Ranked! The 100 best players of the 21st Century
The 100 best players of the 21st Century: the greatest Ballon d'Or hoggers, serial winners and cult heroes since the turn of the millennium
10. Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez’s arrival at Liverpool in January 2011 passed with little fanfare, overshadowed as it was by the £35m deal that brought Andy Carroll to Anfield on the very same day. The pair haven’t been mentioned in the same sentence since.
It took Suarez a little while to get going at Liverpool, but once he did he was sensational. The Uruguayan almost dragged the Reds to Premier League title success in 2013/14, scoring 31 non-penalty goals in 33 games.
Suarez got even better at Barcelona, where his 198 goals contributed to four league title triumphs and Champions League glory in 2015. He subsequently won another La Liga crown with Atletico Madrid, where he’s averaging better than a goal every two matches.
AC Milan spent just €8.5m on Kaka in 2003, making him cheaper than one of Silvio Berlusconi’s ‘bunga bunga’ parties. He hit the ground running at San Siro, scoring 14 goals in his maiden campaign as Carlo Ancelotti’s talented team won the Serie A title.
A bigger prize would follow in the form of the Champions League in 2007, the same year Kaka was crowned the world’s best player by the Ballon d’Or voters.
Combining flair and finesse with pace and power, Kaka in full flight was a sight to behold. Knee injuries dulled his acceleration and his time at Real Madrid was mostly disappointing, but for a while the Brazilian was the cream of the crop.
8. Manuel Neuer
There have been times in Neuer’s career when he’s seemed more sweeper than keeper. His performance against Algeria at the 2014 World Cup remains the high point for the ever-growing crop of custodians that are willing to vacate the penalty area and snuff out danger higher up the pitch.
Make no mistake, though: Neuer was and is a marvelous conventional goalkeeper. Sharp reflexes, an imposing presence and astute positioning: it’s difficult for even the best strikers in the world to score past him.
Neuer was arguably Germany’s best player during that aforementioned triumphant World Cup campaign. He’s also won nine Bundesliga titles and two Champions Leagues with Bayern Munich, for whom he’s now racked up more than 450 appearances.
7. Thierry Henry
Widely regarded as the greatest player in Premier League history, Henry joined Arsenal from Juventus a few months before the dawn of the 21st century. After being “re-taught everything about the art of striking” by Arsene Wenger, Henry was ready to wreak havoc on England’s top flight.
The Frenchman broke the 30-goal barrier for five seasons on the bounce between 2001 and 2006. He notched a total of 226 goals in an Arsenal shirt and was a creator of chances as well as a converter of them.
Henry won two Premier League titles and two FA Cups in north London, before a three-year stint at Barcelona brought him the Champions League trophy that he so craved.
6. Zinedine Zidane
Voted as the Player of the Tournament at Euro 2000, Zidane started the 21st century as he meant to go on. After one final season at Juventus, Real Madrid happily broke the world-record transfer fee to sign him in 2001.
He may have worn No.5 on his back at the Bernabeu but Zidane was one of the greatest No.10s of all time. His debut season ended with a stunning volley in the Champions League final, as Madrid saw off Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow.
Supremely skilful and effortlessly elegant, Zizou only ever won one La Liga title - but the blame for that underachievement lay nowhere near the Frenchman’s door.
The final act of his career was to headbutt Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, but his performances throughout that tournament will live long in the memory of all who witnessed them.
Judging by his wide eyes and toothy grin, Ronaldinho had as much fun on the pitch as those of us who were fortunate to watch him.
The Brazilian magician was a gloriously entertaining footballer. With his swiveling hips, fast feet and inventive imagination, Ronaldinho was essential viewing during his peak years at Barcelona.
For a period in the mid-2000s he was the best player in the world. In 2005/06 and 2006/07 Ronaldinho scored 50 goals from attacking midfield, helping Barcelona win the Champions League in the process.
Unfortunately, Ronaldinho wasn’t able to sustain that level for long, and his career eventually tailed off back in Brazil. Yet anyone who loves football will surely agree that it’s better to celebrate what he gave us than lament the fact it ended relatively quickly.
Xavi wasn’t particularly strong, quick or powerful. He didn’t score many goals and he wasn’t much of a tackler. Yet the Spaniard, a true pass master, is one of the best midfielders the game has ever seen.
Xavi only ever lent the ball to others. He was the fulcrum of the great Barcelona and Spain sides, dictating the tempo and orchestrating the play from the centre of the park. Everything went through Xavi, whose crowded mantelpiece features three Champions League winner’s medals, plus one from the World Cup, two from the Euros and eight from La Liga.
“Combine, pass, play. That's football,” he once said. It sounds simple and Xavi made it look that way, but no one else could do it as well as him.
3. Andres Iniesta
“You will retire me,” Pep Guardiola once told Xavi Hernandez while watching a 15-year-old Iniesta at the Nike Cup. “But this kid will retire us both.”
It didn’t quite turn out that way, with Iniesta instead forming one of football’s greatest ever double acts with Xavi. But Guardiola was right to set such high expectations for a player who would go on to win everything with Barcelona and Spain.
Iniesta scored fewer than 100 goals in his senior career, but pure numbers don’t do him justice. A big-game player who turned up when it mattered most, Iniesta’s 360-degree vision, precise passing and dazzling footwork made him a joy to watch.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
No player in the history of the game has scored as many goals as Ronaldo, who’s made the net bulge no fewer than 807 times for Sporting CP, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus and Portugal.
Ronaldo started out life as a thrilling, if inconsistent, winger. It was under Alex Ferguson’s tutelage at Old Trafford that he began his transformation into a deadly central striker, with the Portuguese notching 42 goals in a superb campaign in 2007/08.
That would have been a low-scoring season in his Real Madrid pomp. By the time of his move to the Bernabeu in 2009, Ronaldo was dribbling less and shooting more. The result was a phenomenal scoring record which helped Madrid win the Champions League in four years out of five in the mid- to late-2010s.
Ronaldo has also scooped seven league titles, a European Championship with Portugal and five Ballons d’Or. Not bad for a player who was dismissed as a “show pony” in those early United years.
1. Lionel Messi
In the mid-2000s there were murmurings about an astonishingly gifted young Argentine in the Barcelona academy, but no one could have envisaged Messi being so good for so long.
Let’s start with the numbers: 809 goals (and counting) for clubs and country, 24 major trophies and seven Ballons d’Or. Yet even such remarkable figures don’t tell the whole story. To truly appreciate Messi’s genius you have to watch him weave in and out of challenges with the ball tied to his left foot, split open opposition defences with a perfectly weighted through-ball, or leave yet another goalkeeper sprawled out on the turf after having the ball impudently dinked over him.
It’s not just his technical ability that’s extraordinary: Messi almost always makes the right decision, evidencing an unparalleled intelligence that sets him apart as much as his natural talent. Simply the best.
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Alasdair Mackenzie is a freelance journalist based in Rome, and a FourFourTwo contributor since 2015. When not pulling on the FFT shirt, he can be found at Reuters, The Times and the i. An Italophile since growing up on a diet of Football Italia on Channel 4, he now counts himself among thousands of fans sharing a passion for Ross County and Lazio.
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