Choosing the 100 best players at the 2018 World Cup is a darn near impossible task. It’s an excruciating exercise. But it’s an exhilarating one. And that’s why we’ve decided to undertake it.
It is, of course, silly to compare goalkeepers to holding midfielders and fullbacks to strikers. But the idea here is to assess players based on their effectiveness, present-day value, and impact on a hypothetical match. This is not a transfer market index. It’s about contemporary quality. The best players, right now. One hundred of ’em.
With 100-51 and 50-21 already released, below are the top 20. The cream of the crop. Whatever you want to call them, they’re the 20 best players who’ll be in Russia this summer. And you can probably guess who tops the list.
20. Mats Hummels, D, Germany/Bayern Munich
Hummels is the complete center back. He has the size and the athleticism to thrive in any system. He commands the penalty area and snuffs out attacks before they even reach it. What sets him apart is his ability to pick out passes, or to carry the ball into midfield when all passing lanes are blocked off.
19. Isco, M, Spain/Real Madrid
The days of labelling Isco “underrated” have probably come and gone. The 26-year-old playmaker is a bonafide star, whether he’s drifting all over a La Liga field from a central starting position or dancing inside off Spain’s left. That’s what he’ll do this summer. He’s a sneaky bet – or perhaps just a really smart bet – for the Golden Ball.
18. Paul Pogba, M, France/Manchester United
Pogba is out of place at Man United. He’s an 8-shading-10 who often gets used as an 8-shading-6. He’s a playmaker in a system that stamps out creativity and invention. But the fact he doesn’t fit is one of the reasons he isn’t higher on this list. As far as uber-talented midfielders go, he’s needy. He doesn’t fit in a midfield two. He has to be the centerpiece. When he is, he’s great. When he’s not, he often struggles, and draws ire because his performances don’t measure up to his ability.
17. Marcelo, D, Brazil/Real Madrid
Real Madrid’s purchase of Marcelo for roughly $9 million in 2006 might be the single best value-for-money buy of the 21st century. Four hundred and fifty-two appearances later, at age 30, the Brazilian left back remains the best at his position on the planet. Does he go wandering a bit too much? Sure. Are his defensive lapses damaging? Yeah, sometimes. But everything he does with the ball, or defending it 1-v-1, makes up for the shortcomings.
16. Harry Kane, F, England/Tottenham
Kane’s Tottenham form after a March ankle injury was at least a tad worrying. But prior to the knock, for a good two-and-a-half seasons, he was genuinely one of the best strikers in the world. He’s not dominant in any sense of the word, but possesses all requisite goalscoring tools, and has become a key link in the Spurs attack as well.
15. Antoine Griezmann, F, France/Atletico Madrid
One of the most enjoyable players in the sport. He’s best with a strike partner, playing underneath a traditional No. 9 like Diego Costa or Olivier Giroud. Even if he has to spearhead a 4-3-3 or come in off the wing, though, he’ll be a delight to watch in Russia. And then he’ll likely be on his way to Barcelona.
14. Manuel Neuer, G, Germany/Bayern Munich
Neuer was the most difficult player on this list to rank. Before he went down with a foot injury in September, he was the undisputed best goalkeeper in the world. He hasn’t played a competitive soccer match since. Is he still the best when fit? Heck … is he fit? The answers are unknowable for now. We’ve split the difference, and given him a hefty portion of the benefit of the doubt. But, as you’ll see, a certain Spanish keeper has usurped Neuer in his absence.
13. Robert Lewandowski, F, Poland/Bayern Munich
As pure a striker as there is, Lewandowski has found the back of the net 287 times for club and country over the past seven years. And he’s still right smack dab in the middle of his prime.
12. Eden Hazard, M/F, Belgium/Chelsea
Hazard has been periodically hampered by Chelsea’s moodiness over the past several years, but very few players are as difficult to stop when in full flight as the Belgian. There’s not a team in the world he wouldn’t get in, club or international.
11. N’Golo Kante, M, France/Chelsea
There has, quite simply, never been a player like Kante. Never before has a single man covered so much ground on a football pitch. Kante’s presence effectively turns two-man midfields into threes, gives managers endless tactical flexibility, and relieves others of defensive burdens. His value is difficult to quantify, but its every bit as immense as he is miniature.
10. Toni Kroos, M, Germany/Real Madrid
Kroos is the anti-Kante. He’s limited defensively. But you stomach the underwhelming side his game, because in a vacuum, there’s no other player you’d rather have on the ball in the middle third of the field with options in front of him. Kroos is probably the most technically gifted passer in the world.
9. Kylian Mbappe, F, France/PSG
No other player on this list is under the age of 21. Mbappe is in the top 10, and he’s 19. NINETEEN! It’s not crazy to suggest the $210 million PSG paid for him was a bargain.
8. Sergio Ramos, D, Spain/Real Madrid
You might despise him. But you’ll never admit to yourself that one of the reasons you despise him is that he’s so darn good. He’s developed all the traits required of an elite center back while retaining the on-ball ability and aggressiveness of a fullback. He scores crucial goals at one end and prevents countless more at the other end. Sure, he might be a bit of a [insert derogatory vulgar slang word here]. But he’s a persistently effective [insert same derogatory vulgar slang word here].
7. Luka Modric, M, Croatia/Real Madrid
Put him in any team. Any midfield role. Any style. Any situation. Any game. Modric will most likely boss it. He’s been as integral in Real’s European success as anybody. He’s one of the most underappreciated players of his generation.
6. David De Gea, G, Spain/Manchester United
De Gea saved a flawed Man United team time and time again this past season, wowing with his acrobatics and insanely quick reactions. He’s still not the best with his feet, nor is he impeccable coming off his line. And of course, it’s very difficult to quantify how valuable a goalkeeper is in relation to an outfield player. But De Gea’s shot-stopping is so mind-blowing that it’s impossible to keep him out of the top 10.
5. Mohamed Salah, F, Egypt/Liverpool
Very few players have ever exploded so rapidly into the sport’s elite like Salah did. Midway through the 2016-17 season, the Guardian ranked him 65th among the world’s best. Even this past December, Salah didn’t crack the top 20 of that same list. Then he kept scoring … and kept scoring … and kept scoring. He swept Premier League player of the year awards. He broke the league’s single-season goalscoring record. He propelled Liverpool to the Champions League final. He’s an Egyptian idol. A small sliver of his success still all feels a bit too good to be true. Or, in other words, we expect a little regression. That’s why Salah isn’t one or two spots higher here. But he’s a special player.
4. Kevin De Bruyne, M, Belgium/Manchester City
There aren’t many things De Bruyne can’t do on a soccer field. That’s why he’s narrowly ahead of Salah here. He’s a a No. 10 with the ball at his feet and a box-to-box eight without it. He springs counters and polishes them off. He breaks lines and sneaks in between them. He supplies crosses and 25-year piledrivers. He’s the best two-way player in the game.
3. Neymar, F, Brazil/PSG
It’s difficult to assess Neymar because he’s been clowning on overmatched Ligue 1 foes since moving to Paris. But at the time of his $260 million transfer from Barcelona, he was unchallenged in the three spot. Injury aside, at 26 years old, there’s no reason to think he’s gotten worse. And for all the jokes about the competition he’s faced in France, 19 goals and 13 assists in 1,797 minutes is pretty freakin’ ridiculous.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo, F, Portugal/Real Madrid
1. Lionel Messi, F, Argentina/Barcelona
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