There is something fascinating about seeing a midfielder control a game of football. While there is great joy in seeing a striker scoring a goal, a defender making a last-ditch tackle or a goalkeeper making a gravity-defying save, the midfielder brings you the more calming joy rather than the adrenaline rush that the other players bring.
So, it is no surprise that the best of the midfielders have graced the FIFA World Cup, the biggest tournament in football. Right from 1930, the players in the middle of the park have made a massive difference for their team, more often than not deciding where the World Cup title heads.
The midfielders have acted as both the orchestrator-in-chief and the creator-in-chief based on their roles, positions and team formation. And no other position offers as much diversity as the midfield, where you can find players ranging from the hard-tackling number six to the controller ‘Regista‘ and the more attacking but now defunct ‘Trequartista‘ role.
So, we look at the top 10 midfielders in FIFA World Cup history.
Jose Ely de Miranda, or Zito, is a name few football fans would be familiar with, and yet he remains one of the most influential midfielders in Brazilian soccer and FIFA World Cup history. Zito always did the dirty work so his attacking teammates could get all the plaudits. While he only scored three goals during his international career, one came in the 1962 World Cup Final against Czechoslovakia.
He is also credited with mentoring Pele at both the domestic and international level, allowing the Brazilian to become probably the greatest player ever to play the game.
— Copa Mundial FIFA 🏆 (@fifaworldcup_es) March 28, 2014
Zinedine Zidane has had a successful career, but his performance in the 2006 FIFA World Cup was impressive even by his high standards. The Frenchman had retired from international football but returned to help his country in the World Cup held in Germany. And he brought his best with him.
The Frenchman scored three goals, but his importance to the team was beyond stats. Due to his explosive form, opposition teams used most of their resources to mark him, which left gaps for Zidane’s teammates to exploit. And even marking him was an arduous task, with Zidane dribbling his way out of a situation more often than not. He would also score a panenka penalty in the final. However, he would later be sent off for a headbutt on Marco Materazzi after the Italian made lewd remarks about his sister.
Zinedine Zidane at 34 dropped one of the best Worldcup performances in modern era during the 2006 WC. I was one of the lucky folks to watch the greatness live, now we are about to watch some Benzema juice for France one last time!
— Ashish اشيش (@RMadridEngineer) November 11, 2022
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The Brazilian team that won the 1970 FIFA World Cup win is considered by many to be the best team ever in the tournament’s history. While players such as Pele, Gerson, Jairzinho, and Rivellino hogged all the limelight, Clodoaldo was the man who made it all happen. The defensive midfielder was a proper number six, making the tackles and doing the hard yards as his more attack-minded teammates created havoc up the pitch.
His presence was a nightmare to the opposition, who were left repeatedly frustrated by his defensive acumen. However, when the time came, Clodoaldo was no mug in the attack. He scored the goal against Uruguay that inspired Brazil’s comeback after being 1-0 down in the semifinal. But his best display of attacking came in the final, where Cloadoaldo dribbled past four Italian players to start a counter-attack that ended in a beautiful goal by their captain Carlos Alberto Torres which is considered by many to be the best goal in the history of FIFA World Cup.
👶 Clodoaldo was just 20 at the 1970 #WorldCup (can you tell!?). It didn't stop him unforgettably hip-shaking his way past 4 Italians in the Final – not bad for a defensive midfielder 🤩
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) September 25, 2020
Diego Maradona is among the top players ever to play football, so it is no surprise that he finds himself on this list. The Argentine was a freak of nature during his prime and dazzled the world with his impressive skills. He first represented Argentina in the 1982 FIFA World Cup, where they lost out to Italy for a spot in the final. However, four years later, he would be back leading an impressive team.
The Albicelestes were among the favourites and were looking for Maradona to bring his best. And boy, did he bring his best as he scored five goals and provided five assists, single-handedly dragging Argentina to the World Cup title. His performance against England in the semifinal was especially as it saw two historical goals, the Hand of God and perhaps his best goal ever, where he dribbled past five English players before slotting the ball past a hapless Peter Shilton.
Diego Maradona vs England – 1986 World Cup.
A goal that needs no introduction, one of the greatest goals ever scored. 🇦🇷 pic.twitter.com/R3Kqzgb5I4
— World Cup Updates (@wc22updates) November 13, 2022
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Bobby Charlton is a legend in English football and was the key figure behind England’s 1966 FIFA World Cup win. Charlton spent most of his career playing for Manchester United, but the 1966 World Cup made him a legend for all English fans. England had a formidable squad and were considered to be one of the favourites to win their maiden title.
And win they did, riding one of Charlton’s extraordinary brilliance, who scored three goals. His performance against Eusebio’s Portugal in the semifinal was his best as he scored two goals to take England to the final, where they defeated West Germany to win their first and, to date, only World Cup title.
🏴 On this day in 1966…
Bobby Charlton Thunder-bastard: World Cup ‘66 Edition
Whenever I hear the words “Bobby Dazzler”, I think of this goal. pic.twitter.com/4wbqWjexov
— 𝙒𝙊𝙍𝙇𝘿 𝘾𝙐𝙋 𝙍𝙀𝙒𝙄𝙉𝘿 ⏪ (@WorldCup_Rewind) July 16, 2022
No player in the history of football has as much impact on the game as Johan Cruyff. The Dutchman remains one of the best football players and coaches. As a player, he pioneered the famous ‘Total Football‘ philosophy, which revolutionised football during the 1970s. Cruyff was the star of the team as he helped the Netherlands reach the final, scoring three goals and providing three assists. He would also help win the penalty for the Netherlands against West Germany in the final.
This would be the only World Cup he would play, but such was his impact that he was voted the tournament’s best player. And the team he made would reach the 1978 World Cup final as well but would again miss out on the tile losing 3-1 to Argentina.
In their primes the best players ever are extremes in the triple threat: creating chances; carrying the ball and scoring. Johan Cruyff in 1974 was 27-years old and won the Ballon d’Or that year. Here's his performance against Sweden in the 1974 World Cup:pic.twitter.com/z6lcN3z8qY
— UtdArena (@UtdArena) January 12, 2022
When Italy arrived at the FIFA 1982 World Cup, few would have given them any chance to win the trophy. The reason was that the team was a mess as two years before, 11 players in the Serie A were caught in a match-fixing scandal which included Italian national team members. To make matters worse, their star striker Paolo Rossi, though innocent, was hit with a two-year ban.
And thus, if Italy needed to win the World Cup, they needed players to rise to the occasion, and Marco Tardelli did. As Italy tried to play a defensive game, it was Tardelli’s responsibility to control the pace of the game, which he did to perfection. He scored two goals, one of which came in the final against West Germany and helped Italy win their fourth World Cup title. Tardelli was voted the best player in the tournament.
The World Cup is looming!
One of the iconic World Cup moments from any tournament.
The memorable moment Marco Tardelli scored for Italy in the 1982 Final against West Germany.
Memories don’t come much better than this. #WorldCup #Tardelli #Italy pic.twitter.com/WFdLCD9y6W
— TV Football 1968-92 (@1968Tv) November 13, 2022
Voted as the second-best player in the 1970 FIFA World Cup behind Pele, Gerson was the man who was tasked with managing Brazil’s creativity. He formed a brilliant partnership with Rivellino that tore the opposition to shreds. He was so impressive that he is referred to as ‘the brain’ behind Brazil’s World Cup victory, an impressive feat considering the talent around him.
Gerson’s impeccable passing was one of the critical reasons behind Brazil’s electric play, as their opponents, especially the European teams, failed to match their intensity. Gerson would also score a goal in the final against Italy, helping Brazil win the match 4-1 in what is considered by many to be the most one-sided final in World Cup history.
🎯 Who could forget his stunner in the 1970 #WorldCup Final?
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) January 11, 2020
You are an exceptional talent when you have played five FIFA World Cups, and that too for a world-class team such as Germany. Lothar Matthaus remains one of the best midfielders to play in the biggest tournament. Matthaus was an astute midfield enforcer who helped West Germany reach three consecutive World Cups. While his nation would falter at the first two attempts against Italy and Argentina, respectively, they would get third time lucky in 1990. And Matthaus was at the centre of it, captaining the side and scoring three goals in the process. In the final, his job was to man-mark Diego Maradona, a position he did to perfection, bringing West Germany their third World Cup title.
He would play two more World Cups in 1994 and 1998, but Germany would lose to dark horses Bulgaria and Croatia, respectively.
Diego Maradona and Lothar Matthaus before the 1990 World Cup Final. pic.twitter.com/OGrL3X8MGm
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) July 29, 2022
What Luka Modric managed to do in the 2018 FIFA World Cup was a task so enormous that even some of the best players of this generation would have failed to do. Before even a ball was kicked in Russia in 2018, no one would have imagined that a tiny eastern European nation would reach the final. However, the Croatians surprised everybody by putting in some commendable performances, with Modric at the centre of it, scoring two goals and providing one assist. However, his influence was far beyond the status as he ensured that Croatia’s gameplay was smooth. He acted as the orchestrator-in-chief, and his impeccable passing would ensure that the rivals had a hard time dispossessing Croatia of the ball.
Group F: #Croatia's greatest WC team was 2018. A fantastic outfit including Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić, Ivan Perišić & Mario Mandžukić beat Nigeria, Argentina, Iceland, Denmark, Russia & England before losing the final to France. A massive accomplishment. #CRO #FIFAWorldCup pic.twitter.com/8TNvNT1n0o
— World Cup Throwback (@WCThrowback) November 11, 2022
And while Croatia lost the final, Modric was adjudged the best player in the tournament and won the Golden Ball. He would later go on to win the Ballon d’Or that year.