The 2020-21 club football season was one to remember. With COVID-19 restrictions and limited fan involvement, competition across the world has had a different feel. But soccer clubs and players soldiered on, and it gave us plenty of opportunity to debate the best players in the world. That's right, it's time for our (almost) annual ranking of the 10 best soccer players in the world.
Just to clarify our methodology, weight was given to the length of a player's success, but where things were close we leaned towards recent seasons. Team success also factored into consideration.
Without further ado, our list of the 10 best footballers in the world for 2021.
Best Soccer Players 2021
10. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich, Germany)
Joshua Kimmich, the man who will lead Bayern Munich into its next era, has jumped onto this list with his sterling play over the past few years. A versatile, defensive-minded player, Kimmich is one of the world's best right backs, but his move to midfield under manager Hansi Flick has taken his game to another level. He's now one of the best defensive midfielders in the world.
The 25-year-old is a superb passer, is supremely intelligent and is one of world's best tacklers, but can also step into the attack and unleash pinpoint crosses. He's a hard-nosed, gritty player, and is just the kind of guy Bayern will need to wear an armband in the future.
Kimmich has stocked his trophy case with individual and team hardware during his young career. He's helped lead Bayern to six consecutive Bundesliga crowns and a UEFA Champions League title in 2020. He has been named to four straight Bundesliga Teams of the Season, was named the Champions League Defender of the season in 2020 and has made the Champions League Squad of the Season for both the 2017-18, and 2019-20 campaigns.
Watch this space, because he could be jumping up the list next year.
9. Virgil Van Dijk (Liverpool, Netherlands)
Virgil Van Dijk is, quite simply, the best centre back in the world right now. While Manchester City's Ruben Dias has entered the fray and won the FWA Footballer of the Year Award for the 2020-21 Premier League season, Van Dijk still holds the edge for me. Along with Sadio Mane (see below) and Mohamed Salah, the Dutchman has been a key part of Liverpool's turnaround in top flight competition.
Since joining The Reds in 2018, the 29-year-old Van Dijk has been a rock at the back. He's fast, a technical marvel, excellent with his ball-placement and is one of the best ball-challengers in the world. His tackling and timing on the ground and in the air set him apart. And, perhaps more than other central defenders, he engages in the attack often. He's excellent on set pieces and has 13 goals in his four Premier League seasons. Unfortunately, he only made five league appearances during the 2020-21 campaign after an ACL injury back in October.
Van Dijk helped lead Liverpool to the 2020 Premier League title, a runner-up finish in the 2018 Champions League and a Champions League title in 2019. In 2019 he was named the the PFA Players' Player of the Year, the Premier League Player of the Season, the UEFA Defender of the Year and UEFA Men's Player of the Year. He was on the PFA Team of the Year in both 2019 and 2020, and was named to the Champions League Team of the Season in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Additionally, he finished second behind Lionel Messi for the 2019 Ballon d'Or.
Van Dijk should be back healthy next season as Liverpool makes another run at a Premier League title, while eyeing another Champions League crown.
8. Neymar (Paris St-Germain, Brazil)
Neymar had a disappointing season just as he finally appeared to be putting his incredible ball skills to use and being productive in a team setting. PSG as a whole had an underwhelming campaign as Lille took home the Ligue 1 title. Neymar only made 17 league appearances, scoring nine goals, but his otherworldly skill lands him on this list as at any point he can be the most entertaining player in the world.
Possibly the most hyped youth player in history, Neymar has largely lived up to the billing as a game-changer. Yes, he's known for flopping a lot when tackled, and has struggled with injuries, but he has a level of skill few footballers have ever matched. A playmaking striker and winger, the 28-year-old is flat-out electric with the ball at his feet. His dribbling skill is still unmatched the world over and he remains a prolific goal scorer. In 68 league matches for PSG he's nabbed 55 goals, after scoring 68 in 123 matches for Barcelona. He's also found the back of the net 64 times in 103 caps for Brazil.
Neymar led PSG to a Champions League runner-up showing in 2020, as well as 10 domestic trophies in four seasons. That includes three Ligue 1 titles. He was named La Liga's Best World Player in 2015, was the Ligue 1 Player of the Year in 2018, and was on the UEFA Team of the Year in 2015 and 2020. He also earned the Bronze Boot at the 2014 World Cup in his home country.
PSG will be motivated to prove itself next year after falling short of its Ligue 1 and Champions League goals this season. Neymar will be a big part of that charge.
7. Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund, Norway)
At 20, Erling Haaland is the youngest player on this list, and he's the most likely to climb into the top three next season. The Norwegian star has become an international sensation in a season-and-a-half in the Bundesliga and has the looks of the next great European player. He was a star on the rise when Dortmund landed him from Red Bull Salzburg in December of 2019 and he's more than surpassed expectations.
Haaland just capped off a brilliant campaign in which he scored 27 goals in 28 league matches, while totaling 41 in 41 appearances overall. He won the fan-voted Bundesliga Player of the Year award over Robert Lewandowski. A pure striker, Haaland now has 57 goals in 59 total appearances for Dortmund and more accolades are surely coming his way.
He's a wildly-skilled striker who is only going to improve. He's an incredible goal-scorer who is nearly impossible to dislodge once he gets on the ball. His nose for the net is surpassed by only a few in the world and he's only going to get better. That's a scary thought for the rest of the Bundesliga.
6. Sadio Mane (Liverpool, Senegal)
As much as anyone, Sadio Mane has been a huge part of Liverpool's rebirth as a perennial threat to win the Premier League and Champions League. During his five seasons at Anfield, Mane has scored 74 Premier League goals in 162 matches and 97 in 218 total appearances. He's been a menace for opposing defenses and has consistently been the spark that ignites The Reds' offense.
The 28-year-old is an intense, focused winger, with incredible speed and finishing ability, Mane wows with his skill on the ball. He's an incredibly intelligent player as well, with impeccable positioning, awareness and decision-making. During Liverpool's stunning cruise to the 2020 Premier League title, Mane potted 18 goals and added seven assists, while also providing a lift in clutch moments, like his stoppage time winner at Aston Villa. Moments of magic like that separate Mane from other footballers.
Mane helped Liverpool win its first Premier League title in 30 years in 2020, while also leading the club to two Champions League finals -- a win in 2019 and a runner-up showing in 2018. He won the Premier League Golden Boot in 2019 with 22 goals, has been named to the PFA Team of the Year in three consecutive seasons, the UEFA Team of the Year in 2019 and the Champions League Squad of the season for 2018-19.
He's the cornerstone of Liverpool's rebirth, which should keep him on this list.
Best Soccer Players in the World 2021
5. Kylian Mbappe (Paris St-Germain, France)
Kylian Mbappe is a goal-scoring whirlwind who keeps getting better. In fact, the 22-year-old has a legitimate chance to win the Ballon d'Or in 2021 if his form continues. Mbappe stormed onto the soccer scene at the 2018 World Cup, bagging four goals as France hoisted the trophy. Since then he's lived up to the hype that followed his performance in Russia.
Mbappe finished the 2020-21 season scoring 27 goals in 31 matches for PSG, leading Ligue 1 by a mile. He had 42 goals in 47 total appearances on his way to his second consecutive Ligue 1 Player of the Year award (2019 and 2021, it was not awarded in 2020). He's been named to four straight Ligue 1 Teams of the Year and has been named to the Champions League Squad of the Season in both 2017 and 2020. During Mbappe's four seasons in Paris, PSG has lifted 10 trophies, including three Ligue 1 championships.
He's a classic forward with incredible speed, dribbling ability, overall skill on the ball and impeccable timing on his runs. He might be the fastest player in the world and that, combined with his ball skills, makes him incredible dangerous every time he's on the pitch. He's creative on the ball and is much stronger than his 5-foot-10 frame would indicate. He showed lapses in 2020 - like his dismal performance in the Champions League Final -- but he appeared to right the ship to start 2021.
Mbappe is already one of the most coveted players in the game and if he can continue his form from 2021, he is a candidate for the top of this list.
4. Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City, Belgium)
Kevin De Bruyne is the best player in the Premier League right now and it's not particularly close. When he is at his best, there's no one in the EPL who can top him, and Manchester City goes as he goes. When he missed time with a knee injury during the 2018-19 season, City's attack just wasn't the same. The club won the domestic treble that year, but was an unstoppable force when De Bruyne was on the field.
The 29-year-old attacking midfielder might be the most well-rounded player in the world and is certainly one of its best playmakers. There's nothing he can't do on a soccer pitch. He's not particularly physically gifted, but is highly intelligent, excellent with the ball, and incredibly accurate with his passing and shooting. He's at his best when countering, which allows him to pick out and lead teammates with perfectly weighted passes.
De Bruyne followed up his injury-marred 2018-19 campaign up by being named Premier League Player of the Season and the PFA Players' Player of the Year in 2020 after scoring 13 goals and logging 20 assists. He was named to his second PFA Team of the Year and won his second Premier League Playmaker of the Season award as well. He's also been named to the Championship Squad of the season three times. Since his arrival in Manchester back in 2015, City has won nine trophies, including three Premier League titles, and has also added the 2019 Community shield.
The Belgian star was instrumental in Man City's 2020-21 EPL title as he racked up seven goals and 12 assists in league play. He is the maestro of the team's attack and City simply isn't the same without him.
3. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)
There is a good argument to be made that Robert Lewandowski should be No. 1 on this list after the year he just had. I really considered pulling that trigger but ... I just couldn't do it. Here's what I will say: the 32-year-old Bayern striker may currently be the greatest goal-scorer in the world, and he certainly deserves consideration at the top of this list.
Lewandowski continued his unbelievable run in the Bundesliga this season, as he scored a ridiculous 41 goals in 29 matches. He found the back of the net 48 times in 40 total appearances for Bayern and edged Lionel Mess and Cristiano Ronaldo to win his first European Golden Shoe award, given to the top goalscorer on the continent. That followed a 2019-20 campaign in which he scored 55 goals in 47 club matches.
In seven seasons at Bayern, Lewandowski has scored 203 goals in 219 league matches and 294 goals in 329 total appearances. He's been flat-out incredible. He was named UEFA's Player of the Year and FIFA's Best Men's Player in 2020, has led the Bundesliga in scoring six times, has been on the league's Team of the Season eight times and been its Player of the Season twice. He's led Bayern to seven Bundesliga titles, a Champions League title in 2020 and 17 total trophies in seven seasons.
Poland's captain is one of the best finishers in the world. When he's set up, he does not miss with either foot. Lewandowski possesses good size (6-foot-1), plenty of strength to hold the ball up, the speed to run at defenders, striking ability and ability in the air. He's underrated from a technical standpoint as well, as he is quick in short areas, can dribble and possesses excellent timing and vision. He draws a ton of fouls and can be excellent in hold-up play. Simply put, he's a perfectly constructed striker.
I know I'll take some flak for not putting Lewandowski at the top of this list. He's had a brilliant 2021 and certainly deserves consideration.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus, Portugal)
Juventus limped to a fourth-place finish in Serie A this season, but Cristiano Ronald was still a goal-scoring force. The 36-year-old may be saying goodbye to Italy this offseason as transfer rumors run rampant, but he's continued his incredible form during his three years with the club.
Ronaldo led Serie A with 29 goals in 33 matches this season. In three campaigns with Juventus he's scored 81 goals in 97 league matches, and 101 in 133 total matches. His career numbers are staggering, as he's scored 674 goals in 896 club matches, holds the records for most goals (134) and assists (42) in Champions League history and has won the Ballon d'Or five times. He's scored 777 times for club and county in his career, and is only the second male player to top 100 international goals (Ali Daei of Iran is the other). He's been named to UEFA's Team of the Year a stunning 15 times. Plain and simple, he's one of the most accomplished soccer players in history.
We all know what Ronaldo does on the field. He's a versatile attacker and while his ability as a pure playmaker has waned a bit with age, he's still as dangerous as anyone in the world with the ball at his feet. He's strong on the ball at 6-foot-1 and is still in phenomenal shape. He's always been an underrated passer thanks to his next-level vision. It's how he's racked up 224 assists in his career. He's not as quick as he used to be, but still has the ability to knife through defenses and find openings. He's simply brilliant as a finisher, with his feet and head, and almost never loses his cool in traffic. These days he also seems to relish taking on players more than he did in his youthe.
Who knows how long Ronaldo will hold on to a spot in the top two of this list, but for now, he's keeping a grip on it.
1. Lionel Messi (Barcelona, Argentina)
Yep, even at 33, Lionel Messi is still the best footballer in the world. The greatest playmaker in soccer history continues to amaze after 18 seasons as a professional. All he's done in 2021 is prove his greatness isn't close to waning. While Barcelona failed to win La Liga during the 2020-21 season, Messi was not the problem.
This year Messi led La Liga with 30 goals in 35 matches and added nine assists. Overall he had 38 goals in 47 matches for Barcelona and put himself squarely in the Ballon d'Or competition yet again. He's already won the award a record six times. Messi is La Liga's all-time leader in goals (474) and assists (192) and has scored 743 goals for club and country in his career. He's won the European Golden Shoe six times, the UEFA Men's Player of the Year Award twice, and been on the UEFA Team of the Year 12 times. In his 17 seasons with the club, Barcelona has won La Liga 10 times and the Champions League four times.
The Argentinian forward uses his small stature (5-foot-7) to his advantage, with incredible balance, leverage and a low center of gravity. It all adds up to a level of ball control we've never seen before. His short bursts of speed and quickness surpass all of his peers and he has the best vision of anyone to ever play the game. He knows how to break down opponents and finds gaps and lanes no one else sees. He can play all over the field in the attack, and his pace and creativity allow him to conjure scoring opportunities from everywhere. He's obviously an incredible finisher but what sets him apart is his ability to set others up as well.
Lionel Messi is inevitable. He's arguably the greatest footballer of all-time, and even in his 18th professional season he's still at the top of the heap. Eventually he'll fall down this list, but we're not there yet.