Lionel Messi returns to the top of the Guardian’s top 100 male footballers list after losing out to Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018. He did not win the Champions League, nor did he win the Copa América, but yet it still feels indisputably right to see the Argentinian genius selected as the very best in the world again.
It is the fifth time Messi has topped our list, which had a record number of judges again this year, 239 from 63 countries. We started the exercise in 2012 and Messi won the inaugural award as well as the year after, 2015 and 2017.
He remains, at 32, a joy to watch and there were, as always, breathtaking moments throughout the year, with the free-kick against Liverpool in the first Champions League semi-final and the winning goal against Atlético Madrid in La Liga in December only two examples.
Every single judge had Messi on their voting slip, compared to 235 for the second-placed Virgil van Dijk. The fact that the Barcelona No 10 was 20 places ahead of his nearest club-mate, Marc-André ter Stegen, speaks volumes of how he has somehow become even more important for his side.
Cristiano Ronaldo is out of the top two for the first time since we launched it and it may be a painful decline from here on in. He has done better than his former team-mate though, Luka Modric, who drops to 45th a year after he was crowned the best player in the world. Messi finished 309 points ahead of Van Dijk with the Dutchman almost 500 points in front of the third placed Sadio Mané.
The Champions League winners Liverpool have 10 players in the top 100. Jürgen Klopp’s side had six on the list after losing the Champions League final to Real Madrid in 2018 but their triumph over Tottenham coupled with their relentless pursuit of the Premier League title has seen their marauding full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, enter the list, together with Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Fabinho. James Milner, strangely, drops out if the top 100.
Manchester City, however, top the list with 11 players while Brazil, winners of the Copa América, knock Spain off top stop when it comes to nationalities. Spain had had the most number of players on all our list from the start in 2012 but now find themselves in joint fifth. England are joint second, their highest ever position.
Young players keep banging on the door and this year we have, for the first time, two players on the list born on this side of the millennium, Erling Braut Haaland and Jadon Sancho.
It was lovely to see Santi Cazorla return make the list for the first time since 2016, the wonderful playmaker returning from horrific injury problems to shine for Villarreal and even making a comeback for Spain. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is another player, and the oldest on the list, to return, his year at LA Galaxy winning enough votes to finish in 96th.
There is, as always, a lot of anger towards lists like these and there always seems to be a bias towards the players who have done well in the period between August and November, with the voting closing in the beginning of December.
We also have the problem of players’ whole careers being taken into account when it should be only the calendar year of 2019 that counts, hence Paul Pogba and Christian Eriksen, for example, finishing way higher than they really should be.
For me, as always, the players who finish between 100 and 200 are sometimes even more interesting than the ones who make it. Keylor Navas, for example, finished in 102nd and Paco Alcácer two places behind him in 104th, only 12 and 15 points from a place on the list. Dani Parejo, Fábian Ruiz and Luka Jovic were another three players who narrowly missed out. You can see all the votes that were cast and all the positions of all the players here.
Three-hundred and twenty-one players received votes this year, a testament to the broad variety and knowledge of our judges. But there can be only one winner and for the fifth time we raise our hat to the wonderful player that is Leo Messi. Let’s see if anyone can unseat him in 2020.
The Guardian Sport