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The Greatest Football Players Of The Last 25 Years

20. Sergio Busquets
He rarely hogs the headlines – few holding midfielders do – but Busquets has quietly accumulated one World Cup, one European Championship, a trio of Champions Leagues and seven La Liga titles. His slick passing has proved integral to arguably the two best teams of the modern era.
19. Luka Modric
“Give the ball to Modric,” was Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham tactic – and it worked. Good things happen when the midfielder is in possession; that’s why he’s won four Champions League trophies in five years, helped Croatia to a surprise World Cup final appearance and won the Ballon d’Or after 10 years of Messi and Ronaldo.
18. Eric Cantona
Eric Cantona
“I don’t care about being some sort of superior person. If I want to kick a fan, I do it. I’m not a role model. That’s why I hit him again. But I didn’t hit him strong enough. I should have hit him harder.” FFT 171 (November 2008)
17. Gabriel Batistuta
Wembley, October 27, 1999. Batistuta shifts the ball to his right, then hammers a thunderbolt into the top corner from an impossible angle. This Champions League goal for Fiorentina against Arsenal epitomised Batigol’s career – as a goalscorer, he was unstoppable. No other player in history has scored a hat-trick at two World Cup finals.
16. Luis Figo
“Great personality, great charisma, great talent. I was lucky, because I never faced him during his Real Madrid period. When the ball was at his feet, it literally disappeared. If you want to keep the ball, pass it to Luis.” Franco Baresi, FFT 211
15. Wayne Rooney
Did Wazza live up to all that early-career promise? Probably not. Does that matter? Definitely not. Among the most naturally gifted players English football has produced, Rooney should be remembered as the primal juggernaut who first announced himself against Arsenal as a teenager or the more nuanced centre-forward he became. Remember the name.
14. Kaka
Unexpectedly quick, Kaka glided over the pitch with the grace of a gazelle and the vision and intellect of a footballing nuclear physicist. His assist for Hernan Crespo to put Milan 3-0 at half-time in the 2005 Champions League Final is a contender for the greatest pass of all time: it took four players out of the game, having already turned Steven Gerrard inside out. A Rolls-Royce playmaker.
13. Ryan Giggs
Giggs was part of the reason a mag like FourFourTwo suddenly needed to exist: Manchester United’s 1990s poster boy made football fashionable again as the Premier League age dawned. The winger pocketed a record 13 league titles in total, owing to his mercurial ability and approach to staying fit. “You look for players who have flair, or can cross, or can pass well or work hard,” Teddy Sheringham told FFT in 2002. “Normally, you might get two of the four, but Giggsy has all those qualities.”
12. Fabio Cannavaro
You also have to be some player to win the Ballon d’Or as a defender (none have managed it since Cannavaro in 2006), and to go up against Serie A’s offensive brutes at 5ft 9in and emerge victorious. Cannavaro was just that: an incredible reader of the game who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time – fast, technical and one step ahead of the most skilful opponent. As Italy’s most capped captain, Cannavaro’s greatest glory arrived in the summer of 2006, as he led the Azzurri to World Cup victory in Germany.
11. Rivaldo
As the ‘90s drew to a breathless end, the bow-legged Barcelona winger was probably the best player in the world. Strong and skilful, Rivaldo combined the balance of a ballet dancer with an assassin’s killer instinct. He had absolutely everything. Except a right foot. Most of the time, he didn’t even need that.
10. Roberto Baggio
“I’ve lost three World Cups, all on penalties,” Baggio once said. “If you’ll allow me this… it really gets on my nerves.” Unfortunately, the Divine Ponytail will always be known for blazing Italy’s crucial spot-kick over the bar in the 1994 World Cup Final, handing the trophy to Brazil. It affected him for years.
It’s a tremendous shame, because Baggio was one of history’s most technically blessed attacking midfielders – a playmaking grandmaster for Juventus, Milan and the Azzurri. When he was on song, he possessed a cutting edge and vision that dazzled one and all.
“I always admired Italians’ defensive excellence, even though they were often cheating buggers. But this lad wasn’t. He was poised, decisive and also tall enough to be vital at the far post for inswinging corners. Like the Bank of England – hard to get past and get in. For such a handsome young man, he was never scared about picking up any bruises.” Brian Clough, FFT 101
8. Andres Iniesta
Andres Iniesta
Iniesta embodied a style of football responsible for the sport’s biggest sea-change since FourFourTwo’s inception: a receive-pass-offer-pass doctrine that conquered all for Barcelona and Spain. Suddenly, everyone wanted to keep the ball, and there was hope for little guys worldwide who wanted to get a game alongside six-footers.
His crowning glory? Capping a man-of-the-match display with the winning goal in extra time of Spain’s 2010 World Cup Final victory over a Dutch side that had tried and failed to bully him.
7. Xavi
“In my very first training session at Barcelona in 2006, I tried to take the ball from Xavi but it was impossible,” Gianluca Zambrotta told us in 2016. “I knew he could be the best player in the world. With Iniesta, he grew and matured in a team that got better and better.”
Coaches saw it, too. They would tell young midfielders just to watch Xavi’s movements in order to learn the game. He bagged eight league titles and four Champions Leagues while completing more passes than anyone on Earth, and for many he’s the greatest Spanish footballer ever.
6. Thierry Henry
A chance meeting on a flight from Turin to Paris in early-summer 1999 was all it took to turn a frustrated Juventus wide man into the most feared centre-forward on the planet. “You’re wasting your time on the wing,” a wise old sage told the 21-year-old on the plane, “you’re a No.9.” Within a month, Arsene Wenger had signed Thierry Henry and Arsenal would never be the same again.
Deployed through the middle, feeding off the bullets Dennis Bergkamp loaded, the Frenchman usurped Ian Wright as the Gunners’ all-time leading goalscorer, was twice voted PFA Player of the Year and won the football writers’ accolade three times. Henry was quick, lethal and effortlessly cool, that right-footed side-foot across the goalkeeper from the inside left channel.
5. Ronaldinho
Blame the pooch. “As a kid, I honed my dribbling with my dog,” Ronaldinho told FFT in 2012. “When my friends got tired, he ran after the ball.” That mutt assisted in creating possibly the best technician in the history of football in Brazil. Brazil. Juninho declared Ronny “the most skilful player I’ve ever seen,” adding, “There was no end to his tricks.”
He did them at top speed, too, which felt almost disrespectful. It all added up to winner’s medals at the World Cup and in the Champions League, La Liga and more, even if he will be remembered for that other Brazilian cliché: playing with a big, toothy grin.
4. Ronaldo
“When I made my Brazil debut in 1999 he was my idol – and 18 years later it’s the same. He was so welcoming to me. When I get praise from Messi for fostering his growth at Barça, it’s largely thanks to the role model I had with Brazil. Even now, I find it hard not to feel shy around Ronaldo because he has such a presence.” Ronaldinho, FFT 277 (July 2017)
“I was generally very calm and composed as a player – but never when I came up against O Fenomeno. He’d do a quick feint in and out and then run off in a completely different direction, which would leave you standing and unable to recover. Defenders knew he was going to embarrass them.” Alessandro Costacurta, FFT 276
“Ronaldo is more than goals and titles. He overcame so much. He deserves to be treated as a hero. If not for his knees, he would’ve won five Ballons d’Or.” Cafu, FFT 240
3. Zinedine Zidane
Study Zizou’s bare statistics and they’re not all that special – a goal every six games or so, just one Champions League title and another in La Liga for Real Madrid. He wasn’t particularly quick or strong and was poor in the air (despite scoring twice in a World Cup final with his bonce). Some would question whether the Frenchman really warrants such a lofty position on our list.
To call such methodology reductive doesn’t begin to scratch the surface and is the football equivalent of dismissing Vincent van Gogh because he only sold one painting in his lifetime. Put simply, watching Zidane conduct a football match was the closest thing to art the beautiful game has ever produced. The touch, skill amd mesmeric grace you never see, combined with a headbutting temper that made him human. Glorious.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo is a freak of nature. His talent is ludicrous, yet it’s the Portuguese’s constant desire for self-improvement which stands CR7 apart from his peers.
Named after then-US president Ronald Reagan, Ronaldo was determined to escape what was an impoverished childhood. It’s partly why he’s managed to evolve from a fancy-dan winger who struggled for end product at Sporting and early on at Manchester United to the deadly wide-cum-centre-forward which got his move to Real Madrid and continued success at Juventus.
1. Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi
If Cristiano Ronaldo is Rafael Nadal – never stopping in the relentless quest for perfection – then Messi is Roger Federer. The most naturally gifted athlete his sport has ever produced, the Argentine normalises the superhuman, achieving apparent perfection with an insouciant swish of his left foot.
“I feel sorry for those who want to compete for Messi’s throne,” Pep Guardiola once said. “It’s impossible, this kid is unique.”
Trying to make sense of Messi is to give up on football, to forget the reason why you first started watching in the first place, cross-legged in the front room or open-mouthed on the stands. Suspend your disbelief and follow what most opponents do. Admire.

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