When we think about great footballers, we often think mostly of players of generations gone by and tend to overlook the current set of players. This is a mindset that has been passed on to us by the older generation. For in the minds of older men and women, no current player can ever be as good as the likes of Pele, Johan Cruyff or Diego Maradona.
It is the exact reason why many people had great reservations about mentioning the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the same breath as the aforementioned legends. It took them a few crazy seasons, in which each of them racked up a ridiculously high total of goals, for them to be considered among the greatest of all time. Now many people rightly consider Messi as one of the greatest ever, perhaps even greater than Pele or Maradona, based on his achievements. But, is Messi even the best player of the century? The current century has produced some outrageously brilliant players, who can all stake their claim to be considered among football’s greatest ever. I have tried to the best of my abilities to ascertain which players are a cut above the rest.
Due to the complexities of preparing such a list, and to ensure that both attacking and defensive players were included, I have divided the list into the following categories: defenders, midfielders and forwards. A total of one goalkeeper (under the defender category), one defender, two midfielders and one striker comprise the entire list.
Goalkeeper of the Century: Gianluigi Buffon
Gianluigi ‘Gigi’ Buffon played his first Serie A game for the club he joined as a 13 year old, Parma, at the tender age of 17 in November 1995 against AC Milan in which he kept a clean sheet. By the following season he was already the first choice for the team. Buffon made over 200 appearances in all competitions for Parma and won the UEFA Cup before his departure for a world record fee for a ‘keeper of £32.6 million to Juventus. In Turin, Buffon has gone on to cement his legacy with many a spectacular display. He has won the Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year a record 8 times with both Parma and Juve, been named the IFFHS goalie of the year four times and also ‘keeper of the century by the same organisation. In addition to these numerous accolades, Buffon’s shining moment came in the 2006 FIFA World Cup when he went on a record 453-minute streak without conceding a goal. In the whole tournament, Buffon didn’t concede a goal in open play against any opposition. The only goals he conceded were an own goal by Cristian Zaccardo and a penalty against France’s Zinedine Zidane in the final. He won the Yashin award, awarded to the best goalkeeper of the tournament. In addition to this, he is the only goalkeeper ever to win the UEFA Club Footballer of the year, which he won in 2003. Age appears to have caught up with Buffon and injuries have been frequent. Despite his decline, Buffon is still one of the best in Serie A, if not the best. Currently, he’s in his greatest season with Juventus ever as they are on the cusp of going the whole season undefeated in the Serie A and Coppa Italia. It will be sweet retribution for one of the greatest keepers of all time to help the Biaconeri win their first silverware since the infamous Calciopoli scandal that resulted in Juve’s relegation.
Honorable mentions: Iker Casillas, Oliver Kahn, Pepe Reina, and Edwin Van Der Sar.
Defender of the century: Fabio Cannavaro
Italy’s now retired World Cup winning captain just about managed to edge out fellow Italians, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta. Coming through the Napoli youth system, Fabio Cannavaro gained recognition and received praise from his idol Diego Maradona, when Cannavaro produced a strong tackle on him as a youth and Maradona encouraged the boy to play the way he wished. Nicknamed the ‘Berlin Wall’ for his mesmerizing performances in the 2006 World Cup, Cannavaro is the only defender ever to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award. Although Maldini’s career is more glorified and Nesta is more talented than Cannavaro, Cannavaro’s tenacity and grit make him stand out. His outstanding performance against France in Berlin helped Italy lift the World Cup for the first time in 24 years and helped them get their revenge against the Les Bleus for their defeats at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. At Parma and later at Juventus, Cannavaro formed one of the best defences of all time alongside Buffon and Frenchman Lilian Thuram. Cannavaro has been the defensive rock for all his sides, ranging from Napoli to Real Madrid. His partnership with Nesta for Italy is widely considered to be one of the greatest defensive partnerships ever and the greatest in modern football history. Although his last few years, including his decline at Real and Juventus, were not befitting of that of a player of his caliber, Cannavaro’s legacy will forever remain untarnished and is one of Italian football’s greatest icons.
Honorable mentions: Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Roberto Carlos, John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Nemanja Vidic and Cafu.
Midfielders of the century: Zinedine Zidane and Xavi
The modern game has seen some remarkably gifted midfielders, but none more so than the legendary French magician Zinedine Zidane. Zidane is widely considered to be one of the greatest of all time and played the game with elegance and poise. Zidane started his career at French club Cannes in 1988, slowly rising up the ranks and finding his way into the national team. In 1995 when Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish wanted to sign Zidane, the owner Jack Walker gave a famous quote, “Why do you want to sign Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?” which the latter has since made fun of himself . Zidane was the heartbeat of France’s golden generation that won the 1998 World Cup, Euro 2000 and reached the 2006 World Cup final. In 2001, Real Madrid paid €75 million for Zidane’s signature from Juventus, a world record fee that stood for eight years. Zidane won the FIFA World Player of the Year three times in his glittering career in addition to being named the UEFA Best European Player of the last 50 years. He will forever be immortalized for his two headers in France’s 1998 World Cup Final win over Brazil and his famous match winning volley that was hit with his weaker left foot against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 UEFA Champions League final. One of the most decorated players in the history of the game, his last infamous match against Italy will haunt him forever, when he head-butted Marco Materazzi and reduced the Les Bleus to 10 men. Despite that, the legendary playmaker has won praises from many of the game’s elite, with Zidane’s former manager Marcello Lippi in particular saying ‘Zidane is the best player of the last 20 years’. In 2011, he condemned the impeccable Lionel Messi to the 2nd spot to be named the best UEFA Champions League player of the last 20 years. Many consider him to be ‘the greatest of all time’, including his former Real teammate, David Beckham. ‘Zizou’ was truly one of a kind with exceptional ball control, passing and playmaking skills. Will we ever see another Zidane? Will France ever manage to replace one of its greatest sons?
The man with the perfect pass. With pinpoint, deadly and abnormally accurate passing, Xavi is the heartbeat of the best club and national team of the decade, FC Barcelona and Spain. Xavi’s style of play is perfectly simple. He relies on exploiting space, which he does so with his extraordinary vision. The deadliest playmaker since Zidane, he is a quiet and unassuming man who goes about his game, picking off teams with practiced ease just like the French genius before him, while rarely showing any effort whatsoever, as if it’s as natural to him as breathing is to us. The architect of Barcelona’s game along with the equally dangerous Andres Iniesta, Xavi dominates the midfield battle with ease, enabling his team to dominate games completely. Xavi’s true force lay dormant till the arrival of his mentor, Pep Guardiola at the Catalan club in 2008. Guardiola transformed Xavi from ‘excellent’ to the best midfielder on the planet and with Xavi’s help he made ‘beautiful football’ popular again. Considered to be the best Spanish midfielder in history and Barcelona’s most capped player of all time, Xavi was instrumental in the Spaniards’ maiden World Cup triumph in 2010, playing in every game and creating most of the goals. His ability to control games has earned him the name, ‘The Puppet Master’. Without him, Lionel Messi couldn’t have been the player he now is and Barcelona certainly wouldn’t have won 13 trophies in 4 seasons with Guardiola. Despite the numerous accolades, the Euro 2008 Player of the Tournament has never won the FIFA World Player of The Year he rightly deserves due to the presence of teammate Lionel Messi on the planet. It would be a crime if Xavi doesn’t win the accolade before he retires, with even Messi having acknowledged so. Despite the presence of Iniesta and Fabregas in the same team, Xavi is still the big daddy of Barcelona’s midfield with the team building their play around him.
Honorable mentions: Kaka, Steven Gerrard, Andres Iniesta, Pavel Nedved, Michael Ballack, Andrea Pirlo, and Claude Makélélé.
Forward of the century: Lionel Messi
Diego Maradona had labeled Lionel Messi, the little unassuming genius from Rosario, Argentina as his ‘successor’. The similarities are striking. The most talented player of his generation brings the crowd to the edge of their seats with his dribbling skills, his ability to skirt past the best of defenders with astounding ease, his outstanding pace and the speed at which he moves with the ball with his feet, just like the eccentric Maradona 25 years earlier. His similarities to Maradona became even more explicit in the 2006-07 season when he replicated Maradona’s most famous goals, the Hand of God and Goal of the Century against RCD Espanyol and Getafe FC respectively. After the departure of Ronaldinho, Messi became the true focal point of Barca with their play tailored to his needs. He squatted all before him the following season, the most famous being the 6-2 win at Real Madrid and helped his club to become the first ever to complete the ‘Sextuple’. The little maestro has only improved in leaps and bounds since then with his coach Guardiola labeling him as the ‘best player I’ve ever seen’ and Arsene Wenger calling him a ‘PlayStation’ with the ability to take advantage of even the smallest of mistakes. Messi has broken nearly all of Barcelona’s goalscoring records at just 24 years of age and won nearly every award club football has to offer and is the reigning 3-time FIFA World Player of the Year (FIFA Ballon D’Or since 2009). Contrary to what critics say, he has not been disappointing for Argentina. At the 2010 FIFA World Cup, despite not scoring, he was his country’s most crucial player, playing a major hand in nearly all their goals and was Argentina’s best player despite the embarrassing exit to Germany. The little dribbler, who just seems to stroll past defenders with ridiculous ease, has in all probability not even hit his peak. This is most frightening to opposing teams. Will Messi be come to known as the greatest ever? Critics argue that ‘Messidona’ has already surpassed his idol despite not winning the FIFA World Cup yet. As a football fan, it will be interesting to see how much better the greatest player of his generation can get.
Honorable mentions: Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Raul, Andriy Shevchenko, Francesco Totti and Diego Forlan.