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Ranked! The 50 best players of the 2000s

Greatest players of the 2000s
(Image credit: Future)

The noughties marked a turning point in football. Post-training piss-ups were a thing of the past, leagues awash with cash meant Galactico squads were hastily assembled and a new era of tacticians were slowly ousting the 4-4-2 formation.

Increased marketing budgets saw companies like Nike and Pepsi create iconic adverts involving casts of the greatest players on Earth. Whether it was Eric Cantona hosting a 5-aside tournament in the belly of a cargo ship or David Beckham strolling into a saloon in the Old West, audiences were kept entertained by the greats long after the final whistle blew.  

The birth of YouTube and Twitter made cutting and sharing compilations of dribbling, passing and thunderous volleys the norm, while phrases like 'Tiki-Taka' and 'Park the bus' entered our everyday vernacular. 

Here, FourFourTwo counts down the greatest players of the era, from the ball-juggling advocates of Joga Bonito, to the water-carriers and penalty box assassins. 

N.B. We have only taken each player's 00s performances into account. 

50. Petr Cech

BC, goalkeepers were madcap mavericks: the nutters of the side who you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night. BC, of course, being “Before Cech”.

Petr Cech not only set a record of lowest goals conceded in his first Premier League season, he set the standard for a newer, calmer breed of keeper. He was simply unbeatable for so long at Chelsea, becoming a club legend in his early years at west London. 

49. Juan Roman Riquelme

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A glorious throwback, Riquelme was as traditional a No.10 - or enganche in Argentine parlance - as you'll ever see. If you wanted your playmaker to press from the front, he wasn't your man. But Riquelme's vision, invention and outstanding technical quality made him a mesmerising watch.

He began the decade by giving Real Madrid the slip in the Intercontinental Cup, as Boca Juniors won 2-1 in Tokyo. He later starred for Villarreal, before ending the decade back at Boca's La Bombonera, his spiritual home.

48. Henrik Larsson

Swedish goal machine Larsson exploded into the noughties with 173 goals in 206 appearances for Celtic – a goal ratio which may never be seen again above Hadrian's Wall. 

After dominating Scotland, Larsson proved he could do it in the big leagues too, helping Barcelona to two league titles and a Champions League before firing Manchester United to the Premier League title in 2007. A goalscorer of effortless ability. 

47. Edwin van der Sar

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Van der Sar's career looked to be winding down in the first half of the 2000s. A disappointing second season at Juventus prompted a transfer to Fulham, where he spent four years bobbing around mid-table.

A move to Manchester United in 2005 provided the Dutchman with a stage more befitting his talent. A complete goalkeeper whose distribution with his feet set him apart from his peers, Van der Sar was an integral part of Alex Ferguson's last great United team.

46. Javier Zanetti 

El Tractor racked up more than 450 games for Inter between the Millenium and New Year’s Eve 2009, and Milan’s adoptive son never gave less than an eight out of 10, whether at right back or at the base of midfield. 

Intelligent, strong, quick and a natural leader, Zanetti’s mere presence on the pitch lifted those around him. Described by Ryan Giggs as “the complete player”, Zanetti was a god to Nerazzurri fans. 

45. Gianluigi Buffon

Buffon is now into his fourth decade as a professional footballer, but we saw the best of him in the 2000s. An imposing figure between the sticks, he combined agility and sharp reflexes with an aura which radiated far beyond his penalty box. 

Juventus made him the most expensive goalkeeper ever in 2001, but Buffon was worth every lira. He starred as Italy won the World Cup five years later, keeping a record five clean sheets in Germany.

44. Xabi Alonso

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Remember the goal that Xabi Alonso scored from his own half? The first one, that is - the classic against Luton in the Cup. One of the most striking things is Steven Gerrard’s utter lack of surprise. Maybe he’s just quite inexpressive - or maybe it’s recognition that his midfield partner was one of the most gifted passers of the decade, with a god-given understanding of space and positioning. We fancy the latter. 

43. Cafu

The 32-year-old Cafu hoisted the World Cup trophy aloft as Brazil captain in 2002, having played every minute of every game in Japan and South Korea. His energy and dynamism down the right flank ensured Brazil's wing-back formation was a success.

Cafu still had time to reach two Champions League finals with AC Milan, winning the second of them in 2007. His stamina was undiminished even then, and his tactical intelligence and leadership also stood out.

42. Michael Ballack

A difficult start to the decade saw the Leverkusen talisman lose the Bundesliga title race, DFB-Pokal and Champions League finals in the space of three games in May 2002. He lost the World Cup final two months later just for added effect.

Fortunately, things were looking up. At Bayern and Chelsea, the midfielder’s precision passing, strength, stamina and thunderous shot were key to four league titles and six domestic cups. The definitive box-to-box midfielder. 

41. Roberto Carlos

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Roberto Carlos belongs in the pantheon of all-time great Brazilian full-backs. Few started the decade as well as him: between 2000 and 2002, the thunder-thighed left-back won two Champions Leagues and the World Cup.

His surges down the wing and powerful shots from distance were a prominent part of Real Madrid's galactico era. The honours dried up as the decade wore on, but Roberto Carlos' legacy was long since assured.

40. Ryan Giggs

It's easy to forget now, but Giggs came close to leaving Manchester United in summer 2003. He'd just had a poor season and then-chief executive Peter Kenyon refused to deny speculation linking him with Inter.

But the Welshman bounced back brilliantly and remained a key figure at Old Trafford for the rest of the decade. He adapted well to diminishing pace and was increasingly deployed as a central midfielder, where his vision and passing range helped to open up opposition defences.

39. Oliver Kahn

Goalies are rarely up for the individual gongs but Der Titan couldn’t be overlooked. Champions League glory and a series of impenetrable displays during Germany’s run to the 2002 World Cup final a year later saw Kahn finish in the Ballon d’Or top three twice in a row at the start of the decade. Strong and aggressive, with supreme reflexes and leadership skills, Kahn terrified strikers across the continent before hanging up his boots in 2008. 

38. Fabio Cannavaro

The last centre-back to win a Ballon d’Or was 5’9. That’s enough reason alone for Fabio Cannavaro to be considered one of the footballers of the decade.

The Napolese stopper was aggressive, instinctive and a leader of men, as displayed succinctly in a 2006 World Cup in which Italy had no real star. Captain Cannavaro organised and ordered his side to glory - and in the process, chiselled his name into the pantheon of great Italian defenders. 

37. Ruud van Nistelrooy

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A single-minded centre-forward who would sulk if he hadn't scored, Van Nistelrooy was the archetypal fox in the box. Overcoming an ACL rupture, he racked up 150 goals in 219 appearances for Manchester United - 149 of which came from inside the penalty area.

The Dutchman took his sharp-shooting skills to Real Madrid in 2006. He broke the 20-goal barrier in each of his first two seasons there, but injuries eventually caught up with him.

36. Nemanja Vidic

“How many centre-halves can you name who actually like defending?” Alex Ferguson once queried, before answering that Nemanja Vidic lived for the art of defence. The Serbian’s elite positioning, game-reading and no-nonsense style was the perfect antithesis to Rio Ferdinand’s more cultured ball-playing, winning United’s last three titles of the decade. Vidic is still the only defender to win the Premier League Player of the Season award twice.

35. Pavel Nedved

A Juventus icon, Nedved actually won his first Serie A title with Lazio in 2000. Two more scudetti would follow in Turin, where Nedved cemented his legendary status by sticking with the beleaguered Bianconeri following their relegation to Serie B.

A true all-rounder, the two-footed Nedved could pass, dribble, shoot, tackle and more. A Ballon d'Or winner in 2003, the Czech dazzled at the following year's European Championship as his nation reached the semis.

34. Patrick Vieira

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Vieira had already been at Arsenal for four years when the decade began, but he played the best football of his career in the 2000s. It's hard to imagine any of Arsenal's achievements - the 2002 double, the Invincibles - happening without him.

Vieira was a fierce competitor who took no prisoners, but he wasn't just an enforcer. The Frenchman's touch was immaculate and he could dance past opposition midfielders as well as bulldoze his way through them. Watching the Frenchman in full flow was an awesome sight.

33. David Villa

Villa would later win La Liga titles and Champions Leagues with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, but he never surpassed the individual peak of his Valencia years. 

It was at Mestalla where the Spaniard established himself as one of the world's most menacing marksmen. Permanently positioned on the shoulder of the last defender, his intelligent runs, speed off the mark and lethal finishing were appreciated at international level too. Villa top-scored as Spain won Euro 2008, setting la Roja on their way to world domination.

32. Paolo Maldini

It's frankly astonishing that a player who debuted in 1985 was still excelling at the highest level at the end of the 2000s. Maldini wasn't an ordinary footballer, though. The Italian read the game as if he'd written it, and that tactical intelligence made him a regular at AC Milan beyond his 40th birthday.

Widely regarded as the greatest left-back of all time, the evergreen Italian won his fourth Champions League in 2003 and his fifth in 2007. Not bad for a natural right-footer. 

31. Luis Figo

Figo was the original galactico, and the butchers of Spain can vouch for the fact that his move from Barcelona wasn't universally popular. The unruffled Portuguese just focused on the job at hand, though, helping Real Madrid win two La Liga crowns and the Champions League.

Figo relied more on guile than speed as the decade wore on, proving there's more than one way to skin a full-back. He wound down his career at Inter, adding four Serie A winner's medals to his collection.

30. Francesco Totti

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There are few more iconic one-club men than Totti, who rejected the lure of brighter lights (and better teams) to spend his entire career with Roma. And make no mistake: Il Bimbo de Oro could have played for any side in the world at his peak.

Whether as a second striker or a false nine, Totti was both a creator and converter of chances. He won his only Serie A title under Fabio Capello in 2001 and started all but one game as Italy won the 2006 World Cup.

29. Didier Drogba

Didier Drogba scored goals in 10 cup finals for Chelsea: the man was essentially a cheat code when it came to the big occasion. 

The Ivorian was simply the complete striker, capable of holding play up and outmuscling defenders. He set the Premier League alight with his introduction and almost single-handedly made Chelsea favourites in every showpiece event. 

28. Carles Puyol

In some ways Puyol looked out of a place in Barcelona and Spain teams that prized technical quality above all else. Yet his aggression, tenacity and rugged style of defending were welcomed by sides who otherwise lacked physicality.

Puyol was by no means a bad footballer, but it was his leadership, work ethic and never-say-die attitude that made him a regular during two Champions League triumphs and a victorious Euro 2008 campaign.

27. Andrea Pirlo

Pirlo wasn't strong, quick or athletic, but that scarcely mattered. The non-bearded Italian (the facial hair came later) played the game at his own pace - and so did everyone else, such was his ability to control the tempo. 

The deep-lying playmaker had every type of pass in his locker. Strolling around the pitch with effortless grace, Pirlo pulled the strings during AC Milan's two Champions League victories, and for his country as they won the World Cup in Germany. 

26. David Beckham

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Beckham is such a transcendent figure that it's easy to forget just how good a footballer he was. Arguably the greatest crosser of the ball in history, he was also an elite passer with bold conception and pinpoint execution. 

Beckham possessed the drive and determination to ensure his various off-field interests never became a distraction. Manchester United and Real Madrid fans certainly valued his combination of craft and graft. 

25. Iker Casillas

Casillas was only 18 years old on 1 December 2000, but he was already Real Madrid's first-choice goalkeeper. He kept hold of the No.1 jersey throughout a hugely successful decade which brought the Spaniard four La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues and a winner's medal from Euro 2008.

What Casillas lacked in height - the Madrid legend was only just 6 foot - he more than made up for in agility. A master shot-stopper with astonishingly quick reflexes, Casillas regularly performed miracles between the sticks.

24. Rivaldo

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The fact Rivaldo ascended to the top of the world game while barely touching the ball with his right foot shows just how good he was on his left side.

A remarkably skilful player, Rivaldo began the decade with a phenomenal 36-goal campaign for Barcelona, which included perhaps the greatest hat-trick of all time on the final day. His infamous dive against Turkey overshadowed his brilliant displays at the 2002 World Cup, before the temperamental genius helped AC Milan win the Champions League a year later.

23. Alessandro Nesta

Elegance is a quality usually attributed to attacking players, but Nesta had it in abundance. Calm in possession and deceptively quick across the ground, his anticipation skills were such that he sensed danger before it appeared. Nesta didn't so much put out fires as confiscate the matches.

A two-time Champions League winner with AC Milan, the centre-back was also part of the Italy squad that triumphed at the 2006 World Cup. 

22. Claude Makelele

"Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you’re losing the entire engine?" huffed Zinedine Zidane when Real Madrid sold Claude Makelele in 2003.

Their loss was Chelsea's gain. The Frenchman was a mainstay as Jose Mourinho's side won back-to-back Premier League titles, patrolling in front of the defence and breaking up play with a mix of brains and brawn. Soon every club wanted someone in the 'Makelele role'. 

21. Ashley Cole

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Of England's golden generation, perhaps only Cole was genuinely the best in the world in his position. He didn't always get the love he deserved, but the left-back was a model of consistency throughout his career. 

Cole began the decade as an attack-minded flier who constantly made overlapping runs outside Arsenal's Robert Pires. He honed his defensive skills at Chelsea, winning a third Premier League title and regularly shackling some of the world's best wingers. 

20. Andriy Shevchenko

Forget the underwhelming spell at Chelsea and remember the AC Milan years, when Shevchenko was one of the best strikers on the planet. A return of 173 goals in 296 games tells its own story, as does a rate of 0.5 per game in the Champions League.

Shevchenko won the Ballon d'Or in 2004, beating off stiff competition from Deco, Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry. Had the Ukrainian remembered to bring his shooting boots to Stamford Bridge, he'd be even higher up this list.

19. John Terry

It's impossible to think of any of Chelsea's achievements in the 2000s without picturing Terry. He was one of the main reasons the Blues conceded just 15 goals on route to the Premier League title in 2004/05, and was equally instrumental in the successful defence of that crown the following campaign.

Often hailed for his bravery and physicality, Terry didn't always get the credit he deserved for his ball-playing abilities. An imperious centre-half in his pomp, he was a natural leader who inspired those around him.

18. Paul Scholes

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Scholes was a midfielder throughout his career but his role shifted throughout the decade. He started as an attack-minded goalscorer, whose well-timed runs into the box saw him reach double figures in four out of five seasons. The Manchester United man moved deeper as he got older, ending the 2000s as a sitting, probing midfielder. 

Scholes counts Zinedine Zidane, Pep Guardiola and Andrea Pirlo among his fans - not bad for an asthmatic who Gary Neville thought would never make it as a pro.

17. Fernando Torres

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At his peak, there was no one in the world that could stop Fernando Torres from doing what he did. He was a complete striker, graceful while he was at it but above all else, a ruthless killer in the penalty area. 

This is a man who captained a team that Diego Simeone was a part of too, by the way. He led by example, was the shining light in any team he was a part of in the 2000s and destroyed defences like he was born to do it. 

16. Rio Ferdinand

Ferdinand twice became the world's most expensive defender in the 2000s, joining Leeds for £18m and then Manchester United for £30m. Some felt he was overpriced, but his significant contribution to four Premier League title triumphs and Champions League success in 2007/08 proved otherwise.

Ferdinand was the first world-class ball-playing centre-back English football had produced, but he only truly mastered the art of defending at Old Trafford. By the end of the decade the Londoner was a true all-rounder. 

15. Raul

Raul twice fended off his iconic no.7 shirt from arguably the two most marketable players ever: David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. He simply was Real Madrid - there was no taking anything from him. 

The bridge between Real's star-producing 80s and Galactico era, this former Atletico boy scored for fun as the fulcrum of a glittering side, setting Champions League records and coming to define a club who spent millions in the new millennium. But few were as reliable, as exciting and as downright clinical as Raul. 

14. Frank Lampard

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Lamps scored more than 140 goals for Chelsea across the noughties. That he reached those figures as a midfielder is, well, frankly ludicrous. The Englishman perfected the art of arriving late in the box to ping the ball in the onion bag, and he married his goalscoring exploits with workrate, energy and a marvellous passing range. He was the complete midfielder; the driving force behind Chelsea's transformation from plucky midtablers to English football's dominant club. 

13. Samuel Eto'o

Possibly the greatest African footballer of all time. Samuel Eto'o's goalscoring ability was impressive at Mallorca, but went berserk at Barcelona. One hundred and thirty goals in 199 appearances for Los Blaugrana fired the Catalan club to three league titles and two Champions Leagues before he departed for more glory at Inter. Speed, intelligent movement and ice cold finishing, Eto'o was simply the perfect striker. 

12. Steven Gerrard

Single words are enough to summon memories of Gerrard's influential performances in matches of the highest magnitude: Olympiacos, Istanbul, Cardiff. Dozens more games were bent to his will, as Liverpool's lion-hearted captain led from the front and dragged his team-mates along with him.

Gerrard won two FA Cups, a UEFA Cup and the Champions League in the 2000s. His medal collection would be more sizable had he moved elsewhere, but Anfield was his home. "He has everything," Fernando Torres once said. He would know.

11. Wayne Rooney

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The freckled schoolboy from Croxteth became an overnight megastar with his thunderous winner against Arsenal in 2002. Aged just 16, Rooney’s was a debut for the ages and the striker became an overnight phenomenon.

Pele comparisons were drawn when, as an 18-year-old, Wazza battered teams at Euro 2004 before joining Manchester United, where his technical ability and knack for scoring screamers were only matched by his enthusiasm and workrate. Speed, strength, intelligent movement, industry, aerial ability, an eye for a pass and a fiery streak which kept us all on the edge of our seats – Wayne Rooney was astonishingly fun to watch at his peak. 

10. Lionel Messi

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Lionel Messi not at the top of a list? It’s almost as alien as he is. 

While the 2010s were owned by the little genius, the 2000s were his origin story. After breaking through as a prodigy in the mid-2000s and being taken under Ronaldinho’s wing, Messi glittered for Barcelona, enthusing everyone about what he might become. Expectations were realised in 2008.

It took Pep Guardiola becoming manager of Barcelona, casting aside Deco and Ronaldinho in favour of giving Messi the no.10 shirt. Not only that, Pep sent the youngster to the Olympics for the experience: he came back with a gold medal, before helping to fire Barca to an historic treble in 2009. The rest, as they say, is history. 

9. Zlatan Ibrahimovic

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Watching compilations of Zlatan’s greatest goals might be the best way to spend a rainy afternoon. The big Swede regularly humiliated opponents during his Malmo and Ajax days, dancing through defences with the balance and close control of a player half his size.

He could also smash them, head them, chip them, volley them, slot them; he scored an outrageous variety and number of goals wherever he went, from Amsterdam and Turin to Barcelona and Milan. More than 150 goals were plundered in the noughties – well before his peak years at AC and PSG. Difficult to manage? Sure. Worth it? Absolutely.

8. Andres Iniesta

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Andres Iniesta has fewer career goals than John Terry. In each of his last three title-winning seasons at Barcelona, he registered one, two and one assist. 

And yet El Ilusionista’s influence defies pure numbers. He could turn tides - like in the 2006 Champions League final to inspire Barca back from behind. He could weave his way through defences, create space for others and provide the final or penultimate pass. Iniesta won everything there was to win - most of it in 2009 - and he did so with the deftness of a painter, rather than the sledgehammer style of so many other midfielders. His legacy is as ageless and elegant as he is. 

7. Ronaldo

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Ronaldo ended the 90s shrouded in mystery over what really happened that night in Saint-Denis. He ended the noughties regarded by some as the greatest striker to ever play that game. 

That pace; that ferocity. R9 was unstoppable at his peak, bulldozing through defences. He even though he slowed down considerably, he was still a force of nature; see his virtuoso hat-trick at Old Trafford or the whirlwind World Cup final of 2002. Ronaldo was more than a footballer in the end. He’s a moment in history when the bar for strikers was raised: he’s still the archetypal no.9 of the modern age. They called him El Fenomeno for a reason.

6. Xavi

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The man Pep Guardiola claimed “will retire me" when the managerial great was still a Barcelona midfielder. Xavi came to embody an entire footballing philosophy in Catalonia: pass and move, pass and move, pass and move, ad infinitum. Nobody in a team packed with superstars performed that simple task better than  he did. Maybe nobody ever will again. 

The Spaniard’s composed leadership and metronomic retention skills formed the bedrock for Barcelona’s successes under Frank Rijkaard and, later, Pep, and were key as Spain tiki-taka’d their way to Euro 2008 glory. Perhaps the greatest midfield schemer the world will ever know. 

5. Cristiano Ronaldo

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The roasting a spotty young Ronaldo gave John O’Shea in a 2003 friendly between Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United remains the stuff of legend. The teenager’s performance that afternoon ensured a show pony with braces on his teeth was plucked from obscurity and rewired into an all-time great at Old Trafford.

From blubbering into the turf after the Euro 2004 final to the towering header against Chelsea in Moscow (one of 42 across the 2007/08 season), Ronaldo came to life before our very eyes, with Sir Alex Ferguson his adoring, cosseting Geppetto. CR7's final three seasons in England saw him bag 91 goals in all competitions – astonishing stats for a winger – before he set sail for greater things at Real Madrid; the record breaking £80m man. 

4. Thierry Henry

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Thierry Henry was a footballer of juxtapositions. Well, for a start, he defined the noughties for strikers - yet he would’ve thrived in any era of the game, in any side.

Arguably no one has had such a combination of grace and brute force: he could destroy you with a slalom run or a backheel. No one would score and assist at quite such a rate: no one was quite so dangerous both in and out of the box. A man of class with a devilish streak. A striker with a winger’s brain and a midfielder’s influence.

Henry was not just the king: he was the entire courtroom. And few footballers have ever put the fear of god into so many. 

3. Kaka

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“I belong to Jesus” the Brazilian proclaimed (through the medium of a white vest) following Milan’s triumph over Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League final. Those who witnessed Kaka in his pomp will agree that few players have ever channeled the divine quite like him. 

The playmaker was the perfect blend of balance, speed, power and god given genius. For a two-year spell between 2005 and 2007, he was the best player on the planet; bewitching fans with his effortless supremacy. The sumptuous pass for Hernan Crespo’s opening goal in the 2005 Champions League final; the surging run and cool finish for Brazil against Argentina at the Emirates in 2006; the nonchalant bullying of Manchester United’s entire defence in 2007. It was just all too easy for the boy from Gama. 

2. Zinedine Zidane

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The closer you marked him, the easier he shackled free. The more space you gave him, the easier he cut you open. Any ball from any angle, speed and weight, Zinedine Zidane would control it like it was made of glass. There has perhaps never been a footballer so mystical, magical and downright majestic.

And Zizou punctuated his talent with moments of marvel that would stand the test of time. Moments like his pirouettes against Portugal and spins against Spain (both at Euro 2000). His swivel-thunderbolt volley to win the Champions League. His one-man demolition of Brazil (2006). Moments that need only a description to conjure Kodak-like colour in your mind. 

What he won almost became irrelevant to how he could hold your wonder in the palm of his hand. Zidane was a celestial being among men: how could you not adore him?

1. Ronaldinho

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Some footballers are said to play the game with a smile on their face… Ronaldinho literally did. Even in the heat of battle, the Brazilian could be found grinning from ear to ear, delighted to be on a football pitch. 

English football fans were first introduced to the playmaker at the 2002 World Cup, when the Selecao’s no.11 sent a freekick swirling over the head of David Seaman in Fukuroi City. Throughout the tournament, his feints, stepovers, no-look passes, ball juggling, nutmegs and samba magic embodied everything Brazilian football should be, as the nation’s fifth title was secured in Tokyo. 

A move to Barcelona in 2003 ushered in a new era for the fallen giants. Ronaldinho’s mastery inspired Frank Rijkaard’s side to their first La Liga titles in six years, before Champions League glory in 2006. "The greatest compliment I could give him is that he's given Barcelona our spirit back,” said captain Carles Puyol. “He has made us smile again.”

Through it all, Ronaldinho played with the carefree abandon of a kid in the park; that smile was there for all to see, and we couldn’t help but smile back.

Honorable mention: Adriano

While his prime years fizzled out much too early to earn a place on this list, Adriano was considered based on his form between 2003 and 2006. The Brazilian was virtually unplayable in his pomp at Inter Milan, bossing games with his pace, strength and thunderous left foot. Were it not for the mental health issues he suffered as a result of losing his father at a young age, he may have even have been a consideration for the top five of this list. 

He doesn't make the cut. But what a player....

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