Sporting CP, Aston Villa F.C. and Manchester City F.C. He was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2003 for his years playing in England, and at the FIFA 100 celebrations, he was also chosen as one of the 100 Greatest Living Footballers.


8. Paolo Maldini

Italian soccer player Paolo Maldini also deserves a spot on the list of the top 10 best soccer players of the 1990s He played left back and central defender for 25 seasons for A.C. Milan and the Italy national team. Throughout his career with Milan, he won the Champions League five times and received seven Serie A titles. He won five European Super Cups, a FIFA Club World Cup and two International Cups.


Maldini began playing professionally in 1988 and over that time, he was a captain of his team for 8 years, serving as game captain 74 times. With the Italy national team, he played in four World Cups and three European Championships.


As one of the greatest defenders of all time, Maldini played at a world class level throughout this entire career, which lasted for almost 25 years. He was voted in at number 21 in the World Soccer list of 100 Greatest Football Players of the 20th Century in 1999, and was chosen as one of the World’s Greatest Living Players on the FIFA 100 list.


Maldini was highly regarded by other players during his playing years, and was known as “Il Capitano,” or The Captain. He also holds the record for the most appearances in the Serie A with 647, and holds the record for the most appearances in the UEFA Club competitions.


When Maldini retired in 2009, Milan retired his number, and in 2012, he was placed into the Italian Football Hall of Fame. Today, Maldini works off the field, and is the co-owner of Miami FC.


7. Rivaldo

Thus far, only European players have appeared on the list, but soccer is also extremely popular in South America, especially in Brazil, where the next player hails from. Rivaldo is a former attacking midfielder and second striker, who had a long and illustrious career. He is a versatile player, and can play on either flank, and was considered one of the best players in the whole of the world in the late 1990s. Rivaldo played for Barcelona, and with the team won both the 1998 and 1999 La Liqa championship and the Copa del Ray in 1998.


In the decade from 1993 to 2003, Rivaldo also played for the Brazil national team and appeared in 74 matches. He scored 35 goals over those years, which puts him as the 7th highest scorer in the history of the team. He also helps the team reach the finals of the 1998 FIFA World Cup, was part of the FIFA World Cup All-Star Team in 1998, and with Brazil, he won the Copa America in 1999. He was named Player of the Tournament.


Rivaldo was known as one of the most creative and skillful players of his generation, and was well-known for his skills with overhead kicks, bending and free kicks. These skills set him apart from the other big names of the late 1990s, and he was named FIFA World Player of the Year in 1999. He is on the FIFA 100 list of the World’s Greatest Living Players, and was introduced in the Brazilian Football Museum Hall of Fame. Rivaldo retired from the game in 2015.


6. Fernando Hierro

Fernando Hierro is a Spanish footballer, who is best known for his time with Real Madrid and the Spain national team. Throughout his career, he played in more than 500 games, appeared two European Championships and in four World Cups. Hierro has played as a sweeper, central defender and defensive midfielder, and he was able to play as both a defender and goalscorer. This made him one of the most sought-after players in the world. He also won three UEFA Champions League and five La Liga over 15 years.


Hierro played for Real Madrid from 1989 to 2003, and throughout the 1990s, was noted for his playmaking skills. He was an important part of the 1994 World Cup competition for Spain, as he made the winning goal against the qualification match with Denmark that allowed the Spanish team to move on to the finals. In the finals, during the Round of 16, he scored the only goal for Spain against their opponent, Switzerland, which sent them to the quarterfinals. However, the team was ultimately eliminated after losing to Italy.


During the 1990s, he was choses as the UEFA Club Best Defender in the 1997-1998 season, and was part of the ESM Team of the Year in the 1996-1997 and 1997-1998 seasons. Hierro retired from soccer in 2005, but went back to coach at Real Madrid for the 2014 – 2015 season.


5. Jaap Stam

Jaap Stam was a Dutch football player who played for several clubs in Europe including Manchester United, PSV Eindhoven, A.C. Milan and Lazio. He was a very gifted center back in the 1990s, and he was a key player during his 4-year stint with Manchester United. In fact, fans loved him so much, when he was in a one-on-one situation, they used to chant “Get past him if you can.”


Previous to playing for Manchester United, Stam played for Dutch teams PSV Eindhoven, Willem II and SC Cambuur. He began his professional career with PEC Zwolle. In addition to several club trophies, he has also won several personal awards throughout his career. This included being voted as the best defender in both the 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 seasons of the UEFA Champions League. As a member of the Netherlands national team, Stam has played 67 matches and scored three goals. He was also on the team for three European Championships as well as the FIFA World Cup in 1998.


Stam was known for three things as a player: his strength, speed and his ability with controlling the ball. He also was known to have a great sense of positioning. He retired in 2007, and in 2008, he became a scout for Manchester United. He worked as an assistant coach for PEC Zwolle in 2011, and in 2013, took a three-year contract as an assistant coach with AFC Ajax, but left the team in 2016.


He has also been involved in Soccer Aid, and has appeared in the 2nd, 4th and 5th series of the event. In the 5th series of the event, Stam was named the Man of the Match.


4. Lothar Matthaus

Lothar Matthaus is the only German player to ever be named a World Player of the Year. He led West Germany to the win in the FIFA World Cup in 1990, and he was named European Footballer of the year. He began his career in 1979, and for most of his career, he played with Bayern Munich. During that time, he won five FIFA World Cups, which is more than any other men’s outfield football player, and he holds the record for the most matches in the World Cup by one player. Matthaus was also voted the German Footballer of the Year in 1990 and 1999.


Matthaus was well known for this positional sense, passing and tackling. He was also a very powerful shooter. He played as a midfielder for most of his career, but late in his career, he began playing as a sweeper. He was the most capped German player in history, and he retired with 150 appearances in his 20 years of play. He is also part of the FIFA 100 list of the Greatest Living Football Players, chosen by Pele.


Matthaus retired from playing soccer in 2000, and by 2001 began his career as a coach, though his coaching career has, thus far, been less distinguished than his playing career. He has not coached since 2011, when he coached the Bulgarian national team. Since then, he has served as a commentator for Al Jazeera Sports, Sporttv in Brazil and IRIB in Iran.


3. Luis Figo

Luis Figo was known as one of the top Portuguese footballers of all time. He was a winger for a number of teams including Sporting CP, Real Madrid, Barcelon and Internazionale. He also played for the Portugal national team.


Known for his creative play and his ability to pass defenders, he is regarded as one of the best wingers of the 1990s. In La Liga, he made 106 assists, the most in the leagues history, and only Lionel Messi has more. He is also one of the only players who played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona. For his transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid, he set a world record for the transfer fee, which was 62 million Euros.


Throughout his career, he won several trophies including four La Liga titles, the Portuguese Cup, three Spanish Super Cups, two Spanish Cups, a UEFA Champions League title, four Serie A titles and three Italian Super Cups. While on the Portugal national team he scored a total of 32 goals and represented the country at two World Cups and three European Championships.


Luis Figo retired from soccer in 2009. Today, he is a business owner and an ambassador for the Stop TB Partnership, which works to fight against the spread of tuberculosis. He also serves as an ambassador for Internazionale. Figo also found a private member’s only networking site for professional footballers called Network90.


2. Zinedine Zidane

Zinedine Zidane, or Zizou, is a former French soccer player, and the manager of Real Madrid, as of 2016. He was an attacking midfielder for the French national team, and also played for Bordeaux, Cannes, Real Madrid and Juventus. Zizou is known for being an elegant player with excellent ball control, vision and technique. He was named the best European soccer player over the past 50 years by the UEFA Golden Jubilee Poll, and he is often named as one of the greatest players in the history of soccer.


While playing at the club level, Zizou won both the UEFA Champions League and La Liga title with Real Madrid, the Intercontinental Cup, two Serie A league championships and a UEFA Super Cup. He also won the FIFA World Player of the Year three times, and he won the Ballon d’Or one time.


As a member of the French national team, he won the 1998 World Cup, and scored two goals in the final game. This made him a national hero in the country, and he was awarded the Legion d’honneur for this feat. Zizou retired in 2006, and after staying low for a few years, took a position of assistant coach for Real Madrid in the 2013 – 2014 season. After a very successful year, he started coaching the B team, Real Madrid Castilla.


Recently, Zidane saw controversy after supporting Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup. The choice to have the World Cup in the country was already controversial, and fans were surprised that Zizou was such a proponent of the move. He, however, insists that he simply did it to help the spread of soccer into the Middle East.


1. Ronaldo

Not to be confused with Cristiano Ronaldo, the current player, the Brazilian soccer phenomenon Ronaldo is surely in the number one spot of the 1990s, and perhaps of all time. Ronaldo is one of four players to have ever won the FIFA World Player of the Year Award three times, and has won the Balloon d’Or two times.  He was named the “greatest ever” by France Football magazine, and was named as one of the FIFA 100 greatest living players in 2004. Ronaldo became a member of the Brazilian Football Museum Hall of Fame in 2006, and in 2015, became a member of the Italian Football Hall of Fame.


He was a member of the Brazil national team, and he played for Brazil for almost 100 matches, and scored a total of 62 goals during his time with the team. The only player to score more goals was Pele. At only 17 years old, Ronaldo was part of the Brazilian team that won the 1994 World Cup, and in the 1998 World Cup, he was chosen as the recipient of the Golden Ball.


Though Ronaldo had an illustrious career, it was marred with injuries, and he ended up retiring early in 2011, citing hypothyroidism and pain. Since his retirement, he has worked as a UN Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador, which he does to battle poverty throughout the world. He also served as an ambassador for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Today, Ronaldo is part owner of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and sports marketing company 9INE, which he runs with Anderson Silva.




The 1990s were certainly an exciting time in the world of soccer, and it laid the groundwork for the excitement and spread of soccer into the United States. The players featured in this list are world class, and they continue to support the sport through coaching, awareness, volunteering and even participating in events in their home countries and throughout the world.


There are players from a number of countries represented on this list, and each player holds a special place in the hearts of their fans. People are passionate about soccer, and this passion comes to the forefront when discussing the best players in the 1990s. Arguably, there are several players who are not on this list who may deserve it one way or the other, but trying to choose just ten is a difficult task. Additionally, many of the players who have been excluded, such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry had more success in the 2000s, than they did in the 1990s.


The players on the list are true superstars in the world of soccer, and they still serve as members of the upper echelon and as influencers of the next great soccer generation.




**Cover photo credit: 360b /