The genus Streptococcus contains 104 recognized species, many of which are associated with human or animal hosts. A globally prevalent human pathogen in this group is Streptococcus pneumoniae (the pneumococcus). While being a common resident of the upper respiratory tract, it is also a major cause of otitis media, pneumonia, bacteremia and meningitis, accounting for a high burden of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Recent findings demonstrate the importance of recombination and selection in driving the population dynamics and evolution of different pneumococcal lineages, allowing them to successfully evade the impacts of selective pressures such as vaccination and antibiotic treatment. We highlight the ability of pneumococci to respond to these pressures through processes including serotype replacement, capsular switching and horizontal gene transfer (HGT) of antibiotic resistance genes. The challenge in controlling this pathogen also lies in the exceptional genetic and phenotypic variation among different pneumococcal lineages, particularly in terms of their pathogenicity and resistance to current therapeutic strategies. The widespread use of pneumococcal conjugate vaccines, which target only a small subset of the more than 90 pneumococcal serotypes, provides us with a unique opportunity to elucidate how the processes of selection and recombination interact to generate a remarkable level of plasticity and heterogeneity in the pneumococcal genome. These processes also play an important role in the emergence and spread of multi-resistant strains, which continues to pose a challenge in disease control and/or eradication. The application of population of genomic approaches at different spatial and temporal scales will help improve strategies to control this global pathogen, and potentially other pathogenic streptococci.