Part four of the Top 50 Players in the World features sees us count down from 20 to 11, as more World Cup and Champions League heroes appear, two Brazilian defenders, two African kings and a certain Welsh wizard.
20 Gareth Bale
Recently The Guardian’s sport editor Ian Prior ran into a spot of bother after hyping up the news that Serie A giants Internazionale were mulling over a possible £40 million move for Tottenham’s Gareth Bale… perhaps. An internet storm rumbled on, probably because this tabloid-style speculation wasn’t the biggest football news in the world ever, but it says a lot about how Bale has developed over the past year that this would be considered big news by anyone.
The Welshman had endured a testing few years at Tottenham prior to 2010, holding the record number of league appearances for the North London club without a win at 24 games and struggling with a series of injuries. It wasn’t until late January of last year that Bale would actually start in a win for Tottenham, beating Fulham 2-0. But once he was finally given a run of games, helped in part by an injury to Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Bale hit a good run of form. Assou-Ekotto returned but Bale was too good to drop, so Harry Redknapp moved him forward into a left wing position, also giving him more attacking freedom.
Bale continued his excellent form, winning the Player of the Month award for April, with goals against Arsenal and Chelsea, and ensuring Tottenham reached the Champions League. Then, upon returning for the new season, Bale took it to another level: he scored a sensational Van Basten-esque volley against Stoke, became a one man battering ram to claw back from 4-0 down against Inter with a hat-trick and providing another man of the match performance in the return leg.
El Mundo described him best, saying post-Inter: “Bale combines the height and build of an 800-metre runner like Steve Ovett with the acceleration and directness of a rugby winger like Bryan Habana. And, when he gets to the byline, he delivers curling crosses like a Brazilian. Big words? Yes, but that’s what Bale is like.”
Some of the hyperbole might have been silly, especially Patrick Barclay’s claims that he was second only behind Xavi for the title of the best player in the world, but Bale has progressed a seemingly impossible amount in the last year and his place in this list is well-deserved.
19 Daniel Alves
While Sid Lowe’s assertion that Dani Alves was the second best player in the world a couple of years ago may have been a little hyperbolic, there is no doubt that he is as talented a full-back as the game has seen for some time.
Blessed with the speed of greased lightning, natural creativity, an underrated tactical mind and bags of energy, Alves exercises more influence on football matches than any right-back since Cafu. In short, Alves is the complete article, both offensively and defensively, and a key component in Barcelona’s beautifully balanced machine.
The last year has seen the Brazilian further enhance his reputation; his talents coming to be appreciated by more and more people as Barça have continued to demonstrate their sublime excellence on the field. The impressive form of Maicon may have restricted his progress in the green and yellow colours of his country, but the impish Alves has developed into arguably the greatest full-back of his generation during his time at the Camp Nou.
The incredible progress he has made can be measured statistically. During the 2008/09 season – his first with Barça – Alves played 54 games and created 15 goals. He achieved the same number of assists in 2009/10 in six fewer games, with the current campaign having seen him already lay on 14 goals for his team mates in just 30 appearances.
Not only is the Brazilian a potent attacking force, the defensive side of his game is also improving. Barcelona’s record at the back has got better each year under Guardiola’s leadership, the regular back four’s mastery of their art having seen the Blaugrana concede just 11 goals in their 21 La Liga games in 2010/11. Not only does Alves provide the right-sided width in Barça’s 4-3-3, he is also a highly intelligent defensive presence.
He may not be praised quite as often as some of his teammates, but the Brazilian full-back is just as important a piece in the Barcelona jigsaw as Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Villa. Dani Alves: more than a right-back.
18 Thomas Müller
Expressions like “Cinderella story” or “fairytale” are tossed around quite a bit in football nowadays to describe everything from the rise of small clubs to individually exceeded expectations. In few cases are these descriptions more applicable than the rise of Thomas Müller. Just a little over a year ago few had heard of the Bayern Munich youth product. Even in Germany Müller was a relative unknown, having featured relatively little for any of the country’s youth teams and considered just one of many prospects in German football.
Müller signed his professional contract at the age of 18 and played his first full year with the first team in the 2009/10 season. His market value was then a meek €300,000. A year and a half later Müller is the owner of the 2010 World Cup Golden Boot, Bronze medal, Best Young Player Award, a Bundesliga title, a domestic Cup, a Champions League runner up medal and several other individual awards. In a little over a year Müller has become arguably the best player in his age group in Europe and an integral part of both Bayern and the German National Team.
A lot can be said about Müller’s aggressive personality and hard working character and at such a young age he is mature beyond his years. Müller is the quintessential modern attacking footballer. He is good with both feet, can play just about anywhere in attack and has a real brain for the game. Above all, Müller exemplifies a character trait said to be missing from German football in the last 10 years, the never say die attitude that is so often spun into the cultural stereotype but is in fact an inherent quality of all successful players and teams.
When Diego Maradona questioned who Thomas Müller was at a press conference between Argentina and Germany after his first call up in March last year, he left himself vulnerable to the most bitter doses of karma and retribution in recent memory. Three months after that infamous friendly the young German starred in the demolition of Maradona’s team in arguably the team performance of the World Cup. Müller had sent Argentina and Maradona packing as he announced himself to the world. If that isn’t proof enough perhaps the 37 goals and 37 assists in a season and a half will do the trick.
17 Didier Drogba
Didier Drogba has gone through the mill in 2010. During his long-and-storied career, the Ivorian has experienced the highs of top-scoring seasons, and the lows of injuries paired with the constant questioning of his sportsmanship. During the last year, the 32-year old experienced all of these, and a whole lot more.
Drogba’s first return to Africa of 2010 came in January, as part of the Ivory Coast’s African Cup of Nations squad. A goal in one of only two group games, due to Togo’s withdrawal from the tournament, was Drogba’s only contribution to a highly disappointing tournament for the Ivoirians, as they were expelled by Algeria in the quarter-finals. His early return to Chelsea in February against Hull City sparked off an outstanding vein of form that led Drogba to the Premier League Golden Boot, ending in a hat-trick against Wigan during Chelsea’s 8-0 final day victory.
If there was a circle around any event in Didier Drogba’s 2010 calendar, it would be surrounding June 15th; the Ivory Coast’s first World Cup game against Portugal. In Africa’s first World Cup finals, Drogba was the figurehead, with the weight of a continent’s expectations on his broad shoulders. What would happen next would sum up Drogba’s passion for the game and his desire to succeed more than ever before. A fractured arm sustained in a tournament warm-up with Japan had all but written off Drogba’s chances of performing in the spectacle at all. However, surgery a day later and permission to play in a protective cast brought about a shock return in time for the Ivoirians first group game, and despite the African side failing to escape from the ‘group of death’ at the expense of Brazil and Portugal, Drogba further earned the respect of football’s international community in playing through the pain barrier to a quite unbelievable extent.
Drogba is, at times, not a popular footballer. His overreaction to challenges and his propensity for tantrum-throwing has left him open for criticism to say the least. However, he makes this list, voted for by those who may criticise such behaviour, due to the fact that opposing teams and their fans simply hate playing against him. His strength and toughness has been exemplified by playing throw broken bones and even malaria, coupled with a touch and strike to match any in the world. A double-winner and an owner of a Golden Boot deserves his place amongst the best.
2010 was an immense year in every sense of the word for Internazionale and Brazil’s centre-back and de facto leader. Off the pitch, he is an unassuming, deeply religious man with little in the way of interests beyond his family and training. On it, he is a colossus – strong, committed in his play, and prone to striding forward in a manner that is often compared to the greatest libero of them all, Franz Beckenbauer. But unlike Der Kaiser, there is not a great deal of subtlety of Lúcio’s style of defending – indeed, his roaming tendencies are the type that would regularly land a lesser defender in positional hot water.
During Inter’s run to the Scudetto and Champions League double, Lúcio was simply unplayable, providing a potent combination of wall-like defensive reliability and irresistible forward momentum. His marshalling of the rearguard action during Inter’s famous second leg defeat at the Camp Nou was one of the finest defensive displays of recent times, and whilst he, like Brazil, didn’t have the best of World Cups, there is little doubt that Lúcio remains amongst the games’ elite.
15 Carlos Tevez
“Once a red but now a blue” is how the song goes and Carlos Tevez has certainly endeared himself to Manchester City fans having made the move to Eastlands from the red half of the city.
At the time of writing the Argentine has scored a fantastic 49 goals in just 69 appearances for City in all competitions to average a goal every 1.4 games. He has helped himself to three hattricks in his time at City, and was this season made club captain. There have been blips along the way with frequent trips home to his native Argentina and the transfer request handed in back in December, but no matter what personal issues there may be no one can question the 27 year old’s work ethic and commitment on the pitch.
Tevez began his career with Boca Juniors, making his debut at just 16 years of age, before switching to Brazilian side Corinthians for £13.7 million (€15 million) in 2005. Bizarrely his next move was to West Ham United in the Premier League where he was joined by compatriot Javier Mascherano. He became a huge hit with the fans, and saved them from relegation with the only goal of their final day clash with Manchester United in May 2007. United boss Sir Alex Ferguson obviously liked what he saw and a two year loan move to Old Trafford was organised commencing in August 2007. However Tevez grew frustrated with what he described as a lack of opportunities, as well as the failure of the club to offer him a permanent contract, and in the summer of 2009 he joined Manchester City for a reported £47 million.
More often than not Tevez is deployed as a lone striker in Roberto Mancini’s side, and this season he has linked up superbly with Spanish World Cup winner David Silva. It will be interesting to see how the addition of Edin Dzeko to the squad alters Tevez’s role as City push to secure a top four spot in the league. Tevez may not be a Manchester City player for life, but every fan will be thankful for the time they have had with such a talented and hard working individual.
14 Diego Milito
Having seen his Internazionale charges bow out to Manchester United in the last 16 of the 2008/09 Champions League, José Mourinho decided his attack needed to be revamped. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a supremely talented yet invariably erratic footballer, was sold to Barcelona for £60m plus Samuel Eto’o, the first in a three-piece jigsaw as he was shortly joined by Wesley Sneijder and Diego Milito.
Milito, a workhorse 30 year old with a distinguished stint at Real Zaragoza, was hardly the marquee name to spearhead Inter to challenge in Europe. He had scored 26 goals in 32 games for Genoa the previous season before the Rossoblu cashed in on their number 22 who made the short trek further north to Milan. Though the geographical gulf was short, the task difference was mammoth. Not since 1965 had Inter won the European Cup, a fast which Mourinho was hired to end and he in turn entrusted Milito with providing the doggedness, assists and goals.
Although always respected as a reliable goalscorer, Milito shot to international acclaim as he smashed 30 goals in 2009/10 and is destined to be revered forever by Nerazurri supporters, registering his own personal treble as he netted the clincher to win the club their Scudetto, the winner in the Coppa Italia against Roma before a brilliant brace against Bayern Munich in the 2-0 Champions League final victory. Aside from his 30 goals, the selfless team play and telepathy with Sneijder and Eto’o in an awesome triumvirate brimming with guile, potency and ethic makes it all the more mysterious that it has taken him up to his thirtieth birthday to gain worldwide recognition.
His annus mirabilis was however tempered by the eccentric and aloof decisions of national honcho Diego Maradona and Mourinho’s replacement Rafael Benítez both overlooking him. Maradona’s ill-disciplined Argentina in particular, would have benefitted from his presence had it not have been for El Diego’s tactical ignorance at the World Cup. Milito was then inexplicably and criminally overlooked in the original 23 man Ballon d’Or shortlist, but his enviable medal haul and tireless brilliance in 2010 will surely compensate.
13 Iker Casillas
Four La Liga titles, two Champions League wins and one European Championship. So, what could 2010 bring the man who had just about everything? Easy. It saw him captain his country to a first ever World Cup win.
There had been murmurings about Iker Casillas in the first half of the year. The heady days of 2008, when the Madrid press had been pushing hard for “Saint Iker” to win the Ballon d’Or, seemed a long time ago. The odd error was creeping into his game and the continued excellence of Pepe Reina, coupled with the emergence of Victor Valdes, even saw his place in the national team questioned.
Things reached a crescendo with the potentially panic-inducing opening defeat to Switzerland at last summer’s World Cup. Casillas was at least partly culpable for the only goal of that game. His response to the gathering storm clouds? Five clean sheets from the next six games. A period of sustained excellence, under the most intense of scrutiny, culminating in Casillas lifting the World Cup in Soccer City. Emphatic stuff.
It seems extraordinary to think Iker Casillas was ever doubted. He is, after all, a statistical colossus. This is a man with over 550 appearances for the most famous football club of them all. He has been capped by Spain well over 100 times and has now won every domestic and international honour in the game – and he’s still only 29 years old!
But it isn’t the stats and the trophies that make Casillas a great keeper. They are merely the by-products of his genius. His phenomenal reflexes and agility make him a joy to watch and an inspiration to budding goalkeepers the world over – reminding us all that you don’t have to be a beast of a man to be a true giant between the sticks.
Since the World Cup, the arrival of Jose Mourinho at the Bernabeu has seen an impressive return to form. Indeed, Mourinho’s more defensively sound approach has resulted in the Real Madrid keeper conceding fewer goals than at any point in his long career.
After a decade at the top, Saint Iker is still delivering miracles.
12 Samuel Eto’o
Footballing cliches. We’ve all heard them, we’re all sick of them. No matter what game you watch you know what you can expect to hear and this is never more evident than on Champions League nights when any link, no matter how tenuous, to an English club is shoe-horned in to the commentary. But then come the really annoying phrases, the ones you just know will be uttered repeatedly as the analysts struggle for information; Del Piero’s loss of pace, Messi’s goal scoring record or Real Madrid’s search for ‘la décima‘.
Well, thanks to Inter’s treble-winning campaign of last season, one of those worn-out phrases has been laid to rest. During any Milan game, when the camera lingers on Clarence Seedorf you just know the ‘only man to win the European Cup with three different teams’ line is never too far away. Not anymore.
Samuel Eto’o has now joined that ultra-exclusive group, no doubt giving birth to a whole new cliche as he joins the Dutchman and crib-sheets everywhere are hastily rewritten. That those three wins could not be more different is very much a reflection of the man.
From his bit-part in Madrid’s win in 2000, through scoring 108 goals in 145 games for Barcelona including a goal in both victorious Champions League Finals to his role as a winger at Inter under Jose Mourinho last season Eto’o has transformed as both player and man over the past decade.
Switching from being accused of assaulting his former agent to endless charity work, from rowing with Frank Rijkaard to highlighting La Liga’s racisim problems, from headbutting journalists and Chievo’s Bostjan Cesar to four time African player of the year and Cameroon’s all-time leading scorer he is at times a living, breathing contradiction.
That he is only twelfth of this list is, much like Samuel Eto’o himself, impossible to explain but enjoyable nevertheless.
11 Arjen Robben
Arjen Robben — a man made of ‘fragile legs’ but ‘iron heart’ — had one fantastic season by all accounts. Transferred from Real Madrid to Bayern Munich on 28th of August 2009 for a fee of €25 million, Robben played his first match against VFL Wolfsburg the next day and lead the team to victory by scoring two debut goals.
Initially deployed on the left flank; Robben proved to be a crucial addition for Bayern Munich on their hunt of trophies. He has been branded an injury prone player with de jure and de facto reasoning, but his electric performances for his team on all three fronts have put a ‘spell of eclipse’ on his fitness weakness. His importance to Louis van Gaal’s team and tactics cannot be neglected as in his absence, Bayern fail to create nearly as many chances. His sublime foot-work, blistering pace, eye for the goal, and an ability to create something out of nowhere played a huge part in his side’sruns to the Bundesliga title and to the Champions League Final. In the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) semi-final, Robben scored a 65-yard solo effort against Schalke 04 in extra-time which proved the crucial winner. Bayern Munich would later go on to win the DFB-Pokal with Robben helping the cause with three goals in three appearances.
The significant transformation and development in Arjen Robben’s style-of-play occurred when Louis van Gaal decided to deploy him on right-flank. Robben, being left-footed, used that change to his advantage; he started to cut-inside and ended up with a career-best season of23 goals in 37 appearances, including a hat-trick against Hannover 96. His unstoppable form went sky-high when he essentially won the Champions League knock-out rounds for Bayern Munich with out-of-the-world performances. He scored two goals of absolute quality against Fiorentina in the last 16; he scored a scorcher against Manchester United in quarter final; he scored the winner against Lyon in first-leg of the semi final, and all these performances enhanced his reputation as a world class, match winning player.
Dutch national team coach Bert van Merwijk didn’t call any replacement for Robben amidst speculation that winger would be absent until the knockout stages of the World Cup through injury. Robben joined his team in South Africa on 12th of June and remained an unused sub in the first two group matches against Denmark and Japan, however played in the final group game. In the first knockout match against Slovakia, Robben started and scored in a man-of-the-match performance as Holland won 2-1. In the semi-final against Uruguay (which ended in a 3-2 win) Robben scored with a header to make it 3-1. Undoubtedly, Arjen Robben had a magnificent year providing electric performances throughout and his best moment of the year was his sublime strike against Manchester United in semi-final of the Champions League at Old Trafford when he pulled off a wunderbar!
Return on Friday for part five of the Top 50, as we enter the final ten.