Best La Liga players of the 2000s

Lionel Messi poses with the Ballon d'Or alongside Barcelona team-mates Xavi and Andres Iniesta at Camp Nou.
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The dawn of the new millennium brought with it exciting times for Spanish football and La Liga.

Real Madrid were already Champions League winners in 2000, but Los Blancos elected Florentino Perez as their new president, ushering in an era of superstar signings at the Santiago Bernabeu.

And in 2003, a change of president improved Barcelona's fortunes as Joan Laporta was victorious in elections at the Catalan club.

Both Madrid and Barça went on to add domestic and European trophies, while there were also two La Liga titles for Valencia in the 2000s, plus memorable moments for Sevilla, Villarreal, Deportivo La Coruña, Mallorca, Espanyol and Zaragoza.

Here, a look at the standout stars from the 2000s in Spain's top flight...

32. Marcos Senna

Villarreal's Marcos Senna controls the ball under pressure from Barcelona midfielder Xavi in a La Liga game in 2008.

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Marcos Senna spent 11 years in the centre of Villarreal's midfield, making over 350 appearances for the club and even staying to help the Yellow Submarine regain their top-flight status before leaving in 2013.

A holding midfielder who could also operate in a more creative role, Senna was known for his powerful shot and ability at set pieces. Born in Brazil, he accepted an offer to play for Spain in 2006 and was key as La Roja won Euro 2008 two years later.

31. Victor Valdes

Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes in action against Schalke in 2008.

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An excellent shot-stopper and also adept with the ball at his feet, Victor Valdes was the ideal goalkeeper for Barcelona in the 2000s.

A hero thanks to his super saves in the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal in Paris, Valdes made over 500 appearances for Barça and won six La Liga titles with the Catalan club between 2002 and 2014.

30. David Beckham

David Beckham celebrates a goal for Real Madrid against Real Sociedad in 2005.

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David Beckham's time at Real Madrid coincided with a period of institutional chaos at the Spanish club as a string of coaches came and went, leading to the resignation of president Florentino Perez in 2005.

The former England captain was appreciated by the fans for his hard work, his free-kicks and his excellent crossing ability, but he won just one La Liga title and a Supercopa in four seasons at the Santiago Bernabeu.

29. Juan Roman Riquelme

Villarreal's Juan Roman Riquelme holds off Real Madrid's David Beckham in a La Liga game in 2004.

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One of the most elegant number 10s to grace La Liga, Juan Roman Riquelme was part of an exciting Villarreal side in the mid-2000s.

The Argentine playmaker spent three-and-a-half seasons at Villarreal after a difficult campaign at Barcelona the previous year. He didn't win anything in Spain, but was always fun to watch and came so close to a Champions League final appearance in 2006. If only he had scored that penalty against Arsenal...

28. Thierry Henry

Thierry Henry celebrates after scoring for Barcelona against Real Madrid in 2009.

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Thierry Henry's time at Barcelona did not match his Arsenal days, but it was still special for a couple of years.

After a difficult debut season under Frank Rijkaard, Henry excelled on the left in Pep Guardiola's treble-winning side and memorably scored twice in a 6-2 win away to Real Madrid and 26 times overall in 2008/09. The Frenchman's opportunities were limited after that and he left for New York in 2010, but he had made his mark.

27. Sergio Aguero

Sergio Aguero celebrates after scoring for Atletico Madrid against Schalke in 2008.

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Sergio Aguero joined Atletico Madrid from Independiente as an 18-year-old and quickly became a fan favourite at the Vicente Calderon.

After the departure of Fernando Torres in 2007, Aguero stepped up and went on to form an exciting partnership with Diego Forlan. The Argentine scored 101 goals in 234 games before joining Manchester City in 2011, winning a Europa League and a UEFA Super Cup in 2010.

26. Frederic Kanoute

Frederic Kanoute celebrates after scoring for Sevilla against Villarreal in January 2006.

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Frederic Kanoute spent seven seasons at Sevilla after leaving Tottenham and went on to score 137 goals in 290 appearances for the Andalusian club between 2005 and 2012.

The Malian striker led the line in a golden era for Sevilla, winning two UEFA Cups, two Copas del Rey, a Supercopa and a UEFA Super Cup in his time at the Sanchez Pizjuan in the late 2000s.

25. Guti

Guti in action for Real Madrid against Deportivo Alaves in 2005.

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Guti was an outrageously gifted midfield creator who spent almost all of his career at Real Madrid, before a short spell in Turkey with Besiktas.

The former Spanish international started out as a striker but became a playmaker and was a fan favourite at the Santiago Bernabeu, winning four La Liga titles in the 2000s and three Champions Leagues in his time at the club. Despite his talents, Guti was often inconsistent and did not quite live up to his huge potential.

24. Sergio Busquets

Sergio Busquets in action for Barcelona in the Champions League in 2009.

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Eyebrows were raised when Pep Guardiola promoted a young Sergio Busquets from Spain's third tier and started him in a La Liga game in 2008/09, but the midfielder quickly impressed and became a fixture in the team.

Busquets kept his place ahead of Yaya Toure and formed a formidable midfield trio alongside Xavi and Andres Iniesta. A treble winner in his first season, he remained key for club and country for the next 15 years.

23. Juan Carlos Valeron

Deportivo La Coruña's Juan Carlos Valeron is tackled by Barcelona's Ronaldinho in a La Liga game in 2004.

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An old-school playmaker Andres Iniesta once said he would pay to watch, Juan Carlos Valeron spent 13 years at Deportivo La Coruña between 2000 and 2013.

Although the later years of his career were interrupted by injuries, the midfielder from the Canary Islands was one of La Liga's best and a key part of the Super Depor side in the early 2000s. He won a Copa del Rey in 2002 and played 46 times for Spain.

22. Sergio Ramos

Sergio Ramos in action for Real Madrid against Racing Santander in 2008.

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When Real Madrid spent €27 million to sign Sergio Ramos from Sevilla in 2005, it was a record sum for a Spanish defender.

But it was money well spent as Ramos went on to play a huge role in Los Blancos' success over the next 15 years. In the 2000s, he was still a right-back and not yet the inspirational leader he would become, but was still an important player for both Madrid and Spain. 

21. David Silva

David Silva on the ball for Valencia in October 2006.

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Before he became a Premier League legend with Manchester City, David Silva was one of the finest footballers in La Liga.

After spells on loan with Eibar and Celta Vigo, Silva impressed for Valencia in four seasons at the Mestalla outfit, linking up effectively with David Villa and Juan Mata in an exciting front three. He won a Copa del Rey and was part of the successful Spain squads at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.

20. Pablo Aimar

Pablo Aimar in action for Valencia against Arsenal in the Champions League in 2003.

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Idolised by a young Lionel Messi, Pablo Aimar was a hugely talented attacking midfielder for Valencia and later Real Zaragoza in the 2000s.

An elegant, creative and skillful player, Aimar won two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup at Valencia but also suffered with injuries during his time in Spain. He won 52 caps for Argentina.

19. David Albelda

David Albelda in action for Valencia against Inter in the Champions League in 2004.

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Apart from two season-long loans at Villarreal in his early years, David Albelda spent his entire career at Valencia.

A local lad and fan favourite, Albelda became captain after the departure of Gaizka Mendieta and formed an excellent partnership with Ruben Baraja in central midfield. An aggressive ball winner, Albelda skippered Valencia to two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup win in the 2000s. He also won 51 caps for Spain.

18. Deco

Deco celebrates after scoring for Barcelona against Celtic in 2004.

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Deco arrived at Barcelona from Porto as a Champions League winner in 2004 and within two years, he had helped the Blaugrana to win a European Cup as well.

The Portugal midfielder added a toughness to the Barça midfield under Frank Rijkaard and linked up effectively with Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o, also winning two La Liga titles in a four-year spell at Camp Nou.

17. Joaquin

Joaquin in action for Real Betis against Chelsea in the Champions League in 2005.

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Joaquin's long career in La Liga began when Real Betis were promoted back to the top flight in 2001 – and continued until his retirement in 2023.

One of the most exciting Spanish players of the 2000s, Joaquin was an explosive winger with Betis and then Valencia in that period, winning a Copa del Rey with each club. He was also capped 51 times by Spain.

16. Iker Casillas

Iker Casillas in action for Real Madrid against Eintracht Frankfurt in 2008.

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Iker Casillas was Real Madrid's first-choice goalkeeper all through the 2000s, apart from a brief period at the end of the 2001/02 season. And even then, he came off the bench to make himself the hero in the Champions League final.

Known for producing key saves in big moments, Casillas was nicknamed "San Iker" (Saint Iker) and went on to captain club and country, winning multiple trophies along the way. One of the best ever.

15. Carles Puyol

Carles Puyol celebrates after scoring for Barcelona against Real Madrid in 2008.

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Barcelona fell into decline after winning La Liga in 1999/2000, but the emergence of Carles Puyol the following season was one bright spot in a difficult period for the Catalan club.

Puyol started out as a right-back but moved inside to become one of the world's best central defenders and an inspirational captain for Barcelona, where he spent his entire career until his retirement in 2014. A leader and a legend.

14. Fernando Torres

Fernando Torres celebrates after scoring for Atletico Madrid against Valencia in 2005.

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Fernando Torres came through the youth system at Atletico Madrid and helped the club return to La Liga after their painful relegation in 2000.

In five seasons back in Spain's top flight, El Niño became a fan favourite and was the bright spark in a struggling side. He scored 91 goals for Atleti in that time, before leaving for Liverpool in 2007, later returning as a hero in 2015.

13. David Villa

David Villa celebrates after scoring for Valencia against Roma in 2006.

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After impressing for Sporting Gijon in Spain's second tier, David Villa signed for Real Zaragoza and went on to win the Copa del Rey with the Aragonese club, scoring a penalty in the 3-2 win over Real Madrid after extra time in 2004.

Villa joined Valencia in 2005 and hit 130 goals in 225 games for the Mestalla outfit. In that time, he became Spain's striker ahead of Raul, and later their all-time top scorer. A Euro and World Cup winner with La Roja, he moved to Barcelona in 2010.

12. Diego Forlan

Diego Forlan scores for Atletico Madrid against Real Madrid in November 2009.

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Following a forgettable three-and-a-half season spell at Manchester United, Diego Forlan moved to Spain and was a player transformed.

The Uruguayan striker was part of an exciting Villarreal side for three seasons and then spent four years at Atletico Madrid, where he won the Europa League and the UEFA Super Cup in 2010. He twice claimed the Pichichi prize for the La Liga's top scorer and netted 155 goals in 324 games during his time in Spain.

11. Luis Figo

Luis Figo celebrates after scoring for Real Madrid against Roma in 2004.

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After one of the most controversial transfers in football history saw him swap Barcelona for Real Madrid in 2000, Luis Figo spent five seasons at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Figo's numbers with Los Blancos were good and he added a Champions League crown as a Madrid player, but over half of his 58 goals were penalties and in a team full of superstars, he was not able to express himself in quite the same way he had at Barcelona.

10. Ronaldo

Ronaldo celebrates after scoring for Real Madrid against Borussia Dortmund in 2003.

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Ronaldo returned to Spain in the summer of 2022 after starring for Brazil in their World Cup win in Japan and Korea.

The Brazilian was a different player to the precocious and explosive attacker at Barcelona in 1996/97, having been blighted by injuries during his time in Italy, but he was still an elite striker and scored 104 in 177 games for Real Madrid. He won La Liga in 2002/03 and was the competition's top scorer the following season.

9. Dani Alves

Dani Alves celebrates after scoring for Barcelona against Athletic Club in November 2009.

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Dani Alves joined Sevilla in 2003 and by the time he left the Andalusian club in 2008, the Brazilan was the best right-back in the world.

At Sevilla, Alves had often been the team's main attacking outlet from that position and he starred in a glorious era which included two UEFA Cup wins. He then moved to Barcelona in 2008 and formed an impressive alliance on the right with Lionel Messi in Pep Guardiola's treble-winning side. One of the best ever in his position.

8. Roberto Carlos

Roberto Carlos in action for Real Madrid against Feyenoord in the UEFA Super Cup in 2002.

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Roberto Carlos was at his brilliant best in the early 2000s and won a series of important titles with club and country.

The left-back won the Champions League with Real Madrid in 2002 and the World Cup with Brazil that same year, plus three La Liga titles in the 2000s. A huge asset in attack and a threat at set pieces, the Brazilian faded towards the end but is considered one of the club's best-ever players and one of the finest left-backs in history.

7. Samuel Eto'o

Samuel Eto'o celebrates after scoring for Barcelona against Villarreal at Camp Nou in May 2009.

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Samuel Eto'o joined Real Madrid's youth academy in 1997, but barely featured for the Spanish giants and went on to become one the most important players for their rivals Barcelona.

After five seasons at Mallorca where he became an idol, Eto'o joined Barcelona in 2004 and struck up a great rapport with Ronaldinho. He was not part of Pep Guardiola's plan initially but stayed for the treble triumph in 2008/09, netted in two Champions League finals for the Blaugrana and hit 130 goals overall in 199 games.

6. Andres Iniesta

Andres Iniesta in action for Barcelona against Villarreal in 2008.

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Andres Iniesta was a midfield maestro for Barcelona and the Catalans' treble triumph in 2008/09 would have been impossible without his dramatic extra-time goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Iniesta may have reached his peak early in the 2010s, but the elegant midfielder was an extraordinary footballer who played a key role in the success of Barcelona and Spain in the late 2000s.

5. Zinedine Zidane

Zinedine Zidane in action for Real Madrid against Real Betis in January 2002.

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Zinedine Zidane signed for Real Madrid from Juventus for a world record fee in 2001 and led Los Blancos to Champions League glory with his wonderful winner against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 final.

The French attacker only won La Liga once, in 2002/03, but lit up the Santiago Bernabeu with some superb showings in his five seasons with the Spanish side.

4. Raul Gonzalez

Raul celebrates after scoring for Real Madrid against AC Milan in the Champions League in March 2003.

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Raul was one of the world's finest forwards in the early 2000s and can consider himself extremely unfortunate never to have won the Ballon d'Or.

The Spain striker was Real Madrid's all-time top scorer until he was overtaken by Cristiano Ronaldo and later Karim Benzema. He won four La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues with Los Blancos in the 2000s.

3. Xavi

Xavi celebrates a goal for Barcelona against Malaga in March 2009.

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Xavi came close to leaving Barcelona before Pep Guardiola's arrival as coach but stayed and became the best midfielder in the world and the team's heartbeat in a golden era.

An important player throughout the decade, Xavi set the tempo for Barça in the late 2000s as part of arguably the greatest midfield in football history. Key to the Catalans' treble triumph in 2008/09, he was also named best player as Spain won Euro 2008.

2. Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi celebrates a goal for Barcelona against Racing Santander in February 2009.

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Lionel Messi made his Barcelona debut in 2004, but it was later in the decade when the Argentine attacker became the world's best player.

His famous goal against Getafe came in 2007 and there was a brilliant hat-trick at home to Real Madrid that same year. From 2008/09, Messi took his game to new heights under Pep Guardiola as Barça won the treble. He claimed the Ballon d'Or in 2009 and again in 2010.

1. Ronaldinho

Ronaldinho celebrates a goal for Barcelona against Athletic Club in 2006.

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Everything changed for Barcelona with the arrival of Ronaldinho from Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2003 as the brilliant Brazilian forward transformed the fortunes of the Catalan club following a difficult few years.

Ronaldinho led Barça to La Liga in 2005 and 2006, plus the Champions League that year. Twice named FIFA World Player of the Year in that time, he won the Ballon d'Or in 2005 and was applauded by Real Madrid fans at the Santiago Bernabeu. He fell into decline in 2007, but his impact was huge.

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