We’re just a few weeks away from soccer starting up again in Europe, as the world’s best leagues ramp up for another campaign. We’ve broken down the best soccer players in the world into a top 10 before, so it’s time for the 2017 edition of this list.
Just to clarify the methodology, weight was given to the length of a player’s success, but where things were close, we leaned towards recent seasons. So if two guys were close, we would use their more recent play as a determining factor. Club and international play were weighed equally, and team success also factored in to consideration.
Without further ado, our list of the 10 best footballers in the world for 2017.
10. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich/Poland)
Robert Lewandowski has dominated since arriving at Bayern Munich in 2014. He has scored 110 goals in 147 total appearances, that followed four years at Borussia Dortmund where he bagged 103 in 187 matches. He’s easily the best pure goal scorer in the Bundesliga, and with Bayern he’s scored 77 times in 96 league matches.
Lewandowski was the 2016-17 Bundesliga player of the year as he had 43 goals in 47 total appearances for Bayern. He has also been named to his league’s team of the year in three straight campaigns, and Champions League Team of the Year in two straight.
At just 28, Lewandowski is in the middle of his prime. He’s not higher on this list because pure No. 9s don’t get the love they used to with so many hybrid attacking midfielders moving up the ranks. But he’s clearly among the best finishers in the world, and shows no signs of slowing down.
9. N’Golo Kante (Chelsea/France)
No. 9 with a bullet, N'Golo Kante’s rise has been meteoric. After a sensational 2015-16 campaign at Leicester City, the defensive midfielder landed with Chelsea for 2016-17 and won his second consecutive Premier League title. But while he was excellent at Leicester, he was singularly dominant with The Blues, and was named Premier League Player of the Year for his efforts.
At 26, it’s clear Kante is finally coming into his own. With back-to-back titles and back-to-back appearances on the PFA Team of the Year, he’s finally being recognized as a world-class player. He’s an incredible passer, with next-level vision. But he is a true defensive midfielder, who covers an unbelievable amount of ground, is a fantastic tackler with outstanding timing, and he controls the entire pitch while he’s on it.
It is truly stunning that it took Kante this long to break out. With so much talent and such a high level of performance, you can expect to see him on this list for a long time.
8. Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich/Germany)
Manuel Neuer is still the best goalkeeper in the world, though the ageless Gianluigi Buffon isn’t far behind. Still, the 31-year-old Neuer is the benchmark for modern keepers as his run for club and country over the last seven years has been incredible.
Bayern has won five straight Bundesliga titles with Neuer as its backstop, and Germany took home the 2014 World Cup with him in net. Along the way Neuer has won UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year four times (2011, 2013, 2014, 2015), IFFHS’s World’s Best Goalkeeper four times (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016), a World Cup Golden Glove (2014) and three-straight Bundesliga Team of the Year selections. He also finished third for the Ballon d'Or in 2014, an amazing accomplishment for a keeper.
Neuer is incredible with the ball at his feet, as a distributor and his reaction time is also unbelievable. A modern “sweeper-keeper,” the German has ideal size at 6’4″ and should age gracefully.
He’s the best in the world at what he does, his inclusion on this list was a must.
7. Marcelo (Real Madrid/Brazil)
The second-highest defender on this list, Marcelo’s selection is sure to create some controversy. But there is no better playmaker in the world coming forward from the back line. The 29-year-old just finished his 11th season at Real Madrid, capping it off with his fifth La Liga championship, third Champions League title and was named to the Champions League Team of the Season for the second-straight year.
As far as individual awards go, Marcelo was on the FIFA World Cup Dream Team in 2014, the FIFPro World XI three times (2012, 2015, 2016), the ESM Team of the Year the last two seasons, and La Liga’s Team of the Season for 2015-16. While his aggressive, attacking approach from the left back spot can get him in trouble defensively, the magic he produces on a regular basis outweighs those problems.
Real and Brazil can always rely upon him both going forward and defending. The guy shows up to every match and makes something happen. He’s almost certainly the most skilled defender in the world. While some may claim I’m overvaluing him, what he did during Real’s march to the Champions League title last season was nothing short of spectacular.
6. Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus/AC Milan)
The lone center back on the list, Leonardo Bonucci edges Marcelo as the best defender in the world. Simply put, the 30-year-old has been a rock for Juventus and the Italian national team over the past seven years. Now he’s headed to AC Milan, a fact that, understandably, doesn’t sit well with Juve fans.
Bonucci has led Juventus to six consecutive Serie A titles, while also winning three Italian Cup championships and he’s reached the Champions League final twice in the last three years. Not only is he the best pure defender in the world, he is also a fantastic passer, who has the ability to change games by finding teammates in small windows. Just check out this 50-yard assist from Euro 2016 against Belgium. On top of that, his timing on tackles and in breaking up passes is impeccable.
Bonucci was named to the Serie A Team of the Year in 2015 and 2016, and was the Serie A player of the year in 2016. He was also on UEFA’s Team of the Year in 2016 and was named to the Champions League Team of the Season for 2016-17. It’s a safe bet he’ll be taking home more hardware in the near future.
5. Neymar (FC Barcelona, Brazil)
Arguably the most purely talented player in the world, it’s crazy to think Neymar just turned 25. It feels like he’s been around forever. The FC Barcelona forward is unmatched with the ball at his feet, an absolute wizard with individual skill and dribbling, it is truly amazing to watch him. He also might be the world’s best passer. And the scary thing is he probably hasn’t even hit his ceiling.
Since his transfer to Barcelona in 2013, Neymar has been an offensive force for the club. He has scored 105 goals in 186 total appearances. During the 2014-15 campaign he was stellar, scoring 39 in 51 appearances, and he followed that up with 31 goals in 49 showings in 2015-16. He did slow a bit last season, tallying 20 times in 45 total matches. He’s already helped Barcelona win two La Liga titles (2015 and 2016), three straight Copa del Rey trophies (2015, 2016, 2017) and a Champions League crown in 2015.
At the 2014 World Cup, Neymar established himself as Brazil’s next great leader, as he tallied four goals and one assist, earning the Bronze Boot, while being named to the 2014 World Cup Dream Team.
Neymar finished third in 2015 Ballon d'Or voting, and was fifth in 2016. He’ll almost assuredly win the award some day, and is on a path to be No. 1 on this list. Unfortunately the 2016-17 campaign didn’t represent a step forward for him, which is why he’s at No. 5 on this list. But don’t bet on him staying this low for long.
4. Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid, France)
Antoine Griezmann has been on a tear over the past few years, firmly establishing himself as one of the premier players in the world. He led the French national team to the final at Euro 2016, and led the competition with six goals, winning the Golden Boot. Despite an extra time loss to Portugal, Griezmann was rightly named Player of the Tournament. Put simply, he is a threat to score or set up teammates in every game.
A versatile player, he can line up as a pure striker, drop back into an attacking midfield role, or even play on the wing. It really doesn’t matter, because wherever he is, he’ll impact the game.
In three seasons with Atlético Madrid, Griezmann has scored 83 goals in 160 total appearances. Included in there was a brilliant 2015-16 campaign, during which he found the back of the net 32 times in 54 appearances and led Atlético to a runner-up finish in the Champions League. He finished third in voting for the Ballon d’Or in 2016, was named La Liga’s Best Player, was named to UEFA’s Team of the Year and was on the Champions League Team of the Season. He was again on the Champions League Team of the Season in 2017.
At just 26, Griezmann is shooting up this list in his prime. While largely thought of as a goal-scorer — with a howitzer of a shot off his left foot — there is so much more to his game than that. It’s no wonder Manchester United has been so hot to sign him away from Atlético.
3. Luis Suárez (FC Barcelona, Uruguay)
Like him or not, Luis Suárez is one of the greatest pure goalscorers in the world. In three seasons at FC Barcelona, Suárez has scored 121 goals in 147 matches. He had an absolutely brilliant 2015-16 campaign during which he scored 40 goals in 35 La Liga contests and 59 goals in 53 total appearances.
Suárez of course became infamous for three separate incidents during which he bit opponents, most famously during the 2014 World Cup when he bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder. He was subsequently suspended for nine international matches and removed from the World Cup. He’s also been accused of being a serial diver. He’s a dirty player, plain and simple.
Still, there’s no denying what he can do on the field. The 30-year-old has an unbelievable feel for the game and can create scoring chances from nothing. That’s why he was able to win the Premier League Golden Boot and be named to the FWA Footballer of the Year in 2014, was on the Champions League Team of the Season twice (2015, 2016), and the FIFPro World XI in 2016.
Suárez is incredibly unlikable, but Uruguay’s all-time leading scorer is still one of the world’s most impactful players.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid, Portugal)
You knew who the top two were going to be before you even started reading this piece, because they’ve been the top two players in the world for nearly a decade. Since 2008, no one other than Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi has won the Ballon d’Or. Messi has won five times, Ronaldo has won four. They’ve each finished second every time the other has won.
So what separates the two of them? It was incredibly difficult, but eventually I had to put Ronaldo at No. 2 because I couldn’t justify moving Messi off the No. 1 line.
Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or in 2008, 2013, 2014 and 2016 and has been named to the FIFPro World XI in 10 consecutive seasons. He has led Real Madrid to two La Liga titles (2012, 2017), two Copa del Rey wins (2011, 2014) and three Champions League Trophies (2014, 2016, 2017). He also captained Portugal’s run to the title at Euro 2016, though he departed the final against France just 25 minutes in after suffering an injury.
Ronaldo’s numbers are incredible. In 394 total matches over eight seasons at Real, he’s scored 406 goals. In 265 La Liga appearances, he has scored 285 goals. The 32-year-old proved he was still at the top of his game during the 2016-17 campaign, when he found the back of the net 42 times in 46 matches. Even after 15 professional seasons he’s still as dangerous as ever with the ball. Ronaldo has scored 622 goals for club and country, which currently ranks sixth all-time.
Ask me next week and maybe I’d have put Ronaldo No. 1, but as for now, the next guy on the list gets the title.
1. Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona, Argentina)
Lionel Messi is firmly in the conversation as the greatest footballer of all-time and at 30, he’s got plenty of time left to possibly end the debate.
Let’s just get the numbers out of the way: he’s the all-time La Liga leader in goals scored (349), assists (137), goals scored in a La Liga season (50), goals in a club football season in Europe (73) and in a calendar year (91). He has won 29 trophies during his 13 seasons at Barcelona, including eight La Liga championships and four Champions League crowns. He’s won the Ballon d’Or a record five times, and has a record-tying four European Golden Shoes.
The only thing Messi has yet to conquer is the World Cup, though he was close, as Argentina finished second in 2014 thanks to a 1-0 loss to Germany. Still, Messi was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player for his efforts.
At barely 5’7″ Messi uses his slight stature to his advantage. His ridiculously low center of gravity helps him control the ball and work on his feet more quickly. He moves in short spurts and darts around the field rather than making long, lumbering runs. He’s an incredible finisher, but he’s just as adept at setting up teammates. He’s as versatile an attacking player as we’ve ever seen and can play a number of roles thanks to his pace and creativity. During his career he’s played as a classic winger, a center forward, a true center midfielder and an attacking mid. He can do it all.
Messi lands here because he’s still the most complete attacking player in the world. While Ronaldo is a prolific goalscorer, Messi’s game covers more ground. He stays at the top spot for another year.
Honorable mention: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund, Gabon), Eden Hazard (Chelsea, Belgium), Paul Pogba (Manchester United, France), Gareth Bale (Real Madrid, Wales), Toni Kroos (Real Madrid, Germany), Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus, Italy), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid, Spain), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City, Belgium).