The Ballon d’Or has announced its decision and FIFA will soon reveal its choice, but, as 2016 comes to a close, who really were the best footballers in the world over the past year? In a year that included an expanded European Championship and the centenary celebration of the Copa America, together with some unforgettable stories at club level, 2016 has been a year to remember on the soccer field.
1. Lionel Messi (Barcelona, Argentina)
He may have had to settle for being runner-up to Cristiano Ronaldo in the Ballon d’Or vote, but watch Lionel Messi and there is little argument that he remains the best player on the planet. Sure, the statistics are mind-blowing: 59 goals and 32 assists in 62 appearances for club and country in 2016. But the 29-year-old is about so much more than stats. Just watch his recent remarkable dribble against Espanyol and the gasps from the Camp Nou crowd. The year will have been a disappointment as Barcelona failed to retain the Champions League and his penalty miss played its part in Argentina losing another major final. But, on an individual level, Messi remains king.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid, Portugal)
On a collective level, 2016 was as good as it gets for Ronaldo. As well as winning a third Champions League title of his career, he finally achieved his ambition of helping his country, Portugal, to a first ever international crown at Euro 2016. Having also scored 55 goals in 57 appearances during the year, it is easy to see why journalists from across the world voted him the best around to award him a fourth Ballon d’Or. Yet it is also true that he was not the most influential player in either of his team’s triumphs and that his role has altered with age to one increasingly limited to within the penalty box.
3. Luis Suárez (Barcelona, Uruguay)
It could well be argued that Suárez was the best player in the world last season, if not, then surely the most influential player in La Liga’s title race. He finished the season with 40 league goals and it was he that provided the goods to get Barcelona over the line after a Spring-time collapse saw the Catalans pegged back at the top of the table. He plundered 14 goals in Barcelona’s final five games, including a hat-trick on the final day, to clinch the title. With 12 goals already to his name, he is a top scorer again so far this season.
4. Gareth Bale (Real Madrid, Wales)
This was the year in which Bale finally shrugged off the doubts around his then-world-record price tag and the shadow of his Real Madrid teammate Ronaldo to become a true star in his own right. He played his part in Real Madrid’s Champions League triumph and its extraordinary run under Zinedine Zidane, but his standout moments came for his country at Euro 2016. Showing how he can thrive under the responsibility of being the main man, Bale scored three goals in Wales’ dream run to the semifinals in France.
5. Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid, France)
There was final despair at both club and international level for Griezmann in 2016, but the forward can at least take solace in the vital role he played in getting his teams that far. For Atlético Madrid, he scored the goals that beat both Barcelona in the quarterfinals and Bayern Munich in the semifinals of the Champions League. Even in the final he showed huge courage to rebound from his extra-time penalty miss to convert in the shootout. The match would end in heartbreak for Griezmann as did the Euro 2016 final. But it was his five goals in three knockout games en route to the final that helped a patchy France team through and saw him claim the Golden Boot.
6. Neymar (Barcelona, Brazil)
If there is a player out there who will one day end the domination of individual awards by Messi and Ronaldo then it is surely Neymar. The Brazilian has the ability to wow with his skills and has become increasingly reliable with his end product at Barcelona. He began last season sensationally, stepping up to be the main man at the Camp Nou during Messi’s injury absence. And, while his form may have tailed off in the second half of the season, he led Brazil to its first ever Olympic gold in Rio over the summer.
7. Alexis Sánchez (Arsenal, Chile)
After another year in which he played almost non-stop for club and country, all the while playing with a ferocious intensity, the only question is just how long the brilliant Chilean can keep going. Sánchez has been the standout player for Arsenal, setting an example with his relentless running and particularly thriving since being moved forward to lead the attack this season. He was also involved in a summer tournament with his country for the third successive year. And for the second year in a row he helped Chile to glory, this time at the Copa America Centenario.
8. Luka Modric (Real Madrid, Croatia)
It is difficult to imagine now, but when Modric signed for Tottenham in 2008 there were widespread doubts, expressed by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger among others, to cope with the physicality of a Premier League midfield. Even at Tottenham, he spent much of his time either in an attacking midfield role or out wide before later excelling in the center. He had to counter similar doubts upon signing for Real Madrid four years ago. But to watch his performance in the recent Clásico against Barcelona was to see a player who has become a complete midfielder, able to do the unglamorous work off the ball as well as connecting the team with brilliant artistry when he has it at his feet.
9. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund, Gabon)
Aubameyang has now joined that very elite band of forwards who score at a rate of almost a goal a game. Combining almost unparalleled speed with seemingly effortless finishing, the Gabon striker finished last season with 25 goals in the Bundesliga and he has begun this campaign by finding the net 16 times in just 15 matches, while also scoring in both Champions League games against Real Madrid. It is no surprise that he is now repeatedly linked with a big-money transfer to Madrid and other European giants.
10. N’Golo Kante (Chelsea, France)
Just consider these facts: With Kante in the side, Leicester City was two points clear at the top of the Premier League after 18 games of last season – and would go onto win the title – while without him after 18 games this campaign Leicester is just three points clear of the drop zone. Chelsea, meanwhile, was only two points clear of the bottom three at this point last season, but this season leads the league by seven points with Kante on the roster. Yes, it would be wrong to put the dramatic changes in fortunes of both teams purely down to Kante’s presence and absence, but his impact has undeniably been massive. The Frenchman is a one-man midfield and a coach’s dream.