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 100-91, including four full-backs, a pint-sized Frenchman, and an unsung Premier League hero.
Words: Matt Allen (opens in new tab), Joe Brewin (opens in new tab), Gregg Davies (opens in new tab), Huw Davies (opens in new tab), Jonathan Fadugba (opens in new tab), Nick Harper (opens in new tab), Louis Massarella (opens in new tab), James Maw (opens in new tab), Nick Moore (opens in new tab) and Gary Parkinson (opens in new tab).
It’s only a matter of time before the 22-year-old Wolfsburg left-back uproots for bigger things – and if you believe the papers, there’s no shortage of interest from the Premier League. You can’t blame clubs for being keen on him, either. Despite his tender years the Switzerland international is already undisputed first choice for club and country thanks to a swashbuckling style that reaps results. He built on last season’s five goals and nine assists in the Bundesliga with a string of positive performances at the World Cup, and continues to catch the eye with his penchant for pinpoint crossing and set-piece nous. JB
Why always him? Well, a multi-million pound transfer from AC Milan to Liverpool helps. Balo’s back in the Premier League, but he’s also been boxed down 48 places in this year’s ranking and now teeters on the brink of falling out of the FFT100 completely after what can only be described as an unsatisfactory year. It’s not that Super Mario has been terrible – he hit 18 goals in 41 appearances for Milan last season and scored a World Cup winner for Italy against England, after all. It’s more that, at 24, while still young, Balotelli appears nowhere near realising his true potential. A poor start at Anfield hasn’t helped. JF
The 30-year-old entered late into the FFT100 discussions, but his consistent displays place him here on merit. Lichtsteiner is more vital to Juventus than many realise, his relentless energy on the right flank (and Kwadwo Asamoah’s dribbling on the left) giving their forwards options, their midfielders space and their defenders cover. And there’s no arguing with a combined 10 goals and assists in 27 league games in 2013/14 and, incredibly, six in his first 11 this term. Reliable at full-back or wing-back and impressive at the World Cup, he won’t be short of suitors if contract talks with the Old Lady continue to drag on. HD
“He’s doing everything to reach the top. He has a body of a true athlete, power and flair.” Just one of several glowing endorsements (opens in new tab) of the PSV wing sensation, who makes the FFT100 for the first time after a breakthrough campaign in Eindhoven. The 20-year-old scored 12 goals and assisted seven more in 32 Eredivisie appearances last season, and capped a fine 2013/14 by opening his account for his country at the World Cup. The first of two goals in Brazil, the winner in a 3-2 triumph against Australia, made Depay the youngest Dutchman to ever score at the tournament finals, at 20 years and four months. GD
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Last season represented something of a coming of age for the wily wideman, now 27. Not only did he score 15 goals and provide six assists in his debut season in Italian football, but he also helped Napoli to a Coppa Italia final victory over Fiorentina. Eight goals in his first 11 Serie A matches of this season were enough to finally convince Vicente del Bosque he was ready for a step up into a Spain side in need of regeneration. Callejon made his debut as a substitute in the Euro 2016 qualifier against Belarus in November. JM
Alves would probably like to remove his brain and scrub his hippocampus with wire wool, such are the rotten memories 2014 has ingrained upon it. Barça’s season was miserable, with Atletico knocking them out of the Champions League and pipping them to the title, but that was merely a foul appetiser for the plate of horror the World Cup would serve up. He played in the first four matches, but was then benched for the Colombia quarter and the semi-final disaster. That said, it’s not as if his vim, nous and natural ability have evaporated. Alves would still be one of anyone’s first picks as a thundering full-back: he’ll just hope that 2015 brings less misery. NM
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Eyebrows were raised when the much-admired France international ended his eight-year association with Marseille in the summer by joining Dynamo Moscow, rather than move to the brighter lights of England, Spain or Italy with QPR and West Ham among his alleged suitors. The 30-year-old scored 27 goals and assisted twice as many in more than 200 Ligue 1 appearances, leading to l’OM retiring his No.28 shirt. Aside from having to undergo an emergency appendectomy in September, life in Russia hasn’t begun too badly. Signing a three-year deal worth a reported €10 million salary, Valbuena scored two goals and assisted seven in his opening 10 Russian Premier League outings. GD
“I’m not a world-class player like David Silva or Yaya Toure. They are stars. I just try to do my best.” Zabaleta’s best is clearly enough for Manchester City supporters, who idolise the former Espanyol full-back. The Argentine sneaks into FFT’s century of the world’s elite after helping steer Manchester City to a second league title in three seasons and his country to their first World Cup final since 1990. The 29-year-old, now recognised as one of the best right-backs in the Premier League, missed just three games as Manuel Pellegrini's men edged out Liverpool and Chelsea for top spot, his relentless running up and down the flank helping him set up six goals and notch one himself. GD
Some would suggest the Colombian hitman suffered a slow start to 2014, but although he couldn't maintain the sensational goalscoring rate of the first half of 2013/14 (14 in 21), he still bagged nine in 21 matches from January to May. It may not have been enough to seal Porto the title, but it did at least see him finish top scorer. He was overshadowed at the World Cup by compatriot James Rodriguez, and that may have in part cost him a big summer move, but his superb start to this season (he scored 13 in his first 17 in the Primeira Liga and Champions League) should see vultures circling again before long. JM
ANALYSIS From poverty to Porto to the Premier League?
The Moroccan defender was hot property in the summer after helping Roma to a second-placed finish in Serie A last season. Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea were all reportedly keen to recruit the 27-year-old centre-back, but he eventually plumped for Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, the former Barcelona supremo an admirer of his ability to operate in both a three- and four-man backline. Making his debut against one of his other suitors, City, in the Champions League, the stopper has been used regularly in Europe this term and returned to the Stadio Olimpico to haunt his former employers in October, the Germans routing Rudi Garcia’s side 7-1. GD
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