The experts have been consulted, the contenders have been discussed, and the arguments have been had (several times over). Now it's here - FourFourTwo's eighth annual countdown of the world's 100 best football players.
Below are numbers 10-1, including Messi, Ronaldo, and a decision that's bound to get you talking...
10. Arjen Robben
Did you know? The Dutch winger created 17 chances for his nation at the 2014 World Cup, the most of any Oranje player.
A big leap for the flying Dutchman this year – some achievement given 2013 was the year he scored the winner in the Champions League final. That was at the end of an injury-hit campaign, though, whereas Robben managed to stay off the treatment table for most of 2013/14 and into this season, with stellar performances for club and country featuring goals and assists galore. He’s one of few players in the world with PlayStation-esque pace and dribbling ability, demonstrated perfectly with his second goal in the 5-0 drubbing of Spain at the World Cup. Clearly at the peak of his powers, he's now 30, looks 40 and plays like he's 20. LM
9. Angel Di Maria
Did you know? Di Maria has provided 19 assists so far in 2014, 4 more than any other player in Europe's big five leagues.
A flying start to his Manchester United career, a decent end to his Real Madrid one (man of the match in the Champions League final) and a very impressive World Cup in between have seen everyone’s favourite Noodle jump into our top 10. Not considered sexy enough for the Bernabeu’s marketing men, he already looks like being Old Trafford’s next great No.7 – a direct, left-footed winger or midfielder who provides, goals, assists and a tremendous work-rate. We heart you too, Angel. LM
8. Luis Suarez
Did you know? Suarez equalled the record for most goals in a 38-game Premier League season in 2013/14, netting 31.
No Ballon d’Or, since FIFA added moral decency to the criteria without telling anybody, but Suarez makes our top 10 after an extraordinary 2014. Last year his No.19 placing was controversial, but then his individual brilliance often came at the expense of his team: in 2012/13 he attempted eight dribbles per game, and lost the ball more often than not. Now he’s less selfish, contributing 12 league assists last term and four in his first four Barça games – two from the bench against Almeria, turning a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win – as he accepts third billing to Lionel Messi and Neymar. And if Suarez took Liverpool’s penalties, he’d have scored 40 Premier League goals last season. Irreplaceable. HD
7. Diego Costa
Did you know? Costa reached 10 Premier League goals in just 9 games; the only player to reach double figures in fewer is Mick Quinn (6).
The man who first came to the Premier League’s collective consciousness in the first leg of last season’s Champions League semi-final, playing for Atletico Madrid and engaging in a spot of mild handbagging with his future captain, John Terry. As Costa made to move forwards, JT’s muscular shoulder slowed his progress. Irresistible force, immovable object. Costa wouldn’t back down and JT had more than met his match. His eyes lit up at the prospect of a physical battle, and now we know why. Built like the proverbial al fresco water closet, the Brazilian-Spanish bruiser will run through walls (and goalposts) in his pursuit of a goal. Quick of mind and, surprisingly, of feet, Costa is perhaps the most effective frontman at work in the world today. “He’s literally got everything,” is how JT sees it, and while much of what JT says is inevitably nonsense, it’s impossible to disagree. NH
INTERVIEW Diego Costa: Silence the critics
6. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Did you know? Ibrahimovic became Sweden's all-time top scorer in September; his brace against Estonia equalled and then broke the record.
In years to come you lucky people will be badgered by children, their eyes wide with astonishment and widescreen with YouTube, eager to ask what Zlatan Ibrahimovic was like. You will tell them that on this occasion the internet doesn't lie: the clipreel of gobsmacking goals, the tales about (and from) that spiky persona. And the good news is that as yet, age appears not to be withering him – at time of writing he's bagged 84 in 102 for PSG, whom he seems intent on dragging to the sharp end of the Champions League. GP
5. Gareth Bale
Did you know? Bale has assisted more of Cristiano Ronaldo's goals in 2014 than any other player (12, all competitions).
It just keeps on getting better and better for the Welsh wizard. Having secured a dream move (not least for his bank manager) from White Hart Lane to the Bernabeu last summer, Bale settled quickly, even scoring Madrid's Copa del Rey winner against Barcelona and a momentum-changing goal in extra time of the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid. The sight of him posing with the trophy half an hour later was hard to begrudge, even for the bitterest Arsenal fan. Now, with UEFA altering their European Championship qualification system to Mickey Mouse settings to include a greater number of teams in the finals, there's genuine belief that Bale – with a little help from Aaron Ramsey – could drag Wales to their first major tournament in 58 years. Certainly two goals, including a sensational free-kick, on a shoddy Andorran pitch, showed his desire to make waves on the international stage too. MA
INTERVIEW Bale: Terrorise the defence
4. Manuel Neuer
Did you know? Neuer kept 14 clean sheets in his first 26 Bundesliga games in 2014, saving 81% of shots on target faced.
The best goalkeeper in the world? For sure. The best player in the world? Not quite, but closer than any other keeper has been. In 2014, Manuel Neuer didn’t just help Germany win the World Cup and Bayern the domestic double; via his daring antics as last line for club and country he helped redefine the entire concept of modern goalkeeping. Neuer’s sweeper-keeper approach was most prominently on display in the World Cup second round against Algeria, when he operated virtually as a fifth defender by making crucial defensive interventions outside his own area, his skill and anticipation prompting national team coach Joachim Löw to describe him as the ‘perfect player’. Who are we to argue? JF
3. Lionel Messi
Did you know? Messi surpassed Raul as the all-time Champions League top scorer with a hat-trick against APOEL in November (74).
Never has a man been awarded best player at a World Cup and looked so uniquely crestfallen, so utterly bemused. Messi had a disappointing year in the eyes of many, yet he still notched 41 goals and 16 assists in all competitions for Barcelona. He carried Argentina to a first World Cup final since 1990, scored four goals (including two crucial winners) and won player of the tournament, but was still criticised heavily for going missing – particularly in the final during which he spurned a golden chance at 0-0. Messi remains one of the world’s best players, but such is life at football’s sharp end that he drops down a place. It’s tough at the top. JF
2. Philipp Lahm
Did you know? The Bayern and former Germany captain has enjoyed more touches of the ball than any other player in the Champions League this calendar year (1042).
Lahm may not have been educated in the talent labs of La Masia, but there’s no doubting that he’s Pep Guardiola’s type of player: composed, confident in possession and, crucially, intelligent enough to employ his manager’s ideas. That the player once hailed as the world’s greatest right-back managed to seamlessly slot in as Bayern Munich’s trusted midfield pivote suggests as much. When the Bundesliga champions were rocked by injuries to Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez and Thiago Alcantara, Lahm didn’t just deputise – he excelled. Central to Bayern’s record-breaking season and captain of Germany’s World Cup winners; suffice to say, 2014 was a fine year for this most trustworthy of talismans. JB
1. Cristiano Ronaldo
Did you know? On the way to inspiring Real Madrid to the 13/14 Champions League title, he scored 17 goals, 3 more than any player ever before in a single CL season.
It hasn’t been a perfect 2014 for CR7. Atletico pipped Real Madrid to the title, and in Brazil, Portugal whimpered out while his long-time top-spot rival Messi almost dragged Argentina to glory. He wasn’t the best player in the Champions League final, either, even if he did capture every front page thanks to his topless showboating. But ultimately, Ronaldo earned the right to be poster boy for the side that finally earned the lusted-after Decima. His heroics throughout the quest are the kind of thing you ultimately get statues for. He was the tournament’s top scorer, with 17 goals, and he got them when they counted, including two in the semi-final bludgeoning of Bayern.
Ronny has taken that form into 2014/15’s tournament, too. Having swiped the top spot in our rankings from Messi last year, it’s going to take something special to stop him from completing an impressive hat-trick in 12 months' time. NM
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