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Ranked! The 100 best players of the 21st Century

Ranked! The 100 best players of the 21st Century
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In 2000, Boca Juniors beat Real Madrid in the now-extinct Intercontinental Cup final. President Florentino Perez reportedly gave both barrels to his misfiring Galacticos in the aftermath – but more because of the commercial opportunities that a pancontinental cup final loss had scuppered than the embarrassing result.

Flo saw the match as a chance to expand his brand to Asia, with a new millennium beaming more football matches than ever: but not even he could envisage what this new century would bring. The internet would create stars – it would break them, too – the Champions League would grow in prestige, while scientific and technological advancements (not to mention coaching evolution) would make this game almost unrecognisable from the one that Perez grew up wanting to tame as his own.

The 21st Century has taken football to new realms. Let us introduce the 100 best artists, artisans, wizards and wunderkinder to have boldly gone where no one has else has ventured since that heady Intercontinental Cup clash…

Ranked! The 100 best players of the 21st Century


100. Trent Alexander-Arnold

Trent Alexander-Arnold

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The Liverpool man has been a cornerstone of the club’s glorious era under Jurgen Klopp, winning the Champions League, Premier League, and Club World Cup, as well as helping England to the World Cup semi-final and Euro 2020 final.

His attacking threat from right-back is a constant thorn in the side of opposition teams, while he possesses outstanding technical ability and free-kick prowess. And he’s still only 23 – imagine what he could still achieve.

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99. Miroslav Klose

Miroslav Klose

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The Germany legend holds the record for the most goals scored at the World Cup, having struck 16 times across four different tournaments, the last of which ended in well-earned glory in 2014.

Klose is also his country’s all-time top scorer with 71 goals, and would certainly be higher up this list if his club achievements matched those at international level.

His club CV is hardly to be sniffed at – the striker won two Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich and the Coppa Italia with Lazio – but he became a different beast altogether when he pulled on the white shirt of his country.

98. Rivaldo


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The Brazilian great’s career traversed two centuries, but some of his finest moments came in the 21st.

He scored arguably the greatest hat-trick ever (a treble against Valencia in 2001 that concluded with an overhead kick from the edge of the box), and starred alongside Ronaldinho and Ronaldo in possibly the classiest front three of all time as Brazil won the 2002 World Cup.

Rivaldo’s dazzling talent was a joy to watch, and he would certainly be higher up this list if his Ballon d’Or-winning heyday didn’t come the wrong side of the year 2000.

97. Luca Toni

Luca Toni

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The ultimate late bloomer, Toni only made his Serie A debut in 2004 aged 27 and things only got better from there.

At Fiorentina in 2005/06, the totemic striker became the first Italian ever to win the European Golden Shoe, and nine years later he scored 22 goals for Verona at the age of 38 to become Serie A’s oldest-ever top scorer.

His Bayern Munich spell brought major honours (and the Luca Toni macaroni song), but the crowning moment of Toni’s career was the 2006 World Cup, where he scored two goals on the Azzurri’s path to glory.

96. David De Gea

David De Gea

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The Spaniard’s star may have waned in recent years, but for a long time he was considered among the very best goalkeepers in the world, when his agility and ability to pull off seemingly impossible stops – often with his feet - beggared belief.

De Gea’s outstanding performances for Atletico Madrid earned him a move to Manchester United in 2011 and, although he would’ve wanted to have claimed more than the one Premier League title by now, his individual performances were recognised with four fans’ player of the season awards between 2013 and 2018.

95. Deco


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The diminutive Portuguese playmaker is a member of a very exclusive group of players who have won the Champions League with two different clubs, having triumphed with Porto in 2004 and Barcelona two years later.

The Brazil-born midfielder’s creativity, technique and versatility made him a manager’s dream – and further honours followed when he helped Chelsea to a league and cup double in 2009/10.

94. Javier Zanetti

Javier Zanetti

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The Inter Milan legend’s 19-year stint at San Siro peaked in 2010 when he helped Jose Mourinho’s side win an unprecedented Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League treble.

One of the greatest defenders of his generation, the Argentina international was versatile enoughto operate in midfield, as well as being remarkably dependable, coming in 13th in the all-time list of footballers with the most official appearances.

Zanetti holds the Inter record for most appearances and won 19 trophies with the Nerazzurri – no wonder they wanted to keep him on in a vice-president role following his retirement.

93. Mesut Ozil

Mesut Ozil

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Ozil was instrumental in Germany’s 2014 World Cup win and deservedly established a reputation as one of the world’s best attacking midfielders during spells with Real Madrid and Arsenal.

Nobody has won more German Player of the Year awards than Ozil’s five, and his sublime creative abilities came to the fore when he was the top assist provider in La Liga for three consecutive seasons.

He helped Arsenal end a nine-year trophy drought by winning the 2014 FA Cup, before winning two more. At his peak, Ozil was a joy to behold.

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92. Edwin van der Sar

Edwin van der Sar

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Widely considered one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, Van der Sar had already enjoyed Champions League-winning success at Ajax before the 21st century even began.

Trophies followed wherever the Dutchman went, as he collected 26 during his career, including becoming the oldest Premier League winner in 2011 aged 40 years and 205 days.

Van der Sar is also the world record holder for the longest spell without conceding, going 1,311 minutes at Manchester United in 2008/09, while his ability with his feet as well as his hands inspired Germany World Cup winner Manuel Neuer, who credited the Dutchman with “allowing the position to enter a new phase”.

91. Carlos Tevez

Carlos Tevez

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Dynamic, explosive and prolific, Tevez was a complete striker who won major honours with six different clubs on three different continents during his decorated career.

That included a Champions League triumph with Manchester United, a Premier League crown with Man City, back-to-back Scudetti at Juventus and silverware at either end of his long career with his beloved Boca Juniors.

A career record of 214 goals in 497 games speaks to the natural ability of a player who could find the net and get fans off there seats wherever he went: a Premier League golden boot winner, Serie A player of the year and three-time South American footballer of the year.

90. Arturo Vidal

Arturo Vidal

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The Chilean warrior’s blend of technical prowess and physical tenacity – not to mention his array of haircuts – has made him stand out during a hugely successful career for club and country.

Vidal won four consecutive Serie A titles at Juventus, three Bundesligas with Bayern Munich, a La Liga crown at Barcelona before returning to Italy to win another Scudetto at Inter Milan.

But his central role to Chile’s golden age has made him a hero in his home country. Vidal was man of the match when Chile beat Argentina in the 2015 Copa America final to win their first title, before starring again as they defended the crown the following year.

89. Hernan Crespo

Hernan Crespo

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One of the deadliest finishers Argentina has ever produced, Crespo sits fourth in his country’s all-time top scorer list behind the illustrious trio of Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Batistuta and Lionel Messi.

The striker found his best club form in Italy, joining Lazio from Parma for a world-record  £35 million fee in 2000 and immediately winning the Serie A top scorer award, and in 2004 Brazilian great Pele name-checked Crespo as one of the world’s greatest living players.

88. Thibaut Courtois

Thibaut Courtois

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You would be hard pressed to find a more reliable goalkeeper Courtois, the rock behind two Premier League titles at Chelsea, Europa League and La Liga successes at Atletico Madrid, and another Spanish title at Real Madrid.

An outstanding shot-stopper with remarkable agility for a man of his 6ft 6in frame, the Belgian has swept up individual awards throughout his career, including three Zamora trophies, a Premier League Golden Glove award and a Best FIFA Goalkeeper prize in 2018.

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87. Thiago Silva

Thiago Silva, PSG

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Strikers the world over probably still have nightmares about being marked by Silva. The Brazilian great is a flawless defender who combines intelligence and leadership with world class physical and technical attributes.

Any doubts about whether he would be up to the demands of transitioning to Premier League football aged 35 were soon forgotten when Silva quickly settled and led Chelsea to Champions league glory in his first season, adding that trophy to seven Ligue 1 crowns, a Serie A title and the Copa America – among many others.

86. Juan Roman Riquelme

Juan Roman Riquelme

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Riquelme was the archetypal No.10, a player born to entertain. His seemingly effortless elegance and flair drew inevitable comparisons with Diego Maradona and while he never hit the same heights as his legendary compatriot, the playmaker did earn icon status at Boca Juniors. 

Riquele won five league titles and three Copa Libertadores crowns in the two stints with the Buenos Aires club that book-ended his career, while he’s perhaps best remembered in Europe for guiding Villarreal to the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time in 2006. 

85. Fernando Torres

Fernando Torres

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Torres enjoyed the most prolific spell of his career at Liverpool, becoming the club’s first player to notch more than 20 league goals in a season for 12 years in his debut season.

Although he never hit the same heights at Chelsea, he will be remembered fondly for a last-minute goal against Barcelona that sent the Blues to the Champions League final. 

Torres also found the net in the finals of Euro 2008 and Euro 2012, winning the golden boot in the latter tournament, as he played a major part in his country’s golden era of winning two European Championships and the World Cup. 

84. Henrik Larsson

Henrik Larsson

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The Celtic legend is quite possibly the greatest signing in Scottish football history, having won the European Golden Shoe in 2001 and fired a superb Bhoys side to the UEFA Cup final and four league titles.

Larsson was also instrumental in Barcelona’s 2006 Champions League triumph, setting up both of his side’s goals from the bench, and showed his class by impressing so much during a three-month spell with Manchester United towards the end of his career that Sir Alex Ferguson was eager for him to stay. The King of Kings indeed. 

83. Raphael Varane

Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane

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Varane’s blend of intelligence, pace, strength and technique make him the complete package as a centre-back - and his trophy cabinet backs that up.

The 28-year-old was a cornerstone of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, earning a place in the UEFA and FIFA Team of the Year after that triumph, as well as Real Madrid’s remarkable run of four Champions League titles in five years.

There’s still a lot more to come from the Frenchman, who is trying to take his trophy-winning trend to Manchester United. 

82. Raheem Sterling

Raheem Sterling

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Sterling has been a key contributor to the most successful era in Manchester City’s history, not to mention the revival of England as a serious force on the world stage. 

The agile winger’s dazzling dribbling has tormented defenders for years, but he’s become a prolific player under Pep Guardiola, hitting double figures in each of the last five seasons as he won three league titles and the FA Cup. 

An international honour still eludes him, but the winger scored three times on England’s road to the Euro 2020 final last summer after helping them to the World Cup semi-finals two years earlier. 

81. Ryan Giggs

Ryan Giggs

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Giggs would be even higher up this ranking if it included the 1990s, but the Welsh winger still made a massive contribution to Manchester United’s 21st-century success.  

The Old Trafford club’s record appearance holder remains one of the most decorated footballers ever and his post-millenium haul includes eight Premier League titles and the Champions League.

A remarkably consistent who reinvented himself as a central midfielder towards the end of his career, Giggs was technically gifted and a creative force who produced the most assists in Premier League history, The Welshman is rightly considered one of the greatest players of his generation.


80. Alexis Sanchez

Alexis Sanchez

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The greatest Chilean footballer ever? Sanchez certainly has a strong claim to be, having led his country through their golden age.  

Alexis is Chile’s most-capped player and all-time top scorer, and it was his Panenka penalty that won the South American nation their first ever major honour in the 2015 Copa America final, before he won the Golden Ball the following year after captaining them to a successful title defence. 

The sparky, hard-working striker has picked up league titles with Barcelona and Inter Milan, as well as twice winning Arsenal’s player of the year award during a prolific spell with the Gunners.  

79. Edinson Cavani

Edinson Cavani

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Cavani is now in the twilight of his career, but what a career it’s been. ‘El Matador’ burst onto the scene at Palermo to earn a move to Napoli, where he scored a frankly ridiculous 104 goals in 138 games. 

The goals kept flowing with PSG, where he became the French side’s all-time top scorer with 200 strikes, scooping up six league titles in the process, before enjoying an impressive debut season at Manchester United.

Quick and clinical, Cavani also helped Uruguay win the Copa America in 2011, and ranks among the greatest goalscorers of the century. 

78. Ivan Rakitic

Ivan Rakitic

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Cavani is now in the twilight of his career, but what a career it’s been. ‘El Matador’ burst onto the scene at Palermo to earn a move to Napoli, where he scored a frankly ridiculous 104 goals in 138 games. 

The goals kept flowing with PSG, where he became the French side’s all-time top scorer with 200 strikes, scooping up six league titles in the process, before enjoying an impressive debut season at Manchester United.

Quick and clinical, Cavani also helped Uruguay win the Copa America in 2011, and ranks among the greatest goalscorers of the century. 

77. Harry Kane

Andorra vs England betting odds

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Kane might not have an honours list to match his remarkable goal return, but the striker has established himself as one of the best strikers in the world through his exploits for club and country. 

A prolific goalscorer who can also link attacking plays, Kane has been Premier League top scorer three times, as well as winning the 2018 World Cup Golden Boot. Wayne Rooney’s record for most England goals won’t last long, either. 

Hopefully, he’ll soon have some silverware to show for his efforts, after heartbreaking runners-up finishes in the Euro 2020 final, the 2019 Champions League final and two League Cup finals. 

76. N'Golo Kante

N'Golo Kante

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It’s often said that having N’Golo Kante on your team is like having 12 players on the pitch. The diminutive Frenchman’s ability to be, well, everywhere at once is unparalleled and it’s not a coincidence that success has followed everywhere he has gone.

He played a leading role in Leicester’s momentous 2015/16 Premier League title win, before steering France to 2018 World Cup glory and winning another league title and the Champions League at Chelsea.

Kante is a midfield ball-winner who possesses truly remarkable positioning, awareness and work-rate, as well as excellent passing. There's no one quite like him. 

75. Kylian Mbappe

Kylian Mbappe

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It’s remarkable to reflect on what Mbappe has already achieved in his short career so far - and consider what might still be to come. 

Aged 23, Mbappe is already a World Cup winner and four-time Ligue 1 champion, as well as being widely considered among the best current players in the world. 

He is electric. The winger’s scorching pace, mind-bending trickery and ability to win games single-handedly make him a joy to watch, and a future Ballon d’Or seems all-but inevitable already. 

74. Jan Oblak

Jan Oblak

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Atletico Madrid’s Slovenian giant has been the rock behind Diego Simeone’s resilient side since 2014.

Oblak is the record holder for the fewest goals conceded in a La Liga season, incredibly shipping just 18 2015/16, and a five-time winner of the Ricardo Zamora trophy for best goalkeeper in the division.

73. David Silva

David Silva

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Silva picked up the fitting nickname of ‘Merlin’ during his time at Manchester City, after producing moments of footballing wizardry year after year at the Etihad.

The Spaniard became one of the Citizens’ greatest players of all time during a ten-year spell in Manchester, with his creativity and guile helping the club to four Premier League titles

Silva also made a major impact in Spain’s two European Championship victories, scoring in the Euro 2008 semi-final and Euro 2012 final, as well as being part of the World Cup-winning squad of 2010. 

72. Alessandro Nesta

Alessandro Nesta

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Nobody did elegance like Nesta. One of the greatest centre-backs of all time, the Italian made slide tackles and man-marking an art form.

The four-time Serie A Defender of the Year began the 21st century by captaining his boyhood club Lazio to a league and cup double, and when he moved to Milan one of the greatest defences of all time was formed as Nesta joined up with Cafu, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta.

Nesta won two Champions Leagues and two Scudetti at San Siro and won the 2006 World Cup with Italy, although the latter was bittersweet for the centre-back, as he picked up a tournament-ending injury in the group stage. 

71. Wesley Sneijder

Wesley Sneijder

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The most-capped Dutch player of all time, Sneijder was indisputably one of the finest attacking midfielders in the world in his prime.
A title winner in four different countries with Ajax, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Galatasaray, the playmaker hit his peak in 2010, when he helped the Nerazzurri win an unprecedented Treble and guided the Netherlands to the World Cup final.

Sneijder scored five goals in South Africa before suffering an extra-time defeat to Spain, earning a place in the team of the tournament for a second successive major tournament, having shone two years earlier at Euro 2008 too.

70. Cesc Fabregas

Cesc Fabregas

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It didn’t take long for it to be made abundantly clear that there was something special about Fabregas. 

The Spanish playmaker broke into the Arsenal first team aged 16, becoming the club’s youngest-ever player, and earned the captain’s armband by 21. 

League titles arrived in subsequent spells at Barcelona and Chelsea, while Fabregas also played a crucial role in Spain’s era of international dominance between 2008 and 2012, setting up the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final to write his name into Spanish football folklore forever.

69. Fabio Cannavaro

Fabio Cannavaro

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Cannavaro’s defensive masterclass at the 2006 World Cup earned him the Ballon d’Or, and the Italian remains the only defender to have won the prize in the 21st century.

The centre-back adopted the Azzurri captaincy from fellow legend Paolo Maldini in 2002 and four years later he adopted the nickname “the Berlin wall” due to his stand-out performances in Germany, as Italy kept five clean sheets during the tournament. 

It wasn’t a one-off. Cannavaro was one of the greatest defenders of his generation and enjoyed domestic success too, winning back-to-back La Liga titles with Real Madrid following his World Cup success.

68. Mohamed Salah

Mohamed Salah

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A modern-day Liverpool great, Salah’s arrival from Roma in 2017 acted as a catalyst to the Reds’ outstanding period of success under Jurgen Klopp. 

A two-time Golden Boot winner, Salah holds the record for the most goals scored in a Premier League season with 32 and has been astonishingly prolific at Anfield, notching more than 20 goals in each of his five seasons. 

Premier League and Champions League victories have been the reward, while at international level the winger captained Egypt to their first World Cup in 28 years in 2018 and runners-up finishes in two Africa Cup of Nations. 

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67. Raul


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The Real Madrid legend scored 323 goals in the Merengues’ famous white shirt, which stood as a club record until a certain Cristiano Ronaldo came along.

Raul narrowly missed out on the Ballon d’Or in 2001, finishing second to Michael Owen, but his 21st century honours list includes four La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues and a DFB-Pokal with Schalke 04. 

The Spaniard was lethal in Europe and boasts several impressive firsts: the first to score 50 goals and make 100 appearances in the Champions League era, as well as the first to score in two finals. 

66. Bastian Schweinsteiger

Bastian Schweinsteiger

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The midfield engine behind a glorious period of success for Bayern Munich and Germany, Schweinsteiger was a player who could do it all: tackle, pass, control and lead. 

He won eight Bundesliga titles and the Champions League with Bayern, making 500 appearances over 17 years, and played a crucial role in his country’s 2014 World Cup triumph.

His performance in the final victory over Argentina was monstrous. The midfielder, playing with a bloodied face after a clash with Sergio Aguero, helped keep Lionel Messi quiet, ran 15km and passed with 90 % accuracy. No wonder manager Joachim Low called him “the brain” of his Germany team.

65. Cafu


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Cafu was already a world champion by the time the millennium arrived, but most of the flying right-back’s major honours arrived in the 21st century. 

The Brazilian earned the nickname ‘Il Pendolino’ (the express train) in Italy due to his trademark surges down the flank, and he helped Roma and AC Milan to league titles before winning his first Champions League in 2007.

Cafu remains Brazil’s most-capped player, having played 142 games for his country, and the defender is the only player to have appeared in three consecutive World Cup finals, winning in 1994 and 2002 (as captain), and losing to France in 1998. 

64. Marcelo


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From one attack-minded Brazilian full-back to another. Marcelo may not have enjoyed the international success of Cafu yet, but his time at Real Madrid has been littered with trophies.

The left-back has won 23 in total, including four Champions League and five La Liga titles, and scored in the 2014 Champions League final against Atletico Madrid. 

He earned praise from Brazilian left-back royalty in 2012, when Roberto Carlos said “he has more ability than me with the ball”, while Paolo Maldini is another legend of the position to have described Marcelo as the best in the world in his role. 

63. David Beckham

David Beckham

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Where to start with Becks? A free-kick wizard and crossing artist who possessed arguably one of the most cultured right boots the game has seen, Beckham’s 21st century successes included league titles in England, Spain, France and the USA.

His only Champions League crown came in the 1990s - as did his runner-up Ballon d’Or finish in 1999- but Beckham nevertheless deserves to be considered among the greatest players of the century. 

The former England captain is firmly in the debate about the best free-kick takers of all time, with the last-minute curler against Greece that sent the Three Lions to the 2002 World Cup being particularly memorable. 

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62. Ruud van Nistelrooy

Ruud van Nistelrooy

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The Dutchman was reliably prolific wherever he went, winning the Golden Boot in the Premier League, Eredivisie and La Liga as well as finishing as Champions League top scorer in three consecutive seasons. 

Van Nistelrooy won Premier League player of the season in 2003 after firing Manchester United to the title with 25 goals, and at Real Madrid he equalled La Liga’s longest scoring streak of seven goals in his debut campaign.

An exceptionally clinical striker, Van Nistelrooy’s knack of finding and finishing chances helped him rack up 349 goals in 592 games by the time of his retirement, as well as 35 in 70 Netherlands caps.

61. Paolo Maldini

Paolo Maldini

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A world class left-back turned world class centre-back, Maldini is one of the greatest defenders of all time. 

The AC Milan legend and one-club man would be far higher up this list were it not for the fact that his career began in 1984 and ended in 2009, but his place among the best of the century is well earned.

Maldini came third in the Ballon d’Or vote of 2003 after captaining the Rossoneri to Champions League glory, and he became a European champion again four years later, adding that medal to Serie A and Coppa Italia titles. 

A player of enormous class and effortless elegance, the only shame is that he had already retired from international duty when Italy won the 2006 World Cup. 


60. Nemanja Vidic

Nemanja Vidic

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Manchester United’s decision to sign Vidic from Red Star Belgrade for £7 million in January 2006 proved to be one of their smartest-ever decisions, as the Serbian went on to become one of the greatest defenders to pull on a Red Devils shirt. 

Vidic formed an imposing partnership with Rio Ferdinand at Old Trafford and won five Premier League titles and the Champions League among other honours in Manchester.

He’s one of just three players to be named Premier League Player of the Season twice, along with Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry. Not bad for £7m. 

59. David Villa

David Villa

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Spain’s all-time top scorer was an integral part of their Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup triumphs, winning the Golden Boot in the former tournament before being joint-top scorer in South Africa two years later. 

A prolific goalscorer at Valencia, Silva’s move to Barcelona in 2010 gave him the chance to compete for major honours and he took it with both hands, scoring in their Champions League final victory over Manchester United in his debut season.

Villa also won two La Liga titles at Camp Nou, another with Atletico Madrid in 2013/14, and won the MLS MVP award during a prolific spell with New York City. 

58. Eden Hazard

Eden Hazard

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It was clear from an early age that there was something special about Hazard. The Belgian was the youngest Ligue 1 Player of the Year winner ever in 2011, aged 20, after helping Lille win a league and cup double.

Chelsea didn’t take long to pounce and it was at Stamford Bridge that the dynamic winger established a reputation as one of the best in the business, scoring 110 goals over seven seasons with the London club and wining a stack of individual awards to go with two Premier League and two Europa League titles. 

Hazard captained Belgium to a third-place finish and won the Silver Ball at the 2018 World Cup, his country’s best-ever finish.  

57. Roberto Carlos