At 2012′s end, who are the world’s top 12 active footballers?

by James Clancy

It’s that time of year again; the festive season.

Tradition dictates that at this time of year we must wear silly hats, eat/drink excessively and combine lists of the best and worst of the year.

I am not one who desires to break from tradition so here I intend to compile my top 12 of the world’s footballers and just what is it that puts them a cut above the rest.

12th Edison Cavani: With 60 goals from barely 80 appearances for Series A side Napoli, it’s a wonder that the 25 year-old Uruguayan hasn’t been stolen away by a bigger, richer, Championship League club.

The powerful 6’2″ hit man’s robust style has endeared himself to fans and he has lived up to his nickname, Il Matador, with a goal or assist coming on average in almost every game he plays.

11th Iker Cassilas: The 31 year-old is the only goalkeeper on this list. The Spanish World Cup, two-time European Championship winning captain, five time La Liga and UEFA Champions League winner makes a mockery of the widely held view that goalkeepers aren’t as important as outfield players.

Known as “Saint Iker” because he performs miracles every time he plays, the comparatively short 6′ tall custodian has played a pivotal part in every single title he has won.

Andrés Iniesta won Spain the 2010 World Cup Final, but not before Casillas made a miraculous save from the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben. What Casillas lacks in height he more than makes up for in work ethic, agility, commitment, passion for and dedication to the cause.

10th Luis Suarez: The Uruguayan became known worldwide when he handled on his own goal-line at the death of the 2010 World Cup quarter-final against Ghana and having been red carded was seen to celebrate with gusto as the resultant penalty was missed and his countrymen completed the task of reaching the World Cup semi-final via a penalty shoot-out.

The 25 year-old has shown similar competitiveness at club level. Back in January 2011 he signed a five-and-a-half year deal with Liverpool.

Sometimes it feels like the tempestuous striker commits offences just to make it more painful for his detractors to admit he is a marvellous talent. His behaviour – most obviously his overly frequent diving – is at times unacceptable but his dynamism, inventiveness and sublime ability to swivel past defenders make him a joy to watch. He would add something to any team in the world.

9th Sergio Aguero: Manchester City fans will argue that the composure the diminutive striker showed in netting the Blues’ last gasp Premier League title winning goal deep into injury-time at the end of the final game of last season against QPR would have meant that the Argentinian deserved to be in the top 10 of the world’s best players.

He is however a marvellous player and played a pivotal part throughout last season and that triumph – his 30 goals from 48 appearances alone for City testify his importance to the Premier League champion’s cause.

He has won the Premier League, Europa League, an Olympic title and two Under-20 World Cups. He has played in a World Cup quarter-final back in 2010 and cost City £35million. At just 24 years-old, there is plenty of life left in this dog yet.

8th Andrea Pirlo: One of football’s oldest phrases states that “The seconds of the great last longer.”

This phrase could have been invented for one Andrea Pirlo who serenely peruses football pitches around Europe, waiting for a chance to unlock the opposition’s defence.

The Lombardy native was a pivotal influence in guiding his nation to the final of the year’s biggest football tournament before the Azzurri were dismantled by one of the world’s greatest ever football teams at the final of Euro 2012.

Italy’s playmaking kingpin was majestic during the Euro, as important to the team’s heartbeat as he was when the Azzurri won the 2006 World Cup. The coolness of his Panenka penalty, scooped over Joe Hart in the quarter-final shoot-out win over England, was classic serenity under pressure.

The 33 year-old was also a pivotal influence behind Juventus’ Serie A triumph this year. AC Milan must deeply regret that they were not able to hold onto his services at the end of the 2010-’11 season.

7th Robin Van Persie: By the end of the 2011-’12 season, the Dutch man had simply grown too big for Arsenal and the regular loss of their world class players is something which must be of great concern to fans of the north Londoners.

Having been Arsenal’s main striker ever since Thierry Henry left the club, the former Feyenoord hothead would have been considered great value, having been signed by Manchester United for £24million over the summer.

Van Persie has scored 13 goals from 19 games for the Red Devils as his side end 2012 seven points clear atop the FA Premier League table. His goals include the pivotal last minute winner against Manchester City as well as goals in narrow wins against Chelsea, Liverpool and his former employers.

Wayne Rooney’s form has been hit and miss this season and Van Persie has taken over the mantle as United’s main attacking talent with his form seeing the Old Trafford outfit comfortably clinch a Champions League knock out placing as group winners – having failed to make the knock-out stages last season.

Despite the Netherlands’ tepid group stage exit from Euro 2012, Van Persie and his countrymen have made a perfect start to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. Four wins from four starts mean the Dutch are now odds on to qualify for the global finals, with Van Persie having scored in three of those four games.

The immature boy who was inspired by watching Denis Bergkamp train when he first arrived at Arsenal back in 2004 is very much a man now and the hottest talent currently plying his trade in the English Premier League.

6th Radamel Falcao: He is nicknamed the Tiger and he is an insatiable predator, an extremely powerful striker, always looking for an opportunity to stick the ball in the back of the net.

He is devastatingly effective with right foot, left foot, head, from inside the box and out. This is a guy that does not miss when presented with an opportunity to score. Arguably the world’s best number nine at the moment, he has racked up over 50 goals in just a year and a half at Atlético Madrid whilst winning the Europa League and destroying Chelsea in the European Super Cup with a first-half hat-trick.

Europe’s top clubs are chasing his services right now and just how good he is can be seen from the buy-out clause in his Atlético contract. It currently stands at €60million and on current form, that does not seem like an outrageous price for the Colombian.

5th Xabi Alonso: He marked his 100th game for Spain by scoring twice against France to send La Roja through to the semi-final of Euro 2012.

He came out of the tournament as arguably Spain’s most impressive performer – and yet many asked whether they really needed him and Sergio Busquets together. In the end, Spain manager Vicente del Bosque was proved right.

In the same season that Real Madrid finally took the title back off Barcelona following a four year wait, Alonso was decisive domestically too.

4th Xavi Henandez: The Catalan native has been one of the leading inspirations behind the changing style of the global game.

Top level professional football during the late 1990s and the first half of the noughties was dominated by the muscular, athletic footballer who was well over 6′ tall.

While the defensive positions have largely stayed that way, the changes in the offside rule, amongst other factors, have meant that the small, lithe, quick footed, imaginative player has come to dominate the creative midfield/attacking positions.

Over the last 7/8 years, the offside rule has been modified greatly in favour of attacking players. This means that defences must play considerably deeper than what they previously had which effectively makes the pitch considerably larger, which necessitates players to be much less tall, large and physical. Xavi has taken full advantage of this evolution.

Xavi had a comparatively quiet Euro 2012, but played his game of the tournament during the final, a game which saw him lift the official man of the match award. The fact that Xavi’s best performance of the tournament coincided with what was by some distance Spain’s best performance at the Euro, was far from a coincidence.

3rd Andrés Iniesta: Speaking of creativity, Andrés Iniesta is the main creative source for the world’s two most creative teams; FC Barcelona and the Spanish national football team.

Sergio Ramos, who has played on a regular basis with Iniesta since he was 15 said this year: “I have never seen Andrés play a poor game.”

Iniesta’s career has been blighted by injury, but look back over the last three major international tournaments, all of them won by Spain, and his influence is abundantly clear.

He won three man of the match awards at Euro 2012, which was more than anyone else. There were another three at the 2010 World Cup, including the final where he of course scored the only goal of the game. And one MVP award at Euro 2008. From 19 games across three tournaments – more than any other player – he has been man of the match seven times. That is more than 33% of games he has played.

2nd Cristiano Ronaldo:   The man named after his father’s favourite actor – one Ronald Reagan – could have won several awards for his theatrical skills on the field of play.

While there are many who dislike the Portuguese native’s petulance; his talent, dedication to and passion for the game of football cannot be questioned.

He became the world’s most expensive player back in the summer of 2009 when Real Madrid paid Manchester United a fee of £80million (€94million) for the then 24 year-old’s services. United manager Alex Ferguson usually lets players go when they are past their best. That was of course not the situation in Ronaldo’s case, but such was the level of debt heaped on the Old Trafford outfit by the Glazer family’s purchase of the club that there was little choice but to accept the nine time European champion’s monster offer.

Ronaldo of course always dreamt of playing for Real Madrid. As a child he could never have imagined that his arrival at the Bernabéu would have been greeted by some 60,000 fans in the stadium and a television audience of millions worldwide though.

The now 27 year-old has gone from strength to strength since moving to Spain, having scored 126 goals from 118 league appearances for Los Blancos.

He started the 2011-’12 season as he intended to go on – by scoring a hat-trick (his tenth for Madrid) on the opening day of the season and he was the leading scorer on the club’s triumphant surge to La Liga glory for the first time in four years.

On 13th May 2012, the last matchday of the La Liga season, Ronaldo scored against Mallorca which made him the first player ever to score against every team in a single season in La Liga. He finished the season with a total of 46 league goals and 60 goals in all competitions, breaking the Real Madrid record he had set the previous season.

In the days immediately after the end of the season, Ronaldo claimed that he believed he had played better than Lionel Messi that season and on 13th June, he won the Trofeo Alfredo Di Stefano as the best La Liga player of the 2011-’12 season.

Ronaldo was second (tied with Lionel Messi) in the 2011–’12 UEFA Best Player in Europe Award, only behind Andrés Iniesta.

Ronaldo went on to star for his national team at the finals of UEFA Euro 2012, leading A Seleção to the semi-finals. He was rampant in the quarter-final against the Czech Republic, twice hitting the post before scoring the only goal of the game with 11 minutes to play before unluckily losing a penalty shoot-out to the magnificent Spanish at the final four stage following a 120 minute stalemate from open play.

Before and throughout the tournament, Ronaldo was particularly hailed by Diego Maradona who even declared Ronaldo as “the best player on the planet” and that “Ronaldo has shown his countrymen that he does deserve a monument in Lisbon.” Ronaldo was included in the UEFA Euro 2012 Team of the Tournament for the second time since 2004, and finished the competition as the joint top scorer with three goals.

By the middle of the 2012-’13 La Liga season, Ronaldo had become Madrid’s 9th top scoring of all time, scoring his 169th goal in all competitions in the space of just over three seasons.

In October Ronaldo became the first and only player to score in six consecutive El Clásicos against Barcelona.

On 20th December, Manchester United was drawn against Real Madrid in the stand-out tie of the UEFA Champions League last 16. Ronaldo will return to Old Trafford for the first time since his move to Madrid in 2009, when the second leg comes around on 5th March.

Speaking of the draw, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson stated that United fans at the game against Real Madrid should not boo Ronaldo but that they should be very grateful to the Portuguese for the six seasons he spent at the club.

1st Lionel Messi: For many, the argument is not whether Messi is the best footballer in the world at the moment, but whether he is the footballer of all time.

For this observer, the little (5’7″) Argentinian needs to produce something amazing at a World Cup. He has of course won a gold medal at the Olympics (back in 2008), but that is nothing compared to the FIFA World Cup finals in my view.

The importance of the global finals has been diluted by the views/actions of some top players and the ascendancy of the UEFA Champions League over recent years. It should however be the ultimate litmus test for a player in my view though.

When you play for a country such as Argentina – a country which is always one of the best in the world or close to being one of the best in the world, then to be the greatest player of all time, you really need to produce something remarkable at the World Cup. This “something remarkable” should be something like leading his country to a World Cup title.

Messi’s statistics at club level are staggering however. Not least for this calender year. The 25 year-old scored 91 goals for the calendar year 2012. This is six more than the massive (top flight) European record number set by one Gerd Müller some 40 years ago. Speaking of the feat, the German said: “My record stood for 40 years – 85 goals in a year – and now the best player in the world has broken it, and I’m delighted for him. He is an incredible player, gigantic.”

Messi’s calender year record of 91 goals came hot on the heels of his seasonal record of 73 goals scored in a season (ahead of the record of 67 which was also set by Gerd Müller at the end of the 1972-’73 season).

Messi won the 2011 UEFA Best Player in Europe Award, beating his FC Barcelona team-mate Xavi Hernández and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi also won the 2010 and 2011 FIFA Ballon d’Or, again beating his team-mate Xavi and Cristiano Ronaldo as well as winning the coveted World Soccer Player of the Year title two years in a row and for the third time in four years in December 2012.

By winning the FIFA Ballon d’Or again, Messi became the fourth player to win three Ballon d’Ors, after such stellar names as Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and Marco Van Basten and the second player to win three consecutive Ballon d’Ors, after Michel Platini.

Messi was the second best assist provider in La Liga for the 2011-’12 season with 16 assists, after Mesut Özil, who managed 17. He also ended the season as the UEFA Champions’ League Top Scorer for a fourth consecutive time, with 14 goals. He was one of the top assist providers of the tournament with five assists and finished the season with 73 goals and 29 assists in all club competitions, with more goals and assists than any other player.

The simple statistics don’t tell it all about Messi’s brilliance however. He can do everything in a game; from control the tempo of a game, to slowing it down, speeding it up and, most importantly – winning it.

The 2014 World Cup is just over 18 months away. Messi will be turning 27 years-old then and probably at the peak of his powers. To inspire his nation to a World Cup win in Brazil would be the ultimate denouement of the Argentinian’s brilliance.

Author Info

James Clancy

James Clancy

A qualified Irish football journalist and photographer with an interest in all aspects and all of football. My knowledge is dominated by (but certainly not limited to) Irish and British football issues; contemporary, nostalgic, current affairs and quirky. Being a youngster during the 1990 World Cup has also given me a soft spot for Italy and Italian football ever since. Twitter: @hoogenband0110 Email: james@hoogensports.com

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