One of the most debated topics in football is who the best players in the world are? Everybody will have their views and prejudices, formed in part by where they live, who they support, and who they have seen them play, either live or on television.
There can be no definitive list. However, here are three suggestions for players that would, at least, make the shortlist for many.
The 32-year old Argentine, was recently voted the Best FIFA Men’s Player for 2019, the latest in an almost endless list of accolades, which includes five Ballon d’Ors, six European Golden Shoes (awarded for the top scorer in European football), and has been recognised as the Best Player in La Liga eight times. In 692 appearances for Barcelona, he has scored 602 times, and, in 2012, he achieved the remarkable feat of scoring 91 goals in a single calendar year. This is even though, when he joined the Barcelona youth academy, he was so quiet that his teammates initially thought he was mute, while he had to be given growth hormone treatment to help him develop physically. Messi is short - 5 feet 7 inches tall – with a low center of gravity, but with outstanding dribbling ability and unerring close control, enabling him to beat several opponents, one after the other, often through driving runs from the right side of the pitch. He is also a superb passer of the ball, with the vision and technique to find angles and options that eludes lesser players, and is an excellent dead-ball specialist.
A one-club man all his life, he has helped Barcelona to a degree of success unmatched in their history, winning ten league titles, 6 Copa del Reys, 4 Champions Leagues, and the World Club Championship on three occasions.
He was part of the Pep Guardiola side in 2009 that won the treble and, adopting the “Tiki-Taka” style, played some of the best football ever seen on the world stage, with Messi assisted by Andrés Iniesta and Xavi who helped pull strings in midfield. Since their retirement, Barcelona has been less dominant, and have come to rely on Messi even more, and his seemingly limitless ability to pull games out of the fire for them.
The one blemish on his record as a player is his relative failure at the international level with Argentina. Not as beloved in his home country as he is in the rest of the world because he has played all his club football in Spain, he helped guide them to three successive finals – the World Cup of 2014, and the Copa América of 2015 and 2016 – but they lost them all. He briefly retired from the international game, only to return and almost single-handedly drag them to qualification for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia. However, they underperformed again and were knocked out early in the round of 16, having just scraped through the Group stage.
Most recently, they reached the semi-finals of this summer’s Copa América, but fell short yet again, beaten by Brazil in the semi-finals.
For the best part of a decade, Cristiano Ronaldo has been vying with his great rival Messi for the accolade of the best current player in world football.
The 9 years the Portuguese captain spent at Real Madrid saw him and Messi engaged in a continual struggle to see who would have the honor of emerging as top dog, just not in La Liga, but in European football as a whole, with each seemed determined to match the other for goals scored and man of the match performances. Ronaldo has voted the Best FIFA Men’s Player of the Year for 2016 and 2017 and, like Messi, is a five-time Ballon D’or winner. He began his career in his native Portugal, before moving to the Premier League and Manchester United, where he first became known to a global audience, winning the first of his five Champions League medals. The four-time European Golden Shoe winner then moved to Madrid in 2009 for what was then a world-record fee and then proceeded to repay that in full as he helped deliver two league titles, the Copa del Rey on both occasions, and the Champions League four of the five seasons between 2013 and 2018.
During his time in Spain he averaged more than a goal a game, and he holds the record for the most goals scored in the Champions League at 127 – 15 more than Messi, and 50 greater than that achieved by the next man on the list, Raúl, who also had a legendary career with Real Madrid. He began his career as a winger and gifted with pace. Excellent technical ability, he earned the reputation as a “show pony” in his early days because of his tendency to do too many tricks and fall to the ground too quickly.
However, over the years, he has evolved into a complete forward, capable of playing on either wing, as well as through the center. He can score with either foot, is a powerful header of a ball, and can hit wicked, swerving free kicks. The stepovers and feints are still there, but he has learned when to produce them to maximum effect. Always in top physical condition, he is capable of moments of sheer brilliance – his overhead kick for Real away to Juventus in the 2018 Champions League Quarter-Final was so good that it earned him a standing ovation from the home fans.
So impressed were Juventus with his talents that they paid €100 million for the 34-year-old in the summer of 2018 to sign him. He finished top scorer in Serie A for the season, but disappointment for him and his new club came in the Champions League when Ajax beat his side. He did, though, have the consolation of winning the league title and being voted Serie A’s most valuable player.
Where Ronaldo does have the edge over Messi lies in the fact that he has achieved success at the international level, having captained Portugal to triumph in Euro 2016, and, again, earlier this year, in the inaugural Nations League.
Neymar – or, to give him his full name Neymar da Silva Santos Junior – is usually mentioned in the same bracket as both Messi and Ronaldo, although, to date, there is a sense of underachievement about the Brazilian’s career. In part, this is because of his character. During the 2018 World Cup, Brazilian newspaper O Globo commented that Neymar “has charmed Brazil and annoyed the whole world.” Amongst neutrals, he is disliked for his cynicism and play-acting, while he is regarded as a player who dives excessively, always trying to win cheap free kicks and to get opposing players into trouble with referees.
Neymar was marked out as a star at an early age. The son of a former professional player, he joined the youth set-up of Santos aged 11, and so quick was his progress that he was offered the chance to join Real Madrid just three years later. Instead, he chose to continue his development in Brazil, where he would go on to help Santos win league and cup titles, while he was named Brazilian Player of the year on four consecutive occasions. He also made his senior debut for Brazil as a teenager.
In May 2013 he transferred to Barcelona in a transfer deal, although the terms of his move remain shrouded in mystery, and would later be investigated by the Spanish tax authorities. Barcelona and vice-president Josep Maria Bartomeu were then charged with tax fraud. His time with Barcelona was a successful one on the field – the side won two La Liga titles, the Copa del Rey on three occasions, and the Champions League in 2015. However, while Neymar remained with Barcelona, there was always the sense that he was in the shadow of Messi and, in 2017, he joined French club PSG for a world record fee of €222 million.
So far, it can be argued that PSG has hot had value for money for Neymar on the pitch, at least. He was supposed to help them achieve success in the Champions League, the holy grail for the club’s owners, but since he has been there, they have consistently failed at the quarter-final stage. And while the side has clinched back-to-back league titles, and achieved the domestic cup double in 2018, that is not a significant achievement in a country where PSG are so dominant in terms of budget and resources. Neymar, meanwhile, has acquired a reputation for missing games, especially when PSG are playing less fancied teams away from home, while he was consistently linked with a move back to Barcelona this summer, only for negotiations to collapse subsequently.
The World Cup of 2014 was meant to be the stage that would showcase his prodigious talents to the world, with Neymar very much the talisman for hosts Brazil that felt they were pre-destined to lift the trophy on home soil. However, against Columbia in the quarter-final, Neymar was forced to leave the field on a stretcher, and, without him, Brazil was humiliated 7 – 1 by Germany on home soil in the semi-finals.
More disappointment was to follow in the World Cup of 2018. Neymar helped steer his country to the quarter-finals, but they were then eliminated by Belgium 2 – 1. And, when Brazil was finally victors again, in the Copa América this summer, Neymar was forced to sit the competition out because of injury.
Virgil van Dijk
Virgil van Dijk was voted European footballer of the year for 2019 and is one of the leading contenders to win the Ballon D’or this season. Currently, captain of the Dutch national team, he rose to prominence since joining Liverpool from Southampton for a fee of £75 million in January 2018.
Since his arrival at Anfield, he has helped transform Liverpool into contenders for both the Premier League title and the Champions League, and was an integral part of the side that lifted a sixth European title against Tottenham in Madrid in June earlier this year, twelve months after they were beaten in the final by Real Madrid.
He is physically active, quick over the ground, tactically aware, and an excellent passer of the ball from deep, as well as being superior in the air at both ends of the pitch. Above all, what he brings to the teams he plays for is leadership, instilling calmness, and a sense of trust amongst teammates.
He began his career in his native Netherlands with Eredivisie side Groningen, until he moved to Scotland with Celtic in 2013. In his two full seasons in Scotland, he won the Scottish Premier League title twice, the League Cup once, and was named in the PFA Scotland Team of the Year two years running. Joining Southampton in September 2015 for a fee of £13 million, he was an instant success with his new club, soon becoming their club captain and named their player of the season for 2015 – 2016.
However, it has since he has been at Liverpool that he has blossomed, helping to transform them from a top-four side into severe challengers for the major honors of the game. In recognition of his efforts last season, both Liverpool players and fans voted him their player of the season for the 2018 – 2019 campaign.
He has also had a significant impact on his country, although he did not make his international debut until October 2015. Awarded the captaincy by Ronald Koeman, he led his side to the final of the UEFA Nations League earlier this year, and, although they subsequently lost to Portugal, he was named in the team of the tournament.
What will add icing to his cake this year is I Liverpool are able, after a thirty-year gap, to claim the Premier League title again. The omens are good with the side having won all of their opening eight games, but, if they do go on to achieve it, van Dijk is likely to have a significant part to play.
Since its inception in 1985, Player of the Year award recipients, in multiple branches of sport, has gone to win countless professional and college championships. Previous recipients who have gone on to become household names include Abby Wambach, six-time US Soccer Athlete of the Year, and twice an Olympic gold medallist; American football star Peyton Manning; NBA’s Karl-Anthony Towns, and Derek Jeter, who plays Major League Baseball.
Each year a selection committee made up of sports journalists, and coaches, trainers and administrators choosing national winners from 12 different sports – boys’ and girls’ soccer; American football; girls’ volleyball; boys’ and girls’ basketball; baseball, softball, and boys’ and girls’ cross country and track and field.
The 12 winners are then whittled down to one male and one female athlete, who then earn the accolade Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year.
Awards are based not just of athletic excellence, but also high academic standards, and the demonstration of exceptional character on and off the pitch.
While soccer is a growing sport in the United States, it continues to lag behind Europe and South America when it comes to the development of the game, and few American male soccer stars have yet to emerge.
With the women, though, it has been different, and the USA has established itself as the most international team of all, with four World Cups (including in France this year), four Olympic gold medals, and eight regional CONCACAF Championships to their name.