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 Serie A's all-action 'Warrior', two who swapped Dortmund for Munich, and Barcelona's new midfield metronome.
Words: Matt Allen, Joe Brewin, Gregg Davies, Huw Davies, Jonathan Fadugba, Nick Harper, Louis Massarella, James Maw, Nick Moore and Gary Parkinson.
Whatever you do, don't tell the Croatian schemer that the Europa League is a waste of time. His dynamic performances in the competition not only helped Sevilla to the trophy – having knocked out Porto, Valencia and arch-rivals Betis along the way – but also convinced Barcelona to fork over €18m for his services. His La Liga displays won't have done him any harm, of course, and 12 goals and 10 assists in 29 matches is clearly not to be sniffed at. The smart money is now on him eventually replacing Xavi as the Catalan club's midfield metronome. JM
INTERVIEWRakitic: Cool down your team-mates
Brazil’s humiliation by Germany led some to forget that before that match, the Selecao were accused of pragmatic, defensive football. In truth, that took the hosts further than they deserved – and Thiago Silva was why. His mid-anthem tears and refusal to take a penalty against Chile didn’t make him much of a calming influence as captain, but his absence through suspension in that disastrous semi-final – with nobody covering David Luiz’s moronic Roy of the Rovers impersonation – showed what they were missing. The year also brought a Ligue 1 title, with only 23 goals conceded. HD
INTERVIEWThiago Silva: Get up to speed for matchday
Gareth Bale gave them the lead. Angel Di Maria won man of the match. Cristiano Ronaldo seemed to think it was all down to him. But Sergio Ramos was the reason Real Madrid won La Decima. It was Ramos who evaded Diego Godin (one of the world’s best centre-backs) in the 93rd minute to place the perfect header past Thibaut Courtois (one of the world’s best goalkeepers) and not only take the match to extra time, but save his side from the humiliation of losing the trophy, THEIR trophy, to their paltry little rivals. And he scored twice in the semi-final, while keeping two clean sheets. When it matters, Ramos steps up – and he’s becoming a symbol for Real Madrid. HD
From knee surgery in May to the World Cup finals in June: no wonder Vidal’s nickname is ‘The Warrior’. And no wonder Manchester United tried so hard to sign him in the summer. Box-to-box midfielders don’t come any better than the 27-year-old Chilean, who scored a career-high 22 goals for club and country in 2013/14. Vidal can defend and attack with equal aplomb, often doing both within the space of a few seconds thanks to having lungs like a Grand National winner. Expect Louis van Gaal to have another nibble in January, even though Juventus insist one of their main men isn’t for sale. LM
As God-gifted as he’s always been, Hazard was incredible but a long way short of complete. “He was a kid always living on his amazing natural talent,” is how Jose Mourinho remembers his first view of the Belgian, by which he meant he was ridiculously gifted going forwards but lazy tracking back – as evidenced by his culpability in Atletico Madrid’s equaliser at Stamford Bridge in last season’s Champions League. Over the last 12 months, however, this has changed. Still irresistible as an attacking element, Hazard is now willing to do the dirty work to help out his team. Continue at the current rate of knots and we can expect that No.26 to lower again over the next 12 months. NH
PERFORMANCE LABEden Hazard
Gotze may never have to pay for a beer in his homeland again after his exploits in Brazil and, as if lifelong admiration and the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from making millions of people happy isn’t enough, the Bayern Munich playmaker is up 15 places to 25th in the FFT100. At club level the 22-year-old’s first season in Munich was plenty good enough: 45 appearances, 15 goals and 13 assists in a variety of positions as Bayern bagged the domestic double. But the obvious peak was becoming the youngest player to score in a World Cup final since 1966 and pub-quiz immortality as the first substitute to ever score a World Cup-winning goal. Not bad. JF
INTERVIEWGotze: Be a creative spark
The Manchester City man who’s acceptable for even neutrals to admire, Silva has had another highly impressive and quietly unassuming year. Humble and human, the Spaniard’s scurrying performances as playmaker-in-chief helped carry City to an expected but somewhat unlikely title. City’s inability to make any kind of mark in Europe and Spain’s hopeless showing in Brazil have slowed Silva’s progress up this list, but his own reputation remains largely intact. Admired but relatively unsung, and you get the impression that’s exactly how he likes it. NH
Disaster struck for Reus a week before the World Cup when he went down with an ankle injury in a pre-tournament friendly against Armenia. The damage would rule the Borussia Dortmund man out of his first World Cup and, with it, the chance to claim a winners’ medal. It was a crushing blow for the 25-year-old who, fresh off a Bundesliga season in which he bagged 16 goals and 14 assists, could have been one of the stars of the tournament. Down one place to 23rd on the FFT100, the versatile offensive winger remains one of the most coveted stars in world football – and the apparently inevitable summer move might help him move further up this list. JF
Although Schweinsteiger has been astonishingly consistent for a decade as Bayern Munich and Germany’s midfield hub, a top international honour had remained elusive. That all changed with a typically wonderful performance against Argentina in Rio, and a World Cup medal was no less than ‘Schweini’ deserved. Now captain of Germany following Philipp Lahm’s retirement, this supremely intelligent player is tasked with establishing a Spain-style era of dominance. But the Euro 2016 qualification campaign hasn’t started well, and injury may also stand in the way of further glory: the knock-prone anchorman has missed much of this year’s campaign with knee problems. NM
Few strikers could have improved Bayern Munich this season, but Lewandowski was one of them. The Polish goal machine’s move from Borussia Dortmund was the year’s worst-kept secret, announced in January and then completed in July, after rumours had circulated for the best part of eight months. Yet despite his impending departure from the Westfalenstadion, the 26-year-old continued to find the net freely at Dortmund, netting nine goals in 16 league games after the winter break as Jurgen Klopp’s side landed second spot. The powerful hitman has began life at the Allianz Arena quietly by his standards, but will doubtless prove essential to Bayern’s hopes of reclaiming the Champions League this season. JB
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