This is the list of the most elite marksmen in the history of the international game. It’s a curious hodgepodge of the most eminent names and some you might not have even heard of.
It is heavily affected by era and by confederation. In the formative years of international football, when there was still a huge disparity in the quality of national teams, it was undoubtedly easier to notch up reams of goals. That much is exhibited by the fact that the players on this list from what you could call the ‘modern era’ have lesser goals-to-games ratios that their historical counterparts. Confederation, the region where a player plays his international football, effects the outcome of their position in the rankings too – as shown by the fact that there are four representatives of the Asian Football Confederation, a disproportionate number in relation to the continent’s influence on the global game.
Nevertheless, every name on this list has played a historic role in international football. We’ll leave it up to you to decide whose achievements you think are the most impressive.
Most Goals in International Football
10. Sunil Chhetri – India (115 caps – 72 goals)
We start with Sunil Chhetri, one of just two active players in the top ten. Sunil has represented India since 2005 and is still leading the line for the national team age 35. Chhetri spent most of his career in the club game in India, but did have brief spells in America and Europe with Kansas City Wizards (though he failed to make an appearance) and Sporting Lisbon’s reserve side respectively.
Though he racked up goals and caps in abundance, Chhetri was never lucky enough to represent his homeland at a World Cup. He did, however, play for India at several Asian Cup finals – though only four of his international goals came on this stage.
Chhetri remains India’s all-time most capped player. If he continues firing, there is every chance he could climb this list in which just seven goals separate 10th and 4th. In doing so, he would overtake some of the most regal names in the history of football and further cement his legacy as the greatest player in India’s history.
9. Bashar Abdullah – Kuwait (134 caps – 75 goals)
Bashar Abdullah is one of three players in international football history to have scored exactly 75 goals. He is in 9th place because the other two are ahead of him in terms of goals-per-game.
Of all the nations represented in this list, his is perhaps the one you’d least expect to see in one of the most illustrious in football. Abdullah is Kuwait’s all-time leading scorer and 3rd most capped player. In his club career, he had stints in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
But it is his career on the international stage that made him a hero in his home country. He had something of a leg-up, however, as eight of his 75 international goals came in one game against Bhutan in 2000 in which Kuwait won 20-0. Four days later, he scored five goals against Nepal. Thirteen goals in two games is surely an international record in the modern era.
He represented Kuwait at three Asian Cups and was part of the Kuwait team that performed admirably at the 2000 summer Olympic football tournament, beating the Czech Republic in their second game and only narrowly losing to Cameroon, the eventual champions.
8. Kunishige Kamamoto – Japan (76 caps – 75 goals)
Also on 75 goals is the Japanese striker who boasts an astonishing goals-per-game rate of 0.99. He will presumably be miffed at not making it a round “1”, however.
Kunishige Kamamoto played 84 times for Japan and scored 80 goals – though five of these goals and eight of these appearances were not FIFA recognised and therefore do not count to his overall tally in this list.
In the club game, Kamamoto spent his entire career with Yanmar Diesel where he was the top scorer in the Japanese top-flight a record seven times.
His one major honour with the Japanese national team was a bronze medal at the 1968 Olympic games where he finished as the tournament’s top goalscorer with seven goals, including a hat-trick against Nigeria and two goals in the Bronze Medal match against Mexico.
7. Sandor Kocsis – Hungary (68 caps – 75 goals)
Now we arrive at the first true footballing great in the top ten. Sandor Kocsis was part of the generational Hungary team of the 1950s, nicknamed the Magic Magyars by an awestruck footballing public. He is one of two members of that side to make it into the top ten. More on that later…
At club level, Kocsis scored 341 goals in 434 games. He turned out for Budapest Honved between 1950 and 1957 before transferring to Barcelona where he would spend seven years and establish himself as one of the club’s finest ever players – and that’s saying something.
On the international level, he was no less dazzling. His goals per game ratio is the best in the top ten at 1.1. To score 75 goals in just 68 appearances is a feat without peer. He won gold at the Olympics in 1952 and two years later was denied a World Cup winners’ medal by a stunning West Germany comeback.
Unfortunately, that Hungary team were never vindicated in terms of silverware. But Kocsis is at least immortalised in this prestigious list.
6. Pelé – Brazil (92 caps – 77 goals)
The next player on this list is perhaps the most famous in the history of the game. Where do you start with Pelé?
His 77 goals in 92 games for Brazil make him the biggest football nation in the world’s all-time top scorer. It’s a remarkable record which has stood for over 50 years. Neymar is 20 goals behind and may well overtake Pelé in the scoring charts at some point in his career, but Pele’s place in the hearts of Brazilian fans’ hearts will never be bettered.
He won a record three World Cups in 1958, 1962 and 1970 respectively. Pelé was just 17 when he starred for Brazil in the first of these triumphs. The 1970 team are widely regarded as one of the greatest teams to have ever taken the field.
Pelé is famous for his exaggerated accounts of how many goals he scored in his career – one that counts friendlies and exhibition matches alongside World Cups. But no one can take his remarkable Brazil goal tally away from him.
At club level, he made nearly 700 appearances, the vast majority for Santos in his homeland and a handful for New York Cosmos in his twilight years. But it was on the international stage that his star burned brightest.
5. Hussein Saeed – Iraq (137 caps – 78 goals)
From one national hero to another, significantly less famous one. Hussein Saeed is second in Iraq’s all-time caps chart. But he is far and away the nation’s all-time top scorer.
His international career lasted 14 years between 1976 and 1990. Since retiring, he has remained a prominent figure in Iraq’s football set up as he was president of the IFA between 2004 and 2011.
At club level, Saeed turned out for just one club, Al-Talaba. He scored 122 goals for them, taking his combined goal total to a nice round 200.
His highest honour for Iraq came when he was part of the team that won the Asian Games football tournament in 1982, an honour which was followed up with an Arabian Gulf Cup victory in 1984.
4. Godfrey Chitalu – Zambia (111 caps – 79 goals)
Zambia’s all-time leading goalscorer, legendary striker and icon Godfrey Chitalu was affectionately known as Ucar in his homeland.
His is a wonderful but ultimately tragic story. He spent his club career playing for two Zambian sides, Kitwe United and Kabwe Warriors. For the latter, Ucar scored 116 goals in a calendar year. On this basis, the Zambian FA challenged the world record for most goals in a calendar year, a record which is officially held by Lionel Messi. The appeal was not successful, but it stands as a testament to his goalscoring prowess.
After retiring, Ucar went into management, coaching his old side Kabwe Warriors on two separate occasions. In 1993, Ucar made a triumphant return to the Zambia national team as manager. But he, along with the entire Zambian, perished in an air disaster ahead of an African Cup of Nations qualifying match in April of the same year. He is remembered as a legend in the country.
3. Ferenc Puskás – Hungary (85 caps – 84 goals)
Now we arrive at the second member of the great Hungarian team of the 1950s, Ferenc Puskás. The magnetic forward was the crown jewel in the Hungary side, scoring – on average – just shy of a goal a game. Like his compatriot Kocsis, Puskás played for Budapest Honved in his early years before making a move to Spain. But while Kocsis’s destination was Catalonia, Puskás moved inland – to Real Madrid.
For Los Blancos, Puskás scored 156 times in 180 appearances. He played in Spain for eight years, during which he achieved eligibility for the Spanish national team. He played four times for Spain, with three of these appearances coming in the 1962 World Cup.
He may not have won the World Cup in 1954, but his legacy is unparalleled in the Eastern European game. He briefly returned to the Hungarian national team as manager in 1993, where he oversaw four games.
When he passed away in 2006, the great man was given a state funeral.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal (164 caps – 99 goals)
This man needs no introduction. So, naturally, that’s exactly what I’m going to give him. Cristiano Ronaldo is a record-breaking machine, the kind of player that only comes around every few generations. While the debate will forever rage on as to who is the better of him and his little Argentinian rival, Ronaldo must surely be recognised as the greatest international goalscorer of all-time.
With 99 goals at the time of writing, he is agonisingly close to the big 100 – a number which has never been achieved by a European player before. When he becomes the outright all-time top scorer in international football history – and it seems a matter of when and not it – Ronaldo will revel in the prestige.
With Portugal, Ronaldo has reached the final of two major tournaments, the European Championships in 2004 and 2016 respectively. In the first, his Portugal side was vanquished by underdogs Greece. But 12 years later, Ronaldo achieved retribution as he captained Portugal to their first international honour.
What is remarkable about Ronaldo’s record in international football is that the bulk of his goals have come toward the tail end of his career. He scored his 50th goal in 2014 and has almost exactly doubled that tally in just six years since.
1. Ali Daei – Iran (149 caps – 109 goals)
So, which great edges out Ronaldo? Is it Diego Maradona? Gerd Muller? Lionel Messi? Nope, Ali Daei.
For Iran, Ali Daei became the first player to score 100 international goals when he scored his second of four goals against Laos in 2004. Most of these have come in qualifying matches for the World Cup and for the Asian Games. But Daei has also played at two World Cups, once in France in 1998 and once in Germany in 2006.
His final goal came in a friendly vs Costa Rica on home soil in March 2006, a few months before he made his international bow at the World Cup.
At club level, Daei was something of a journeyman. He played for 12 clubs in total, most in Iran and Saudi Arabia. But sandwiched between them was a five-year spell in Germany. He played a season with Arminia Belfield before transferring to Bayern Munich where he played for another single season and scored six goals. He then spent three years with Hertha Berlin before heading back to his homeland.
It will probably be the case that Daei’s time at the top of the scoring charts will come to an end in the next few years. But he will always have the glory of being the first – and, at the time of writing, only – player to score a century of international goals.