Who are the best football players in the world right now? A question that can never be properly answered, will barely even come close to leading to an agreement, but one that continues to fill pub chat and football terraces (well, group chats and Zoom calls for now).
A new generation of younger superstars are clawing their way into the spotlight, but the old guard aren’t done yet.
To set the criteria for our list, we’ve selected our top 10 players in the world based on personal talent and achievements across the last few of years, as opposed to a short burst of form or one-off blips following a decade of success.
Among those who don’t make the top 10 cut are Eden Hazard – whose form at Real Madrid has failed to match that of his time at Chelsea – as well as Sadio Mane and Raheem Sterling. Both players are magnificent on their day but in Mane’s case he loses out to a Liverpool teammate, while Sterling has blown hot and cold in recent times.
Here we go.
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10. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
Edging Mane – but only just – is Liverpool’s goalscoring sensation Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian may not have personally produced a career-best 12 months in 2020 when it comes to performances but, in terms of trophies and team togetherness at Liverpool, there is no-one manager Jurgen Klopp would turn to first. Salah is paramount to how Liverpool play and there is hope we will once again see the forward at a World Cup, should Egypt qualify in 2022.
For now, the focus is on another Premier League title and Salah has proved the team player capable of delivering this.
9. Neymar (PSG)
The French top flight is widely considered a level below that of Brazilian sensation Neymar yet his ultimate goal to deliver a Champions League crown in Paris is yet to be fulfilled. Neymar has been a sensation since his teenage years but the global superstar has never managed to oust the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi off their perch as the No. 1 footballer in the world.
Recent years have seen Neymar slip down these rankings, largely due to his ineffectual performances at international level. Still, his growing experience has aided his link-up play with fellow forwards and at 28 Neymar is still at the peak of his powers.
8. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern)
It is a testament to how strong the Bundesliga is right now that three of the top 10 footballers in the world compete in Germany. Joshua Kimmich has developed into Bayern Munich’s answer in midfield, with the versatile Germany international capable of covering for the defence as well as driving the team forward.
Kimmich’s influence across the Bayern midfield is undisputed and he is one of the first names on boss Hans-Dieter Flick’s team sheet. We should see more of the 25-year-old at the Euros this summer and don’t be surprised if Kimmich is holding the Champions League trophy aloft yet again before long.
7. Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)
Liverpool would not have won the Premier League in 2020 had it not been for Virgil van Dijk. It’s not merely the performances of the Dutch defender that drives Liverpool forward, but his influence off the field has raised standards across the club for years.
Van Dijk has been instrumental in every progressive step Liverpool have made under Jurgen Klopp since the centre-back arrived from Southampton in 2018. He’s done it on the domestic and European front, and Holland will be hoping the 29-year-old will be fit enough to feature at Euro 2020.
6. Kylian Mbappe (PSG)
It may not be long until Kylian Mbappe surpasses the waning stars of Ronaldo and Messi in this list of the best footballers in the world – but for now the Frenchman is just below those two icons of the game. Why? Well, for those in the corridors of power at Paris Saint-Germain, the difference between greatness and superstardom is the Champions League.
Mbappe enjoyed a strong 2020 but couldn’t steer his team to Champions League glory in the final against Bayern Munich. The new season has seen the Frenchman kick on with 17 goals for club and country in the first half of the 2020/21 campaign.
And the summer could be as good a year for Mbappe as 2018, when he helped France win the World Cup. Les Bleus are one of the favourites to win Euro 2020 and PSG will be gunning for that maiden Champions League crown. With Mbappe currently scoring for fun, there’s nothing to suggest he won’t have his hands on at least one major trophy by the end of 2021.
5. Erling Haaland (Dortmund)
Rarely has a footballer made such an impressive impact on the European club scene as Norway’s Erling Haaland. At just 20 years of age, one might argue the forward is too young to be yet considered one of the best footballers on the planet. But just watching 90 minutes of Haaland in a Dortmund shirt will tell you otherwise.
Haaland’s goalscoring form is phenomenal. At one stage in 2020 he was averaging a goal every 55 minutes and 54 seconds. The youngster translated his blistering attack game from the Austrian top flight with RB Salzburg to Germany’s Bundesliga at Dortmund as though nothing had happened.
Much like Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Wayne Rooney and Eden Hazard in their youth, Haaland is almost untouchable when in possession. Don’t be surprised if he moves higher up this list in 2022.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)
When Ronaldo arrived at Juventus the remit was clear: win the Champions League. Now into his third season in Italy, the veteran – who turns 36 in February – still hasn’t delivered. There is no doubting Ronaldo’s exquisite talent and the Portuguese may well go down in history as the greatest footballer of all time.
But in 2021, his wings have been clipped. Ronaldo’s Juventus are labouring in Serie A and Portugal haven’t been at their best. Crucially, Juve bombed out of the 2020 Champions League at the last-16 stage, having fallen at the quarter-finals the year before.
In this ranking of the world’s best footballers Ronaldo is slipping. He is still a behemoth of a figure and can dominate the majority of Serie A games without a problem. But his only true value to Juve is in Europe – and this is where the ex-Manchester United superstar needs to deliver.
3. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City)
No player in the Premier League is as technically gifted as Kevin De Bruyne. The eagle-eyed playmaker has the brawn and the brain to dominate games both home and abroad.
Manchester City would not be the same without De Bruyne. He is the assist king, with City scoring a goal provided by the Belgian once every two Premier League games. Of course, having a team of glittering stars around him aids De Bruyne’s club performances, but the 29-year-old has also produced for Belgium.
He could well be the stand-out player at Euro 2020 in the summer, with Belgium looking to go a step further than their semi-final exit at the World Cup in 2018. This could be the year where De Bruyne becomes the best footballer on the planet.
2. Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Where Lionel Messi is playing at the end of 2021 remains to be seen but there is no doubting that the Barcelona superstar’s career is ever so slightly on the wane. Messi, who has topped many of the ‘best footballers in the world’ lists for much of the past decade, has slipped off top spot here.
While no player can turn a game quite like Messi, the Argentinian doesn’t quite have the influence he used to on the football pitch. The 2019/20 season saw Messi score fewer than 30 goals in La Liga for the first time in three years, while his influence hasn’t been enough to steer the club to a first Champions League success since 2015.
Messi turns 34 in the summer and may transfer out of the Nou Camp. Before then, he still has domestic and continental trophies to fight for – and there remains no player on the planet quite as dazzling as the diminutive Argentinian. But even he would admit his isn’t top dog anymore.
1. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
Having floated below the likes of Ronaldo and Messi in many ‘best footballers in the world’ lists, Robert Lewandowski can not be considered the very best. A striker whose talents have adapted to changes in style over the years, Lewandowski is as seasoned a goalscorer as you’ll ever see.
The Poland international has a dead-eye for goal in a one-on-one situation and his numbers are hugely impressive. Lewandowski scored 45 professional goals in 2020 – the fourth year in a row he broke through the 40-goal barrier.
What’s more, he was named European Footballer of the Year and FIFA’s player of the year, but controversially wasn’t granted the Ballon d’Or in 2020 after the award was cancelled due to COVID-19.
2021 looks set to be another stellar year for the forward, with Bayern flying in the Bundesliga, into the Champions League knockout stages and Poland a strong outside contender to win Euro 2020 in the summer.