15 Candidates for World's Third-Best Footballer After Messi and Ronaldo
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two best football players on the planet. They just are. There's not even a particularly good argument for anyone else.
But let's take them out of the equation. Who would be best if these two footballing freaks weren't currently dominating the sporting summit?
Here are 15 candidates who can legitimately stake a claim to being the world's third-best footballer.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (AC Milan)
I love Zlatan Ibrahimovic because he undoubtedly actually believes he is the world's best footballer even with Messi and Ronaldo running around.
The Big Ego is a goal-scoring genius. He's scored everywhere he has taken the field. Holland, Italy, Spain and now Italy again.
But one stat speaks volumes about Ibrahimovic. Until Milan's failure this season, Zlatan's teams had won the league title in his last eight campaigns.
Ibrahimovic = silverware
David Silva (Manchester City)
Manchester City has bought a lot of players the past few years, but if it weren't for the purchase of David Silva, none of them could have brought a Premier League title to the Etihad.
Silva is beyond question the best playmaker currently plying his trade on English shores. I would extend the argument to all of Europe, but I know that reasonable people can disagree, and Mesut Ozil, Andrea Pirlo and Xavi Hernandez are all waiting when my argument makes its way across the English Channel.
Silva was already brilliant at Valencia, and with the improved supporting cast around him at City, his true level has finally been revealed under the brightest footballing spotlight.
Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
Wayne Rooney combines the best of both worlds. He brings the muscular, hard-working best of English football and combines it with the sublime skill of the continental game. What you get is a refined greyhound who thinks he's a bulldog.
The result is phenomenal, and Rooney scored 34 goals for Manchester United this season. I would wager that he made at least as many tackles on his own team's end-line. That's how he works. Whatever the team needs, wherever they need it, Rooney is happy to do it.
Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich)
Franck Ribery cannot be the best player on the planet because he is generally regarded as something less than the best role model in football. Even without Ronaldo and Messi, Ribery would be underestimated for that reason.
But through prostitution scandals, fights with teammates and his role in the circus that was France's World Cup 2010, only injury has shown the consistent ability to slow Ribery on the pitch.
Did I mention he might be the most prolific diver in world football? A bit like being the wettest person in a swimming pool, I know, but it doesn't help his cause.
Through it all, I've got to give him credit—Ribery is an insanely gifted footballer. Maybe even the third-best in the world.
Xavi Hernandez (Barcelona)
Xavi Hernandez has a different kind of case to make for world's third-best footballer. He doesn't rack up the statistics, but he makes teams go.
Whether for Barcelona or for Spain, Xavi is the secret to tiki-taka. When the little wizard plays, tiki-taka is incredible. When he's not in the lineup, it often stalls.
Xavi plays more passes per game than any other player in the world, completing them at a clip of over 92 percent. He is the piston that keeps the Barcelona engine ticking over day after day, week after week, year after year.
Pele says Neymar is already better than both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Now, Pele says a lot of things, many of which should be ignored immediately. But when he talks about Neymar, he is guilty only of being a bit premature.
We've all seen the highlight reel. Neymar is amazing. He is also petulant and very comfortable playing his football in Brazil at an age when most in his shoes would have long since moved to Europe.
I expect Neymar to spend this summer's Olympics making this case as third-best for me. If he'd moved to Europe a couple seasons ago, he might have already been dubbed the heir apparent to the world's two best players.
Radamel Falcao (Atletico Madrid)
Atletico Madrid finished fifth in La Liga this season and won the Europa League. Take Radamel Falcao off that roster, and they don't come close to either of those results.
The Colombian has been in Europe for three seasons and has finished with at least 30 goals in each of those campaigns.
First at Porto in the Primeira and now at Atletico, Falcao finds himself performing brilliantly at clubs where his performances will inevitably be too often overlooked.
He's bound to move to a higher profile address eventually. At that point, this argument could very well be over, with consensus building quickly around the sublime striker.
Andrea Pirlo (Juventus)
I know Andrea Pirlo is approximately 100 years old. And I know that, like Xavi Hernandez, an argument for him must center around much different attributes than the ones so often on display from Messi and Ronaldo. But I think he deserves to be in this conversation.
Is there anyone out there who would argue that Juventus could have won Serie A this season without Pirlo conducting the game from the center of midfield?
Is there anyone at AC Milan who doesn't regret immensely the decision that allowed Pirlo to head to Turin last summer?
I think the answers to those two questions speak as loudly about Pirlo as any rundown of his statistics ever could.
Robin Van Persie (Arsenal)
Robin van Persie has never exactly been overlooked. But injuries have never allowed him to put his full range of talents on display across an entire season before.
This year, the Dutchman took full advantage of his body's newly-discovered durability.
The results: 36 goals across all competitions, another nine assists and keeping Arsenal in the Champions League places despite all early-season evidence.
For much of the year, Robin van Persie was the Arsenal attack, and everyone knew it. But that never stopped him from scoring.
The only question is whether his durability this season is the start of a welcome trend or an outlier in a career littered with quarter and half seasons.
Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan)
This one may be the most controversial entry on the list. I realize the past season hasn't been the best of Wesley Sneijder's career. But I'm putting him on this list because I believe this season is a blip rather than a new normal.
He was brilliant last season. He was brilliant in the 2010 World Cup. And he hasn't exactly sucked this season despite being generally a gear below his rampant best.
Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)
Manchester City's forward line has been engulfed in madness for much of this season.
Remember when Carlos Tevez refused to play and left the team for months? Remember Mario Balotelli losing his mind a half-dozen or so times? Remember that Edin Dzeko really isn't as good as everyone hoped?
Sergio Aguero is the reason none of it mattered. His combination of pace, clinical finishing and unparalleled movement make him the best forward in the Premier League for my money. They also give him a decent argument for world's third-best player.
Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich)
He and Franck Ribery might not get along, but Arjen Robben and his teammate clearly provide Bayern Munich with a 1-2 punch that few clubs can match.
Here's how you know just how brilliant Robben is. Everyone knows exactly what he's going to do when he gets the ball. But no one can stop it.
Here's the scene. Robben gets the ball wide on the right. He dribbles at speed directly at the defender before cutting inside onto his left foot. He unleashes a devastating drive with his left boot and heads off to celebrate.
He's going to do it, everyone knows it, no one can stop it. Greatness defined.
Andres Iniesta (Barcelona)
Here's the thing about Andres Iniesta—he is universally lauded, but he likely hasn't even scratched the surface on his own game.
Iniesta is the closest parallel to Robin van Persie that Spain has to offer. It's a bit disguised because Barcelona play so many more games than most clubs, and the little midfielder is injury-prone.
If he ever gets through a couple injury-free seasons, Iniesta could prove to be the weapon that new Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova needs to get out from under the shadow left behind by his predecessor.
Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid)
Xabi Alonso will never stack up the goal-scoring statistics. It's not his job.
But Real Madrid doesn't work without the Spaniard in the defensive midfield role. He facilitates, he moves the ball and he switches play with the most beautiful cross-field passes in world football.
So he's Real Madrid's Xavi, but he's also more. Where the Barcelona man is almost entirely an offensive creature, Alonso is adept on the other side of the ball as well. This season, he averaged more than five takeaways per game between tackles and interceptions.
Think of Alonso as Xavi+.
Yaya Toure (Manchester City)
Yaya Toure won everything there was to be won in his time at Barcelona. But at the rate the Ivorian is going, his time at Barcelona might not even be the high point of his career.
A different Toure turned up at the Etihad in the summer of 2010. Out of the shadows of the Barcelona giants, Toure became an attacking and creative force. Allowed to push farther up the park than he ever was at the Camp Nou, Toure was able to display a different side of his game.
Three Manchester City players in the list? Yep, and I'm not even feeling particularly guilty about it. There's a reason they finally topped the EPL.