Like most of my generation, although I have played football all my life, it is only in this century I began to appreciate the beautiful game in all its glory.
The skilful playmakers, the speedy wingers, the tough tacklers, poachers, defenders and even ‘keepers; I appreciate them all. They make this game great; they keep us watching and even keep us playing. The best players in the world inspire us to try and play to the best of our abilities and in the last decade there has been a whole lot of inspiration. So here, as a true lover of the game, are my ten best players of the last ten years. These are players who played for at least over half the decade (six years). The likes ofand , who saw played their best football in the 90’s, are not included. Nor are the trio of the next greats, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, as since 2007 they have taken a year each to be the best player in the world. The list is bound to cause debate, so you see what I mean when I say there has been a whole lot of inspiration so far this millennium. I have based my judgement on combined quality, longevity and achievements.
At the turn of the century Zanetti was an excellent fullback and captain of Inter Milan. Ten years later and he still is. The Argentinean right-back has become the symbol of Inter, having been an ever present for over 15 years. Zanetti has even improved with time, playing on the right side of midfield and at left-back often. Having captained Inter to four league titles and two Italian cups already his hunger still burns. For some reason he has been in and out of the Argentina national team but their loss is Inter’s gain. Zanetti goes into the next decade still a first team player and playing as well as ever.
For the best part of this millennium Buffon has been the best goalkeeper on earth. A key player for Italy during their successful world cup campaign in 2006 his magnificent performances saw them only concede two goals during the whole tournament. His consistency has seen him stay as Italy’s number one for the whole decade, with only injury stopping him from playing in every national tournament this decade. Buffon’s performances for Juventus have also seen them get straight back to where they belong, near the top ofand in the Champions League. Buffon remains the best goalkeeper in the world going into 2010.
In terms of out-and-out performance Ronaldinho could arguably be number one on this list. However, the dramatic change in his performances over just four years sees him at number eight on this list. From 2004-2007 the Brazilian number 10 was the best player in the world. Full of skill, pace and improvised genius he was similar to a prime Diego Maradona. It seems though that upon reaching his late 20’s Ronaldinho has lost a whole lot of pace and maybe even desire. By the age of 26 he had won the World Cup, Champions League and Fifa World Player of the Year, twice. Nevertheless he still continues as AC Milan’s prime playmaker, as a shadow of his former self.
“The Express Train” was a world class right-back right up until has retirement at the age of 38, scoring in his last ever game for AC Milan. Cafu was a player who hit his peak in the late 30’s, captaining Brazil to the World Cup at 32 and winning the Champions League in 2007 at the age of 37. During the past ten years he won two Serie A titles at both Roma and AC Milan. Cafu is currently Brazil’s most capped player, with an outstanding international career that saw him win two World Cup’s (1994 and 2002) and two Copa America’s (1997 and 1999). Having retired in 2008 Cafu will be remembered as one of the greatest right-backs ever.
6 – Raul Gonzalez
Raul is the all time top goal-scorer in Champions League football and going into the next decade no one would bet on him adding to his tally. More then just a poacher, the Real Madrid legend is a player of the highest calibre, possessing superb technique and vision. Having won two Champions League titles this decade (and one in 1997) as a young talent Raul has gone on to lead the Real Madrid attack for the next ten years and averages 20 goals a season over that time. Although the club have not been as successful later on in his career they have still won four league titles in this time. Raul continues as a prominent member of Real Madrid team.
In his peak, particularly during his years at Arsenal, Thierry Henry was the best striker and arguably the best player in the world. With over 250 goals and probably just as many assists Henry has consistently shone throughout this decade. It was not just what he did but how he did it too, playing a central role in two teams that play football of the highest standard. The elegant Frenchman is two players combined; a creative winger and clinical striker, moulded into one lightening fast, powerful footballer. In the last ten years Henry has won two Premierships, three F.A Cups and the historic treble with Barcelona, as well as a European Championship with France in 2000, not to mention a host of individual awards. The fact that going into his 30’s he is still a first team player, in arguably the best team this decade, says it all.
Fabio Cannavaro, despite a lack of club success, stands out as the best defender of the last ten years. The little centre-back (just 5ft 10) is the latest of Italy’s great defenders and thanks to his marvellous World Cup displays in 2006, will be remembered as one of the greatest ever. An intelligent defender who never shirks a tackle, Cannavaro got better with experience and won the Fifa World Player of the year at the age of 33, after captaining Italy to World Cup glory in 2006. He also became Italy’s most capped player ever, gaining 127 caps. Real Madrid’s resurgence coincided with having Cannavaro in defence as they won back-to-back titles in 2007 and 2008. Cannavaro goes into the next decade still playing at the heart of defence for Italy and Juventus.
3 – Giggs
At the age of 36 in 2009was voted the 14th best player in European football, ahead of the likes of and Thierry Henry. Despite what Fifa lists say, Giggs has undoubtedly been one of the best attacking players in Europe for every single year since 2000. Ryan Giggs has cemented himself as one of footballs all time greats by improving and adjusting his game like no other footballer this decade. Despite losing his pace Giggs has remained an integral part a squad that has won six leagues, an F.A Cup and a Champions League trophy this decade. Giggs has consistently shone in the Champions League and Premiership for ten years and will probably continue to do so for a few more yet.
2 – Figo
Figo retired at the age of 36 in 2009 having won four league titles in a row with Inter Milan when he was far from his peak. It was during the first part of the decade when the Portuguese winger shone as one of the best players in the world, winning the Ballon d’or in 2000 and Fifa World Player of the year in 2001. What makes Figo stand out is that he was a key player in the best Portugal and Real Madrid sides since the 60’s, helping both sides with his leadership, dribbling ability and excellent final ball. His performances for Portugal during Euro 2000 and Euro 2004 were truly outstanding, while he made a final contribution to his national side by captaining them to fourth place in the 2006 World Cup.
1 – Zidane
Despite his best achievement coming in 1998 Zinedine Zidane saved his best performances for this millennium. ‘The Monk’ illuminated Euro 2000 and dominated the Champions League in 2002 during Real Madrid’s successful campaign. It was his amazing performances in his final games for France in the 2006 World Cup that see him as this decade’s best player however. When many had thought Zidane was past his peak at 34 years of age he turned back the clock with some truly world class performances for France, leading the all the way to the final. Only his violent actions in the game saw him lose out on winning the 2006 Fifa Player of the year. He may have gone out of football on a red card but he also went out as the best player in the world.
Honourable mentions as some of the best players this decade go to the following: Paul Scholes, Pavel Nedved, Rivaldo, Patrick Viera, Michael Ballack, Roberto Carlos, Edwin Van Der Sar, Alessandro Nesta, Steven Gerrard, Andrei Shevchenko, Oliver Khan, Michael Owen, Xavi, Deco, Rio Ferdinand, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, John Terry, Ronaldo, Paolo Maldini and Clarence Seerdorf.