Surprising #WorldCupRank omissions, and who makes the top 5 in 2018?
#WorldCupRank is finally complete. An extensive polling of over 50 ESPN commentators, analysts, writers, editors and personalities from a wide-ranging group spanning Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Europe threw out some surprising entries but also plenty of surprising omissions.
At the end of the day, there's no accounting for personal taste. We all rate players differently, and there is no hard and fast, universally agreed-upon measurement that can separate one player from another. It's part of what makes the game so great, offering a fresh argument around every corner. Whether goals, trophies, personal accolades or longevity is your preferred metric, there's plenty to discuss.
With that in mind, I've picked out a few players whose recent form should have nudged them into our collated top 50. Also, some opinions on players who should rise in 2018.
Ivan Rakitic, MF, Sevilla/Croatia
I'm not aware of any anti-Croat bias or silent decree that only one of The Blazers is allowed in the countdown, but the Sevilla midfielder should have definitely joined Luka Modric somewhere in the mix.
- #WorldCupRank: See our full top 50 countdown
Yet another artful, cheeky creative force in the middle, Rakitic will look to profit from the extra attention paid to his impish teammate in the middle. The latest reports out of Spain suggest he is joining Barcelona -- Modric is said to have let slip news of the deal -- and he'll surely supplant Cesc Fabregas as the heir to Xavi's throne. At just 26 years old (he debuted for his national team at just 19), Rakitic is one to watch long beyond this summer's World Cup.
Sergio Ramos, D, Real Madrid/Spain
Is it his fondness of untimely, disastrous red cards that shied the voters away from this defensive stalwart? I'm not honestly sure. Much of the affection in La Roja's rearguard is given to Gerard Pique, for all intents and purposes a more elegant defender at ease with the ball at his feet.
But what Pique offers in terms of flair, Ramos is that blunt counterpoint all too crucial for club and country whether in attack or defense. His form of leadership is governed by fire and intensity; to wit, the brace of traumatizing headers he scored to silence Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena in their Champions League semifinal second leg. Every tackle is an adventure, every successful clearance a victory for brute force.
Playing for a national team full of artisans and craftsman, Ramos is the punctuation mark.
Edin Dzeko, F, Manchester City/Bosnia
After years of Dzeko quietly scoring vital goals in the Premier League and World Cup qualifying, I'm mystified as to why the lithe, angular striker isn't lauded in the same terms as the game's greats. It might be down to his apparent lack of ego. Scoring with little fanfare or self-aggrandizement, his humility is both a strength and weakness to his personal brand.
That said, Dzeko's commitment and focus are otherworldly. It doesn't matter which group his team is dumped in -- a curious one, it turns out, with Argentina, Iran and Nigeria -- or how many strikers his club side brings in to effectively replace him. At the end of the day, Dzeko is still there and still scoring goals.
Giorgio Chiellini, D, Juventus/Italy
It's a genuine surprise to see Italy represented just four times in the top 50. While Andrea Pirlo, Mario Balotell, Gianluigi Buffon and Daniele De Rossi arguably form the core of the Azzurri squad, their defensive anchor is curiously absent from the rankings. Chiellini's precision and reading of the game are the latest in a long line of elegant Italian defenders, following the lineage of such legends as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Claudio Gentile and Tarcisio Burgnich.
As the core of a Juve side that has won three straight Scudettos, expect Chiellini to calmly nullify any opponent's leading striker this summer.
Fernandinho, MF, Manchester City/Brazil
What a first season in England for the combative midfielder! Fernandinho was a vital cog in Man City's well-timed surge to the Premier League title, and his partnership with Yaya Toure in midfield was one of the more engaging sights this season as they calibrated their natural tendencies in service of the greater good.
Given Toure's eye for goal, it was the Brazilian who played a more measured supporting role, shielding a shaky back four and winning plenty of possession with which his more talented teammates could wreak havoc. It seems odd that he likely won't start for the Selecao this summer -- Luiz Felipe Scolari's allegiance to the Confederations Cup-winning duo of Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho is well-established -- but look for him to offer a secondary spark off the bench.
Who will crack the top five in 2018?
Injuries, retirements and loss of form will surely cause a shake-up in world soccer during the next World Cup cycle, so who might be well-placed to feature in the pantheon next time around?
Jeff Carlisle: When the next #WorldCupRank comes around, there could be two Argentines in the top five instead of just one. Already rated the No. 1 player in this year's rankings, Lionel Messi figures to be there again in 2018, but his World Cup roommate Sergio Aguero seems poised to join him up there.
Aguero is already one of the top talents in the world, checking in at No. 11 this time around. And he plays for one of the top clubs in Manchester City, meaning he's likely to get the kind of consistent support and quality service needed to excel for years to come. His pure talent in the form of a quick burst of speed, intelligent movement and razor-sharp finishing make him one of the world's best.
Muscle injuries have plagued Aguero over the years, and he will be 30 when the next World Cup comes around, a time when physical skills begin to dull. But Franck Ribery (currently No. 5) is 31, meaning it's distinctly possible that Aguero may continue to rise in stature and up the rankings.
Ricardo Zanei, ESPN Brasil: If you were to analyze the genetics of Brazilian soccer, dribbling is the core, the DNA. In that tradition, Neymar is a direct descendant of Ronaldinho and Robinho, in the same proud lineage of Pele, Garrincha and, why not, Arthur Friedenreich and Charles Miller. Neymar is the purest synthesis of Brazilian football that continues to enchant the world: speed, dribbling, maliciousness on the ball and, of course, goals and more goals. If today is Neymar the showman, a more mature and experienced version in 2018 will bring the samba.
Michael Cox: Marco Verratti. This looks like Pirlo's final World Cup, and while Cesare Prandelli has made efforts to play them together, Verratti really feels like the next Pirlo. He is perfect for Prandelli's style, drifting around in midfield to look for space and hitting quick, accurate long balls toward the flank and upfront.
Verratti is already a regular for a major European club, Paris Saint-Germain, and his influence should grow steadily over the next few years. He could even be a long-term Pirlo replacement at Juventus.