Guardian Top 100: What does it tell us?

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.

Medals not required – why some greats simply don’t need them

HARRY KANE has broken Tottenham Hotspur’s scoring record, no mean feat when you have Jimmy Greaves and Martin Chivers in the same list. Kane deserves credit for this remarkable achievement, but no sooner had he netted his latest goal, people were talking about his lack of medals. Spurs haven’t won anything in Kane’s time, indeed you have to go back to 2008 for their last trophy. Players often claim their desire to leave a club is based on the desire to “win things” and as Kane heads towards 30, you can understand any anxiety about ending his peak years without some sort of bauble to place in his cabinet at Chez Kane.

But not all great players have boxloads of medals when they want to recall their football career. In fact, some of the game’s outstanding names have very little silverware to show for a glittering career. Much depends on who they play for – if you are Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, the statistics of their careers match the plaudits they have received, because they have played for great, successful clubs. Messi has won 11 league titles and Ronaldo seven, but CR7 has won five Champions League medals to Messi’s four. Messi, of course, now has a World Cup momento on display at home.

Zlatan Ibrahomovic has 12 league titles to his name, from the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France. Bayern’s Thomas Müller has 11 Bundesliga medals, while Paco Gento of Real won 12 La Ligas with Real Madrid. Johan Cruyff won 10 league titles, along with seven domestic cups and three European Cups. He was a league champion with three different clubs: Ajax, Barcelona and Feyenoord. Kenny Dalglish won 23 major medals in his playing career, including 10 league titles with Celtic and Liverpool. Play for the top clubs and you win medals – just ask Phil Neal, Liverpool’s full back, who won seven league titles, four European Cups, four league cups and the UEFA Cup, along with 50 England caps.

Some players, unfortunately, play the role of big fish at a club less equipped to winning major honours on a regular basis. Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews, two of the wizards of the wing, won praise week-by-week and were mainstays of the England team. Finney was a Preston North End player from 1946 to 1960, he won 76 caps for England but never won a major honour. Matthews won 54 caps during a career that saw him play for Stoke City and Blackpool. His only honour was the FA Cup in 1953. Both these players earned their place in football history because they were truly great at what they did.

Similarly, there were members of the England 1966 winning team that didn’t enjoy incredible success as club players. Gordon Banks, for example, had to wait until the back end of his career for his one and only medal with Stoke City, the Football League Cup in 1972. George Cohen, a fine full back with Fulham, never won a major prize with his club. Ray Wilson won the FA Cup in 1966 with Everton, but injuries prevented him winning more. The Charlton brothers were the most successful, but Bobby’s trophy winning days ended two years after 1966 as Manchester United entered a period of decline. Big Jack was part of Don Revie’s ultra-professional unit that went close to winning everything, but invariably failed at so many final hurdles. Jimmy Greaves, who missed the World Cup final and then drifted away from the England scene, actually only won three medals in English football, the last in 1967.

George Best, for all his brilliance and headlines, won his last medal in 1968. His career was strangely anti-climatic – he won three medals and 37 caps for Northern Ireland. The man who became the face of British football when Best’s star waned, Kevin Keegan, fared much better in his tangible assets haul – three league titles with Liverpool, one with Hamburg, one European Cup, two UEFA Cups and 63 caps for England. It is fair to say Keegan made the most of his career.

Not so players like Best and even Diego Maradona, who won six medals at club level, although lifting the World Cup eclipses most other pieces of objet d’art. Pelé, because he was limited to appearing for Santos for most of his career, also had few items to show for his wonderful skills.

But did this really matter in times gone by? Arguably not. Today, the football world expects the top names to continually grace the big occasions, but given we are talking about a team game, an individual can only do so much. Hence, Ronaldo has never won the World Cup, even though his fans continually will them to be crowned champion. While the likes of Matthews and Finney were clubmen of the highest order, they were never likely to win the League Championship with their long-time employers. Bobby Moore, another legendary figure, stayed with West Ham for most of his career, a club that was respected and won the occasional cup, but were never contenders for the title. In the modern game, great players gravitate towards the clubs with money and trophy-winning potential. They might start with a West Ham or a Fulham, but they will surely end up with a Chelsea, a Manchester City or Liverpool.

A good way to measure this is to consider the England World Cup squads. In 1966, Alf Ramsey’s 22 players came from 14 different clubs of which nine were playing for the top six of 1965-66. Four years on, the needle had shifted and only 10 clubs were called upon and 11 were from the top six. In more recent times, the World Cup squad of 2018 was drawn from 10 clubs, but 18 of the 23 were from the so-called “big six”.

Other nations have different squad compositions. France, the 2018 World champions, had a squad that was drawn from across Europe, 15 clubs from five different countries. Croatia, the runners-up were even more diverse, 23 players from 21 clubs in no less than 10 countries. This shows that while overseas players tend to ply their trade across the European landscape, English players are more likely to stay at home and the most successful ones move in the direction of the richest and most successful. It is likely, then, that the top players can collect far more medals than their predecessors from past decades.

It would be inappropriate to talk of medals and not recognise some of the most celebrated players. Liverpool’s Phil Neal, for example, won eight league titles and four European Cups while Celtic’s Billy McNeill was Scottish champion nine times and won 23 medals. Ryan Giggs, in a career that spanned 24 seasons, won no less than 13 league titles. And yet, Alan Shearer won a solitary league title with Blackburn and Gary Lineker waited until he was 30 for his only prize in English football with Tottenham, although two years earlier, he did win the European Cup-Winners’ Cup with Barcelona.

Although some players may feel that a career without official recognition may leave an empty feeling when they retire, consolation can be found in the way they are remembered by the people paying to watch them. While medals can be sold to boost the pension pot, the memories of the fans will never fade. It is not always necessary to wear garlands to be identified as a football legend. Harry Kane is certainly a Tottenham legend in his own lifetime.