50 Best Soccer Players of 2011

Michael Cummings@MikeCummings37World Football Lead WriterDecember 7, 2011

50 Best Soccer Players of 2011

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    Who were the 50 best soccer players of 2011? It's a question we'll probably never answer definitively.

    There are so many lists and rankings out there, each with their own criteria, their own biases and their own shortcomings.

    This is a list of the 50 best soccer players of 2011, and we're confident it has its own biases and shortcomings. But we're also confident it's a list of 50 outstanding players who had an unmistakable impact on the game during the past year.

    There are many ways to measure greatness—from goals to passes completed to the old-fashioned eyeball test—and we used all of them. But sometimes, we just had to go with our gut.

    We hope you enjoy the list. We know you'll have your say.

50. Neven Subotic

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    Position: Defender

    Club: Borussia Dortmund

    Country: Serbia

    Subotic first attracted the attention of the football world when he played for Mainz in the German second tier, where he broke into the starting lineup as a teenager. By 2008, he had moved to Borussia Dortmund, where the Serb has made a name for himself as one of the Bundesliga's top defenders.

    Equally strong in the tackle and in the air, Subotic's fearless style recently resulted in a harrowing injury. But before the injury, Subotic played a prominent role in Dortmund's run to the 2010-11 Bundesliga title.

    A former resident of Salt Lake City, Utah, the 22-year-old Subotic (who turns 23 on Dec. 10) was eligible to play for the United States. He played college soccer at the University of South Florida and represented the US at the U-17 and U-20 levels.

    Subotic switched to Serbia at the full international level in 2009 and has won 28 caps, scoring once.

49. Jack Wilshere

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Arsenal

    Country: England

    Wilshere has been injured for all of the current season, but his increasingly mature performances last term earned him a spot in England's 2010-11 PFA Team of the Year. He was also named PFA Young Player of the Year ahead of Gareth Bale and Javier Hernandez.

    The diminutive (5'7") midfielder has been impressing since the 2008 Emirates Cup, when as a 16-year-old, he impressed against Real Madrid. More recently, he's been tipped by England manager Fabio Capello as the future England captain.

    Wilshere, who turns 20 on New Year's Day, still has some way to go to live up to all the hype, but his 2010-11 season was an excellent start.

48. Juan Mata

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Chelsea

    Country: Spain

    Already a World Cup and European Under-21 champion, Juan Mata has been one of the few bright spots this season in an uncertain time for Chelsea.

    The Spanish forward transferred to London in the summer from Valencia, where he registered eight goals in 13 assists during the 2010-11 season. His creativity has been just as evident with Chelsea, where he's already tallied seven assists.

    With his superior ball skills and vision, Mata can beat defenders to set up chances for himself or others. While he's still making his way into the Spain squad, it won't be long before Mata is a renowned international as well.

47. Lucas Ramon Barrios

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Borussia Dortmund

    Country: Bolivia

    Another member of Borussia Dortmund's Bundesliga-winning squad, Lucas Barrios dazzled opponents and spectators with important goals throughout the title run.

    Some of his best goals came in the most important matches. On Feb. 26, he scored the opener in a showdown with Bayern. Dortmund won, 3-1.

    On April 2, he scored twice and added an assist as Dortmund beat Hannover, 4-1. And when Dortmund clinched the title with a win over Nuremberg on April 30, Barrios scored the winner.

    This season has been more difficult, as Barrios has dealt with injuries for much of the season. A return to form might mean more success for Dortmund.

46. Alexis Sanchez

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Barcelona

    Country: Chile

    Like Wilshere and Barrios, Alexis Sanchez would rank much higher if not for extended injury issues this season.

    After a strong performance at last year's World Cup with Chile, Sanchez helped Udinese qualify for the Champions League through their 2010-11 Serie A finish.

    Barcelona shelled out €37.5 million for him this past summer, and after a long injury layoff, Sanchez has returned to form with three goals in his last two La Liga appearances.

    With his combination of speed, skills, finishing and dribbling, Sanchez, 22, could prove to be Barcelona's next big star. Only time will tell.

45. Thomas Vermaelen

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    To understand the value of Thomas Vermaelen, one must look only as far as the fortunes of Arsenal, his club.

    Vermaelen went down with an injury in August, and the first game after that was Arsenal's 8-2 defeat at Manchester United. His return in October coincided with the team's return to form.

    Really, though, it's no coincidence. At just 5'11", Vermaelen is small for a central defender. But he plays like a man three or four inches taller. His aerial presence is outstanding, as are his awareness, vision, distribution and marking. And despite his size, he has immense strength.

    Since coming to Arsenal in 2009, Vermaelen has established himself as one of the Premiership's finest defenders. His continued success is surely a key to Arsenal's own success.

44. Raul

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Schalke 04

    Country: Spain

    It all looked over for Raul in 2010.

    After dealing with prolonged injuries and falling to third or fourth-choice striker at Real Madrid, Raul left his club of the last 16 years for Schalke 04 and the Bundesliga.

    Once he got there, Raul showed the form that made him Real Madrid's all-time leading goalscorer. He finished the season with 19 goals in all competitions, including a whopping 12 in Europe as Schalke advanced all the way to the Champions League semifinals.

    It's been more of the same this season for the 34-year-old, who has already scored seven times in the Bundesliga and 10 times in all competitions.

43. Mats Hummels

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    Position: Defender

    Club: Borussia Dortmund

    Country: Germany

    Yet another member of Borussia Dortmund's Bundesliga-winning side, Mats Hummels is proving his value at both the club and international level.

    One of the best defenders in the Bundesliga, Hummels has also broken into the German national team with 12 appearances.

    Hummels' defensive value is easy to spot: Dortmund conceded just 22 goals in 34 league matches last season. He reads the game like a veteran, and his movement and marking are among the best in Europe.

    But the other part of Hummels' value is offensive. As a deep-lying playmaker, Hummels is often the man who starts Dortmund's attacks.

    With Dortmund, almost everything begins with Hummels.

42. Victor Valdés

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    Position: Goalkeeper

    Club: Barcelona

    Country: Spain

    Sort of like world soccer's version of Ringo Starr, Victor Valdés is chronically underrated because of the immense talents surrounding him.

    Make no mistake, though: Valdés is a top-class goalkeeper capable of holding his own with the giants on the Barca roster. He kept 17 clean sheets in La Liga last season and already has a staggering 11 this term.

    While the others get the credit they deserve as geniuses, Valdés sits back and does his thing quietly—and expertly.

41. Xabi Alonso

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Real Madrid

    Country: Spain

    Xabi Alonso started every match of Spain's World Cup title run. Over the past year, he has proven just as reliable and vital to Real Madrid.

    Alonso forms the backbone of Real's side with fellow central midfielder Sami Khedira. While Khedira is a solid player, we're giving Alonso the nod because of his passing, spacing and creativity out of the deep role.

    He might be slow, but Alonso is among the best passers in the game.

40. Cesc Fabregas

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Barcelona

    Country: Spain

    Arsenal fans hate him, but they'll also never forget him.

    Cesc served as Arsenal's main creative force again last season before finally moving to Barcelona, his boyhood club. There, he's seen as Xavi's heir.

    It's an obvious choice: Cesc has the slick passing, awareness, vision, creativity and skill to follow in Xavi's footsteps. The main issues for him right now, though, are injury-related.

    Injuries aside, he's already scored seven times in La Liga this season. More importantly, he's shown that he fits right in alongside his boyhood buddies.

39. Nuri Sahin

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Real Madrid

    Country: Turkey

    Nuri Sahin ran the show from midfield as Borussia Dortmund swept to the Bundesliga title last season. He outplayed more experienced and famous opponents like Bastian Schweinsteiger head-to-head, prompting predictions that he would join Europe's elite class of midfielders in the coming seasons.

    Sahin could yet prove the predictions true, but he'll have to get in a game at Real Madrid first. After transferring from Dortmund to Madrid over the summer, the Turkish midfielder has made only one appearance for the Spanish giants.

    Still, Sahin has the skills to break through. His through passes are among the best in Europe, his superior vision makes him an outstanding director of the midfield and he's an excellent free-kick taker.

    If only he could get a chance to show all that.

38. Vincent Kompany

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    Position: Defender

    Club: Manchester City

    Country: Belgium

    Vincent Kompany came to Manchester City in 2008, right around the same time as the money.

    His performances kept him in the side, and by 2011, he had established himself among the finest defenders in England. His strong performances were rewarded with a spot in the PFA Team of the Year.

    At 6'3", Kompany cuts an imposing figure, but it's his versatility—he can also play defensive midfielder—that's proven so valuable to Manchester City.

37. Phillipp Lahm

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    Position: Defender

    Club: Bayern Munich

    Country: Germany

    The captain of both Bayern Munich and Germany, Phillipp Lahm had another solid year in 2011. Considered among the best fullbacks in the world, Lahm guided Bayern through a somewhat down season.

    But Lahm and Germany both thrived in Euro 2012 qualifying, with the former providing two assists. Germany finished with a 100 percent record and now heads into Euro 2012 as favorites to knock off Spain.

36. Giuseppe Rossi

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Villarreal

    Country: Italy

    Giuseppe Rossi often gets overlooked because of who he plays for. But the Villarreal star is easily one of Europe's top young forwards.

    Born in New Jersey, Rossi had the chance to represent the United States at the international level. He chose Italy, though, and American fans are still licking their wounds. His haul of 18 La Liga goals in 2010-11 was impressive, but his 32 goals and 10 assists in all competitions were astounding.

    Rossi was particularly potent in Europe, where he scored 11 times as Villarreal advanced to the semifinals of the Europa League.

35. Mario Götze

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    Position: Midfielder/forward

    Club: Borussia Dortmund

    Country: Germany

    Mario Götze made a name for himself as one of the hottest names in world football in 2011. Hailed as one of the best prospects in German history, Götze dazzled fans with his pace, passing and finishing as Dortmund won the Bundesliga title.

    He finished the 2010-11 season with eight goals and 12 assists in all competitions, earning him the attention of top clubs from around Europe.

    Götze made his international breakthrough in late 2010 and scored his first international goal, quite a beauty, in August 2011—against Brazil, no less. At 19 years and 68 days, he tied for the youngest goal scorer in full German international history.

    Despite battling injuries, Götze has picked up this season where he left off last term, already scoring six goals and grabbing seven assists in all competitions.

    Could Götze be the next truly big German superstar?

34. Carlos Tevez

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Manchester City

    Country: Argentina

    Sure, he's crazy, but we already knew that before he got into this whole mess.

    Before he was sulking his way around Manchester, though, Tevez was helped lead City to its first piece of major silverware—the 2011 FA Cup—in decades.

    When Tevez was on in 2011, so were Manchester City. The Argentine finished with 20 league goals and three more in domestic cup competition. He captained City in the FA Cup final, and he led the Blues to third place—and a Champions League spot—in the Premier League.

    Had he only kept his thoughts to himself, he'd be doing the same things now for City. Instead, he's sitting at home, waiting to be transferred.

    That's a shame. Tevez was one of the best in the world in 2011.

33. Wesley Sneijder

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Inter Milan

    Country: Netherlands

    After an excellent World Cup campaign in which his Netherlands team reached the final, Wesley Sneijder went back to dominating European club defenses in 2011.

    Never one to score too many goals, Sneijder nonetheless provides value with width and inspiration. His speed, touch and vision give opposing defenses problems they can't solve and spark his teammates to greater heights.

    After returning from injury in early 2011, Sneijder inspired Inter to 13 straight Serie A home wins—nearly enough to erase a big deficit win the Scudetto.

    His form brought on an extended transfer saga. While he didn't move to Manchester United, the ordeal and an early injury affected his form somewhat in the early stages of the 2011-12 season.

    Once he returns, look for Inter to push for glory once again.

32. Zlatan Ibrahimovic

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    Position: Forward

    Club: AC Milan

    Country: Sweden

    He doesn't always seem interested, but when he's on his game, Ibra's combination of physical prowess and refined skill is almost impossible to beat.

    Ibrahimovic scored 14 league goals and bagged 11 assists as Milan won the Scudetto for the 2010-11 season. This season, he's been just as lethal, with 13 goals in all competitions, including eight already in Serie A.

    Ibra can come off as selfish and cocky at times, even to his teammates, but when he's focused, he's one of the world's best.

31. Mario Gomez

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Bayern Munich

    Country: Germany

    Mario Gomez just can't stop scoring.

    After a successful run with VfB Stuttgart, Gomez transferred to Bayern in 2009 and kept on scoring. His best season to date was 2010-11, when he bagged 28 Bundesliga goals in 32 appearances. In all competitions, he scored 39 times in 45 appearances.

    This season is proving equally fertile. Through 14 Bundesliga matches, the German international has already scored 13 times, as Bayern has raced to the top of the table.

    Gomez is just as lethal at the international level, with 21 goals in 50 appearances. He scored seven times for Germany in 2011, including five during his country's perfect Euro 2012 qualifying run.

30. Iker Casillas

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    Position: Goalkeeper

    Club: Real Madrid

    Country: Spain

    After serving as captain for Spain's run to the 2010 World Cup title, Casillas returned to Real Madrid to find an unusual sight: a dominant defense.

    With Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho in front of him for the 2010-11 season, Casillas didn't actually have that much to do. Still, though, Real's solid record of 32 goals conceded in 35 La Liga matches had plenty to do with Casillas.

    Considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Casillas is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 for both Real and Spain. In November, he became Spain's most-capped player of all time, and at just 30 years old, it's not impossible to think he might significantly improve on his 127 caps.

29. Antonio Di Natale

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Udinese

    Country: Italy

    Like Giuseppe Rossi, Antonio Di Natale receives too little respect because of who he plays for.

    Di Natale plays for Udinese, hardly one of the world's biggest clubs. But thanks to his goals, Udinese finished fourth in Serie A in 2010-11 and qualified for the preliminary stages of the Champions League.

    Di Natale earned the title of Capocannoniere as the top goalscorer in Serie A last term with 28 goals. It was the second straight year he led the league in goals (he bagged 29 the previous season).

    Known as a hard worker, Di Natale inspired Udinese to an amazing 13-game unbeaten run last season. During the streak, he scored 15 of his club's 35 goals. With Udinese needing a result against Lazio in their second-to-last game of the season, Di Natale scored twice to help earn a draw and fourth place in the table.

    This season, Di Natale is back at it. He has scored nine times in 12 Serie A matches.

28. Eden Hazard

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Lille OSC

    Country: Belgium

    Eden Hazard could do no wrong in 2011. He led Lille to its first French title since 1954 and attracted interest from Europe's biggest clubs.

    That's not even mentioning the highest praise he received: a personal endorsement from Zinedine Zidane, who called Hazard a "star of the future."

    Still just 20, Hazard has developed a game not too different from Zidane's, with incisive passing and incredible vision. But his outstanding dribbling ability has brought on the inevitable comparisons to Lionel Messi.

    No matter who he plays like, it seems certain that Hazard is exactly what Zidane called him: a future star.

27. Nani

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Manchester United

    Country: Portugal

    First thought of as Cristiano Ronaldo-light at Old Trafford, Nani has developed into his countryman's creative replacement.

    Following an injury to Antonio Valencia last season, Nani assumed the responsibility to serve as Manchester United's main creative force in the midfield. He responded with an English Premier League-leading 18 assists.

    Nani burst out of the gates this season with a pair of goals against Manchester City in the Community Shield. With his combination of speed, moves and tricky dribbling, he's firmly entrenched as one of United's—and Portugal's—best, most creative players.

26. Bastian Schweinsteiger

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Bayern Munich

    Country: Germany

    The 2010-11 season wasn't Bastian Schweinsteiger's crowning moment with Bayern Munich. But his performances during Germany's Euro 2012 qualifying campaign were immense and impressive.

    Schweinsteiger solidified his spot as first-choice in central midfield and helped lead the charge to a perfect record in qualifying with one goal and one assist.

    A strong tackler and solid passer, Schweinsteiger has the ability to dictate the flow of a game. Much of Germany's Euro 2012 campaign will depend on whether he's playing his best next summer.

25. Marcelo

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    Position: Defender

    Club: Real Madrid

    Country: Brazil

    Upon Jose Mourinho's arrival at the Bernabeu, he moved Marcelo from the left wing to fullback. The decision has proven wise.

    Much like his counterpart Daniel Alves at Barcelona, Marcelo shows that sometimes the best defense is a strong offense. As an attacking fullback, Marcelo stymies opposing midfielders and fullbacks, who have to defend against his surging runs and incisive passes.

    Along with solid defense, Marcelo contributed three goals and four assists to Real Madrid's 2010-11 season. His continued good form this season could be one of the keys to Real Madrid's assault on Barcelona.

24. David Silva

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Manchester City

    Country: Spain

    Even with all the competition for places at Manchester City, David Silva has established himself as an instrumental part of manager Roberto Mancini's plans.

    In his first season with City, Silva tallied 15 assists to go with six goals in all competitions. So far this term, he's bagged 11 assists and four goals. In the Manchester derby, which City won 6-1, he scored one and created one for Edin Dzeko with a chested volley pass.

    That kind of creativity has become the norm for Silva, who has a sharp eye for space and the ability to thread passes through the tiniest of holes.

    Along with his fine form for City, Silva scored four times for Spain in 2011, including two in a 3-1 win over Scotland in Euro 2012 qualifying.

23. Hulk

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Porto

    Country: Brazil

    His real name is Givanildo Vieira de Souza, but that's not nearly as fun or as descriptive of his value to Porto.

    For a man of his size, Hulk possesses impressive speed and skill. Combined with his obvious size and strength, they make Hulk nearly unstoppable.

    Case in point: Hulk scored an astounding 36 goals in 53 matches last term as Porto won three trophies, the Portuguese league and cup and the Europa League.

    For his contributions, Hulk earned this praise from Porto president Pinto da costa: "It may sound like a heresy, but I would not trade Hulk for Cristiano Ronaldo."

22. Gareth Bale

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Tottenham Hotspur

    Country: Wales

    Gareth Bale earned recognition as PFA Player of the Year for his performances with Tottenham last season in the Premier League. But it was the Champions League where he really dazzled.

    He starred in Spurs' exciting 4-3 loss to Inter and starred again two weeks later as the London side clinched a spot in the knockout stages with a 3-1 win.

    Bale does it with speed, power and pinpoint finishing. When he starts galloping with the ball at his feet, few can keep up. And it's a breathtaking sight.

    Tottenham made it all the way to the quarterfinals of last year's competition, but missed out on qualification this season after a fifth-place league finish. Spurs struggled in the absence of Bale as he dealt with injuries last term, but with him back in the lineup this season, they're flying high in third place.

    At one time, Spurs seemed to lose whenever Bale played. These days, they hardly ever win without him.

21. Neymar

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Santos

    Country: Brazil

    The next big thing.

    Neymar, still only 19, is already being touted as Brazil's next superstar. Top European clubs have been drooling over him for months, and speculation over his future will only intensify in the coming months.

    Will he be worth it? All signs suggest so. Slight in stature, Neymar nonetheless has the ability to impose his will on a match. He can direct the attack, he can score amazing goals and he has all the silky, outrageous skills you'd expect from any Brazilian worth his squad number.

    In 2011, Neymar scored 23 goals and grabbed 10 assists in all competitions with Santos. In 2010, he had 43 goals and 21 assists.

    Surely it's only a matter of time until Neymar dominates world soccer.

20. Yaya Touré

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Manchester City

    Country: Ivory Coast

    Yaya Touré has a knack for playing well and scoring goals at the most important times for Manchester City.

    He scored the winner and earned Man of the Match honors in City's 1-0 win over Manchester United in April's FA Cup semifinal. In May, he again scored the winner in the final against Stoke City.

    His goals helped end Manchester City's 35-year trophy drought, but they weren't his only contributions. When he's not scoring big goals, Touré serves as an imposing, physcially gifted midfielder who dominates opponents with strength and skill. He can win the ball and start an attack with equal skill, and he's at home in both the attack and defense.

    Such versatility has already proven valuable for Manchester City. It will only continue as Roberto Mancini's side keep pushing for Premier League glory.

19. Luis Suárez

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Liverpool

    Country: Uruguay

    His reputation has been clouded recently by allegations of racism, but Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez remains one of world soccer's most lethal and skillful attackers.

    Suárez joined Liverpool last winter and settled quickly, scoring four times with five assists in 13 league games in the second half of the 2010-11 season. This term, he's scored four times with three more assists in 14 league appearances.

    Versatile and surprisingly strong in the air for his height (5'11"), Suárez is comfortable being the target man or second striker. Known for his workrate and unselfishness, he can create chances with his passing and run onto long balls with his speed.

    Suárez's performances earned him a spot on the shortlist for FIFA's Ballon d'Or award for the world's top player. He didn't make the final three, but Suárez is proving himself as one of the best in the world today.

18. Sergio Busquets

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Barcelona

    Country: Spain

    Sergio Busquets is quickly making a name for himself as one of the world's top defensive midfielders.

    Other players get the plaudits, but the presence of Busquets is crucial to the success of both Barcelona and Spain. As the midfield anchor, he provides the backbone of the squad, while more creative players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi produce the highlights.

    His role might not be glamorous, but Busquets is still world-class.

17. Daniel Alves

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    Position: Defender

    Club: Barcelona

    Country: Brazil

    As a right back, Dani Alves shows that defenders can be important to the creative destiny of their team. During an outstanding 2010-11 campaign, Alves collected 20 assists in all competitions, scoring four goals of his own.

    This season, he's back at it, exploding forward at will with speed and skill. His total of eight assists in all competitions is a testament to his and Barcelona's attacking talent and the club's commitment to a total football style.

    His defensive skills are sometimes suspect, but thanks to his attacking genius, Alves is easily among the best fullbacks on the planet.

16. Thiago Silva

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    Position: Defender

    Club: AC Milan

    Country: Brazil

    Strong and consistent, Thiago Silva is one of the best center backs in the game today.

    Milan conceded just 24 goals over 38 matches last season on their way to the Scudetto. Thiago Silva had as much to do with that as anyone.

    While he's clearly strong, Thiago Silva is also fast and versatile, and he reads the game expertly. He played much of last season on the left side of central defense, even though he's right-footed.

    In the games Thiago Silva played, Milan kept 18 clean sheets.

15. Javier Hernandez

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Manchester United

    Country: Mexico

    Chicharito ("little pea" in Spanish) arrived at Old Trafford in 2010 as something of an unknown. He had played well in Mexico, but no one knew how he would fare in the more demanding and physical Premiership.

    No one could have predicted how quickly Chicharito turned into a star. In 45 total appearances with the storied club last term, Hernandez scored an impressive 20 goals, including 13 in league play.

    Chicharito quickly developed a knack for popping up with goals at crucial times and cultivated a lethal attacking partnership with Wayne Rooney.

    United won the Premier League and advanced to the final of the Champions League. Mexico, meanwhile, won the Gold Cup in the summer, with Chicharito finishing as the competition's top goalscorer.

    In 2011 alone, Hernandez scored 12 times for Mexico in 13 caps, taking his totals to 23 goals in 33 appearances.

    If he keeps it up, Mexico could be a team to watch on the world stage.

14. Wayne Rooney

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Manchester United

    Country: England

    Widely considered England's best player, Rooney is his country's most creative force by a country mile.

    Rooney didn't play well at the 2010 World Cup, but after struggling to find his form in the first half of the 2010-11 season, he finished well. He scored his first club goal of the season on New Year's Day, but made up for lost time by scoring the winner in United's title-clinching win over Blackburn.

    Rooney finished the season with 11 goals and 11 assists in the league.

    He started 2011-12 in blistering form, blasting a hat trick and providing an assist for Nani in United's shocking 8-2 win over Arsenal in August. Heading into the holiday season, he's scored 11 goals with two assists in all competitions.

    More importantly, Rooney drives United to greater heights. With him in the lineup, United are always much better and much more creative. With him absent, United tend to struggle.

13. Gerard Piqué

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    Position: Defender

    Club: Barcelona

    Country: Spain

    For most men, dating Shakira would be the highlight of any year. Not for Gerard Piqué, who had yet another solid year with Barcelona in 2011.

    Still only 24, Piqué has already won just about everything in the game, from domestic league titles to the Champions League to the World Cup.

    For much of 2011, Piqué played in central defense without his normal partner, the oft-injured Carles Puyol. But Piqué didn't miss a beat with stand-ins like Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano.

    As a central defender, he's charged with organizing the back line for Barcelona and Spain. But Piqué is also adept as a passer and can even score at times (four goals in 37 caps with Spain).

    As Spain and Barcelona push forward, Piqué will play a starring role in the future of both.

12. Sergio Agüero

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Manchester City

    Country: Argentina

    Few outside Argentina knew the name Sergio "Kun" Agüero a year ago. After an impressive 2010-11 season and a blistering start to the current term, he's now a household name.

    Agüero scored 27 goals for Atletico Madrid in 2010-11, his fifth and final with the club. Thirteen league appearances into his Manchester City career, he's already bagged 11 more goals with four assists.

    A classic center forward, Agüero possesses lethal speed, agility and finishing ability. He reads defenses expertly, times his runs to perfection and rarely misses a chance.

    Still only 23, Agüero has plenty of time to cement his place among the game's elite. But after a stellar debut with Manchester City in which he scored twice and assisted another goal, Agüero is already receiving lofty praise from all corners.

11. David Villa

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Barcelona

    Country: Spain

    David Villa is sometimes overlooked. Playing in Lionel Messi's shadow, it's almost understandable.


    Villa is a world-class player in his own right. Known equally for his free kicks, movement on and off the ball and slick passing, Villa is absolutely lethal in front of goal. He scored 23 goals and grabbed nine assists in all competitions last term for Barcelona, and this year, he's got nine and two so far.

    At the international level, Villa has scored 51 times in 82 appearances for Spain.

    Perhaps most telling is the fact that Villa needed literally no time to fit in perfectly with Barcelona's impressive squad after joining the club in 2010.

    Only a year and change later, it almost feels like Villa has always been a Barca player.

10. Manuel Neuer

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    Position: Goalkeeper

    Club: Bayern Munich

    Country: Germany

    Manuel Neuer is generally considered the top keeper in the game today, and he's also the heir to the legendary Oliver Kahn in Germany.

    After moving from Schalke 04 to Bayern in the summer, Neuer set a German record—formerly held by Kahn—for consecutive clean sheets, going more than 1,000 minutes without conceding a goal in a competitive match.

    Neuer played every minute of every match during Germany's perfect Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, allowing only seven goals.

9. Edinson Cavani

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Napoli

    Country: Uruguay

    Known as "El Matador," Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani dazzled Napoli's fans with his daring and commanding performances in 2011.

    His best game was a thrilling 4-3 win over Lazio in which Cavani scored two equalizers and cheeky, chipped winner. He finished the season with 33 goals in all competitions as Napoli took third place in Serie A.

    At the international level, Cavani helped lead Uruguay to the Copa America crown, cementing his place as one of the world's top footballers in 2011.

8. Nemanja Vidic

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    Position: Defender

    Club: Manchester United

    Country: Serbia

    Probably the best defender in the world today, Nemanja Vidic led Manchester United to its 19th league title in 2011.

    For his consistently strong performances, Vidic was named the Barclays Player of the Season. He also earned a spot on the FIFPro shortlist and PFA Team of the Year.

7. Mesut Özil

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Real Madrid

    Country: Germany

    After a breakout performance at the 2010 World Cup, creative midfielder Mesut Özil achieved even greater things with Real Madrid in 2011.

    His vision, creativity and passing helped Real win the Copa Del Rey over Barcelona, and in the process, Özil unseated Kaká in Real's lineup. His play is both efficient and colorful. His passes are sharp and his ideas are full of flair.

    Cristiano Ronaldo is Real Madrid's best and most recognized player, but it's not an exaggeration to say Özil is just as important to their success.

6. Robin Van Persie

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Arsenal

    Country: Netherlands

    This is not to say that Robin van Persie is the sixth-best player in the world. But it's hard to find many players who have had a better 2011 than Arsenal's Dutch captain.

    Van Persie has been in the form of his life for several months now, dating all the way back to the beginning of 2011. He finished the 2010-11 campaign with 22 goals in all competitions, and he's well on his way to blowing that number out of the water this term.

    Through 20 appearances in all competitions this season, van Persie has already scored 18 times. More importantly, he's helped Arsenal recover from the loss of star players Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.

    As Arsenal's captain, van Persie has taken his game to a new level. If he were to leave Arsenal now, it would be just as damaging—maybe even worse—than Cesc's departure.

5. Radamel Falcao

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Atletico Madrid

    Country: Colombia

    Radamel Falcao doesn't play for a glamorous club. He plays for Atletico Madrid, and before that, he played for Porto. Therefore he's often overlooked by important lists of the best players of 2011.

    Don't be fooled, though: Radamel Falcao was one of the five best footballers on the planet in 2011.

    Porto won a historic treble of trophies with their triumphs in the Portuguese league and cup and the Europa League. To say Falcao was instrumental in that run would be a gross understatement.

    Falcao scored 38 goals in 42 total appearances for Porto in 2010-11, including a staggering 18 strikes in 16 European appearances. He finished the season with two hat tricks and six braces and scored four times in a Europa League semifinal match against Villarreal.

    His 17 goals in 14 Europa League matches broke Jurgen Klinsmann's record of 15 from 1995-96.

    Falcao didn't make the Ballon d'Or shortlist, but he did finish fifth in the voting for UEFA's Best Player in Europe Award in 2011. He also earned a spot on the FIFPro shortlist.

    And, by the way, he's continued the great form with Atletico Madrid this season, scoring 10 times in 16 total appearances so far, including eight strikes in La Liga.

4. Andres Iniesta

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Barcelona

    Country: Spain

    Another year, another highlight reel of control, passing and skill for Andres Iniesta.

    That he's only the third-best player on his team is a tribute to the quality Barcelona have throughout their squad. On just about any other team, Iniesta would be an undoubted superstar.

    With Barcelona, though, he's just another great passer. But the key word there, of course, is great.

    With Xavi, Iniesta has developed perhaps the best midfield partnership the world has seen in the last decade or more.

3. Xavi

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    Position: Midfielder

    Club: Barcelona

    Country: Spain

    Remember what we said about Iniesta? Take all of that and apply it to Xavi.

    Xavi, though, is just a little bit better than his teammate, just a little bit more creative and a slightly better passer.

    Together, they'll go down as one of the great midfield partnerships of all time.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo

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    Position: Forward/midfielder

    Club: Real Madrid

    Country: Portugal

    In 2011, Cristiano Ronaldo further cemented his place as one of the game's truly great players.

    He won the Copa Del Rey with Real Madrid. He earned recognition and plaudits from all corners. He scored and scored and scored.

    Now, it's time to see if he can go one step further and overtake Messi.

    It's a rivalry that goes beyond personal and into the world of club football. Real Madrid aren't only the two best clubs in Spain; they're also the two best in the world right now.

    As Real's best player, Ronaldo will only add to his legacy if his club can overtake Barca.

1. Lionel Messi

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    Position: Forward

    Club: Barcelona

    Country: Argentina

    The one. The only. Lionel Messi.

    There's only one player in the world that can rival Messi right now. That's Cristiano Ronaldo.

    Messi has won the last two Ballon d'Or awards, and with good reason. He's the best player in the world.

    Ronaldo won the award in 2008, and with a great season for himself and Real, it's possible he could overtake the little Argentine.

    But for now, there's still only one Messi.


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