So much of 2020 was cancelled. Ligue 1. Glastonbury. Fun in general. Oh, and the Ballon d'Or.
So FourFourTwo decided to step in. We figured that in a year of such doom and gloom - a year in which neither Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo had delivered outright definitive shouts for the Ballon d'Or - that a ranking was needed. So in December, we reached out across the globe to journalists in 102 countries.
We wanted to compile the 30 best players on Earth.
We came up with the shortlist, before pinging it to every corner of the globe to ask world's opinion. Each expert voted for five players, with six points awarded to their first-place pick, four points for second, three for third, two for fourth and one point for fifth.
If you want to see the full breakdown of all the votes, you'll need to pick up the January 2021 issue of FourFourTwo magazine (opens in new tab) (then subscribe so you never miss an issue (opens in new tab)).
But if you just want to see the list, this is how everyone voted...
30. Angel Di Maria
Paris Saint-Germain | Argentina | 0 PTS
Alas, the only man with zero votes – but his place on our 30-strong shortlist recognises a fine year for the ex-Manchester United flop.
While Neymar and Kylian Mbappe hogged the spotlights, Di Maria kept busy conducting the orchestra. The 32-year-old’s outstanding vision cut through defences as PSG reached a first Champions League final, while his 14 Ligue 1 assists last term were twice as many as any other footballer in France’s top flight.
29. Jordan Henderson
Liverpool | England | 1 PT
It’s easy to point out Henderson’s leadership skills as the reason why he’s one of the first names on Jurgen Klopp’s team-sheet. It does, however, ignore what a supreme midfielder he has grown into. Henderson rarely wastes a ball, his long-range passing is excellent and his intensity off the ball exemplary. The FWA Footballer of the Year has come to symbolise this Liverpool era – with his heart and head.
28. Harry Kane
Tottenham Hotspur | England | 2 PTS
It seems unfair to defences that England’s best striker keeps improving. Kane seemingly downloads new patches to boost his game, and in 2020 he has developed further in an effective withdrawn role for Jose Mourinho’s side.
But he’s still scoring: seven goals after Project Restart; 13 more before November’s international break – not to mention beating his assist record for a Premier League season by October 26. Still surprising, still brilliant.
=26. Andrew Robertson
Liverpool | Scotland | 3 PTS
As a measure of his abilities, Robbo was the only member of Liverpool’s title-winning side not to have a defined deputy waiting in the wings. The man Mourinho once said makes him tired just watching epitomises reliability; a constant provider in the final third, hurtling up and down the line to laser in his trademark crosses. Another stunning year was capped by leading Scotland to Euro 2020, their first major finals in 22 years, via nervy shootout victories over Israel and Serbia. Some going.
= 26. Leon Goretzka
Bayern Munich | Germany | 3 PTS
Goretzka was called a “Bayern pig” when he traded Schalke for Bavaria in 2018, but there’s a good reason why they’re so alluring. In turn, the 25-year-old has blossomed into a Swiss army knife star: a goalscorer, preventer and gut-busting worker. Take the 8-2 battering of Barcelona: Goretzka dominated the midfield with an iron fist, yet delivered a sumptuous assist for Serge Gnabry to bag Bayern’s third. “He’s currently the best box-to-box player in the world,” insisted the astute Ralf Rangnick.
Paris Saint-Germain | Brazil | 4 PTS
Formerly considered little more than Thiago Silva’s hype man, Marquinhos has been at the heart of PSG’s top 2020. After seamlessly adapting to a less familiar defensive midfield role under Thomas Tuchel, the Brazilian also contributed vital goals – in the quarter and semi-finals – as Les Parisiens marched to the Champions League showpiece.
Those golden moments were enough to demonstrate his leadership and, sure enough, he assumed the captaincy from an outgoing Silva this season.
24. Alisson Becker
Liverpool | Brazil | 7 PTS
In 2018-19, Alisson’s first season at Liverpool, he kept as many clean sheets as he conceded goals – 36 – for both club and country. Those sky-high standards haven’t dropped, either: in 2020 he added the Premier League trophy to his haul, averaging a clean sheet every other game.
Never is his value highlighted greater than in absentia, though. Adrian’s howler at home to Atletico Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League cost Klopp’s men dearly in March, shorn of their giant No.1’s presence.
23. Bruno Fernandes
Manchester United | Portugal | 10 PTS
United’s 2019-20 had two parts: before and after Bruno. Prior to his late-January arrival, the Reds sat 14 points behind third-placed Leicester City, chasing a lost cause. But then came the fightback: eight goals and seven assists for their catalytic recruit, sealing an unlikely Champions League place.
The 26-year-old is already talismanic at Old Trafford, marrying his stunning ability on the ball with a fierce desire to drag team-mates along with him.
22. Karim Benzema
Real Madrid | France | 11 PTS
Benzema, the narrative claimed, was nothing more than a magician’s assistant. But there was a reason why Real Madrid didn’t directly replace Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018. Out of the showman’s shadow he has twice top-scored for Real, and this term led them to his third La Liga title with seven goals after lockdown.
The understated Frenchman isn’t dimming in his twilight years – instead, he’s proving his worth as a defining striker of this generation.
21. Trent Alexander-Arnold
Liverpool | England | 13 PTS
The Reds’ local hero carved out 13 top-flight assists across 2019-20, after 12 the season before. He only recently turned 22. Liverpool’s arch playmaker – from his so-called defensive role – is more than a pass-master, though: he typifies the champions’ style and guile with ace delivery and attacking thrust. Talk of him moving to midfield has hushed: he’s too busy rewriting what it means to be a right-back.
20. Romelu Lukaku
Inter Milan | Belgium | 14 PTS
As the youngest overseas player to plunder 100 Premier League goals, form like this was always Lukaku’s destiny.
Having fired Inter to within a point of a first Scudetto since 2010, the Belgian took them agonisingly close to the Europa League crown – netting in every knockout match. This may have been a year of near misses for Lukaku, but not in front of goal. He showed his detractors the real Rom.
19. Alphonso Davies
Bayern Munich | Canada | 15 PTS
Davies seems to do everything at breakneck speed – but then, that’s not really surprising for a player who made his professional debut at Vancouver aged 15. He began last season shoehorned out of position at left-back, yet became key to Bayern’s ruthless bullying of the Bundesliga and Europe.
With boundless stamina, fearless dribbling and cheetah-like pace, he tore Chelsea and Barça apart to seal Champions League glory... and he’s only 20.
18. Son Heung-min
Tottenham Hotspur | South Korea | 18 PTS
It’s no shock that Spurs’ worst patch in 2020 came in the three matches an in-form Son missed with a fractured arm. Tottenham took one point from a possible nine, crippling their Champions League hopes.
The electric Korean has grown in prominence this year, though, becoming the first Asian to reach 50 Premier League goals and starting 2020-21 with nine in as many games. He even did the dreaded military service in lockdown – winning a prize for the top performance among 157 trainees.
17. Ciro Immobile
Lazio | Italy | 21 PTS
Take away the record 14 penalties Immobile scored for Lazio last term, and the Italian’s tally would still be Serie A’s fourth-highest of 2019-20. Instead, his lethal haul was enough to bag him the European Golden Shoe while equalling Gino Rosetti and Gonzalo Higuain’s joint-record for the most goals in an Italian top-flight campaign. More importantly, those 36 goals amounted to 45 per cent of Lazio’s total and propelled them into the Champions League for the first time since 2008.
16. Thiago Alcantara
Bayern Munich, Liverpool | Spain | 23 PTS
The hypnotic Spaniard started his year with three goals in as many Bundesliga outings, and ended his final campaign in Bavaria with three winner’s medals. Thiago’s mesmerising passing at the base of midfield was crucial in delivering Bayern’s Treble, culminating in his brilliant swansong: August’s 1-0 victory over PSG to secure Europe’s biggest prize. Is it any wonder that Liverpool fans were so pleased to land their man for £25m?
15. Serge Gnabry
Bayern Munich | Germany | 23 PTS
Ex-Arsenal man Gnabry proved the attacking ace of Bayern’s European run-in. Five goals in the Champions League knockout stages – one in the 8-2 hammering of Barcelona and a brace in the semi-final victory over Lyon – were backed up by another in the DFB-Pokal final, amounting to a remarkable Treble that had the continent rising to applause. Suffice to say, those struggles at West Brom in 2015 haven’t held him back.
14. Sergio Ramos
Real Madrid | Spain | 27 PTS
Madrid’s battle-weary leader remains as vital as ever to club and country. The 34-year-old enjoyed another trophy-winning year, lifting a La Liga and Copa del rey Double, reaching 100 career goals for Real, playing his 450th match for the club, and overtaking Gianluigi Buffon’s European record of 176 caps.
It was also the year in which he became joint-leader for Champions League red cards (four) along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edgar Davids.
13. Thomas Muller
Bayern Munich | Germany | 36 PTS
A little over 12 months ago, Muller’s glittering career at Bayern was on life support: frozen out of the side by former boss Niko Kovac, his role reduced to that of 30-something impact substitute. After Kovac’s November sacking, though, replacement Hansi Flick immediately reinstated the ‘Raumdeuter’.
2020 IN FOOTBALL The year in photos
Nine goals and as many assists after the 2020 party poppers – the latter, part of a 21-strong Bundesliga season record haul – helped Bayern win big.
12. Mohamed Salah
Liverpool | Egypt | 42 PTS
Move over, Mo – goal-getting alone isn’t going to earn votes any more. He’s still rather good at that, mind: the Egyptian netted 10 Premier League goals in the second half of last term to ensure Liverpool’s title march stayed fully on course, and started 2020-21 with eight in as many matches. While Sadio Mané has earned acclaim this year, Salah was the only top-tier player to make the top five for both goals and assists.
11. Erling Haaland
Borussia Dortmund | Norway | 43 PTS
The Leeds-born Norway international kicked off his 2020 by swapping Red Bull Salzburg for Borussia Dortmund, amid interest from Manchester United. It proved a wise choice: the striker hit seven goals in his opening three Bundesliga appearances, two more to sink PSG in the Champions League, and hasn’t let up.
Ludicrously, his year up to November 21 had produced 38 goals in 35 games for club and country, including four in a 5-2 victory at Hertha Berlin. He turned 20 in July. Be afraid.
Paris Saint-Germain | Brazil | 48 PTS
The scenes of an inconsolable Neymar in the aftermath of PSG’s Champions League final heartbreak may have surprised those who worried about the Brazilian’s commitment to life in the French capital. Frequent histrionics can sometimes mask his desire to win – but here was a reminder, if ever one was required.
When Neymar is in the mood – as he was for PSG’s European quest – he remains laughably unplayable; a schemer of effortless brilliance, ceaseless fun and devastating end product.
9. Joshua Kimmich
Bayern Munich | Germany | 59 PTS
Arguably the world’s finest footballer in two positions, Kimmich was regularly switched between right-back and defensive midfield for club and country again during 2020. His stellar performances in both roles were key as Die Roten clinched their trophy hat-trick, displaying admirable leadership for a player still only 25. His outstanding reliability and determination have become as valuable as his pinpoint passes and spatial awareness. Pleasingly, FFT’s voters agree.
8. Kylian Mbappe
Paris Saint-Germain | France | 64 PTS
Last season’s Ligue 1 campaign might have been cut short in April, but leaders PSG still won the title and Mbappe his second straight Golden Boot. The 21-year-old’s importance was best highlighted in Les Parisiens’ run to Lisbon’s European showpiece, though, when his late introduction against Atalanta in the quarters helped to overturn an ominous 1-0 deficit. He possibly should have made more of his opportunities in August’s final – but the explosive Frenchman will get his shot again.
7. Virgil van Dijk
Liverpool | Netherlands | 67 PTS
The best defender in the world this year, so say our panel of experts, the 29-year-old has become the benchmark against which every other centre-back is measured. The towering Dutchman didn’t miss a minute of Liverpool’s league-winning season, bossing opposition strikers with his customary intelligence and elegance.
Having been ruled out until April 2021 with a cruciate injury sustained during October’s Merseyside derby, his true worth to the Reds may yet become apparent in the months to come.
6. Manuel Neuer
Bayern Munich | Germany | 69 PTS
Google Bayern Munich’s colossal goalkeeper and the ‘people also ask’ box also throws up: “Is Manuel Neuer still good?” Well, here’s your answer. It’s true that 2018 was something of an annus horribilis – a gruesome World Cup defence after breaking his foot the previous September – but at 34, his best days are back.
Champions League success in August was his second at Bayern and the Bundesliga title his eighth, while October even delivered a Sepp Maier-beating, club record 200th clean sheet in Bavaria. Oh, Manuel Neuer’s still good all right – just ask our voters.
5. Cristiano Ronaldo
Juventus | Portugal | 98 PTS
Ronaldo netted his 100th international goal for Portugal this year, paving the way to beat Ali Daei’s record tally of 109 in 2021. While he suffered a second season of European failure at Juventus, CR7 still won his second Serie A crown and became one of only three players in Old Lady history to break the 30-goal mark – the first since Felice Borel in 1934. To most players, that would be a sensational year.
RONALDO TURNS 35 His whole record-breaking career so far
To Ronaldo, 35 but still seemingly indestructible, it’s been relatively quiet. With next summer’s Euros approaching and Daei on the verge of being toppled, however, the Portuguese will be confident of ensuring his name is back in lights when the Ballon d’Or votes are cast in 2021.
After all, there’s a bloke who beats his five orbs on the mantelpiece...
4. Lionel Messi
Barcelona | Argentina | 101 PTS
...and he nudges ahead in our votes for 2020 as well.
It says much about Messi’s mutant abilities that he can still finish this high after what has arguably been the worst year of his career. Simmering tensions with Barcelona’s board eventually boiled over in August with his botched and very public transfer request, leading to an almighty summer of discontent in Catalonia.
And yet, this was also the year when Messi converted his 700th career goal, smashed Xavi’s assists record for a sole La Liga season (21) and won a seventh top-scorer Pichichi Trophy for netting 25 goals – the 12th consecutive campaign in which he has struck at least 20. Only Thierry Henry had managed 20 goals and 20 assists in a season within Europe’s top five divisons this century.
Yes: even the Flea’s ‘bad’ years are markedly better than most players’ special ones.
3. Sadio Mané
Liverpool | Senegal | 113 PTS
“I’ll say it again. Sadio Mané best player in the league.” So tweeted No.1 fan Cesc Fabregas in September, after Liverpool’s ace frontman had bagged a quick-fire brace to sink Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Cesc wasn’t lying, either: he had given the same response when asked the question in January, having also named the speedster among the planet’s top three players months earlier.
Now, the rest of the world is catching up in its appreciation of the 28-year-old. Mo Salah may have edged him overall in every season since the Egyptian’s arrival in 2017, but Reds supporters are just as enamoured with their Senegalese star, who again dazzled en route to Liverpool’s first top-flight title since 1990.
Arguably the most consistent of their lethal attackers, Mané has also blossomed into one of the most complete: a bundle of trickery, imagination, pace and assassin-like finishing.
His game has become about more than goals – see the delightful outside-of-the-boot assist for Diogo Jota’s hat-trick goal at Atalanta in November, when the Merseysiders ran amok. He’s come a long way. Jurgen Klopp & Co took something of a punt to polish the £34m man, who arrived from Southampton in 2016 as a raw but explosive talent. “Maybe people thought, ‘I’m not sure he’s worth it’, but we were 100 per cent sure about him,” noted the German in July. “Consistency was key... the level he performs at is unbelievable. He came as a young boy and grew up – he matured.”
Klopp’s praise was later even more effusive. “From a talent to a settled, world-class player is a big step, because you have to do it pretty much week in and week out,” he explained. “That’s what he’s able to do. It’s a massive development. I have no idea of a number [of where he ranks] but for sure in the top, top, top, top offensive wingers, strikers, whatever you want to see in the world. I think everyone would agree on that.”
Well, Jurgen: it appears they absolutely do.
2. Kevin De Bruyne
Manchester City | Belgium | 120 PTS
It was claimed that if Roger Federer was on Centre Court with the roof shut, it was game over. You couldn’t beat the Swiss master for precision with no wind; no sun glare over his sweatband. Without the elements, you were battling the inevitable scythe of defeat.
It felt similar watching Kevin De Bruyne in desolate stadiums post-lockdown, chiselling away at Thierry Henry’s 20-assist record set in 2002-03. There’s comfort in consistency: that should the world descend into darkness and football become a television-only event, you can set your watch by the remorseless swing of a Belgian’s right peg.
Last term was a defining one for him – not because he brought consistency
amid the chaos, but because no one is this good. He stands above everyone; a flame-haired rock star who rendered Real Madrid mediocre inside the Bernabeu, bagged 20 league assists and picked apart Liverpool in a 4-0 thrashing – the same night as their guard of honour.
Guardiola has found that the playmaker does exactly what he asked, however he tinkers with his starting XI. He isn’t a revelation. He's a revolution. He is Guardiola’s general. Not the vocal enforcer that some managers boast, but a high-functioning, high-octane metronome to set your watch by.
Full house or empty, KDB will tear you apart.
1. Robert Lewandowski
Bayern Munich | Poland | 561 PTS
There is beauty in simplicity. Perhaps no other footballer on the planet embodies that idea more than Robert Lewandowski. Bayern Munich’s trusty striker might not be the most skilful player in the world, the most jaw-dropping, the fiercest nor the quickest, but he has made a habit of doing the simple things better than anybody in 2020. And he is devastating at it.
Across a 2019-20 campaign pulled apart by COVID-19, the Polish marksman scored 55 Bayern goals in all competitions – 25 last calendar year, in just 22 matches. Die Roten won everything with their unstoppable scorer, culminating in August’s glorious Champions League final victory over Paris Saint-Germain – the only knockout game in which Lewy didn’t find the net.
Before that, the Pole failed to notch in only one of his eight post-lockdown Bundesliga matches and bagged twice in the DFB-Pokal final against Bayer Leverkusen. Not getting on the scoresheet was more of a surprise.
Lewandowski turned 32 in August, the Pole’s still in stellar physical condition, however - for now, Bayern fans can continue to enjoy the phenomenal displays of a No.9 who ages like Benjamin Button. Tobias Altschaffl, the chief reporter at German news outlet SportBild, there is in no doubt that the talisman was the best player in the world across 2020, and a more than worthy winner of FFT’s vote.
“He fully deserves it,” he says. “The player who finishes top scorer in the league, the cup and in Europe – and who won everything in a calendar year with no Euros or World Cup – is the simple choice.”
Simplicity, after all, is always key whenever Robert Lewandowski is concerned.
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