IT WAS almost inevitable that Paris Saint-Germain’s Lionel Messi, in his World Cup crowning, would be ranked as the world’s top player once more. The Guardian top 100, which has grown in credibility year-by-year, has named the Argentinian skipper at number one for the fifth time in the past decade, leaving behind his old rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is languishing below mid-table at number 51 in his new AL-Nassr shirt.
While there can be little dispute over the position of Messi in the modern game’s pantheon, what is clear is football’s top names are long in the tooth and still dominating their profession. A grand total of 13 of the top 20 are over 30 years of age, and overall, 32% are in this age bracket across the 100. Only 3% are under 20. Is there something a little worrying about this statistic, one wonders?
Astonishingly, there are more Moroccans in the 100 than Spanish, Italian or Dutch players, a reflection of the performance of the Africans in the World Cup. Brazil (14) provides the highest number of nationals, with France (12) and Argentina (11) not far behind. England (9) and Germany (8) are next in line.
Unsurprisingly, the Premier is the top league, contributing 44% of the overall total. In 2021, the figure was 42%, so the English league continues to grow its influence in securing the top players. The big five leagues dominate, providing 94% of the total.
As in 2021, Manchester City have more players represented than any other club – their 12 matching their total for the previous year. Their highest placing is Erling Haaland in fourth, while resurgent Kevin De Bruyne is in sixth. The rest of the Etihad dozen are way behind. Liverpool are the next best represented Premier side, with Mo Salah (down seven places on 2021) the highest in tenth.
Real Madrid have 11 players, including the born-again Karim Benzema in third place, a remarkable achievement, and veteran Luka Modric in fifth position. Real have become a club for Indian Summers with these two players among the oldest in the listings.
The top 100 also gives an insight into the rise and fall of certain clubs; Chelsea, for example, have just five players included, a 50% drop on 2021, while Barcelona have five, which admittedly is more than last year but still shows how they have fallen from their past highs. With Barca likely to win La Liga in 2022-23, next season’s list should see more from the Catalans. Juventus have just two players in the 100, while Paris Saint-Germain, with four, have seen their number halve and more. Arsenal, by contrast, have trebled their representation to three and if they continue their pursuit of the Premier title, will surely have more plaudits in the 2023 rankings.
The Guardian top 100 this year shows us that football is at a transition stage as the most celebrated players move towards the end of their careers. Ronaldo has already stepped off the podium as he enjoys the first laps of honour as he winds down, others will undoubtedly follow in the next couple of years. We have witnessed something of a golden era of star footballers and the next generation has to have space to come through. With such a high proportion of top players in the big five leagues, the strength of the other European leagues will diminish further unless there is some way to implement financial democracy across the continent.
The Premier League’s presence in the 100 went up slightly, but interestingly, there were 11 clubs compared to nine in 2021. This may indicate more clubs have the resources to scoop-up the top talent, or simply that the elite bracket is easing up a little. Whatever the reason, the polarisation of European football is reflected in the Guardian’s list.