A memorable 2014 is almost at an end. It was a year that saw the cream rise to the top, with the world’s best players, increasingly concentrated at Europe’s biggest teams, enjoying success for their clubs and, at the World Cup, for their country. What follows is an IB Times list of the top 10 players for 2014, based on their performances and achievements over the past 12 months rather than their pure ability and standing in the game.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid and Portugal)
There can’t be many doubts that Ronaldo was top of the pile in 2014, and he will surely go on to lift a third Ballon d’Or crown in January. Ronaldo has scored a frankly ridiculous 61 goals in 59 appearances and rather than declining, at the age of 29, appears to still be getting better. As well as excelling individually, he also helped Real Madrid to claim a long-coveted 10th European Cup and recently world club champions, too.
2. Lionel Messi (Barcelona and Argentina)
There were plenty of disappointments for Messi over the past 12 months. It was the first year since 2008 that he didn’t lift any silverware, with the most painful failure of all surely coming at the 2014 World Cup where his Argentina side was defeated by Germany in the final. Still Messi played a big part in getting Argentina there, despite appearing less than fully fit. And while there remains a suspicion that he is not quite at his physical peak, he remains a truly outstanding player. In recent months he has further enshrined his legacy by breaking the records for goals scored in La Liga and the Champions League.
3. Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich and Germany)
Neuer started the year as merely the world’s best goalkeeper and finished it as a player who had revolutionized his position as well as transcending it. Had it not been for the anticipation and exceptional ability of the Bayern Munich stopper with the ball at his feet then the high defensive line that allowed Germany to play a more proactive style would surely have been undone before they lifted the World Cup in Brazil.
4. Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich and the Netherlands)
It might have been expected that Robben’s individualistic style would see him cast aside by Pep Guardiola. Instead he has been an essential player, the one capable of providing the cutting edge to accompany Bayern’s sometimes endless possession. At the age of 30, he is in the best form of his career, and he was exceptional and pivotal in helping the Netherlands to a third place finish at the World Cup.
5. Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich and Germany)
Long the most complete full-back in the world, in 2014 Lahm confirmed he is one of the world’s best footballers, period. His switch to dictating deep-lying midfielder was crucial to Pep Guardiola installing his possession style and Joachim Low employing a similar proactive style with Germany. Back excelling at full-back in the latter stages in Brazil, Lahm achieved the crowning moment of his career by captaining Germany to victory in the 2014 World Cup.
6. Thibaut Courtois (Atlético Madrid/Chelsea and Belgium)
It’s common wisdom that goalkeepers don’t begin reaching their potential until their late 20s. If that’s the case then it’s difficult to imagine just how dominant the still just 22-year-old Courtois will become. It has been quite a year for the Belgian. He was crucial to an Atlético team built around their resilience winning the Spanish title and so nearly lifting the European Cup. Impressive at the World Cup, too, the swiftness of his transition to the Premier League with Chelsea has been incredible to behold.
7. Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich and Germany)
If you were to analyze the pure technical ability of Müller, you’d struggle to find something that stands out. Yet he continues to do just that for both club and country. Much of his success is down to his outstanding footballing intelligence and movement that makes him a nightmare to defend and continues to see him pop up in the right place at the right time. His five goals in Brazil mean the 25-year-old already has 10 World Cup goals in his career.
8. Gareth Bale (Real Madrid and Wales)
Following a record transfer from Tottenham, Bale’s start to life at Real Madrid wasn’t easy and the pressure on him was immense. But he delivered on the big stages for the Spanish giants at the climax of the season, scoring in the final of the Copa del Rey and Champions League. This month he did likewise to help Madrid become world club champions, as well.
9. Luis Suárez (Liverpool/Barcelona and Uruguay)
Given that he missed four months of the year due to a suspension for his infamous bite on Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup and upon returning he has made a slow start to life at Barcelona, it says much about how good Suárez was the rest of the year that he’s included on the list. Suárez’s impact on Liverpool’s electrifying Premier League title challenge came from not just his goals, but his infectious drive and intensity. One of the very few players in the world capable of deciding a game single-handedly, he also had a decisive impact for Uruguay against England.
10. James Rodríguez (Monaco/Real Madrid and Colombia)
At the start of 2014, Rodríguez was still mainly potential and cast in the shadow of compatriot Radamel Falcao at both club and country. But by the end he is a genuine superstar. After a fine climax to the season with Monaco, the midfielder lit up the World Cup with his silky touches, that goal against Uruguay, and his dance moves. His new global status was reflected by a big money move to Real Madrid, where he has adapted impressively to a new role.