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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Marcus Christenson

Lionel Messi leaves top 100 field in wake but Premier League also shows power

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring for Argentina in last month’s World Cup final.
Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring for Argentina in last month’s World Cup final. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

It is sometimes easy to forget that Lionel Messi retired from international football in 2016. Argentina had just lost in the Copa América to Chile, a fourth final defeat in nine years, and Messi had missed a penalty in the shootout. “For me, the national team is over,” he said. “I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion.”

Luckily for Messi, and Argentinian football fans, he changed his mind two months later, in time for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. The tournament in Russia did not bring the success he or his country had hoped for but three years later it all fell into place for the captain with victory in the Copa América.

That win ensured he had his international trophy, but it also meant the pressure had been lifted. Messi was playing for Argentina with a smile again. That lifted the player and his teammates to new heights and it culminated in La Albiceleste winning the 2022 World Cup.

The win in Qatar naturally had a huge impact on the voting for the Guardian’s top 100 footballers and it is not outlandish to think that Kylian Mbappé would have finished as the No 1 had France won the shootout against Argentina.

But they did not and Messi ended up as the clear winner in our vote with 76% (156 out of 206 judges) of our panel picking him as their No 1. It is a stark contrast to last year’s winner, Robert Lewandowski, who was top of 53% of the judges’ lists.

It is a decade since we did our first list and Messi has never been out of our top three, staying remarkably consistent and popular with the judges. The only time he fell out of the top two was in 2018 when Luka Modric usurped him and Cristiano Ronaldo, with the Portuguese in second.

The Argentina coach, Lionel Scaloni, is obviously biased but when asked in Qatar whether Messi was the best player ever he said: “Sometimes as Argentinians it of course looks like we say that just because we are Argentinian. Maybe it’s selfish [but] I don’t have any doubt saying that: he is the best in history.”

Messi failed to inspire Paris St-Germain to win the Champions League and that is reflected in the standings of which side have the most players on our list. Manchester City stay top despite, like PSG, falling to the comeback machine that was Real Madrid.

Madrid are second with 11 players in the top 100, including Rodrygo for the first time, and have four of the top 10: Karim Benzema, Modric, Vinícius Júnior and Thibaut Courtois, who was outstanding in that final win against Liverpool in Paris.

Bayern Munich have the fourth-most players on the list despite going out to Villarreal in the Champions League quarter-finals and despite Germany having a disappointing World Cup. Their highest-ranked player is Sadio Mané, who joined from Liverpool in the summer.

PSG still suffer from having a top heavy team, with Messi, Mbappé and Neymar in the top 15 but the only teammates to join them on the top 100 being Achraf Hakimi and Marquinhos.

Brazil have the most players on our list with 14. Some of the biggest stars are joined further down the list by players such as Gabriel Barbosa, Bruno Guimarães, Fabinho and Thiago Silva.

It shows that the rankings are not solely based on the World Cup, despite the timing of the tournament, which meant the deadline for votes was a few weeks after the final.

France are also ahead of Argentina with veterans such as Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud, who is 30th after helping Milan to the Serie A title and having a good World Cup, making the top 100 alongside younger players such as Christopher Nkunku and Aurélien Tchouaméni.

The strongest league, according to our panel at least, is the behemoth that is the Premier League. It is continuing to grow – albeit only by one player compared with 2021 – and has 43 representatives, with La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga staying at the same number as the previous list.

It is worth noting that although we have a 35-year-old winner and the same winner as 10 years ago, there is an abundance of young, talented players coming through.

It is clear to see that Mbappé is a likely future winner but there are younger players than the 24-year-old on the list who are upwardly mobile. Erling Haaland and Vinícius are 22 and in the top 10, while Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Jamal Musiala, Bukayo Saka, Pedri, Gavi and Tchouaméni are set to improve their positions.

Nothing lasts for ever, they say, and that will be true of Messi being the Guardian’s No 1, but for now he is holding off the youngsters. Let’s see what 2023 brings.

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