The 21st century which currently spans almost 16 years has produced arguably the finest generation of footballers in the history of the game. For the last seven years there have been only two challengers for the title of best in the world, but that is not a criticism of their competition, but rather a mark of the sheer brilliance and consistency of those two players.
The 21st century will be reflected on as one of the defining eras in footballing history. It has become, even more so than previously, the most global sport on Earth. Through the Premier League and Champions League in particular, football has been marketed and watched to degrees never previously seen. The Premier League is now broadcast in 202 different countries across the globe.
Narrowing down to 25 players from the best part of two decades is not easily done. As you will see from the ‘Honorable Mentions’ section, some true legends and greats of the game have missed out. Those who feature and their order is bound to be the topic of great debate, as football is a game so rife with opinions. The list is intended to be a reflection primarily of each players ability, but also their achievements and influence. Here are the Top 25 Greatest Players of the 21st Century:
With any list of this ilk, covering so many great players, there will be notable and unfortunate omissions. For example, there was no place for the most recognizable footballer of all-time in the form of David Beckham on the list. Other noteworthy omissions include Franck Ribery, Samuel Eto’o, Luis Suarez, Francesco Totti, Iker Casillas, Gareth Bale, David Villa, Steven Gerrard, Michael Balack, Miroslav Klose, Frank Lampard, Andriy Shevchenko, Rivaldo, Claude Makelele and Dennis Bergkamp. Undoubtedly, some of you will feel those players and others should have featured, but hopefully after looking at those who did make the list, one will understand why they did not make the final 25.
25. Philipp Lahm
The greatest full-back of his generation, Philipp Lahm is one of the finest right-backs the game has ever seen. Having come through the Bayern Munich academy, Lahm spent two seasons on-loan at Stuttgart, before becoming an integral part of both the Bayern Munich and German national team.
Lahm has won the Bundesliga seven times, the DFB-Pokal six times, the Champions League twice and the World Cup once. Lahm came sixth in the 2014 Ballon d’Or, and Pep Guardiola once described him as “perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career.”
24. Pavel Nedved
Widely regarded as the greatest player the Czech Republic have ever produced, Pavel Nedved won the Ballon d’Or in 2003, seeing off competition from the likes of Thierry Henry and Paolo Maldini. That is a mark of the genius of Nedved. He made the grade with Sparta Prague and Lazio prior to the 21st Century, but most would agree his finest years came post-2000, in which he spent eight years at Juventus. Nedved won four league titles, three coming in Serie A, and made the UEFA Team of the Year in three consecutive seasons.
23. Roberto Carlos
Roberto Carlos was already well into his prime by the start of the 21st century, but is still worthy of a place on this list for his performances from 2000-onwards. Carlos moved to Europe in 1995 when he joined Inter Milan, but spent only a season in Serie A before joining Real Madrid.
With Real, Carlos won four La Liga titles and three Champions League winners medals, among other trophies. Renowned for his tireless running, strong tackles and thunderous shot, Carlos also won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002, the same year in which he was runner-up for the Ballon d’Or.
22. Clarence Seedorf
The only player in history to have won the Champions League with three different clubs, Clarence Seedorf had a marvellous career, winning the most coveted trophy in club football a total of four times. The Dutchman spent time with Ajax, Sampdoria, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Botafogo. Seedorf won 21 trophies in total, and was named the best midfielder in Europe in 2007. With superb technique, vision, passing and shooting ability from distance, Seedorf is one of the most decorated Dutchmen in history.
21. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
One of the greatest strikers of his generation, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is known for his brash persona, outspoken comments and having the ability to back it all up. Zlatan has never really settled in his career, having played for; Malmo, Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan and PSG. He has scored a career total of 349 goals in 630 games, as well as 59 goals in 109 caps for Sweden.
Ibrahimovic has been named in the UEFA Team of the Year four times, and has won 27 trophies throughout his career, including league titles in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France. He also won the 2013 Puskas Award for the best goal scored in Europe that year.
20. Ryan Giggs
The most decorated player in world footballing history, there simply had to be a place for Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs on this list. Starting out as a tricky, talented, goal scoring winger, Giggs later adapted his game, allowing him to have extraordinary longevity for the modern game, playing at the highest level until the age of 40. Giggs won 14 Premier League titles, two Champions Leagues and 19 other trophies. He was named in the PFA Team of the Year six times and the PFA Team of the Century once, and holds the record for the most assists in Premier League history.
The second marauding Brazilian full-back to make this list, Cafu was a tireless right-back renowned for his incredible stamina, pace and technique. Cafu spent his finest years in Europe with Roma and AC Milan, and with 142 caps, he is the most capped player in the history of the Brazilian national team. Cafu won 21 trophies at club level and seven with Brazil. Among his greatest achievements include winning the Serie A title twice, the Champions League and the World Cup twice.
18. Patrick Vieira
Patrick Vieira is the greatest midfield enforcer in modern footballing history. Highly successful at both club and international level, Vieira was a leader, twinning power and strength with technique and vision. His best years came at Arsenal, where he led the team to three Premier League titles and four FA Cups, including their legendary Invincible season. 18 trophies at club level was matched by an equally impressive World Cup and European Championship win in 1998 and 2000 with France.
17. Didier Drogba
Another Premier League great, Didier Drogba spent eight years at Chelsea between 2004 and 2012, before rejoining the club for a ninth season last year. Drogba has won 17 trophies in total, including four Premier League titles and one Champions League with Chelsea, and was even voted the club’s greatest ever player. Always a player for the big occasions, Drogba had an excellent record at Wembley Stadium and was named man of the match in the 2012 Champions League final. The Ivorian won the Premier League Golden Boot twice and is making waves in the MLS, with 11 goals in his first 11 games and being named MLS Player of the Month for both September and October.
16. Gianluigi Buffon
The greatest goalkeeper of his generation, Gigi Buffon may have faced competition from the likes of Iker Casillas, Petr Cech and Edwin van der Saar, but ultimately, no ‘keeper of the 21st Century can match the Italian in terms of his consistent brilliance. Buffon became the most expensive goalkeeper of all time when he joined Juventus in 2001, but 14 years later, his hefty price tag appears to have been terrific value.
Buffon has won 16 titles at club level and three at international level, with Serie A and the World Cup being his greatest achievements and missing out on the Champions League his greatest disappointment. He has been named Serie A Best Goalkeeper for nine seasons and IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper four times, as well as winning 152 caps for Italy, the most of any player in the Azzurri’s history.
One of the finest passers and most intelligent footballers of the new millennium, Xavi has epitomized the Barcelona philosophy which has made them arguably the greatest team of the century so far. Xavi came through the famous La Masia academy at Barcelona and went on to win 25 trophies with the club, including a quite incredible eight La Ligas and four Champions Leagues. The midfield maestro has been equally successful at international level, winning three consecutive major honors with Spain between 2008 and 2012, including two European Championships and one World Cup. Xavi has featured in the UEFA Team of the Year five times and finished third in the Ballon d’Or awards three times.
14. Fabio Cannavaro
The 2006 Ballon d’Or winner, Fabio Cannavaro was always regarded within Italy as a world class defender, but it perhaps took until the 2006 World Cup for the rest of the world to really recognize his talents. Short for a center-back, Cannavaro more than made up for this with his intelligence and reading of the game. Cannavaro had an exceptional 18-year career but in 2006 he had an extraordinary year by any player’s standards. He was named Serie A defender of the Year, Serie A Player of the Year, Italian Footballer of the Year, UEFA Team of the Year, World Soccer Player of the Year, World Cup Team of the Tournament, FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or winner.
Brazilian attacking midfielder Kaka has had rather an unusual career. For six years with AC Milan he was nothing short of a phenomenon, but after a blockbuster move to Real Madrid, Kaka’s career began to fall apart. Had he maintained his form with AC Milan he would be a candidate to top this list, but even despite the collapse, he is still worthy of his high placement. He won the Ballon d’Or in 2007, making him the last person to win the award since the Messi/Ronaldo dominance. Kaka has won 9 club trophies, including the Serie A, La Liga and Champions League, as well as a World Cup with Brazil in 2002.
12. Paul Scholes
An under appreciated player for much of his career, perhaps much to do with the low-profile he liked to keep, it was only once Paul Scholes began to approach his swan song years that his true genius came to be appreciated. Whilst Scholes’ tackling was often a little suspect, his vision, reading of the game, passing and intelligence were almost unparalleled. Xavi described Scholes as the best player in his position in the last 15-20 years, a sentiment echoed by Pep Guardiola, with the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Socrates also stating their admiration of his ability.
Scholes was a one-club man, playing 718 games for Manchester United, scoring 155 goals and winning 11 Premier League titles, 3 FA Cup’s, 2 Champions League’s and 9 other trophies. Scholes was horrifically misused by England, often played on the left of midfield, and only winning 66 caps.
The man who Cristiano Ronaldo overtook to become Real Madrid’s all-time top scorer earlier this season, Raul still holds the record for the most Real Madrid appearances. He scored a total of 387 goals in 930 games for Los Blancos, winning six La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues and 13 other trophies in Spain, Germany, Qatar and the U.S. He was La Liga top scorer four times and a Ballon d’Or runner-up in 2001, Raul also won 102 caps for Spain, scoring 44 goals, but sadly just missed their success of 2008, 2010 and 2012.
10. Luis Figo
Another 21st Century La Liga legend, Luis Figo was already a world superstar by the year 2000, the year in which he caused controversy by moving from Barcelona to Real Madrid. Figo was widely regarded to be one of, if not the best player in the world at the time, and won the Ballon d’Or in 2000. A six-time Portuguese Player of the Year, Figo was also named FIFA World Player of the Year in 2001. A terrific dribbler and crosser of the ball, Figo has the second most assists in La Liga history behind Lionel Messi. He won a total of 22 trophies at club level, including La Liga, Serie A and the Champions League.
9. Thierry Henry
Regarded by many to be the greatest player of the Premier League era, Thierry Henry was a force of nature at Arsenal. Quick of feet and mind, he was graceful, elegant and ruthless in front of goal. His link up play with Dennis Bergkamp was, at times, breathtaking. Henry scored a total of 360 goals in 792 goals in his career, including 226 in 369 games for Arsenal. Among Henry’s 19 club trophies there were one Ligue 1 title, two Premier League titles, two La Liga titles and one Champions League.
Henry was equally successful in international level, winning Euro 2000 and the 1998 World Cup. He scored 51 goals in 123 caps for France, making him the top scorer in the countries history. His individual achievements included being named in the PFA Team of the Year six times, FWA Footballer of the Year three times, Premier League Golden Boot four times and UEFA Team of the Year four times.
8. Andrea Pirlo
As a deep-lying playmaker, there have been few greater than Andrea Pirlo in the history of the game. His passing, vision and reading of the game have seen him control countless games over the last two decades. The majority of Pirlo’s career has been spent with AC Milan and Juventus, with whom he has won six Serie A titles and the Champions League twice. Pirlo has been nominated for the Ballon d’Or three times, and was named Serie A Player of the Year for three consecutive seasons. Pirlo has also won 116 caps for Italy and was named man of the match in the 2006 World Cup final when Italy won the competition.
7. Andres Iniesta
It is a mark of the talent produced in this century that Andres Iniesta is only seventh on this list. The midfielder is sheer class, everything he does is of the highest quality. A graceful midfielder, Iniesta is exceptional on the ball, capable of gliding past opponents with ease, and also has wonderful passing and shooting abilities. He has won 25 trophies with Barcelona, including seven La Liga titles and four Champions League winners medals.
With Spain, Iniesta was pivotal in their 2008, 2010 and 2012 Euro and World Cup successes, scoring the all-important winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final. Iniesta has played 559 games for Barcelona and won 102 caps for Spain. He has made the FIFA FIFPro Team of the Year six times and has been nominated for the the Ballon d’Or three times, finishing second, third and fourth.
6. Paolo Maldini
Paolo Maldini is widely regarded as the finest defender of his generation, and one of the greatest of all-time. The complete defender, Maldini was an excellent man marker, with tremendous technical and athletic abilities, as well as being as tough as they come and terrific in the tackle. His greatest attribute though was his tactical awareness, reading of the game and intelligence, which allowed him to compete at the highest level until the ripe old age of 41.
Maldini spent his entire club career at AC Milan, where he is a club legend, playing 902 games for the Italian giants. He won a total of 26 trophies in Milan, including seven Serie A titles and 5 European Cup/Champions League wins, the joint second most in history. Maldini won 126 caps for Italy and finished third in the Ballon d’Or voting twice and second in the FIFA World Player of the Year awards.
Somewhat similarly to Kaka, Ronaldinho’s career seemed to tail off earlier than it should have. Ronaldinho came to Europe from Gremio, joining PSG in 2001 before a big-money move to Barcelona in 2003. It was with the Catalan club that Ronaldinho became arguably the greatest player in the world at the time. He seemed capable of doing anything at times, bewildering defenders with his skill, technique and sheer audacity to pull off tricks others wouldn’t even attempt in training sessions.
He won 13 trophies at club level, most notably La Liga, Serie A and the Champions League. In four of his five seasons with Barcelona he was irresistible, majestic and quite simply a joy to watch. Ronaldinho has won 97 caps for Brazil, and won the World Cup in 2002. Individually, he won the Ballon d’Or in 2005, FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005, and was named in the FIFPro World XI three times.
The original Ronaldo of the Brazilian variety really ought to have gone down as one of the greatest of all time. Few would now put him in the same bracket as Pele, Maradona or Messi, but in terms of natural ability and technique, he was as good as any of them. Ronaldo had a series of injury lay-offs which prevented him from having as long a career or playing as many games at the highest level as he would have liked. Despite this, he still had a career that most can only dream of.
He played for the likes of Barcelona, Inter Milan and Real Madrid; winning 18 trophies for club and country, most notably the UEFA Cup, La Liga and the World Cup twice. While he didn’t feature in 1994, he was Brazil’s star player in 2002, where he was top scorer and scored both goals in a 2-0 final win. Ronaldo was named FIFA World Player of the Year three times and won the Ballon d’Or twice, as well as countless other individual honors.
3. Zinedine Zidane
Few would argue with the sentiment that Zinedine Zidane is one of the greatest players to ever grace a football pitch. Elegance, technique, vision, passing, shooting; the Frenchman had it all, and in abundance. It all seemed so effortless with Zizou, as he could glide past five men or volley a shot into the top corner in a Champions League final seemingly without breaking sweat. He played for Cannes, Bordeaux, Juventus and Real Madrid, as well as winning 108 caps for France.
He won 15 trophies for club and country, most notably the World Cup, European Championship, Serie A, La Liga and Champions League successes, all of which Zidane was pivotal in helping his team to win. In 2004 he was named the best European footballer of the last 50 years, he won the FIFA World Player of the Year award three times and the Ballon d’Or once.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
It was a tough decision between Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo for second place on this list, but the consistency of the Portuguese forward earned him second spot. Ronaldo’s goal scoring is quite remarkable. He is now Real Madrid’s all-time top scorer, despite having only played 315 games for the club, compared to Raul’s 930. Ronaldo’s career totals show that he has scored 449 goals in 638 games for Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United and Real Madrid, as well as 55 goals in 123 caps for Portugal.
By the age of 22 Ronaldo had already been nominated for the FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or awards. He has won a total of 16 trophies, including the Premier League and La Liga titles and Champions League wins with both Manchester United and Real Madrid. Ronaldo has been named in the FIFPro World XI for eight consecutive seasons and won the Ballon d’Or three times.
1. Lionel Messi
The greatest player of this century and he may go on to be regarded as the greatest player of all time, there is not much left to say regarding Lionel Messi. A recently produced infographic showing ‘Football Before Messi’ and ‘Football After Messi’ displays the almost ludicrous list of achievements held by the Argentine, who is still only 28 years old. He has the most goals in a single season, most goals in a calendar year, most goals in Catalan derby’s, most goals in El Classico derbies. Not only is Messi the all-time top scorer for Barcelona, he is the all-time top scorer in La Liga, and holds the record for the most assists in the league’s history.
He has won the Ballon d’Or four times, more than any other player, and he could easily add to that tally in the coming years. The list of achievements and accolades go on and on. He has spent his entire career, to date, with Barcelona, where he has a career total of 418 goals in 493 games. Messi is known for his incredible balance, poise, technique, pace on the ball, passing and finishing abilities. At the age of 28, Messi has won 25 trophies with Barcelona, including sevn La Liga titles and four Champions League winners medals, the only trophy missing from his cabinet is of course the World Cup.
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