Choosing the 100 best players at the 2018 World Cup is a darn near impossible task. It’s an excruciating exercise. But it’s an exhilarating one. And that’s why we’ve decided to undertake it.
It is, of course, silly to compare goalkeepers to holding midfielders and fullbacks to strikers. But the idea here is to assess players based on their effectiveness, present-day value, and impact on a hypothetical match. This is not a transfer market index. It’s about contemporary quality. The best players, right now. One hundred of ’em.
As always, direct complaints to @HenryBushnell on Twitter. Just be sure to disagree respectfully.
50. Ousmane Dembele, M/F, France/Barcelona
Barca made him one of the five most expensive players ever at age 20. His first season in Catalonia was injury-riddled and forgettable. But he showed glimpses of his talent, and should dazzle with his speed and skill in year two – and/or in Russia this summer.
49. Ilkay Gundogan, M, Germany/Manchester City
Finally blessed with nine injury-free months, Gundogan showed just why his injury troubles have been so gut-wrenching for so many. He’s a delightful box-to-box midfielder with a touch of No. 10 in his game, and could beat out Sami Khedira for a Die Mannschaft starting spot.
48. Diego Costa, F, Spain/Atletico Madrid
Love him or hate him, you can’t disparage his ability – to score goals, and to get underneath opponents’ skin. The Brazilian-born striker doesn’t have the best record with the national team, but should be first in line for Spain’s starting gig.
47. Jordi Alba, D, Spain/Barcelona
Always hellish to deal with going forward, the former winger has improved the defensive side of his game.
46. Raphael Varane, D, France/Real Madrid
Varane (25) and Samuel Umtiti (24) could be France’s center back pairing for years to come.
45. Fernandinho, M, Brazil/Manchester City
Has found breaking into the Brazilian 11 difficult. But the 33-year-old is coming off the best season of his career as a No. 6 under Pep Guardiola at City. He’s an asset for the Selecao if they opt for a more defensive-minded midfield.
44. Mousa Dembele, M, Belgium/Tottenham
On his day, Dembele can seem flawless and indomitable. On others, he looks like he’s lost a half-step. And his decision-making is imperfect. But he wriggles out of so many thorny situations, and glides by so many opposing midfielders who think they have him contained. It appears Roberto Martinez will entrust him with the entire back half of Belgium’s midfield.
43. Sadio Mane, F, Senegal/Liverpool
The most direct and ferocious of Liverpool’s attacking triumvirate. But the 26-year-old speedster will be saddled with more creative responsibility at the World Cup.
42. Dries Mertens, F, Belgium/Napoli
Once a zippy but unproductive winger, Mertens has become a lethal striker – and the ultimate late bloomer. He scored as many goals for Napoli as a 29-year-old as he had in three previous seasons combined, and followed it up with another impressive haul this past year. He could be the odd man out if Belgium realizes it needs more defensive solidity … but Roberto Martinez hasn’t realized that yet.
41. Jan Vertonghen, D, Belgium/Tottenham
Back in the day, Belgium – bereft of fullbacks – shunted Vertonghen out to left back. Now he’s found his ideal national team home, on the left side of a back three.
40. Gabriel Jesus, F, Brazil/Manchester City
The second of three players on our list who haven’t yet celebrated their 22nd birthdays.
39. Thomas Muller, M/F, Germany/Bayern Munich
With Robert Lewandowski carrying the goalscoring load at Munich, Muller has transitioned into more of a supplementary role. And he’s made the transition seamlessly. But he still needs to be a penalty box threat for Germany off the right.
38. Edinson Cavani, F, Uruguay/PSG
Overshadowed by Neymar in Paris and Luis Suarez back home, and oft-ridiculed for missing chances, Cavani has one of the more unfair reputations in global soccer. He only misses so many memorable chances because he creates – and gets on the end of – so many. There’s a decent chance the 2018 World Cup becomes an occasion for people to realize: Oh yeah, that Cavani guy is really, really good.
37. Dani Carvajal, D, Spain/Real Madrid
The second-best right back in the world, and closer to first than third. He left the Champions League final with a muscle injury, but should at least be fit for Spain’s second group match.
36. James Rodriguez, M, Colombia/Bayern Munich
Has always been better for country than for club. But in a way, that’s a tribute to his ability. James has been the focal point of Colombia’s attack for a half-decade now, meaning he must handle both responsibility and defensive attention. And he’s coped with both really well.
35. Sergio Aguero, F, Argentina/Manchester City
Aguero’s goal per 90 rates over the past five seasons – in the toughest league in the world, no less – are absurd. He’s injury prone and imperfect, but still so incredibly difficult for even the best defenses to deal with.
34. Sergio Busquets, M, Spain/Barcelona
Two years ago, Busquets was a no-doubter in the top 25 of a list like this. But there are some worrying signs. To be clear: It’s not time to sound alarm bells, nor to panic. Busquets’ intelligence will carry him into his mid-30s as an effective holding midfielder. But his days of near-omnipotence on a football pitch might have passed.
33. Joshua Kimmich, D, Germany/Bayern Munich
He’s not Philipp Lahm, and never will be. But that doesn’t mean he can’t just as good, or even better. At 23, he’s already taken Lahm’s throne as the best right back on the planet.
32. Raheem Sterling, F, England/Manchester City
British Papers Who Shall Not Be Named have managed to make even intelligent England fans and responsible journalists question Sterling. It’s infuriating. Ignore the noise, and the non-stories that those papers turn into stories. Sterling is brilliant. He’ll partner Harry Kane in a central role. And two seasons under Pep Guardiola have prepared him for it. You could even argue he deserves to be ahead of Kane on this list.
31. Andres Iniesta, M, Spain/Barcelona
Doesn’t deke defenders out of their shoes as often as he once did. Doesn’t get into the box as often as he once did. Doesn’t even supply the final pass as often as he once did. But the technique? Still unparalleled. The vision? Still magical. Iniesta, even at age 34, on his way to Japan? Still one of many reasons Spain could lift the World Cup trophy on July 15.
30. Casemiro, M, Brazil/Real Madrid
Took a slight step back in 2017-18 as opponents realized they can make him look like a fish out of water with the ball at his feet. But he’s been one of Real Madrid’s most pivotal players en route to back-to-back-to-back Champions League triumphs. He’s Brazil’s second-most important.
29. Thiago Alcantara, M, Spain/Bayern Munich
Has developed into an all-around midfield ace at Bayern. He’ll start for Spain, assuming manager Julen Lopetegui isn’t mad, and could even be deployed in the deepest of three midfield roles – that’s how complete his skill set is.
28. Paulo Dybala, M/F, Argentina/Juventus
How does Dybala fit into manager Jorge Sampaoli’s World Cup plans? Nobody knows. But at least he’s on the plan to Russia. His place in the 23 was in doubt just a few months ago. Sampaoli did the right thing and took him, even if he’s not sure the Juventus playmaker can play in tandem with Lionel Messi.
27. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, G, Germany/Barcelona
Two years ago, Ter Stegen might not have even cracked the top 100. Now he’s a no-brainer top-50 selection, and would be an undisputed No. 1 for all but two or three national teams. Unfortunately, Germany is one of those two or three.
26. Gerard Pique, D, Spain/Barcelona
Will be booed by some Spanish fans because he supports the Catalan people’s right to vote on independence. Won’t care. Will dominate in the air and on the floor anyway.
25. Mesut Ozil, M, Germany/Arsenal
There is so much misattribution of discontent among Arsenal fans toward Ozil. And his unquestioned value to Germany exposes it. He’s a world-class playmaker in a club team that hasn’t provided sufficient support, and in an international team that has.
24. Christian Eriksen, M, Denmark/Tottenham
More assists than all but one other Premier League player over the past three years; and 34 goals over the past four to boot. Oh, and Mauricio Pochettino’s pressing system has seeped into Eriksen’s game as well. All of which explains why he is the Danish talisman.
23. Luis Suarez, F, Uruguay/Barcelona
The eye test says he’s trending downhill. Suarez says screw the eye test. He’ll continue to conjure goals out of nowhere until he’s 40.
22. Philippe Coutinho, M, Brazil/Barcelona
The drama surrounding his transfer to Barcelona and the transition to a new league, team and town seemed to stall Coutinho’s ascent. But there’s a reason the Catalan club paid up to $187 million for him. He’s a marvelous creative force whether he’s playing wide or central.
21. David Silva, M, Spain/Manchester City
Silva is as incisive a passer as there is in the modern game. But, of course, you know that. What you might not have realized is that the Spaniard has made tremendous defensive strides in his eight years in England.
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World Cup coverage from Yahoo Sports:
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• Group previews: A | B | C | D | E
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