FourFourTwo’s Best 100 Football Players in the World 2015: 80-71

Onwards with the planet's free-kick king, three Brazilians and three involved in the battle for Mancunian supremacy...

Words: Greg Lea, Huw Davies, Chris Flanagan, Gregg Davies, James Maw, Harriet Drudge, Adam Digby, Andrew Murray, Gary Parkinson.

80. Hakan Calhanoglu

After an impressive debut Bundesliga campaign with Hamburg in 2013/14, Calhanoglu has made great strides, establishing himself as one of the most promising young players in Germany and beyond.

Capable of playing anywhere across the forward line, Calhanoglu is a hub of creativity – he’s recorded six league assists in 2015, plus four in the Champions League group stage alone this season – and regularly tests goalkeepers with his fierce long shot. That combination of power and accuracy when striking the ball can also be seen when he steps up to take set-pieces, with the Bayer Leverkusen man now arguably the best free-kick taker on the planet. “I want to be Turkey’s Mesut Ozil,” the 21-year-old once exclaimed, referencing a player with whom he has been frequently compared over the last 12 months. – GL

79. Daniele De Rossi

“I was never crazy about the name,” said De Rossi in 2013. “I think we should leave it be. I’m proud to be vice-captain of Roma.” De Rossi is still uneasy about his nickname, Capitan Futuro – ‘Future Captain’ – referring to when Francesco Totti hangs up his boots and walks into the Rome sunset. At 32, it’s no surprise. For an influential leader and talented all-round midfielder, who for over a decade has defined Roma as much as Totti, it’s almost unfair. “You don’t need an armband to be happy,” says De Rossi.

The Scudetto would be nice, though. After 500-odd games (plus over 100 caps) and no fewer than seven runners-up medals, he can help i Lupi to exploit Juventus’s slow start this season and win the title. God knows he’s waited long enough. – HDa

78. Hulk

When Hulk’s good, he’s good. Frustrating inconsistency has prevented him from becoming one of world football’s true elite, a status not beyond his raw talent, but he has delivered enough flashes of genius in 2015 to earn a recall to the FFT100.

The Brazilian was Zenit’s star when they were crowned Russian champions last term, and has again been hugely influential as Andre Villas-Boas’s men cruised through this term’s Champions League group stage with two games to spare. Their wins at Valencia and Lyon showed both sides to Hulk’s skills – a stunning double strike at the Mestalla, then two sublime assists in France for Artyom Dzyuba, who is benefiting from the Brazilian’s service like predecessor Salomon Rondon. Hulk’s 45-yard goal against Sevilla in last season’s Europa League knockout stages wasn’t bad either. – CF

77. Danilo

His keepie-uppie skills may need some work, uncharacteristically for a Brazilian, but fortunately for Danilo there’s plenty more in this Samba star’s locker. Real Madrid’s €31.5 million summer signing from Porto failed to impress the Santiago Bernabeu spectators during his presentation, yet the 24-year-old has been quick to prove why he’s seen by some as the complete modern-day full-back.

Possessing electric pace, physical prowess and an eye for goal, Danilo scored seven for Porto last season and has already opened his account for los Blancos at Celta Vigo. As part of a near-watertight backline under Rafael Benitez, just two goals were conceded in Danilo’s opening seven games before Barça went and spoiled it all by scoring four (which could have been more) in November’s Clasico crushing. – GD

76. Memphis Depay

Having stuck around at PSV for one last year following his impressive showing at the World Cup in Brazil, it was clear from the off he was determined to go out with a bang. The young Dutchman did just that, rattling in 22 goals (enough to see him end the season as Eredivisie top scorer) as the Eindhoven side won their first league title in seven years. It was no secret that Manchester United were keen on his signature, and no surprise when his former boss with the national team, Louis van Gaal, sealed the deal in June.

Depay’s assimilation into Premier League life hasn’t been entirely smooth, with Frenchman Anthony Martial outshining him in the early weeks of the season, despite bagging a brace in a Champions League qualifier against Bruges. United will hope his performance in the win at Watford in November, which included a superbly taken opening goal, is a sign of things to come. – JM

75. Joe Hart

He may still be much maligned, and he may not have won a trophy in 2014/15, but England’s No.1 kept 14 league clean sheets – two more than eventual title-winner Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea. Quite some feat, when you consider the amount of chopping and changing that took place in the back four in front of him.

But it was an incredible display at the Camp Nou back in March – he saved 10 of Barcelona’s 11 shots on target, having already stopped Lionel Messi in the home leg – that really reaffirmed his status as one of the world’s top shot-stoppers. Sadly for Manchester City, Hart’s all-action performance wasn’t enough to help them progress to the quarter-finals, and an improved Champions League showing will be among the ever-ambitious keeper's biggest aims for 2016. – JM

74. Juan Mata

The arrivals of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao may have curtailed Mata’s influence last season, but slowly but surely he is making progress at Old Trafford. His late 2014/15 form put him firmly front and centre of Louis van Gaal’s thoughts: 10 goals and four assists, including a brilliant overhead kick at Anfield, helped Manchester United on their ascent to fourth place, and although the stats don’t necessarily leap off the page, his impact is growing.

The way he can pick and execute passes others can’t see, and dictate play with wonderful invention – such as his assist for Chris Smalling’s winner against Wolfsburg – could see the Red Devils challenge for the league title this term. Regain that, and he will cement his position as a fans’ favourite once and for all. – HDr

73. Radja Nainggolan

Nainggolan bursts into life when Roma lose the ball, a bundle of energy charging across the field to make a furious tackle or smart interception. Throwing himself into every challenge to win back possession has won him few friends outside of the Italian capital, having gained a growing reputation as a no-holds-barred midfield battler. Yet that is also only half the story, because on the ball he is a superb distributor who also bags his share of important goals; his 2014/15 tally of five including strikes against Fiorentina and Inter.

After missing out on a trip to the World Cup, Nainggolan has become vital to the Belgian national team and a strong display at next summer’s European Championship may well mean the Giallorossi receive some tempting offers for the 27-year-old. – AD

72. Cesar Azpilicueta

Yes, Chelsea have been pretty hopeless this season, but the man they call ‘Dave’ – you try saying ‘Azpilicueta’ after one sangria too many – remains one of the first names on Jose Mourinho’s teamsheet, while Branislav Ivanovic’s undroppable status is no more.

In 2014/15, the 26-year-old won his first league title as a professional, having won the League Cup against Spurs in March. Vital to both successes, the Spaniard must continue to be strong in the tackle and quick to the press if Chelsea are to surge back into Champions League contention in the second half of this campaign. “I think a team with 11 Azpilicuetas could probably win the Champions League,” Mourinho has said of his full-back. Maybe so, and he moves up marginally thanks to last term’s trophy haul, but ‘Dave’ must arrest the Chelsea decline soon, especially if he is to become first choice for Spain at Euro 2016. – AM

71. Marcelo

It can’t be easy playing left-back for Real Madrid. In a club run by dreamers who’d probably prefer a Harlem Globetrotters formation, you’re only there as structural ballast to stop the side falling over. You won’t get much cover from the bloke in front of you. And historically, the enormous shadow of Roberto Carlos looms, especially if you also happen to be Brazilian. Marcelo Vieira da Silva Junior doesn’t seem to mind.

Having grown up alongside poverty in Rio, he radiates gratitude, humility and humour: “In life you have to try to be happy, no matter what. I’ve always been like this in my life, and I try to transmit it to the locker room.” But he’s no grinning buffoon, with seven Madrid managers from Capello to Benitez appreciating his athleticism and technique, and no less a judge than Roberto Carlos himself proclaiming that Marcelo has “better technical ability than me”. That’ll do. – GP

The list

#FFT100 The Best 100 Football Players in the World: list and features here