Top 10 footballers of 2021

With 2021 coming to an end, it’s time to celebrate the best that men’s football has to offer over the past 12 months of captivating club and international action. Below, we count the 10 best footballers of the year.

Honorable mentions: N’Golo Kante (Chelsea), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Joao Cancelo (Manchester City), Pedri (Barcelona)

10. Romelu Lukaku

Club: Chelsea | Age: 28 | Position: Striker

Lukaku regained his place among the game’s top forwards in 2021, leading Inter Milan to their first Serie A title in a decade with 24 goals and 11 assists in the Italian top flight. To put that in perspective, only one other Serie A player hit double digits in both categories last season. But Lukaku was the set, leaving defenders dead on the counterattack, breaking through balls from the outside, delaying play with steadfast force and plundering the penalty area for goals. Chelsea paid £ 97.5million to re-sign the Belgian star this summer, making him the second most expensive signing in Premier League history.

9. Cristiano Ronaldo

Chloe Knott – Danehouse / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Manchester United | Age: 36 | Position: Cheeky

As debate rages on his ability to play in a pressing system and whether Manchester United were misguided in signing him, Ronaldo simply continues to score goals and rack up accolades. The Portuguese striker broke many records in 2021, including becoming the all-time top scorer in men’s international football. He’s undeniably – and understandably – a lesser force than he was in his prime, but Ronaldo still finds the net with frightening frequency. Serie A top scorer last season, he has already doubled the numbers in just 19 appearances since joining the Red Devils. Say what you want, but it can still happen, especially at key moments.

8. Ruben Dias

Club: City of Manchester | Age: 24 | Position: Rear center

There was a sense of hopelessness in the way Manchester City signed Dias two days after a 5-2 home loss to Leicester City at the start of the 2020-21 campaign, but the Portuguese defender has had a transformative effect on the side of Pep Guardiola. He has helped City clean 15 sheets in his 32 Premier League appearances, led the elite in blocked shots and clearances and completed the second most assists in the division. He is simply obsessed with the art of defending. “It gives me pleasure to make the other team feel helpless,” Dias said in January.

7. Mohamed Salah

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Club: Liverpool | Age: 29 | Position: Cheeky

Salah shows no sign of slowing down. After being called a one-season wonder by some, the Liverpool star has come back with a vengeance this year. He scored at a similar pace to his record-breaking 2017-18 campaign when he broke Alan Shearer’s scoring record in a single season. Despite a drop in goals after setting the new Premier League mark, the Egyptian king has recovered as one of the best players in the world this term, scoring 15 goals in 19 league-leading appearances.

6. Erling Haaland

Club: Borussia Dortmund | Age: 21 | Position: Striker

Haaland has set high standards for itself. He scored two or more goals on 18 occasions in 2021, ending the year with 41 in 43 appearances in all competitions for Borussia Dortmund. He averages almost a goal per game and he does so in a team that struggles to compete both nationally and in Europe. He’s the true heir to Ronaldo’s throne, a center-back with singular focus and ruthless efficiency in front of goal. Haaland has done his apprenticeship and seems more ready than ever to make the leap to the megastar.

5. Kylian Mbappé

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Club: Paris Saint-Germain | Age: 23 | Position: Cheeky

Some players would have struggled to get up after such a disappointment. Mbappe lost two big chances in overtime before missing the decisive penalty in France’s shootout loss to Switzerland at the European Championship. But he made sure it was just a hit as he racked up 49 goals and 22 assists in 66 games for club and country in 2021. Mbappe ends the year as a more mature player and seems destined for a huge move to Real Madrid this summer.

4. Jorginho

Club: Chelsea | Age: 30 | Position: Midfielder

Let’s address the elephant in the hall: Yes, Jorginho is a great penalty taker. He converted 12 of 14 shots on goal in 2021 and made the penalty decisive in Italy’s shootout win over Spain at Euro 2020. Yes, he’s a great passer, but he isn’t Gareth Barry with shooting prowess. Jorginho protects the baseline and throws quick moves that translate into goals. He anchored the Chelsea midfielder this year, especially when N’Golo Kante was injured, and won the Champions League title a month before winning the Euro with Italy. Jorginho wasn’t a passenger either, having played 73 times for club and country in 2021.

3. Karim Benzema

Hélios de la Rubia / Real Madrid / Getty

Club: Real Madrid | Age: 34 | Position: Striker

Now that Benzema has stepped out of Ronaldo’s shadow, the Real Madrid forward is finally getting the recognition he deserves. After playing a leading role in Real Madrid’s push to win La Liga last season, France manager Didier Deschamps surprisingly rewarded the 34-year-old with his first call-up in years. The prolific forward has finished behind Lionel Messi in scoring in each of the past three seasons, but Benzema looks set to win his first La Liga scoring title after more than a decade at Madrid.

2. Lionel Messi

Club: Paris Saint-Germain | Age: 34 | Position: Cheeky

Messi hasn’t reached the dizzying heights we’re used to since his sensational move to Paris Saint-Germain – just give him a little time – but don’t let that obscure what has been another exquisite year for the iconic Argentine. He led his country to a Copa America triumph, finally securing that King Kong-sized weight and extended his own record by capturing a seventh – albeit controversial – Ballon d’Or. He was La Liga’s top scorer last season, holding together an otherwise rotten Barcelona side who relied on him to make it happen. all; it is no coincidence that Barça totally collapsed in his absence. Leading this desperate team to a Copa del Rey title should have been impossible, but not for Messi.

1. Robert Lewandowski

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Club: Bayern Munich | Age: 33 | Position: Striker

Lewandowski erased many records in 2021. He surpassed Gerd Muller’s 40-goal mark at 49 in a single Bundesliga campaign with a 90th-minute tap-in on the last day of the 2020-21 season. Lewandowski then demonstrated his continuous brilliance by reaching an all-time high of 43 Bundesliga goals in a calendar year. For many, he should have beaten Messi at the Ballon d’Or. “I am like good wine, and I hope to become even better,” he warned in September.

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