The 100 Greatest Soccer Players in the World Today
Let’s be honest. 2010-11 has probably been one of the more forgettable years in football quality-wise for some time. With the possible exceptions of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, no team in the major leagues across Europe have played at a consistently high level all season.
This is not to say that it was a terrible year in football, because there has always been the usual title race drama and the excitement of new arrivals staking their claim as elite footballers. All the same, it was hard to come up with specific criteria to determine the ordering for this list, given that so many superstars have dropped off from the heights of the last season or two.
I settled on a sort of compromise/cop out, making some allowances for the whole “form is temporary, class is permanent” ethos by not narrowing the focus strictly to the in-form players of this season, while also giving some consideration to those who have nevertheless had a great 2010-11 in football. You could still probably guess who Nos. 1 and 2 are, though.
Overall, the following 100 players are ranked based on their current ability level. This is a long list, so we’ll be going on the freeway for the first 70 players before taking the scenic route for the Top 30. So with that said…
Honourable Mention: The Evergreen Mid 90's-Mid 00's Generation
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We live in an era where the media and fans constantly overrate players and events, which has left us de-sensitized to even the most extravagant of superlatives. But somehow, the prefix ‘legendary’ is one of the very few that has remained largely unspoiled and still carries a certain weight whenever it is deployed.
There are really two types of legends, those players who carry a connotation to a specific club or event, and the other, harder to reach level of those players who are universally celebrated for their historical greatness. For instance, Ray Parlour is an Arsenal legend, but you would hardly call him "the legendary Ray Parlour."
I made that distinction because there is a group of players that peaked between the mid-nineties and mid-noughties that are still going relatively strong—Javier Zanetti, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Clarence Seedorf, Alessandro Nesta and Raul are the most obvious ones. These players have evolved from club legends to become universally legendary.
For example, Raul has made an emphatic comeback this season to remind everyone that he’s not washed up. This is actually the second comeback of his career—the first being when he was widely written off as a spent force in 2006, then slapped together nearly 50 goals in two consecutive seasons (2007-09).
It reminds us of one thing, that there is absolutely no substitute for experience. Never mind that the above players’ bodies may be wearing down; they have played in more top level/ high profile/ pressure packed games than almost anyone.
Every one of these players is a champion, a warrior of the highest caliber, and they have not yet entered football’s past tense.
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100: Landon Donavon
He has an outside chance of breaking Mohamed Al-Deayea’s record of 181 international caps. He never made it in Europe, but his international contributions, especially last summer, cannot be understated.
99: Joao Moutinho
The brains behind this rapidly rising Porto side. He is their fulcrum, constantly holding them together with his vision, intelligence and leadership. Probably the one guy on the team that coach Andre Vilas Boas trusts the most.
98: Scott Parker
Your 2010-11 FWA Footballer of the Year may end up playing in a team that finishes bottom of the league. But this is no fault of Parker’s, who has consistently put in performances of exemplary drive in the midfield. Think of him as a less technical, but substantially more experienced, Jack Wilshere.
97-96 (tie): Ganso/ Neymar
Are they destined to be the next Diego and Robinho, two good players who didn't have what it takes to be consistently great? Or are they going to smash our expectations and become the face of football? Stay tuned.
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95: Oscar Cardozo
The big Paraguayan has racked up 94 goals in 155 Benfica appearances, a hugely impressive record. He has the power/aerial ability/finishing that any good target man should have; plus, he is absolutely deadly from set pieces.
94: Lisandro Lopez
An immensely talented striker, Lopez has flown somewhat under the radar since his arrival in France. He hasn’t quite reached his 2009-10 Ligue 1 Player of the Year level this season, but he remains one of the better forwards in Europe.
93: Darijo Srna
The longtime captain of Shaktar gained some continental profile with the Ukrainian club’s impressive run to the Champions League quarterfinals. He is a great striker of the ball, be it from a cross or from a set piece, and a forceful leader, leaving absolutely everything out on the pitch every time he plays.
92: Thiago Silva
He really has been on form for Milan this year and has struck up a great understanding with Alessandro Nesta in the heard of Milan’s defense. Milan has been forever ageing and in need of a revamp, but Silva is one of the few cornerstones with whom they can build around.
91: Gianluigi Buffon
Buffon may not quite be the same force of nature between the sticks anymore, but his massive experience means that he still has a place at the highest level. All credit must be given to Wojciech Szczesny’s impressive breakthrough at Arsenal, but if Buffon is available this summer, the Gunners really shouldn’t have to think twice.
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90-89 (tie) – Frank Lampard/ Steven Gerrard
As both legends begin to slip from their pedestal due to age, we still can’t decide who has had the better career or who we would rather pick for England.
In his two seasons at Porto, he has scored 69 goals in 82 games. Falcao has been the spearhead of the Porto team that are heading towards a historically dominant unbeaten league season.
87: Rene Adler
A talented, relatively young stopper. Even better, if he can catch up to Manuel Neuer (who he was ahead of at one point), there’s a potential Oliver Kahn/Jens Lehman rivalry lurking between them for Germany’s number one spot.
86: Alexandre Pato
We’ve kept waiting for Pato to explode, to have that one breakthrough world-class season that makes us really sit up and take notice, only it hasn’t happened as yet. In truth, his injury record hasn’t helped, and he’s still only 21. But Milan would hope for a little more out of a player who cost €22 million before his 18th birthday.
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85: Diego Forlan
After his nirvana-like 2010-11 season and spectacular World Cup campaign, Forlan has been largely pedestrian up front this term. At 31, last season may well have been the peak of his career.
The greatest and most suitable nickname in all of sports right now. Along with Falcao, Hulk has been scoring goals for fun in Andre Villas Boas’ record breaking Porto side. His remarkably burly frame makes him seem shorter than he actually is (he comes in at a very respectable six feet), and the way he uses his squatness to his advantage is reminiscent of Rooney and Tevez. If Porto can keep their nucleus of player and manager together this summer, watch out for them in next season’s Champions League.
83: Fernando Torres
How long until Torres’ dismal form becomes more than just form and we’re forced to say “Hey, maybe Torres has just lost it?” He has shown small signs of life at Chelsea recently, but overall, it has been a spectacular fall from grace for the Spaniard.
82: Alexis Sanchez
The tricky winger has been long linked with a move to Old Trafford, and at times, he combines the best of United wide men Nani and Valencia in his style. But he still needs to become more cultured in his approach to the game, as he can be a bit careless with his decision making at times.
81: Juan Mata
One of only two La Liga players not from Barcelona and Real Madrid to make the list. Mata has helped carry Valencia to "best of the rest" status in La Liga, which is doubly impressive given the loss of David Villa and David Silva last summer. He does bear some similarity to the latter in his trickery and ability to unlock a defense, and a move to Real Madrid may be in the future if reports are to be believed.
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80: Marek Hamsik
Hamsik had played a crucial role in Napoli’s rise to second in the Serie A this season. He has drawn comparisons to Frank Lampard with his "right place at the right time" tendencies. Hamsik is one of those players who does nothing all game, then pops up with a goal or an assist at the crucial moment. Surely an asset to any team.
79: Michael Essien
Essien has finally put his injury troubles behind him after playing in only 25 league games combined in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. Unfortunately for him, he has not always been at his pulsating best during Chelsea’s disappointing season. But he is still probably the best natural athlete in the Premier League.
78: Daniele De Rossi
De Rossi has been on his way out of Roma in seemingly every transfer window for the last few years. He is an excellent hardman in the middle, but sometimes resorts to the dark arts to gain an advantage. His gratuitous elbows have bought him much scorn in his career so far.
77: Ricardo Carvalho
After finally completing his inevitable reunion with Jose Mourinho last summer, Carvalho has formed a bruising partnership with Pepe in the center of Real Madrid’s defense. He’s one of those savvy veterans that coaches love to have in their team.
76: Mats Hummels
Big things are now expected of this young center back after his brilliant season at Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund. Every so often, young players like him come along with a sense of composure that belittles their years.
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75-74 (tie): Aaron Lennon/ Theo Walcott
Lennon and Walcott used to be celebrated for their pace and derided for their end product, one of a crop of English players that emerged the mid-noughties who were thought of similarly (Lennon, Walcott, Shaun Wright Phillips, Wayne Routledge and Gabriel Agbonglahor). But credit to both of them. Lennon has improved his final ball just enough to provide a consistent menace down the right, while Walcott has started to focus mainly on what he does best—break the offside trap and finish. They’ll never be the most technical or savvy of players, but it’s not something that regularly holds them back anymore.
73: Julio Cesar
One of the many Inter players to fall so abruptly back to earth after the heights of last season. He has made some Gomez-like mistakes this season, as Inter have failed to convince on all fronts.
There may be no way back for Kaka at Real Madrid, if reports are to be believed. He could yet play an important role for an elite team, but sadly, I think that the Kaka of 2005-08 is gone forever. I’m hoping for a "Ronaldo in 2002" type of comeback, but I don’t see it happening. One of the quintessential "good guys" in football as well.
71: Javier Mascherano
A fairly limited player, but what he does (tackling and breaking up attacks), he does to near perfection. In hindsight, he was not the most essential signing for Barcelona, but as squad players go, you couldn’t ask for much better, especially given his ability to put in a shift in the back four.
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70: Arturo Vidal
The Chilean has been a revelation in the Bundesliga this season, winning rave reviews for his tough tackling and reading of the game. With central defenders high on the wanted list this summer for many teams, Leverkusen would do well to hold onto him.
This time last year, Maicon would have probably been about 30-35 spots higher. But he has been so disappointing this season that he’s now only the third best fullback option for the Brazilian national team (behind Dani Alves and Marcelo). He still has all the quality in the world, but needs to rediscover his mojo fast.
68: Xabi Alonso
Described by so many people as the "metronome" of the current Real Madrid side, players of Alonso’s ilk will always be appreciated. His passing and discipline are crucial to maintain the attacking efforts of the more swashbuckling style of some of his teammates.
67: David Luiz
The center back that everyone’s talking about in the Premier League. Luiz plays with an enthusiasm that is fun to watch, sort of like Carles Puyol in his earlier Barcelona days. And don’t worry, he will eventually learn to cut out the rash decisions and channel his endeavor in the right way.
66: John Terry
Like many of his Chelsea teammates, Terry has been feeling the hand of Father Time. He is still as strong as ever and has put in a few admirably resilient games this season, but age is close to robbing him of what little pace he has left.
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The Brazilian has become more of a menace offensively, regularly supplying great balls in from Real Madrid’s left flank. He’s also gained the Jose Mourinho boost defensively. His braces and goofy hair have made his one of the most recognizable mugs in football too.
64: Sergio Aguero
Don’t get me wrong; Aguero has been amazing for Athletico Madrid in his career. But it may just be time for him to move on at an elite club to test himself at the highest level and really fulfil his potential.
63: Phillip Lahm
Lahm has finally settled onto the right hand side of Bayern Munich’s defense in the last year or two, which causes all kinds of matchup problems for the opposition when he and Robben play together on the same flank. Probably the most consistent full back of the past seven years.
62: Sergio Busquetes
Another success story of La Masia, Busquestes keeps it simple and tidy, whether it’s his passing, tackling, positioning or sportsmanship. On second thought, scratch the last one.
61: Rio Ferdinand
Rio Ferdinand has been, well, Rio Ferdinand. Composure, class and he won’t top 20 Premier League appearances this term. On his day, he’s still one of the best around, but he’s slowly breaking down, and young Chris Smalling is breathing down his neck for a starting spot.
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60: Eden Hazard
A fixture in the transfer pages, Hazard has been setting Ligue 1 on fire for the past two seasons. The fact that people have compared him to Messi and Ronaldo really tells you all you need to know about what he brings to the table.
59: Pepe Reina
He’s an all around superb keeper, but is prone to the occasional catastrophic gaffe that will cost his team points. Nevertheless, still among the best in the world.
58: Edin Dzeko
He will eventually stop playing like a €32 million Peter Crouch and deliver the goods in the Premier League. If Tevez stays at City, there is the potential for a wholly unique and devastating partnership up front between the two, if Roberto Mancini has the balls to fully exploit it.
57: Thomas Muller
Muller has developed into an extremely efficient attacking midfielder. He will never win Goal of the Season, but he always makes the right pass and has enough discipline to excel within his role. And for such a young player, he has a remarkably cool head.
56: Rafael Van der Vaart
There are a lot of subtleties to differentiate between the various ways one can play "in the hole" —trequartisa, number 10, advanced playmaker, second striker, deep lying forward, etc—but Van der Vaart has played every one of these roles at some point in his debut season in England. He’s prone to off days it has to be said, but on the other hand, can be your potential match winner, as he showed for Spurs during the opening weeks of the season.
On a side note, here is another reason that Spurs need to plump for a quality front man this summer— the Bale/Lennon/Van der Vaart attacking midfield trident has the potential to be as devastating as the Robben/Duff/Lampard combo of the early 2004-05 Chelsea, except they’re missing that Drogba-type presence in the middle to finish everything off.
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55 David Silva
I must admit that I thought that the little playmaker would simply get pushed around in the Premier League. It understandably took him a little time to find his feet, but Silva’s passing and dribbling have added that necessary element of flair to Manchester City’s muscular midfield.
54: Vincent Kompany
He’s largely shaken off the fitness problems that have plagued him throughout his career to become Mr. Reliable for Manchester City at the back. Kompany has truly had a fantastic season and brings the best out of his defensive partner as well. He was once a holding midfielder in his Anderlecht days, and that shows in the composed way he deals with the ball on the deck. After City spent so much money on the likes of Joleon Lescott, Kolo Toure and Jermoe Boateng, the unassuming bargain from HSV has turned out to be their best defender.
Pepe is a relentless competitor and one that truly relishes the physical battle. He refuses to give anyone an inch and has even learned to channel his aggression better under Mourinho. But like most enforcers, he’s still liable to snap every now and then.
52: Branislav Ivanovic
Ivanovic has put together another solid season for Chelsea as they make an improbable dash for the title. He can get caught out by pace on occasion, but the barrel-chested Serbian still regularly locks down the right flank.
51: Patrice Evra
Patrice Evra has not had his finest season in a Manchester United jersey, but still remains, apart from Ashley Cole, the best left back in the Premier League. But his starring role in the train wreck that was France’s 2010 World Cup Campaign will probably follow him around forever. Evra, Anelka, Gallas, etc— what is it with France and their propensity to produce these curmudgeons of players?
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50: Luka Modric
Everyone at Spurs loves Luka, despite him rocking the long hair/short order cook hairband combo which would be fine if he didn’t have the mug of Napoleon Dynamite. He’s like one of those kids in high school who wears too short jeans that show his dad’s old argyle socks, but who you know will slaughter every exam and when he gets to college, will probably hobnob over drinks with his professors.
Since he joined Tottenham in 2008, he’s never been one to rack up impressive or even passable goal/assist numbers, but his importance to the team cannot be understated. He is the quintessential deep-lying playmaker, always on the second/third assist, and forever making the pass that sets the wheels in motion.
49: Luis Suarez
I’m really excited for the future of the Suarez/Carroll partnership at Liverpool. The nimble Suarez has an air of unpredictability and improvisation about him that would, on paper at least, dovetail well with Carroll’s traditional target man approach. Or at least that’s what Liverpool fans keep telling us to convince themselves that they didn’t just waste an all time great piece of transfer business (the Torres deal) on a 22-year-old with 11 Premier League goals to his name. For now, Suarez was the only good deal for the buyer in the Torres transfer domino sequence this past January.
48: Giuseppe Rossi
Rossi deserves more recognition, given that he is the one player keeping Villarreal from slipping into mid-table obscurity. Until this season, the Italian has always played slightly within himself, but he has exploded, crossing the 30 goal barrier for the Yellow Submarines.
47: Dimitar Berbatov
Is there a player that better encapsulates this erratic Premier League season than Dimitar Berbatov? He has been brilliant at times, yet still gives you the occasional lemon of a performance and now can’t get into the Manchester United team. Incredibly, the league’s top scorer is facing an uncertain future. Regardless, his 21 EPL goals have largely filled the goals gap created by Wayne Rooney’s fluctuations in much the same way that Rooney did last season for the departed Ronaldo. He is one of the more intelligent players in the league, even though he looks for all the world like he can’t be bothered. In truth, this is probably the persona becoming of a man who taught himself English by watching the Godfather trilogy. Berbatov has become more consistent, but it still would not be out of place to call him inconsistent, as strange as that sounds. He started the race well, but the baton has been passed to number 37 on this list.
46: Victor Valdes
Valdes still divides opinion across Spanish football. His impressive concentration and reflexes are vital for a Barcelona keeper, since they will be spectators for the majority of any given match. Also, his "sweeper keeper" routine helps to clear up any loose ends that breach Barcelona’s high defensive line. But his positioning is still very suspect and has almost cost his team dear this season.
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45: Petr Cech
It’s one of the worst kept secrets in football that Petr Cech hasn’t been the same since his head injuries in the 2006-07 season, but he may be finally approaching the level he had during the early Mourinho years at Chelsea. He’s not looking nearly as indecisive in the air as the last few seasons and is as good a shot stopper as ever.
44: Giorgio Chiellini
Chiellini has been quietly submitting world class performances for Juventus in the last few years. Defensively, he has everything in his locker, and he’s no slouch either. He will command a fee in excess of €20 million if he moves, but it will almost certainly be well worth it.
43: Didier Drogba
Age may be finally catching up with the big man, but he still has the capacity to physically dominate almost anyone that he pleases. He doesn’t quite have the same spring in his step. "Bad Drogba" has been showing up more frequently, but he remains is a handful for any defender. He still has a part to play at Chelsea.
42: Antonio Di Natale
Di Natale has somewhat gone under the radar outside of Italy, but the diminutive forward has bagged 55 goals and counting in the last two years for Udinese. You can play the 33-year-old right across the front line, and he’ll always impress with his footwork and finishing.
Special Mention: 41: Gareth Bale
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Perhaps unfairly, I had to single him out, because Bale has become massively overrated. Not by the fans, who generally have a good grasp on what he is at this point, but by the media, who wet themselves every time he does something above average on a football pitch. In fact, the overreaction to his emergence has been so profound that the idea of reviving the Great Britain Olympic Football team gained momentum largely due to Bale’s likely inclusion.
He was awarded the PFA Player of the Year despite only seven goals and one assist and a mediocre, injury prone second half of the campaign. He has consistently been mentioned with the prefix "much sought after", which adds needless fuel to an even more needless fire. The British media are pulling their trademark overhyping of a player who has yet to achieve much in the world game.
But you can’t blame Bale, who has kept his head down and tried to get on with his football. Though he may be criminally overrated, he is still a very good player.
His crossing is excellent, his finishing largely effective and he has that lethal combination of pace, power and stamina. When he runs down the wing, he rarely goes for much trickery outside of a simple cut; rather, he knows that he will out-pace and out-muscle his opponent to the byline. His first half of the season was mostly admirable, and he has all the tools to become a Premier League icon.
It’s just that the press have made him out to be Ryan Giggs circa 1997 on steroids, largely due to two eviscerations of Maicon that have somehow reached mythological status.
For Bale’s sake, we just need to take a step back and let him play.
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40: Nuri Sahin
Sahin has been the most impressive player in Dortmund’s team and probably in the entire Bundesliga season. He is part of a great young nucleus at Dortmund, and if they can keep it together this summer, they should make a splash in Europe next season.
39: Esteban Cambiasso
Cambiasso has been one of Serie A’s best midfielders for some time now. Comfortable in both halves of the field and always pops up with a goal when Inter need it most.
The world has now fully taken notice of Pedro after he has put in some consistently impressive performances over the last two years. Pep Guardiola calls him the best finisher at the club apart from Messi. A versatile and reliable piece for Barcelona and Spain.
37: Javier Hernandez
Hernandez is well on his way to becoming Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 2.0. With 19 goals in 42 games, he has been nothing short of a revelation and has saved his fair share of points for United this season. The timing of his runs and his finishing has re-ignited appreciation of the lost art of the poacher. His impact off the bench is such that it seems a crime somehow to place him in the starting lineup. Already a Stretford End cult hero, he has the chance to become an icon. Manchester United has potentially found a guaranteed 20 goals every season for the next eight years.
36: Karim Benzema
Jose Mourinho’s patented "criticism as motivation" method has worked again. Benzema has picked up more form as the season has progressed and currently stands at 23 goals in 44 games, a good return by any stretch. If Cristiano Ronaldo would stop shifting into gunslinger mode with such regularity, you could bet on that total being more than it is. Finally seems settled at Madrid.
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35: Samir Nasri
Yet another reason that this year’s PFA Player of the Year award was a farce—the three favorites (Gareth Bale, Rafael Van der Vaart and Samir Nasri) were all decidedly average in the second half of the season, a fact that the press realized about a month too late. In the first few months of the season, Nasri was unleashing havoc on Premier League defenses, finally adding a goal scoring touch to his twinkle-toed game. But he reverted to type soon after the New Year, more huff and puff than anything else. He has quality, but Arsenal fans must hope that his start to the season was more than an aberration.
34: Hugo Lloris
Before Manuel Neuer started dominating the headlines, Lloris was the goalkeeper on everyone’s lips. With no discernable weaknesses, he has always been consistent with the occasional blinder thrown in. He’s a goalkeeper any top club would love to have, but with his reputation as it is, any bidding war would open at €25-30 million. In other words, unless Manchester City or Real Madrid suddenly tires of Joe Hart and Iker Casillas, don’t expect to see him move anytime soon.
33: Javier Pastore
Pastore has slowed down a bit since his explosive start to the season, but still remains one of the best players in Serie A and a fixture on the transfer rumour mill. He is an extremely classy player, and his dribbling/vision makes him a nightmare for any defence.
32: Bastian Schweinsteiger
He’s been solid this season, maybe not quite as good as his spectacular 2010-11, but is still as vital as ever in the Bayern Munich and Germany midfield. His engine is what defines him, but he can also pass, tackle and virtually everything else that a world class complete midfielder will do. The one guy that Manchester United should pursue at all costs.
31: Gonzalo Higuain
This was probably the one pick that I agonized about the most with in deciding his positioning on the list. He has become something of a forgotten man in European circles due to his long injury layoff, but has still produced the goods in his limited time on the pitch. Like many great goalscorers, Higuain has the propensity to drift completely out of games, but he’s so accomplished as a striker that it is ultimately a moot point. I’m already regretting leaving him out of the following Top 30.
30: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
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One of my least favourite players in the world, you really can’t call Ibrahimovic anything more than a talented but high priced mercenary.
This has been your standard Ibra season; 19 goals and 12 assists in 33 games, bright in the league and banal in Europe.
His transfer to Barcelona has to go down as one of the most boneheaded decisions in the past 20 years, trading a proven big game player in Eto’o (not to mention €20 million) for someone who was anything but. He’s only effective when the entire offense is structured around him, which would be fine, except that his work rate sucks and he’s a serial choke artist and all.
His outrageous natural talent keeps him relatively high on this list, but we’ve sort of stumbled into a weird space with him. Ibra would only accept a move to teams that have enough in place so that his signing virtually guarantees a domestic title. But if you were one of those teams, would you take that virtual guarantee of a league title knowing that you cannot depend on him in Europe?
FYI – The Swedish patent office trademarked the name "Zlatan" for "most likely being perceived as Zlatan Ibrahimovic," so he now holds exclusive rights to the name.
29: Carles Puyol
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Puyol is a throwback to an age to where footballers never graced the front pages, thought a three bedroom flat was plenty, played hard every game and thought that any manner of long hair was cool. There really is nothing to second guess with him—what you see is what you get.
His defending is the complete antithesis to Barcelona’s tiki-taka football, but is every bit as vital to their success. For his entire career, he has been Barcelona and Spain’s fireman, forever chasing down and snuffing out danger whenever it appears. He plays with an intense determination and aggression while seldom resorting to the dark arts, which endears him to most fans.
However, at 33 years old, his body may be starting to break down. He has only appeared in 26 games in all competitions this season due to injury. But he bleeds Catalonia and deserves to be remembered as one of the best club captains in the history of football.
FYI – Puyol has embraced his image of rugged simplicity, saying “I’m the student who is not as clever, but revises for his exams and does OK in the end.”
28: Bakary Sagna
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Even for a two-time member of the PFA Team of the Year, Bakary Sagna is still underrated. As a full back, Sagna is almost without peer defensively. Tackling, speed, strength, aerial ability, positioning, he’s got it all in his locker, plus he’ll do it at full tilt for 90 minutes twice a week. And more importantly, in an Arsenal squad rife with question marks, he is one of the most consistent players in the league.
Now many have stated that his crossing is his main flaw. While there is definitely room for improvement in that area, allow me to offer this in his defense. Arsenal’s playing style has a tendency of bogging down in the offensive third, and as a result, the full backs are usually called upon to bail out the offense with an awkward, crowded cross. And when Sagna does get a good ball in, there’s usually only one or two undersized Arsenal players making a half-arsed attempt to get on the end of it.
Recently, Sagna came out and said that he was embarrassed at being a member of a team that had failed for not won anything in six years and faulted himself and the other players for it. With so many people trying to positively spin Arsenal’s trophy drought into something that it’s not, this kind of honesty and professional accountability is exactly what Arsenal need, especially since you know that he'll put his head down and work doubly hard to better himself and his team. If they could find a few more players like him, that trophy drought would surely have been a thing of the past.
FYI – His hair was the result of him winning a bet with his dad as a 17-year-old that he would score two goals in a friendly game against a senior team. Let me repeat, he knowingly chose that hairstyle as a prize for winning the bet.
27: Jack Wilshere
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Enough cannot be said about the rise of young Jack. His performance against Barcelona in the Champions League second round first leg brought him to Europe’s attention, but he has been putting in shifts like that all season.
His complete midfield play has helped cover the gaps that have been exposed by Alex Song’s increased tendency to go forward in the Arsenal midfield. Some people are comparing him to Paul Scholes, and there are similarities in the technique/passing/vision, but Scholes never ran this fearlessly from midfield, or possessed Wilshere’s tackling ability.
However, he is still some way from matching Scholes’ end product and eye for goal. His barnstorming runs from midfield have sometimes lacked a pinpoint pass or finish at the end. But lest we forget, the lad is only 19, and that is all certain to improve with time.
His form has been deservedly recognized with a place in the PFA Team of the Year. If Aaron Ramsey becomes anything close to the player he was threatening to be pre-Shawcross, Arsenal are set for the rest of the decade in that position.
FYI – Wilshere is one of the few 16 year olds ever to play in the Champions League
26: Yaya Toure
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Definitely my favorite Toure brother, Yaya is an absolute colossus of a player. The whole "good touch for a big man" thing is usually another way of calling a player soft, but Toure actually has a fair bit of technique in his locker while in no way compromising his principles (read: absolute strength).
It was an interesting choice by Roberto Mancini to play him as an attacking midfielder, and it has, for the most part, worked out. His powerful runs from a more advanced position have caused defenders no end of trouble. If his game is not clicking offensively, he makes up for it by fighting for every 50-50 ball and generally covering every blade of grass. He’s one of the few world class box to box midfielders in the game.
His £24 million fee from Barcelona looks well and truly justified. Just a fantastic all-around midfielder.
FYI – Toure shares a birthday (May 13) with fellow football man-mountains Romelu Lukaku and Oguchi Onyewu.
25: Iker Casillas
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When Iker Casillas went to first base with his girlfriend Sara Cabonero on live TV in the aftermath of the 2010 World Cup Final, he really was on top of the world. Here was a man who had just captained his country to World Cup glory, winning the Golden Glove award for best goalkeeper and in the process, joining the elite group of players to have won every major club and international trophy in their career for which they were eligible.
He really is a rarity, an established goalkeeper at a top club that came through their youth system. Usually, goalkeeper is one position that the top clubs never gamble on with kids, instead preferring to look to the transfer market for someone with a few seasons of first team experience under their belt.
Lest we forget, the gamble looked to have failed as Casillas melted down during the 2001-02 season and lost his place to backup Cesar Sanchez. But, in one of the more underrated football storybook moments, Sanchez was injured during the 2002 Champions League final, forcing Casillas into action. He put in an outstanding performance to maintain his team’s 2-1 advantage, and the rest, as they say, is history.
He is sometimes rash in his decision making and can be suspect with high balls, but his strength has always been in his reflexes and athleticism, sometimes evoking memories of Lev Yashin in that respect.
He is competing with Buffon and Van der Sar to be known as the best goalkeeper of this era and will doubtless go down as an all time great.
FYI – When he was a boy, he once forgot to post his father’s weekly football pool. His father had actually correctly predicted all 14 games that week and missed out on about £1 million.
24: Franck Ribery
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Ribery is one of the few elite players to improve his performances from last season, although this may have been inevitable given his horrible 2009-10 both on and off the pitch. And in all honesty, though he has been better this year, his 2010-11 season hasn’t really matched his best work.
He has suffered from the usual injury problems this season and has to accept his part in the debacle that was Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga campaign. What’s more, his future has, as usual, been the subject of intense speculation.
But Ribery at times this season has put in some outstanding performances, showing signs of the diminutive maverick who dazzled us with his dribbling and vision. He has racked up 20 assists in all competitions, though his goal return of eight is something of a disappointment. He is still a huge talent, but his fluctuations in form and his injury woes prevents him from being higher on the list.
FYI – At 20 years old, in 2003, he worked construction with his father while playing for French club Ales.
23: Angel Di Maria
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He has formed an impressive attacking trident with Ronaldo and Ozil, with the three of them being ever present for Mourinho’s Real Madrid this season. I actually picked him to flop this year. But Di Maria has proven himself to be an extremely resourceful player out wide, always able to beat his man, pick out a pass or get a good ball in from the flanks. And his aptitude with the outside of his boot is sometimes a sight to behold.
With Di Maria and Ozil, Real Madrid have two guys who are statistically among the best in the world at setting up goals.
His finishing and general goal threat could use some improving, which usually stands out when Madrid play 4-3-3 with him as a wide forward. But overall, it has been an impressive debut season for Di Maria.
He has not yet fully earned his fee (€25 million plus €11 million in add-ons), but if he carries on like this, then it’s only a matter of time.
22: Daniel Alves
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We can’t permanently put the Maicon/Alves debate to bed yet, but we’re getting closer to an overall winner. Alves has comfortably outshined his Inter counterpart this year to prove himself as the best right back in the world.
Barcelona paid about €33 million for him in 2008, but few could argue that it was not a solid investment at the very least. For all intents and purposes, he plays as a right-winger, regularly leading the charge for Barcelona down the right.
Now the common assumption is that his defensive contributions are his major weakness, but I actually think that it’s his crossing. He does a decent enough job of recovering his defensive position if he’s lost it, and though he’s no Lillian Thuram defensively, he usually gets a good enough challenge or interception in.
However, for the amount of times he finds himself wide open on the right for Barcelona, the quality and success rate of his crossing is disappointingly poor, many not reaching past the first man. And it doesn’t help that Barcelona’s front line is usually dwarfed by the opposition. He gets a high number of assists regardless, but it could still be so much more. That, if anything, is one area where Maicon definitely outshines him.
His gamesmanship has also been a less endearing quality of his, and he has really come under the microscope after the Classico mini-series this year. But overall, Alves provides a menace offensively better than most wingers, and you can’t really call him a sieve on defense. In short, he is a one man right flank.
FYI – He is the most expensive defender ever in football.
21: Manuel Neuer
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Like I mentioned, a lot of elite teams are on the hunt for a new keeper, and there happens to be a host of quality, relatively young keepers not currently signed to an elite club—Hugo Lloris, Igor Akinfeev, David De Gea, Maarten Stekelenburg, Rene Adler and Samir Handanovic spring to mind.
But of everyone on that list, Manuel Neuer has by far been the most common name in transfer rumors. He’s virtually on his way to Bayern Munich, but at one point looked a certainty to replace Van der Sar at Manchester United.
And for good reason, because as demonstrated in the Man U/Schalke semi final, Neuer is a keeper that takes some beating. He is also known in Germany for his excellent distribution of the ball from throws and kicks.
He’s had a dominant season in Europe and looks set to ascend into the modern-day goalkeeping pantheon as names like Van der Sar and Buffon recede into the background.
FYI - His idol is the one and only Jens Lehmann
20: Mario Gomez
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This season, Gomez has belatedly justified his massive €30 million transfer fee from Stuutgart after looking for all the world as an Andriy Shevchenko-level flop last year.
He had a largely negligible role in Bayern Munich’s hugely impressive domestic double/Champions League runner up act in 2009-10. After a forgettable World Cup last summer, where he failed to start or score in his four appearances, it seemed like Bayern were stuck with a veritable white elephant of a player. And in truth, had Ivicia Olic not been ruled out for the season through injury, those accusations would probably have continued to this day.
But Olic’s injury forced then coach Louis Van Gaal to start Gomez, and he has responded with the goalscoring form and predatory instincts that we all associated with him during his time at Stuutgart.
His hugely impressive goal return (35 in 43 games) has been the only constant in a stop-start season for last year’s Champions League runners up. In fact, much the same scenario is occurring at fellow 2009-10 CL finalists Inter Milan, with Samuel Eto’o’s resurgent goalscoring form the only tangible thing keeping Inter afloat.
But back to Gomez. He will never lay on many assists or execute something of any exceptional technique. But if you start a move, he will always be capable of finishing it. He is strong in the air as well as having the instincts and quick reactions that make him an absolute menace in the penalty box.
FYI – His form this season has led to the slightly awkward development of Miroslav Klose backing him up at club level, while he backs up Klose at international level.
19: Edwin Van Der Sar
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Edwin Van Der Sar has finally decided to call time on a truly spectacular career at the end of this season. His time at Man United, the best years of his career, makes you wonder how he ended up at Fulham once upon a time. No disrespect to the Londoners, but their name doesn’t exactly ring out with the likes of Manchester United, Juventus and Ajax (Van der Sar’s other clubs).
Regardless, Van Der Sar continues to be the Premier League’s safest pair of gloves. He has everything you could want in a keeper, added to his exemplary professionalism and universal respect by his peers.
My favorite Van der Sar stat is the 14 years between his UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year awards, achieved in 1995 and 2009. This, more than anything, typifies his longevity and ranking among the great goalkeepers of our era.
FYI – He is the oldest player to appear in the Champions League knock out stages, as well as the most capped Dutch player ever (130 caps).
18: Edinson Cavani
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Probably one of the most emphatic breakthrough seasons in recent times. After a surprisingly indifferent World Cup for Uruguay last summer, Cavani has been the best player in Serie A this season.
Cavani has bagged an impressive 33 goals in all competitions. He is the very definition of a complete forward. Offensively, his game has little weakness. Tall, fast, strong and skillful, he can start and finish plays. In short, Cavani is the ideal frontman for the current tactical era of the lone striker.
The only thing preventing him from being higher on this list is that this has been his only really outstanding season at the top level. Most likely, he’s here to stay, but he probably needs another season like this to cement his class and prove that this year wasn’t an anomaly.
FYI – He scored on his debut for Napoli, Palermo and the Uruguayan national team.
17: Ashley Cole
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The best (and most detested) left back in world football. When all around him have been playing in fits and starts this term, Cole has been a model of stability (at least on the pitch) at Chelsea for this and many a season.
While many of the game’s fullbacks are usually only good in one half of the field, Cole’s proficiency in both his offensive and defensive duties is what sets him apart. He’s one of those guys that as a manager, you never have to worry about, because you know that his performances will always be of a high standard.
We can now definitively say that Arsenal got badly ripped off in the Cole/Gallas swap, which didn’t seem so at the time. Whatever you think about his character, Cole has been nothing short of quality in the last few seasons.
FYI – He is a distant cousin of singer Mariah Carey
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I’ve mentioned the calamity that was the 2010/11 PFA Player of the Year award enough times, but the biggest travesty about the whole thing is that Nani wasn’t even nominated despite being the most effective player in the league this season.
Perhaps this was a comeuppance for another Man Utd player, Ryan Giggs, winning the honor in 2009 largely as a lifetime achievement award. This slight has many Man United fans crying foul, especially after the perceived injustices of Wayne Rooney’s two match ban for swearing and Alex Ferguson’s five match touchline ban for criticizing the officials.
Forget what the awards say; Nani has become the player that everyone has always wanted him to be. It would be doing him a disservice to suggest he is Cristiano Ronaldo’s heir, given that he is a fantastic player in his own right, even though you get the feeling that most opposition defenders resist the urge to punch him in the face.
He has now added a consistent end product to his game, and his directness and ambidexterity have enabled him to lead the league in combined goals and assists (27). He can beat you to the byline or he can cut inside and finish into the corner.
His name still doesn’t quite ring out with the modern-day elites, but another season like the one he’s just had, and you can bet that it will.
FYI – As a teenager, he used to train on alternate days with Benfica and Sporting Lisbon
15: Wesley Sneijder
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From September 2009 to July 2010, Sneijder gave us one of the greatest stretches ever submitted by a player in football history in terms of success and importance to his team. For club and country, last season’s Treble win with Inter and World Cup runners up medal with Holland represented the absolute peak of his career and ability as a footballer, and he was cruelly robbed of a FIFA Ballon d’Or for his achievements.
Sneijder is not a consistently spectacular player in the aesthetic sense, nor does he put up impressive statistical contributions. But he is the consummate team player, always at the heart of the collective effort, be it through his exemplary passing and vision or his work rate off the ball. And what’s more, he has a great sense of the moment, evidenced by his brilliant performances in so many big games last year.
But I had to penalize him a few spots given that he has not come close to sustaining the heights of last season. He has become frustratingly inconsistent for many Inter fans, and has generally not looked the same.
Nevertheless, I’m certain that he has the wherewithal to return close to the level that blew us away in 2010.
FYI – When Sneijder was a Real Madrid player in 2008, he actually prevented his younger brother Rodney from joining the club due to his desire for the player to prove himself at Ajax.
14: Cesc Fabregas
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By his own standards, this has been a poor Fabregas season. His numbers (nine goals and 17 assists in all competitions) are about the same as his normal level of production, but a recurrent hamstring problem has pockmarked his season. He’s been guilty of some dreadful errors, too—his ill-advised backheel against Barcelona and his handball in the box against Spurs at the Emirates spring to mind.
But there’s still practically no one better at the killer through ball. When he plays in a deeper position in the midfield, there’s virtually no stopping him. It’s just that Jack Wilshere’s emergence has forced him into a more advanced role this season where he has not been at his best. If he stays at Arsenal, Wenger will need to sort that balance issue out between Wilshere and Fabregas (and Aaron Ramsey), but ultimately, it’s a good problem to have.
But with Fabregas, that’s always a big "if." Thierry Henry (summer 2006), Patrick Vieira (summer 2005), even Emmanuel Adebayor (summer 2008), they all seemed destined to leave Arsenal at those respective times. For one reason or the other, they all stayed on for another year. What followed for each was an injury prone, second rate season which was ended by them leaving for a second rate price. The pattern is on the verge of repeating itself after Fabregas’s own injury prone, second rate season if he goes to Barcelona this summer.
This is not to exonerate any of the aforementioned players from blame, but the common denominator in each case is that Arsenal ultimately failed to build on the previous season by strengthening the team around their superstar. This summer, Arsenal should really take heed from their past mistakes if they want to keep Fabregas at the Emirates.
FYI – Fabregas has already reached 300 appearances for Arsenal and 58 caps for Spain at only 23 years of age. And that’s despite averaging only 35 club appearances in all competitions for the last three seasons due to injury.
13: Wayne Rooney
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Wanye Rooney may not win any individual awards this term, but at least he can take home the unofficial title of Most Discussed Premier League player. Judging by everything that has happened, anything was in play for him in the title run in. He’s responded by picking up form at just the right time to lead Manchester United’s chase for an EPL/Champions League double.
His statistical record of 10 goals and 11 assists in 25 league games this season is in truth a decent return, though not up to the high standards of last season. After nearly a decade of Rooney in our lives, I don’t know what’s stranger—that he still looks the same or that he’s only finally settling into a definite position at Manchester United by striking up a promising partnership with Javier Hernandez. But credit to him. Though he prefers playing through the centre, he has always taken his assignments out wide, for the most part, with good grace.
He is one of the very few players ever to challenge Sir Alex Ferguson’s authority and live to tell the tale. In a sense, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory—he won a hefty new contract but forever damaged his reputation among some of the Manchester United faithful. Nevertheless, he will recover from this season— he has too much quality not to. And I’m almost certain that the recovery will occur in the red of United.
FYI – He has a tattoo that says "Just Enough Education to Perform," after an album by the Stereophonics.
12: David Villa
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When Barcelona signed Villa last summer, the only question about the transfer was “What took you so long?”
Villa has been racking up goals for his entire career, averaging better than a goal every other game. He has all the attributes of a great striker—his movement, technique and finishing ability have all been mastered to a level almost unrivalled in the last ten years.
In fact, it was a good thing that Barcelona sealed the transfer before last summer’s World Cup, because the tournament was the absolute peak of his career and would have added millions to his sale value. His five goals at the finals were all of real quality, and doubly important for Spain, since regular partner Fernando Torres had fallen completely off the face of the earth.
He has admittedly not been at his absolute best at Barcelona, going through an 11 game goal drought during March and April. But his occasional struggles can be largely attributed to his positioning out on the wide-left as a faux inside forward, rather than his preferred position through the middle. And he has by no means been terrible, still boasting an impressive record of 22 goals and nine assists in all competitions.
In short, he is still one of the best footballers in the world at present, and with 46 goals in only 72 international caps, (as well as topping the scoring charts in Spain’s victorious Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 campaigns), he will surely be remembered as one of the best international players ever.
FYI – Villa almost gave up football when he suffered a serious injury to his femur as a child, but recovered after being encouraged to work on his weaker left foot, making him essentially ambidextrous.
11-10 (Tie): Arjen Robben/ Robin Van Persie
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Robben is the winger to end all wingers, with his ability to run with and manipulate the ball at breakneck speed. Defenders must pick their poison when facing him—show him towards the touchline and he will beat you to the byline and put in a superb cross, or show him inside and he will cut onto the other foot and curl the ball into the far corner. The very epitome of directness.
Van Persie has developed into a forward unlike any we’ve ever seen, Dennis Bergkamp with a ruthless streak. His movement and finishing are both top class, his link up play is sometimes worthy of the Iceman himself and every now and then, he executes something of such otherworldly skill or athleticism that it leaves you scratching your head. The very epitome of technique.
But whatever the virtues of both Dutchmen, it usually gets trumped by their atrocious injury record. It’s always a season-defining moment when either player hits the deck, because their injuries are typically a matter of months rather than weeks.
To make it even more frustrating for fans of Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Holland or football in general, these two never need any time to resettle after their returns from injury—they’re usually good to go at their peak level almost instantly. Case in point: Van Persie this season (15 goals and six assists in 21 out of a possible 34 league games) and Robben this season (10 goals and four assists in 12 out of a possible 32 league games).
It just makes you wonder what might have been if not for their dodgy ligaments. Would we be talking about them in near the same breath as Messi or Ronaldo? With both players now into their late 20’s, that ship may have sailed.
FYI - Both Dutchmen have played 153 league games each in the past seven years, an average of just under 22 games per league season.
9: Gerard Pique
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Hands up those who ever thought that Pique would be this successful after his return to Barcelona in 2008?
While Sergio Busquetes and Pedro have had their own success stories at Barcelona since then, Pique’s emergence as a world class player trumps them both.
Pique brings so much to the table. His aerial ability, tackling and reading of the game rival the very best center backs in football today, while his composure and technique probably tops the list.
The comparisons to Franz Beckenbauer are not wholly out of place, given his elegance and complete ease with advancing with the ball from defence that brings back memories of Der Kaiser himself.
He has been an ever present in Barcelona’s recent success, barely putting a foot wrong in the last three years. With longtime Barcelona skipper Carles Puyol entering his career descent, Pique must be a top candidate for the armband in the future.
Pique is, to put it simply, the most complete center back in world football today, and for many a season.
FYI – One of only four players to win back to back Champions League titles with different clubs.
8: Mesut Ozil
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In the past three seasons, Ozil has gone from strength to strength, establishing himself as one of the world’s best playmakers.
He has also become known as one of the most unselfish players around, averaging just over 20 assists per season for the last three years. While hailing him as the next Zidane may be something of an exaggeration by the Madrid-based press, Ozil has shown some similarities in his ball control, dribbling and vision.
But on the other hand, in a handful of games this season, his impact has been almost nonexistent. And therein lies his main weakness. If his offensive game is not clicking, he does not have the aptitude or the physique to make up for it by working hard off the ball.
Regardless, he’s reached the elite level of football and looks set to stay there for some time.
FYI – In 2010, Ozil, who is of Turkish descent, received a Bambi award for being a prime example of integration into German society.
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Xavi has made the leap to become universally legendary over the past few seasons. His ascendance to the pantheon started with his brilliance in Euro 2008, and he has continued ever since as the fulcrum of the wildly successful Guardiola-era in Barcelona.
While this has not been a vintage Xavi season, he’s so good that he still tops most of the members of this list with relative ease. He’s still the best playmaker in the game, regularly topping 100 completed passes per game (an absolutely incredible feat given how tight opponents typically try to play Barcelona). His absolute mastery of what he does is a big reason that Barcelona hasn’t had under 50 percent possession in a game since something like 1952.
Though there have been subtle hints of a decline (like his injuries earlier in the year), there is still no reason for a consummate pro like Xavi to suddenly burn out. He is in the perfect situation—playing for a coach and a club that implements a system tailor made to his ability, with teammates that fully buy into this system and share his professional ethos and surrounded by a fanbase and a culture that he grew up with.
Really, if he can carry on at a relatively high level for the next four years and bag a few more trophies for club and country, we might be talking top 15-20 all time for him.
FYI – He is Barcelona’s all time appearance leader in all competitions.
6: Carlos Tevez
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There’s a chance that Tevez will leave Manchester City at the end of the season, and if that happens, it will be his fifth club in the last seven years. That, if anything, is what has prevented Tevez’s career from being more than it is.
It’s just strange that a player so unequivocally defined by his fight and determination on the pitch can be so disillusioned off it. A lot of this is to blame on his confidant/ agent/ life coach/ former owner Kia Joorabchian, who has left his fingerprints on a veritable catalogue of unsavory front-office incidents and has had Tevez virtually on a leash for the better part of a decade.
On the surface at least, Tevez’s declarations of unrest have not been based on money, more on his sense of isolation as a Premier League superstar. Is he ultimately just a simple man at heart? Maybe so, but many fans would say tough luck, that it’s part of the package and the privilege of being a professional footballer.
Moreover, the sense of instability surrounding him means that you cannot plan ahead with him in mind for more than two or three years. Which is a shame, because he is a truly fantastic player. He uses his body better than any forward in the world and his technique and work rate means that he can play on his own up front, or as a support striker. He has scored 51 goals in his Manchester City career so far, which, impressive a stat as it is, also ignores all the hard work he does off the ball.
A warrior on the field, if only he could feel loved off it.
FYI – Tevez has refused the surgical removal of the scars on his face that he received from third degree burns as a child, claiming that they are part of who he is.
5: Samuel Eto’o
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Another universal legend, I wouldn’t call him anything less than the greatest African player of all time. His performances for Inter this season have moved him onto another level historically. Any doubts that his reputation was largely a by-product of the plethora of goalscoring chances afforded to him in the Barcelona system have now been emphatically shut down.
With so many of Inter’s treble winning team struggling for fitness or form or both, Eto’o has basically carried Inter all by himself, with 33 goals so far. Never mind the Serie A title; Inter probably would be struggling to qualify for the Europa League were it not for Eto’o’s brilliance.
They never appreciated him at Barcelona, which led to the horrendous Ibrahimovic/Eto’o swap that single handedly swung the 2010 Champions League title in Inter’s favor. Don’t believe me? Think back to the 2009-10 Barca/Inter semi-final, and look at the contrast between Eto’o and Ibrahimovic. Eto’o was a big part of Inter’s counter attacking strategy in the first leg and ran his socks off to protect their advantage in the second leg. Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic was substituted in both games around the hour mark after two lethargic, ineffective performances.
He’s proven himself as one of the great big game players throughout his career, scoring goals in the 2006 and 2009 Champions League finals as well as putting on an absolute clinic in Inter’s second-round, second-leg classic this year against Bayern Munich. Over the last seven years or so, if you had to pick an all star team from Europe, Eto’o would be in the starting eleven.
FYI – He may not have been fully appreciated by the brass at Barcelona, but his teammates always valued his contributions. Andres Iniesta said as much shortly after the Ibra deal:
"History shows that this club has had very few strikers like him. I don’t know if there has ever been anyone like him before. What I do know is that Barcelona should erect a statue for him - Samuel was a fundamental player here in recent years and key to all of the titles that the team won."
4: Andres Iniesta
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The dynamic to Xavi’s static, we still really haven’t pinpointed Iniesta’s position in Barcelona’s team. He is, on paper, a central midfielder but shifts from that position with regularity. He’ll pop up on the flanks or behind the forwards or will sit deep and dictate play. In fact, he’ll probably fulfill all these roles in any given match.
But you know what you’re getting regardless of where he appears—first class vision, impeccable technique, nimble feet and a staunch work rate both on and off the ball. He can happily sit back and probe with Xavi all day long or run directly at defenders to find an opening.
He really is the complete midfielder, a teammate’s and manager’s delight. He has, until recently, even managed to stay largely clear of the injury woes that have hampered him in the past.
Even better, Iniesta has been probably the most memorably clutch player in recent years. His extra time winner in the World Cup Final is still fresh in the memory, as is his injury time strike against Chelsea in the 2009 Champions League semifinal and his subsequent masterclass in the final. And that’s just off the top of my head; in most of the big games that Barcelona has played in the last few years, Iniesta’s performances have usually been of a high standard.
The best part about him is that he is disarmingly humble and shuns all of the temptations offered by the life of a professional footballer. Credit must really go to the club culture at Barcelona and their academy, La Masia, for inhibiting their players with the right attitude from a young age.
Now they’ve got a team entering its prime with players who would die for each other on and probably off the pitch. It’s just too bad that some of their fans (mostly the bandwagoners) have become insufferable because of it.
FYI – Pep Guardiola once told Xavi “You will retire me but Iniesta will retire us both,” after a young Iniesta captained the Barcelona Under-15’s to victory in a youth tournament.
3: Nemanja Vidic
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Many have suggested that Manchester United’s relative dominance since the 2006-07 season is a direct result of Cristiano Ronaldo’s emergence as a world class player in that same period. While you can't discount Ronaldo's brilliant contributions, the 2010-11 Ronaldo-less United are closing in on the Premier League title and the Champions League final.
The common denominator then, in all of their recent success, has to be Nemanja Vidic. Easily one of the best defenders of this century, Vidic has had another fantastic year as Manchester United make another typically strong finish to the season.
Vidic is the quintessential hardman who plays the game with a physical and mental toughness that is already the stuff of legend at Old Trafford. But this is far from some boorish oaf defined by his aggression; Vidic has mastered the technical aspects of defending as well. He plays the type of
"no quarter given, none asked" defense that will demoralize even the most determined of strikers.
What’s more, he always makes his defensive partner at Man United better by osmosis—just ask Rio Ferdinand. And though he is not the fastest, the struggles with quick strikers that have been touted as his major weakness are largely overblown by one or two admittedly atrocious performance against Fernando Torres a few years back, which incidentally was probably the last time that Torres was relevant for something positive.
Far from "The Ronaldo Years," Manchester United since 2006 should be known as "The Vidic Era." Rarely has it been this much fun to watch someone defend.
FYI – Spartak Moscow (Vidic’s former club) had already agreed to sell the player to Fiorentina in 2006, but the Italian club was over their non-EU quota so Man United pounced.
2: Cristiano Ronaldo
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With so many superstars floundering this season, it has been a pleasure to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi stand out emphatically from the pack and rise to a historically great level. When Ronaldo signed for Real Madrid, everything was in place for a legendary game of one-upmanship between them, with their contrasting personas (Ronaldo the arrogant celebrity and Messi the down to earth academy graduate) and their position on opposite sides of the most high profile club rivalry in football.
Their individual rivalry hasn’t reached the level that it had promised (largely because each player has dismissed its existence), but we still hold out hope that these two will eventually inspire each other to greater historical heights. Moreover, over the last three years, Ronaldo has taken something of a backseat to Messi.
But coming in at a close second to Messi is nothing to scoff at, and it could be argued that offensively, Ronaldo is the more complete player. He has virtually the same pace and dribbling/finishing ability of Messi, while being stronger in the air, at set pieces and also being an absolute physical specimen. His 74 Real Madrid goals in 84 matches have been scored in almost every way that goals could conceivably be scored.
However, he can’t match Messi’s work rate and commitment to teamwork. Ronaldo is becoming known as something of a lone wolf, and some of his teammates have reportedly grown tired of his domination of the ball and lack of effort on defense, not to mention his status as a veritable celebrity. Despite this, he has always been praised by his coaches for his staunch professionalism and dedication to improving his game.
At this point, you know what you sign up for with Ronaldo. His faults are a very small price to pay to have a player that can win a match all by himself.
FYI – Ronaldo became a father in July 2010
1: Lionel Messi
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As criminal as it sounds, we have all become desensitized to Messi's brilliance at this point. Throughout his career, he has never fallen victim to our expectations; instead, he has consistently raised them. And you know what’s best? He’s done it all with the most exemplary display of humbleness and character that you could ever ask from an elite player.
Really, everything has already been said about Messi, which is why I'm only going to make one observation. In the Guardiola era, we have witnessed two versions of Messi: the current version (February 2010-present) and the previous version (March 2008-Ferurary 2010).
The 2008-10 version was my favorite to watch, when he largely operated from the wide right (instead of in the hole as he does now), which allowed him to attack the opposition from deeper positions. This was the most spectacular version of Messi, banging in goals after waltzing past multiple defenders and regularly leaving us speechless.
Now? We’re still speechless, but more as a result of his ridiculous goal/assist numbers than of his individual moments of brilliance. That’s not to say that he’s any less of a player, but the same thing happened to Cristiano Ronaldo between 2006 and 2008—there was a panache to his game that went into something of a remission as he became a greater goalscorer.
The difference was that the pre-2006 Ronaldo needed that to happen, because he was a high octane dribbler without a consistent end product (not to mention his transformation into a physical marvel in that period). The 2008-10 version of Messi already had that end product in his locker, but the current version is increasingly defined by it, at the expense of a certain level of duende that made him so special in the first place.
But you know what? Barcelona are currently breaking records for fun. In Messi, they have a player who can do anything offensively and always puts in a shift defensively, a phenomenal teammate, a player who will end up with historic goal/assist numbers and a chance to be remembered as the G.O.A.T. And as evidenced by his second goal in the Champions League semi final first leg, he still has the old Messi in him. The transformation was ultimately for the best, because he is a better player now than at any point in his career.
Lionel Messi is the greatest player on the planet today, and as a fan of football, I couldn’t be happier.
FYI – If Messi carries on at this goalscoring pace, he has a chance of reaching 236 Barcelona goals by the end of next season, making him their all time leading scorer at 24 years of age.