One of the biggest and most shocking soccer stories of the 2010s occurred roughly six weeks before the end of the decade when Tottenham Hotspur sacked manager Mauricio Pochettino on Nov. 19. Less than 24 hours after Spurs officially announced Pochettino’s exit, the club appointed none other than Jose Mourinho as his successor. That story ties to this piece because “The Special One,” one of the most successful managers in the history of modern football, worked with a plethora of the best players of the past 10 years.
Inevitably, legendary and elite male and female players were snubbed from this list because only so many slots exist. One could easily produce a solid starting XI using groupings of footballers from the 2010s who didn’t make the cut here. No one article, supporter or observer can answer the sport’s most discussed question from the decade, a topic the footballing community will debate long after this generation of stars hangs their boots up for good:
Messi or Ronaldo?
Neymar ultimately became one of the “what if” players of the 2010s. The talent and on-the-ball skills the Brazilian goalscorer flashed when at his best, such as during the 2013 Confederations Cup , led some to believe he’d surpass both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo by 2020. We now know, however, that will never occur. What if Neymar didn’t routinely drop to the ground in shameful acts of simulation at the first hint of contact? What if an injury didn’t prematurely end his 2014 World Cup, a tournament he played on home soil? What if the one-time Champions League winner, two-time La Liga champion and three-time Copa del Rey winner remained with Barcelona beyond the summer of 2017?
N’Golo Kante isn’t a flashy playmaker who will compete for Goal of the Year honors. From the start of the 2015-16 Premier League season through the end of the 2010s, Kante served as arguably the most dependable box-to-box midfielder on the planet. He, not Jamie Vardy, was the best player on the Leicester City side that shocked the world in the spring of 2016. Kante joined Chelsea in July 2016, and he earned PFA Players' Player of the Year, Premier League Player of the Season and FWA Footballer of the Year honors his first campaign with the Blues. The one-time Premier League champion also helped France win the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Under the previously mentioned Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham’s Harry Kane became one of the best strikers and finishers in Europe. The England international will end the 2010s with a pair of Premier League Golden Boot awards and the Golden Boot for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Kane won England Player of the Year for 2017 and 2018, and he’ll enter 2020 a 26-year-old who is only 21 goals behind Wayne Rooney for the most goals scored for the Three Lions.
There’s no shame being overshadowed by Lionel Messi. While some casual fans may have taken former Barcelona genius Andres Iniesta for granted during his tenure with the Spanish giants, voters appreciated the nine-time La Liga champion and four-time Champions League winner throughout the decade. An all-time great attacking midfielder, Iniesta won UEFA Best Player in Europe for the 2011-12 campaign, he scored the extra-time match-winner for Spain in the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final and he was part of his national side that hoisted the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship. In 2018, Xabi Prieto named Iniesta “the best player in the history of Spanish football,” per ESPN’s Sam Marsden.
Perhaps Christine Sinclair would be more appreciated around the world had Canada not been “robbed” vs. the United States during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Named “the most successful soccer player to ever compete for Canada” by the Canadian Olympic Team Official Website, Sinclair made history in June 2019 when she became only the second player to ever notch goals in five World Cup tournaments, per SportsNet’s John Molinaro. She’ll end the 2010s one goal (183) behind Abby Wambach (184) in the international tallies category.
Eden Hazard didn’t have to wait long to find success after he signed for Chelsea in June 2012, as the Blues lifted the Europa League trophy the following spring. That was only a sign of things to come. The 2014-15 Premier League Player of the Season and 2014-15 FWA Footballer of the Year twice won the League with Chelsea, and he notched a brace in his side’s 2019 Europa League Final victory over Arsenal. Hazard captained Belgium at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, where he won the Silver Ball and a bronze medal.
A Chelsea castoff no more, Mohamed Salah ends the 2010s an international icon and the Premier League’s best player. Following a successful two-season stint at Roma, Salah joined Liverpool in June 2017, and he immediately caught fire and became the Premier League’s top goalscorer for back-to-back seasons. Salah won Premier League Player of the Season, PFA Players' Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year for the 2017-18 campaign, and he scored from the spot just minutes into Liverpool’s 2019 Champions League Final win over Tottenham. Time Magazine named Salah one of the world’s most influential people in 2019.
United States Women’s National Team star Megan Rapinoe was front and center for some of the sport’s most memorable moments of the decade. Rapinoe delivered the cross famously headed home by Abby Wambach during the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. She and the Americans won silver at that competition before earning gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics, and Rapinoe hoisted the World Cup with the USWNT in 2015 and 2019, the latter in which she won the World Cup Golden Boot and Golden Ball as well as being named Best FIFA Women's Player.
How much higher would striker Edinson Cavani rate in these lists if he had left Napoli for a massive club in England or Spain rather than for Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2013? PSG’s resources made the side into a dynasty that won five league titles from Cavani’s transfer through the spring of 2019, and Cavani, who led Serie A with 29 goals for the 2012-13 campaign, topped Ligue 1 in scoring in 2016-17 and 2017-18. In January 2018, Cavani became PSG’s all-time leading scorer.
Per Juan Jimenez of AS, former Barcelona player and sporting director Robert Fernandez hailed Barcelona’s Gerard Pique as the best center-back “of all time” in March 2019. A 2010 FIFA World Cup champion, Pique won the La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble for 2008-09 and 2014-15. As ESPN’s Sam Marsden wrote in 2018, Pique became the heart of the Barcelona backline after Carles Puyol retired in 2014, as the eight-time La Liga champion utilized his footballing IQ and positioning abilities to compensate for a lack of pace compared to other defenders.
When fully fit and in his prime, Manuel Neuer may have been the greatest “sweeper-keeper” and greatest all-around goalkeeper in history. Neuer was named International Federation of Football History & Statistics World’s Best Goalkeeper every year from 2013 through 2016, and the German, who became a first-time FIFA World Cup champion in 2014 and won the Golden Glove for that tournament, finished third in Ballon d’Or voting for that year. Neuer earned seven Bundesliga crowns with Bayern Munich from 2012 through 2019, and he won the Champions League with the club in 2013.
Manchester City often possessed the best squads money could buy during the 2010s, but that doesn’t diminish what defender Vincent Kompany meant to the club throughout the decade. Named to The Best Premier League XI of all time in 2016, Kompany was key to City’s four Premier League title-winning seasons from 2011 through 2019, and he earned Premier League Player of the Season for 2011-12. Without his goal vs. Leicester City in May 2019, a hit that will be replayed in Premier League highlights each spring, City would’ve finished behind Liverpool in the table.
As Bleacher Report’s Christopher Simpson explained, Eden Hazard recently hailed Real Madrid teammate Karim Benzema as “the best striker in the world." Earlier that same month, Benzema, who joined Real in July 2009, moved to sixth all-time in La Liga goals scored for the club, and he was on 233 total goals for Los Blancos as of Nov. 22. A four-time Champions League winner with Real between 2013 and 2018, Benzema ended the 2010s a two-time La Liga champion.
According to Livio Caferoglu of Goal.com (h/t Huffington Post), Paris Saint-Germain made Thiago Silva the world's second-most expensive defender, at the time, in July 2012. The Brazilian and eventual PSG captain was worth every penny through the rest of the decade. From Silva’s first season through 2019, PSG won six league titles, the Coupe de la Ligue each year from 2014 through 2018 and the Coupe de France every season from 2014-2015 through 2017-2018. Throughout the final six years of the decade, Silva was regarded as the best defender in Ligue 1 and one of the world’s top players at his position.
Between the summer of 2007 and the end of the 2018-19 campaign, French winger Franck Ribery became one of the greatest Bayern Munich stars in history. As of the end of the 2010s, Ribery remained the club’s most decorated player ever with 24 total titles, per the team’s official website. The one-time Champions League winner (2012-13) also exited the decade with a club-record nine Bundesliga championships. Serie A defenders learned Ribery still had plenty left in the tank at 36 years old in the fall of 2019.
Every defender in Europe knew Arjen Robben preferred to put the ball on his left foot before curling a strike into the corner of the net. He still managed to cut inside and score to the tune of 209 goals in 602 appearances throughout his career. Robben moved from Real Madrid to Bayern Munich in August 2009, and the Dutchman won eight Bundesliga titles before his retirement in 2019. His goal in the 2013 Champions League Final broke the deadlock between Bayern and Borussia Dortmund. He finished fourth in Ballon d’Or voting in 2014.
Whether the discussions centered around actual football or video games, Diego Godin’s name repeatedly arose among the most underrated and unappreciated players in world football during the 2010s. His biggest on-the-pitch crime to affect his standing on such lists is that he spent the majority of the decade with Atletico Madrid instead of Real Madrid or Barcelona. Godin’s headed goal in the 2013-14 season finale secured the La Liga title for Atleti, the only league championship won by a club other than Barcelona or Real Madrid from the fall of 2004 through the end of 2019. Supporters will never forget that moment, but it was Godin’s role as a defensive cornerstone that earned him the right to be called “the best defender of the last decade” by Joe Woodward of 90Min in May. Recently, Miguel Delaney of The Independent praised Godin as “the very best center-half in the world” during the player’s prime.
One cannot tell the story of women’s football for the 2010s without mentioning Alex Morgan in the first couple of paragraphs. A two-time World Cup winner during the decade, Morgan became the face of the United States Women’s National Team, and she earned US Soccer Female Player of the Year honors in 2012 and 2018. The four-time CONCACAF Female Player of the Year made history in 2015 as the first woman to grace a cover of the FIFA video game series. Morgan remains one of the most recognized women’s player in the world.
One could dedicate an entire piece just to the trophies Dani Alves won during the 2010s alone. TalkSport’s Oliver Dawnay called the Brazilian right-back the “most decorated player in the history of the game” after he won an astonishing 43rd career trophy, and it was fitting Alves was named the best player of that Copa America competition at the age of 36. Whether Alves is the best right-back of his generation was decided some time ago. Daniel Edwards of Goal.com wrote why he believed Alves is the greatest to ever play the position for club and country.
All things being equal, Real Madrid center back Sergio Ramos was one of the most infuriating and frustrating players of the 2010s. A world-class defender named in the FIFA FIFPro Men's World XI nine times between 2011 and 2019, Ramos became known as a dirty defender accused of bending the rules and allegedly deliberately injuring opponents. The winner of four Champions League and four La Liga titles who lifted the World Cup with Spain in 2010 likely cares little about his reputation among supporters and opposing players.
Let’s all say it one last time together before midnight finishes the 2010s: AGUEERRROOOOO! Striker Sergio Aguero signed with Manchester City in the summer of 2011, and his walk-off goal vs. Queens Park Rangers in the first season finale of his City tenure secured the title for his club and became an instant highlight for the ages. Aguero was hardly a one-trick pony after that goal, as he won three more Premier League titles between 2014 and 2019. He also finished the 2014-15 campaign as the EPL’s top scorer.
United States Women’s National Team midfielder Carli Lloyd made history more times during the 2010s than we have room to feature here. She buried her second career Olympic gold-medal-winning goal in 2012. She became the highest-scoring midfielder in USWNT history in October 2013. In the 2015 FIFA World Cup Final, Lloyd completed the first hat trick ever tallied in a WWC Final, and she did so in 16 minutes of action. She earned the Golden Ball award for that competition, and she later won 2015 IFFHS World’s Best Woman Playmaker, 2015 CONCACAF Player of the Year and 2015 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year. In June 2019, Lloyd set a record as the first player to score in six consecutive Women’s World Cup contests.
Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic never met a club he didn’t like, as long as it paid him, and he’s been a brash and outspoken character who served as his own marketing company when he dared us to Zlatan. Ibra’s act would’ve become old well before 2019 if he didn’t back up his talk on the pitch. The 6-foot-5 forward finished the 2011-12 campaign as the Serie A top scorer with AC Milan, and he repeated that feat in Ligue 1 as a member of Paris Saint-Germain on three separate occasions. In May 2016, ESPN Staff put Ibrahimovic at the No. 1 spot in player power rankings for the 2015-16 European season. Both AC Milan and PSG have Zlatan in their Halls of Fame. From his best days in Europe through a two-season stay with Major League Soccer outfit L.A. Galaxy, Ibrahimovic wowed audiences with spectacular and acrobatic finishes. This showman was worth the price of admission.
Luis Suarez may never be your favorite footballer for multiple reasons, but he’ll nevertheless go down as one of the decades best goalscorers and as one-third of a legendary attacking trio that included Neymar and Lionel Messi. After Suarez won the 2013-14 Premier League Golden Boot, 2013-14 Premier League Player of the Season, 2013-14 FWA Footballer of the Year and 2013-14 PFA Players’ Player of the Year, the polarizing striker completed a dream move to Barcelona in the summer of 2014. The “MSN” triumvirate won the Champions League only once before Neymar left Spain for France, but Suarez stood tall as a four-time La Liga champion in the closing days of the 2010s. Suarez currently is Barca’s fourth all-time scorer (185 goals).
Gareth Bale departed Tottenham for Real Madrid in September 2013 with a handful of honors resting in his personal trophy case. While a laundry list of injury woes prevented the Welsh wonder from meeting the expectations so many had for him once the ink dried on his Real contract, the four-time Champions League winner delivered some of the club’s biggest goals of the decade. Bale’s remarkable run and finish broke Barcelona hearts in the 2014 Copa del Rey Final. He soared through the air for a go-ahead goal in extra time of the 2014 Champions League Final, and he outdid that header four years later with one of the greatest finishes ever delivered in any Final.
To those who would say Gianluigi Buffon was well past his prime before the end of the 2010s: Just consider this a lifetime achievement award. The Juventus legend who holds more records than a hipster music shop and who was still active as of the end of 2019 was named the IFFHS Best Goalkeeper of the 21st Century from 2001 through 2011, and he became the first player to win nine Serie A titles when Juventus finished atop the table in the spring of 2018. Buffon will never make another all-decade list. The football world will be worse off without him when he steps away.
Per Matt Fortune of the Daily Mail, midfielder Luka Modric was voted the worst La Liga signing of the 2012 summer transfer window after he completed a move from Tottenham to Real Madrid in August of that year. Somebody should notify the Old Takes Exposed Twitter account about this. Between January 2013 and the end of the 2010s, Modric won four Champions League titles, but it wasn’t until 2018 when he was recognized as the world’s top footballer. Modric was an unstoppable and nonstop force for Croatia during the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and he won the Golden Ball for guiding his nation to the Final. The accolades didn’t end there for the energetic midfielder. In December 2018, he became the first player not named Messi or Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or this decade.
By July, Brazilian forward Marta had cemented herself as one of the greatest World Cup players, male or female, in history. During the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, she became the first player ever to score in five separate World Cup competitions, per BBC Sport. Later that same tournament , Marta toppled Miroslav Klose’s record when she scored her 17th career World Cup goal. In September 2018, Marta was named Best FIFA Women’s Player a sixth time, which made her the all-time leader for that honor among men and women. During the 2010s, she finished second in voting for that award on four occasions.
As the 2010s come to an end, there’s little, if anything, new to say about either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. In a world where players change clubs due to transfer fees, financial fair play and other factors, it’s far from bold to predict nobody will break Ronaldo’s Real Madrid record of 451 club goals. He ends the decade on pace to hold the record for Champions League tallies, and he'll begin 2020 a five-time winner of that competition. From 2013 through 2017, Ronaldo finished first in Ballon d’Or voting on four occasions. That put him in the company of only one other man.
By 2030, younger supporters will hopefully laugh at the notion grown men wasted time with “Ronaldo vs. Messi” arguments. Lionel Messi is the greatest Barcelona player in history by a wide margin who, per the BBC, will retire with more La Liga goals than anybody. While both Messi and Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or five times through the end of November 2018, the diminutive Argentinian reached that mark first in 2015. From the spring of 2010 through the conclusion of 2019, Messi and Barca earned La Liga bragging rights thanks to seven domestic league titles over that period. No athletes from the 2010s defined what it meant to play “the beautiful game” better than Messi and Ronaldo. That, not to mention their on-the-pitch rivalry, is why their names will forever be linked. In a fair and ideal world, both would follow in Tom Brady’s footsteps and continue to win titles through their 40s. The community will save two spots in future “30 best soccer players of the 2020s” lists; just in case.
Zac Wassink is a football and futbol aficionado who is a PFWA member and is probably yelling about Tottenham Hotspur at the moment. Erik Lamela and Eli Manning apologist. Chanted for Matt Harvey to start the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field. Whoops. You can find him on Twitter at @ZacWassink.