Unbelievably, this part of the Top 50 features a player who somehow failed to make the cut last year. However, an impressive 2012 has seen him become fashionable again, and the Italian joins some other household names in the Top 10.
View the longlist and voting process here.
Santos and Brazil
Having recently turned 21, Neymar is no longer to emerging talent he was for a number of years and 2012 went a long way to establishing the Brazilian’s status as one of the world’s best players right now.
He was inspirational in Santos’ third consecutive domestic title as they saw off Guarani 7-2 on aggregate in the final of the Campeonato Paulista with Neymar bagging a brace in each of the two legs.
Disappointly, Neymar and his Brazilian team mates had to settle for a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics as they suffered a surprise 1-0 defeat to Mexico in the final.
In terms of personal accolades, Neymar was voted the South American Player of the Year for the second year running, and also finished as the top goalscorer in both the Campeonato Paulista and the Copa Libertadores (joint).
In February he netted his 100th professional goal against Palmeiras, while his mazy run and finish against Internacional back in March was nominated for the Puskas Award (FIFA’s Goal of the Year).
With most of his earnings currently made up by an array of endorsements, Neymar is seen as one of the most marketable talents on the planet and his status will only continue to grow as he continues to excel on the pitch.
Despite another honour filled year, there are still doubters who believe that Neymar’s greatness won’t be confirmed until he moves to Europe, with Joey Barton one of those sharing that opinion after his “amazon jungle league” comments in the wake of Brazil’s recent friendly with England.
While it looks certain that Neymar will remain in Brazil until after the 2014 World Cup, there is guranteed to be plenty of willing suitors to rival Barcelona for his signature when he does eventually opt for pastures new.
Napoli and Uruguay
It is not hard to figure out why 26-year-old Edinson Cavani is so highly-rated by the Napoli board that they have subsequently seen fit to place a €70m price-tag upon his head. Nor is it particularly difficult to understand just why he is so highly-sought across the continent.
Think of the prototype for a complete centre-forward, and Cavani pretty much ticks all the boxes. Clinical in the penalty area, capable of the 25-yard curler or the 30-yard rocket, he is an outstanding finisher and a goal threat no matter where he appears in the opponents half. Good in the air, technically adept on the floor, reasonably quick and physically strong, the Uruguayan international is without doubt one of the very best in world football today.
His performances since his move to Naples in the summer of 2010 have been nothing short of remarkable as he has scored goals by the proverbial bucketload, and on a consistent basis; To date, the former Danubio and Palermo man has 93 goals in 124 appearances.
His debut campaign saw him lined up at the point of the attack in Walter Mazzarri’s 3-4-3 formation, flanked by the quicksilver Argentine Ezequiel Lavezzi and Slovakian Marek Hamsik. The trio, known as the three tenors, developed over the following two years into a wonderful collective, thriving in one another’s company as they led Napoli into the 2011/12 Champions League and to the final of the 2011/12 Coppa Italia.
There they met Juventus, Serie A champions having gone the entire season unbeaten. Nevertheless, led by a wonderful performance from Cavani, who opened the scoring with a well-taken penalty, Napoli picked up their first trophy in 22 years with a 2-0 win.
This season has since Lavezzi move on and Hamsik’s role change somewhat, but Cavani has, if anything, stepped it up a notch.
Having scored 33 in each of his opening two years in Naples, he has 27 in 29 thus far in 2012/13 and is playing a vital role as Napoli look to challenge for a first Scudetto since the days of Diego Maradona.
Already beloved at the Stadio San Paolo, if Cavani were able to lead the Neapolitans to the title, he would be as revered as the great Argentine amongst the Partenopei, and there can be no higher compliment.
Paris St. Germain and Sweden
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the ultimate marmite player – you either love him or you hate him. There are a number off footballing connoisseurs within the confides of Britain that dub the powerful Swede overrated, primarily because he rarely performs against the top English teams each and every time he comes up against them.
Opinions of the striker swayed dramatically at the tailend of 2012, however. Having aided in AC Milan knocking Arsenal out of the Champions League a little under 12 months ago, Ibrahimovic proceeded to dazzle those watching Sweden take on England at the opening of the former’s new national stadium in Stockholm; the 31-year-old netted a quartert of goals, including an astonishing 30 yard overhead kick.
If that didn’t leave the most stringent of Zlatan doubters with the biggest piece of humble pie, then nothing will. Despite causing ripples in the footballing world over the summer by leaving the Rossoneri for pastures new – to play a starring role in the Paris St. Germain experiment, to be exact – the loyalist of Ibrahimovic supporters knew he had the capability to continue his exemplary goalscoring record in his new league.
At the time of writing, the burly frontman has 30 goals to his name in all competitions with the Parisian outfit as PSG continuously impress all of those across the continent. While last year may’ve been the first he hadn’t picked up a domestic winners medal since 2004 – his two with Juventus including – Ibrahimovic is a player that possesses all the necessary attributes to be consistently ranked as one of the games best strikers, regardless of the exploits of the competition and the last 12 months have been no different for a player who isn’t afraid to look any opposition defender in the eye and internally scream: “I Am Zlatan”.
Barcelona and Spain
In 2012 we managed to see two Xavis, the Barcelona Xavi and of course the Spanish Xavi. Let’s start with the Barca Xavi.
At the start of 2012 it didn’t go well for Barcelona, they trailed Real Madrid in the league, a league in which come the end of the season they had lost out on by 9 points to Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. There was then a little hope for Barcelona mid-way through the year, even though the season was over, they had won the Copa del Rey against Athletic Bilbao. A second Copa del Rey medal for Xavi. It then got worse for Xavi’s Barcelona, just as the 2012/13 season begun Real Madrid won yet another cup, this time the Super Cup (Contested between the winners of the previous season’s league and the Copa del Rey) It was won on away goals for the first ever time. Xavi and Barcelona didn’t let that get them down and for the rest of 2012 they went on to break all kinds of league records, Pep Guardiola may have left but new boss Tito Vilanova steered them in the right direction and sat them top of the league come the turn of the year. All in all, not ‘too shabby’ a year for Barcelona.
As I said, there were two Xavis and the Spanish Xavi had a wonderful year. I can’t think of putting it any other way than, Xavi and well Spain completed football in 2012.
They had just won their third consecutive international tournament (Euro 2008, WC 2010 & now Euro 2012) Xavi again breaking all kinds of records, in the game v Ireland he broke the record for the most attempted passes in a European Championship match, 136 (127 completed, 94% success rate). He was that good in that game, that between himself and Iniesta, they made 229 passes in the match, this was more than the combined Irish 11 managed.
Throughout the tournament he was typical Xavi, but he waited until the final to stand up and be counted. In the final Spain thrashed Italy 4-0, Xavi contributed two assists (Making him the first ever player to assist in two European Champions finals) He finished the game with over one hundred touches of the ball and with a pass success rate of a staggering 94%.
With this win, Xavi became just one of the few who had won, league titles, super cups, Copa del Rey titles, 2 European Championship’s and of course a World Cup.
As well as winning the Copa del Rey and Euro 2012, he won awards such as being named in UEFA Team of the Tournament, FIFA/FIFPro World XI, Team of the Year 2012, ESM Team of the Year & also won the Prince of Asturias Awards alongside Iker Casillas.
As I said, it seemed like in 2012 the Barcelona Xavi could have had a better year, but the Spanish Xavi completed football.
Juventus and Italy
Forget all that has been written and said about Andrea Pirlo over the past 12 months. Yes, he was utterly magnificent for Juventus as they won the Serie A title without losing a single league match. Yes, his performances at Euro 2012 for the Azzurri (the final aside) were nothing short of imperious. And yes, that panenka penalty which deceived Joe Hart so, was the most majestic of acts, requiring balls of steel. But don’t buy into the seemingly overnight mass of adulation that has seen every man and his dog point to Pirlo as one of the world’s best midfielders.
Because the fact of the matter is, that whilst Pirlo has been outstanding in the last 12-18 months, he is, for the large part, only now receiving the adulation that his masterful midfield performances have been deserving of for the better part of a decade.
Man of the match in both the semi-final and final of the 2006 World Cup, a two-time European Cup winner, three-time Serie A winner, 2012 Serie A Footballer of the Year, his roll-call of professional honours goes on and on.
Plucked from relative obscurity at Internazionale – where he struggled to force his way into a number 10 role and subsequently spent much of his three years with the club farmed out on loan – by Carlo Ancelotti and eternal rivals AC Milan, Pirlo has since grown into nothing less than a true great of Italian football. Upon his arrival at the Rossoneri, he reverted to the deep-lying playmaker (regista) role where he had proved so adept whilst playing for Brescia, and the rest is as they say history.
A wonderfully gifted passer with either foot and a set-piece specialist, Pirlo is one of world football’s great dictators, someone who can both keep the ball for fun, but who also has the ability to play that key, incisive pass. Never one blessed with pace, his positional sense and reading of the game has long played a key part in his ability to extricate himself from opponents pressure, as has his skilful dribbling.
When talking of the player christened “l’architetto” by team mates, it is easy to run out of superlatives. To say something new to truly describe his greatness also proves difficult, as the best things have invariably already been said. Therefore, perhaps it is best to merely leave things as they are, and to quote those who have admired the man at the very closest of quarters:
Pirlo is a silent leader. He speaks with his feet.
– Marcello Lippi
To pass the ball to Andrea Pirlo is like to hide it in a safe.
– Zbigniew Boniek
It’s truly embarrassing just how good he is.
– Gianluigi Buffon