Some genuinely exceptional soccer players have emerged from Portugal over the years. One of the main reasons is that the Portuguese leagues are excellent at giving young players a chance to play regularly, as it’s a great way to generate income; talented youth costs money, lots of it.
Despite the history and popularity of the Primeira Liga, even the biggest clubs in Portugal focus on youth development. When they find a diamond in the rough, it’s usually an incredible talent.
So with that in mind, we thought we would treat ourselves to a look at some of the very best players to ever emerge from Portugal, so let’s get to it.
- Position: Left Winger
To make it to 112 senior international appearances, you’ve got to have something about you as a player, and Nani’s pace and skill meant that for a while, the player had the world at his feet.
A product of the Sporting youth academy, Nani burst onto the scene as a pacy, talented, yet erratic player, leading to comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo.
It’s possibly unfair to burden a player that young with such expectations. For a while, Nani did seem to suffer as a result, especially given both players moved to Manchester United and, for a few seasons, played alongside each other.
Nani eventually found his place in the team, remained an out-and-out winger throughout his career, and stayed at Manchester United for eight successful seasons.
His career since leaving Old Trafford may be a bit of a journeyman adventure. Still, for sheer quality, and especially for his excellent international career, Nani is a worthy addition to our list.
- Position: Attacking Midfield
Anderson Luis de Souza, or Deco to you and I, was a Brazilian-born Portuguese attacking midfielder renowned for his creativity and awareness and one of the finest attacking midfielders of his generation.
A selfless player, Deco was the perfect assist machine, always able to find the right pass and always willing to put the team before himself.
After showcasing his skills for Porto from 1999 to 2004, Deco got a big money move to Barcelona, where the player’s flair and attacking abilities made him one of the standout players on the team.
After four successful seasons in Barcelona, Deco moved to Chelsea to be part of Roman Abramovich’s superstar Chelsea team, where he again excelled in an attacking role.
Despite being occasionally inconsistent and amid accusations that he didn’t take fitness very seriously, Deco’s skill and team ethic meant that this was usually overlooked.
A haul of 64 goals in 406 league appearances perhaps could be higher, but his assist count is off the chart.
8. Rui Costa
- Position: Attacking Midfield
Portuguese royalty, Rui Costa is rightly regarded as one of the best attacking midfielders the soccer world has ever seen, and it’s hard to argue, as Costa was a phenomenally gifted player.
A Benfica youth player who spent 13 years learning his trade before a first-team appearance, Rui Costa developed into one of Portugal’s most talented and skillful players.
After several years at Benfica, Costa moved to Fiorentina, and took Serie A by storm, enjoying seven years in Florence, and becoming known as one of the most creative players in the league.
It was only a matter of time before a bigger team came knocking, and AC Milan would benefit from the Portuguese legend for the next five years.
In a great example of going full circle, Rui Costa spent his final two seasons back at Benfica, where his legacy remains to this day, as the once great player is now the club president.
Internationally, Costa was a vital cog in one of the best national teams around, playing 94 times for his country. He will rightly go down in history as one of Portugal’s greatest players.
- Position: Centre-Back
You’d be unwise to anger Pepe, one of the most aggressive defenders in Portuguese history, as the player is quite happy receiving a card for violent conduct.
While that sounds alarming, it doesn’t fully cover just how good a player Pepe was for Real Madrid in his prime. And Porto, where the player is now playing, is also benefitting from the experience he brings to the team.
Another Portuguese player born in Brazil, Pepe moved to Portugal aged 18 to play for Maritimo and quickly made a reputation for himself as a tough-tackling and physically strong player.
A move to league giants Porto led to three productive seasons before the call from Real Madrid took the Portuguese center-back to the very top of world soccer.
In 334 appearances for Madrid, Pepe won three La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues, and two Copa del Rey titles.
A punishing and uncompromising player, attacking players knew without a doubt that to go near Pepe was to invite an absolute kicking, and the player took full advantage of this.
One of the best defenders of his era, Pepe remains one of the most fearsome defenders around.
6. Vitor Baia
- Position: Goalkeeper
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You don’t see many goalkeepers on a top ten greatest list, so Vitor Baia must have been something special. And he was; one of the most decorated goalkeepers ever seen, Baia was a model of consistency.
Baia won ten Primeira Liga titles with Porto, a Champions League, the Uefa Cup, Intercontinental Cup, and five Taca de Portugal.
Baia was involved in winning 25 titles with his beloved Porto and also managed a very creditable 80 appearances for Portugal.
A move to Barcelona was solid if unspectacular, but a return to Porto soon put Baia back on top. Especially as he had been successful in Porto during his first spell, and the club found replacing him almost impossible. For a time, Baia was regarded as the best goalkeeper on the planet.
5. Bernardo Silva
- Position: Attacking Midfield
Manchester City star Bernardo Silva is the youngest current player on our list but makes the top five with good reason; he’s already a superstar, and he’s likely to only improve over the coming seasons.
The Portuguese winger already has six league titles, four with Manchester City and one each with Monaco and Benfica, and at only 27, he looks to add to that in the future.
The attacking midfielder is a cultured, elegant player with a turn of pace that terrifies opponents. His ability to keep close control of the ball at speed makes him the perfect Manchester City player, as he consistently hounds defenses looking for a way through.
Silva already has 70 international caps and is a crucial player for the Portuguese national team.
A key part of Silva’s game is his versatility; he can play in any position from central midfield, both wings, through the middle, and even as a second striker.
He is an invaluable player for Manchester City and is often the best on the pitch; his movement and creativity make him stand out as a truly exceptional player.
4. Ricardo Carvalho
- Position: Centre-Back
Quite possibly one of the best central defenders of the past twenty years, and certainly one of the best Portuguese defenders of all time, Ricardo Carvalho was an absolute thoroughbred of a player.
Unlike fellow defender Pepe, Carvalho rarely partook in the crunching tackle’s rough and tumble, preferring to simply waltz away with the ball.
A cultured and intelligent player, Carvalho relied on pace, positioning, and an excellent technique to keep opponents at arm’s length. In a 20-year career, Carvalho played for such teams as Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Monaco, racking up over 400 league appearances.
Due to his sophisticated style, and a lack of physicality, Carvalho was often put in defense alongside a more physical partner.
While his defensive partner did the dirty work, the Portuguese defender would mop up, maintain discipline, and rarely get caught out. At Chelsea, John Terry was the perfect physical foil for Carvalho, and the two made a great partnership.
In a superb career, Carvalho stood out, as intelligent players often do; he never got flustered and always seemed to have an extra yard of pace.
This extra yard usually meant he got to the ball first, but rather than speed of body, his speed of mind made him one of his generation’s best defenders: the complete player.
3. Luis Figo
- Position: Right Winger
Soccer fans love nothing more than a bit of drama, so fans went wild when Barcelona’s Portuguese superstar Luis Figo moved to hated rivals Real Madrid.
It’s not just that Luis Figo left one club for its greatest rival; it’s that he was one of the best players on the planet at the time, by a mile, that caused such waves.
After joining Barcelona in 1995 for a modest fee, Figo became one of his generation’s most exciting players.
With an ability to take on players in a one-on-one with ease, he could transform games in a heartbeat. Fans of both Barcelona and Portugal quickly understood how vital a player Figo was becoming.
So when Figo was sold to Real Madrid in 2000, as the wealthy Madrid club bypassed Barcelona’s desire to keep their star man by simply paying the release clause in his contract, the Catalan fans went berserk. And so did Madrid fans, but for entirely different reasons.
They knew they’d got the player of the decade, and their arch-rivals had been weakened to sweeten the pot.
It can’t be overstated just how good a player Luis Figo was in his prime. As well as being a superb player for Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Inter Milan, the Portuguese legend played 127 times for his country in a career that spanned two trophy-laden decades.
- Position: Centre-Forward
Cristiano Ronaldo may be the most successful Portuguese player to wear a soccer jersey, but the great Eusebio has to go down as the most beloved Portuguese player of all time. As well as
being the consummate sportsman, Eusebio was absolutely lethal in front of goal, with a barely believable 733 goals scored in 745 games.
While Eusebio played for several teams over his career, with seven clubs between 1975 and 1980, it’s at Benfica that the Lisbon-born star made his name. A 14-year spell at the Portuguese giants saw the striker net 317 goals in just 301 league appearances, making him one of the most efficient and dangerous strikers of any era.
At Benfica, Eusebio won 11 Primeira Liga titles, five Taca de Portugal, a European Cup, and a long list of personal honors. A well-deserved win in the 1965 Ballon d’Or, a World Cup Golden Boot winner in 1966, and several European Cup top scorer awards show just how special a player Eusebio was.
It also explains why he is held in such high regard by Portuguese fans in particular and soccer fans in general. After retirement, Eusebio became an ambassador of soccer, a role he was well suited to.
Ranked as the 16th greatest player of all time, Eusebio will forever remain one of the greatest and most-loved players in soccer history.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo
- Position: Centre-Forward
Okay, so it’s hardly a surprise that the number one spot goes to Cristiano Ronaldo; but if you had to genetically engineer the perfect soccer player, the likelihood of it looking exactly like Ronaldo is exceptionally high, so you can’t blame us.
With 32 trophies, five Ballon d’Or awards, and more international goals than anyone else, who else even comes close to the man himself?
In a stellar career that has spanned Portugal, England, Spain, and Italy, Cristiano Ronaldo has done what he does best, win soccer games almost singlehandedly. In front of goal, Ronaldo is selfish, single-minded, and utterly efficient.
A criticism of the Portuguese star is that he looks petulant when things aren’t going his way, but his will to win makes him who he is.
Real Madrid’s top goalscorer, the top scorer in the Champions League, the highest number of international goals, and over 1,100 professional appearances are staggering stats on their own, but when you consider that Ronaldo holds all of them, you run out of superlatives.
Even as time catches up, Ronaldo shows little sign of slowing down. In his 30s, Ronaldo became the most expensive player over 30 years of age when a €100 million transfer to Juventus also made him the highest transfer fee in history to an Italian club. Wherever CR7 goes, he breaks records; it’s what he does best.
A remarkable player with a unique set of records, Ronaldo could very well be the best player of all time; he’s undoubtedly the best Portuguese soccer player of all time, that’s for sure.